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The Stage Manager Chronicles: Lyndsey Harter

Ringing in the New Year on the Proscenium stage at Park Square will be Flower Drum Song, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with a book by David Henry Hwang. The play is a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. As noted in the previous Chronicle, it is being stage managed by Jamie J. Kranz, and assisting her in that role is Assistant Stage Manager, Lyndsey R. Harter.

Harter has been with Park Square since the fall of 2014, although it was just this past one when she was able to join Actors’ Equity, the professional union for American actors and stage managers in the theatre. This distinction is something an aspiring individual must work for and Harter was able to helm her first play with such a distinction at Park Square with The House on Mango Street. This was after a summer stage managing plays at the Great River Shakespeare Festival with oft PST director, Doug Scholz-Carlson.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

 

In fact, Harter frequently collaborates elsewhere and will follow Flower Drum Song with another play from Mu Performing Arts in the spring at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. She and Randy Reyes have previously worked together at Park Square on Murder for Two.

So how did Harter find herself in this position? Raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, she moved to St. Paul in order to study costume design at Hamline University. Despite notable achievements, including two awards with the Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival, she began to gravitate toward stage management and the unique challenges it afforded. It was during her junior year the stage manager of one of the school’s plays had too many conflicts and needed a new person. Employing her excellent organizational skills and affable attitude, Harter was well poised to jump in. She immediately fell in love with seeing how “all the pieces fit together and how one change affects five others.”

Harter grew up in a military family and while real-world duties of actors and soldiers couldn’t be more different, they both share a sense of extreme discipline and teamwork. These attributes have no doubt been an aid to her career. Whenever she is not behind the tech table she loves to stay physically active and finds exercise to be a great way to find “balance and mental space.” Oh, and peanut butter M&Ms are also a little pleasure of hers.

Who knew all of that was going on behind the scenes at Park Square? When you see Flower Drum Song, don’t hesitate to thank the crew and if you want to bring some of those M&Ms, it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Come see it on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square, running January 20 – February 19.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

Pease–Perfectly Cast

Michael-jon Pease

In September 2012, C. Michael-jon Pease became Park Square Theatre’s second Executive Director after the retirement of his predecessor, Steven Kent Lockwood. Prior to his promotion, Michael-jon had been the theatre’s first Development Director from January 2000 to January 2003 and rejoined Park Square in September 2007 as part of its senior leadership team, becoming its first Director of External Affairs.

Running a theatre is intricately complex, especially with its built-in paradox of requiring both utmost control and the free fall of letting go. It’s tricky to do, requiring the firm-soft touch of a leader who is an idealist that respects the counter pull of practicality to get things done or, one may instead say, a realist that trusts enough in dreams to even consider reaching for the impossible. Michael-jon is able to effectively bring those tensions into balance within himself and, by extension, within the organization. The result has been an organization that has managed to significantly grow in size and vision within the past decade.

“How has C. Michael-jon Pease so effectively led Park Square Theatre?” I wondered. “What made him the unifying leader that he is today?”

The first time I met Michael-jon, he had a hammer in his hand, pitching in to help open the Boss Thrust Stage on time. This willingness to roll up his sleeves and “go into the trenches” comes directly from his own theatre background, which spanned from the time his grandmother enrolled him in a children’s theatre program as a painfully shy boy of eight until he graduated from college with a double major in French and Theatre Arts.

“I learned a great deal about team leadership and communication as an actor during my many years on stage,” he told me. “On stage, you’re all in it together whatever happens. I remember one of my early productions was the musical Tom Sawyer. At the start of the picnic scene, we were supposed to enter in the blackout and the lights would come up on the party in process. During one performance, the lights came up early, before any of us had started to go on stage. After a beat, I grabbed the hands of the kids on either side of me and yelled ‘Hey everybody, it’s time for the picnic!’ and rushed on stage yelling.”

