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Posts Tagged Hansol Jung

Terri Ristow, The Kid Who Re-Purposed Throwaways

As the Properties Designer for Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, Terri Ristow is the extremely organized and detail-oriented person who makes sure that the production has all its props. Flower petals? Check! Suitcase? Check! Those are only two of the items mentioned on the first page of an 81-page script. 

Here is Terri herself to give us an insider’s view on what she did for Cardboard Piano:

1.  Can you describe the process that you went through in your work for Cardboard Piano?   

I start my design process by reading the script and making notes of any props that are mentioned or that I think the actors will need. My next step is to research the time and place of the story. For Cardboard Piano, I explored many aspects of Uganda. I researched the wildflowers of Africa and used this knowledge as inspiration for the church flower arrangements. I read through the war history of Uganda to understand what type of handguns and other weapons were readily available in 1999. As an overall theme, the first part of the play features cheap, brightly colored plastic-ware that is prevalent in many impoverished countries. For the second part of the story, I brought in items that I hoped would convey a richer sense of African heritage and village artistic pride.

2. The cardboard piano is an important symbol in the play. What went into the design of it?

Ah, the piano. The piano was one of the last props I made for this show, for a good reason. The designer in me couldn’t make the piano; the piano is made by a character in the story. Did the character know the dimensions of a real piano, or how many keys are on the keyboard? We really don’t know. In this story, the piano was created in one thoughtful and sleepless evening.  It was fitting that I did the same thing for the prop.  Come to the show and see the results!

Props for Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

3.  How did you become a props designer? What was your journey?

I always loved painting and drawing, but a career in art was not encouraged or supported in my family in those days. So I went to college for a science degree and worked in a chemistry lab for many years until my job was eliminated during the recession. With jobs scarce and time on my hands, I had time to revisit my love of art and writing. I took a community education class in acting with the idea of learning how to write character dialog. There I met a wonderfully supportive group of theater fans and a friend who hired me as her props person. It was a wonderful match, a way for me to combine my lifelong love of art, history, collecting junk and gluing stuff together. I have since returned to science jobs, but I can’t even imagine giving up my props designer work. I was always the kid who collected throwaway items and re-purposed them into toys, art and things to sell. Who knew this would become my job later in life?

See more of Terri’s work here

Tickets and information here

Imagine the World with Sarah Brandner

All the action in Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano take place at a church in a township of northern Uganda on New Year’s Eve 1999, then again inside the same church on the day of New Year’s Eve 2014. It was Scenic Designer Sarah Brandner’s job to convert the Boss Thrust Stage into this church within the two distinct time periods but without doing two completely separate designs. How would the world of the play look for the actors who must inhabit it and for the audience who must get immersed into it? To determine this required much research, collaboration and creativity.

“When I first get asked to design a show,” Sarah explained, “I read the script and do some preliminary research on such things as the time period and location, but not necessarily on past productions of the same play. Then I have a conversation with the director (Signe V. Harriday for Cardboard Piano) before going deeper. I want to facilitate the director’s vision, plus our conversation also leads to more ideas for exploration. I go off on my own again to let ideas percolate and do more research before putting things together.”

Set model of church in Part 1 by Sarah Brandner

For Cardboard Piano, a big challenge was the low ceiling of the Boss Stage, especially with a key scene in Part I occurring on the church’s rooftop. Sarah, Signe and the other members of the creative team bounced around many ideas on how to solve that problem, always keeping in mind: What’s needed to tell the story? What’s the best way to serve this production in this particular space? Finally figuring out the answer made it possible for Sarah to forge ahead with the rest of her design.

In 1999, the church in the play is still in its humble beginnings; in 2014, it’s a permanent structure. Sarah discovered that many missionary churches in Africa began as “pop up churches.” They’d put up something for shelter, such as tents, and people would bring in blankets, crates or whatever was at hand to create as inviting place of worship as possible. Sarah’s design shows the church as an unfinished structure, definitely still a work in progress.

