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Posts Tagged John Middleton

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.”

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(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.

 

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.

Calendar Girls: Featuring John Middleton

As part of our ongoing Meet the Cast of Calendar Girls Blog Series, let us introduce you to John Middleton:

Middleton-John

ROLE:  John, 50s

AS DESCRIBED IN PLAYWRIGHT TIM FIRTH’S SCRIPT:

John is a human sunflower.  Not a saint.  Not a hero.  Just the kind of man you’d want in your car when crossing America.

DIRECTOR MARY FINNERTY’S COMMENT: 

John Middleton, whom I had also directed in Sexy Laundry, has an uncanny ability to burrow into the hearts of an audience quickly.  In the stage directions, the playwright says that when John dies, a light should go off in the room.  John only has less than 20 pages onstage to establish that character for us, and I knew he could do that.

QUESTION FOR JOHN MIDDLETON:

Your character, John, offers up the sunflower as the primary symbol of the play, but what is your favorite symbolism or metaphor in the play?

I’ve been considering your question, but I don’t think I can do any better than John in the play and his sunflowers.  The world is feeling particularly dark these days, and we can’t ignore it.  We need to acknowledge the darkness and fight against it.  But we also need to look for the light, no matter how weak, just as the sunflower does.  That, as John says, is such an admirable thing.

CAST BACKGROUND:

Park Square Romeo and Juliet, Sexy Laundry, The School for Lies, American Family, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Becky’s New Car 
Representative Theatre  Jungle Theater: Detroit; Theater Latte Da: C.; Torch Theater: Prints; Gremlin Theatre: Hedda Gabler; Carlyle Brown & Company: Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…; Girl Friday Productions: Street Scene

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