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Though She Be But Little, She is Fierce

In 2015, Kathryn Fumie had played Hamlet in Theatre Unbound’s production of Hamlet, which featured an all-women cast of eight. In contrast, Park Square’s Hamlet is a different adaptation by Joel Sass, featuring a mix-gendered cast of nine. Kathryn plays Hamlet’s trusted friend, Horatio.

“I’d just been pleased that they were thinking of gender-flipping some of the roles. I knew I had a good shot at being cast if more of the characters were female,” said Kathryn. “I can’t wait to be supportive of the role of Hamlet after having experienced the slings and arrows of previously playing him.”

With this Hamlet being set in a contemporary world of intrigue, conspiracy and surveillance, Director Joel Sass had instructed Kathryn in her audition to particularly note the state of tension and level of danger surrounding Hamlet. In such a world, the importance of words is heightened, especially as it pertains to Hamlet. So Horatio would really need to consider the wisdom of telling him about seeing the ghost of his father.

“Think about the insanity of the news! It would be dangerous if people overheard. She may be in trouble,” Kathryn pointed out.

Kathryn Fumie rehearsing as Horatio
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Considering how to play Horatio, Kathryn realized that the bond between Hamlet and Horatio “has to be really apparent and simple.” Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend, but one who understands his place in society; he’s also his only real confidante.

“When two people walk into a room, you can tell that they’re best friends. They’re comfortable with each other. Through a glance, you can tell that both are thinking the same thing at the same time,” Kathryn observed. “Hamlet will always be on the forefront of Horatio’s mind. That will inform how she moves and so on.”

“The main challenge in being in Hamlet will be the time limit,” Kathryn continued. “The play’s just over two hours long. The ferocity of the pace will affect its mood and high intensity. I’ll be juggling a lot of plates and running back and forth. It’ll be like a sporting match, fun but challenging.”

Since childhood, Kathryn has taken on the fun challenge of being an actor. She recalls how, as the youngest of three siblings, she was “so teeny” as a child but persistent in getting family members to watch her put on numerous plays by the bay window of their house.

Much later, Kathryn got her BFA in Performance through the Mason Gross School of Arts, the arts conservatory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her training was akin to being in the rigorous University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theater undergraduate program. But Kathryn chose to attend Mason Gross mainly for offering the only American theatrical program that gives students the opportunity to train for an entire year at the world-renowned Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

While reflecting on her actor’s journey, Kathryn noted, “Despite the hustle and hundreds of auditions, it never felt like work. I always felt it was leading somewhere. People see you’re in a play but don’t realize the hard work it took to get there. I’m proud of my hard work.”

As with many artists, working hard for Kathryn has also included employment in numerous types of jobs, from salon work to waiting tables. She has also taught theatre arts to children. To Kathryn, all her real-life interactions with people through work experiences are simply an extension of her actor’s training.

First rehearsal meeting for Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Being an actor definitely requires great resilience to endure the ups, downs and in-betweens along the journey. Being female requires extra grit to deal with the additional challenges flung your way. But it is in the rehearsal room where Kathryn feels especially safe to not be judged by gender.

“Women, in general, are expected to be two people at all times. When they walk into a room, they have to worry about whether they are perceived as an adult or a woman. In rehearsals, I don’t have to be one or the other. In the rehearsal room, you’re just expected to do the work well. Everyone’s simply looking for you to do the work and shine.”

The capacity to shine is limitless for this bold woman who made her own lifelong dream of becoming an actor come true. But Kathryn also sees how being an actor “comes in handy in a lot of ways” and how her skills can be applied to other expertise. Her additional interests include politics and social studies. What may that portend for her future? Who knows. But for now, she has aptly landed in the intrigue-filled world of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Directing Hamlet

Joel Sass (in second row) directs Hamlet during a rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Having adapted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square Theatre this season, Joel Sass takes further control of his vision by also directing it. But he’s no control freak. Yes, Joel has made significant changes to Hamlet. Yet this is still Shakespeare’s play, and he doesn’t lose sight of that. His directorship now lets him share the creative fun of re-imagining Hamlet with others. The result: we get to look at this well-known play from a fresh perspective.

