ECU fundraiser to help support alumni’s off-Broadway musical

A common piece of writing advice is to write what you know. East Carolina University alumna Caitlyn Leach ’18 did just that when she created the concept for “SCOUTS,” an original musical about gender, inclusivity and Mothman that is premiering this summer off-Broadway.

“I read a book by Lin Manuel Miranda where he talks about his writing process and what he likes to write about,” she said. “He gives advice to young writers to write about things you know, and I know a lot about Scouts. I was a Scout when I was in second grade. I was a Brownie and continued Scouts — my mom was our Scout leader — until my senior year. I technically still am a Girl Scout because I have my lifetime membership.”

Caitlyn Leach, left, and Talen Piner brought “SCOUTS” to life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The musical will premier off-Broadway this summer. (Contributed photos)

“SCOUTS” takes place in the 1980s, a nod to the ’80s movies that Leach and her writing partner, ECU alumnus Talen Piner ’18, both enjoy. While working on her undergraduate degree in musical theatre, Leach became friends with Piner, a fellow Honors College student and theatre major. During the early days of the pandemic when all performing arts were shut down, Leach and Piner were looking for ways to remain creative.

“One of things was to go back to our college days and work on the show we wrote our senior year for our Honors College project, which was titled ‘Lovable Lunatic: The Life and Lyrics of Dorothy Fields,’” Leach said. “We worked on that script a little bit and kind of hit a dead end because one of the biggest things about writing a biopic is you have to have permission from whoever holds the rights to that person’s name and we couldn’t get a hold of this person.”

This need to pivot, and Miranda’s book, made Leach turn to Scouts. In addition to the ’80s, Leach and Piner are passionate about gender, gender stereotypes and subverting those stereotypes.

“Of course, every ’80s film or show has a monster,” Leach said. “I looked up different folklore and different ideas of what could be our ’80s monster, and we landed on a mythical beast called the Mothman.”

A West Virginian legend, the Mothman was a beast that could fly with a humanoid shape and was linked to the Silver Bridge collapse in 1967. Leach put all of her ideas, characters and, of course, the Mothman into a Google doc and sent it to Piner, who created the original score and orchestration for the musical.

“A few days later, he came back with the opening number of the show, which was exactly what we were feeling,” Leach said.

The main premise of the musical is two troops — brother and sister Scouts — are fighting to win the troop of the year title when one of the scoutmasters goes missing while trying to find Mothman. One of the sister Scouts named Alex, who doesn’t fit in with the other feminine sister Scouts, decides to prove they can be a brother Scout by finding the scoutmaster. Alex’s best friend rallies both troops to find both the scoutmaster and Alex before the Mothman strikes.

Bringing ‘SCOUTS’ to Greenville

After receiving the call that “SCOUTS” would be off-Broadway, Leach and Piner began thinking of ways they could connect back with ECU. The result was the creation of a fundraiser showcase that would feature some numbers from SCOUTS and be a celebration of new work.

“It is the first ever look at a blocked and realized performance of this show, which I think is really exciting,” Leach said. “We’ve done a reading in New York and we have done a Zoom performance of a few scenes of the show. This is the first time we’re going to do part of this show live with an audience. … It’s a huge exclusive look that we’re giving to the ECU student body as well as people in the area.”

The showcase will take place this Sunday, April 2, at 3 p.m. with ticket prices ranging from $40 for general population and $15 for ECU students. Funds will support the technical aspects of “SCOUTS” including lighting, sound, costumes and more.

Members of the 5th Street Players rehearse a scene from the SCOUTS.

Members of the 5th Street Players rehearse a scene from the SCOUTS. (ECU photo by Rhett Butler)

“Collaborating with Talen and Caitlyn on the “SCOUTS” production is a wonderful reminder of how vibrant and creative the Honors College community is,” said Todd Fraley, interim dean of the Honors College. “It also highlights the lifelong relationships that students build during their time at ECU. The Honors College provides numerous opportunities for our students to learn, grow and challenge themselves. Talen and Caitlyn took full advantage of these opportunities as students and now they are back encouraging the next generation to do the same.”

Since it wasn’t feasible to bring the entire cast of “SCOUTS” to ECU, Leach and Piner sought the help of the 5th Street Players, an organization for students in the School of Theatre and Dance.

“When we were students, we were in 5th Street Players shows, and it was created a year before we were seniors,” Leach said. “It’s been really cool to be able to connect with them and flashback four years in the past when we were doing the same thing.”

Honors College student Reagan Blackburn is the producing artistic director of the 5th Street Players. She first heard about “SCOUTS” through Instagram and friends of friends but thought that would be the extent of her involvement, until she received an email from Jayme Host, the director of the School of Theatre and Dance, looking to connect students with Leach and Piner for the fundraiser showcase.

“Most of the cast is comprised of School of Theatre and Dance students, people I’ve known now for two, three, four years,” said Blackburn, a theatre arts and communication double major. “Getting to help not only these two alumni but also getting to give my fellow classmates a chance to perform and make themselves known … we have two student directors that are incredible and very, very wonderful. We have eight students involved performance-wise who are getting to help bring to life a brand-new musical that is going to be off-Broadway this summer.”

The experience has been eye-opening and inspirational for Blackburn. She, along with director Riley Yates, assistant director Lacee Thomason and music director Will Wakeford, have gotten a glimpse at a potential life path after graduating with a degree in theatre arts.

“I think it’s exciting to know that it will be OK and that not only will it be OK but, not to sound cheesy, dreams and aspirations can come true in a way,” Blackburn said. “It’s nice to have a little bit of that inspiration with actual alumni who are only a couple years older than I am.”

Leach noted that working with the current students has been exciting, and they have brought a lot of new ideas to the work. Fueling that creative spirit is important to her since it can help bring an infusion of new ideas and talent into the theater world.

“In order to keep theater alive, we need to keep new stories alive,” she said. “The art of theater should be about more than what makes money. We really do believe that “SCOUTS” is a new story that offers new perspectives that shows a story you think you know — very classic ’80s movies, very John Hughes-esque stereotypes — but then we flipped it on its head and we showed this is what life could be like. This is what we could approach gender like; this is how we could approach each other to work together and make the world a more inclusive place.”

Tickets for the New York, New Work ECU showcase can be purchased on the ECU ticketing website. More information about “SCOUTS” can be found on the musical’s website.