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Pease–Perfectly Cast

Michael-jon Pease

In September 2012, C. Michael-jon Pease became Park Square Theatre’s second Executive Director after the retirement of his predecessor, Steven Kent Lockwood. Prior to his promotion, Michael-jon had been the theatre’s first Development Director from January 2000 to January 2003 and rejoined Park Square in September 2007 as part of its senior leadership team, becoming its first Director of External Affairs.

Running a theatre is intricately complex, especially with its built-in paradox of requiring both utmost control and the free fall of letting go. It’s tricky to do, requiring the firm-soft touch of a leader who is an idealist that respects the counter pull of practicality to get things done or, one may instead say, a realist that trusts enough in dreams to even consider reaching for the impossible. Michael-jon is able to effectively bring those tensions into balance within himself and, by extension, within the organization. The result has been an organization that has managed to significantly grow in size and vision within the past decade.

“How has C. Michael-jon Pease so effectively led Park Square Theatre?” I wondered. “What made him the unifying leader that he is today?”

The first time I met Michael-jon, he had a hammer in his hand, pitching in to help open the Boss Thrust Stage on time. This willingness to roll up his sleeves and “go into the trenches” comes directly from his own theatre background, which spanned from the time his grandmother enrolled him in a children’s theatre program as a painfully shy boy of eight until he graduated from college with a double major in French and Theatre Arts.

“I learned a great deal about team leadership and communication as an actor during my many years on stage,” he told me. “On stage, you’re all in it together whatever happens. I remember one of my early productions was the musical Tom Sawyer. At the start of the picnic scene, we were supposed to enter in the blackout and the lights would come up on the party in process. During one performance, the lights came up early, before any of us had started to go on stage. After a beat, I grabbed the hands of the kids on either side of me and yelled ‘Hey everybody, it’s time for the picnic!’ and rushed on stage yelling.”

Michael-jon’s upbringing also strongly influenced his leadership style–namely, how he treats others. One cannot miss what he calls his “formal, and in many ways very old fashioned, sense of etiquette,” all learned under his parents’ roof. But his parents were also powerful role models of inclusivity and “champions for the rights of all.”

“My father was a Scout leader and my older brothers were in his troop,” Michael-jon recalled. “When the family was transferred to Illinois from Colorado for papa’s job, there wasn’t a troop in need of a leader, and all the troops were white (this was 1968). He and my brothers started a troop for the African American kids from the other side of town; and to this day, there are families who haven’t forgiven them for ‘bringing those people into our neighborhood.’ Suffice to say, the themes in A Raisin in the Sun really resonated with me.”

When asked to articulate his beliefs and values, Michael-jon replied, “I believe that everyone has a place at the table and that it should be beautifully set to honor everyone at it. I believe in working hard, helping others and pitching in on what needs to get done to move a project forward, whether it’s your job or not. I value quiet, good manners and beauty. I believe in love rather than tolerance; in empathy rather than acceptance. Always a dreamer, I’m still more and more a pragmatist. ‘Good enough’ done on time is often better than perfect and late. That’s where I’m different than my parents – I have left perfectionism behind.”

With his dapper dress and genteel manners, Michael-jon is perfectly cast as the Executive Director, the public face of Park Square Theatre. He could so easily use his rank to set himself apart. But Michael-jon defies typecasting. His is an open door and, I would dare say, an open heart. He stays accessible and engaged throughout the organization. Because we are all in this together.

 

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

 

TIMELINE

September 1989: Michael-jon earns a BA in French and Theatre Arts from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.

September 1993: Michael-jon earns a MA in Arts Administration from Saint Mary’s University in Winona.

July 1994: Michael-Jon is the founding Executive Director of Cornucopia Arts Center in Lanesboro.

December 1999: Michael-jon is recognized by the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council as its Arts Administrator of the Year.

January 2000: Michael-jon leaves the Cornucopia Arts Center to become Park Square Theatre’s first Development Director.

