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Craig Johnson on Reviving a Classic

In anticipation of Idiot’s Delight, this year’s offering from Girl Friday Productions at Park Square, I wanted to get to know more about some of the creative souls behind the show. Who are they and what part do they play in bringing such a production to life?

In combing through the wildly impressive credits of actors and designers, I gravitated to the person at the helm and decided to ask him a few questions first. As the director, Craig Johnson, is no rookie when it comes to either the theatre, Park Square or Girl Friday. According to his profile on Minnesotaplaylist.com, he’s a veteran of 200 productions, including 52 at Park Square over the years. This includes multiple awards and recognitions, especially for his work with Girl Friday Productions which include Our Town (director), Street Scene (director), Camino Real (actor) and The Matchmaker (director) which was one of the first shows to grace the Andy Boss Thrust at Park Square a couple of summers ago. This year, now he is in charge of Idiot’s Delight by Robert Sherwood and offers his take on the play.

What about this play drew you to the project? What speaks to you as an artist and perhaps, a “normal” person?

Idiot’s Delight…um…delighted me on several levels when I first read it. I have a nostalgic love for these big, sleek, well-constructed, entertaining yet thoughtful, limousine-like plays that Broadway produced in its heyday between the wars. It was a time when a lot of people could afford to go to the theater regularly. Of course this was mainly people in the New York area, but it was a wide swath of the population, and the good plays usually went out on tour around the country and got picked up by resident stock companies in places like Saint Paul and Minneapolis. I like dusting off these old plays whose names and authors I recognize but have never seen or read, and hoping they still have something to say to us. And I like when one of these plays, like Idiot’s Delight, still resonates. It connects us to our shared theatrical history that broadens that stream beyond yet another revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Uncle Vanya, or The Importance of Being Earnest — just to name three plays I absolutely love!

You’re a history buff, are there parallels to our current world situation? If so, how do you highlight this in the production? (Maybe without giving too much away!)

Author Robert Sherwood wrote Idiot’s Delight in 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression, when many were becoming increasingly alarmed by the threat of European fascism in Italy and Germany. He imagines how another world war might occur–and was startlingly accurate in some ways to actual events just a few years in the future. That alone is fascinating. But the play also looks at the toxic brew of populism, nationalism, xenophobia, and militarism, and how those forces can lead a culture away from civil society toward barbarism. In that, sadly, many might see echoes of current events making headlines in the US and Europe. So the play works as a sober cautionary tale.

You’ve worked a ton with Girl Friday Productions. What keeps you coming back to GFP?

Well, I’ve known GFP artistic director Kirby Bennett for many years — she’s a friend, neighbor, and colleague. I so admire the unique niche she’s carved out in the rich theatrical ecosystem of the Twin Cities. GFP does one show every two years. They are large-scale shows that most small professional companies wouldn’t touch because of the personnel expense. But Kirby’s care and thoughtful planning is much appreciated by actors and designers. The scripts, too, carry an interesting thread — they are usually about what it means to be an American. They’re plays that still carry meaning and hope for us today, even though they cluster in that rich period of American writing from the 1920s to the 1950s. Some productions like Our Town revisit familiar texts, but others, like Camino Real and Street Scene are like Idiot’s Delight plays once heralded that we think warrant coming off the bookshelf and having another turn in the spotlight.

I should probably get your basic info: Where do you come from in life and artistically? Your college/ training, hometown, etc.

I was born and raised in Saint Paul — though because of my Dad’s job with 3M we lived overseas in Tokyo and Belgium for several years when I was growing up. I’ve been doing plays since my triumphant debut in Green Eggs and Ham in 6th grade. I went to the University of Minnesota, and after a long career doubling my theater work with my job managing the James J. Hill House for the Minnesota Historical Society, I now focus on acting, directing and teaching full time. And love every minute of it. Also I’ve done 52 shows at Park Square going back to 1979, so this is like home to me.

What do you want audiences to come away thinking and/or feeling after seeing this show?

I hope audiences appreciate the thoughtful balance of entertainment and social commentary that Sherwood offers. There are show tunes to enjoy, a rich tapestry of quirky characters to laugh at, and a poignant love story. But there are important questions to ponder: How should Americans interact with the rest of the world? What are the forces that harden us against our neighbors? What does it mean to close a border — to keep some inside and others out? How do we balance freedom and security?

