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Derek Dirlam: Code Name – Archie Goodwin

Right now at Park Square, you can catch the mystery-thriller of the summer, Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, on stage through July 30th. While the hero, Nero Wolfe, may have his name in the title, what good would he be without his loyal right-hand man? Filling that role is Archie Goodwin, a witty ladies man who works as Wolfe’s live-in assistant and aides him in the solving of mysteries. A highly skilled private investigator, it’s Goodwin who scours New York City collecting the evidence that Wolfe needs in order to solve a case. Such is the character that has filled volumes of detective fiction, but who can possibly bring this persona to life on the stage? Stepping in to do just that is actor Derek Dirlam, who has embraced the role emphatically.

 

A fan of the genre, he appreciates the expectations some fans may have in regards to Archie. Fortunately, thanks to the numerous stories author Rex Stout produced, Dirlam had plenty of varied sources to draw from. As mentioned in a previous blog about the author, Rex Stout wrote Nero Wolfe mysteries from 1934 to 1975. A remarkable span of time that was part of the greater pop cultural fascination with all things noir, pulp and hard-boiled. Think of characters like Sam Spade and you’ll know just where Dirlam is coming from in shaping the world of Archie Goodwin. He’s long been a listener of vintage radio-dramas and classic films like The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and A Touch of Evil have proven helpful in getting into character, as well as tuning in to the music of the 1940s and ‘50s. Dirlam has created his own “Archie Playlist” that features jazz artists Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Prima among others. Such a fan is he, that before being cast in Nero Wolfe, Dirlam produced his own play in the mystery genre at last year’s Fringe Festival entitled “A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman, and it was combing through potential source material that he first came across the titles of Nero Wolfe.

As previously mentioned, there are about 40 years worth of Archie Goodwin to draw upon and Dirlam hopes that he’s able to flesh out his version of the character in a way that appeals to both the hard-boiled and the casual fan. Working with E.J. Subkoviak has been a wonderful experience as well, to which Dirlam says:

As the show developed, E.J. and I were able to incorporate several nuances of Archie and Wolfe’s relationship from the books that weren’t necessarily highlighted in this particular script, which I think makes the duo more interesting, and is also an added nod to the fans of the books.”

With actors like Dirlam and Subkoviak infusing Archie and Nero with such positive chemistry, there’s certainly plenty for audiences to enjoy. Full of suspicious characters, twists and turns, Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery promises to keep those same audiences on their toes as they play their part in the mystery and get to know the one and only Archie Goodwin.

Subkoviak (left) and Dirlam (right) in Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery plays on the proscenium stage through July 30.

Brandon Ewald in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Brandon Ewald in Might As Well Be Dead, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN 2017Tell me about the characters you play. What makes you excited about portraying them?

The two characters I play are incredibly different from each other, which makes them so much fun to play. Peter Hays, actually named Paul Herrold, is an earnest and depressed individual. He is trapped between not only his love for Suki but his turmoil from being thrown out of his mother’s business 11 years prior. He desperately wants to protect Suki at all costs, and that’s why he takes the fall of the murder for her. He has a troubled history but when it comes down to it, he’s a young man who only wants to do right by people. Johnny Keems is a freelance P.I. often hired by Nero Wolfe. He is flashy, vain, and generally thinks he’s brighter than he is. He’s not incompetent by any means. After all, Wolfe does use him a lot. He always tries to one-up Archie and he can never quite get there, but it sure is fun to annoy Archie whenever he gets the chance.

What’s makes this play different from other plays you’ve done recently?

The biggest thing that makes this play so unique from anything I’ve done recently is that it’s a brand new play. The script was changed and molded by not only the playwright and director, but by the cast as well. It’s an opportunity to put something forth that has never been done before. It’s always fun to hear people say, “My character wouldn’t have known this,” or “How could he have done that?” We get to be a part of this mystery and figure out this story together.

It seems to mix comedy with suspense. How do you treat that combination?

