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Craig Johnson on Reviving a Classic

In anticipation of Idiot’s Delight, this year’s offering from Girl Friday Productions at Park Square, I wanted to get to know more about some of the creative souls behind the show. Who are they and what part do they play in bringing such a production to life?

In combing through the wildly impressive credits of actors and designers, I gravitated to the person at the helm and decided to ask him a few questions first. As the director, Craig Johnson, is no rookie when it comes to either the theatre, Park Square or Girl Friday. According to his profile on Minnesotaplaylist.com, he’s a veteran of 200 productions, including 52 at Park Square over the years. This includes multiple awards and recognitions, especially for his work with Girl Friday Productions which include Our Town (director), Street Scene (director), Camino Real (actor) and The Matchmaker (director) which was one of the first shows to grace the Andy Boss Thrust at Park Square a couple of summers ago. This year, now he is in charge of Idiot’s Delight by Robert Sherwood and offers his take on the play.

What about this play drew you to the project? What speaks to you as an artist and perhaps, a “normal” person?

Idiot’s Delight…um…delighted me on several levels when I first read it. I have a nostalgic love for these big, sleek, well-constructed, entertaining yet thoughtful, limousine-like plays that Broadway produced in its heyday between the wars. It was a time when a lot of people could afford to go to the theater regularly. Of course this was mainly people in the New York area, but it was a wide swath of the population, and the good plays usually went out on tour around the country and got picked up by resident stock companies in places like Saint Paul and Minneapolis. I like dusting off these old plays whose names and authors I recognize but have never seen or read, and hoping they still have something to say to us. And I like when one of these plays, like Idiot’s Delight, still resonates. It connects us to our shared theatrical history that broadens that stream beyond yet another revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Uncle Vanya, or The Importance of Being Earnest — just to name three plays I absolutely love!

You’re a history buff, are there parallels to our current world situation? If so, how do you highlight this in the production? (Maybe without giving too much away!)

Author Robert Sherwood wrote Idiot’s Delight in 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression, when many were becoming increasingly alarmed by the threat of European fascism in Italy and Germany. He imagines how another world war might occur–and was startlingly accurate in some ways to actual events just a few years in the future. That alone is fascinating. But the play also looks at the toxic brew of populism, nationalism, xenophobia, and militarism, and how those forces can lead a culture away from civil society toward barbarism. In that, sadly, many might see echoes of current events making headlines in the US and Europe. So the play works as a sober cautionary tale.

You’ve worked a ton with Girl Friday Productions. What keeps you coming back to GFP?

Well, I’ve known GFP artistic director Kirby Bennett for many years — she’s a friend, neighbor, and colleague. I so admire the unique niche she’s carved out in the rich theatrical ecosystem of the Twin Cities. GFP does one show every two years. They are large-scale shows that most small professional companies wouldn’t touch because of the personnel expense. But Kirby’s care and thoughtful planning is much appreciated by actors and designers. The scripts, too, carry an interesting thread — they are usually about what it means to be an American. They’re plays that still carry meaning and hope for us today, even though they cluster in that rich period of American writing from the 1920s to the 1950s. Some productions like Our Town revisit familiar texts, but others, like Camino Real and Street Scene are like Idiot’s Delight plays once heralded that we think warrant coming off the bookshelf and having another turn in the spotlight.

I should probably get your basic info: Where do you come from in life and artistically? Your college/ training, hometown, etc.

I was born and raised in Saint Paul — though because of my Dad’s job with 3M we lived overseas in Tokyo and Belgium for several years when I was growing up. I’ve been doing plays since my triumphant debut in Green Eggs and Ham in 6th grade. I went to the University of Minnesota, and after a long career doubling my theater work with my job managing the James J. Hill House for the Minnesota Historical Society, I now focus on acting, directing and teaching full time. And love every minute of it. Also I’ve done 52 shows at Park Square going back to 1979, so this is like home to me.

