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Mann, What a Life

This month will mark not only the opening of Park Square’s much anticipated, Nina Simone: Four Women, but also the looooong anticipated birthday celebration of Richard Mann, a 102 year old St. Paul resident. What do the two have in common, you ask? Maybe more than you think. We’ll get to that soon but first we’ll just start by saying that Park Square is honored to be having Mr. Mann and his family attend Nina on March 12th to celebrate his big 1-0-2.

Born in St. Paul in 1914, Mr. Mann has lived his entire life in either St. Paul or Minneapolis, with his family moving back and forth between the two cities throughout his adolescence. He was only 11 when his father died. He went to work, instilling in himself a strong sense of self-determination and activity. In the late 1940s he went into the nightclub business, opening the Treasure Inn in Roseville that became a popular spot for the black community and college students. Prince Rogers, father of… well, Prince, was one famous artist to play there. Needing to support a family of his own, however, led him to change course and in 1953, he started working at the Post Office where he stayed for 30 years.

Mr. Mann’s greatest contribution to the Twin Cities, though, would have to be his community activism. He was a Boy Scout as a kid and then grew up to be president of the Sterling Club, a charitable organization that works with other groups to provide beneficial activities and programs to the African American community. To honor his 90th birthday, the Richard Morris Mann scholarship was established to benefit graduating African American high school seniors attending college.

Even after all that, Mr. Mann continues to make a name for himself and proving his vitality by becoming a recent internet hit when a video of him shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk went viral this winter. Bound and determined to live an active lifestyle, he continues to shovel walks and loves playing golf.  Surely this must be a “key” to living such a long life. Although, I would add that having such a large family helps. When the Mann family sees Nina on the 12th, there will be no less than 16 representatives in the seats! That’s like, a whole section of the Boss Stage house! So if you can’t get a ticket you know who to thank.
Nah, I’m sure you’ll be fine, and what a performance to see if you really want one of those “special times in the theatre.” Not only will you be basking in the inspiration of Nina Simone’s music but you can look over at Richard Mann, sure to be tapping his foot and smiling, and soak up his own unbridled inspiration.

Also, go ahead and watch him shovel snow. It’s the best.

 

 

Addition by Division

One of the most difficult aspects of making new plays is the division of labor within the ensemble. Starting from nebulous ideas of characters, text, themes and sets can make it a challenge early on to determine who works on what and when. When Queens Director Theo Langason and I sat down in my living room to talk about music for our show, we scratched our heads a bit. As a company, we do all our sound and music live. We’ve been doing that for ten years. We’re fortunate to have an artist like Tim Donahue in Sandbox who creates soundscapes and scores as a part of the creation ensemble, so the music is as integral and natural for each show as can be. But what do we do when Tim isn’t available, or, more so in the case of Queens, not right for this play?

To build music from scratch with a play being built from scratch requires patience and time. Loads of it. So we needed to find a musician – a songwriter – who could rehearse with us from day one, have the patience to collaborate, embrace the unknown and have the artistic malleability to hold on tightly and let go lightly. It was a tall order. I had someone in mind, all I had to do was convince Theo this person was right for the job. It went something like this:

Theo: I know some people, they’d be hard to get.

Me: Well…you play the guitar and you can sing. And you’ll be there in the room creating from day one…

Theo:

I’m not gonna lie, I’m selfish about our group. Greedy even. I’ll grab on to any chance to make something with one of my friends. But now we get back to the division of labor thing — Theo is already directing this play. So we’re all going to have to share the load. It’s not the first time for us, won’t be the last. After a few weeks, he started to warm up to the idea. He sent me this:

“I was sitting in my living room, thinking about Queens; and all at once, like a punch in the gut, this song came rushing out of me. I’m really looking forward to making this show!”

 

You and me both, my friend.

 

Queens Team, Assemble!

My good friend Sam has a thing for movies where a team is assembled to perform a certain (often near-impossible) task. Oceans 11, The Warriors, The Dirty Dozen, etc. The idea being that every team member has a unique and highly specific skill we’re introduced to through foreshadowing that gets miraculously called into action just as Danny Ocean or Cleon (RIP) or Major Reisman planned. Producing a new play is like this, even if the stakes are less deadly. Still, maybe we’ll make sweet vests or something.

