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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!

Park Square: It’s a Family Affair

If you have been to Park Square Theatre then you have probably met or seen our indefatigable House Manager, Jiffy Kunik, who runs a tight ship while being just the darn coolest.  I’m here now to let you know where she gets all that pluck, grit and charm – her father, John Kunik.

Kunik is currently an understudy in The Diary of Anne Frank, serving as back up for the roles of Mr. Van Daan and Mr. Dussel. He hasn’t had to go on yet, but you can bet he’s ready at a moment’s notice thanks to a lifetime in the theatre. This isn’t his first gig at Park Square but you would have to go back in time a bit to discover his previous credits…

… It was 1975 and America was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial while trying to figure out just where it was going. While the nation was coping with the end of war, Watergate and a crippling gas shortage, Saint Paul was ushering in the beginning of a new theatre called Park Square. This is where John Kunik got his start in Twin Cities theatre, working with founder Paul Mathey. They collaborated on shows such as The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd (1978), A Delicate Balance (1979) and even Kunik’s original one-act play When You Get in Trouble, Call Time Out, based on two characters who appear in Young Bucks, a full-length play he wrote in graduate school.

Young Bucks was the SIU-Carbondale entry into the American College Theatre Festival and was produced professionally in Chicago and Off-Off Broadway. A favorite memory of his in recounting the old days when the theatre  was in the Park Square Court Building across the street from Mears Park, was when a deer jumped through the window of the ground-level bar, completely destroying the glass. It was a Dixieland Bar and patrons had to wait two weeks for it to be repaired!

Photo by Stephanie K. Kunik

The father-daughter duo of John Kunik and Jiffy Kunik. Photo by Stephanie K. Kunik

Not only is Kunik a veteran of the stage, but a Viet Nam era vet as well. Right before he was set to begin graduate school, he was drafted and following basic training was sent to Seattle to await orders to go to what was surely Vietnam. Fate decided to have some fun, however, and Kunik was surprised to learn that he was headed to Anchorage, Alaska with the special services unit. His duties included being in charge of the entertainment division. As a private he was in charge of lieutenants and sergeants, directing them in various shows. One awesome story was when Kunik was directing Come Blow Your Horn with the father in the play was being acted by the head of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Alaskan Command who he was apparently investigating the guy playing his son, for drugs. What happened? Well he waited until after closing to bust him, of course!

Kunik spent a couple years in Alaska doing important work and gathering some incredible stories. When he was discharged he went back to school at Southern Illinois University and moved to Chicago to pursue a career in theatre. What brought him to the Twin Cities was a friend who came to visit and inspired him to move on a dime. Since then he has acted, directed and written shows for a plethora of companies including The Children’s Theater Company, Theatre in the Round, Lakeshore Players, Hey City Theater (home of the long running Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding). He recently performed in The Gin Game at Pioneer Players in St. Cloud and directed The Sunshine Boys for Buffalo Community Theater. Perhaps the coolest credit on his resume is performing in a show at the Amsterdam Bar that was produced by his daughter Jiffy and entitled “Metal Not Metal” where, fully regaled in his tuxedo, he performed heavy metal lyrics as poetry….

It’s all pretty incredible and unfortunately we’ll have to wait for the autobiography to hear more. Park Square certainly loves both John and Jiffy and is happy to have them on the team!

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Lyndsey Harter

Ringing in the New Year on the Proscenium stage at Park Square will be Flower Drum Song, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with a book by David Henry Hwang. The play is a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. As noted in the previous Chronicle, it is being stage managed by Jamie J. Kranz, and assisting her in that role is Assistant Stage Manager, Lyndsey R. Harter.

Harter has been with Park Square since the fall of 2014, although it was just this past one when she was able to join Actors’ Equity, the professional union for American actors and stage managers in the theatre. This distinction is something an aspiring individual must work for and Harter was able to helm her first play with such a distinction at Park Square with The House on Mango Street. This was after a summer stage managing plays at the Great River Shakespeare Festival with oft PST director, Doug Scholz-Carlson.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

 

In fact, Harter frequently collaborates elsewhere and will follow Flower Drum Song with another play from Mu Performing Arts in the spring at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. She and Randy Reyes have previously worked together at Park Square on Murder for Two.