Adelin Phelps (Chris) and Michael Jemison (Pika) in Part I of Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

In 2014, the church is now a finished building, so the set shows more fully realized architectural elements, such as a stained glass window, pews, an altar and some brick walls. But for creative and practical reasons, Sarah did not need to design a completely new set to switch out for Part II.

“I like to involve the audience so I often provide the essence of an idea to allow them to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks,” said Sarah. “This is a surreal, dreamlike piece so apropos for the audience to use their imagination and become a part of the story.”

Also be sure to look out for symbolic motifs, such as the flowers, in the set design for Part I that simply get repeated in a grander way in Part II. They either mirror something similar or reflect a difference between the two parts of the play.

Set model of church in Part II by Sarah Brandner

Asked why and how she’d come to her profession, Sarah told me her story:

“I have a sister who’s five years older. I looked up to her and wanted to be just like her. She did theatre in high school and attended a summer theatre program that had theatre classes–tech, acting, dance, scene work, and I’d tag along to classes like her little shadow.

When I was old enough, I went to all the summer school classes. I didn’t like the pressures in the auditioning process but just thought I had to do it. Others would be overjoyed or depressed depending on the outcome. It was not my thing.

Kiara Jackson (Ruth), Adelin Phelps (Chris) and Ansa Akyea (Paul) in Part II of Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

But I found another way into theatre by taking design and tech classes. Initially I wanted to be a lighting designer. As an undergrad, I was thinking of doing that; but my advisor also pushed me to try scenic design. I ended up falling in love with it as well. Now I love to do both equally. If I ever had to choose, I’d choose both–not one over the other.”

Sarah holds both MLA and BA degrees in Theatre through Minnesota State University-Moorhead as well as a MFA in Scenic and Lighting Design from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Since her undergraduate years until just a few years ago, Sarah was a designer for MSU-Moorhead, including its summer theatre company, The Straw Hat Players.

As part of her MFA program at UMN-Twin Cities, Sarah did an internship at a museum. To this day, she continues to do exhibition and lighting design for museums in addition to her work for stage productions. For those who’d caught last year’s Penumbra at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, you’d experienced Sarah’s work.

Through the years, you may have also seen Sarah’s work at Park Square Theatre,  Mu Performing Arts, Penumbra Theatre and many other stages. In Sarah’s words, “With each new production I work on, I get the opportunity to work and know more of the amazingly talented artists around Minnesota and beyond.”

In her profession, Sarah gets to do what she loves: to inspire the imagination and create an environment to tell a story. Of Cardboard Piano, she had this to say: “I love it, and it breaks my heart. I hope that people really embrace the story.”

 

Tickets and information here

 

Piano As Metaphor

The refurbished family piano
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Over 20 years ago, an old piano was passed down to us from my husband’s maternal side of the family. We were the third generation to own it, so it was in pretty rough shape. Without the financial means nor free time to repair it, we simply moved this heavy load to serve as a handy surface for knickknacks and random paper piles from one home to the next. In many ways, the piano well-represented the fragmentation within that maternal branch of the family’s relationships at the time. Though riddled with ever-new spats, long-harbored grudges and back-turning silences, they still managed to (sometimes barely) hold together with old glue–the family blood that binds.

A scene with cast members (l to r) Ansa Akyea, Michael Jemison, Adelin Phelps and Kiara Jackson
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

When my husband, with some professional help, finally did refurbish the piano about a decade ago, the newly functional instrument became a unifying symbol within our own immediate family. Unable to continue piano lessons as a young boy with divorced parents who’d kept moving from place to place, my husband now began tinkling on the keys during those brief moments of waiting–for the tub to fill, for our young daughter to be ready for her bedtime story, for the bathroom to be free . . . . Sometimes our girl would sit next to him to see what Daddy was up to as he slowly picked up some of his former piano-playing skills. Simply watching turned into fingering the keys herself until, one day, she asked for piano lessons, which she enjoys to this day as a teen.

