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Posts Tagged Proscenium Stage

Theatre Can Save Your Life

 

Cast of Dot on Stage in livingroom with Christmas Tree

L to R: Michael Hanna (Adam), Ricardo Beaird (Donnie), Cynthia Jones-Taylor (Dotty), Maxwell Collyard (Fidel) and Yvette Garnier (Shelly) in DOT
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

“It’s a cheesy thing to say, but theatre saved my life.”

What actor Ricardo Beaird, who plays Dotty’s son in DOT, claims is likely not the first time that theatre has done that for someone, particularly someone younger. At 16, Ricardo was at the brink of failing and repeating a grade in school. Serendipity came in the form of a teaching artist, visiting to teach his class Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“I couldn’t understand it at all, but the artist took the time to help me decode it. I came to understand it so much that I could make others understand it, too. I then realized that I could use that same model–decoding to fit my way of learning and being able to explain to someone else–for other subjects, like math. I ended up becoming an A student!”

Donnie and Shelly in the kitchen

Ricardo Beaird (Donnie) and Yvette Ganier (Shelly) in DOT
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

According to Ricardo, he’d “felt dumb at the time.” Now he himself is gratifyingly also a teaching artist, with the additional perk of lifelong learning through theatre from his own stage work. After earning a B.S. in Theatre and Marketing from Middle Tennessee State University, what initially brought Ricardo to the Twin Cities in 2013 was an Actor-Educator position with CLIMB Theatre in Inver Grove Heights. Once the job ended, he stayed rather than moving to Chicago as originally planned due to our thriving and hospitable theatre community.

DOT is Ricardo’s second time on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage. His first time was in another family comedy/drama, Sons of the Prophet, during our 2015-2016 season. From June 15 to August 5, 2018, he will also be in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at Park Square Theatre.

 


ALSO, YOU CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR EDUCATION PROGRAM (including upcoming productions of A Raisin in the Sun and The Pirates of PenzanceHERE

The Everyday Emergency

In 2010, Park Square produced Painting Churches, Tina Howe’s play about a woman who returns home to paint and help her parents. The father’s memory has begun to fail, and in its place are snatches of Irish and American poems. In the program for that production, I wrote about Mary Pipher’s book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, in which the author describes how we have no frame of reference for dealing with those who are growing old. She writes, “We have few road maps to help us navigate the new lands [of aging].” In Howe’s play, the couple are relocating to Cape Cod from Boston’s Beacon Hill (current home to John Kerry, former home to Carly Simon, Ted Kennedy, and Uma Thurman). The Churches had the privilege to confront aging with substantial resources, and that’s what makes Colman Domingo’s play feel so vital.

Donnie and Shelly in the kitchen

Ricardo Beaird as Donnie and Yvette Ganier as older sister Shelly in DOT (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

In 2010, I did not note that I knew of Pipher’s book because it was on my family’s bookshelf, alongside Eldercare for Dummies. As Pipher points out, and as anyone knows who has experienced that traumatic instant when a loved one turns to you and asks, “Who are you?” we’re all dummies when it comes to eldercare. (If you prefer, there’s an Idiot’s Guide.) As Dot suggests, caring for prior generations is a nearly inescapable experience, and some who do escape it may incite resentment and anxiety in other family members – hence Shelly’s exasperation.

 

Just as in the play, families debate whether to care for aging loved ones in-home (and whose home) or to pursue other accommodations (“the home”). The stress of these conversations (or negotiations, or outright conflict) is compounded because most families make these decisions with highly constrained finances. Tina Howe’s play is a moving portrait of a family bonding. Domingo’s play is an unnerving mirror. Shelly feels that “every day is an emergency,” and for so many of us who have been in the position of the Shealy children, we may feel that way, too. As we care for the aging and ailing, every second risks a trauma, and every day offers an emergency. We may judge Shelly for the measures she takes to give herself a break, but we can understand her.

From Oedipus to King Lear, from A Streetcar Named Desire to August: Osage County, the family reunion has been a major impetus in Western drama, as far-flung family are forced home to confront crises. And crises, according to Pipher, “make everyone more who they really are.” At least Blanche DuBois knew not to head to the Kowalskis’ just in time for Christmas: holiday traditions and expectations – not to mention sheer numbers of people – can trouble even the most delicately balanced families. But Dot is not a tragedy, and neither is aging, and it’s no surprise the Shealys’ emergency ebbs when the family try to understand one another.

 


Dotty and Jackie on the livingroom sofa with Christmas tree

Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Dotty with Anna Lakin as close family friend Jackie (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Hot off its hit New York run, Dot runs through January 7, 2018 on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre.

