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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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Michael Ooms on Playing Macbeth

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At the beginning of Park Square Theatre’s season, Michael Ooms graced our Proscenium Stage in a comedic role in The Liar. Now he takes on a much more somber turn as the title character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth on our intimate Andy Boss Thrust Stage. The play runs from March 17 to April 9, often performed both day and night to accommodate general audiences as well as school groups, setting a grueling schedule for all involved. Michael aptly deems it an “endurance test.”

But challenge is exactly what actors relish, and Michael will certainly have his hands full of that as he grapples with his character’s complexities. How will he bring out Macbeth’s humanity, even as he portrays a power-hungry murderer? How will he prevent the audience from automatically hating him? How will he build empathy for his character?

“He’s more everyman than he’s perceived,” Michael says of Macbeth. “He did one terrible thing. Then he just had to keep going in order to survive.”

We call that “digging yourself in deeper”–making human choices that force a chain reaction of further hard choices. In Macbeth’s case, the choices just happen to escalate in a horrific direction.

What’s fun about playing Macbeth for Michael, though, is the opportunity to go through several personality changes as his character morphs from being an amicable, likable individual to a fearful, raging one as he becomes unhinged by his deeds. This role requires an actor to display a wide range of emotions.

Michael is certainly ready to test his mettle. He has ample experience in lead and supporting classical roles, including stints with the Classical Actors Ensemble, a Twin Cities repertoire company with a focus on keeping the rich plays of the English Renaissance relevant and alive. Not only has he played Macduff in a CAE staging of Macbeth, but he has also already played Macbeth himself in 2011 with Nightpath Theatre. So Michael will come to Park Square’s production “hitting the ground running,” not only in terms of memorizing his lines but also having insights to perhaps make different acting choices than before. In collaboration with Director Jef Hall-Flavin and the cast, Michael is excited to “see what he can bring to the table to ultimately work together to form a unified vision.”

Performing Macbeth for students is also something that Michael relishes because “unlike adults, they tend to come without preconceptions so their reactions are great barometers as to whether what you’re doing work.”

“The post-show discussions are especially eye-opening,” Michael continued. “They will interpret things in their own way, depending on where they are in life, and perhaps shine a light on a different perspective. I learn a lot from the kids, such as how well we’re telling the story. They are great mirrors reflecting back to us what we’re doing.”

Despite the rigor of his role, Michael knows that playing Macbeth is going to be a blast. He is unfazed by what is known as the “Macbeth curse,” which we shall discuss in a future blog post.

Michael Ooms with Vanessa Wasche in a rehearsal for Macbeth (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Michael Ooms with Vanessa Wasche (Lady Macbeth) in a rehearsal for Macbeth
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What’s Missing?

In an interview with Park Square Theatre, feature writer Matt DiCintio asked Christina Ham, the playwright of Nina Simone: Four Women, “Many audience members, especially younger generations, may not be aware of the role musicians like Simone played in the Civil Rights Movement. Why do you feel it’s important that we don’t forget them?”

Regina Marie Williams as Nina Simone (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Regina Marie Williams as Nina Simone
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

As part of her reply, Christina stated, “Until 1970, Ms. Simone’s music was such a substantial part of the movement, but after this she was basically pushed into relative obscurity. Books on the Civil Rights Movement don’t even index her or discuss how critical she was to the movement.”

In conversations with audience members who had seen Nina Simone for the first time either last or this season, I often found some to have come expecting lighter fare–namely, a replica of a nightclub act of favorite standards. Instead, they were surprised by the intensity of a production that digs deep into themes of racism, colorism, feminism and activism. The play ultimately leaves a strong impression and makes a powerful impact on its audiences by transcending the standard narratives and perspectives of mainstream history to create a more nuanced and complete truth.

In her interview with DiCintio, Christina also remarked how “this play shines a light on the black women who were and were not musicians during this movement who were often marginalized and forced into the background–even though we were the backbone of the movement.”