What do you want audiences to come away thinking and/or feeling after seeing this show?

I hope audiences appreciate the thoughtful balance of entertainment and social commentary that Sherwood offers. There are show tunes to enjoy, a rich tapestry of quirky characters to laugh at, and a poignant love story. But there are important questions to ponder: How should Americans interact with the rest of the world? What are the forces that harden us against our neighbors? What does it mean to close a border — to keep some inside and others out? How do we balance freedom and security?

There you have it, folks, I could not have said it any better myself!

Come see just what Johnson means this summer at Park Square where Girl Friday Productions will be presenting Idiot’s Delight on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage June 29 – July 23.

The Mighty Quinn Shadko

Those of you who regularly attend shows at Park Square Theatre might be familiar Quinn Shadko, the actor and singer, who has appeared on stage in The Snow Queen, The Diary of Anne Frank and went on as the understudy in Of Mice and Men. Where you might not know her from is the day-to-day operations of the theatre, a job she just recently took on, working in the education department. Due to those two latter credits, Shadko knows first hand the extraordinary impact that Park Square’s education series has on the students of Minnesota (and even Wisconsin and Iowa at times). Every year over 32,000 students come through the doors to see theatre and it is her job to not only manage the mind-boggling logistics, but also ensure the experience is positive, enriching and long lasting. She sums it up best by saying:

“It’s our privilege to bring to life for them what they’re reading on the page, and usually it’s an impression that lasts a lifetime. We don’t just want to create a new generation of artists or even theatre-goers, but smart, sensitive citizens who think globally and see theatre as a medium for open discussion and social change.”

These sentiments are vital, especially considering that this may be the first time a student has or will see a play. Every little detail must count! Education and entertainment must go hand-in-hand!

Quinn Shadko (left) in The Snow Queen. Photo by Petronella. 

Shadko has always been involved in theatre and is an experienced actor with local and national credits under her belt including a national tour of Clifford the Big Red Dog and (much much more locally) The Realish Housewives of Edina. Not limited to the stage, she also works a fair amount in voiceover and is currently the voice of HealthPartners on the radio.

Hailing from southwest Minneapolis, she attended Breck School where her drama director, Tom Hegg, was a force in her early development as a performer. Following high school she moved to Houston, Texas to attend Rice University and studied classical voice performance and linguistics. Not done yet, she then moved to New York where she earned a Master of Music in voice performance (with a specialty in musical theatre) from NYU.

After time away from Minnesota, however, she knew she wanted to return home and take advantage of the ability to blend artistic opportunities with such a high quality of life. Indeed, whenever Shadko finds herself not working or performing, she hits the lakes of Minneapolis and loves exploring the city. Right now you can prepare to see her in the role of “Zerlina” in Don Giovanni, produced by Skylark Opera at the Woman’s Club in Minneapolis. It’s an English-language adaptation and set in Minnesota during the Prohibition Era!

Photo by Vera Mariner.

How lucky we are at Park Square to have her manage such a special program as the education series. Of course it’s a mighty responsibility but that suits Shadko just fine. She wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

How Nate Stanger Nurtures Amy’s View

With the closing of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, Park Square is eagerly anticipating the opening of Amy’s View! Of course we all know that the show begins  much earlier than the May 12th opening, with rehearsals already under way. This period is often the most rewarding for any talent involved with a play. It is the time where cast and crew can let forth their creativity and where, perhaps, the true art occurs. Naturally, this process can quickly turn into a intangible conglomeration of ideas and impulses so it’s vital to have strong hands at the wheel to shape, form and nurture- typically your director and stage manager.The stage manager of Amy’s View, Nate Stanger, believes in this vitality and approaches his job (and own craft) with his own unique perspective. He was gracious enough to share this views with me and reveal that every good stage manager is really just a whiskey-drinking muggle. Who knew?

Nate Stanger, left with Director Gary Gisselman in the Proscenium Rehearsal Hall. Photo by Connie Shaver.