LEARN MORE / GET TICKETS »

Mina Kinukawa: Creating Steinbeck’s World

Set Designer Mina Kinukawa (center)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was first performed at the Music Box Theatre in New York on November 23, 1937. It was first performed on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage in 1998 as part of its Education Series. This season, Park Square’s Of Mice and Men is on the more intimate Boss Thrust Stage, necessitating a new set design. Set Designer Mina Kinukawa rose to the challenge of putting us into the play’s world: the agricultural Salinas Valley in Northern California. Specific scenes take place at the sandy bank of the Salinas River, the bunkhouse of a ranch, the room of a stable buck and one end of a barn.

Here is Mina to give us insights into her creative process:

 

Model of the bunkhouse

Previously, Of Mice and Men had been performed on the Proscenium Stage, but this season it moved to the Andy Boss Thrust Stage. What was your approach for set design to account for the change? 

From left to rt.: E.J Subkoviak as Lennie, Michael Paul Levine as George and Patrick O’Brien as Candy in Of Mice and Men
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

 

 

Since this was my first time designing Of Mice and Men for Park Square, I didn’t have to modify the old production. I went in knowing it was a thrust stage in almost a black box room. I really like designing for thrust stages to get close to the audience. And this production, I believe, benefits from having the actors/characters be where the audience can see and feel their emotions closer.

The voms (the corridors that “spew” people into the seating areas) and inner lobby allow for the creation of an environment that surrounds the audience. Will you be taking advantage of that? 

Director Annie Enneking and the actors did a wonderful job using the voms and the lobby space to convey distance. We set locations offstage (for example, where is the river, where is the road, etc.; locations that audience don’t see but the characters live in), and the actors run around and use the voms and lobby to create distance from the scene happening onstage.

Model of the set with tree

A tree is of particular significance on the set. Can you tell me about that? 

When researching location and historical background, I was drawn to the images of sycamores. It’s one of the first scenic elements that’s mentioned in the script, and it seemed to create an oasis in an arid landscape.

Left to right: E. J. Subkoviak as Lennie and Michael Paul Levin as George
(Photo by Petronella J. YtsmaP

At the same time, it’s almost foretelling the end of the journey that we will take with this play. Once I started designing the set, the tree took a strong place in the world that I was creating, and we all seemed to like to have it always “watching” the characters.

Model of the barn

 

 

 

 

 

Can you tell me about your journey to become a set designer?

I can say that it started in my early teen years. I was lucky to have had very good mentors who helped me with skills that I needed. I also learned to analyze plays and make them my own.

Jane Froiland as Curley’s wife and E. J. Subkoviak as Lennie
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Once I graduated from undergrad, I knew I wanted to have some “real” experience before going to grad school and had an opportunity to work in a scene design studio, first as an intern before I was hired on. Then I got a scholarship to go to grad school and got my MFA. I was in Southern California so naturally started to have more chances to work in films and had a blast. It was not an easy environment, but I enjoyed it very much. Very similar to theatre, it’s all about the team of people you work with! Then life took me to Minnesota, and I have started to connect with theatres and meet and work with great theatre artists here.

Tickets and more information here 

To Thine Own Self Be True

The above phrase is one of the most famous lines in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is a parent’s advice to only the son, not the daughter, Ophelia, who is played by Maeve Moynihan in Joel Sass’s new adaptation for Park Square Theatre. While some of the male characters have been changed to female in Joel’s version in order to, as he put it, “have more women walking the halls of Elsinore, expanding the notion of who carries power,” Ophelia does remain female and possess limited power in the face of social mores. With Park Square’s Hamlet set in modern times and presented to a contemporary audience, I wondered how Maeve perceived her character and planned to approach her role.

“Ophelia is a complex character, especially in relationship with the other characters,” Maeve reflected. “She’s often seen as being weak, but she’s not weak. She merely wants to please and do the right thing; she worries about the needs of others. The one kind of power that she has which the others lack–or isn’t as potent in them–is empathy. For Ophelia, she has a sense of caring that’s so strong that it cripples her. If you don’t look out for yourself, then you can lose sight of yourself. So Ophelia is misunderstood when we read the play.”

Maeve continued, “Ophelia does have a mind of her own and her own opinions, but she wants to make her mom Polonia proud. The other characters muddle up for her what’s right and wrong for herself, especially her mother, who asks her to spy on Hamlet. It’s not what she would do; but her mom, whom she loves, has asked her to do it.”