There you have it, folks, I could not have said it any better myself!

Come see just what Johnson means this summer at Park Square where Girl Friday Productions will be presenting Idiot’s Delight on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage June 29 – July 23.

Putting up with the Universe

Rex Stout was among a handful of authors in the pre-World War II era to document the grimy underbelly of the American dream, and his six dozen works are cited along with Dashiell Hammett’s and Raymond Chandler’s as among the most influential of the century. The “pulp” genre had inauspicious beginnings in the nineteenth century, as writers in newly urbanized environments poured out sordid crime stories printed on cheap paper (thus the name). The form demonstrated (and exacerbated) a tenacious anxiety that cities were havens of evil filled with dens of iniquity run by vile sinners. (It would come to be known as “hardboiled,” like an egg cooked so long it’s tough on the outside and good luck getting in.)

The genre has been criticized in recent years for its celebration of half-drunk, perpetually penniless carousing bachelors. (From Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”) Such casual misogyny has given rise to queer readings – Freud would have much to say about so many men and oh so many guns. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are markedly kinder (and more sober) than Hammett’s Continental Op and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but the duo still revel in the muck of humanity. Like other gumshoes, Wolfe and Goodwin will find trouble when trouble doesn’t find them first. (It usually does.)

Perhaps the most distinctive (and parodied) aspect of hardboiled fiction is its language: euphemisms, sharp turns in logic, extended metaphors that can be sharp or languorous but always precise. From Chandler: “He snorted and hit me in the solar plexus.” From Hammett: “I haven’t laughed so much over anything since the hogs ate my kid brother.” And, of course, Nero Wolfe: “I have no talents. I have genius or nothing.” Such conflations and contradictions suggest a world collapsing, a blurring of good and evil, the rise of an anti-hero – and not a small amount of delight in the mounting rubble.

The genre’s glee with the unseemly parts of human nature – boundless greed, lust, and corruption – would be quickly tempered. The cloying normalcy of I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show was a salve after the devastation of the Depression and World War II. By the 1960s, readers had turned away from one of America’s most dominant literary genres as political turmoil demanded more urgent forms.

But sleuths are still sleuthing – and not just Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir. Robert Mosley’s Easy Rawlins and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch tangle with evil with the kind of lazy indignation that kept Philip Marlowe soaked in gin. Sue Grafton’s alphabet soup and Gillian Flynn’s recent novels have enhanced the form with women crime-solvers who’d rather be home alone, and probably in the dark. They’re all (mostly) welcome reminders that we still need unlikely heroes. Or, as Nero tells Archie in The Red Box, “I cannot remake the universe, and must therefore put up with this one.”

Might as Well Be Dead - Nero Wolfe Cover by Bill English - Viking Press

Might as Well Be Dead – A Nero Wolfe Mystery Novel. Cover Design by Bill English, Viking Press 1956.

Jamil Jude, We’ll Miss You

Jamil Jude

Park Square Theatre was blessed to have Jamil Jude join its artistic/production team in December 2015 to begin a two-year mentorship with Artistic Director Richard Cook, made possible through a prestigious Leadership U[niversity] – One-on-One Program award of a two-year grant to fund Jamil’s professional development via a mentorship. Jamil was one of only six early-career leaders from all areas of theatre throughout the nation to receive such an award.

At Park Square Theatre, Jamil was given the title of Artistic Programming Associate, and he was placed in the foreground to help the organization remain a relevant theatre in a community with a demographic that will continue to shift towards greater diversity. During his mentorship, he would move forward the theater’s vision to be “intentionally diverse” and practice “radical inclusivity” (both terms appear in Park Square’s website).

Richard Cook

It has been nearly a decade-long journey to prepare Park Square for the 21st century and beyond. This mission was initially envisioned by Richard as he witnessed the impact of live theatre on students, particularly students of color, attending its Education programs. The long journey is not surprising as institutionalized exclusionary practices are difficult to dismantle to be able to support truly inclusionary practices. An organization must have strong leadership support and clear and consistent buy-in both from within and without to be able to broaden its scope.