A long time ago… What is the origin story of Nate Stanger? 
I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana doing theatre in high school and at the community theaters and like most people, I started in theatre as an actor. I decided I wanted to go to school for theatre to become an actor, so I looked for theatre programs that would allow me to move to a city and study a broad range of topics. I ended up getting accepted into the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and started school in Minneapolis in 2009. During those first years I met professional actors and I saw the resilience and determination it took to pursue that life; while I enjoyed acting a lot, it didn’t drive me in the way I thought it needed to in order to have a career.
Around that same time I was taking a stage management class. I had registered for the class on a whim and I quickly realized that stage management would be a good fit for me as I had found a way to utilize all of my skills and interests in theatre. Stage management still allowed me to be in rehearsal like I had as an actor but it opened up a whole other world of technical theatre and production. So I ended up picking up stage management jobs slowly and began to build my resume.
My journey to Park Square was a simple example of right place, right time. The first time I ever worked for Park Square, I was asked to come in and take line notes for a show (this is where you follow along in the script and take notes on any missed or paraphrased lines). After taking line notes for about a week, I got an email from Megan West, the Production Manager at the time. She was going on maternity leave and was looking for a replacement while she was gone. I eagerly accepted the offer and began to work in the office at Park Square.
This was the season right before the Andy Boss Thrust Stage was completed, so the offices were extremely busy prepping for the new stage and the larger season. There was an exiting energy in the building as we all looked ahead to the completion of the second stage. Naturally, because of the addition, there was a lot more work around the office. Right place, right time. While covering Megan’s maternity leave I ended up getting hired in the education department as well to help organize the education season, which was almost twice the size of previous seasons. After a few more weeks, I was eventually hired in the accounting department as an accounting assistant where I helped process payroll and did a lot of bookkeeping. As if that wasn’t enough, I was hired as the assistant stage manager on the first production of Romeo and Juliet! For about a year and half, I stretched myself across just about every department at Park Square. I grew from a wide-eyed, recent college grad desperate for experience to a integral part of a professional theatre company. There’s no doubt in my mind that had the people of Park Square not believed in me and given me those opportunities I would not have had the success I have had.

Integral sounds about right! How do approach all that work, specifically as a stage manager? 

I always say I became a stage manager because I was too nosey and I wanted to know what all of the departments were doing. Stage management not only allowed me to see into those worlds but it gave me a way to help support that artistic process. A mentor of mine, Jenny Friend at the Children’s Theatre, once told me that it’s our job as stage managers to nurture the production. I often think about that word “nurture” when I’m in rehearsal. As stage managers, we are there to help hold these artists up in any way we can. Whether that be making schedules so people know where to be, or sending rehearsal notes to the production team to facilitate problem solving; it’s always my goal to help the director, actors and design team to achieve their visions.
The way in which we nurture the show the most is actually after the show has opened. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the director typically leaves the production after opening night. At that point, the stage manager is responsible for maintaining the artistic vision of the director and designers while still allowing room for the actors to grow and breath as they discover new things over the run. The stage manager is the only person besides the actors who is there from first rehearsal to the final curtain call so it’s only fitting that this person help guide the show through the last leg of the process.
A relationship has to form between the actors and the stage manager. There has to be tremendous trust and respect for each other because, while the audience may not see the stage manager, he or she is just as much a part of each performance as the performers onstage. Just in the way the actors trust each other onstage, the actors and stage managers must trust each other on and off stage. That aspect of being able to help a show grow and develop is a huge draw of the profession for me.

With a philosophy like that, you must be in pretty high demand. What other work do you do? 

