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Stacia Rice Returns

After a two-year hiatus from the Twin Cities’ stages, the inimitable Stacia Rice is back! Now through July 23, you can catch her on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage in Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight, directed by past Ivey-award winner Craig Johnson. Stacia plays Irene, the enigmatic Russian companion to the unsavory French businessman, Achille Weber, and romantic interest of American entertainer Harry Van.

“My last show was To Kill A Mockingbird at the Guthrie (in 2015),” Stacia said, while discussing her choice of Idiot’s Delight as her return vehicle. “Kirby Bennett (Girl Friday’s founder and artistic director) and I had talked about doing something together in the past, but the stars had never aligned until now. I adore Kirby as a human and a producer, and I’ve loved working with Craig before.”

In fact, Craig had been the director of the first production by Torch Theater, founded by Stacia in 2005. Housed in the Theater Garage at the heart of Uptown Minneapolis, Torch was formed as a means for Stacia to, as she put it, “work with good humans and performers” and, once she’d become a mother, engage in projects that “are worth being away from my children.” Stacia is, indeed, contemplating steps for Torch Theater to eventually return, just as she has.

Some cast members of Idiot’s Delight
(Photo by Richard Fleischman)

But at present, Stacia is focused on her new role in Idiot’s Delight. When we’d talked, she was still getting to know Irene and loving that the character is so mysterious and not strictly defined in the script. Is Irene really Russian? American? Or some other nationality? What is she hiding and why? Nothing was completely spelled out by Playwright Robert E. Sherwood, which left Stacia more creative freedom to flesh out her character.

“It’s always lovely to play a rich character as you get older yourself,” Stacia added. “Irene can sometimes be very over the top. She’s pretty colorful. It’s nice to play a really big, colorful character and find out what makes her a real person.”

Throughout her acting career in the Twin Cities, Stacia Rice has gained nothing but accolades for her powerful portrayals of women. Be sure not to miss her this summer in the Pulitzer-winning dramatic comedy, Idiot’s Delight!

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.”)

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.

 

What’s Up with Theatre Pro Rata?

Currently on Park Square’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage until June 11 is Theatre Pro Rata’s regional premiere of Up: The Man in the Flying Chair. It’s a thought-provoking comedy-drama about chasing one’s dreams, which is exactly what Carin Bratlie Wethern, founder and artistic director of Theatre Pro Rata, did when she formed the company in 2001.

Carin Bratlie Wethern, Theatre Pro Rata’s founder and artistic director

“I’d just always wanted to have a theatre company,” Carin said, so she’d simply set her mind to  making it happen.

In naming her realized dream, Carin chose Pro Rata, Latin for “in proportion,” to further define her vision. The term is most often used in a legal or financial context referring to a distribution of profits and liabilities amongst shareholders based on their portion of ownership. But regardless of size of ownership, all are bound pro rata to create the result.  For Carin, at Theatre Pro Rata “the artists succeed and fail together; we are all responsible for a project’s outcome.”

Cast members of Up: The Man in the Flying Chair
(Photo by Charles Gorrill)

Theatre Pro Rata is a very collaborative company in how it stages its plays. Final say is not automatically deferred to the artistic director; all company members are active decision makers.

But unique to Theatre Pro Rata is its even more collaborative process in curating its seasons. In keeping with their official declaration that “we want you to love the play as much as we do,” Pro Rata actually holds a free public Play Reading Series in which a different script is read each time, followed by an open discussion to gauge its merits, suitability and audience interest. Reading dates are listed at www.theatreprorata.org (note that one is on Wednesday, June 7, 7:30 pm at Park Square’s Boss Stage). The scripts under consideration are suggested by artists and audience alike, and Play Reading attendees also include a mix of the two.

“No one else in town lets audience choose its plays,” Carin said.

Up: The Man in the Flying Chair was first spotted by Carin, but it had to undergo the Pro Rata process to get chosen. Why? So you can experience “theatre where audience and artists share passion for the play”–the very mission of Theatre Pro Rata.

 

GIRL FRIDAY PRODUCTIONS: From Dream to Reality

Though a small professional theatre company, Girl Friday Productions consistently aims to do it big. Created with the “We can do it!” spirit of Kirby Bennett and Natalie Diem Lewis in 2004, Girl Friday’s mission is to stage high-quality large ensemble performances of rarely produced American classics, such as Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker on Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage in 2015. From June 29 to July 23, they return to our Boss Stage with the 1936 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Idiot’s Delight by Robert E. Sherwood.

“Girl Friday Productions is the result of intention and happy accident,” said Kirby Bennett, its artistic leader.