With his director hat firmly on, Joel has held extensive discussions with his production team to conjure up the world that this Hamlet will inhabit. In his words, “The world of our Hamlet will seem modern–without being specific to any one decade or national boundary. Our Denmark is a state of mind versus an actual Scandinavian country.”

With an eye toward inclusivity to inhabit this contemporary world, Joel put together a dynamic ensemble of regional actors of mixed ages, races, genders and opinions. He also purposely shifted the gender of some traditionally male characters to female, hence shaking up conventional power dynamics.

Joel Sass and cast members Kory LaQuess Pullam and Wesley Mouri  look at Alice Fredrickson’s costume designs. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

In a note attached to the rehearsal script, Joel told the cast that they’d “explore our own reorganization of scenes and speeches in order to find a more cinematic ‘drive’ to the plot. So you will definitely find things missing, streamlined and in some cases transplanted. And I’m expecting that as we work together on it, we may find more things to lose, add or shift.” He also welcomed their “ideas about how to best make the language work.” Did all this imply that Joel would give the actors free reign to improvise?

“No,” Joel assured me. “You still need discipline in exploration, or you’ll get lost in your own improvisation.”

As the director, Joel’s responsibilities included identifying boundaries while maintaining the creative latitude for the ensemble’s exploration. For instance, in the big scene when Hamlet angrily confronts his mother Gertrude in her room, Joel had the two actors consider how they’d physically move and interact so the audience could understand how close they actually are as mother and son. Their physicality would be key to revealing a fuller backstory to their relationship that cannot otherwise be captured through the lines in the scene.

The shifts in gender, too, force the cast to examine how characters would interact in light of the changes. Polonius, the male chief advisor to the king in Shakespeare’s version, for example, is now the female Polonia in Joel’s adaptation; Bernardo, one of the first officers to have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is now Bernarda; Hamlet’s closest friend, Horatio, was also changed from male to female. What resulting tensions will charge the atmosphere of this play? What performance choices will make sense to enrich the storytelling?

While interviewing several of the actors in Park Square Theatre’s production of Hamlet, I found that, more often than not, they also shed light on the director’s role during auditions and rehearsals. Simply follow our blog to keep learning more!

FIRST-TIMER’S CAMPING STORY: Survival of the Novice

John Middleton and Carolyn Pool in a rehearsal as novice campers trying to set up a tent in Henry and Alice: Into the Wild
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

On stage now through October 22, Park Square Theatre presents the American premiere of the international hit Henry and Alice: Into the Wild on its Proscenium Stage. This hilarious comedy by Canadian playwright Michele Riml features Twin Cities actors John Middleton and Carolyn Pool as spouses Henry and Alice, two inexperienced campers who rely on a copy of Camping for Dummies to survive their ordeal.

Camping in the Great Outdoors can certainly be a terrific bonding experience amongst loved ones; but more often than not, it gives you some of the funniest memories to cherish. During the run of Henry and Alice, I’ll share those submitted to our blog.

Montana mountains from afar
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Here’s a story from a novice camper who went “into the wild” on her first try:

I’m a “city gal” who’d married a “country boy” so my first camping trip ever was to go into Montana’s Beartooth Mountains with his relatives plus one family friend, Ryan, who was the most experienced of the group. As “the expert,” Ryan freely dispensed advice on what to pack, ever cautioning against adding unnecessary weight to carry on our backs.

Being new to camping, my major concern was the lack of modern bathroom facilities; I was not looking forward to peeing in the woods. Doing it outdoors in the open was bad enough, but at least I could make sure that I wouldn’t run out of toilet paper and be reduced to using the vegetation on hand. So as we all sat around the living room, each gathering their own wads of toilet paper to pack (taking off the cardboard cylinder would reduce weight), I rolled extra for myself, which Ryan readily noticed.

“You know that you’re just adding extra weight to your pack,” he warned.

I didn’t care. I’d gladly give up an extra t-shirt or underwear to not run out of toilet paper!

Ah, nature!
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

The next day we trekked into the Beartooths, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had terrific stamina for hiking with a heavy pack and loved doing it. Ah, the fresh air and soothing sounds of nature felt great! Ryan knew the names of plants and spotted wild blueberries to pick and eat; bugs didn’t freak me out the way they would at home.