I have been fortunate to never have to have a non-theatre job (or as theatre people lovingly call them: a muggle job). Right after graduating, I worked as a free-lance carpenter and electrician during the day and then took stage management work at night. So, I would build a set or hang lights at one theatre in the morning and then head to a different theatre for rehearsals in the evening. It was thrilling for a while; bopping all over the cities, meeting lots of people and making new friends. Every day was something new. Then I started working at Park Square where I stayed for about a year and a half. I ended up leaving Park Square to pursue a full-time stage management career. I have been very fortunate that since leaving Park Square in 2015, I have had regular work between several theatres in the cities including the Guthrie, the Children’s Theatre Company and the Ordway. I just joined the union of stage managers and actors (Actors Equity) this past fall and I couldn’t be more proud.

With all that work, tell me you have a way to live a more “muggle” life.

My biggest hobby when I’m not working is playing the piano. I finally bought a tall upright piano a few years ago and now I can’t imagine how I lived without it. Before I would play on just about every piano in any rehearsal room I could find. It’s a great way for me to decompress after a long day. I find the first thing I do when I get home from rehearsal is pour a glass of whiskey and station myself at the piano for an hour. It helps keep me sane.

Nate Stanger, ladies and gentlemen. A classy dude who knows the value of hard work and being able to unwind. You can bet that the team of Amy’s View is happy to have him! For the rest of us, we can bet on that sense of stewardship to reflect in the show itself. Amy’s View runs May 12 through June 4 on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre.

The Curious Tech of the Watson Intelligence

When I was able to catch The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Park Square and I was struck by not just the themes of technological fluidity in our history, but how the show itself was able to convey those big ideas through the technical design. Lights, sounds and especially the costumes all worked together to thread a connection between the late 19th century and the new millennium. As technology is the main concept being driven home here, and specifically it’s relationship to humanity (i.e. personalities, communication, companionship) it was impressive to see how the tech elements of this show interacted with the humans on stage and in the seats. 

Beginning the show, the lights and sounds offer a feast for the senses, and then each scene transition proving to be just as entertaining as the action of the play. In fact, the show begins with a sound montage of various phone sounds such as historical voice recording messages and that ubiquitous “ding a ding a ding a ding” of the modern iPhone. In the dark of the house I listed to the laughs of nostalgia and recognition. Hand-in-hand with the audio landscape were the lights that portrayed shadows of turning gears, conjuring thoughts of a bygone industrial age. The coolest thing about the lights, I must say, were also during the transitions and those were the silhouettes of a man who may-or-may-not be Sherlock Holmes, forever calling on his blundering assistant, Watson. I could tell this was actor, Adam Whisner, back lit behind a screen and the effect was pretty captivating.

The backstage "Steampunk Fairies" of Sam Diekman and Rachel Lantow, get to join in on the fun with their own costumes.

The backstage “Steampunk Fairies” of Sam Diekman and Rachel Lantow, get to join in on the fun with their own costumes. Photo by Connie Shaver

 

Whenever the stage wasn’t shrouded in shadowy mechanics and abuzz with the sounds of telecommunications, we had the actors on stage to engage us in the story. Aiding them (and connecting the past to the present) were the costumes that invoked the imagery of steampunk. That is, the anachronistic blending of modern styles with the Victorian era. How fun it was to see ruffled shirts, ascots and waistcoats set against the backdrop of a modern apartment! This of course, was for the dramatic effect of being able to seamlessly transition from one century to the next. Making the transitions all the more imperceptible was the fact that rather than changing garb completely, the actors would layer their clothes how they needed. For example, the actor Kathryn Fumie started off in a nice, standard set of jeans, knee-high boots and a long-sleeved shirt/skirt. Well, over the course of the show I watched this base layer get both stripped away to the underwear and elaborated on with a wonderfully Victorian dress and hat. The boots were a great design idea because I realized they’re a fashion element that has always looked good!

Check out this more in-depth summary of steampunk, but knowing even a little is enough to enjoy the rich ideas offered up by the designers and my goodness, I almost forgot to mention the actual set of the play! Like boots, brick walls have been a staple of design for centuries and so it works here to reflect both time periods. Cleverly we know it’s the present day by the addition of a neon sign or fiber-optic paneling. Simply take them away and voila! You’re in 1876 before you can even say “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence”.

