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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.

 

Two Words

H. Adam Harris as Thomas A. Watson & Kathryn Fumie as Eliza, the radio interviewer (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

H. Adam Harris as Thomas A. Watson & Kathryn Fumie as Eliza, the radio interviewer
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

The lines that stay with me in THE (curious case of the) WATSON INTELLIGENCE are delivered by Thomas A. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory assistant, played by H. Adam Harris:

“If I may, this is significant. What my friend and mentor called out to me in that famous first sentence ever conveyed by wire was “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.’ It is often misquoted.” (Click here to listen to the account of the real  Thomas A. Watson.)

Watson tries hard to set the story straight for his radio interviewer, who has it incorrectly in her notes that Bell had said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” However, she considers the misquote “a minor difference”; whereas Watson sees it as “a crucial one” for the following reason:

“The two words that seem to you a minor difference, to me spell the difference between a man calling out to an acquaintance for generalized assistance, and a man calling out to his intimate friend for a service only he can render.”

Watson had dedicated his life to helping Bell, an extraordinary act that could easily be judged by others as too unfairly selfless. After all, Bell got the fame as Watson fell into obscurity. But Watson sees that interpretation as “a gross mischaracterization. If I opened myself to my friend, he opened himself to me no less profoundly.” They’d developed a strong friendship built on shared vulnerability, commitment, respect and trust. They’d both gone into the relationship with eyes and hearts wide open; they both had each other’s backs.

I found myself pondering their powerful bond the other day as I monitored school groups during the intermission for The Diary of Anne Frank. Friendship is also a strong theme that runs through that play, and here I was watching hundreds of young people coming together to take it in.

It was in this uplifted mindset that I suddenly witnessed this scene: A small group of white girls standing by the stage and one girl a few steps above them. The apparent leader of the group yelled out to the lone girl, “Angela, come down here with us!”

I smiled at these welcoming words.

When Angela had not yet moved, the leader repeated more forcefully, “Hey, Stupid! Come down here with us!”

Two words added.  A crucial difference–the difference between friend and foe, invitation and threat.

Angela chose to return to her seat rather than join the girls, who were now giggling hysterically but also nervously, realizing that an usher had been a witness. Then the leader started a frenzied dance to shake off the moment, with some of her friends following suit.

THE (curious case of the) WATSON INTELLIGENCE, playing on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage until April 30, is, as described by Director Leah Cooper, “really a play about making yourself vulnerable to love.” It is about opening ourselves to help and hurt as we navigate our way around forming mutually beneficial and meaningful human connections.

Very heartening to me is what Adam Whisner, who plays Merrick in curious case, had said about himself during our interview (see the April 2 post “Adam Whisner: The Two Merricks”): With age, he steadily becomes more of a Watson–that genuinely kinder, less self-interested and guarded person who lets more expansive and truer human bonds form.

I think about the girls and how they will choose to relate to others in the near future and as they continue to grow up. I hope for them to steadily develop the Watson intelligence, too. And I hope in doing so they will add two more words omitted from their vocabulary: “I’m sorry.”  The crucial difference between relationship and disconnection.

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.

Wintertime (Sung to the Tune of Gershwin’s “Summertime”)

image-soul-of-gershwin-12-1

Maud Hixson, Geoffrey Jones and Maggie Burton

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

 

Wintertime,
And Park Square is a hoppin’
Gershwin’s playin’
On the Proscenium

Your calendar’s
Got a spot in December
So rush music lover
Don’t miss out

One of these mornings
You’re gonna rise up singing
And you’ll keep it up
As you take a shower

‘Cause last night you heard
Snappy music at our show
With family and friends sittin’ by

Wintertime,
And Park Square is a hoppin’
Gershwin’s playin’
On the Proscenium

Your calendar’s
Got a spot in December
So rush music lover
Don’t miss out

George Gershwin had composed “Summertime” in 1934 for his opera Porgy and Bess. The lyrics are by DuBose Heyward. “Summertime” became a jazz standard and is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music. Here is a link to the actual lyrics and a performance of the song:

http://www.letssingit.com/george-gershwin-feat.-helen-merrill-lyrics-summertime-hct6q2r

Come hear “Summertime” and other popular Gershwin melodies performed by a talented cast, accompanied by a live band, in The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from December 2 to 31.