January 2003: Michael-jon leaves Park Square to become the Director of Development for the Des Moines Playhouse.

August 2004: Michael-jon returns to the Cornucopia Arts Center as Executive Director.

December 2004: Park Square Artistic Director Richard Cook recruits Michael-jon to facilitate the 2005 Board retreat.

November 2005: Michael-jon leads the visioning process for a ten-year plan at the Board retreat, the first step toward a Strategic Plan that would evolve into what would ultimately be dubbed “The Next Stage.”

December 2006: Michael-jon returns to facilitate the 2006 Board retreat on the “RE-reimagining of Park Square Theatre.”

September 2007: Michael-jon becomes Park Square’s first Director of External Relations–now a part of the senior leadership team–to oversee development, branding, marketing and public relations.

September 2012: Park Square Executive Director Steven Kent Lockwood retires, and Michael-jon is promoted as the new Executive Director.

October 2014: Park Square’s new Andy Boss Stage opens.

 

#allarewelcome: Illuminating Brave Spaces January 19

Ghostlight on stage with caption Be a Light

Challenging times can cause many of us wonder where the light is in the world. If these days seem like that for you, the Ghostlight Project brings good news and the opportunity to illuminate our little corner of the country.

On January 19 at 5:30 pm hundreds of theatres across the U.S. will host outdoor gatherings for a collective action to shine some light — in the form of flashlights, cell phone lights, fairy lights, etc.— to celebrate our theatres as Brave Spaces.

Please join us at Park Square as several theatre companies including Mu Performing Arts, Girl Friday Productions, Sandbox Theatre  and Prime Productions gather under the Park Square marquee on West 7th Place to participate in  the project. Our event will include music, the opportunity to join with others, to light a light, make a personal pledge and gather for coffee and hot cocoa in the lobby.

Details are available on Park Square’s Ghostlight Project page For more about the nationwide initiative, visit the TheGhostlightProject.com.

Bring friends — and your light.

#bealight
#ghostlightproject
#allarewelcome

Who Tells Your Story?

My whole being tingled with anticipation as the full cast read the script aloud for the first time. Photo by T. T. Cheng

My whole being tingled with anticipation as the full cast read the script aloud for the first time.
Photo by T. T. Cheng

My first experience with Flower Drum Song was seeing the 1961 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein production when I was a kid. I must admit that, although not a fan of the R&H version, I am absolutely psyched to see the Tony-nominated 2001 version by David Henry Hwang. That’s the one that audiences will see on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from January 20 to February 19.

With an almost wholly Asian American cast, the R&H version of Flower Drum Song was a light romantic comedy to profit from the popularity of such fare at the time. According to David Lewis in his book Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals, “Mr. Hammerstein and his colleagues were evidently in no mood to write a musical drama or even to invest their comedic approach with dramatic counterpoint of the sort that Jud Fry had given Oklahoma! … [They] took the safest commercial route by following the eldest son’s search for love–the most popular theme at the time with Broadway audiences.”

In rewriting the script for Flower Drum Song, Hwang asked himself, “Could I aspire to write the book that Hammerstein might have written had he been Asian-American? Could I re-envision the musical in a way that would feel relevant and moving to more sophisticated, contemporary audiences?” (from “A New Musical by Rodgers and Hwang” by David Henry Hwang for The New York Times, October 13, 2002)

The result was a much more nuanced work that confronts the complexities of the immigrant experience, grappling with such issues as generational culture clashes, stereotyping, racism, assimilation and identity in a way that the R&H version could or would not do. In short, Hwang’s play has much more depth.

In Hwang’s script for Flower Drum Song, we are given, as he’d once put it, not “a tourist’s-eye view of Chinatown”; instead, Hwang wrote it “from the point of view of the inside looking out.” For me, an immigrant from Hong Kong who’d initially lived for several years in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, a tale about Americanization–what it means to come to the United States and become a part of it–being told from an Asian-American perspective proves to be much more relatable to my own story, which is/was definitely not a light romantic comedy.