Once Sandbox voted to make Queens our Theatres in Residence show for Park Square in 2016, our next step was to assemble a team. Internally, we had a director (Theo Langason), a scenic designer (Derek Lee Miller), expert ensemble creators (Heather Stone, Peter Heeringa) and a project lead (yours truly). (A quick note on our nomenclature — the project lead is often the one who conceived the story, they serve as the keeper of the show’s artistic vision. The director is the one who shapes that vision into action. But these are fluid terms. Most often, the PL and director act in whatever capacity the show needs.)

We began searching for our cast of three last May; we completed our search this January. There were bumps along the way, but ultimately we have the team we were meant to have. The thing about creating from scratch is that a show, any show is inherently different from go! depending on who is on board. It’s just not possible to see a production of ours and think, Oooh, you know who would have been great in that role… because that role doesn’t exist without the person who created it. So we look for players, people who say yes, people who bring that highly specific skill that will be miraculously called into action. For Queens, we have Emily Madigan, Roland Hawkins and Neal Hazard: a dancer, an opera singer and a storyteller.

On the design side, we brought in lighting designer Heidi Eckwall, a frequent Sandbox collaborator who works seamlessly with our process. Heidi has the ability, the patience really, to know that what we have and what we need might change as the story develops. She then delivers magic.

Our costumer is fashion designer Samantha Rei Crossland. She, too, is magic. I was first introduced to Samantha’s work a few years back when I worked with the MNfashion organization. I’d try to wax poetic about her stuff, but her work speaks for her far better than I can.

http://samantharei.com/

Lasty, we brought in Jaya Robillard to be our stage manager. Like all roles within our ensemble, Sandbox stage managers are called on to help create, direct, cheerlead, argue, soothe, and wrangle. Our SMs are integral to the life of our shows, and we’re fortunate she said yes to this mess.

So imagine if you will, a golden hour sunlit St. Paul. The first jangly chords of Joe Walsh’s “In the City” play as Theo and I stride through the downtown streets toward 7th Place. One by one we’re joined by Heather, Peter, Derek, Neal, Emily, Roland, Heidi, Samantha, Jaya … we’re all wearing sweet vests.

Queens

 

Hellooo, St. Paul!

As I walked away from Park Square and the Hamm Building tonight after a box office shift, I couldn’t help but look up at the clear, crisp sky lit by both stars and city lights, and wonder about where I am in the world. Before you get all heady and introspective yourself, I just literally mean where I am. Like, my geographical presence on the planet.

Like, how did I end up in Saint Paul when I was born and bred and central Florida? I know it’s the same country, but it really is two different ways of living and I’m not complaining; in fact, I’m celebrating! Minnesota’s been very welcoming, especially all the artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with (looking at you, Park Square) and while I may have first moved to Minneapolis, I have definitely settled into the charm of the Twin.

One huge reason for that is the monthly Saint Paul Hello that’s held at the Minnesota History Center. Now for those of you who might not know, the event is a large social gathering that’s just one big welcome party with dozens of local vendors such as Park Square, Summit Brewing, the St. Paul Saints, The Current, a plethora of restaurants, artisans and so much more. In addition to all the friendly faces that greet you is all the FREE swag those faces give out!

Stickers! Pins! Candy! Tickets!  SNAPBACKS! Even custom designed eyeglass lens cleaners! What??? It’s the best, but if you’re not sold on any of that, the climax of the event is the beloved Hat Ceremony. It is at this moment where everyone who signed up for the event receives their very own faux fur-lined winter hat with the ear flaps. Saint Paul Hello oozes with kindness and generosity all because the founder just wants newcomers to love Minnesota as much as she does. 

Well, not only did I move here but I have stickers and pins to prove that I enjoy it as well. Even if you’ve lived here for years/ were born and raised eating hotdish, I would highly recommend checking out Saint Paul Hello. You’ll definitely get a spiffy new hat and probably make some new friends too; especially now that we’re right in the middle of winter, there’s nothing warmer. The next one is Tuesday, March 8. Stop by the Park Square table and say “hello.”

 

General Observations from the PST Generals!

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer at Park Square for the General Auditions. Remember, I said I’d see you there?

Well, I don’t know you. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see you! In fact, were you to introduce yourself to me now I would probably go, “Oh! It’s you! You were so nice and punctual!”

In fact, I would probably say a lot of things and to make it easier to read, I will list them in handy dandy bullet points. Therefore, allow me to ruminate on all the things that I happened to notice in my weekend at Park Square.