It’s a fun play in that we have a great mixture of both comedy and suspense. It’s fun for us, and it’s fun for the audience to join us for all the twists and turns. The best thing you can do when blending these genres is to just play each moment honestly and in the moment. If things get too tricky and “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” to the audience, there’s a good chance you’ll lose them.

Tell me about your training. I see you majored in Theatre trained at the Globe. Do you try to do contemporary work as much as classical work?

It’s true, I received my training from Shakespeare’s Globe in London. I have a great love of the classics, and it’s a place I always thought I’d have to travel to and train at. Just as important, I got my theatrical start training and performing improv at the Brave New Workshop. We can learn from and enjoy both the old and the new, and I think it’s so important for any actor to be exposed to a multitude of disciplines. 

How about your work as a fight choreographer? I’ve always generally thought that’s the coolest theatre gig. What’s it like teaching people how fight, how to handle themselves, how to handle their weapons?

Working as a fight choreographer is one of the most challenging and rewarding things about working in the theatre. Peter [Moore, director] is another well-established fight choreographer, and it was an honor, and a surprise, that he asked me to head up the fight. The biggest thing to remember is that it’s not all about choreographing something with cool and flashy moves, but you have to keep the fight in the world of the story. It’s still a part of the storytelling process and it’s something that really gets the audience excited.

It’s not a movie. These actors have to be athletes and perform these moves for you every night. It can tricky with weapons, especially if an actor is not familiar with one. I always start slow and work from the ground up with each actor. Like anything, it’s a process, and the way to be sure that everyone is safe and comfortable is to work in steps.

The three biggest rules (in order) of fight choreography is safety, serving the story, and looking good while you do it. Oh yeah, and breathing. Breathe or die.

Addie’s Delight

Playing a part in Idiot’s Delight from Girl Friday Productions at Park Square is Adelin Phelps, who portrays the character Mrs. Cherry. I was able to catch up with her and ask her some of what she thought about the show and the relevance it can hold in our 21st century world.

From Madison, Wisconsin, she attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, receiving her B.A. in acting. Immediately after graduation, she moved on up to the Twin Cities to pursue a career in the theatre. In her time here she has firmly established herself as a performer and collaborator, working with such noted companies as Minnesota Jewish Theatre, History Theatre, Theatre Latte Da, Walking Shadow and Frank Theatre. If that’s not enough, she is a core and founding member of Transatlantic Love Affair, a group that has earned a bevy of recognition in recent years. She now finds herself within the ranks of Girl Friday Productions and the grand cast of Idiot’s Delight – Robert Sherwood’s prophetic satire on the state of the world just prior to the outbreak of World War II. This marks her debut with Girl Friday, and her second time on a Park Square stage (following 2012’s King Lear).

While definitely not from the world of medieval England, Mrs. Cherry does happen to be a Brit among the band of internationals holed up in the Alpine hotel in which Idiot’s Delight takes place. Young and newly married to the dashing Mr. Cherry (Gabriel Murphy), she must reconcile the joys of kissing, dancing and abundant love with the stark realities of encroaching war. Those themes certainly lend themsevles to the political strife currently swirling around the world, not just at home, and how we are able to overcome that discord is a central question of the piece. As Phelps says, The need for humor, the struggle for an open, brave heart, the importance to understand history, and connecting with other humans… that draws me as a person to the project.”

Especially the benefits of connecting with other humans is apparent in Sherwood’s play. An ensemble cast of characters all born in different countries are suddenly forced into company with each other, thanks to the actions of their own governments. In a sense of irony, the very people they should be at war with become their friends within the walls of the hotel.

All these international characters is most exciting to Phelps who relishes the chance to use her sense of play and imagination in creating a dialect or new physicality to bring her role to life. And the dancing! There’s much for any actor to sink their teeth into and Phelps is eager to share that infectious zeal with the audiences. Indeed, viewers are in for a treat when they take their seats this summer. Phelps has been delighted to work with Girl Friday Productions and director, Craig Johnson in getting to tell such a story!