Finally, the time came when I needed to pee during a break. As an extra precaution to ensure privacy, I announced to everyone, “I’m going to find a spot over there!”

I found what seemed to be the perfect spot, set down one of the wads of toilet paper that I’d rolled under Ryan’s disapproving eyes, and went to it. My sense of relief, however, turned to horror as I watched the torrent quickly soak the paper. The spot I’d chosen was slightly angled downhill, and the wad was not set far enough to be clear of its path! Boy, was I glad that I’d packed extra toilet paper.

That evening I was to learn another new lesson when “the guys” taught me how to build a campfire. We crumpled up any wrappers, gathered dry twigs and found dry wood.

“Okay, now don’t do anything until we tell you to,” they instructed. “Go ahead and light the match.”

So I did. But then they got to talking while the match kept burning.

“Hey, guys!” I implored. “Can I light the fire?”

That immediately brought their attention back to me.

“Yes! Yes! Do it now!”

John Middleton and Carolyn Pool as Henry and Alice, start a campfire
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

I decided that next time I may not necessarily wait for exact orders before acting. But, hooray, I’d successfully started my first campfire.

Of course, I’d learned much more on the trail, from how to set up a tent to camp-meals planning (e.g., “everything soup” as the last dinner to be rid of leftovers and trail mix for the final breakfast).

The last lesson came after leaving the Beartooth Mountains. It was early evening, and we’d piled into our cars and headed to the closest restaurant for dinner. As the hostess led us to our table far to the back, it dawned on us that she was seating us as far as possible from all other diners.

A week in the wild makes you rather smelly. You just don’t notice when you’re being “one with nature.” But back in civilization, you do.

 

Joel Sass, the Adapter of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

LONGEST HAMLET: Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play, with over 4000 lines, 20 scenes and 33 characters. Normally, it would take over four hours to perform.

FASTEST HAMLET: In 2008, a 15-minute version was performed by Austin Shakespeare in Texas. That production was called The World’s Fastest Hamlet; and after the show, the four-member cast then did a two-minute Hamlet, followed by a ten-second Hamlet.

PARK SQUARE’S HAMLET: This season, Park Square Theatre unveils a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Joel Sass, who is also its director and set designer. With a performance time of two hours 20 minutes, including intermission, and a cast of nine playing multiple roles, it will be performed for general public and student audiences.

Joel Sass has done several adaptations for the stage throughout his career, including William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Pericles for the California Shakespeare Theatre as well as Pericles for the Guthrie. In 2011, he’d adapted Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist for Park Square Theatre, following up in 2016 with his adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations on our Proscenium Stage. Then he successfully pitched the idea to adapt a shorter version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square.

“I’ve gotten into the reflexive habit of exploring how to do big stories imaginatively and economically,” Joel said. “Hamlet at 4+ hours may be a great experience, but there are a lot of other ways to approach it by being more selective and creative on the story elements. I also wondered how I could manifest the world of Hamlet with less cast.”

The germ of Joel’s idea actually resulted from his conversation with former Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling who’d wanted to do Pericles but could only afford to hire nine actors. Having successfully explored that possibility for the Guthrie inspired Joel to consider a similar approach for Hamlet.

Joel Sass (second from right) in rehearsal with Hamlet cast members
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“The process of adapting an existing Shakespeare play isn’t as complex as adapting a novel into a play. I already have the dialogue, and now I must decide what comes out and what to change,” Joel explained. “Hamlet is already a play that usually gets some cutting done. The play doesn’t have a definitive version either; there are three or four official versions with variations in plot, language and order of events. I feel that gives me implicit permission to continue to experiment. I needed to decide thematically and plot-wise what I wanted to do to retell the story.”

“I made some obvious cuts. For instance, I chose to lose the geopolitical element between Denmark and Norway, which is not necessary to the heart of the story. And I contemplated this one seriously but decided to take out Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I looked at how the plot flows and felt that the qualities of their relationship with Hamlet could be reiterated in exchanges with other characters. Take the richness implied in their friendship with Hamlet; that could be applied to Horatio.”

Knowing that the play would also be performed for student matinees where the audience may be studying Shakespeare’s longer version, I wondered if Joel had taken that into consideration for his adaptation.