In his short time here, Jamil especially impacted Park Square by being a skilled connector and unifier, doing the very hard work of fostering trust amongst diverse artist communities and giving generous access to his broader network. He has also provided crucial insights and suggestions to challenge the same old approaches in the theater’s programming and audience outreach. Some changes were made in tailoring post-show discussions for diverse student audiences, making script selections and recruiting and attracting more diverse talent to be onstage, behind the scenes, and as instructors for workshops. All his actions accelerated the impact of making real, lasting changes. However, there is still quite a bit to do even as Jamil’s mentorship comes to an end after June and the Artistic Programming Associate position dissolves.

While Park Square is a top employer of local stage talent, 64 percent of whom are women and artists of color, it still has no core staff (including leadership positions) and just one board member of color. But a few years ago, it created the role of Artistic Associate for the purpose of broadening the organization’s perspectives, and recruited Aditi Kapil, Carson Kreitzer, Ricardo Vazquez and James A. Williams to serve as ongoing Artistic Associates. Park Square has also invited local theatre companies, such as Girl Friday Productions, Sandbox Theatre Company, Theatre Pro Rata and Wonderlust Productions, to become Theatres in Residence and partnered with Mu Performing Arts to produce this season’s Flower Drum Song as mutually beneficial exposure to new audiences.

Currently, Park Square is partnering with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce to create a Community Advisory Board made up of people of color to give ideas and feedback on what types of stories need to be told on stages and who to share them with–in short, to engage in honest dialogue to better understand how Park Square fits within an evolving community. On June 21 from 5-6 pm, Jamil will be a facilitator for “Cocktails and Conversation” in our Proscenium lobby for professionals of color to give such feedback.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Park Square Theatre without the transformational presence of Jamil. It’s more difficult to question and alter inherent biases and beliefs than to organically build from the ground up with that vision in mind the way that a new organization, such as Full Circle Theater Company, can do. It’s more difficult to transform an organization with individuals at different spectrums of cultural competency regarding issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. Any stall into complacency, regression into status quo or backslide into habituated ways of doing things negatively impacts the outcome. Park Square will steadily need to match good intent with continued action to move forward into its total vision.

Jamil himself will move forward to Atlanta, Georgia, where he will become True Colors Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director. At True Colors, Jamil will also get to direct a play each year and, for the first time in his career, focus his energy within one organization rather than be, as he described, “split-brained” amongst multiple organizations and freelance projects.

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

While Jamil has certainly left his mark on Park Square Theatre, what many may not know is the wider impact he has also had on the Twin Cities theatre scene since his arrival in Minnesota in 2011. From 2011 to 2014, he worked for Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis’ West Bank as its National New Play Network Producer in Residence and created and facilitated artist/educator-audience discussions as its Free Speech Program Director. Jamil made another strong impression in 2013, receiving the year-long Playwright Center’s Many Voices Mentorship to help Minnesota-based playwright of color hone one’s craft. Within a few years, Jamil had further widened his circle and influence, joining the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Theatre Alliance (2012-16), the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (both since 2014). In 2015, he had founded the New Griots Festival to promote the work of Twin Cities black artists into the future; the festival will return this year at the Guthrie from July 6 to 16. In 2016, he directed the highly relevant and critically praised inaugural productions of Underdog Theatre’s Baltimore is Burning, written by local artist Kory LaQuess Pullam, founder of Underdog Theatre, as well as local playwright Josh Wilder’s The Highwaymen at The History Theatre in St. Paul.

Park Square Theatre and the Twin Cities theatre community will dearly miss Jamil Jude. Not only could he inspire us, but more importantly, he brought people together to get things done. Jamil Jude has left things better than when he’d arrived. What more could we ask for? We are very grateful and wish him well.

—-

(Note: Be sure to also read the previous blog post, “What’s That Got to Do With Jamil Jude?”)


 

What’s That Got To Do With Jamil Jude?

Jamil Jude
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Last month, I attended a friend’s graduation at the University of Minnesota. Only two years before, I’d read her application essay explaining her motivation to pursue a Master’s in Public Affairs, despite her already heavy load of a full-time job and parenting as well as the economic and time sacrifices for the family. What drove her all boiled down to a personal value instilled in her by her father: “Always leave it better.”