  • Brush up your Shakespeare! Maybe there was something in the air, or perhaps some specific auditioning, but 99.9% of the monologues I saw this weekend were from the Bard. Which is totally awesome! As an actor myself, I relished the chance to see five different Claudio’s and a handful of Ferdinand’s. Just as every actor is a unique individual, so then do they bring their own uniqueness the the same familiar words.
  • Every one who auditioned was so polite! After the weekend we got plenty of emails from the talent commending the volunteers, but truly, the credit goes to you fellow performers for making the job easy.
  • The people watching the auditions were so polite as well! And definitely patient. My favorite assignment was sitting in the room as the timer and getting to watch the directors as much as the actors. No matter if the computers were slow or the performer a little less than prepared – everyone was gracious and willing to wait.
  • There was no better time to go to the bathroom or scamper off down a hallway than the minutes before it’s your turn to audition. Without fail, I was always hunting down a stray actor.
  • Going back to my intro, I commented once that getting to see my friends audition was like a “greatest hits” of the Twin Cities theatre. Of course when you’re in a show with someone you often only get to know that one side – so how delightful it is to watch them do some Shakespeare or something off the wall.

So there ya have it! After reading all that how could you not be jazzed to attend yourself? You’ve got a whole year after all, so dust off some of your favorite pieces and mark you calendars!

 

It’s a Small World

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said, “It’s a small world,” I wouldn’t need to buy a Powerball ticket. Every day it seems there is something that brings me to that observation. Whether it’s discovering that What’s-His-Name worked with your friend What’s-Her-Face three summers ago or mysteriously running into that one person at every audition. We all know it’s a small world, but I am truly amazed at what a tiny planet showbiz is.

One such instance occurred recently when Callie Schroer, an actress in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Lyric Arts just realized she was working with a director who literally changed her life. That director is Zach Curtis and the life changing moment was in 2007 when Zach played “Lennie” in Of Mice and Men at Park Square. You see, Callie had seen that very production and in her own words exclaims what a thrill the experience was for her: “… it was fantastic and one of the most meaningful shows at the time to a young kid who realized what she wanted to do with her life while viewing this show,” she said. “I felt all of the things, and knew if I could make someone feel so much emotion after a performance, that was all that I wanted to do with my life. So. I’m literally in shock that this is a thing, and that I remembered it all by seeing that one picture.”

The Seeds of Queens: Part II

Each year the members of Sandbox Theatre gather to pitch big ideas to one another. It’s part brainstorm, part carnival barking bluster. These big ideas are the early germinations of shows to come. We listen, we challenge, we invest in one another. A luxury of creating all of our work from scratch is that anything and everything subject-wise is on the table. Whatever strikes our interest, whatever one of us is currently obsessed with, we sell it and the group may buy it. Ballet and Beat poetry? A hoarder/sci-fi writer with a 15′ monster made of cardboard boxes in his living room? An 80 year-old unsolved Canadian wilderness mystery? Check, check and check. Last year one of my big ideas hit with everybody; that idea was Queens.

As noted in Part I, I’ve been interested in boxing for years and it’s not uncommon for me to spend an hour or two reading old essays and newspaper reports about Joe Louis v Max Schmeling (I & II), Floyd Patterson v Sonny Liston (I & II), or Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier (I, II & III), so when in the spring of 2013 I came across this: The 100 Greatest Fighters of All Time, I was surprised to find I wasn’t nearly as versed in boxing history as I’d thought. Not only were there 50-odd fighters I’d never known on this list, but four of the top ten were total mysteries to me. A fifth name was only recalled casually, like yeah, maybe I’ve heard of him … or was he the guy on Quincy, M.D.? I’ve never heard of 50% of the top ten fighters of all time? C’mon. But sure enough… They had names like Harry Greb and Joe Gans, and they had records that were peppered with losses and draws and something called Newspaper Decisions. A guy with a 145-10-16 record is no.8 all time and undefeated Rocky Marciano is no.65? Mike Tyson doesn’t even make the list!? Sitting at Number One is a man named Sam Langford — heralded as the best fighter never to win a title. A subjective list, yes. One man’s opinion, yes. But my interest was peaked.

I began formulating the rough edges of a story about a boxer who lived his whole life without a title shot. A man who fought for something else. But what? A hundred years ago, fights weren’t even broadcast on the radio, let alone $50M PPV events. What would make a person fight for a living if, rather than the promise of riches and glory, the promise was … what? How far will we go to feel belonging, to feel worth, to feel understood, to feel heard?