“The value of students seeing theatre is not predicated on exact replication. Theatre is more organic of an experience and art tool than that. Using the tool of theatre is all about how stories are adapted or readapted. What meaning can you get from reinterpreted versions?” Joel pointed out. “The students will know the play enough to know what’s missing. The adaptation will make them more attentive to the material.”

Joel Sass with Kory LaQuess Pullam, who plays Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

With a smaller cast playing fewer characters and mixed-gender casting, Joel’s version of Hamlet will also bring an additional dimension for not just student groups, but all audiences, to ponder. What does it mean, for instance, to have the traditionally male Polonius character now be the female Polonia? According to Joel, audiences will get to explore anew characters that they may have thought they knew well.

“I’ve created a very intimate, more contemporary thriller in this adaptation,” said Joel. “I’ve emphasized the psychology of the characters and intensity of their circumstances, which can be more diffused or drawn out in a longer version. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a compelling, universal story that can withstand numerous ways of distilling events and language. We should want to see different versions of Hamlet.”

The Triple Threat

Joel Sass is the adapter, director and set designer for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

From October 13 to November 11, a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be performed at Park Square Theatre. Not only has Joel Sass adapted this famous tragedy for our Proscenium stage, but he is also its director and set designer. Who exactly IS this talented dynamo who has taken on these three demanding roles for a new production?

Joel Sass has been in the Twin Cities since 1990, working hard to offer AND build up his talents to become the highly respected theatre professional that he is now. His accomplishments are too many to list so here are just some examples: designing and directing on 15 award-winning productions at the acclaimed Jungle Theatre, being resident assistant director as well as designing and performing with the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune and co-founding the award-winning Mary Worth Theatre Company. Joel has himself been a recipient of many awards, including a 2007 McKnight Theatre Artist Fellowship for sustained artistic excellence, 2006 IVEY for scenic design on Last of the Boys, 2009 IVEY for overall excellence on Mary’s Wedding and 2007 Alan Schneider Directing Award for national recognition as a freelance director from Theater Communications Group (TCG). Twin Cities theatre critics named him 2002 and 2008 Best Director and 2009 Best Scenic Designer in the Twin Cities. His theatre lab, Mary Worth, was deemed 2003 Best Independent Theatre Company, and the Jungle Theatre was named 2009 Best Large Theater under his interim leadership.

Joel remains a sought-after freelance artist; but as for most theatre professionals, Joel was not an overnight success. I asked him to reflect back on his long journey, particularly to inspire young dreamers, some of whom may be part of the student matinee audiences for Hamlet.

“I had been doing theatre for a long time without realizing it,” Joel said. “I grew up in a rural area without extracurricular activities. So I played in the woods or in the barn. What I was really doing was building stories. I was that bossy kid who organized everyone.”

Theatre was not on Joel’s mind upon entering college at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB). He planned to pursue visual arts with the possibility of becoming an art teacher. However, he found the path to be too solitary in nature. He was a collaborator at heart. That’s when theatre tugged at him, and he considered becoming an actor.

“I was one of the lucky ones. Someone told me early on (his freshman year) that I wasn’t a good enough actor,” Joel recalled. “But he recommended that I should look into design or directing.”

That was exactly what he did. And with UWGB being a smaller college, Joel described his experience as “getting to do a lot in his four years” to prepare him for the outside world. Then after college from 1990 to 1993, Joel worked for Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which he described as his “graduate school.” It was like being in a rigorous, practical mentorship.

“But the best way to find your personal artistic voice and approach–there are few invitations for anyone to do that–is to start your own company,” Joel advised. “So I spent years making my own work.” In 1994, he became co-founder and artistic director of Mary Worth Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where he directed, designed and adapted over 14 new works and devised imaginative reinterpretations of classic plays.

“I advise anyone thinking of going to graduate school to first do your own thing for at least three years to see if you can get something going. Find and develop your artistic voice and approach. Then you’ll no longer replicate your teachers. Your voice and approach mature over time, too. Continue to learn. There’s never something that you don’t know.”

NOTE: Look out for future posts regarding each of Joel Sass’ roles for Hamlet.