A great look at a scene that takes place in the 1920s. Just one of several time periods invoked throughout the play.

This play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, is certainly a well-rounded play in terms of acting, directing and design. Owing to the technological themes of the script, however, warranted a blog solely dedicated to such aspects as applied to the show. Hopefully when you see it for yourself you can keep what I’ve said in mind, and find your own appreciation for the sensual feast you’re to encounter. 

 

What the Heck is Steampunk Anyway?

Playing the boards right now at Park Square Theatre is the play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, and one thing you might have noticed about the design of the show is the use of steampunk as a choice. Basically, it’s when you saw the modern costumes blended with Victorian garb and the computers infused with copper pipes and steam-powered devices. If you thought this was just a cool choice by the design team, you are just scratching the surface. It’s actually a much larger aesthetic known as “steampunk” and it has a much richer history and more widespread use than you might have first imagined.

Typical steampunk attire. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Typical steampunk attire. Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

While the term steampunk was only coined in 1987, it has since been applied to much earlier works of art such as those by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yes, it is a science-fiction thing and describes the genre where the Victorian era is re-imagined with modern technology that runs on steam power. The reverse is also true where an alternate future is imagined with society having to reacquaint itself with the use of steam (usually following an apocalyptic event).  You are actually probably very familiar with the look of the genre if you’ve seen TV shows and movies such as The Wild West West and any adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

Beyond it’s use as a design in various works of fiction, steampunk has become it’s own subculture of living. Whole festivals and conventions are dedicated to people donning the Victorian/mechanical clothes and really giving into the conceit of living in such a world. Such events are hosted in Seattle, New Zealand and, of course, Comic-Con in San Diego. You will also most definitely run into a steampunk or two at just about any Renaissance festival, including the big one in Shakopee. Even if a city may not host a major steampunk gathering, as the genre becomes more mainstream, elements are trickling into just about every facet of art, including real-life architecture. This metro station in Paris, is a wonderful example, instantly making you feel as if you’re on board Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.

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The Arts et Metiers Metro Station in Paris. ontheluce.com

As a whole steampunk has proven to be more than just a fad or something limited to the pages of science fiction novels. As evidenced by the design of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, the look and feel of steampunk has become rather commonplace. Some critics will even lambaste this move to the mainstream as the death knell for the genre. Critics always have to criticize don’t they? The fact is that the anachronistic use of clothes and gadgets  is fun and seems to have captured the imagination of the general populace, and while it isn’t to be taken too seriously, hopefully it can be used to support the themes of a play. For a story such as The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, where times melds and the lines are blurred between two distinctly unique eras, steampunk seems like just right aesthetic to drive home some timely ideas.

 

Meet Laura Leffler, the Newest Member of the Team

Park Square Theatre is excited to welcome Laura Leffler to downtown Saint Paul as she assumes the duties of the Company and Contract Manager. With a wealth of experience, she is stoked and ready to embrace all the challenges to come her way, including carving out time in her eventful day to connect with this blogger and answer a few questions!

What’s your background? What brought you to the Twin Cities and how did you get involved with Park Square?

I’m from Kansas City. I moved to the Twin Cities for an internship with Theatre de la Jeune Lune after graduating with my M.A. in Theatre History with an emphasis in Direction from the University of Kansas. I went to undergrad at a teeny tiny liberal arts college called Baker University, where I majored in English Literature and Theatre with an emphasis in performance. After moving to the Twin Cities, I co-founded the theatre company Savage Umbrella, for which I serve as the Artistic Director.

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Laura Leffler in her spiffy new office. Photo by Connie Shaver.