 

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Megan Fae Dougherty

For those civilians out there who don’t necessarily know the ins-and-outs of live theatre, the stage manager is the one who keeps everything in order. Obviously the job is way more monumental than that overly-simplified description, but put another way, a production would probably disintegrate, dissolve and collapse in on itself in a rage of despair and chaos if not for their guidance.

Thank goodness for stage managers, and especially good ones!

Among that class is Megan Fae Dougherty who is currently working hard behind the scenes of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer. As you know the musical is preparing to open on December 2, but thankfully I was able to catch Dougherty at a convenient time to ask her a few questions about herself and the show.

megan-fae-dougherty

Megan Fae Dougherty (center) with director Peter Moore (left) and assistant stage manager Samantha Diekman (right) at rehearsal for The Soul of Gershwin. Photo, Connie Shaver.

She let me know that she has been stage managing for much of her life, choosing the career in college at Bemidji State University. Although like so many theatrical artists, the seeds were planted long before by a high school director who pushed her into a stage management job in eighth grade. It was at Bemidji, however, that her break came when a professor needed a replacement stage manager right away. Already assigned as the show’s assistant stage manager she was ready to step in. The position was a seemingly temporary one, but of course fate turned it into something a little more permanent. She remained the stage manager and the rest was history.

After college, Dougherty moved to the Twin Cities and has worked with several different theatre companies around. Park Square has been a mainstay since 2011 when she worked on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Working with Joe Chvala and his Flying Foot Forum is another artistic home, especially when you know that Dougherty is a practitioner of the flow arts, which encompasses such endeavors as hula hoop, fire spinning and stilt walking. She is also a frequent stage manager with TigerLion Arts and was able to recently tour with their immersive walking play, Nature. 

Clearly whatever project Dougherty is attached to is bound to be unique, engaging and highly rewarding. The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer is no exception and she is excited for audiences to share in the music and storytelling the show has to deliver!

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.

banner-soul-of-gershwin-960x480

 

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.

 

Universal Themes in A Raisin in the Sun

One of the shows that most excites me in Park Square’s current season is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  The story about a family just trying to survive and get ahead is such a powerful one that it resonates as not just an American tale, but a human one.  Of course, the family at the center of it all is African American, allowing the play to delve even deeper into themes that have a historically specific relationship with African American citizens.

A Raisin in the Sun

This past winter I was in a production of Clybourne Park at Yellow Tree Theatre, which for those who don’t know, is set in the same world as Raisin, only after the events as told in Hansberry’s play.  It’s a script that picks up the mantle for the 21st century and scathingly shows us that issues such as racism, gentrification, entitlement and civil rights continue to nip at our heels no matter how many steps we take forward.

Among the many great things to come out of that experience for me was a reason to re-read A Raisin in the Sun (like you need a reason!), and I couldn’t put it down.  I remember reading it in high school and definitely not having the same reaction.  Obviously, my tastes and sensibilities have matured since I was sixteen but also so has our culture, where minority rights are deservedly back at the forefront of our social narrative.  As a white guy, it’s just been inherent that I live with certain blinders on; but with art such as A Raisin in the Sun, those blinders can start to come off and I can do my part to help make the world a better place.

That’s why A Raisin in the Sun is a great play, but the reason I believe it is a masterpiece of the American stage is how it gets its message across.  It’s extremely well-written!  Yes, the central theme is that of the African American experience, but it is told in such a way that it instantly becomes recognizable to anyone who has ever had a family, had to move, had to deal with life insurance and wills, been taken advantage of and so on.  Within this framework, the Younger family’s struggles become relatable to everyone; and in this way, it begins to create the social change for which I’m sure Hansberry was ultimately striving.