Free Spirit

Melanie Wehrmacher (Alice’s interloping sister, Diana) arrives on her motorcycle. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

“Diana is very unlike me,” Melanie Wehrmacher claims about her role as Alice’s free-spirited sister in Henry & Alice: Into the Wild, currently on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium stage. “For instance, stylistically I wear vintage sundresses and 1950s aprons; whereas, Diana wears leather and has tattoos. She’s also not much like characters I’ve played in the past, but I have known women like her. It’s fun to play someone who’s not like me but that I still understand.”

Melanie describes herself as more like Henry and Alice, who make life plans and compromises. In turn, what she admires most about Diana is how she goes against the grain of traditional, societal expectations.

“Diana can be frustrating and a pain in the ass, but she has not wavered in what she wants to do. She’s able to be in the moment and do what’s right for herself to be happy. She stays true to herself, willing to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it that way–the way the world wants me to be.’ Diana is honest with herself despite being judged or looked down on for her choices. I love that about her!”

Melanie Wehrmacher as Diana with Carolyn Pool and John Middleton who play Alice and Henry
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Then as our conversation progresses, an interesting thing happens: the portrait that Melanie has painted of herself makes a radical shift. First, she reveals that she has a sister who’s an accountant, while she’s been the artsy one. As Melanie puts it, their relationship is “a less extreme version of Alice and Diana.” They’d moved in together for a spell in Minneapolis when her sister had left her small-town life in Iowa and Melanie had left her big-city life in New York, growing closer in understanding and further in conflict as a result.

Other details emerge: Melanie doesn’t remember a catalyst that sparked her passion to act. She’s simply always loved dress-up and playing with paper dolls. She also loved watching musicals, old movies and reruns of I Love Lucy. Though supportive of her interests, her parents thought she’d eventually grow out of them.

At home, the young Melanie made her parents watch her put on shows and perform musical numbers. She went on to act in community theater and high school plays. After getting her BFA at Drake University and additional training at the National Theatre Institute’s O’Neill Theatre Center, Melanie then moved to New York City. Despite a side interest in costuming and an opportunity to be a wardrobe assistant for a Broadway production, she never wavered in her pursuit to become a professional actor.

Melanie has had a prolific career in New York, the Twin Cities and regional theatre as well as in film/television and commercial work. She is immersed in “museum theatre,” writing and performing for institutions such as the Science Museum of Minnesota. She’s also written and performed full-length one-woman shows and writes a lot of sketch comedy. Melanie is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

The last time we saw Melanie at Park Square Theatre was in 2015 for a dramatic role in The Language Archive. In Henry & Alice, she lets loose with her comedic chops. This woman who doesn’t see herself as much like Diana seems, to me, to have a lot of Diana-like qualities, especially the courage to follow her own heart. Whether, in the process, she’s been frustrating and a pain in the ass . . . well, maybe her sister can tell us that.

Meet Eva Gemlo!

A new face you might see around Park Square is that of Eva Gemlo! As a ticketing associate, she’s among the few and the proud to play a part in one of the most vital facets of a theatre company. The one selling you your ticket is probably going to be the first face you see that evening, after all, and Eva will definitely leave you with a bright first impression. Not only does she have plenty of theatre experience, but really loves the administrative side of things, saying,

I’ve been lucky enough to work with A Red Orchid theatre down in Chicago where I had a very similar job… it’s very easy to work a job like this if you believe in what your ‘selling’.

A joy of theatre was built up in college. Eva attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she majored in theatre with a minor in management. Going further back, the seeds of that joy can be found when she was one of thousands of local students to visit Park Square and revel in the experience of watching Of Mice and Men when she was in high school. Here she is now helping to continue that special thrill for many more students.

Eva considers herself rather fortunate to be able to blend her management and theatrical skills. A working actor, she’s been very busy performing the role of Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Zephyr Theatre while gearing up to play Ishmael in Theatre Coup D’Etat’s Moby Dick this November. When not performing, rehearsing, or working at Park Square she just likes to simply spend time with friends and family. Hey, who doesn’t? We at Park Square appreciate all her hard work and positive energy!

Business…

Pleasure! (Photos by Connie Shaver.)