Flower Drum Song includes 17 cast members in all! Photo by T. T. Cheng

Flower Drum Song includes 17 cast members in all!
Photo by T. T. Cheng

The Magic Number is 17

There are 17 performers of Asian descent in Park Square Theatre’s upcoming production of Flower Drum Song. 17. Seventeen. That might not seem like groundbreaking news, until you ask yourself: When was the last time you saw 17 Asian American actors in one production on stage or on screen?

Sure, there are The King and I’s, Miss Saigons, and maybe even Pacific Overtures out there, but now I’m struggling to name another big broadway musical with as many as 17 Asian characters in it, let alone Asian or Asian American performers. And if you add the qualifier of a broadway musical written by an Asian or Asian American playwright or composer, that number dwindles significantly.

Many people are quick to say that in recent years, we’ve come a long way in American race relations, and maybe we have. However, while blackface is considered a thing of the past, yellowface and brownface are still practiced with some regularity, even in 2016. Add to that the practice of Whitewashing, casting a white actor instead of an actor of color, sometimes changing the script to do so. Take a look at #WhitewashedOUT, #MyYellowfaceStory, & #MyBrownfaceStory on Twitter & Facebook for more stories from Asian Americans about [lack of] representation on stage and screen.

A few years ago, during a broadcast of the Academy Awards, I challenged my Facebook friends to name an Asian American who has won an Oscar for a project telling an Asian American story. I noted that by saying “Asian American” I specifically meant that non-Americans of Asian descent did not qualify, and that stories that were set in foreign countries, where Asian American actors might be playing foreign nationals, likewise did not qualify. I meant specifically Asian Americans telling stories about the experience of Asian Americans. I would happily stand corrected, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Tony Awards are slightly better, but not by much. Rarely has there been an Asian American story on broadway, and Flower Drum Song is one of those rarities. But it wasn’t until 2002 that an Asian American, David Henry Hwang, received a credit for writing the new adaptation of Flower Drum Song, which is the script being used for Park Square’s production.

So when you come to Flower Drum Song (opening Jan. 27) not only will you be watching broadway musical history in the form of an Asian American musical written by an Asian American, but you’ll be seeing 17, count ‘em: 17, Asian Americans onstage. And you might not see that again for a while.

Mind of a Genius: The Best and Worst of Us

Just a quick note about our source material for our new play Big Money … This is a pretty fascinating documentary that will tell you most of what you need to know about Michael Larson factually, but we’re interested in things that go beyond the facts. We want to examine his mind.

Michael Larson represents some of the best and worst aspects of the American entrepreneurial spirit. He’s inventive, persistent and focused, but also greedy and determined to the point of delusion. I’m really interested in exploring our capacity to be both hero and villain, and how those roles are so rarely easy to separate from one another. We all want to be winners but if we are to win, others must lose.

Our biggest challenge in creating this show is the character of Michael Larson himself. It would be very easy to make him some sort of comically deplorable character, so we’re working together to find his humanity and make him widely relate-able. We don’t have to like Michael, but we must understand him and his decisions. I want the audience to see this show and recognize aspects of themselves: a desire to win, cleverness, rule-bending, etc; and then see what happens when those impulses and traits are allowed to go unchecked.

We knew this show would have relevance to us today, but the more we dig, the more relevant it becomes.

 

Theo Langason is Director for Sandbox Theatre’s Big Money, playing January 12-28 at Park Square Theatre in the Historic Hamm Building on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

Happy Mu Year!

 

The Chinese character 'xi,' meaning happy or joy Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio

The Chinese character ‘xi,’ meaning happy or joy
Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt

 

Theater Mu was founded in 1992, added Mu Daiko in 1997, then renamed itself Mu Performing Arts in 2001 to better reflect its taiko and theater programs. In spring 2017, Mu Daiko will spin off as a separate nonprofit entity to continue its work, still carrying its Mu indicia.