Piano as metaphor. I am betting that’s a more common concept than one may imagine.

Ansa Akyea as Paul
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

In fact, when speaking to Ansa Akyea about his roles as a soldier and the pastor Paul in Cardboard Piano, I noted that pianos have now figured prominently in two plays that he’s been in. In 2008, he played Boy Willie in a Penumbra production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in which the family’s upright piano, carved with ancestral portraits, loomed large as a metaphor of their history–past, present and future. In Cardboard Piano, playwright Hansol Jung introduces two accounts of a cardboard piano that are central to the themes of the play and what happens to Ansa’s characters. That the piano is made of cardboard, not wood, is significant.

Asked if he played the piano or owns a metaphorical piano, Ansa replied, “I used to play the piano but switched to the saxophone when I was 8 or 9 because I didn’t like the teacher whom I had. It’s one of my biggest regrets to have stopped. At around 10 or 11, I’d turned my attention to sports.

As for my metaphorical piano, it is my instrument–my body and my craft. I try to let chords pour through and into me. My body has a range, and I make sure to take good care of it, both physically and spiritually. I’ve matured so do things that are good for me to bring life to my instrument. Everyone has a calling, and I listen to my instrument to fulfill that passion.”

 

 

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

MICHAEL JEMISON: Living With Intention

Michael Jemison reviewing his script prior to rehearsal.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Asked by Courier-Journal reporter Elizabeth Kramer in March 2016 what had planted the seeds for writing Cardboard Piano, South Korean playwright Hansol Jung answered, “There was a lot of media noise in 2013 about northern Uganda kidnappings by Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army and about child soldiers. There also was a lot of coverage about gay marriage in the United States and Korea. Uganda also passed a bill in 2013 punishing homosexuality.” Michael Jemison’s two roles in Park Square Theater’s production of Cardboard Piano directly reflect those seeds.

In Act I, Michael plays Pika, a 13-year-old runaway child soldier in Act I; in Act II, he is Francis, a 22-year-old young man banished from his local church due to his homosexuality. Both are incredibly resilient survivors against the cruelties of an intolerant society.

As a black queer artist who also happens to be 22, Michael came on board able to relate to important aspects of his characters but also learned much during the rehearsal process.

“I’ve learned so much about trauma (through the Center for Victims of Torture),” Michael said. “Trauma is something that varies for so many people and affects people in different ways. In the play, Pika’s a young boy taken at ten years old! But trauma happens here in the US, too! There’s queer-bashing and the murder of transgender people, for instance. Or preachers feeling high and mighty and doing awful things to their congregations with their power.  All these things are not new.”

Michael Jemison as Francis.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Michael was very drawn to the dynamic aspects of his roles and how they can be played in so many different ways. He’s enjoyed the creative process of building his characters by “playing around” and “trying different things.” It’s been additionally exciting since, according to Michael, “the roles fit where I am in life.”

After much self-reflection, where Michael is in life is a place where he stays true to his own inner compass. He is mindful to be involved in doing art that reflects current times, has a lot to say and gives voice to those creating it. Being in Cardboard Piano fit all those criteria and drew him out of a long hiatus from stage performance.

“It’s been an amazing experience working with this director, cast and crew. Everyone is so passionate about this story and cares about it,” Michael said. “And I knew that Signe would be the type of director who’d let me have my say in the room. More rehearsals should be like this. A lot of actors don’t get much of a voice in the rehearsal process.”

Perhaps Michael will again be seduced to perform in another production after Cardboard Piano, but it may be hard to tear him away from what he calls his “dream project,” the podcast Challenge the Woke, “dedicated to creating space for black and queer people of color to hold important conversations as it relates to race, gender, class and sexuality.”