Michael-jon’s upbringing also strongly influenced his leadership style–namely, how he treats others. One cannot miss what he calls his “formal, and in many ways very old fashioned, sense of etiquette,” all learned under his parents’ roof. But his parents were also powerful role models of inclusivity and “champions for the rights of all.”

“My father was a Scout leader and my older brothers were in his troop,” Michael-jon recalled. “When the family was transferred to Illinois from Colorado for papa’s job, there wasn’t a troop in need of a leader, and all the troops were white (this was 1968). He and my brothers started a troop for the African American kids from the other side of town; and to this day, there are families who haven’t forgiven them for ‘bringing those people into our neighborhood.’ Suffice to say, the themes in A Raisin in the Sun really resonated with me.”

When asked to articulate his beliefs and values, Michael-jon replied, “I believe that everyone has a place at the table and that it should be beautifully set to honor everyone at it. I believe in working hard, helping others and pitching in on what needs to get done to move a project forward, whether it’s your job or not. I value quiet, good manners and beauty. I believe in love rather than tolerance; in empathy rather than acceptance. Always a dreamer, I’m still more and more a pragmatist. ‘Good enough’ done on time is often better than perfect and late. That’s where I’m different than my parents – I have left perfectionism behind.”

With his dapper dress and genteel manners, Michael-jon is perfectly cast as the Executive Director, the public face of Park Square Theatre. He could so easily use his rank to set himself apart. But Michael-jon defies typecasting. His is an open door and, I would dare say, an open heart. He stays accessible and engaged throughout the organization. Because we are all in this together.

 

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

 

TIMELINE

September 1989: Michael-jon earns a BA in French and Theatre Arts from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.

September 1993: Michael-jon earns a MA in Arts Administration from Saint Mary’s University in Winona.

July 1994: Michael-Jon is the founding Executive Director of Cornucopia Arts Center in Lanesboro.

December 1999: Michael-jon is recognized by the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council as its Arts Administrator of the Year.

January 2000: Michael-jon leaves the Cornucopia Arts Center to become Park Square Theatre’s first Development Director.

January 2003: Michael-jon leaves Park Square to become the Director of Development for the Des Moines Playhouse.

August 2004: Michael-jon returns to the Cornucopia Arts Center as Executive Director.

December 2004: Park Square Artistic Director Richard Cook recruits Michael-jon to facilitate the 2005 Board retreat.

November 2005: Michael-jon leads the visioning process for a ten-year plan at the Board retreat, the first step toward a Strategic Plan that would evolve into what would ultimately be dubbed “The Next Stage.”

December 2006: Michael-jon returns to facilitate the 2006 Board retreat on the “RE-reimagining of Park Square Theatre.”

September 2007: Michael-jon becomes Park Square’s first Director of External Relations–now a part of the senior leadership team–to oversee development, branding, marketing and public relations.

September 2012: Park Square Executive Director Steven Kent Lockwood retires, and Michael-jon is promoted as the new Executive Director.

October 2014: Park Square’s new Andy Boss Stage opens.

 

#allarewelcome: Illuminating Brave Spaces January 19

Ghostlight on stage with caption Be a Light

Challenging times can cause many of us wonder where the light is in the world. If these days seem like that for you, the Ghostlight Project brings good news and the opportunity to illuminate our little corner of the country.

On January 19 at 5:30 pm hundreds of theatres across the U.S. will host outdoor gatherings for a collective action to shine some light — in the form of flashlights, cell phone lights, fairy lights, etc.— to celebrate our theatres as Brave Spaces.

Please join us at Park Square as several theatre companies including Mu Performing Arts, Girl Friday Productions, Sandbox Theatre  and Prime Productions gather under the Park Square marquee on West 7th Place to participate in  the project. Our event will include music, the opportunity to join with others, to light a light, make a personal pledge and gather for coffee and hot cocoa in the lobby.

Details are available on Park Square’s Ghostlight Project page For more about the nationwide initiative, visit the TheGhostlightProject.com.