 

Kit Mayer Just Wanted to Have Fun

Photo by Barbara Kelsey

All the action in Playwright Michele Riml’s Henry and Alice: Into the Wild happens on one set that is described at the very beginning of her script:

Lights up on a typical bare camping site. A picnic table, an old rim for a fire, a stump for chopping wood and some kindling are the only things on the site along with a couple of rocks and tree stumps. Overhanging the site is a large branch. 

When a set is so specifically defined, I wondered how the scenic designer approaches the project. For Park Square’s production of Henry and Alice, the set is designed by Kit Mayer.

According to Kit, in consultation with Director Mary Finnerty, he quickly established that he needed to design a highly realistic natural setting. That drove the rest of the decision-making process.

“I hadn’t done a highly realistic set with nature before, but it wasn’t that difficult to understand the space and the main elements needed to make it like a campground. Once we’d made the choice to go natural, it came down to finding what’s easily obtainable,” Kit said. “But we first had to determine where we would be and what kind of natural setting we wanted.”

Knowing that Michele Riml is a playwright from Vancouver British Columbia, an area with which Kit has familiarity, Kit pulled inspiration from that location. Doing so helped Kit to pinpoint what kind of trees to use that would be possible to acquire (making realistic fake trees would be too time-consuming and costly to do). Birch and pine trees are plentiful there so Kit selected birch.

Front view of Kit’s set model for Henry and Alice.

“We couldn’t go with pine trees. They’d dry out plus create a fire hazard,” Kit pointed out. “Birch trees–dead ones; we never chop down live trees–are easy to get. When I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska, we could go into the woods and drag them out.”

To get birch trees for Henry and Alice, Kit, who lives close to La Crosse, Wisconsin, simply kept his eyes open for dead birches in people’s yards as he varied his routes for a few weeks when driving to and from home. When he spotted dead birches, he’d knock on the homeowner’s door, offering to haul them away at no cost.

“Then I had to think about what to do with the floor. I ended up covering it with a ground cloth and throwing dirt, leaves, branches and other natural materials on it to create a sense of reality. And I just bought a fire ring and burned fires in my yard to age it and get it to look proper.”

Kit also has a background in lighting design that makes him able to keep in mind how to design a set to complement with lighting needs. He asks himself, “How would I like to see the set if I were the lighting designer? How can I help make the lighting more interesting and possibly easier?”

Finished set. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

For instance, Kit knows that having tree leaves will lend itself to patterned light to create that natural effect of sunlit leaves throwing shadows. Where he puts trees can also impact Lighting Designer Michael Kittel’s design for Henry and Alice; no trees should block key lights.

About his set design, Kit declared, “It was just fun to do.”

Having fun was also a huge factor in Kit accidentally stumbling into theatre arts. He hadn’t started college until his 20’s and did not want to end up with a desk job for work study. With his background in construction work, he was offered the chance to work in the Theatre Department, which to him “looked like the funnest place to work” so he accepted.

“I wasn’t a Theatre major,” Kit reflected, “but they sucked me in. They recommended a class to me in my first semester. Then they asked me to design a show in my second semester. I didn’t even know that such a career was possible, but I’d found my niche and enjoyed it. I got excited; and in my second year at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, I became a Theatre major. I later got my MFA in Design and Technology from the University of Minnesota.”

In his long career as a scenic designer, Kit’s work has been seen nationally from Maine to Alaska but also internationally in Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. He is a designer and founding member of the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre in Alaska and the Resident Designer for Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, Minnesota. He has designed the sets for numerous Park Square productions throughout the years; and now, through October 22, you will get to see his latest endeavor in Henry and Alice: Into the Wild on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

Introducing Theatre Ambassador Mairi Johnson

 

When Mairi Johnson found out about Park Square Theatre’s Ambassadors Program, she leapt at the chance to learn more by showing up at an Ambassadors Bring-A-Friend Day despite not knowing any Ambassadors. She subsequently became an Ambassador during her junior year in Mounds View High School and will continue in her senior year as an Ambassador2.

“I’ve been doing theatre for as long as I can remember,” Mairi told me. “I love theatre and everything about it.”

Applicants to Park Square’s Theatre Ambassadors Program do enter with great enthusiasm for theatre but are not expected to know everything about it. They’ve actually come to learn more and gain a broader perspective about theatre from professional theatre artists, by delving deeply into plays and through peer discussions.