As Maeve sees it, Ophelia is very teen-like, a life stage when she’s trying to figure out who she is as an individual. She’s doing this in a court where her mother is of very high rank so Ophelia must always be concerned about how she reflects on her family.

Ophelia (center), played by Maeve Moynihan (Photo by Amy Anderson)

“Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we’re not weak people or pushovers. We’re just trying to do the right thing given the circumstances,” Maeve said. “What would it be like to be the kid of the President, and you didn’t have a choice about being that?”

Maeve imagines that Ophelia wishes that she could tell everyone to just leave her alone. She doesn’t want her life, including her relationship with Hamlet, in the public eye at all times. During rehearsals, Maeve herself has wished that Ophelia could also tell Hamlet, “Quit being a jerk! It’s not my fault that your father died.”

The prospect of playing Ophelia was, indeed, intimidating for Maeve. The youthful Maeve could certainly relate to Ophelia, but she feared overthinking the role. Director Joel Sass got her to trust her instincts in exploring what he called the “inner violence” done to her. While Maeve had initially considered Ophelia’s descent into madness to be “a fragile unraveling,” she began to see its more explosive emotionality.

“Originally, I would have approached it as unfathomable sadness,” Maeve said. “But Ophelia is actually trying really hard to find her reality again. She realizes that she has a warped reality and something is off because of how people comment on her behavior. What’s frightening to her is not that she thinks something is wrong with herself but that others are treating her like that.

Cast members being directed by Joel Sass; Maeve is second from the left
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

We’ve seen her repressed throughout the play, and finally it’s the moment for her to unleash all the emotions she’d been wanting to let out. She’s no longer worried about how people see her. She lets her pent-up frustration and anger come out. We get to see the demons inside of her that needs expression.”

In rehearsals, Maeve worked hard on how best to unsettle the audience with sharp emotional shifts, true to Joel’s intention to take the audience “to interior psychological landscapes of the characters.” Sudden laughter may just as suddenly turn into crying.

For Maeve, a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Acting Program, the draw to becoming an actor was the chance to get into characters’ heads to be different people. She loves that, as a result, actors come to accept and understand people in new ways. She loves that she’s in a profession that builds empathy.

Nine years ago, some of you may have seen Maeve on the Guthrie stage as Carrie in Little House on the Prairie. That girl has since grown up and is now very excited to be on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage to play the multilayered Ophelia. In her own words, “It’s going to be awesome!”

To Be!

Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet (Photo by Amy Anderson)

Kory LaQuess Pullam isn’t a huge Shakespeare buff, nor did he go through any part of his life being overly enamored of the Bard’s “precious language.” Yet, after Park Square Theatre’s annual “cattle call” audition, he found himself with the opportunity to play Hamlet in Joel Sass’s new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But if you stop to think about it, Kory’s lack of preconditioned awe makes him a fitting choice for a director who is trying to tell the story anew.

When asked what he brings to the table during rehearsals, Kory said, “I’m coming into this from the outside in the sense that I didn’t grow up around that [Shakespeare worship (my words)] so I have new eyes that can be useful.”

What especially excites Kory about playing Hamlet is not only the challenge but also the opportunity to do so for younger audiences in the student matinees.

“I really revel in interacting with and working for youths,” Kory emphasized. “I’d hate for thousands of students–and for some, this will be their first experience seeing Hamlet–to see an actor approaching this as just another gig.”

Noting that our student audiences tend to be much more diverse, Kory added, “I want to be a face that they can see and realize, ‘We’re valued.'”

Kory’s Hamlet will, in fact, deliberately close the distance between himself and the audience. He will at times directly address them as his confidants, forming the type of bond usually reserved for close friends. His Hamlet won’t be academic but real.

Rehearsing on the Proscenium Stage
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

The first time that Hamlet addresses the audience, he’s telling them, ‘I need the audience. I’m in a place that’s suicidal. I want to become vapor,'” Kory pointed out. ” We tend to forget that Hamlet’s not just sad; he’s not just an angry teen. He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress! His father has died; his mother has moved fast to remarry; his country’s in an uproar.

Hamlet wishes God hadn’t made it a bad thing to slaughter himself. Suicide’s an act that would send him to Hell so he has to stay alive and deal with all this. So many people feel that struggle and hurt everyday.”

Kory will, of course, get to recite that famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be . . . .” as Hamlet continues to deal with his anguish throughout the play. In academic circles, much ado is usually made over Hamlet’s indecision or inability to act. The irony is that Kory himself is a dynamic ball of action.

“I’ve been here for four years and going 200 miles per hour for the past few years,” Kory said. “I’ve done way more than I could have imagined. It’s crazy what’s happened.”