Bring friends — and your light.

#bealight
#ghostlightproject
#allarewelcome

Tea with Toy: Chatting with the Star of the Chop Suey Circuit

“Why don’t you come over for tea?” She asked.

Through the course of our conversation she invited me over two more times, each time being reminded by her assistant that I was not, in fact, in the Bay Area.Toy_and_Wing

“Thank you, Dorothy, but I’m calling from Minneapolis. In Minnesota.”

Her assistant, Mark, had warned me that she has a tendency to repeat herself. She was just about to celebrate her 90th birthday, and sometimes she forgets when she had already mentioned something. He said that his job was to help her keep her mind on track, in addition to answering her phone and handling her email.

There was a slight ringing in my ears as we talked, not from any technical problems with my phone, but from the shock that I was actually talking to THE Dorothy Toy, star of the famed Chop Suey circuit of vaudeville; THE Dorothy Toy, of Toy and Wing, the most successful Asian American dance duo in the 1930s and ’40s; THE Dorothy Toy, who I had been reading about for 6 months prior to this phone call.

dorothytoy12  Toy-Dorothy-on-Point

I had reached a point in my career where I, recognizing the dearth of substantive roles for Asian Americans, was considering writing my first full length play. After considering my skill set, I googled “Asian Tap Dancers” and what came back were several news articles, book references, and grainy video clips featuring Toy & Wing.

If you haven’t heard of Toy & Wing or vaudeville’s Chop Suey Circuit, you’re not alone. I hadn’t heard about either of these things until I started my research. I became motivated to tell Dorothy’s story by the mere fact that I hadn’t heard of Dorothy Toy & Paul Wing, despite learning of their many successes on stage and screen.

Toy & Wing were billed as “The Chinese Fred & Ginger” even though Dorothy was born Dorothy Takahashi and was of Japanese descent. She simply thought Takahashi was too difficult for most people to pronounce and that they had a better chance of getting on a marquee with a shorter name, so she changed her stage name to Dorothy Toy. They were the first Asian Americans to dance at the London Palladium, and the first Asian Americans to dance on Broadway just prior to Paul Wing being drafted into the US Army in 1943 during World War II.

Though she was referred to as The Chinese Ginger Rogers, Dorothy always thought this was a misnomer. She thought of Ginger Rogers as very smooth and graceful, while Dorothy thought of herself as a strong, athletic toe dancer. As you watch this next clip, keep an eye on Dorothy’s feet. She does the majority of the dance on her toes. And if Paul Wing’s dancing looks somewhat familiar, he danced Legomania, a style made popular by Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz film.


FullSizeRender 2Their success was only one side of the coin, however. Just as they had begun to make a name for themselves both here in the US and internationally, they were invited to perform in a film with Chico Marx in 1942, but a rival dance duo outed Dorothy as being of Japanese ancestry, and in light of the then-recent attack on Pearl Harbor, Toy & Wing were not allowed to appear in the film. They moved to Chicago to regroup, according to Dorothy, while her family was sent to an Internment Camp near Topaz, Utah.

After the war, Toy & Wing got back together and became a regular act at the flagship of the Chop Suey circuit, Forbidden City night club, the setting for C.Y. Lee’s novel upon which Flower Drum Song is based. Dorothy noted that Paul was never quite the same, but they continued to tour and perform across the country.

22eadb0de862766ca957cc7a66128520Dorothy and Paul eventually married, but mostly out of convenience; during lean times, they could save money by booking one hotel room instead of two, and being married helped them justify booking only one room. Dorothy recalled that Paul would often pawn his tuxedo to pay for the room, and buy it back just in time to perform.

This is only a fraction of Dorothy Toy & Paul Wing’s story. In May of 2007, I had the honor of meeting Dorothy in person when she–you guessed it–invited me over for tea at her place in Oakland, CA. We sipped sencha while she gave me a tour of her basement ballet studio where she has continued to teach well into her 90s, showed me pictures of her from the 30s and 40s through the 60s, and regaled me with stories of life on the road with Paul, who had passed away in 1997.

