Busy Being Free: Communication senior explores the life of Joni Mitchell with new musical
December 1, 2019
When Communication senior Tucker DeGregory was growing up, Joni Mitchell was a constant presence.
The music of the acclaimed singer-songwriter provided the soundtrack for many milestones in his life. When he was a toddler, his mother would sing “Little Green” to him as he went to sleep; his father played “The Circle Game” at his preschool graduation, and he would sing the same song at his high school graduation; and his freshman year of college, when he was homesick, he would listen to her albums to remind him of his parents.
“I’m amazed at how she wrote all of her songs from her personal perspective, but was able to make them so universal,” DeGregory said. “It’s amazing that she can capture as complex and poetic stories as she does and make them so universal. She’s able to produce work that anyone from an old man to a young girl to anyone in between can find something in.”
Now, DeGregory is honoring Joni Mitchell through his upcoming project “Joni: Busy Being Free,” a presentation that chronicles the life of the Canadian songwriter.
The project is DeGregory’s Capstone research project for his Music Theatre Choreography module, a program in the School of Communication for students interested in pursuing choreography.
“Busy Being Free” is presented as a concert, with three actors representing Mitchell at different ages, acting out and discussing moments from her life and singing songs to the audience. When the actors sing, several dancers will perform choreographed routines to the songs in front of them. According to DeGregory, the dancers and actors complement each other but don’t directly interact with one another onstage.
Communication junior Susie McCollum, who plays the middle Mitchell in the performance, said the singer has been one of her all-time heroes, and she was excited and intimidated to step into the role. McCollum said that, as someone who writes her own music, Mitchell’s storytelling ability has had a huge influence on her.
“Her entire life is one that celebrates and redefines art and the way that we use words and how we see the world,” McCollum said. “She’s an incredible figure of musicianship and artistry that we all should know who she is.”
DeGregory said most people wouldn’t consider Mitchell a musician whose work lends itself to dance. That’s why, when he pitched “Busy Being Free,” he was interested in figuring out how dance interacted with her music.
While researching for the project, he learned that when Mitchell was growing up, she wanted to be a professional dancer –– but her dreams were ruined when she developed polio at age 9 and lost functionality in her lower back and legs. She continued to dance for fun at sock-hops and clubs and referenced dance in many of her songs as a metaphor for freedom.
“The show is about freedom in many pursuits,” DeGregory said. “Freedom romantically and sexually, professionally and also physically. She had this weird confine put on her by polio and was always thinking of dance and singing about dance as a way to free the body and to express herself and freedom.”
DeGregory said this context helped inform his choreography for the project, which he describes as a physicalization of her lyrics. While the actors are singing, the dancers use their bodies to depict her lyrics and the story being told. For example, during the performance of the song “Woodstock,” the choreography is meant to reflect the themes of counterculture reflected in the lyrics.
Communication senior Cailyn Johnson is one of the dancers in the production. Before being cast in the show, Johnson was unfamiliar with Mitchell’s life, but knew some of her music, having figure-skated to her song “River.” However, she said she has grown impressed by the raw emotions of her work, and is excited to see how she can use dance to convey the themes and stories told through the songwriting.
“Dance can sometimes be overlooked as a way to tell really powerful stories, and I think she has a lot to say,” Johnson said. “And dance can say a lot too. So marrying the two will yield some really awesome creative results.”
“Joni: Busy Being Free” is the first work of theater DeGregory has ever written. He said in the process, he first did extensive research into Mitchell’s life, and then mapped out the basic story based on her biography. DeGregory said that he is still finishing up writing for the production, and has mixed and changed the order of songs to suit the mood of the scenes.
DeGregory said that while working on the performance, he wanted to make sure many women were involved in the process, as much of the story deals with how Mitchell grappled with her femininity and how she was treated by the media as a woman in the public eye. The media often failed to give her proper credit as a songwriter in her own right, and instead defined her through her relationships with male musicians.
According to DeGregory, all of the band members, one of his producers and several key members of the production team are women. DeGregory said that working with them and the women in the cast has helped generate conversations about how Mitchell balanced her desire for love and family with her wish to be independent at a time when those were often seen as two incompatible concepts.
“They speak to the topics and the experiences way better than I can,” DeGregory said.
Like many other recent musicals about famous female music artists, such as “The Cher Show” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” “Busy Being Free” uses three actors to represent the different periods of Mitchell’s life. DeGregory said although he initially didn’t plan to take this approach, he realized it would be hard for one actor to embody the entire life of someone who changed as drastically as Joni Mitchell.
One of the Jonis represents her from her childhood to right before she released her acclaimed album “Blue.” The second portrays her middle period, as a folk artist, while the third represents her as an older, experimental “vagabond” musician.
Communication sophomore Ruby Gibson, who plays young Joni in the productim, said one of the most difficult aspects has been working to divorce popular conceptions about Joni Mitchell from her performance. Although the actors have the benefit of knowing about Mitchell’s life story, their characters don’t, so it’s important that they play their characters as real people living in the moment.
“Finding the difference between the three Jonis and what they discover and when, what one Joni knows that another Joni doesn’t know, what one Joni can say that another doesn’t know how to say yet, has been really challenging, but really amazing,” Gibson said.
DeGregory said he hopes in watching the presentation, the invited audience will be able to understand the pressures Mitchell faced –– and her struggles to find liberation.
“I hope her personal pursuit of freedom encourages others to find their own,” DeGregory said. “That’s really important to me.”