I met Megan West, the former Production Manager, at the Minnesota Theatre Alliance’s Performing Arts Human Resource Training series in 2015. I admired her work and tenacity for striving for diversity and inclusion, so when she went on maternity leave last fall, I covered for her while she was having a really cute baby. That time last fall allowed me to meet a lot of the staff, and get a small taste of the culture at Park Square.

What is the nature of your new role? What is your favorite part about it and what can be a challenge?

As the Company and Contract Manager, I feel a little like I’m learning to drive the car while I’m actually driving the car (which is a fun metaphor that helps me feel less overwhelmed). It’s a slightly different job than I had while I was covering for Megan, as some staffing changes and responsibilities shifted around. My favorite part is to get to be in the room where it happens (thanks, Hamilton) and have big picture conversations with Artistic Director Richard Cook and Executive Director Michael-jon Pease. Also, having a hand in casting is great. I think I’m good at putting together a team to work together in the room, and I’m excited that gets to be a part of my every day work. Everything that involves spreadsheets is a challenge, because I’m “Queen of the Right Brains”. But, every challenge is an opportunity, and I’m always excited to jump at an opportunity for growth.

Have you always done theatre-related work?

What theatre artist ever does all theatre-related work? No, most recently I was covering a few shifts at a local co-op deli. Love me some organic veggies, but they put an inordinate amount of lettuce on their sandwiches, so I’m glad to be back in a theatre setting!

What do you like to do when you’re not working hard?

I have wanderlust like nobody’s business, so I’m always looking forward to the next trip. Camping and tromping around Europe are my favorites. I have a goal to visit all of the national parks, and I’m about 40 short still, so I gotta get moving on that. I’m an avid cook and foodie, so if you ever want to talk Michael Pollan or the latest season of Top Chef, I’m your gal. I like high-brow theatre and dumb movies, rooting for Minnesota United and the Kansas City Royals (sorry, Twins, I bleed blue), and making my 4-year old daughter laugh.

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Now that you know all about Laura, it won’t be awkward to randomly talk to her about your favorite episode of Top Chef or your last trip to a national park. As for that Royals and Twins rivalry… well… we’ll just let that play out on the field.

Welcome to our team at Park Square!

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Laura Topham

One amazing stage manager at Park Square Theatre is Laura Topham, who already has two shows under her belt this season (The Realistic Joneses and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is preparing for her third- The Diary of Anne Frank. That and Midsummer are part of Park Square’s Student Series, a line up that annually reaches 32,000 students a year, offering them “literary classics and cutting-edge contemporary theatre”.

Part of that incredible outreach is Topham, who has been with Park Square for five years and has worked on A Midsummer Night’s Dream on four separate occasions. With the show, she has performed various duties such as run crew, assistant stage manager and stage manager twice. As for Anne Frank, this will be her fifth year working on the popular staple of the student series.

Just how did Topham get involved with Park Square Theatre? Well, originally from Baraboo, Wisconsin she moved to the Twin Cities to pursue a theatre degree at the University of Minnesota. Originally an actor, she decided to branch out and take some stage management classes, leading to a new realization and focus on the other side of the table. Upon graduation, she mailed resumes to just about everyone who might be interested and Park Square’s Production Manager, Megan West, reached out and hired her.

Laura Topham

Laura Topham hard at work.

 

Of course with someone as seasoned at Topham, other companies in town vie for her skills. She has worked with Climb Theatre, Theatre Latte Da, and the Ordway Theater’s Flint Hills Children’s Festival.

With all of that time devoted to her passion, what else could possibly interest her? Well, dance is one past time that has kept her busy as well as a certain dish known as fruit pizza. I’ve probably just been living under a rock, but I’d never heard this and can’t wait to try it out for myself. You should too and when you see Topham in the theatre share a piece with her as thanks for all the hard work she puts in. The shows Park Square produces just wouldn’t be the same with out her, especially considers all those thousands of students.

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Come see The Diary of Anne Frank too, on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage, running February 28 – April 28.