So how did Harter find herself in this position? Raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, she moved to St. Paul in order to study costume design at Hamline University. Despite notable achievements, including two awards with the Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival, she began to gravitate toward stage management and the unique challenges it afforded. It was during her junior year the stage manager of one of the school’s plays had too many conflicts and needed a new person. Employing her excellent organizational skills and affable attitude, Harter was well poised to jump in. She immediately fell in love with seeing how “all the pieces fit together and how one change affects five others.”

Harter grew up in a military family and while real-world duties of actors and soldiers couldn’t be more different, they both share a sense of extreme discipline and teamwork. These attributes have no doubt been an aid to her career. Whenever she is not behind the tech table she loves to stay physically active and finds exercise to be a great way to find “balance and mental space.” Oh, and peanut butter M&Ms are also a little pleasure of hers.

Who knew all of that was going on behind the scenes at Park Square? When you see Flower Drum Song, don’t hesitate to thank the crew and if you want to bring some of those M&Ms, it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Come see it on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square, running January 20 – February 19.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

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 Heart and Soul of Gershwin

What do you think of when you hear Gershwin? Right now I only mean the literal name – George Gershwin. Do you think of iconic songs such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris”? How about the great opera, Porgy and Bess and it’s classic “Summertime”? Okay, now what else do you think about (again, about the man himself). Do words like “New York”, “jazz”, “immigrant”, “Great American Songbook” and “Roaring ’20s” float through your imagination?

They’re all floating about in my head and I’m just a millennial who’s about to live through a whole new ’20s!

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

 

Speaking of which, now what images are appearing in your mind? I bet it is the 1920s, the decade with which Gershwin will forever be linked. In a post-war world, the United States suddenly took the lead in cultural influence, where our figures of pop culture took on Olympian status. Athletes, aviators and artists were now more popular than any stuffy politician or war hero. Jazz, sex and money seemed to be the cultural touchstones of the era with a soundtrack composed by George Gershwin.

Born in New York City in 1898, to Roza and Jakov Gershowitz, Jewish immigrants from Russia. He had three siblings named Frances, Arthur and Ira (who would become his equally famous writing partner). The children grew up in the Brooklyn tenements and were unwittingly influenced by the cultural melting pot that surrounded them at the turn of the century.

All of this culminated in 1924 when Gershwin was commissioned to compose a jazz concerto that became Rhapsody in Blue. The piece and that opening clarinet glissando immediately established him as a serious composer at the fine age of 26.

Four years later, his next major work premiered, An American in Paris. Inspired by the years he had spent in Paris (probably the next most artistically scintillating city after New York City) he said, “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

He went so far as to include Parisian taxi horns into the composition.

With the dizzying heights reached by Gershwin and the country, it seemed poetic that the only way to go was down. The extravagance of the ’20s fizzled into the bleakness of the ’30s. The country may have been depressed but Gershwin was as busy as ever, composing a the folk opera, Porgy and Bess. A failure at the time, it is now regarded as a true American masterpiece, noted for it’s cast of classically-trained African American singers. Of course this was an extremely bold move at the time and thankfully one Gershwin was willing to make.

The work unfortunately proved to be his last, for what came after is again, almost poetic. In 1937 he suffered a  brain tumor and died.  The events were devastating as Gershwin was only 38 and seemingly poised to start a new chapter in his already stellar legacy.

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Now this winter, Park Square Theatre takes up the mantle of that legacy with The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer. That last word, a Yiddish one, means “instrument of music”. How fitting then for a man who was an instrument of so many talents.

 

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?

 

Alexandra is a Park Square Ambassador; we think you should get to know her! Check out her recent presentation.

By Alexandra Harder

Some of you may recognize me because I spoke at last year’s fundraising gala. Last year, I spoke about being a Park Square Theatre Ambassador. This year, I can not only speak about being an ambassador, but also about being an intern, an employee, and a member of the Park Square family. But first, for those of you who don’t recognize me, I started here at Park Square as a Theatre Ambassador. What this means is that one Saturday a month, I come here and spend an entire day and night with 19 other young theatre lovers. We learn from master classes, speak with a diverse variety of theatre professionals, see a Park Square show and discuss it afterwards with our peers. My favorite part of the program has always been speaking to Twin Cities artists about what they do. In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to pick the brains of Regina Williams, Ricardo Vazquez, Joel Sass, James Williams, Ann Michels, and more.

