Are you in the mood for a dance? Well the Shrunken Heads Production Company has just the cure for all you dancing queens out there.
Lay all your love on the student-run musical group as they bring “Mamma Mia!” to UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Theater this weekend. After four months of rehearsal, the nearly 60-person crew will hit the stage February 7 and 8 for a total of three performances, giving the audience only a few chances to have the time of their lives.
“I’m so excited to perform,” said Christian Duarte, director and third-year at UCSB. “Having an audience is going to transform the whole show. This has been a long time coming, and I can’t wait for everyone to have as much fun as we’ve had as a cast.”
A jukebox musical celebrating all things ABBA, “Mamma Mia!” follows bride-to-be Sophie (Kat Bautista), as she searches for her birth father. Secretly, she sends a wedding invitation to three men with whom her mom, Donna (Mikayla Knight), shared a relationship 20 years ago, hoping one will walk her down the aisle.
Last fall, Mr. Duarte pitched this show to Shrunken Heads as a change in pace from past productions. Coming off a season performing “HAIR”, a rock musical set during the Vietnam War, and Spring Awakening, a teen drama set in 18th-century Germany, Mr. Duarte thought some ABBA was in order.
“Both of last year’s shows were sort of devastating in the experience of it all, just by covering such dark and heavy topics,” said Mr. Duarte. “This time, I wanted to do something that was really fun and that could involve as many people as possible.”
Taking that goal to heart, Mr. Duarte let inclusion guide his directing style. Rather than shaping each scene himself, Mr. Duarte would first ask the cast to come up with something alone. With an idea of what his actors wanted out of the final product, Mr. Duarte had a base from which to build the show.
“I want to know what an actor thinks their body should look like or which lines should be funny,” said Mr. Duarte. “I like getting that perspective and then honing it in.”
While only his first time directing a full-length musical, Mr. Duarte has fallen in love with the process. For him, the experience has both strengthened and challenged his career as an actor.
“It’s been really interesting being on the other side of the table,” said Mr. Duarte. “As an actor, now I know what I want from a director. It’s hard because I want to start directing more, but I still love acting, so I’m trying to find a balance.”
There’s a reason this new path is giving Mr. Duarte’s love for acting a run for its money – he knows what an actor needs. That guidance has helped those like Ms. Bautista push their characters, and themselves, further than they could have imagined.
“(Mr. Duarte) did such an amazing job challenging me to learn more about Sophie and the conflicts within herself,” said Ms. Bautista. “That was really hard. I’m not very good at diving deep into my character, but he helped me discover things even in myself.”
Coming into UCSB as a third-year transfer, Ms. Bautista auditioned for “Mamma Mia!” expecting nothing more than ensemble, let alone the lead. Having been involved with musical theater for over 15 years, Ms. Bautista has wanted Sophie for as long as she could remember.
Seeing her name headline the cast list was a dream come true for her and her family. Growing up, ABBA had been a staple around the Bautista household. After immigrating from the Philippines, Ms. Bautista’s parents and grandparents discovered they had a strong affinity for the Swedish supergroup.
This was especially true for her grandmother, who passed away two years ago.
“Her favorite song was, ‘I do, I do, I do,’” said Ms. Bautista. “When I called my mom to tell her I got cast, she started crying. She said, ‘I really wish my mom was here to come see you.’”
While bringing her closer to loved ones at home, this experience has also introduced Ms. Bautista to a new family member – her onstage mom. Ms. Bautista and Ms. Knight may just play a mother-daughter due on stage, but that relationship has gone far beyond rehearsal.
“I love my mom,” said Ms. Bautista. “Mikayla is the best I wouldn’t have wanted this any other way. She’s just always there for me.”
Since being cast, the pair have supported each other every step of the way. Through the rehearsal process, Ms. Bautista caught more than a few colds, but Ms. Knight provided late-night medicine runs and support only a mom could give.
Fortunately, that connection goes both ways.
“I love my daughter,” said Ms. Knight. “She’s incredible and easily one of the most talented, humble and genuine people I have ever met in my life.”
In grooming Ms. Bautista to go away, Ms. Knight found herself looking at her own mom a little differently. As Donna, Ms. Knight had to step back and understand what it was like to be a mother, something she had never considered.
“This whole thing has made me respect my own mom a lot more,” said Ms. Knight. “There’s this conflict of preparing someone to walk down the aisle but putting so much work into raising her. I feel like I have a deeper understanding of how my mom must feel.”
Fittingly, Ms. Knight’s mom will be attending the show – in costume. Sporting flashy flare jeans and as much glitter as she can manage, her mom will arrive alongside two best friends, making it a complete appearance by the real-life Donna and the Dynamos.
Honoring her birthright, Ms. Knight auditioned for “Mamma Mia!” wanting any role that would take her but soon found herself in the super trouper spotlight. While having been a part of Shrunken Heads the entirety of college, she took the news as a complete surprise.
“Being Donna is my dream role, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a really long time,” said Ms. Knight. “I definitely did not expect this.”
As a graduating senior and the president of Shrunken Heads, Ms. Knight wouldn’t have wanted to end any other way. Over the past four years, she has watched the company grow from struggling to fill Old Little Theater’s 100-seat capacity to nearly selling out UCSB’s largest campus hall.
Looking to the group’s future, Ms. Knight feels like she’s grooming Shrunken Heads to go out on its own just like Sophie. Of the 26 cast members, 19 are completely new to the company. In this way, Ms. Knight knows Shrunken Heads will be left in good hands. But that doesn’t make her departure any less bittersweet.
“This is surreal,” said Ms. Knight. “I’m having so much fun doing the show, but realistically, this is my last performance as president of Shrunken Heads.”
Though this weekend marks the end of an era, Ms. Knight is looking forward to just taking it all in and letting the work speak for itself.
“I think people are going to be surprised by the caliber of a production that can be put on by a student group with virtually no money,” said Ms. Knight. “This is all from scratch, this is a club, this is something that students are voluntarily rehearsing four three or four night a week.
“People are going to be shocked that this came from a just group of kids that hang out after class.”