The Producers

June 1, 2008

In the fall of 2006, theater-studies majors Sarah Ellis and Julia Robertson participated in the Duke in New York program. They attended concerts and shows regularly and worked as interns for the New York Musical Theater Festival and Jim Carnahan Casting, respectively.

Partly for fun and partly for a class project, the two decided to write their own musical titled, appropriately, Intern: The Musical.

Ellis, who plans to seek a Ph.D. in music, worked on the songs; Robertson, an aspiring actress, on the book. By the end of the semester, they had pulled together seven or eight songs and a basic script. It was rough, but when they presented it to their class, students and professors alike were enthusiastic.

Returning to campus the following spring, they worked to hone the project, tinkering with the plot and adding new songs. Still, as late as this past October, they envisioned, at most, presenting it as a staged reading.

Then, the project became a senior honors thesis, and, by late fall, they had made plans to fully stage the show in February. It played to a packed house on three consecutive nights in the Nelson Music Room in the East Duke Building. It was the first full-length, student-written, and student-produced show put on at Duke in recent memory, according to John Clum, chair of the theater-studies department.

The show's plot follows Lainie Smith, a high-school graduate who hopes to make it big as an actress and sets out for New York, where she gets an internship at a casting agency. After a series of run-ins with an overbearing boss, she is ready to call it quits. But as the first act draws to a close, she comes across a new script for a show called Intern: The Musical. She envisions channeling a year's frustration into the title role and spends the second act persuading her boss to grant her an audition.

"I don't think either of us has ever had an experience that was that bad," Ellis says. "But we did draw on the chaos that comes along with the experience of being an intern, moving to a new city, having to run everywhere but not knowing where you're going."

They also drew on their experiences dealing with chaos. A few weeks before opening night, one actress dropped out of the show, and Robertson had to step in to fill the role of Olga, an office employee. Just five days before the show opened, Robertson and Ellis invited several faculty advisers to sit in on a rehearsal and give them pointers. One of the main criticisms, Robertson says, was that the finale, a solo for Lainie, wasn't "big enough."

Overnight, Ellis created a new finale, an ensemble number. "It made sense," she says. "Over months of writing, the show had grown to be about the entire cast, about everyone in the office."