Michael Jemison

What had planted the seeds to produce Challenge the Woke were Michael’s “beautiful conversations” with people during his intense period of self-reflection. The idea came in 2016; but it wasn’t until 2017, after a successful crowdfunding effort and a lot of planning, that the first broadcast aired. Since then, he has interviewed social activists such as Black Lives Matter co-founder Michael McDowell; TV journalist, arts supporter and entrepreneur Robyne Robinson; and most recently, Andrea Jenkins, the first black transgender woman elected to public office in the US. Future conversations will follow with sensational artists and other awesome guests from the US and globally. Challenge the Woke has steadily blossomed under Michael’s hard work and tender care.

This young transplant from New York to the Twin Cities has every intention to continue following a personally meaningful path. In his own words, “I am here and ready to go on a journey and continue to discover!”

Listen to Challenge the Woke here.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here.

ANSA AKYEA: About Transformation and Letting Go

In Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, set in a township in Northern Uganda, the talented Ansa Akyea takes on two roles: in Part I as a soldier hunting for a runaway boy soldier; and in Part II as Paul, the pastor of the community’s church, whose past collides with his present, forcing a confrontation with his future. Particularly with the character of Paul, this sobering yet transcendently beautiful and hopeful play brings to mind these words by the Chinese philosopher Laozi: “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

When asked what playing Paul was teaching him, Ansa replied, “About transformation and letting go. By the end, Paul knows that he must start over; he can’t be the same person moving forward. There’s a new journey that he has to go on.”

Tackling such hard life lessons through the play has had Ansa “excited, scared and filled with dread.” They are, in fact, the very emotions faced by actors when they decide to take on a new role and commit to mining its depths, then perform to live audiences.

Actors Michael Jemison, Kiara Jackson, Adelin Phelps (left to right) and Ansa Akyea (far right) learning from fight choreographer Annie Enneking (center)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

As for his excitement, Ansa cited several reasons to feel that way about being in Cardboard Piano:

  • Director Signe V. Harriday: “I’ve always wanted to work with her. She’s one of the smartest artists who cares about her community and using theatre to connect with community.”
  • Playwright Hansol Jung: “It’s inspiring to have a playwright in conversation about religion, love and conflict. We also need new works to better reflect our diversity. And Hansol’s material has a freshness to it; its perspective is specific, yet universal.”
  • Being part of an intimate four-member ensemble, which includes Kiara Jackson, Michael Jemison and Adelin Phelps: “Signe cast us knowing that we’ll bring our own personal history and intelligence as actors. She chose actors who live in their bodies and hearts. These are things required from actors so they can empathize and act.”

Becoming an actor is also a journey in itself. For Ansa, a Swiss born Ghanaian-American, his acting journey began in his junior year at the University of Iowa, where he would earn his B.A. degrees in French and Communications Studies. That year, he took an elective class taught by a visiting professor from Sierra Leone who wanted to cast Ansa in his play about the 1839 rebellion on the Amistad, a slave schooner. With his parents’ blessing, as long as acting didn’t interfere with his studies, Ansa took the part.

Left to right: Dialect coach Foster Johns working with actors Ansa Akyea and Michael Jemison
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Ansa’s tremendous talent on stage as an undergraduate led his university to offer him the opportunity to earn an MFA in Acting. Cast right out of graduate school, Ansa honed his craft in Chicago, working at numerous theaters starting with Steppenwolf, Black ensemble, ITC, stage left theater and many others.

Ansa ultimately moved to the Twin Cities when his spouse got a job here. He hit the ground running, immediately being hired by Mixed Blood Theater, with subsequent stints at the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre Company. Ever since, Ansa has appeared on many stages throughout the Twin Cities and been seen or heard on television, film and radio. He has also been the recipient of the 2007 City Pages Best Actor award, 2011 Minnesota Playwright Center’s McKnight Award for Acting, 2013 Minnesota Playwright Center’s Many Voices Fellowship and 2013 Ivey Award for Ensemble Acting in the Guthrie’s Clybourne Park.