Nearly 60 years after Hansberry’s play premiered, we are still freakin’ fighting for universal rights.  I think there’s a lot of frustration that the years continue to roll without total victory.  Again as a white guy, when I was feeling the most frustrated with my seeming inability to relate, I picked up A Raisin in the Sun and I got it. Whether it’s sixty years ago or now, the story of the Youngers suddenly became my story and it changed my whole perspective. 

I’ve read it a couple times but I have never seen a production of A Raisin in the Sun. This October and November promises to be a special one at Park Square where, I believe, many perspectives will change and the world will inch ever closer to the equality we desire.

 

TEST: Costumes 101: Before and During the Show

In theatre, as in real life, how one dresses reveals a lot about a person.  This summer, I asked Megan West, Park Square Theatre’s Production Manager, to tell me how costuming is handled from start to finish.  So she did!

Park Square hires a designer to create costumes for each play. Before meeting the cast, the costume designer has already done much character research to consider appropriate wardrobes to help create the characters’ identities.  S/he puts together a “collage book” for each character, consisting of fabric swatches to determine what colors, hues and textures to use, pictures from fashion publications or ads, online images and whatever else may seem indicative of the character.  All the while, s/he is also consulting with the play’s director to discuss what really works.

The costume designer also attends production meetings to collaborate with the set and lighting designers.  For instance, the set designer may know not to get a red sofa if costumes will be in red, or the costume designer may know not to create green costumes if a set will be designed using green tones.  The lighting designer also needs to know about chosen color-schemes to create effective lighting.

The actors will have been measured and had fittings as part of the costuming process, which gives them some idea as to what they will wear.  Not until technical rehearsals happen will the actors start wearing the costumes.  It is the time for them to get a sense of how it feels to move with the costumes on as well as to practice how to quickly change in and out of costumes.  The actors, in fact, have their wardrobe organized and labeled on a rack in the dressing room as well as provided with a list of their costumes.  Everything is organized to help the play run smoothly.

Not all costumes need to be “created from scratch.”  That is actually an expensive process so, more often than not, clothing is purchased from stores, usually on discount or used.  Clothing and accessories can also be rented at low cost–a dollar per week for jewelry, $3 per week for pants, $4 for coats.  Actors may even own personal pieces appropriate for the play, which the theatre pays them rent to use.

The designer’s job is not yet over even after the show has opened.  Audience reactions in the preview performances can influence costume changes.  For instance, if an orange dress causes laughter in a serious scene, then the designer must change the dress.  Or does a tank top on an heiress, for example, look cheap and shabby on stage when it shouldn’t?

Costumes must be kept clean throughout the play’s run, too.  Park Square has a  part-time wardrobe staff member who keeps track of laundering schedules and repair lists so a hired laundress knows what and when to wash in-house or dry-clean and what needs mending.  In general, clothing is washed every other performance, but articles that touch skin, such as underclothing and slips, must be laundered after each performance.  A helpful “trick of the trade” is to spray vodka on clothes as a disinfectant.  Once the play ends, everything gets a final wash.

When I have watched actors in performances, I was unaware of all that is involved in the costuming process.  So much meticulous attention to detail is necessary to design or acquire the right costumes and to maintain and organize them.  So much hidden work goes into creating magic on the stage.

              Calendar Girls Costumes          Calendar Girls Costumes

Some Costumes for Calendar Girls

 

(Look out for the upcoming blog, “Costumes 102: After the Show.”)

 

Costumes 101: Before and During the Show

In theatre, as in real life, how one dresses reveals a lot about a person.  This summer, I asked Megan West, Park Square Theatre’s Production Manager, to tell me how costuming is handled from start to finish.  So she did!

Park Square hires a designer to create costumes for each play. Before meeting the cast, the costume designer has already done much character research to consider appropriate wardrobes to help create the characters’ identities.  S/he puts together a “collage book” for each character, consisting of fabric swatches to determine what colors, hues and textures to use, pictures from fashion publications or ads, online images and whatever else may seem indicative of the character.  All the while, s/he is also consulting with the play’s director to discuss what really works.