Dorothy Toy still lives in Oakland, and is gearing up to celebrate her 100th birthday this May 28, 2017. She is the subject of the documentary, “Dancing Through Life; the Dorothy Toy Story.” She is a living legend; hers are the footprints we walk in, and the shoulders we stand on as Asian American performers. And yet, most Americans don’t know about her. Let’s change that, shall we?

IMG_1128

Dorothy Toy and Me, 2007

 

  And if you’re wondering if I ever wrote my play, I did. It’s called Kicking The Gong Around, which is a reference to a line in Cab Calloway’s song, Minnie the Moocher:

He took her down to Chinatown
and he showed her how to kick the gong around.

Who Tells Your Story?

My whole being tingled with anticipation as the full cast read the script aloud for the first time. Photo by T. T. Cheng

My whole being tingled with anticipation as the full cast read the script aloud for the first time.
Photo by T. T. Cheng

My first experience with Flower Drum Song was seeing the 1961 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein production when I was a kid. I must admit that, although not a fan of the R&H version, I am absolutely psyched to see the Tony-nominated 2001 version by David Henry Hwang. That’s the one that audiences will see on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from January 20 to February 19.

With an almost wholly Asian American cast, the R&H version of Flower Drum Song was a light romantic comedy to profit from the popularity of such fare at the time. According to David Lewis in his book Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals, “Mr. Hammerstein and his colleagues were evidently in no mood to write a musical drama or even to invest their comedic approach with dramatic counterpoint of the sort that Jud Fry had given Oklahoma! … [They] took the safest commercial route by following the eldest son’s search for love–the most popular theme at the time with Broadway audiences.”

In rewriting the script for Flower Drum Song, Hwang asked himself, “Could I aspire to write the book that Hammerstein might have written had he been Asian-American? Could I re-envision the musical in a way that would feel relevant and moving to more sophisticated, contemporary audiences?” (from “A New Musical by Rodgers and Hwang” by David Henry Hwang for The New York Times, October 13, 2002)

The result was a much more nuanced work that confronts the complexities of the immigrant experience, grappling with such issues as generational culture clashes, stereotyping, racism, assimilation and identity in a way that the R&H version could or would not do. In short, Hwang’s play has much more depth.

In Hwang’s script for Flower Drum Song, we are given, as he’d once put it, not “a tourist’s-eye view of Chinatown”; instead, Hwang wrote it “from the point of view of the inside looking out.” For me, an immigrant from Hong Kong who’d initially lived for several years in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, a tale about Americanization–what it means to come to the United States and become a part of it–being told from an Asian-American perspective proves to be much more relatable to my own story, which is/was definitely not a light romantic comedy.

Flower Drum Song includes 17 cast members in all! Photo by T. T. Cheng

Flower Drum Song includes 17 cast members in all!
Photo by T. T. Cheng

Panning For Gold In The Big Money Rehearsal Room

Big Money In Rehearsal

Director Theo Langason looks on while the cast play out a new idea (L-R: Peter Heeringa, Sarah Parker, Emma Larson, Eric Weiman, Cortez Owens, Cameron Meilicke, Derek Meyer).

When a show is built from scratch, it’s not unusual for its initial themes and focuses to morph and change as creation progresses. New discoveries are made all the time and the ensemble gets energized to chase these discoveries down paths that can lead to even more unexpected ideas. Sometimes they bear fruit, sometimes they don’t, but nothing comes and goes without some usefulness. What was once a dead end with one character, can become the basis for a new scene for another. In Big Money, we began by asking what it means to win in America. Our society rewards the entrepreneurial spirit of innovation, even when that spirit crosses ethical boundaries, or the innovation is actually just skirting the law.