How would we see each other differently if credit were more often given where credit was due? For instance, what if the contributions of these and other women in black history had been made prominent? How would society evolve if more points of view do not get submerged, lost, hidden or erased?

This year alone, we have most starkly needed to rethink history in light of the revelation that brilliant black women working at NASA were also instrumental in launching astronaut John Glenn into space. The old narrative of the Space Race may have stayed intact if not for authors Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote Hidden Figures, and Duchess Harris and Sue Bradford Edwards, who wrote Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA.

Revealing obscured or missing history has the power to create change. It changes how we see each other and how we see ourselves. It can prevent entrenchment in singular points of view and narrow ways of thinking or even cause a change of heart.

One thing is for certain. After seeing Nina Simone, you won’t come out thinking about the Civil Rights Movement in quite the same way as before.

 

Nina Simone: Four Women on the Boss Thrust Stage until March 5

 

“Four Women” by Nina Simone

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Written by Nina Simone, “Four Women” was released in 1966 on her album Wild is the Wind. The song has four verses to describe four African American women with different backgrounds and personalities.

In the play Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham, which had its world premiere at Park Square Theatre last season to sold out crowds, the four women are played by Aimee K. Bryant as Sarah, Jamila Anderson as Saffronia, Traci Allen Shannon as Sweet Thing and Regina Williams as Nina Simone/Peaches. Don’t miss their powerful performance of “Four Women” and other Simone classics!  Don’t miss it this year, The run has just been extended through Sunday, March 5!

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES

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Back by popular demand, with added music!

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.

 

Theatre for You

Just last month, we were celebrating Thanksgiving, a special day connected to the Mayflower immigrants whose survival was aided by the native Wampanoag people.

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Now we are into December and, at Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage, we celebrate the holiday season with music composed by George Gershwin, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, who significantly influenced the American musical landscape. There’s a good reason why his tunes are included in the Great American Songbook.

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From January to February, Flower Drum Song, a collaboration between Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts, will be featured on the Proscenium Stage. Based on David Henry Hwang’s version that won a Tony Award in 2003, the musical explores Asian-American identity through the lens of the Chinese immigrant story.

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Currently, A Raisin in the Sun continues to be performed on the Boss Thrust Stage until December 22 as daytime matinees for school groups and general public. The play centers on the dreams and struggles of a family descended from African slaves–those relocated to America against their will. Its audiences have included student groups with Somali and Hmong immigrants, both here in America to escape from the ravages of war, the latter endangered in their homeland for aiding America during the Vietnam War.

At Park Square Theatre, staff and audiences are made up of descendants of the at-some-point hated Irish, Jewish, German, Japanese, Swedish, Chinese, Italian, Mexican–the list goes on–immigrants who have claimed America as their beloved home. We ARE America, gathered together to make or behold some truly great American stories unfold on our stages.

You are warmly invited to Park Square Theatre, where we create theatre for you. (yes you.) and share stories to foster discourse and better mutual understanding. Bring your curiosity, and come with open hearts.

A Fly on the Wall

As an usher for the student matinees as well as mom of a tween, it is dear to my heart that students from all backgrounds descend upon us beginning in the fall to connect through theatre. I often wonder what these young scholars take away from their experience at Park Square Theatre. My only glimpses are their reactions as they watch the play, any comments that I overhear during intermission or after the show and their questions to the cast if they stay for a post-show discussion.

Today while watching The House on Mango Street with a mainly Hmong audience of sixth, seventh and eighth graders (who came without any cellphones!), I witnessed students so engaged in the performance that when the character Darius pointed out beyond the audience to an imaginary cloud, dozens of heads turned to see for themselves. While monitoring the bathrooms at intermission for a different school audience, I once spoke to a girl who thought it was way cool to have just read the book and now see its stage interpretation. And a week ago, I sat in on a cast discussion with a Spanish class conducted en Espanol. Those not totally fluent in Spanish, including cast members, were aided by those more fluent. It was muy estupendo!

