From Stage Show to Screen, Mount Madonna School Reenvisions Performing Arts, its Distinctive Production, and Utilizes its 375-Acre Campus for Filming
Amid a pandemic year when live stage shows were prohibited, Mount Madonna School (MMS) reenvisioned its performing arts, and distinctive, annual theatrical production of an ancient Hindu epic to create a movie version offering the preschool through grade 12 students who comprise the cast an innovative and unique performance opportunity.
Ramayana! The Movie premieres June 25 (3:00pm, PST \ 6:00pm EST) through Vimeo On-Demand, and preorders are happening now! Available to purchase for $40 or stream for a $25, one-time viewing. (Tips for watching the video on Vimeo)
The movie honors 40-plus years of MMS Ramayana! stage shows. In this new film version, several of the main characters are portrayed by students in different classes, as grade-level cohorts were kept separate for COVID safety. And utilizing the 375-acre campus that encompasses MMS and Mount Madonna Center (MMC) to film the story’s scenes, the collaborative team of director Gitanjali Lori Rivera, musical director Anand Darsie, along with visionary filmmaker Devin Kumar (’06) and producer Jeevani Vince, have crafted a beautiful, dazzling musical feat, with striking attention to nuance and detail.
See MMS and MMC and as you never have before: with costumed monkeys frolicking in the trees, devoted palace guards defending the temple, and an ethereal Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati bring life to the story. Follow along as princes Ram and Lakshman and Princess Sita journey into the unknown, encountering peaceful tribal villagers dwelling by the lake, joyful forest animals in a magical forest, and demons in many guises – from the mischievous forest spirits, minions and the ferocious Surpanakha, to the giant Kumbhakarna and a dazzling golden deer, all ruled by the insatiable desires of the 10-headed demon King Ravana.
Ramayana! has been central to Mount Madonna School since its founding. It’s the culmination of months of work during the academic year and is a year-end celebration for the community embracing diversity and creative self-expression. With this show, MMS carries forward a tradition inspired by Baba Hari Dass (1923-2018) and supported by the Mount Madonna Center. The Ramayana is a timeless classic teaching the universal values of truth, duty, love and service to the greater good.
Mount Madonna Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences is a residential community and conference center founded in 1978 atop a mountain in Watsonville. Baba Hari Dass (Babaji), a silent monk, teacher, and practitioner of yoga from India was the founder of the center, which shares a history and mission with the school, and the annual performance of the Ramayana! is part of this mission. The well-known tale with origins in India was adapted into a musical by members of the Mount Madonna community in the 1970s. The original songs are part of the American rock musical theater tradition, with echoes of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, plus a contemporary nod to Hamilton, Broadway’s biggest musical in recent decades.
Recently, several crew members, alumni, and parent volunteers shared their perspectives on this ambitious and most-anticipated undertaking:
Gitanjali Lori Rivera, director, alumni parent: “My relationship with Mount Madonna School began with Ramayana! many years ago. I was in the cast of Mount Madonna Center’s intergenerational Ramayana! I noticed several young people and asked who they were. ‘Mount Madonna School students’ was the answer. These kids were amazing, and I said to myself ‘my son’s going to go to Mount Madonna School’ – and he did. Now, more than three decades later, I’m still involved. Although my role has changed many times, I am so happy that ‘there is no end to Rama’s story’!
“For MMS, Ramayana! is a beautiful, timeless story that creates community and I can’t imagine the school without it. This year, working with our alumnus videographer Devin Kumar (’06) has been a dream. He’s calm, professional and has an amazing eye for knowing exactly what’s going to work and what won’t. For me, he functioned as an assistant director, and I really relied upon him and his creative vision.”
Devin Kumar (’06), filmmaker: “Working on the Ramayana! 2021 movie was an extremely fun and creative process! Being able to re-imagine all of the scenes in a different format than on stage and get out of the theater mindset was challenging, but also great fun with all the creative possibilities that come with shooting in movie format. One of the most special things for me was being able to do it on our amazing school and center land. The land has a magical feeling and Babaji’s rock walls and other landmarks was another way that Babaji’s inspiration came through, as he was responsible for beginning the production decades ago.
“After missing the full production of the Ramayana! last year, I was eager to be involved this year with the movie. It’s important that we continue this wonderful tradition started so long ago, both for experiencing the incredible community we have, as well as the wisdom that the story of the Ramayana portrays. Enjoy the movie!”
