“A bonkers musical”: Interviewing Dr. Elizabeth Helman on her production of beloved Cold War rock musical, Chess

Sit down with Tosca in an interview with acclaimed director Dr. Elizabeth Helman to discuss her production of cult classic rock musical Chess, and read a brief review from the opening night’s performance!

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Tosca Ruotolo, Editor

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Elizabeth Helman, acclaimed Director and senior instructor. Her work has been seen across Oregon and has spanned as far as St. Louis. She specializes in teaching, directing and playwriting in the Oregon State Theatre Arts program, and has directed OSU’s Bard in the Quad for the past eight years. 

She is the director of OSU’s latest musical, Chess. If you love 80’s power ballads, synth music and commentary on politics and gender with a campy twist, you don’t want to miss Chess! Reserve FREE tickets here! Shows are available on the 4th, 5th, 11th, 12th and 13th. 

“I love playmaking on different scales and different sizes with different kinds of approaches,” said Dr. Helman, “whether it’s a broad, fun Shakespeare show or an intimate psychological naturalistic piece that you do in a small space. I love working with professional actors, I love working with students…there’s always something interesting to do and a new story to tell.” 

Chess has a very special place in Dr. Helman’s heart. She was overjoyed to find that her colleagues in the Theatre Arts program shared her love for this oddball play, likening her passion for the story to having a “dirty little secret”. 

Chess is a bonkers musical,” says Dr. Helman. This synth rock musical features songs written by Swedish pop band ABBA and Disney’s Tim Rice. The story is loosely based on a chess rivalry between American grandmaster Bobby Fischer and Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky, with the backdrop of the story being the Cold War. Though the story is highly fictionalized, Helman says, “Chess the game is used as an extremely obvious metaphor about the manipulations and ideas behind the Cold War politics between the United States and the USSR.” Chess explores the contentious politics and emotions of the time through 80’s power ballads across a fascinating International stage. 

Of course, Dr. Helman could never have predicted the current state of Europe when creating this production. When asked about how the tragedies in Ukraine have affected the cast’s attitude towards Chess, Dr. Helman commented that the events of the past weeks have been heavy on the minds of those involved in the production. She is thankful for the “opportunities this play proves for our cast members to have conversations with each other about what’s going on in the world and the greater implications.” She hopes the musical will give audience members space to feel any discomfort and have conversations that will lead to some insight about the human condition. 

I was overjoyed to be able to see Chess performed on opening night, and it’s no exaggeration when I say that I was absolutely blown away. From the gorgeous and clever set design, to the fantastic live synth pop trio scoring the show, to awe-inspiring performances by lead actors and ensemble alike, seeing Chess will surely be a highlight of my 2022 art experience. Emilia Veremchuk shines on stage as both an acting and vocal powerhouse, and Dylan Lewis and Jacob Hungerford astound with their portrayals of the American and Russian chess champions. The ensemble cast decorates the stage, creating a show that is free of even a moment of boredom. Come see our very own Editor in Chief, Natalie Harris, in her element on the stage. I was beyond wowed by her performance! 

“I’m just so excited for them [the cast] to have the opportunity to share the beautiful work they’ve done,” said Dr. Helman, “there’s a whole world of creativity and passion, and the desire to share the complicated gray areas of being a human being, and doing that with vulnerability and sensitivity. I’m just so excited for these students to share this with the whole campus and our community.” 

Register for Chess tickets here! Shows are available on the 4th, 5th, 11th, 12th and 13th. Grab tickets before they’re sold out!

Big thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Helman for this wonderful interview. To all Chess cast and crew members: break a leg!