But what exactly does the term ‘Mu’ mean? According to Mu Performing Arts, “‘Mu’ (pronounced MOO) is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life.”

In 2017, Mu Performing Arts will be 25 years old! This January and February, Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts partner to co-produce the musical Flower Drum Song in celebration of this happy occasion.

Most appropriately, an ancient form for the Chinese character ‘xi,’ which means happy or joy, pictorially shows a flower-like hand holding a stick and a drum to make music and a mouth singing.

 

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric 'Pogi' Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated Photography by T. T. Cheng

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric ‘Pogi’ Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated
Photography by T. T. Cheng

 

 Flower Drum Song – Park Square Proscenium Stage – January 20 to February 19

 

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Note: Minneapolis brush painter and teacher Bob Schmitt is professionally trained in traditional Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy by master painters Hong Shang from Shanghai as well as Lok Tok and Yitong Lok of Toronto, Canada. Learn more about him at www.shopatlaughingwatersstudio.com.

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.

img_1515

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.

More or Less

While walking by the corner of Thomas and Hamline Avenues in St. Paul, I looked down and discovered this poem on the sidewalk.  It fed my heart and soul all day and everyday thereafter when I have passed by it again.

Sidewalk poetry Photo by T. T. Cheng

Sidewalk poetry
Photo by T. T. Cheng

I love how art, whatever its form, can do that–connect to your very being and express your deepest yearnings. Every fiber of you responds to its pull, and your life is forever changed. You don’t even have to fully understand it. Art that has stuck with me often involved those “What the heck?” moments. My mind craves to understand and connect, deeply interacting with what’s before me.

At Park Square Theatre, I recall feeling my synapses crackle and pop the first time I experienced Sandbox Theatre’s ensemble work–namely, how the story of our world overrun by anthropomorphic newts, driving humans to extinction so intrigued me that I had to see War with the Newts more than once. Sandbox’s second production on our Boss Thrust Stage, Queens, was just as thought-provoking–this time, a work about an African-American boxer finding his place in a world ruled by Jim Crow laws. Now I can’t wait to see their world premiere of Big Money on the Boss this January. What will the story of a man who suddenly devotes his life to winning big in a game show have to do with me or with you? The only answer I know to give is to show up and open myself to the surprise of discovery.

And isn’t surprise a key element of powerful art? It wakes me up to ponder big questions–to give me “a little more eats,” something for my mind to chew over, swallow and digest so I can attempt to make meaning out of this crazy, imperfect world. Art is imperative to my survival as an empathetic human being; it pushes me to expand beyond my own little corner of the world to connect with yours–the very impetus needed to make “a little less war, a little more peace.”

As we head into another new year, consider doing your part to bring peace on Earth. Actively support the arts in any way that you can: as a creator, spectator, donor, volunteer, subscriber or promoter. We shall all be richer for it.

 

Adrian Larkin: November Front of House Employee of the Month

Lead House Manager Adrian Larkin Photograph by T. T. Cheng

Lead House Manager Adrian Larkin
Photograph by T. T. Cheng

Adrian Larkin joined Park Square Theatre two seasons ago as an usher in the Education Department, quickly rising to become Lead House Manager. As such, he must manage up to two stages as well as supervise a half dozen or more staff members and volunteers during shows. He must stay level-headed while coordinating with Production and other theatre staff, often as hordes of school groups also needing his attention stream in. In short, he is the calm in the middle of the storm.

According to his supervisor, Audience Services Director Amanda Lammert, “His calm, cool, easy way with students, teachers and his co-workers has been a JOY to watch.”

