The Personal Story behind Fields of Gold: The Music of Sting

By Simon Hodgson

On one level, Fields of Gold: The Music of Sting—which plays until August 27 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater—is a musical about the Amish coming-of-age rite known as rumspringa. But to creator and co-director Craig Slaight, researching the subject created a deeply personal story that mirrored his own. “It’s a metaphor for our late-teen years,” says Slaight. “It’s about finding a moral compass in that critical time in young peoples’ lives when they ask, ‘What did I grow up believing, and is it still right?’”

Through the research that Slaight did on the Amish, he developed an enormous respect for them. “They aren’t asking anyone else to become Amish,” he says. “They are interested in the simple life. They are not interested in being on the grid. All they’re really asking is to let them live the way they wish to on the land they have. It’s a wholesome, pristine, rural existence.”

Actor Michaella Kumli in A.C.T.'s Fields of Gold: The Music of Sting
Photo by Jay Yamada.
For Slaight, the idea of religious teens in the American heartland is close to home. “I was raised in a typical, conservative Midwestern family in Michigan, where we went to a Methodist church. At college, so many other things made me open my eyes. I thought: I am also a gay man. And I’m not real sure about church, which represented everything in my life that I found wounding.”

College, for Slaight, represented his own rumspringa—the spiritual journey that young Amish people take when they step outside of their community and see what life is like beyond their culture. As an undergraduate theater artist, Slaight investigated different religions: he went to synagogue, tried Catholicism, and looked into Christian fundamentalism. “All of these ingredients were my rumspringa,” he says.

The concept of that experimentation process, in which young people test the boundaries of their lives and themselves, was one that Slaight placed at the very center of the musical. “What are our tests? That idea was very important to me. Everyone has one.”

Slaight’s journey—from college in Michigan to becoming the director of the A.C.T. Young Conservatory in California—shows the reward of that testing. But, he says, the rumspringa has its own calculus: “The fascinating thing is that, after rumspringa, 93 percent of those young people become Amish for life.”

This particular rite of passage is specific to one community, but its pathway—with young people venturing into a world beyond their own experience—speaks to a more universal need. “I was drawn to it because of my own journey,” says Slaight. “You go from being under someone’s wing to growing your own wings.”

Fields of Gold: The Music of Sting runs at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater until August 27. Click here to purchase tickets.

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