Big Money is still on point for this original theme, but we’ve had some unexpected discoveries, too. The biggest surprise so far for me is the amount of humanity that we’ve found in the character of Michael Larson and his relationship to his wife and child. The real-life relationship of Michael and his wife Teresa was an odd, cyclical thing (they were married to and divorced from each other twice before they began their common-law marriage at the time of the game show). I initially thought it would be a lot of laughs, but the ensemble has mined that material for something that is much deeper, sadder and more true.

Honestly, I’m very surprised at how vulnerable and human Michael has become in this show. There are still plenty of times where he is clearly in the wrong and bilking people out of money left and right, but there are several moments where he invokes genuine empathy and even sympathy. I knew going in that we had to be able to present him as at least likable for the audience to want to buy in to the show, but I never expected him to feel so human… you know, right up to point where he steals $3 million from 20,000 unsuspecting people.

 

Derek Lee Miller is Project Lead for Sandbox Theatre’s Big Money, playing January 12-28 at Park Square Theatre in the Historic Hamm Building on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

The Magic Number is 17

There are 17 performers of Asian descent in Park Square Theatre’s upcoming production of Flower Drum Song. 17. Seventeen. That might not seem like groundbreaking news, until you ask yourself: When was the last time you saw 17 Asian American actors in one production on stage or on screen?

Sure, there are The King and I’s, Miss Saigons, and maybe even Pacific Overtures out there, but now I’m struggling to name another big broadway musical with as many as 17 Asian characters in it, let alone Asian or Asian American performers. And if you add the qualifier of a broadway musical written by an Asian or Asian American playwright or composer, that number dwindles significantly.

Many people are quick to say that in recent years, we’ve come a long way in American race relations, and maybe we have. However, while blackface is considered a thing of the past, yellowface and brownface are still practiced with some regularity, even in 2016. Add to that the practice of Whitewashing, casting a white actor instead of an actor of color, sometimes changing the script to do so. Take a look at #WhitewashedOUT, #MyYellowfaceStory, & #MyBrownfaceStory on Twitter & Facebook for more stories from Asian Americans about [lack of] representation on stage and screen.

A few years ago, during a broadcast of the Academy Awards, I challenged my Facebook friends to name an Asian American who has won an Oscar for a project telling an Asian American story. I noted that by saying “Asian American” I specifically meant that non-Americans of Asian descent did not qualify, and that stories that were set in foreign countries, where Asian American actors might be playing foreign nationals, likewise did not qualify. I meant specifically Asian Americans telling stories about the experience of Asian Americans. I would happily stand corrected, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Tony Awards are slightly better, but not by much. Rarely has there been an Asian American story on broadway, and Flower Drum Song is one of those rarities. But it wasn’t until 2002 that an Asian American, David Henry Hwang, received a credit for writing the new adaptation of Flower Drum Song, which is the script being used for Park Square’s production.

So when you come to Flower Drum Song (opening Jan. 27) not only will you be watching broadway musical history in the form of an Asian American musical written by an Asian American, but you’ll be seeing 17, count ’em: 17, Asian Americans onstage. And you might not see that again for a while.

Mind of a Genius: The Best and Worst of Us

Just a quick note about our source material for our new play Big Money … This is a pretty fascinating documentary that will tell you most of what you need to know about Michael Larson factually, but we’re interested in things that go beyond the facts. We want to examine his mind.

Michael Larson represents some of the best and worst aspects of the American entrepreneurial spirit. He’s inventive, persistent and focused, but also greedy and determined to the point of delusion. I’m really interested in exploring our capacity to be both hero and villain, and how those roles are so rarely easy to separate from one another. We all want to be winners but if we are to win, others must lose.

Our biggest challenge in creating this show is the character of Michael Larson himself. It would be very easy to make him some sort of comically deplorable character, so we’re working together to find his humanity and make him widely relate-able. We don’t have to like Michael, but we must understand him and his decisions. I want the audience to see this show and recognize aspects of themselves: a desire to win, cleverness, rule-bending, etc; and then see what happens when those impulses and traits are allowed to go unchecked.

