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Posts Tagged Big Money

Panning For Gold In The Big Money Rehearsal Room

Big Money In Rehearsal

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mind of a Genius: The Best and Worst of Us

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

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

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

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

More or Less

While walking by the corner of Thomas and Hamline Avenues in St. Paul, I looked down and discovered this poem on the sidewalk.  It fed my heart and soul all day and everyday thereafter when I have passed by it again.

Sidewalk poetry Photo by T. T. Cheng

Sidewalk poetry
Photo by T. T. Cheng

I love how art, whatever its form, can do that–connect to your very being and express your deepest yearnings. Every fiber of you responds to its pull, and your life is forever changed. You don’t even have to fully understand it. Art that has stuck with me often involved those “What the heck?” moments. My mind craves to understand and connect, deeply interacting with what’s before me.

At Park Square Theatre, I recall feeling my synapses crackle and pop the first time I experienced Sandbox Theatre’s ensemble work–namely, how the story of our world overrun by anthropomorphic newts, driving humans to extinction so intrigued me that I had to see War with the Newts more than once. Sandbox’s second production on our Boss Thrust Stage, Queens, was just as thought-provoking–this time, a work about an African-American boxer finding his place in a world ruled by Jim Crow laws. Now I can’t wait to see their world premiere of Big Money on the Boss this January. What will the story of a man who suddenly devotes his life to winning big in a game show have to do with me or with you? The only answer I know to give is to show up and open myself to the surprise of discovery.

And isn’t surprise a key element of powerful art? It wakes me up to ponder big questions–to give me “a little more eats,” something for my mind to chew over, swallow and digest so I can attempt to make meaning out of this crazy, imperfect world. Art is imperative to my survival as an empathetic human being; it pushes me to expand beyond my own little corner of the world to connect with yours–the very impetus needed to make “a little less war, a little more peace.”

As we head into another new year, consider doing your part to bring peace on Earth. Actively support the arts in any way that you can: as a creator, spectator, donor, volunteer, subscriber or promoter. We shall all be richer for it.

 

Michael Larson: The Eccentric Who Inspired Big Money

Big Money at Park Square Theatre, 2017

I first discovered Michael Larson’s story on one of those random internet listicles with a click-baity title, something like “10 Most INSANE Moments in Gameshow History!” I don’t know why I bothered to read it. I wasn’t interested in gameshows, per se; but I caught a glimpse of this disheveled little man in a bushy beard who was blowing the lid off of a gameshow that was supposed to be mostly about luck. He had figured something out that no one else had seen. He was gaming the gameshow.

I went down the Larson rabbit hole, leaving the superficial listicle and dredging up more in-depth articles on the man: how he had dedicated his life to studying Press Your Luck, breaking down every moment of every episode until he finally cracked its code. It was an unbelievable process, probably one that no other person would have even bothered with.

America has one great mythical figure lodged deep in its heart: the Rugged Individual.

America has one great mythical figure lodged deep in its heart: the Rugged Individual. We worship those lone people who buck institutions, who are faster, better, smarter than everyone else around them. We salivate over this idea that some scrappy underdog who dedicates his entire energy and mind to a project can beat The System. What is The System? Well, we’re pretty fuzzy on that, as you can guess from reading any number of things posted on your Facebook feed, but we know that it’s out there, and it’s vaguely threatening in some way. So, we’re always looking to our great hero, Rugged Individual, to swoop in and sock it in the eye.

That’s the myth, anyway. The truth, as per usual, is much more complicated. Sure, Larson beat The System on Press Your Luck, but America didn’t keep its eye on him after that moment. He went on, trying again and again to beat more systems, and that’s where the myth breaks down. He lost every cent that he had won in increasingly crazy schemes, and when those didn’t pan out, he transitioned from legally exploiting loopholes in systems to outright scamming individuals with a remarkable ease.

Unfortunately, that’s the true story of the Rugged Individual, taken to its logical extreme. With such a blind devotion to the idea that you are the smartest person in the room, it is easy to skip across moral boundaries without even noticing.

Unfortunately, that’s the true story of the Rugged Individual, taken to its logical extreme. With such a blind devotion to the idea that you are the smartest person in the room, it is easy to skip across moral boundaries without even noticing. Look at the Enron debacle, the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, the collapse of the housing market. All of these troubling stories were driven by individuals who sincerely believed that they were the smartest guys in the room and therefore had a right to skirt the rules that the rest of us follow. They became addicted to the idea of “winning” (whatever that means). Look where that got us.

Michael Larson on Press Your Luck

Michael Larson embodied that same mode of thought, and he died before he could be brought to justice for his final illegal schemes. I watched a documentary about him, where the contestants and crew from that infamous episode of Press Your Luck got together to remember him. Peter Tomarken, the host of the show, raised a toast to the deceased Larson and said, “If there’s a God up there, all I can say is, watch your pockets.” Everyone laughed. They still respected him in a weird way, even though he had ended his life literally stealing money from people.

That’s how embedded this idea is in our culture, and I think it’s at the root of most of our terrible behaviors as Americans. Every single one of us believes that we’re secretly the best and deserving of the best, damn the consequences for others!

That’s how embedded this idea is in our culture, and I think it’s at the root of most of our terrible behaviors as Americans. Every single one of us believes that we’re secretly the best and deserving of the best, damn the consequences for others! This isn’t all bad. It can lead us to all trying our hardest to make new discoveries, new creations, to be the best and brightest that we can; but the Bernie Madoffs of the world also swim in that pool, applying all their massive talent and energy to making a buck and contributing nothing else.

So, how do you explore this idea without massively depressing your audience and sending them home in fits of rage and/or desperation? Thankfully, Michael Larson was such a delightfully odd man, and gameshows are exciting. I want to bring the audience fully into the gameshow world, take them on the roller coaster of hope and anticipation, and give them a scruffy, lovable underdog to root for as he takes them, smiling, across that line. Hopefully, the audience will laugh and cheer, enjoy themselves, and then at some point down the road think to themselves, “Wait a minute! This is wrong, isn’t it?”

And maybe they’ll win a prize along the way. We do so love winning prizes.

— Derek

 

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

 

Park Square Theatre Seeks Resident Theatre Partners

Is your  theatre company interested in participating with Park Square Theatre as a member of the second generation of resident theatres?

Park Square is seeking to work with up to three groups, beginning with the 2017-2018 season.  

We need partners who:

  • Can produce one full production per year, for at least two consecutive seasons, as part of Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage subscription season
  • Have a track record of successful producing for a loyal audience
  • Have plans and ambitions for continued programming and the ability to program ahead (18-24 months out)
  • Are willing to collaborate with Park Square and other Partners to coordinate programming, scheduling and marketing

Park Square’s contribution to the partnership includes:

  • Use of the  Andy Boss Thrust Stage for tech/dress and performances
  • Ticketing, sales and house management
  • Direct marketing and promotion as part of the Theatre’s subscription series
  • Collaboration for joint/shared marketing and the potential for joint fundraising

To be considered for 2017-2018, please submit your expression of interest to Richard Cook (cook@parksquaretheatre.org/651.767.7482) no later than November 1, 2016.

 

  Big Money at Park Square Theatre, 2017             Up: The Man in the Flying Chair at Park Square Theatre, 2017

Current Resident Theatre Partners Sandbox Theatre (photo of Peter Heeringa by Matthew Glover), Theatre Pro Rata and Girl Friday Productions present Big Money, Up: The Man in the Flying Chair and Idiot’s Delight, respectively, for the Park Square Theatre 2016-2017 season

          Idiot's Delight, produced by Girl Friday Productions, at Park Square Theatre, 2017

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