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The ‘Best Thing’ to do this weekend

MURRAY – We all have stories to tell, but how many of us actually write them down? For Murray State University flute professor Dr. Stephanie Rea, writing her life story ended up being life-changing.

What started as a simple story ultimately morphed into a one-person show called “The Next Best Thing: A Flute Professor’s Tragicomic Origin Story,” which Rea will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, in the Performing Arts Hall on the second floor of the Old Fine Arts Building on campus. Fellow music professor Dr. Meeyoun Park will accompany Rea on the piano. 

The event is a fundraiser for WKMS, MSU’s public radio station. While admission to the show is free, donations are encouraged. The last time Rea held a fundraiser for the radio station was 20 years ago; she characterized that concert as “straight flute and piano with some talking in between” – the complete opposite of the autobiographical, semi-theatrical performance that bounces from “hilarity to poignancy” the audience will see Saturday night.     

“I don’t even know what to call it,” Rea admitted. “Is it a one-woman show? Is it a lecture? A recital? What is it? It’s all these things. It’s not stand-up comedy, but it has those elements. I’m performing on flute. It’s about 80-90 minutes, maybe 15 or so is flute playing. It’s a lot of talking, but a lot of slide show and the flute playing is peppered in between things so that it doesn’t feel like you’re in a lecture.” 

As for the musical components of the show, Rea said all of the pieces tie into the stories. “It’s not just random palate cleansers, but more like perfectly curated pieces of music,” she explained. “But there’s nothing avant garde or super modern. It’s all kind of pleasing, cute, happy, fun, beautiful types of sounds. Whereas at some recitals that I give, I might incorporate more pieces that also are much more modern or challenging or dissonant, but this does not include any of that. … And some of them are really dazzling, technically dazzling. Two of them are really, really super technically challenging.” 

Rea just started her 24th year as a professor of music at MSU. This semester, she is teaching an honors course called “Music and Society” and one on American musical theatre. Of the latter course, Rea said, “I love it. I’m not a real ‘theatre person,’ but I love it and watch it; and I love teaching it.”

Like all professors at MSU, Rea is expected to make creative and/or scholarly contributions to her field. While she has presented at conferences and writes the occasional article, writing is not her go-to for fulfilling that requirement. Rather, performing has always been her preferred outlet. 

“I’ve tried to do different themes over the years,” Rea said of her annual recitals. “I’ve done winter-themed music with poetry, winter poetry in between. There has been some visual art where I’ve incorporated pieces of music that were in response to a piece of art and I project the art. So, I’ve done lots of different, creative things – different from just classical music on stage – but this one is different. It’s all about the stories. The stories are the real star of this particular show.” 

Born in Pennsylvania, she moved with her family to east Tennessee at the age of 10. She received her bachelor’s degree from East Tennessee State University before moving to Florida where she completed her graduate work at Florida State University. In 2000, Rea moved to Murray to be the music department’s resident flute expert. 

“The show answers the question ‘How did you become a flute professor?’” she said. “And where do you begin to answer the question of ‘How did you become what you are today?’ Like, where do you begin that story? You could start it anywhere, but mine, I think, really specifically, does have a surprising starting point that I reveal in the show.” 

Rea said that writing “the story” had been in the back of her mind for years, but she never had the time or brain space to focus energy on a superfluous creative writing endeavor. That changed last semester when she took a sabbatical to write a flute book. She finished the book but has yet to submit it for publication; rather, she is using it this year in her classes to refine it first. 

“It was a neat thing to get back to, but now I had a daunting task – to write a book,” she said, noting that she had not taken on a writing project of that scale since her dissertation. “Even though it wasn’t terribly creative per se, there are lots of philosophical parts of it and my thoughts on it all. And it made me use a dictionary and a thesaurus every day. I was really trying to hone the meaning of each word and really thinking about exactly how I wanted to say things. So, I think that definitely led me into more of – even though these two things are totally different types of writing – but certainly one got the juices flowing for the other. And then, I had enough brain space because I wasn’t teaching all day. I had enough extended time in a room when there’s not a knock on the door or you have to go to class now. 

“So, I had time to just write this story about this thing that happened to me that was really life-changing and that, sort of, led to my career path. I had thought about writing it down many times, but I’m not a writer, not a creative writer, and so I’ve never written it down. But I had time. So, that inspired me. And then, partly, I was inspired just to send it in… the idea. I was just going to send in the idea to a public radio show that I love.” 