“It was such an amazing experience of community,” Mairi said about her first year in the Ambassadors Program. “Everyone was incredibly supportive. I got to work with awesome performers and artists. I learned what they had to say and brought them into my school. This was a new experience of being able to interact with so many people I wouldn’t otherwise have interacted with, from professionals to peers. It was cool to hear different perspectives.”

Mairi has noticed that she now sees shows with a “theatre eye.” She thinks more about a play’s internal workings. She pays attention to how each song is sung. She searches for symbolism on stage and wonders about the choices made in a production. This new awareness has resulted in more nuanced conversations about productions with family and friends as well as a broadened taste in genres.

“Watching The Liar with my mom at Park Square last season, I found added layers of meaning in the use of the two-dimensional set and flat props. When I brought my friends to see Macbeth on the Boss stage, we talked about all aspects of the play in the car on our way home, like the unique take on the witches. Seeing The Realistic Joneses changed my perspective on what I’d like to see from just musicals to everything on earth. Now, I can’t wait to see Dot on the Proscenium this season.”

As an Ambassador2, Mairi spent this summer contributing to Park Square by helping with the program and assisting various departments. In doing so, Ambassador2s get insight into what it takes to keep a theatre running through their wider exposure to the organization, which includes meaningful interactions with staff who talk to them about what they do and how they got there. They also read and discussed some scripts of upcoming plays at Park Square Theatre.

“Mary Finnerty (Park Square’s Education Director) brought back some of our feedback so we were able to impact the shows,” said Mairi. “We even got to sit in on the first production meeting for Henry and Alice: Into the Wild. It was cool to see how everyone bounced ideas off of each other.”

When they apply for the program, candidates are asked “What does theatre mean to you now?” so I wondered how Mairi’s answer may have changed, having completed a full year of the ambassadorship. Here’s what she had to say:

“I knew theatre was about community, but my view of that keeps expanding. I’m able to interact and understand others in theatre better; I’m able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. For instance, at first I was focused on being frustrated by the lack of a robust theatre program at my school, but now I see how theatre has built a community in my school. I had to reflect on how everyone is having fun together and is like a support group. At Park Square, meeting all the Ambassadors and hanging out with them–like our trips to Candyland–is not something I’ll forget. They’re like my production family. I’m excited to reconnect with some of the same members as an Ambassador2 but also to meet new Ambassadors coming into this program that’s changed me.”

Not all Ambassadors ultimately pursue a career in theatre, but Mairi’s experience in the program did deepen her commitment to the field, and she will start auditioning for BFA programs at colleges this winter. She retained her resolve to become an actor but now with fuller knowledge about other possible options.

When asked what’s been most memorable about being in the Ambassadors Program so far, Mairi specifically cited her meeting with singer/actor Ann Michels to garner advice and insights during Career Day for the Ambassadors, when each get one-on-one sessions with three professionals.

Then Mairi added, “But there’s been so many OMG moments!”

Her final verdict for Most Memorable in the Park Square Theatre Ambassadors Program: “The entire thing!”

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ADDITIONAL FUN FACT: Mairi is Princess Birdie at the Minnesota Renaissance Faire, newly promoted from being a handmaiden in past years. As such, she’s a lead storyteller in the Princess Court. Drop by to listen to a story and say ,”Hi!”

NOTE: Read about the Theatre Ambassadors Program itself and another Ambassador’s experience in the past posts, “THE THEATRE AMBASSADORS PROGRAM: An Arts Leadership Program” and “Introducing Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg.”

STUDENT MATINEE FRONT OF HOUSE STAFF: the show before The Show

It was in the fall of 2014 when I sought a job that would match the year-round schedule of my daughter’s new school. I was doubtful that such a job existed when my sister spied and forwarded this job posting to me:

Open Positions – Daytime Usher: Help us to bring live theatre productions to junior and senior high school students as a daytime Usher for daytime weekday matinees at Park Square Theatre in Downtown St. Paul.

I almost didn’t apply, not wanting the hassle and expense of parking downtown. But why not just take a look? My background did include customer service and working with students. I’d even been a regular theatre-goer before motherhood and, in fact, was a Park Square subscriber for a season before giving birth.