We knew this show would have relevance to us today, but the more we dig, the more relevant it becomes.

Happy Mu Year!

 

The Chinese character 'xi,' meaning happy or joy Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio

The Chinese character ‘xi,’ meaning happy or joy
Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt

 

Theater Mu was founded in 1992, added Mu Daiko in 1997, then renamed itself Mu Performing Arts in 2001 to better reflect its taiko and theater programs. In spring 2017, Mu Daiko will spin off as a separate nonprofit entity to continue its work, still carrying its Mu indicia.

But what exactly does the term ‘Mu’ mean? According to Mu Performing Arts, “‘Mu’ (pronounced MOO) is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life.”

In 2017, Mu Performing Arts will be 25 years old! This January and February, Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts partner to co-produce the musical Flower Drum Song in celebration of this happy occasion.

Most appropriately, an ancient form for the Chinese character ‘xi,’ which means happy or joy, pictorially shows a flower-like hand holding a stick and a drum to make music and a mouth singing.

 

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric 'Pogi' Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated Photography by T. T. Cheng

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric ‘Pogi’ Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated
Photography by T. T. Cheng

 

 Flower Drum Song – Park Square Proscenium Stage – January 20 to February 19

 

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Note: Minneapolis brush painter and teacher Bob Schmitt is professionally trained in traditional Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy by master painters Hong Shang from Shanghai as well as Lok Tok and Yitong Lok of Toronto, Canada. Learn more about him at www.shopatlaughingwatersstudio.com.

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Jamie Kranz

As we head into a new year, new productions are percolating at Park Square. The first one out of the gate is Flower Drum Song, a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. Weaving together a story about love, music and one’s heritage, this classical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical  promises to be something special. While the actors on stage number 17, the stage management team is significantly smaller. Leading the charge is Jamie Kranz, stage manager of Flower Drum Song.  Kranz’s beginning into stage management began almost accidentally. While enjoying some java at the campus coffee shop, she happened to see a notice advertising the need for an assistant stage manager. Kranz having had no idea what such a position meant, but the play “looked fun… and I was looking for an activity that had nothing to do with my major,” she said.

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Jaimie Kranz and House Manager Adrian Larkin look at the seating chart as they prepare for a large student matinee audience to A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Ting Ting Cheng.

That drama unfolded at Wartburg College where Kranz completed her undergraduate education. Nestled in Waverly, Iowa the college isn’t too far from her hometown in Mason City. After her education in Iowa, it was off to New York City where a Master of Fine Arts in Stage Management awaited her at Columbia University. The next stop down the road was Saint Paul where Kranz began her work with Park Square in 2006’s Anna in the Tropics as the play’s assistant stage manager, and guess who brought her on board? The same stage manager who had given her that first job back at Wartburg! Naturally, a stage manager such as Kranz is in high demand and she does plenty of work elsewhere around town. Companies like Mixed Blood, the Playwrights’ Center and the Children’s Theatre Company. In fact, she will be traveling with CTC’s show Seedfolks to Seattle this March and April! Then she’ll return and get started on Might as Well Be Dead at Park Square. With all of this work, what could Kranz possibly do to relax? She says, “In my spare time, I like to run and do yoga and occasionally indulge in the chocolate fudge cake from Café Latte. I’m currently in training to run the Disney Princess Glass Slipper Challenge in Disney World this February. It’s a race weekend that consists of a 10K (6.2 miles) run on a Saturday and a half marathon (13.1 miles) on the following Sunday.” Well, good luck and treat yourself to some cake when you’re finished! banner-flowerdrumsong-960x480-11-14 As for you all, be sure to catch Flower Drum Song on the proscenium stage between January 20 – February 19. Then when you see Kranz hard at work, be sure to give her a big “thank you” or if you happen to have some chocolate cake, I’m sure she would appreciate that too.

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