She wrote a pitch to send to said “public radio show” but thought it was no good. She wrote a second pitch, but she did not like that one either. Frustrated with the process, Rea decided a better approach was to write the story before attempting to write another pitch.

Writing the story took longer than Rea had anticipated. It turned out to be a days-long project that temporarily “hijacked” her life. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to finish this. I’ve got to get on with other things. I need to send this thing in so I can just be done.’ But I still wasn’t done even after sending it in.”

She decided that she wanted to be the one to tell her story, but she had no idea how to do that. 

“It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever done,” she said. “Usually, I have an idea, and then I go down my list of how to make that idea happen and put it into place. Whereas, with this, I didn’t have any idea where any of it was going, I just wrote a story. I didn’t know what I’d do with the story.” 

Trying to conceptualize how she could tell the story, Rea thought about the occasions when she talks to groups – in class and during recitals. 

“I thought maybe I could do flute playing and storytelling,” she explained. “If I’m going to tell a 15-minute story in between flute pieces – I mean, that’s a long story – I’m going to have to give some context. So, as I’m writing this story about sending in my story, all these other parts, kind of, emerged. So, then that story becomes its own story. It still didn’t totally make sense why I was telling stories, but because there was this public radio tie-in, I was like, ‘Oh! I can do this as a fundraiser for WKMS!’

By the end of May, Rea was “mostly done” writing the show, but she continued to tweak it throughout the summer. She also explored other creative endeavors, such as traveling to Chicago to take an improv class at Second City. She explained that she was watching an interview with Second City alumnus Stephen Colbert, and as he talked about improv and the influence it had on him, the wheels started turning. 

“Maybe I should do some improv,” she thought. “Then the next thing I knew, I was like, ‘Yes, I really need to do this.’ Even though I knew almost nothing about it really, I felt like it could just kind of be this thing that opens me up a little bit more or something. I turned 50 this summer, and I wanted to do something that was big and just my own thing – I didn’t know what exactly – and that ended up being the thing. It was the week before my classes started, so I didn’t love the timing; but I thought, ‘I can make this happen.’”

The class was four hours a day for five days. There were 15 in the classes, ranging in age from 18 to 55 years. The students’ range of experience also varied widely – while some were seasoned improvisational actors, there were equally as many who had no improv experience whatsoever.

“When you’re doing improv, there’s no time to worry about or plan what you’re doing; you just do it.” Rea said. “That’s so unlike anything in my life; everything is so planned. I think that was really freeing, and I wondered if it would help me with the show, but I knew it wasn’t going to hurt. So, I didn’t do it for that reason, but it’s totally related. Because I was planning this show, I think that’s kind of what led me to that as well.”

The classes consisted mostly of improvisational games and exercises. In the beginning, many of the “games” were focused on learning about their fellow classmates, not only to learn each other’s names but also to create a safe space where a group of strangers were comfortable enough to be vulnerable. 

“You need to know nobody’s going to make fun of you, that we’re all in it together, to build that collaborative, supportive environment,” she said. “A lot of times, I think in so many parts of life where those sorts of ‘ice-breaker’ type things are introduced, it just sounds so corny; but none of it was like that. It just felt so genuine. I’m not super silly by nature, and I don’t have a very high tolerance for bullshit – so, I’m the first one to roll my eyes at this kind of stuff. I didn’t feel that way with any of it.”

“All of the things with improv, for me, were total life lessons almost instantly,” she continued. “Within 15-30 minutes on the first day, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re learning how to be better people.’ ‘Oh, this is a class on communication.’ ‘Oh, I’m learning how to be a better parent and professor and friend.’ We already know the importance of eye contact and listening, but surrendering and acceptance and give-and-take and the idea of maintaining a positive attitude with ‘Yes, and…,’ (which is a common saying in the improv world that refers to) taking the idea that somebody gives you and building on it rather than being a Negative Nelly and throwing other people’s ideas away. I was amazed at how much there is in improv to apply to larger life relationships.” 

Through the internal exploration of the events that led her to where she is today, Rea learned a greater lesson about connecting with others.

Those curious to know more about what to expect can find a short series of promotional videos describing the show on Rea’s YouTube page (@drstephanierea). 

“There is some adult language; it is not intended for kids,” Rea advised in one video. “I’m just talking the way that I talk when I am talking with friends in an impassioned way and not censoring myself. If you know me, then you know; but if you’re not my friend, you may not realize what a total potty mouth I can be. So, use your discretion. It’s not intended to be offensive, but I don’t think I could tell these stories without swearing.” 

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.

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