My interview went beyond well. We were a good fit. And not only would I have the flexibility to work around my daughter’s school schedule, but it dawned on me that I could park and ride to work on the light rail. The job even came with the perk of free tickets to all the plays, reinvigorating my family’s theatre attendance.

The House on Mango Street was the first student matinee performed on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

Adding to my excitement was the prospect of being a part of Park Square’s new phase. The just completed Andy Boss Thrust Stage would open that fall, with the potential to expand their teenage audience from 25,000 to 35,000 students each year. They needed more Front of House staff to be able to service two shows running on two stages.

Our Student Matinee Front of House pre-season training introduced us to the Education Program’s “Evening of Theatre During the Day” concept for school groups. Basically, we give students the same amenities as our evening and weekend audiences but at a lower cost. The students get reserved seats, an unabridged program and the service of professional ushers–all that create a special outing to see a show. The Front of House staff set the initial tone for the “evening”; we’re part of the show before The Show. We even dress up for our roles: black pants or skirt and white top with permissible pops of color.

As an usher, I’m officially under the supervision of a house manager but, in reality, I work in partnership with her/him. The house manager and ushers also work in conjunction with the stage manager. Together, we aim for seamless service and a superior audience experience.

The ushers carry out many varied tasks. Pre-show duties include greeting buses, helping groups cross the street and into the lobby, tearing tickets, handing out playbills and directing patrons to their proper seats. During the performance, two ushers stay inside with the school groups while two ushers remain in the lobby to set up concessions. During intermission, the outside ushers sell snacks and beverages; one of the inside ushers come out to monitor the bathrooms, returning inside once intermission is over. While the play continues, the outside ushers do a post-count of concessions to check against the house manager’s money count, clean the lobby and throw out trash. An usher checks on bus arrivals and helps patrons cross to their buses post-show. All ushers pitch in to leave the theatre and lobby clean and, if necessary, set up the lobby for the nighttime performance. The house manager stays to complete reports and lock the doors.

While our Front of House duties may sound somewhat straightforward, true to the nature of live theatre, our workdays are open to unforeseen surprises. Snow may delay a group’s arrival; an actor may wake up sick, causing a scramble to bring in the understudy; once all the water in the building got shut off. Another time, Romeo accidentally slid his sword next to a student, who picked it up despite my whispered instruction to let it be. Medical emergencies arise; a section gets rowdy; a chaperone losses his temper. High drama can happen offstage, too. Front of House staff learn the art of letting go–but not letting it go to heck.

And how do we watch the same play over and over? The performance is actually different each time, depending on the synergy between the actors and audience members. As the house manager says in her/his pre-show announcement: “It’s you being here, creating and working with the actors that creates theatre.” Plus who says we’re just watching the play? We’re also watching the students react to the play. That gives us an added perspective. Students are generally less inhibited than adults to show how they feel during the play. I recommend sitting through The Diary of Anne Frank or our new adaptation of Hamlet with them to see what I mean.

If we’re lucky, a pre-show Build A Moment (a presentation by professional theatre artists to explain how a particular scene was created) or post-show discussion is scheduled for the day. Then Front of House staff can opt to come earlier or stay later to watch these fascinating events. We get to learn along with the students.

One thing that I’ve learned is that what Park Square offers through its Education Program travels well beyond our walls. We can be a student’s first exposure to professional theatre, first time to see themselves truthfully portrayed on stage or initial spark to a lifelong love of theatre. Comprised of hundreds of students from a number of schools, an audience may witness acts of racism, privilege, empathy, kindness and generosity in our theatre. All that becomes part of the learning experience that goes back with them as well. Theatre reflects humanity, both on and off the stage.

I’d say that a big responsibility of Front of House staff is to pay attention. Pay attention to what’s happening on the stage and all around us, how the program interconnects to the organization’s mission as a whole and how our role fits and matters in the bigger scheme of things. To care about doing this is the key to Front of House longevity. You need to be inspired, too.

If you would like to consider joining the Student Matinee Front of House staff for Park Square’s upcoming season, don’t hesitate to email a cover letter and resume to kunik@parksquaretheatre.org or contact PerformanceManager Jiffy Kunik at 651.767.8489 (or via email) with any questions. 

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