Agent 355, the punk rock, Revolutionary War-era espionage story told through the lens of an upbeat concert, has humble beginnings.
“I kind of just looked up women in history,” said co-creator Preston Max Allen. “My interest was piqued, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what would it be like to do a musical about a woman who doesn’t officially exist?’ ”
From there, Allen and Jessica Kahkoska, the show’s other writer and creator, took on the mission of bringing to life the untold story of the female spies in the Culper Ring during the American Revolution.
Now, Agent 355 appears as the third and final show in Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop — sponsored in part by the Roe Green Foundation — with shows at 4 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday, August 18 in Bratton Theater.
Both Allen and Kahkoska have been dedicated to shedding light on the stories of women for years. And when Allen’s internet searching led to the discovery of the story of the female spy, code-named Agent 355, Kahkoska said it seemed like a perfect fit.
“We both feel an urgency in uncovering and telling true female stories,” Kahkoska said. “And we both believe there are many, many exciting ways to share that history, Agent 355 and the musical side of it being one of those.”
Agent 355 follows six different women who all played roles in the American Revolution and who all could ostensibly be the real Agent 355. As it sheds light on these women’s stories, it also treats the audience to a dynamic punk rock concert as the characters tell their tales through emotionally charged songs.
Allen said the use of punk rock in a play about giving women a long-awaited voice was no coincidence.
“At this time, women had to stay quiet and play into the roles that men set up for them,” Allen said. “So getting to put them on stage and giving them a voice for their anger feels like it’s been a long time coming.”
The show serves as a platform for the re-telling and expansion of the stories of these historical women. According to Kahkoska, while much is known about the male members of the Culper Ring, next to nothing is known about the numerous female contributors.
Due to this lack of information and historical records, telling the stories of these women can sometimes prove daunting, Allen said. Despite that, he’s committed to doing as much as he can with the information at his disposal.
“Maybe you can’t make that two-and-a-half hour, bio-musical of a historical woman because her story wasn’t written enough, but you can take the fragments and give them as much love as possible,” Allen said. “And then hopefully in the future, we won’t settle for recording just fragments anymore.”
And just as pairing the time period of the Revolutionary War with punk rock music came naturally, Allen and Kahkoska agreed that bringing Agent 355 to Chautauqua was a perfect pairing.
“Preston and I started this show at the Chautauqua Institution,” Kahkoska said. “So our very first moments sitting with this concept happened here. Since then, the project has shaped my life in so many ways, and it’s a joy to bring it back home to Chautauqua Theater Company.”
In 2017, Allen and Kahkoska received the Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts, which helped them bring Agent 355 to life. The fellowship is coordinated by the State University of New York at Fredonia and other Marion Circle organizations, Chautauqua Institution and Houston’s Alley Theatre among them. The fellowship program was created to support the creative projects of artists.
Allen said he thinks the audiences at Chautauqua will appreciate the storytelling of the play. To him, the Institution is a place where audience members are curious and engaged; a perfect fit for the cutting-edge Agent 355.
But looking beyond Chautauqua’s gates, Allen said he hopes to see more spotlight given to stories like Agent 355.
“I hope that people are ready — not just in our shows, but in all shows — to open their minds to different kinds of storytelling, both for the subject matter that’s being discussed as well as how it is presented,” Allen said.