 

Founder & Artistic Director Kirby Bennett

After performing in several productions with the Mary Worth Theatre Company founded by Joel Sass, Kirby and Natalie were inspired to think about producing theater, both as a creative outlet and “as a way to contribute to the independent theatre scene that had been so important to us.” In February of 2004, Natalie just happened to have space reserved at the Bryant Lane Bowl so they made use of it to present the epistolary plays Love Letters by A. R. Gurney and Hate Mail by co-writers Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky. The following year, Girl Friday mounted its first fully staged production, An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf by Michael Hollinger, at the People’s Center Theater in Minneapolis’ West Bank.

Since then, Girl Friday has staged a singular major project every two years. Difficulty in finding available performance spaces, not to mention all the other rigors of planning any production, initially dictated Girl Friday’s long production cycles. This cycle inevitably became its natural rhythm and intentional choice, as the best way to maximize the company’s efforts to work with challenging texts, large and skilled ensemble casts, and distinguished directors and designers.

In 2011, Kirby was appointed Artistic Director by its Board (Natalie had since moved to Los Angeles); and in 2012, Girl Friday received 501(c) (3) non-profit status. Its shows repeatedly garner accolades from audience and critics alike:

Our Town by Thorton Wilder – Pioneer Press 2007 “Top Ten Shows” List

The Skin of Our Teeth by Thorton Wilder – MinnPost 2009 “Favorites” List

Street Scene by Elmer Rice – Star Tribune, Pioneer Press & Lavendar 2011 “Top Ten” Lists; Ivey Award for Director Craig Johnson

Camino Real by Tennessee Williams – Lavender 2013 notable performances recognition

The Matchmaker by Thorton Wilder – Cherry and Spoon 2015 Favorites

Girl Friday’s consistent excellence is no accident and, certainly, no small feat for a small, independent theatre company. Besides its vision to, as Kirby put it, “produce great plays and be able to do it freely, we also wanted to make sure that we maintain high standards.” That intentionality remains a strong pull for some of the Twin Cities’ finest theatre professionals, such as Idiot’s Delight leads Stacia Rice and John Middleton and Director Craig Johnson, to want to work with Girl Friday Productions. That reputation is also what steadily keeps audiences coming time and again.

Be sure to come to Park Square Theatre this summer to get your Girl Friday fix! Not only will it tide you over for another two years, but you also won’t want to miss what will surely top another favorites list.

Gabriel Murphy: From His Viewpoint

Gabriel Murphy has previously graced our Andy Boss Thrust Stage in Park Square Theatre’s 4000 Miles in the 2014-2105 season) and Wonderlust Productions’ Six Characters in Search of an Author (2015-2016). This season, he appears on our Proscenium Stage in Park Square’s regional premiere of Amy’s View from May 12 to June 4, playing the pivotal role of Amy’s rather narcissistic partner, Dominic, who sorely tests her lifelong belief that love conquers all.

As Dominic, Gabriel is also the match that lights the fire of conflict between the mother-daughter pair of Esme and Amy, portrayed by Linda Kelsey and Tracey Maloney, respectively. But don’t be surprised if his character also sparks heated debate amongst audience members regarding the boundaries of love.

Recently, Gabriel answered questions that I had about his character as well as himself. Here’s what he had to say:

What attracted you to the role of Dominic?

Honestly, I was initially attracted to the role of Dominic because it meant being reunited with Linda Kelsey and Director Gary Gisselman. We’d worked together on 4000 Miles, which was such a fantastic experience for me. I’m so grateful to be back in a rehearsal room with the two of them as well as with the rest of this delightful cast. In addition to that, I’m excited to be tackling such an intelligent character. Dominic has many flaws, but he is incredibly smart and ambitious. Those are fun qualities to explore.

Yours is a key “triggering” role in the play. What is/are the biggest challenge(s) in playing Dominic?

Triggering, indeed! Dominic does have a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Dominic can be arrogant and caustic, but he and Amy do share a real love so I suppose the biggest challenge in playing Dominic is making sure I don’t ignore his humor and warmth. I also find David Hare’s language inherently challenging. He is a brilliant playwright so tackling his dialogue is a delightful challenge.

How is playing Dominic changing your personal view on relationships, life, etc.?

As a young actor attempting to establish myself in the Twin Cities, I can sometimes focus very intensely on my career. Playing Dominic is an excellent reminder for me that ambition has its drawbacks. In the play, Amy’s titular view is that people should give love without any conditions or expectations so, you know, that’s not a bad thing to think about.

How did you end up being an actor?

I went to a tiny private school in Kansas with a graduating class of 22 people. My school was so small that everyone was required to participate in extracurricular activities because, otherwise, we wouldn’t have had enough people to put on plays or create sports teams. Basically, I began doing plays by force!

Anything else that you would like the readers to know about the play or yourself?