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A scene from A House on Mango Street

Photograph by Petronella J. Ytsma

Student groups are now coming to see A Raisin in the Sun on our Boss Thrust Stage. Afterwards, I wonder: What will they have to say about racism and white privilege? How did they feel about the three generations of women in the play? Will they empathize with Walter Lee? How did this play relate to or expand the world around them, both near and far? Will they go deep or barely scratch the surface on the issues? Will it simply be seen and parked or feel much too relevant to ignore?

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A scene from A Raisin in the Sun

Photograph by Connie Shaver

 I really wouldn’t know the answers unless I could be a “fly on the wall” during these young people’s bus rides back or in their classroom discussions. But my greatest hope is that the plays that they see at Park Square Theatre are seeds planted in their minds to inspire future social action and changes to better our world. Or to pursue their greatest dreams and follow their callings based on watching others on stage who do just that.

May Park Square Theatre, in essence, serve as their Muse.

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Students at Park Square Theatre for a matinee

 P.S. Any teacher wanting me to be a “fly on the wall,” just let me know! I would be thrilled to listen in.

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Don’t Miss These Upcoming Raisin in the Sun Events!!!

A Raisin in the Sun student matinees run from November 1 to December 22 (contact Megan Losure at 651.291.9196 or education@parksquaretheatre.org if you would like to watch with school groups)

A Raisin in the Sun evening and weekend performances run from October 28 to November 20

Post-show discussion with Twin Cities playwright Christina Ham and Jamice Obianyo (Director, Community Relations, Ecolab) on Wednesday, November 2

Musings with Twin Cities Theatre Bloggers on Sunday, November 6

Post-show discussion with former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton on Sunday, November 13

Theatre Fan Night Out: Four Tickets for $99 available for Thursday, November 10, 7:30 pm; Thursday, November 17, 7:30 pm; Friday, November 18, 7:30 pm; Sunday, November 20, 2 pm (use code FAN when ordering)

Neighbors

“Meet Bob and Jennifer and their new neighbors, John and Pony, two suburban couples who have even more in common than their identical homes and their shared last names. As their relationships begin to irrevocably intertwine, the Joneses must decide between their idyllic fantasies and their imperfect realities.”

 — Park Square Theatre’s description of The Realistic Joneses

 

The cast of "The Realistic Joneses" with Director Joel Sass Photograph by Connie Shaver

The cast of “The Realistic Joneses” with Director Joel Sass
Photograph by Connie Shaver

 

You don’t get to choose your neighbors.  They just arrive.

Neighbors can be challenging. There were the ones who cut us no slack during our first sleep-deprived year of parenthood, calling the inspector whenever our lawn grew even a millimeter beyond city code. And the ones who were suspected of prostitution, though finally evicted for something else. As a child, I was afraid of the ghost, dubbed The White Lady, who supposedly haunted the building under construction next door.

Neighbors can hate you, like the ones in a suburb of Los Angeles who wanted my parents, siblings and I to “go back home,” meaning not in America and certainly not next door to them.

Neighbors can be kind. They took in the apartment caretaker’s cats when she died. They came with their snow blowers to help people trying to shovel out after big storms. One saved my sisters and I when we were youngsters being chased home by two men; that neighbor was a big dog named Fido.

Neighbors can be for keeps. Our current neighbors to our right have become honorary grandparents to our child, delighting in her friends who play on their lawn and kidnap their garden gnomes and providing a safe haven of unconditional love and acceptance. These are the neighbors who took the late night call for help to rush our dying greyhound to emergency care so that one parent could stay home with our then toddler.  They are the ones who good-humoredly let us light 80 candles on the cake–which almost melted before the song finished–when we celebrated “grandpa’s” birthday on their deck. These are the neighbors with whom we have a pact: We shall never move unless you do.

In The Realistic Joneses, playing on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage through this Sunday, Oct 16, Bob and Jennifer Jones don’t get to choose their new neighbors. John and Pony just arrive.  And as neighbors do, they touch each others’ lives in the most unexpected ways.  Find out how in this honest, touching and very funny area premiere of Will Enos’ comedy-drama.

Don’t miss it and be sure to bring your neighbors along.

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