Today I was involved in a brief discussion about the concept of transformational leadership with the sisters and consociates of the Order of St. Joseph of the Carondelet in St. Paul. Such leaders are change makers; they inspire, motivate and empower followers toward making lasting change through a common vision, and they do so by changing expectations, perceptions and motivations. Unlike traditional transactional leaders who are more concerned with processes and foster compliance through rewards and punishment, transformational leaders challenge the status quo to build a personally and collectively meaningful and productive environment for the common good. The transactional style is less apt to make lasting change, though effective in getting specific projects or tasks done and in dealing with crisis and emergencies

Recently I saw Full Circle Theater Company’s 365 Days/plays by Suzan-Lori Parks: A 2017 Remix. This is a company that I’ve been following since it fell under my radar last year when I saw its inaugural production, Theater: A Sacred Passage. It is a forward-looking multiracial, multicultural and multigenerational company that “artfully addresses issues of human nature and social justice for 21st century audiences.” Led by five highly experienced theatre professionals (Rick Shiomi, co-founder and former artistic director of Mu Performing Arts; Martha B. Johnson, co-founder of Mu Performing Arts; James A. Williams, co-founder of Penumbra Theatre; Lara Trujillo, seasoned vocalist, actor and music educator; and Stephanie Lein Walseth, longtime theatre scholar, artist, educator and administrator), this company does the hard work of “walking the talk” in its commitment to intentional diversity that will impact the Twin Cities theatre community of artists and audience well into the future.

What do any of these seemingly random reflections have to do with Jamil Jude, Park Square Theatre’s Artistic Programming Associate since December 2015? Well, everything.

Find out more in an upcoming post about Jamil!

The Case of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club

  1. It was a dark and stormy night

Robyn Hansen, blog writer, Park Square Theatre, Saint Paul, MNTwo men stood outside the door of the Hansen-Clarey home. The glow from the front porch light revealed one man to be rather neatly and nattily dressed; the other, a bit more bohemian and slightly disheveled. They were Michael-jon Pease and Richard Cook, the executive director and artistic director of Park Square Theatre respectively. Why had they come? What was on their minds?

They had come with a scintillating proposal for longtime Park Square supporters Robyn Hansen and John Clarey: Would they consider being the producers for a Park Square play? Would they provide the funding of a show sans the day-to-day responsibilities of production? Would they consider supporting this concept that had never before been attempted at Park Square? And, while we’re asking . . . how about if we focus on the mysteries with which Park Square traditionally closes its seasons, since John is a mystery lover?

When the door opened wide, the men stepped inside, never suspecting how their action that evening would impact Park Square Theatre for years to come.

  1. The plot thickens

John and Robyn heard the two men out. Then this socially-inclined couple suggested a counter-proposal: Let’s assemble a large group of like-minded friends to create a producers’ club.

And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club was born!

Members contribute 1,000 dollars or more per household to help underwrite new productions, new adaptations and new scripts. In return, Club members enjoy special access to behind-the-scenes events, such as production and concept meetings, rehearsals, an opening night dinner with the director (and writer for new commissions) and much more.

 

  1. Page turner

In the 2013-2014 season, the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club presented its first world premiere commission, The Red Box, adapted by playwright Joseph Goodrich from the fourth of 33 Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Rex Stout from the 1930s to 1970s. Peter Moore directed The Red Box, and actor E. J. Subkoviak perfectly embodied the role of the brilliant and eccentric armchair detective.

The Red Box proved to be a huge success, spurring the Club to offer in the following season Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, an adaption by local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher of local author Larry Millett’s novel of the same name.

Audiences were then treated to the musical mystery, Murder for Two, in the middle of the 2015-2016 season. Directed by Randy Reyes, this unique production featured just two talented actors on stage, Nic Delcambre and Andrea Wollenberg, playing all the roles.

Not only have Club productions been delightful, but Club activities connected to its shows also proved to be so informatively and socially fun that a member declared, “It’s the best 1,000 dollar donation I’ve ever made!”

 

  1. Surprise ending

This season, courtesy of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club, Park Square Theatre features a second world premiere commission of a Nero Wolfe mystery, Might As Well Be Dead, on its Proscenium Stage from June 16 to July 30. The production brings back the winning team of Goodrich-Moore-Subkoviak as playwright, director and Nero Wolfe, respectively, in what Park Square describes as a case that “draws the detective into a web of deceit and regrets.”

The plot: A wealthy St. Paul business owner wants to make amends to her son Paul, whom she’d thrown out of the family business 11 years before. But where is he? Does he even want to be found?  And could he be the same Paul who is currently on trial for murder?

Might As Well Be Dead will be another fun ride for sure! And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club lives on for another surprise ending and others yet to come.