For being such a compact play, Amy’s View manages to cover a huge span of time in the lives of these characters. David Hare’s writing is incredibly funny and witty; but every day in rehearsal, the heart in the play strikes me. I’m always caught off guard by how moving the play is. Also, this is the second play I’ve done with Linda and Gary in which I spend the first moments of the show dealing with a bicycle. In reality, I’ve actually never learned how to ride a bicycle. My boyfriend is making that my project for the summer.

Gabriel Murphy (center) in rehearsal with Linda Kelsey, Tracey Maloney and Nathaniel Fuller (left to right) (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Don’t miss seeing Gabriel Murphy in Amy’s View. Then return to Park Square to catch him again this summer in Idiot’s Delight, presented by Girl Friday Productions, on our Andy Boss Thrust Stage from June 29 to July 23. 

 

Kathy Kohl: Doing What She Loves

 

Kathy Kohl (left) with stage manager Amanda Bowman (right) (photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Costume designer Kathy Kohl (left) with stage manager Amanda Bowman (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

People choose their careers for many reasons: It’s what they think that they should want to be. Their parents want them to be that. They do it for the money. They really don’t know what they want to do. They love doing it.

Fortunate are those who can ultimately create a profession from a lifelong interest. Kathy Kohl, the costume designer for THE (curious case of the) WATSON INTELLIGENCE is one of those lucky people.

“I started sewing when I was little, stitching together clothing for my cat, who was not amused!” Kathy said. “I received further training through 4-H and made much of my own wardrobe in high school. I was always interested in historical clothing via old pictures and books of art, but because I was primarily a musician–playing piano and trombone, I didn’t get into theater until I was an adult.”

Kathy created her first costumes in the mid-’70s. They were commissioned by her husband Allan, who is a children’s storyteller and needed a Robin Hood costume for his presentation of the Sherwood Forest folk. She also designed a Maid Marian one for herself.

“Just for fun, I took a pattern-drafting class around that time at the extension service where we lived in Wisconsin,” Kathy recalled. “And when the call came many years later from a community theater that needed a Victorian nightgown that couldn’t be found in commercial patterns, I was on my way.”

For many years, Kathy was not only a costumer but also an actor on the college and community level.

“But my need to see the full finished production was too strong,” Kathy admitted, “so I made the difficult choice between the two, and costumes won.”

Besides her work on Watson Intelligence, currently on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage until April 30, Kathy is also the costume designer for Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight, which will be on Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage from June 29 to July 23.

“After that I’ll be following its director, Craig Johnson, to northern Vermont for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a new theater in Greensboro, Vermont, very near where I grew up! ” Kathy said. “The venue is built like Shakespeare’s Globe, complete with a groundling area in the audience. Should be a blast!”

(NOTE: Look out for the upcoming post about Kathy’s costume designs for Watson Intelligence.)

The Shattered Mirror

Joseph Stanley, the set designer for Park Square Theatre’s production of Macbeth, first became involved in theatre, both onstage and behind the scenes, during junior high. He decided to give it a try because his older sister had so much fun performing in high school plays. Then well-timed mentors kept popping up to broaden and guide his interest, from an enthusiastic fresh-out-of-college ninth grade English & Theatre teacher who would even let him into the shop rooms to “build stuff” on snow days to a high school teacher who let him design to his heart’s content.

By college, Joseph knew that he wanted to pursue set designing. He attended Indiana University in Bloomington where, despite being an undergraduate, his professor allowed him to take graduate-level courses. He also worked in summer stock theatre, steadily making connections for more designing opportunities. Joseph, who grew up in Iowa, ultimately landed in the Twin Cities to get his MFA at the University of Minnesota.

Joseph has worked in the Twin Cities since 1993, designing for 12 to 15 shows per year. About half his projects are for theatres with their own construction crew. For clients without their own staff, he both designs and provides set construction at his own studio. Since his first professional set design in 1984, he has been the designer for at least 250 shows.

Joseph had first worked with Macbeth‘s director, Jef Hall-Flavin, in last season’s Sons of the Prophet at Park Square Theatre, and Jef wished to work with Joseph again in Macbeth. Jef brought to Joseph the concept of using a shattered mirror as the central metaphor in the set design, and Joseph ran with it.

Macbeth set construction on the Boss Thrust stage

Macbeth set construction on the Boss Thrust stage

“Jef spoke about the timeliness of Macbeth,” Joseph said, “and how holding a mirror in front of ourselves would reflect ourselves back, especially given current events.”

Joseph, a self-professed pragmatist, also saw the practicality of using mirrors to give the illusion of having more people on stage.

Macbeth has just a cast of nine people,” he pointed out. “But there are a number of times when an army must be on stage. The mirrors make it seem like more than nine.”

The mirror, too, lends itself to practical use to highlight the mystical, other-worldly moments in the play. For instance, the mirrors at center stage act like two-way mirrors for a nifty visual effect when apparitions appear.