The costume designer also attends production meetings to collaborate with the set and lighting designers.  For instance, the set designer may know not to get a red sofa if costumes will be in red, or the costume designer may know not to create green costumes if a set will be designed using green tones.  The lighting designer also needs to know about chosen color-schemes to create effective lighting.

The actors will have been measured and had fittings as part of the costuming process, which gives them some idea as to what they will wear.  Not until technical rehearsals happen will the actors start wearing the costumes.  It is the time for them to get a sense of how it feels to move with the costumes on as well as to practice how to quickly change in and out of costumes.  The actors, in fact, have their wardrobe organized and labeled on a rack in the dressing room as well as provided with a list of their costumes.  Everything is organized to help the play run smoothly.

Not all costumes need to be “created from scratch.”  That is actually an expensive process so, more often than not, clothing is purchased from stores, usually on discount or used.  Clothing and accessories can also be rented at low cost–a dollar per week for jewelry, $3 per week for pants, $4 for coats.  Actors may even own personal pieces appropriate for the play, which the theatre pays them rent to use.

The designer’s job is not yet over even after the show has opened.  Audience reactions in the preview performances can influence costume changes.  For instance, if an orange dress causes laughter in a serious scene, then the designer must change the dress.  Or does a tank top on an heiress, for example, look cheap and shabby on stage when it shouldn’t?

Costumes must be kept clean throughout the play’s run, too.  Park Square has a  part-time wardrobe staff member who keeps track of laundering schedules and repair lists so a hired laundress knows what and when to wash in-house or dry-clean and what needs mending.  In general, clothing is washed every other performance, but articles that touch skin, such as underclothing and slips, must be laundered after each performance.  A helpful “trick of the trade” is to spray vodka on clothes as a disinfectant.  Once the play ends, everything gets a final wash.

When I have watched actors in performances, I was unaware of all that is involved in the costuming process.  So much meticulous attention to detail is necessary to design or acquire the right costumes and to maintain and organize them.  So much hidden work goes into creating magic on the stage.

              Calendar Girls Costumes          Calendar Girls Costumes

Some Costumes for Calendar Girls

 

(Look out for the upcoming blog, “Costumes 102: After the Show.”)

 

Calendar Girls: Featuring Kory LaQuess Pullam

As part of our ongoing Meet the Cast of Calendar Girls Blog Series, let us introduce you to Kory LaQuess Pullam:

pullam_kory_laquess

ROLE:  Liam, late 20s

AS DESCRIBED IN PLAYWRIGHT TIM FIRTH’S SCRIPT:

Liam would like to be directing other things than photoshoots for washing powders.  He’s not so unprofessional as to let it show, but we can sense a slight weariness at having to deal with these women. . . . For Liam, this photoshoot is a job.  And not a job he wanted.

DIRECTOR MARY FINNERTY’S COMMENT:

Kory LaQuess Pullam is a gifted young actor.  I saw his work at Park Square Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet.  He has a strong work ethic and a great ear for dialect.

QUESTION FOR KORY:

What characteristic or aspect of Liam seemed most important for you to bring out?

The most important thing to bring out in Liam is that this world is foreign to him.  He’s from the UK, but not the specific region of Yorkshire like almost everyone else.  Also, it’s important that we get the sense that Liam is bigger than all this.  He’s meant for more and doesn’t have a tough time showing it.

CAST BACKGROUND:

Park Square Romeo and Juliet  Representative Theatre Guthrie Theater: Choir Boy; Children’s Theatre Company: Charlotte’s Web; Pillsbury House Theatre: Prep; Walking Shadow Theatre Company: The Christians; Brave New Workshop: The Working Dead; History Theatre: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story  Training B.F.A., Acting/Directing, Stephen F. Austin State University  Other Founder of Blackout Improv  Upcoming Projects Guthrie Theater: The Parchment Hour; Underdog Theatre: Baltimore is Burning

 

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