Anand Darsie, music director: “Directing the music for the Ramayana! is always an opportunity to revel in sacred creativity, and this year was no exception. Recording one MMS student at a time was a unique process that afforded me the opportunity to experience many of the beautiful and unique voices of our student body in a new light. Working with those voices, tinkering with some of the more complex vocal arrangements from years past, and working with Devin to weave everything together for this soundtrack was a process worth every minute of being hunched over my computer!”
Jeevani Vince, producer: “With this ambitious undertaking of making a Ramayana! movie, one of our goals was to continue to honor Babaji’s memory, while keeping it fresh in the minds – and hearts – of our students and the families of Mount Madonna School and Mount Madonna Center. For 2021, my role looked very different. In previous years I focused on playbill ad sales to help support the production and working with the different area coordinators on staying within our budget and making sure that there were coordinators, coordinators-in-training, and support teams for each essential area, including costumes, makeup, wigs, crowns, masks, monsters.
“This year, due primarily to restrictions imposed by COVID, there were no coordinators or teams, and I worked to fill many of the needs. I want to express a deep gratitude to the handful of vaccinated community members who reached out to help, and express appreciation for the many, many people who usually help but weren’t able to be involved this year. We look forward to the support of our many dedicated volunteers in the future!”
Jen Astone, parent volunteer: “I came to help out because the Ramayana! is something my son looks forward to every year and I wanted to support him, his class and the production team. I was astonished by how wonderful the site scouting was for the monkey scene at the big swing, which is an unworthy name for that incredible old oak tree. The students climbed up the tree and made the place their stage! It was so beautiful to see the director Gitanjali, the producer Jeevani and the filmmaker Devin making the scenes come alive on campus. Devin was shooting close-ups, the music was playing and I got an insight into how this year is so different from any other. In the end, the kids were engaged and excited even if they couldn’t be with the entire school body, they were connecting as a class and contributing wholeheartedly to the film.”
Sangita Yolanda Diaz-Houston (’99), parent volunteer: “When I was 11 years old, I came to MMS and joined [the late] Sri Gyan McCaughan’s fifth grade class. I loved being in a community where I was seen and heard and felt very included. That feeling expanded exponentially when I experienced my first Ramayana!. I had never performed before, but I can remember my feeling of utter enthrallment and elation when the lights, costumes and music swelled the stage. Truly, I have applied the confidence and ability to present myself that began in that first Ramayana! over and over again. What I learned during my years in the performing arts program at MMS has served me throughout life.
“Now, as the parent of an MMS first grader and preschooler, I am deeply touched to witness how the school is carrying on the Ramayana! tradition in a different and wonderful way. My three-year-old Koa opted out of putting on a costume this year. He’s just a little shy. My daughter Kailani on the other hand, was a very excited peacock in the forest animal scene. This year she got to do her dance in a real forest! All the filming of the movie that is taking place on the beautiful MMS campus. We deeply value the connection to the sacred land that our children learn on and within, and this year’s Ramayana! is bringing us all a little closer to that connection albeit through film.
“I have volunteered to help with makeup at the Ramayana for the past 15 years, and this year was no exception. Yes, it is different to do makeup outside wearing a mask without the usual army of parents and community volunteers. What has been the same is the excitement and investment in the role that you can see in the students as they experience the magic of putting on a costume and transforming into a prince or vulture or demon king. I am happy to report that the spirit of the Ramayana! lives on, even during these different and challenging times, and as the monkeys chant at the end of act one in the play, ‘Jai Sita Ram! Jai Hanuman’!”
Eden Fisher, seventh grade, cast as Prince Ram, Honor Choir: “I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t really think it would feel like Ramayana!, but as soon as I smelled the makeup and we put on our costumes, it brought it all back. It feels great! It feels like Ramayana!”
Masina Hunnicutt, registrar, parent volunteer: “This production means a great deal to me as a parent because of how it fosters community in our school. Although it looks very different this year as far as parent participation goes because of COVID restrictions, it is meaningful seeing the few parents that were able to come on campus and help. I love seeing the students transform themselves in their full costume and makeup. My student has enjoyed the production this year, like in the past. She liked the fact that they recorded the audio separate from the filming so they were able to focus on each piece separately.