And, of course, the shattered mirror reflects the shattered story itself as, in Joseph’s words, “Macbeth becomes a shattered man who breaks down throughout the play.”

Macbeth set design realized on stage

Macbeth set completed on stage

I asked him, too, if he and Jef were not purposely tempting Fate, given that Macbeth already has the reputation of a cursed play (see my previous blog on theatre superstitions, “‘Macbeth’ and Other Unmentionables”). After all, breaking a mirror guarantees seven years of bad luck.

Turns out that Joseph is not particularly superstitious but thinks that “one of the neat things as a scenic designer is that people see things in my designs that I don’t consciously think about.”

You will see another Joseph Stanley set design this spring on Amy’s View, which runs from May 12 to June 4, on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage. Meanwhile, don’t miss seeing Joseph’s stunning set on the Boss Thrust Stage for our World Premiere Commission of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, adapted and directed by Jef Flavin-Hall, ending on April 9.

Carry on a Coffee Sleeve Conversation

 

Ting Ting Cheng recently had an in-depth discussion with artist Dan Choma at a local coffee shop about his pen-and-ink drawing "I Prefer Rudeness Over Casual Racism" (www.danchoma.com)

Ting Ting Cheng and artist Dan Choma talked about his pen-and-ink drawing “I Prefer Rudeness Over Casual Racism” at a local coffee shop.
(Visit www.danchoma.com to view more art and music)

In October 2015, Coffee House Press (CHP), an internationally renowned independent book publisher and arts nonprofit based in Minneapolis, was awarded a St. Paul Knights Arts Challenge grant to launch its Coffee Sleeve Conversation project. By producing and distributing coffee cup sleeves featuring the words of St. Paul writers of color, CHP hopes to foster community conversations on race and the arts. While these sleeves will be distributed to several St. Paul coffee shops, Park Square Theatre is also proud to be selected to participate in the Coffee Sleeve Conversation project.

CHP has an established history of community involvement through Books in Action programming, which produced the Coffee Sleeve Conversation project. Books in Action projects came about because CHP “has long recognized that there are many possibilities for reader/writer exchange beyond (and even without) the page. . . . Our vision for the future is one where a publisher is more than a company that packages books. We strive to be a catalyst and connector–between authors and readers, ideas and resources, creativity and community, inspiration and action.” Other innovative Books in Action projects have included Ring Ring Poetry, a poetry installation featuring local poets “broadcasting” poems linked to specific Twin Cities sites; CHP in the Stacks, a library residency program placing writers, artists and readers in public and private collections/libraries to creatively engage with community members; and much more. Be sure to visit coffeehousepress.org to learn more about their publications and programs.

For the Coffee Sleeve Conversation project, poet and activist Tish Jones solicited and selected work from writers of color in St. Paul. The process included an open call for submissions, and the words of 20 writers were printed on approximately 10,000 sleeves. Park Square employee and local writer Ting Ting Cheng is very excited that an excerpt of her poem was chosen as a conversation starter. It reads “May Kuan Yin, / goddess of mercy, / protect / all who / enter here.”

On each CHP sleeve is a poem excerpt by a local writer of color. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

On each Coffee House Press sleeve is a poem excerpt by a local writer of color.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

In CHP’s words, “By focusing on local writers of color, the series will point to the depth and excellence of writing from people of color that is already available in the community, and catalyze and enlarge the conversation in diversity, media, activism, and art both locally and nationally.”

Equity, access, public engagement: these are values that CHP live by; these are values that Park Square Theatre shares. Be sure to look out for the coffee sleeves at our Proscenium and Boss stages for the rest of this season.

“Most of what people are hesitant to speak out about is an ugly truth. Art helps make it more appealing.” — Tish Jones in an interview with Intermedia Arts

 

Vanessa Wasche: “I’ve Always Wanted To Be Everything!”

Vanessa Wasche as Lady Macbeth (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Vanessa Wasche as Lady Macbeth
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Who better to play Lady Macbeth than a woman who loves acting because “I’ve always wanted to be everything”? Indeed, what Vanessa Wasche admires most about Lady Macbeth is her ambition. She gets to play a powerful woman who doesn’t shy away from what she truly wants.

However, Lady Macbeth doesn’t hesitate to cross the line of murder to attain her heart’s desire. The challenge for Vanessa, then, is “to keep her as a real human being.” Vanessa does not plan to merely portray her as a purely evil, power hungry character to hate.

“I see her as being innately good,” Vanessa said. “She is like every human who wants things out of life and does what she can to go after it.”

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How does one prepare for such an infamous role? What will it take to access and sustain such strong emotions on stage, performance after performance?

According to Vanessa, “Getting as much sleep as possible.”

So, who better to play Lady Macbeth than someone who is no-nonsense and practical to get the job done?

 

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