About theatre, Ansa had this to say: “This is my life. I love my profession. I have an achievement mentality; I have aspirations to always learn more. I will always work.”

After Cardboard Piano, Ansa will be teaching at North High School located in North St. Paul. He will also play Daddy Onceler in the Children Theatre Company’s production of The Lorax this spring.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

Park Square Theatre and the Beauty of Trying

Park Square Theatre describes Cardboard Piano as a powerful story that “examines the cost of intolerance as well as the human capacity for love and forgiveness.” Its arrival at Park Square for its Midwest premiere (January 19 to February 18) comes at a prescient time in the Twin Cities theatre scene, as changing demographics becomes a major driver for arts organizations to reexamine how they fit their communities. It also signals Park Square’s need and willingness to strive to serve a broader audience and offer a variety of viewpoints.

Cardboard Piano at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN - 2018 - Two hands claspingHow did a play by a South Korean playwright in America that’s set in Northern Uganda land in St. Paul, Minnesota? A contingent of diehard supporters of Park Square Theatre attended its debut at the 2016 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, and unanimously chose to bring Cardboard Piano to the Twin Cities.

Playwright Hansol Jung’s explanation about her play’s title itself captures how Cardboard Piano made its way to Park Square Theatre. According to Jung, “The title comes from a story told in the play. But it comes from a deeper idea of just the beauty of trying. When we do that we are usually wanting something in life that’s real and beautiful.” (Courier-Journal, March 18, 2016)

Artistic Director Richard Cook

Like the church that is the main setting for Cardboard Piano, Park Square Theatre was founded by white male visionaries to fulfill its mission “to enrich our community by producing and presenting exceptional live theatre that touches the heart, engages the mind, and delights the spirit.” Begun in 1975 at the Park Square Court Building in Lowertown and moving in 1997 to its present locale at the Historic Hamm Building in downtown Saint Paul, Park Square Theatre has traditionally served a predominantly white audience. Within the past decade, Artistic Director Richard Cook noticed the steadily growing diversity in Park Square’s  student audiences and understood its ramifications for the relevancy and viability of the organization into the future.

While student audiences at Park Square Theatre have grown in diversity, general audiences have not yet kept pace. But Park Square continues its commitment to broaden the scope of its repertoire of stories being told on stage with such offerings as Cardboard Piano, as well as to attract more POC artists into its fold to teach, advise and practice their art.

Jamil Jude

Key to accelerating this effort was Jamil Jude, a social justice-based artist who had moved to the Twin Cities in 2011 and is presently the Associate Artistic Director of True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia. From December 2015 to June 2017, with funding from a grant, Jude served as Park Square Theatre’s first Artistic Programming Associate, generously sharing his wide network of POC artists to bring fresh talent and ideas to the theatre. Amongst the artists whom Jude had brought to Cook’s attention was Signe V. Harriday, an artist based in Minnesota and New York, who was asked to direct last season’s production of The House on Mango Street and returns to direct Cardboard Piano.

Signe V. Harriday

“The play, at its core, is asking questions about big ideas,” said Harriday of Cardboard Piano. “My work is to create the experience and the audience’s to digest it in whatever way they choose.  But the danger with this play is that it may be easy for audiences to say ‘This is a Uganda issue. We don’t behave that way here.’ The issues raised in this beautiful piece, though, can force us to face our culpability and connection.”

How the global, national, local and personal all interconnect will be further driven home through Park Square Theatre’s partnership with the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), an international nonprofit headquartered in Saint Paul, during the run of Cardboard Piano. The mutual benefit of “sharing the Square” with organizations for which the story of our plays connect with their missions originated with Jude as a creative means of community outreach.

As a community theatre with a social conscience, but staff and board members at different spectrums of cultural competency on issues of diversity, inclusion and equity, Park Square Theatre gamely paddles against strong social currents–both internal and external–with the hope of creating what will ultimately be real and beautiful.

 

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

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