“I think it was such an ingenious idea to make a movie as we could not all gather at the Heritage Theatre and have a live performance. Not having Ramayana! last year was a sad loss for our community, so I think it was very important for us to have it this year in some form. I am so impressed with all the work that the crew has done with everything, and look forward to seeing the movie! While it may not be in the same form we are used to, it will be the same emotional and awe-inspiring experience that we have all come to love about the Ramayana!”
Ann Goewert, Ph.D., head of school: “At MMS, performing arts is a collaborative artistic process. Students gain a strong sense of personal identity and accomplishment. The creative process invites students to enter an imaginary world and explore how characters navigate their culture and society. Students performing in Ramayana! The Movie are playing multiple characters, and they are working to create something larger than individual roles and pieces.”
Lucy Yen, seventh grade, cast as Golden Deer: “I came to Mount Madonna School last year and there was no Ramayana! because of COVID, so I don’t have anything to compare this experience to. I will say it’s awesome! It’s fun and feels like we’re part of something big; something special – like what I’ve always heard Ramayana! is like.”
Preston Merchant, photographer: “I have enjoyed the stage production for years, and it’s inspiring to see it now adapted into a movie, set on the school campus and among the shrines, temple, and vistas at Mount Madonna Center. I admire the students’ and faculty’s creativity and passion as they worked to give the story a new form and create such a positive experience for the community.”
Jessica Cambell, parent, fifth grade teacher: “For me, personally, it is heartbreaking not to be at the theater having Ramayana! this year. By far Ramayana! is one of my favorite parts of MMS as both a teacher and a parent. The sea of community and camaraderie that occurs over the week at the theater leaves your cup filled and your love for MMS overflowing. As the parent of a graduating senior, I am sad that she isn’t getting the theater experience after looking up for years at her elders and dreaming of her day. However, I am eternally grateful that the school worked to create something around Ramayana! this year, albeit very different. I have seen such joy in my kids about doing ‘something Ramayana!’; maybe not the same excitement as the theater, but still excited around fittings and rehearsals and filming.
“The fifth grade loved learning the dance and the day we filmed they were so over the moon about being in costumes and feeling a part of something larger. The whole camera and different scene takes made them excited about Ramayana! again. I felt the magic as I helped with makeup for all of the elementary grades. Each group was alive in their costumes and you could tell they felt like they were doing something important – and special – in a year where special unique moments like that are hard to create with all the limitations.”
Debbie Dutra, parent volunteer: “I am so grateful to MMS for keeping the Ramayana! tradition alive and am looking to seeing the final production. Working with the kids, teachers, parents and production team is always one of the highlights of my year. I learn as much as they do. I enjoyed the few minutes I spent with them doing their makeup, hair, and this year, learning how to tie turbans. Getting to spend time getting to know Jeevani and other parents and teachers connected to the production made the time even more worthwhile. Seeing these young people flourish and grow into these amazing beings absolutely warms my heart! Watching them grow from forest animals to elders is almost surreal. From children to independent teens with minds of their own is an incredible learning experience for all.”
Shannon Kelly (’92), parent, director of upper school: ‘I continue to be impressed by the creativity and ingenuity with which MMS has responded to a year upended by COVID. Ramayana! The Movie, is a perfect example of this. Gitanjali, Anand, Jeevani, Devin, and the rest of the amazing crew have gone above and beyond to make the magic happen. I can’t wait to see the finished product!”
Erika Rosendale (’05), set and scenery crew: “The role of getting in there and doing whatever needs to happen is part of the Mount Madonna repertoire. I learned how to be a stage manager and set designer by doing just that, running around and filling in the gaps in some creative fashion. This year, instead of working with moving set pieces on a stage, we used what we could and created what we needed in the form of the hut, prepping the boat, smaller monkey swings, and even making ‘intestines’ for an added effect to Surpanakha’s feasting. Jai Aguirre (’90) did very graciously jump on to do a lot of work on the hut as well as the monkey swings. It was awesome to collaborate with a fellow alum and grown up creative kid! I worked on repainting Sarasvati’s lotus so it reads well outside. I foresee doing more of this for the stage pieces that we will use for the High Court scenes, as they were made to be inside a dark theater, instead of under full sun blast. That has created a whole new look for the show, which is pretty spectacular. The build crew came up with all kinds of innovative ideas to deal with the monsters, big puppets, and dragon, calling on everyone’s ingenuity.”
Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,
Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believes a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979