Pilot Arts’ ‘Passion Project’: Women sing to their muses in new song cycle

Pilot Arts’ ‘Passion Project’: Women sing to their muses in new song cycle

For Missy Gipson, founder and executive director of Pilot Arts Theatre, things seem like they’re finally getting back to normal — or, at least, the new normal. She and her cast — all women — are currently in rehearsals for “Passion Project,” a song cycle written by Angela Sclafani that highlights the little-known achievements of 12 brilliant women and their groundbreaking work. This will be the first in-person performance presented by Pilot Arts since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“We had our first photo shoot and first rehearsal on Sunday night, and it was just really fun,” says Gipson, her trademark infectious enthusiasm at a high point. “It was really fun for a bunch of women to just sit around, talking about the things they’re starting to do, laughing and singing in front of each other. Getting up, singing solos and just being brave — it was great. And, you know, it just felt right.”

Sclafani’s intense research introduces audiences to many names they may not have heard before, like Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer; Josephine Johnson, the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner and an anti-war, environmental and equality activist; and Noor Inayat Kahn, an Indian-American who joined the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a wireless operator.

“[Sclafani] basically picked these women that most of us have never heard about, researched them and wrote songs from their perspective,” explains Gipson. “So, for example, Lillian Bland, who was one of the first female aviators to actually design and fully build her own airplane — her song is literally to her airplane. All the songs are like that. They’re all women singing to whatever their great passion was, and, for a lot of them, it was their work.”

Gipson couldn’t be more thrilled that Pilot Arts’ steps towards normalcy are starting with this project. After all, it’s one she’s been planning to do for a year now. She had actually figured out a way to shoot it at different locations and then stream it on the Internet. But when falling virus rates and rising numbers of vaccinated people meant live events were slowly kicking back into gear, she was delighted, because she felt the show was one that really needed to be performed in person. And when the turnout for auditions exceeded her expectations, she knew she had made the right decision.

“I thought, ‘What if I do a one-night concert, and I limit the seating?’” she says. “And people could come if they felt comfortable? What if this was something I could manage to produce financially and see if there are people out there who want to perform, give them an outlet, because everyone has just been crawling up the walls? And I will tell you: The people came out to audition. It was an incredibly talented bevy of women.”

In fact, the production’s cast, crew and seven-piece band are all women from Northwest Arkansas.

And though most of the company’s previous productions have been performed in the spacious confines of the Arkansas Air and Military Museum in south Fayetteville, Gipson says she knew that this show would require a more intimate space — yet one that could provide high ceilings for plenty of air flow. “Passion Project” will be performed in the Fayette Junction Warehouse on Cato Springs Road.

“I’ve kind of wanted to expand what we were doing anyway, as far as spaces go,” she explains. “I found this space when I was driving around, and, to be honest, I’ve had a crush on that building for a while because I love warehouses. We’re bringing in a bunch of lighting, and we’ll have our cool band, great singers and fun snacks. And, hopefully, it will be a good time.”

As for most arts organizations, this past year has been a difficult one for Pilot Arts financially.

Supporters of the theater can help out a little by springing for the Garden Party add-on event, where food and beverages will be provided by women-owned businesses and an acoustic performance by Becky Adams will be featured. Additional financial support for the show is provided by Adventure Subaru.

“I’m an unknown, still,” Gipson says. “People know about Pilot Arts, but it can still feel like a risk to sponsor a new arts organization and say, ‘We believe in the work you’re doing.’ It’s such a confidence booster. Adventure Subaru believes in supporting the arts in a massive way, and they believe in the smaller guy in town. They’re amazing.”

There’s one more exciting thing about this particular production: The playwright will be present for the production.

“She’s actually going to sing in the finale,” says Gipson. “The cast is so excited. They’re going to sing backup — all the women, 18 voices, singing together.”

In the end, Gipson says she’s so glad her original plan to offer this production as a streaming event didn’t work out — because as people start to re-enter the world, they might need a little motivation.

“It’s a really empowering show,” she says. “We’re in a moment where it’s easy to question the things we’re doing, because it’s hard to get motivated, you know? So it’s fun to look at people that have really incredible stories. That’s where I get inspired. I think this show is awe inspiring.”



‘Passion Project’

WHEN — Pre-show Garden Party, 6:30-7:15 p.m.; show at 7:30 p.m. May 15

WHERE — Fayette Junction Warehouse, 1208 W. Cato Springs Road in Fayetteville

COST — $20-$50

INFO — pilotarts.org

COVID PRECAUTIONS — Seating will be socially distanced. Masks are recommended per the city of Fayetteville mandate.



Three Minutes, Three Questions

Playwright Angela Sclafani

Q: Missy said that you performed this show in New York shortly before the covid-19 lock downs started — can you talk a little bit about what it felt like to get a call from Arkansas asking permission to perform it, after over a year of live theater events being canceled or pivoting to online performances?

A: We premiered ‘Passion Project’ in New York on September 23, 2019. In early March 2020, I was writing the second volume of songs while at a residency in France. I actually had to come home early due to the developing crisis and returned to the city right before New York locked down. After a few days in quarantine, it became clear that live performances wouldn’t happen again for a very long time. When Missy reached out to me, it was like breath of fresh air. I was so happy to know that my songs could bring some joy and entertainment to people after such a difficult period of dark theaters and shuttered venues.

Q: How did you choose which extraordinary women to include in the song cycle?

A: I wanted to write songs about unknown trailblazers. There’s a lot of great material about the iconic women, but we hear their stories so often that they become almost unreal to us. I wanted to tell stories about unremembered women who were just as remarkable as the historical figures in our textbooks. Sifting through so many potential subjects made me think about the everyday people who quietly and bravely push our world forward.

My selection process for volume one was based on where and when the women lived and the nature of their work. For the first volume, I wanted to have as much of a variety as possible so that many singers could find themselves in the stories. Part of why I created this song cycle was to give women new songs to sing that weren’t about men or romantic love. I want to expand this to include stories about all identities that are not represented in the theater canon. My dream is to make the sheet music available in a wide range of keys so that all voice types can bring these songs to auditions and concerts. If I had the time and resources I would create endless volumes of Passion Project. A second one is definitely in the works.

Q: Missy says you’re coming down to Arkansas for the production — can you say a little bit about why you decided to do that?

A: I’m excited to see and hear live music again! It will be such a gift to get to witness a new group of women bring themselves to these songs.

I’ve also been cooped up in my NYC apartment and haven’t made it out of the city since we first locked down! I’ve never been to Arkansas so when Missy invited me it seemed like the perfect first trip.



Categories: Cover Story