 

 

Chatting with the Master Sleuth Himself!

Actor E.J. Subkoviak, who is playing Nero Wolfe this summer in Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, graciously offered his insight into not only the character but to just how vast and enthralling the world of this play is!

1. What is like to play such a renowned character? You’re second time around, do you find yourself discovering new layers behind the character?

I first played Rex Stout’s armchair detective Nero Wolfe at Park Square a few years ago in The Red Box, and it was a real honor, as this was the first time Mr. Wolfe had ever been commissioned to appear onstage anywhere.

He’s very much an American Sherlock Holmes in many ways. (In fact, there are those devoted fans who believe – yes, they did the math – that Wolfe may be the love child of Holmes and his Jersey girlfriend Irene Adler. They even took the Jim Garrison conspiracy approach and noted that ShERlock HOLmes and NERo WOLfe both have the ER/OL in the middle of their names. Mr. Stout neither confirmed nor denied this theory, but was obviously flattered that people had put so much time and research into something he created.)

Like Holmes, he’s an eccentric genius who hides his emotions, and has his own addictions. (Holmes has his cocaine; Wolfe has his lavish gourmet meals.) And being a man of mystery, there is so much mystery about the man himself. Why is yellow his favorite color? (His dwellings look like Colonel Mustard’s house.) What’s with the orchid fascination? (We never see it onstage, but he has a rooftop full of them.) Why is he so hard on women? Why won’t he leave the house? Did something happen to him in his past life as an Albanian spy to create this corpulent grump? These are questions that can’t help but come to mind, and even after so many books, Stout leaves them as questions. What we know about Wolfe we know only through the eyes of his young protege, Archie Goodwin, who narrates the books and the plays.

In playing Wolfe a second time, I find he’s very much in my blood now. Based on the original reaction of the “Wolfe Pack” (the Rex Stout fan club – their name, not mine, I swear) and Rebecca Stout-Bradbury, Stout’s daughter and one of the heads of his estate, I didn’t see how I could change a thing I was doing. The only thing I looked for this time around were opportunities to show hints – and in such a plot-heavy venue as mysteries are, all we have room for are hints – of things Wolfe may be too afraid to reveal explicitly, so that he becomes slightly more than just a robust super-computer expunging deductions and menus. In this case, I found some brief moments in his interactions with Archie Goodwin (his Dr. Watson) that suggest he’s quietly aware that while he’s always barking orders and often scolding his protege’s antics, Archie’s the closest thing to family as he’ll ever have, which ties in somewhat with Archie’s final speech that invokes the title of the show. Again, it doesn’t play into the mystery as a whole, or the puzzle the audience is obviously attentive to, but it’s an attempted step up with the character in this second episode.

E.J. Subkoviak

2. Are you a fan of this genre and had you always known about Nero Wolfe? When did you first discover the series?

Indeed, mystery and thrillers have always been my favorite genre, even as a boy. While everyone else in my 3rd grade class was reading Judy Blume, I was reading the adventures of Encyclopedia Brown, boy detective, and trying to use my eight year-old wits to help him solve such mind-boggling capers as “The Case of the Broken Globe”.

Nero Wolfe was a name I was somewhat familiar with, perhaps remembering the William Conrad TV series that aired during my youth. When our director Peter Moore first told me he was considering me for the role, I said, “Oh yeah, isn’t he like a judge or a lawyer or something?” And he said, “No, he’s a detective. Look him up.” So I did – I googled “Nero Wolfe” and got my answer: “Morbidly obese private detective…” I had to stop for a minute and look at myself in the mirror at that point and do a little crying, but it wasn’t long before I became very intrigued by everything else I read about the guy.

3. What are some influences you draw upon as an actor taking on a great detective role such as this?

The Nero Wolfe books are, to me, a nice combination of the hard-boiled detective stories with the Jessica Rabbits holding a gun on the cover, and the more elegant Agatha Christie-like drawing room mysteries that always had the detective gathering all the suspects at the end and slowly, methodically, revealing who the killer is and how they did it. Being a mystery lover, I loved watching such TV sleuths as Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer and David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot.