 

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Jamie Kranz

As we head into a new year, new productions are percolating at Park Square. The first one out of the gate is Flower Drum Song, a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. Weaving together a story about love, music and one’s heritage, this classical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical  promises to be something special. While the actors on stage number 17, the stage management team is significantly smaller. Leading the charge is Jamie Kranz, stage manager of Flower Drum Song.  Kranz’s beginning into stage management began almost accidentally. While enjoying some java at the campus coffee shop, she happened to see a notice advertising the need for an assistant stage manager. Kranz having had no idea what such a position meant, but the play “looked fun… and I was looking for an activity that had nothing to do with my major,” she said.

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Jaimie Kranz and House Manager Adrian Larkin look at the seating chart as they prepare for a large student matinee audience to A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Ting Ting Cheng.

That drama unfolded at Wartburg College where Kranz completed her undergraduate education. Nestled in Waverly, Iowa the college isn’t too far from her hometown in Mason City. After her education in Iowa, it was off to New York City where a Master of Fine Arts in Stage Management awaited her at Columbia University. The next stop down the road was Saint Paul where Kranz began her work with Park Square in 2006’s Anna in the Tropics as the play’s assistant stage manager, and guess who brought her on board? The same stage manager who had given her that first job back at Wartburg! Naturally, a stage manager such as Kranz is in high demand and she does plenty of work elsewhere around town. Companies like Mixed Blood, the Playwrights’ Center and the Children’s Theatre Company. In fact, she will be traveling with CTC’s show Seedfolks to Seattle this March and April! Then she’ll return and get started on Might as Well Be Dead at Park Square. With all of this work, what could Kranz possibly do to relax? She says, “In my spare time, I like to run and do yoga and occasionally indulge in the chocolate fudge cake from Café Latte. I’m currently in training to run the Disney Princess Glass Slipper Challenge in Disney World this February. It’s a race weekend that consists of a 10K (6.2 miles) run on a Saturday and a half marathon (13.1 miles) on the following Sunday.” Well, good luck and treat yourself to some cake when you’re finished! banner-flowerdrumsong-960x480-11-14 As for you all, be sure to catch Flower Drum Song on the proscenium stage between January 20 – February 19. Then when you see Kranz hard at work, be sure to give her a big “thank you” or if you happen to have some chocolate cake, I’m sure she would appreciate that too.

The Real Life Younger Family of Minneapolis

I recently came across a piece from MPR News entitled, “Event Remembers Black Family Terrorized in South Minneapolis.” Tenderly, I read on.

The article told a short but powerful story about a couple named Arthur and Edith Lee who were among the first African Americans to move into south Minneapolis in 1931, along with their young daughter. What happened next was what you could imagine, even more so if you’re familiar with A Raisin in the Sun. The backlash from white residents was immediate and harsh – The Minneapolis Journal reported that a mob of 1,000  people surrounded the house and pelted it with rocks.

Of course this isn’t a play, but real life history from our Twin Cities. There’s no way to know if Lorraine Hansberry knew of this particular incident but she was undoubtedly aware of similar stories from Northern communities – her own in Chicago for instance. In a sad irony, freedom-searching blacks from the South ran into a buzzsaw of prejudice in the Northern cities in which they sought refuge.

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Edith and Arthur Lee

“Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country. I came out here to make this house my home. I have a right to establish a home.” – Arthur Lee July 16, 1931

This is known as the Great Migration and it lasted from 1910-1970, irrevocably shaking up the country’s demographics. Over that period, six million African Americans fled the South and moved into cities such as Chicago, New York (especially Harlem), Milwaukee and Minneapolis. If you think the homogeneity in Minnesota is extreme now, imagine what it was like at the start of the 20th century when nine out of every 10 black Americans lived in the South. The Lees, like their fictional counterparts in the Youngers, were victims of this social upheaval.

Bringing it back to the original MPR article, however, we are given hope in our modern world that a kind of solace can be attained even if we can’t change the past.