What’s happened to Kory, besides being cast as Hamlet at Park Square Theatre this season, is that:

  • his wildly popular comedy troupe, Blackout Improv, recently celebrated its second anniversary
  • Underdog Theatre, which he found in 2016, earned raves for its debut play, Baltimore is Burning, which he’d written
  • he’s at work on a trilogy, starting with Odd Man Out, a portion of which was performed in this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival
  • he’s just been tapped to direct Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry at SteppingStone Theatre for Youth (performances from February 7 to March 3, 2018)

And there are so many other dream roles that Kory would love to someday take on: Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, Orestes in Euripedes’ Orestes, Walter Lee in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Marcus in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, Booth in Suzan-Lori Park’s Topdog/Underdog and Pastor Paul in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians.

Kory also professed “an addiction to collaboration” that drives his momentum but recognizes the eventual need to slow down for several weeks of what he described as “doing nothing.” But then he’ll be up and running again, being dynamically creative and joyfully present–basically, being Kory LaQuess Pullam.

Tickets and more information at http://parksquaretheatre.org/box-office/shows/2017-18/william-shakespeares-hamlet/

 

Directing Hamlet

Joel Sass (in second row) directs Hamlet during a rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Having adapted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square Theatre this season, Joel Sass takes further control of his vision by also directing it. But he’s no control freak. Yes, Joel has made significant changes to Hamlet. Yet this is still Shakespeare’s play, and he doesn’t lose sight of that. His directorship now lets him share the creative fun of re-imagining Hamlet with others. The result: we get to look at this well-known play from a fresh perspective.

With his director hat firmly on, Joel has held extensive discussions with his production team to conjure up the world that this Hamlet will inhabit. In his words, “The world of our Hamlet will seem modern–without being specific to any one decade or national boundary. Our Denmark is a state of mind versus an actual Scandinavian country.”

With an eye toward inclusivity to inhabit this contemporary world, Joel put together a dynamic ensemble of regional actors of mixed ages, races, genders and opinions. He also purposely shifted the gender of some traditionally male characters to female, hence shaking up conventional power dynamics.

Joel Sass and cast members Kory LaQuess Pullam and Wesley Mouri  look at Alice Fredrickson’s costume designs. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

In a note attached to the rehearsal script, Joel told the cast that they’d “explore our own reorganization of scenes and speeches in order to find a more cinematic ‘drive’ to the plot. So you will definitely find things missing, streamlined and in some cases transplanted. And I’m expecting that as we work together on it, we may find more things to lose, add or shift.” He also welcomed their “ideas about how to best make the language work.” Did all this imply that Joel would give the actors free reign to improvise?

“No,” Joel assured me. “You still need discipline in exploration, or you’ll get lost in your own improvisation.”

As the director, Joel’s responsibilities included identifying boundaries while maintaining the creative latitude for the ensemble’s exploration. For instance, in the big scene when Hamlet angrily confronts his mother Gertrude in her room, Joel had the two actors consider how they’d physically move and interact so the audience could understand how close they actually are as mother and son. Their physicality would be key to revealing a fuller backstory to their relationship that cannot otherwise be captured through the lines in the scene.

The shifts in gender, too, force the cast to examine how characters would interact in light of the changes. Polonius, the male chief advisor to the king in Shakespeare’s version, for example, is now the female Polonia in Joel’s adaptation; Bernardo, one of the first officers to have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is now Bernarda; Hamlet’s closest friend, Horatio, was also changed from male to female. What resulting tensions will charge the atmosphere of this play? What performance choices will make sense to enrich the storytelling?

While interviewing several of the actors in Park Square Theatre’s production of Hamlet, I found that, more often than not, they also shed light on the director’s role during auditions and rehearsals. Simply follow our blog to keep learning more!

FIRST-TIMER’S CAMPING STORY: Survival of the Novice

John Middleton and Carolyn Pool in a rehearsal as novice campers trying to set up a tent in Henry and Alice: Into the Wild
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

On stage now through October 22, Park Square Theatre presents the American premiere of the international hit Henry and Alice: Into the Wild on its Proscenium Stage. This hilarious comedy by Canadian playwright Michele Riml features Twin Cities actors John Middleton and Carolyn Pool as spouses Henry and Alice, two inexperienced campers who rely on a copy of Camping for Dummies to survive their ordeal.

Camping in the Great Outdoors can certainly be a terrific bonding experience amongst loved ones; but more often than not, it gives you some of the funniest memories to cherish. During the run of Henry and Alice, I’ll share those submitted to our blog.