 

——

Note: Some dramatic license was taken in the telling of this tale.

Photographs of members of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club (from top to bottom): Robyn Hansen; Wes & Dierdre Kramer (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas & Mimi Stake (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Jim Rustad & Kay Thomas (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas, Jim Rustad, Ken Lewis & Diana Lewis (photographed by Rachel Wandrei)

Meet Marketing Wizkid, Zach Anderson

A new face you might run into these days at Park Square Theatre is that of our new marketing intern, Zach Anderson! A local boy, through and through, he was born in Chanhassen and currently attends Macalester College where he is ready to graduate and throw himself into the Twin Cities theatre community. I’d say Park Square is a good place to start!

As the marketing intern, Zach’s primary duties are assisting Connie Shaver, who is the Marketing and Audience Development Director for the theatre and Rachel Wandrei, Marketing and Engagement Manager. His tasks can included anything from working on social media campaigns, to working on Park Square’s marketing archives to engaging with our audiences at local events such as the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. and Nine Nights of Music. What does he study at Macalester? Why, theatre and media, of course. With his double-majors, he is focused on performance and marketing, respectively (with some film analysis too). 

 

Zach and Rachel Wandrei sort through some of Park Square’s archives. Photo by Connie Shaver
In fact, Zach’s passions for the art form have been with him for as long as he can remember. Being from Chanhassen, he was naturally raised on shows at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres but was also exposed to the wide array of theatrics that makes Minnesota such a wonderfully creative place. He credits his parents for such an eclectic smattering of genres like burlesque, Shakespeare, drag, and even Mr. Tom Stoppard. Yes, growing up so close to the Twin Cites definitely has it’s advantages when it comes to culture, with museums and music performances a-plenty. Even more so when you are a kid and you can attend any number of children’s theater camps and participate in shows the way Zach did.

Such a rich background in the performing arts has certainly set him up for succuss in the field. Anyone who has even done one show, although for fun, will admit that it takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and dedication to pull off. Like any worthy pursuit, of course, it can be taxing on the mind and body but true to his nature, Zach knows how to roll with the punches. An ardent meditator, he started the practice when he was a mere eight years old! Zach’s whole philosophy is best explained in his own words:

Something I’ve realized in past years is emotions come after work, not before. When one truly works to their best abilities with full heart the emotions will line up as wanted. Too many times do I see people throwing themselves into solutions rather than processes, and God knows life is a process not a solution. I think that’s when work becomes duty, and when mere satisfaction becomes joy.

This joy, then, is found in the theater for Zach and is absolutely the reason he wants to create and share it with the world! He hopes that others can find the solace they seek within the act of telling a story.

Zach and Jamil Jude look at an audience engagement plan. Photo by Connie Shaver

While creating theater is definitely a full-time effort, Zach manages to blow off steam with other worthy endeavors such as playing guitar, reading, drinking coffee or attempting to write a book. He says there’s more to come on that front, but I think we can forgive him for not finishing the next Great American Novel when he’s got so many plays to do!

GIRL FRIDAY: The Name Says It All

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term “Girl Friday” was first used in 1928 to describe “a woman who does many different jobs in an office.” The definition in the Urban Dictionary is more expansive, dubbing a “Girl Friday” as a “go-to girl” or “a female who acts as a ‘jack of all trades’ and is capable of doing almost anything.”

It was hard to miss just how perfectly Girl Friday Productions fit its name as I spoke with Kirby Bennett about her 13-year-old theatre company. Both a founder and its artistic director, Kirby also manages the organizational and fundraising tasks for its shows as well as acting in each production. In 2012, with the guidance of volunteer counsel Mike Bash, she completed the arduous task of obtaining 501(c) (3) non-profit status for Girl Friday, and she continues to do whatever necessary to keep it viable, relevant, creative and fun. Kirby is, quite frankly, a Girl Friday.

“Tenacity” is a term that also comes to mind to describe Kirby. Again, that is not surprising given her choice of plays that, time and again, feature the resilience of human beings. In fact, Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight, on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Thrust Stage from June 29 to July 23, reveals that very quality of the human spirit in a play with a cast of eccentric characters stranded in a European mountaintop resort, unable to cross closed borders, at the outbreak of World War II.

In meeting Girl Friday’s vision “to seek out plays that embody great literature, humanity, relevance and stimulating theatricality,” Kirby does insist that whatever script chosen has substantive female roles.