The Lee family stood their ground in south Minneapolis for a year-and-a-half before deciding to move. Eighty years later, in 2011, the current owner of the home allowed a small statue to be erected in the yard to commemorate the family and then in 2014, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s located at 4600 Columbus Ave., and I for one am going to seek out this extremely important piece of history. I’d also highly recommend checking out the articles below for further reading.

NOTE: we have opened up tickets for purchase for our weekday morning student matinees through Dec 22. Tickets are just $25. Call 651.291.7005 or order at parksquaretheatre.org

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Randolph, Toni. “Event Remembers Black Family Terrorized in South Minneapolis.” The Cities: Notes on the News from the Twin Cities, MPR News, 15 July 2011, http://blogs.mprnews.org/cities/2011/07/event-remembers-black-family-terrorized-in-south-minneapolis/

Elliot, Paige. “House in South Minneapolis Added to National Register of Historic Places.” Twin Cities Daily Planet, 25 July 2014, http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/arthur-lee-monument-goes-national/

“Great Migration.” History.com, 2010
http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration

The Best According to Whom?

There are without a doubt, subjects that can be defined as “best” and . . . “not best.”  For many things, however, the line is distinctly less obvious, and the difference between what’s good and bad often comes down to one person’s opinion.  “Everyone’s a critic” rings painfully true for artists, who often feel as if their entire life’s work can be made or broken depending on whether or not the critic was able to find adequate parking or hasn’t fallen ill from an undercooked fish.

“He abandoned me… and now I have no eyebrows.” – Mona

Artists will devote countless hours on a project, plumbing the depths of the human condition, often at the expense of their own pleasures.  Da Vinci once said that “art is never finished, only abandoned” and, as an actor, I get that.  Weeks go by and you’re still tinkering with the artwork, knowing that at some point you’re going to have to let it fly on opening night.  It’s hard to do that, especially when you know there are people actually getting paid to sit in the dark to critique you on all of that devotion. Exposing yourself like that is, in short, a leap of faith.

Yes, the critic is there to do a job but as for power?  I believe we give critics only as much power as we let them.  The simple question is “Who do we do it for?”  To serve ourselves in the hope that a “good” review will grant us the keys to a sort of acting El Dorado or to show audiences a glimpse of their own forgotten humanity? In my short career, I’ve come to learn that by focusing on the former you lose sight of the latter, leading to a weak foundation that will eventually crumble in on itself.

I ask then:  Who determines what’s “the best” theatre?  The reviewers, the audiences, the artists themselves?  All of them are intrinsic to the welfare of the art and have a voice.  Inevitably those voices clash and no more so than during big “oo-lah-lah” events such as the Tony Awards, where suddenly anyone who has seen a play–any play–speaks out about the nominees and not always in the most positive light.

These are the same people who annually disparage the Oscars for not amounting to a hill of beans.  Why should we care about an awards show that rewards bloated and stale Broadway?  Because I believe, for better or worse, this is the face of the industry–practically the only thing Joe the Plumber may think of when someone says “theatre”; and dang it, if Joe the Plumber thinks anything about theatre at all then we’re off to a good start.  Of course, we artists sticking it out here in the hinterlands know that the American theatre is so much richer than what the Tony’s represent, but it pays to be informed about what’s happening in New York, no matter your position.  So I would recommend not forgetting to take your grain of salt and just appreciate the fact that Theatre gets its day in the mainstream sun for at least one night a year.

“The Best.”  Can we define it?  Can we spot it in a line up?  Sometimes absolutely; but more often than not, we’re just comparing apples to oranges, whether it’s the critics or the Tony Awards.  I say we, the artists, raise our voices a bit more in solidarity and less in sniping at each other.  Then we can enjoy the big oo-lah-lah events as the giant self-celebratory parties that they ought to be.

Totally the Ivey Awards, right? I mean, that’s Craig Johnson in the back, right? They waaaay back?

 

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