I pitched it to the company last February. My friends and fellow Sandbox artists Theo Langason and Peter Herringa came on to help dream it all up. The company voted and the show was chosen. The I is gone. This show is now a We. We settled on a world, a framework, a few characters and a title. The rest of Queens will be built from the ground up by our ensemble, featuring three cast members, three ensemble creators, three designers and a creative leadership team. We’re 120 days from opening night and we have no script. This is where the real fun begins.

 

Welcome to the Blog!

Welcome to the newly revived Park Square Theatre blog! We’ve gathered a great team of bloggers, including our new Artistic Programming Associate Jamil Jude, actor/social media maven Vincent Hannam, and Matthew Glover, Sandbox Theatre whiz.

Revival is in the air –what’s old is new served up fresh with an unexpected twist. On the Boss Stage this month, we are proud to host Theatre Pro Rata’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane directed by Carin Bratlie Wethern. (Did you know she stage managed the Eye of the Storm production of this show? It’s a script that sticks with you.)

We’re also terribly excited to have the ever-inventive Joel Sass back on the Proscenium stage for another fresh look at the original social justice firebrand, Charles Dickens. Joel’s adaptation of Great Expectations has its world premiere this month.

The New Year always starts with a toast, and in the fine tradition of John Middleton, I have one to recommend: the Bergamot Blazer, a reviving hot toddy that keep even a Wild ticket scalper warm in this weather. With its mid-nineteenth century roots, it harkens back to Dickens’ era, while capitalizing on the current madness for metal drinking cups and bourbon. “The Blazer is a simple drink which just happens to entail rolling flaming whiskey back and forth between two metal mugs…This variation comes from Seattle bartender Andrew Bohrer, who added earl grey tea and elderflower liqueur to the mix (Punchdrink.com).” Of course, the addition of Elderflower and Earl Grey just make it an even more perfect fit for Dickens.

If you attempt this at home, you’ll have to work on your technique to make sure you don’t wind up like Miss Havisham. Please write us if you pull this off (and post your photos!). If you do, you’ll know what it feels like to be in this production with its sharp lines, musical notes, sound effects and simultaneous actions hurled back and forth in a successful blend of memory play, mystery and aching love story. Who among us does not aspire to greatness with each New Year?

Now, I can’t give away trade secrets, but Park Square’s new season to be announced next month includes the return of the elegant and affable Mr. Sass, this time directing on the Boss stage. A world premiere mystery, a major musical co-production, the return of Girl Friday Productions, along with our other Theatres in the Residence, Sandbox Theatre and Theatre Pro Rata, and at least five regional premieres mean you’ll want to stay tuned to this channel.

The Seeds of Queens: Part I

I was five years-old when Muhammad Ali took on Leon Spinks in defense of his Heavyweight title. I remember racing home from a classmate’s birthday party to watch the fight with my dad. Ali, The Greatest, lost. I cried a lot.

A few years later I was squirreled away in my parents’ bedroom, tuned into a 9″ black & white Panasonic television to watch Larry Holmes take on Gerry Cooney in Las Vegas. I kept score. Holmes won. I cheered a lot.

As a kid, boxing was a big deal to me. It wasn’t until I was much older, long after my interest waned, that I realized why; boxing mean time spent with my father. I won the parent lottery with my folks, no question, but dad and me didn’t share a lot in common. I liked basketball, he liked cars. I liked Public Enemy, he liked Marty Robbins. But we both liked boxing. So for a while in the mid-’80s, big matches became our shared ritual. We watched Marvin Hagler, James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Mark Breland, Thomas Hearns. We watched as 19 year-old Mike Tyson went from Kid Dynamite to Heavyweight Champ. I have a crystal clear memory from a 1986 match between Tyson and Marvis Frazier (son of the great Joe Frazier). The phone rang a few moments before the opening bell. Dad got up to answer and rushed through a quick chat with his brother Richard. I could hear the urgency in his voice. Then this happened:

Within the span of a 30-second phone call, Frazier was down, I was euphoric, and dad was incredulous.

The sport of boxing took a big leap in the late ’80s — from network TV to cable to Pay-Per-View. My dad’s job took a big leap from local operations to travelling 200 days of the year. We spent less time together — me, my dad and boxing — and eventually our shared ritual faded into memory.

I stopped following boxing around the same time I began to feel mortal. When you’re a kid, you lose great-grandparents, great-uncles — when you’re an adult, you begin to lose friends, friend’s children. Your eyes are opened to the realities of life, of violence. So my interest now is a nostalgic one; one of popcorn and Pepsi, and my dad fumbling with the antenna on a 19″ console color TV.

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