“All of our productions have had strong roles and voices for women,” Kirby said, “and Idiot’s Delight has a great central female role, and fun and intriguing female supporting roles.”

 

Stacia Rice & John Middleton in Idiot’s Delight
(Photo by Richard Fleischman)

 

Though Kirby sets this particular criteria, Girl Friday’s play selection process is actually collaborative. According to Kirby, “There is no formal committee. I just periodically bring people together to read plays aloud. And I read on my own any title suggested to me!”

This collaborative spirit is aptly at the core of Girl Friday Productions, considering its commitment to large-scale ensemble performances.

While the term “Girl Friday” denotes a person’s awesome capabilities to do “almost anything,” it also carries an out-reaching connotation of how individuals working together can do anything.

As Kirby put it best, “The sum of the whole is greater than the individual.”

——

(Note: Be sure to read the prior blog post, “GIRL FRIDAY PRODUCTIONS: From Dream to Reality.”)

The Mighty Quinn Shadko

Those of you who regularly attend shows at Park Square Theatre might be familiar Quinn Shadko, the actor and singer, who has appeared on stage in The Snow Queen, The Diary of Anne Frank and went on as the understudy in Of Mice and Men. Where you might not know her from is the day-to-day operations of the theatre, a job she just recently took on, working in the education department. Due to those two latter credits, Shadko knows first hand the extraordinary impact that Park Square’s education series has on the students of Minnesota (and even Wisconsin and Iowa at times). Every year over 32,000 students come through the doors to see theatre and it is her job to not only manage the mind-boggling logistics, but also ensure the experience is positive, enriching and long lasting. She sums it up best by saying:

“It’s our privilege to bring to life for them what they’re reading on the page, and usually it’s an impression that lasts a lifetime. We don’t just want to create a new generation of artists or even theatre-goers, but smart, sensitive citizens who think globally and see theatre as a medium for open discussion and social change.”

These sentiments are vital, especially considering that this may be the first time a student has or will see a play. Every little detail must count! Education and entertainment must go hand-in-hand!

Quinn Shadko (left) in The Snow Queen. Photo by Petronella. 

Shadko has always been involved in theatre and is an experienced actor with local and national credits under her belt including a national tour of Clifford the Big Red Dog and (much much more locally) The Realish Housewives of Edina. Not limited to the stage, she also works a fair amount in voiceover and is currently the voice of HealthPartners on the radio.

Hailing from southwest Minneapolis, she attended Breck School where her drama director, Tom Hegg, was a force in her early development as a performer. Following high school she moved to Houston, Texas to attend Rice University and studied classical voice performance and linguistics. Not done yet, she then moved to New York where she earned a Master of Music in voice performance (with a specialty in musical theatre) from NYU.

After time away from Minnesota, however, she knew she wanted to return home and take advantage of the ability to blend artistic opportunities with such a high quality of life. Indeed, whenever Shadko finds herself not working or performing, she hits the lakes of Minneapolis and loves exploring the city. Right now you can prepare to see her in the role of “Zerlina” in Don Giovanni, produced by Skylark Opera at the Woman’s Club in Minneapolis. It’s an English-language adaptation and set in Minnesota during the Prohibition Era!

Photo by Vera Mariner.

How lucky we are at Park Square to have her manage such a special program as the education series. Of course it’s a mighty responsibility but that suits Shadko just fine. She wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

Mark Benzel: Wire Walker

 

Actor Mark Benzel

In Theatre Pro Rata’s Up: The Man in the Flying Chair, on Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage until June 11, Mark Benzel plays several characters, including Philippe Petit, the famous French high-wire artist who’d committed what became known as “the artistic crime of the century.” On the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe wire walked for 45 minutes between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. His cable stretched about a quarter mile above the ground; and he walked, danced, lay down and knelt as he made eight passes along its length.

Philippe Petit wire walking between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974.
(Photo from Business Insider)

As Philippe in Up, Mark lives in the imagination of Walter Griffin, the play’s protagonist who’d once gained fame by attaching 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair to levitate 16,000 feet, high enough to be seen by commercial airliners. Philippe appears in Walter’s fantasies to give him advice as he struggles to regain his former glory.

In the script, there’s just a casual mention in the stage directions about Philippe’s wire walking, but the company decided to literally draw out that element in keeping with the magical realism within the play, as an artistic challenge for the cast and to explore the playwright’s intent.

