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  • Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan.  Photo by Jenny Woodward.Up-and-coming musical theatre writers Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk have already written about life before college and life after college. But when they decided to actually write about life at college, they didn't want to trust their own memories. (For the record, neither is yet 30.) They wanted to go right to the source, to draw their inspiration directly from those discovering university life for the first time. And, oh yes, they wanted the entire Internet to be able to join them. Thus was born The Freshman Experiment.

    This "living musical" kicked off in late August and chronicles Kerrigan and Lowdermilk chronicling two young women blogging through their freshman years in college. Bloggers "Christine Coke" and "PosterChild"—their real identities are closely guarded secrets—go to different schools (respectively, a small, rural liberal arts college and a major urban university) in different parts of the country and have contrasting backgrounds (Christine Coke has two mothers, PosterChild's parents are divorced) and interests (Christine Coke has offered few hints so far, but PosterChild is starring in her university's musical). In a coincidence you'd never believe if you saw it onstage, their paths actually crossed briefly when they were younger. It's a serendipitous beginning to the project, which is currently slated to run through summer vacation of 2008.

    What comes after that is anyone's guess: The musical could be completed and produced as is, or it could continue on to become The Sophomore Experiment or even The College Experiment. All that's clear at this point is that Christine Coke's and PosterChild's blogs, librettist-lyricist Kerrigan's and composer Lowdermilk's own contributions (they've already posted song snippets and candid videos of themselves at the piano), and the comments of visitors to the Freshman Experiment website are all fair game for whatever the show ends up being.

    But if the work's future and present are both changing every day, its genesis is much easier to pin down. Back in January, Kerrigan conceived the idea as a way of providing ongoing, personal web content that would not only engage her and Lowdermilk as writers, but keep their target audiences perpetually interested and involved in what's coming next. Kerrigan and Lowdermilk hammered out the idea, and by March had settled on Christine Coke and Poster Child as the participants (through a process they insist on keeping secret). They later held a writers' retreat to help get the neophyte bloggers up to speed for their August web debut, but when it came to writing Kerrigan and Lowdermilk had only a handful of rules.

    "We didn't place any limitations on what they could write about, except they're to conceal their identity and to conceal the identity of others," Kerrigan says. "They have to write a minimum of four blogs a week, but two of them need to be substantial, so that they don't feel like they're writing because they have to write, but because they want to write."

    "I remember these girls freaking out about how no one's going to be interested," Lowdermilk recalls. "They said, 'Why don't you get an astronaut? Why not [follow] someone with a crazy occupation?' They were very concerned that their stories wouldn't be interesting enough. But we specifically chose these people because they have a unique outlook on the world and approach things in an interesting way, which is a lot more helpful for a blog than someone wanting to be an astronaut.... We've already got a half dozen things we're looking at: 'Oh yeah, that's a song, that can sing.'"

    Kerrigan and Lowdermilk even already have one song—or at least most of a first draft. It was inspired by Christine Coke's September 10 post, in which she admits feeling at home at school for the first time, and missing what she left behind.

    It happens every now and then. I put my iPod on shuffle and it plays the songs that I didn't know I needed to hear. I was walking across campus through a light fog that blurred everyone's face.... The chirping of the crickets set the tempo and the wind danced across my neck, tickling my skin and rustling my golden arm hairs. This place, this wild, offbeat, certainly unique place is starting to feel a little like home.... Sometimes though I'll be furiously underlining my history book or organizing my drawers when an image of home invades my mind, forcing me to sit on my bed and remember the people who have loved me for my eighteen years.... I suppose I'm beginning to have two homes. If I had to choose though, I'd be sitting on my porch right now, watching my niece catch fireflies...

    Which Kerrigan and Lowdermilk translated into their first song, "My Heart Is Split":

    It happens every now and then.
    I hear the words I need to hear.
    Coming from the tiny speakers
    That I've shoved into my ears.

    The crickets setting the tempo.
    The wind dancing 'cross my skin.
    Reminding me of conversations,
    Summer nights when I stayed in.

    Back home, before I moved.
    Back home, before I got here.
    Back home with the people who loved me
    My eighteen years.

    My heart is split
    Between home and here.
    I'm cut in half.
    Two beds, two lives, and I live in between
    My porch back at home and this strange new world I knit.
    My heart is split.

    The Freshman ExperimentGranted, not every post necessarily bursts with musical potential—for example, Kerrigan confesses some uncertainty about what she could do with PosterChild's "I will never stop loving my Macbook" entry. "Obviously, right now, we're happy that we ended up being proud of the verse that we wrote [for 'My Heart Is Split']," Lowdermilk says. "But I would like to think we would post it even if we write something that's not good. If there's going to be train wrecks, they have to go up there, too."

    But the smart money shouldn't plan on too many of those—Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have already defined their career by their willingness to bravely broach unusual topics. The Woman Upstairs, their first joint effort for the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, told the story of an unattractive physics teacher romancing a blind street violinist against the backdrop of the eternally noisy New York City. Kerrigan and Lowdermilk returned to NYMF in 2005 with Wrong Number, a choose-your-own-adventure-style musical set in and around Boston's Big Dig. Their first Off-Broadway venture, Henry and Mudge, was a playful adaptation of Cynthia Rylant's popular series of children's books. They're currently in the final stages of work on The Unauthorized Biography of Samantha Brown, an original musical about a high-school girl struggling with the decision to go to college.

    With The Freshman Experiment, too, anything goes. The bloggers' distinct voices—Christine Coke's writings angle toward the contemplative and somber, PosterChild's are considerably more light-hearted—could well encourage a fair amount of variety. ("There are very few people I've seen and this in control of their voice at that age," Kerrigan says.) There are plans in the works for both women to upload photos and videos of their surroundings, to make their ruminations even more real. And as Christine Coke and PosterChild introduce new characters and conflicts, and as the website community becomes more actively involved in what they post, the show's final form continues to evolve.

    "I have a hunch that spoken text is going to figure in somehow, and we'll probably use direct quotes from the blogs," Lowdermilk says. "It could also entirely be made up of blog posts. I'd like to think we're in a place where [a commenter] could respond to a post with a story about their life and have that end up in the show. I'd like to think there could ultimately be room for other people's stories... I want people to feel like when they're posting comments on [the website], it's material that's being generated for the show, that there's real dialogue there."

    "If I had to decide right now, it would probably be a two-person show," Kerrigan says. "But the exciting thing is that we have no idea. As of right now, [Christine Coke and PosterChild] have been very introspective, but they're also on their first month of their freshman year of college, so I don't know what else they could be.... The characters of us could end up in the show, [or] the girls could fail miserably. We have no idea. And if [things don't work out], it's just a really cool document of what it is to try to write a musical... I think the bare minimum we'll end up with is a song cycle. But who knows where it could go?"

    "I guess I kind of feel I'm in the same place as people who are going to the site and commenting on it," Lowdermilk says. "Generally, with everything [else] we do, we're either selling something to do or giving something to people or promoting ourselves to people. With this, I feel like I'm a visitor to the site, but I'm responding with music as opposed to comments. But I'm also responding with comments, and I don't know any more than anyone else.... Generally with writers in New York you're completely in control, you're pushing, and then it's completely taken away from you and someone else is in control. There's never a midpoint. With this, there's no illusion. [Christine Coke and PosterChild] are in control. And anything can happen."

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