Most recently, we witnessed Adrian successfully calm a frustrated, restless autistic student to be able to enjoyably focus on watching A Raisin in the Sun (and later even participate in the post-show discussion). He did so by respectfully initiating a handshake agreement with him. The word “respect,” in fact, best describes Adrian’s signature relational mode of being, as described in a past Park Square blog post called “Cool, Calm, Collected (and Kind): The Qualities of a Good House Manager” (April 25, 2016).

Lammert further commented, “It’s that ability to read people and adapt, partly from his history in the restaurant service industry (Adrian is also a bartender and server at Great Waters Brewing Company) and partly from his extraordinary gifts as a jazz musician–look for him on opening night of The Soul of Gershwin playin’ his sax at the party–that make him so perfectly suited to this job. He’s not just turning on lights, training new hires, tearing tickets and directing kids and teachers to their seats. He’s an educator, shaping the minds and hearts of a new generation of theatre-goers–HUMANS. Big stuff.”

Originally from Dallas, Adrian came to Minnesota to earn his degrees in Music Production and Recording Technology from the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. For almost ten years, he has been a freelance musician, composer and horn arranger. Two years ago, he was recruited by Park Square Marketing Director Connie Shaver to work annually at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival.

Adrian and his band member warm up before an early morning Twin Cities Jazz Fest segment with Todd Walker on FOX 9 last June. Photograph by W. Shaver

Adrian and his band member warm up before an early morning Twin Cities Jazz Fest segment with Todd Walker on FOX 9 last June.
Photograph by W. Shaver

“In addition to his commitment to Park Square, Adrian has a passion for jazz and is an accomplished sax player,” said Shaver. “During the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Adrian is willing to get up early in the morning to assist with live television interviews and continue through the day working on festival logistics. Just like at Park Square, he’s willing to step in to help anytime needed.”

As a daytime usher for the Education Program, it has been a great pleasure for me to work alongside–notably not “under”–this warm-hearted Texan. A new usher claims him as “my first friend here,” and a few of us more senior ushers have “adopted” this young man and watch with pride as he composes his life.

At Park Square Theatre, Adrian Larkin has definitely earned our respect. Congratulations on this well-deserved recognition!

Jane Strauss: A Photographer’s Reflections on Gershwin and His Times

On display in conjunction with Park Square Theatre’s production of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer are the works of Minneapolis photographer Jane Strauss, a self-described “attorney-in-remission” and a “Lapsed Thespian and Techie.” She was last involved with Park Square Theatre at its original location as stage manager for Picnic–way back in the 1970s!–but has found her way back to Park Square to grace our gallery walls.

Here is just a glimpse of Strauss’ exhibit. Be sure to visit the gallery to see it ALL in our Proscenium lobby when you come to see the show!

Jane Strauss with two of the photographs in her exhibit at Park Square Theatre (Photograph by Connie Shaver)

Jane Strauss with two of the photographs in her exhibit at Park Square Theatre
(Photograph by Connie Shaver)

In Jane’s words:
I’ve loved Gershwin’s works since I was a kid. The opportunity to curate an exhibit coordinated with Soul of Gershwin came as an unexpected delight.

Gershwin’s time ran from Tin Pan Alley into the Jazz Age, and his influences ranged from his immigrant Jewish roots to rural blues, liberally seasoned with urban rhythms and hustle-bustle. Fortunately, my past works included a series from Israel, one from Lithuania, including some Jewish sites, one from Chicago, focused on the Elevated Train, many classic automobiles, and rural scenes from multiple states and countries.

The major issue was choosing images for a small gallery.

Herewith – reflections on Gershwin and his times.

Vilna Shul Photograph by Jane Strauss

Vilna Shul
Photograph by Jane Strauss

 

 

More photographs by Jane Strauss may be viewed at her December show “Lithuania — doors, windows, vistas” at Urban Forage, 3016 East Lake Street, Minneapolis, and online at www.janesprints.imagekind.com, Jane’s Prints at www.cafepress.com and Jane’s Prints at www.facebook.com.

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