With past experience in physical performance, such as juggling, climbing and dropping from aerial silks and theatrical clowning, as well as personal ability to skateboard and unicycle, Mark was confidently game to learn wire walking. With initial instruction by Robert Rosen, a co-founder/artistic director of the now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune and current founder/teacher at Studio 206, Mark was ultimately able to make two to three passes on a wire two feet above the ground and ten feet long but, according to Mark, “not altogether gracefully.” More in-depth training with Jonah Finkelstein, who long studied with the famous Grand Canyon wire walker Nik Wallenda, and Laura Emiola of Xelias and support from Circus Juventas helped provide additional Philippe-like confidence.

Before wire walking himself, Mark had watched the 2008 film Man on Wire, which suspensefully recreated Philippe’s 1974 stunt by mingling both actual footage of the live event with re-enactments. Mere observation certainly gave Mark an appreciation for the incredible Philippe, but actually experiencing wire walking firsthand gave him “new eyes” to better understand the physical and psychological anguish involved to not only perform the feat, but to also be able to do it with ease and grace. The training definitely gave Mark deeper insight into his character.

Front to back: Mark Benzel as Philippe Petit and John Middleton as Walter Griffin in Up: The Man in the Flying Chair
(Photo by Charles Gorrill)

In a play that delves into the achingly human acts of wishing, hoping and yearning–in a play about contemplating those hard life choices–ultimately every cast member performs a high-wire act, metaphorically if not physically. And the audience gets to step out on that wire with them.

 

The Writer Behind Nero Wolfe

When I learned that Park Square was going to be producing Might as Well be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (June 16 – July 30), I was excited for the chance to do some sleuthing myself into the background of this character and series of stories that were published between 1934 and 1975. That’s a remarkable span of time for one detective, really only comparable to Sherlock Holmes (who appeared in novels and short stories between 1887 and 1927).

A portrait of Nero Wolfe by Kevin Gordon.

With such a rich history then, where are the countless movies and television series’ to depict Nero Wolfe? I believe it would be because the appeal of these stories are found in the pages of a book, the stage of a theatre, or even the homey atmosphere of a radio broadcast. Indeed, many of the Nero Wolfe mysteries have been adapted to those formats (and to be fair, there have been several successful incarnations for TV). Nonetheless, even with all the various media formats, Nero Wolfe is a flavor of detective fiction best-suited for the thinking man. Philip Marlowe, he is not, as he and his sidekick Archie Goodwin prefer to solve their crimes from the comforts of their New York City brownstone.

Like I stated in the beginning, the chance to dive deeper into the history of Nero Wolfe excited me, but even more so I wanted to get to know the man behind the character. Just who was the author and how might that real life have affected the fictional persona?

Writer Rex Stout (biography.com)

Well, to begin with that author is Rex Stout and he was an American born in Indiana in 1886 (what do you know, a year before Mr. Holmes debuted) and died in 1975 in Connecticut. While he was a lifelong writer, he actually took a number of years off from the profession to simply just make some money. His money-making venture was actually through an invention all of his own by which schools could keep track of money saved by students in accounts at the school. That made him enough money that he could then devote his full-time to the writing of short stories. I certainly know a few artists who wouldn’t mind that kind of income source! I can also see that Stout was definitely an intelligent man, who’s mind was mirrored in that of Wolfe’s.

Another element mirrored in the stories would be the captivating real life adventures of Rex Stout. As a young man he served as a yeoman in the Navy for two years, even serving aboard Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. I am sure that seeing the world in such a way, with so many colorful real-life characters inspired Stout in his writing of adventure, crime and fantasy stories.

All of those stories were written and serialized in pulp magazines such as All-Story Magazine (later Argosy). Between 1912 and 1918 he honed his skills for the Nero Wolfe stories to come. Then, even when they did come, he again wasn’t afraid to take time off of writing for pursue other interests – this time to write propaganda is support of the war effort of World War II.

For so many achievements, Rex Stout will always be defined by his greatest creation, Nero Wolfe. It turned out all right for him, for sure, and he is up there with Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle when it comes to the Mount Rushmore of fictional crime writers. Good of Park Square then to produce a show featuring such a legacy this summer! Might as Well be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery plays from June 16 to July 30 on the Proscenium Stage and features E.J. Subkoviak is the title role.

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