Other than that, I try not to do too much, and I just try to remain confident that our playwright Joseph Goodrich is right when he tells me, “You ARE Nero Wolfe.” That takes a little pressure off me acting-wise, but puts a lot of pressure on me to start some kind of exercise regiment.

4. What’s your favorite part of the show and what do you think audiences will enjoy the most?

My favorite parts to play are the moments that highlight the differences between Wolfe and Archie. Archie is Wolfe’s Dr. Watson, but what sets this team apart from the Holmes/Watson relationship, and indeed adds some fun and interest, is not only the age difference and the mentor/protege picture, but that these two are really cut from two very different cloths. They’re an odd couple solving mysteries together, and when their tactics, behaviors and vocabulary clash, it makes for some often laugh-inducing fun. Archie is also a much more outgoing, dare I say likable guy, so to see him throw grouchy Mr. Wolfe a little sunshine now and again is rewarding, especially in the middle of so much murder and mayhem. I really think this relationship is at the heart of what makes the Nero Wolfe stories fun enough to give it a real fan base.

Peter Moore [director], always finds a group of terrific and talented people, and this is no exception. I am delighted to be working again with so many old friends and many new ones, cast and crew alike. Wolfe would call them “satisfactory”, which, to the rest of us, means “exceeds all expectations”.

 

Making the Past Present

Something you’ll hear a lot about in regards to Idiot’s Delight, is the history of the events taking place and how it can arguably be a mirror to today’s world. If history does indeed repeat itself, then can this play serve as a guide book to our future? Perhaps not even a guidebook, but a warning? With stakes that high, I wouldn’t recommend missing out on this one!

Dramaturg Kit Gordon. (Courtesy photo)

Helping to make sense of all this, for the actors as well as the audience, is the role of the dramaturg. Serving in this role is long time Girl Friday dramaturg, Kit Gordon, who has been involved with the company since the earliest days. She is also a company member of Theatre Pro Rata and has served as their resident dramaturg for a number of years as well. 

What skills lend themselves to being a good dramaturg? Certainly a passion for history and theatre, but also finding a joy in academic research. Gordon studied all of it in college and worked in the humanities, English literature and women’s studies. She then went on to complete her PhD in English, with a focus on Shakespeare within her own experiences as a teacher, writer and theatre practitioner. Up until 2013, her day job was an undergraduate academic adviser at the University of Minnesota.

When it comes to dramaturgy, Gordon’s loves the research but is quick to point out that her job is “not to have all the answers but to know where to find them”, as stated in a 2014 interview with Chris Hewitt in the Pioneer Press

I asked her to expand upon some of the themes of Idiot’s Delight and comment on all of the drawing-a-parallel-to-our-modern-world talk that’s been going on with this play. Echoing sentiments of Adelin Phelps and Craig Johnson, she says:

 

Our world is in some ways more complex than it was in 1936, but people are still people – and some of them are dangerous. While the parallels are not exact, the emotions that spring from our fears about what might happen (with ISIS, with North Korea, with radical political movements in the U.S.) are similar to those felt by characters in the play… I think that by exploring the dilemmas of the characters in the play, we explore our own.”

 

No matter what the “big picture” is, it seems to all boil down to the people in the room and the relationships they hold with each other. That’s what turns a good story into a riveting drama and what Girl Friday excels so much at bringing to life. Like any meaningful work of art, this play has an ability to make you think. Oh, you’ll laugh, for sure. Maybe so hard as to produce a tear, but you’re still bound to come away with a new sense of humanity – how special it really is to be able to live and love in peace.

You can check out Girl Friday’s website here and see the online study guide compiled by Kit Gordon! https://www.girlfridayproductions.org/upcoming-show

 

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.

Arts et Metiers

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.

 

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