IMG_23711So that’s how I started here at Park Square. Shortly after the gala last year, I started In the Ambassador2 program as a second year ambassador. Our summer training involved meeting with Richard Cook, Mary Finnerty, Michael-jon Pease and other staff members, and learning about how Park Square works day-to-day and what their mission and goals are. During these meetings, not only did we get valuable information on how and why Park Square exists, we were also asked for our opinions and thoughts. Think about that. Several successful adults genuinely wanted to know what we, a group of teenagers, thought about their company and how it could be more accessible for people like us. If that doesn’t show how inclusive Park Square is as a company, I don’t know what does.

In the fall, I started as an intern in the Education Department. During  six hours each week, I learned to do things like book matinee tickets for schools, send out emails and invoices and even make phone calls to teachers. This may sound very mundane to a lot of you, but I’m a Virgo, so these things are very exciting to me. My long term goal has always been to own my own theatre company, so interning has given me invaluable skills I couldn’t have gained anywhere else, especially at such a young age. Megan Losure and Mary Finnerty (the two women the education program could not run without) go out of their way to make sure I’m learning not only how to do the things they ask me to do, but also why they are done, and how I would go about doing them if I had my own company in the future. This opportunity has given me the confidence to go out and actually take a big first step towards my dream.

This winter, I decided to start my own independent theatre. A friend and I, both seniors in high school started GIRL Theatre, a company dedicated to the empowerment and liberation of young women in our community. We produced a short devised piece titled Into the Red at Bryant Lake Bowl this February, entirely on our own. Thanks to Park Square, I had both the artistic skills to create a bold and imaginative piece and the practical skills to build an audience, sell out our shows, and actually make a bit of a profit.

Now, as if Park Square hadn’t already given me enough, I was recently offered a job as an Education Assistant. I will work part time through May, June and July, and I will be paid. As a young person who plans on going to college in the fall to get a degree in Theatre who is constantly being lectured on how wanting to be an artist will lead to a life of poverty, unemployment and tragedy, nothing gives me more hope for my future than being given a paid job at a theatre company at the age of 18.

AlexandraFor two years Park Square has tirelessly pushed me to grow as an artist and as a person, given me unparalleled opportunities and invested enormously in my future. If they had done all of this for me, just one young person, they would have done enough. But I am not unique. Park Square treats young people the way they have treated me. Thousands of kids have been touched by Park Square this year alone, and I guarantee you, I’m not the only one with glowing reviews!

Alexandra Harder is a senior at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, director, and founder of GIRL Theatre. Her upcoming project will be co-directing American Idiot with TASU Theatre Co. opening this month. 

Hellooo, St. Paul!

As I walked away from Park Square and the Hamm Building tonight after a box office shift, I couldn’t help but look up at the clear, crisp sky lit by both stars and city lights, and wonder about where I am in the world. Before you get all heady and introspective yourself, I just literally mean where I am. Like, my geographical presence on the planet.

Like, how did I end up in Saint Paul when I was born and bred and central Florida? I know it’s the same country, but it really is two different ways of living and I’m not complaining; in fact, I’m celebrating! Minnesota’s been very welcoming, especially all the artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with (looking at you, Park Square) and while I may have first moved to Minneapolis, I have definitely settled into the charm of the Twin.

One huge reason for that is the monthly Saint Paul Hello that’s held at the Minnesota History Center. Now for those of you who might not know, the event is a large social gathering that’s just one big welcome party with dozens of local vendors such as Park Square, Summit Brewing, the St. Paul Saints, The Current, a plethora of restaurants, artisans and so much more. In addition to all the friendly faces that greet you is all the FREE swag those faces give out!

Stickers! Pins! Candy! Tickets!  SNAPBACKS! Even custom designed eyeglass lens cleaners! What??? It’s the best, but if you’re not sold on any of that, the climax of the event is the beloved Hat Ceremony. It is at this moment where everyone who signed up for the event receives their very own faux fur-lined winter hat with the ear flaps. Saint Paul Hello oozes with kindness and generosity all because the founder just wants newcomers to love Minnesota as much as she does. 

Well, not only did I move here but I have stickers and pins to prove that I enjoy it as well. Even if you’ve lived here for years/ were born and raised eating hotdish, I would highly recommend checking out Saint Paul Hello. You’ll definitely get a spiffy new hat and probably make some new friends too; especially now that we’re right in the middle of winter, there’s nothing warmer. The next one is Tuesday, March 8. Stop by the Park Square table and say “hello.”

 

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