Montana mountains from afar
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Here’s a story from a novice camper who went “into the wild” on her first try:

I’m a “city gal” who’d married a “country boy” so my first camping trip ever was to go into Montana’s Beartooth Mountains with his relatives plus one family friend, Ryan, who was the most experienced of the group. As “the expert,” Ryan freely dispensed advice on what to pack, ever cautioning against adding unnecessary weight to carry on our backs.

Being new to camping, my major concern was the lack of modern bathroom facilities; I was not looking forward to peeing in the woods. Doing it outdoors in the open was bad enough, but at least I could make sure that I wouldn’t run out of toilet paper and be reduced to using the vegetation on hand. So as we all sat around the living room, each gathering their own wads of toilet paper to pack (taking off the cardboard cylinder would reduce weight), I rolled extra for myself, which Ryan readily noticed.

“You know that you’re just adding extra weight to your pack,” he warned.

I didn’t care. I’d gladly give up an extra t-shirt or underwear to not run out of toilet paper!

Ah, nature!
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

The next day we trekked into the Beartooths, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had terrific stamina for hiking with a heavy pack and loved doing it. Ah, the fresh air and soothing sounds of nature felt great! Ryan knew the names of plants and spotted wild blueberries to pick and eat; bugs didn’t freak me out the way they would at home.

Finally, the time came when I needed to pee during a break. As an extra precaution to ensure privacy, I announced to everyone, “I’m going to find a spot over there!”

I found what seemed to be the perfect spot, set down one of the wads of toilet paper that I’d rolled under Ryan’s disapproving eyes, and went to it. My sense of relief, however, turned to horror as I watched the torrent quickly soak the paper. The spot I’d chosen was slightly angled downhill, and the wad was not set far enough to be clear of its path! Boy, was I glad that I’d packed extra toilet paper.

That evening I was to learn another new lesson when “the guys” taught me how to build a campfire. We crumpled up any wrappers, gathered dry twigs and found dry wood.

“Okay, now don’t do anything until we tell you to,” they instructed. “Go ahead and light the match.”

So I did. But then they got to talking while the match kept burning.

“Hey, guys!” I implored. “Can I light the fire?”

That immediately brought their attention back to me.

“Yes! Yes! Do it now!”

John Middleton and Carolyn Pool as Henry and Alice, start a campfire
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

I decided that next time I may not necessarily wait for exact orders before acting. But, hooray, I’d successfully started my first campfire.

Of course, I’d learned much more on the trail, from how to set up a tent to camp-meals planning (e.g., “everything soup” as the last dinner to be rid of leftovers and trail mix for the final breakfast).

The last lesson came after leaving the Beartooth Mountains. It was early evening, and we’d piled into our cars and headed to the closest restaurant for dinner. As the hostess led us to our table far to the back, it dawned on us that she was seating us as far as possible from all other diners.

A week in the wild makes you rather smelly. You just don’t notice when you’re being “one with nature.” But back in civilization, you do.

 

Joel Sass, the Adapter of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

LONGEST HAMLET: Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play, with over 4000 lines, 20 scenes and 33 characters. Normally, it would take over four hours to perform.

FASTEST HAMLET: In 2008, a 15-minute version was performed by Austin Shakespeare in Texas. That production was called The World’s Fastest Hamlet; and after the show, the four-member cast then did a two-minute Hamlet, followed by a ten-second Hamlet.

PARK SQUARE’S HAMLET: This season, Park Square Theatre unveils a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Joel Sass, who is also its director and set designer. With a performance time of two hours 20 minutes, including intermission, and a cast of nine playing multiple roles, it will be performed for general public and student audiences.

Joel Sass has done several adaptations for the stage throughout his career, including William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Pericles for the California Shakespeare Theatre as well as Pericles for the Guthrie. In 2011, he’d adapted Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist for Park Square Theatre, following up in 2016 with his adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations on our Proscenium Stage. Then he successfully pitched the idea to adapt a shorter version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square.

“I’ve gotten into the reflexive habit of exploring how to do big stories imaginatively and economically,” Joel said. “Hamlet at 4+ hours may be a great experience, but there are a lot of other ways to approach it by being more selective and creative on the story elements. I also wondered how I could manifest the world of Hamlet with less cast.”

The germ of Joel’s idea actually resulted from his conversation with former Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling who’d wanted to do Pericles but could only afford to hire nine actors. Having successfully explored that possibility for the Guthrie inspired Joel to consider a similar approach for Hamlet.

Joel Sass (second from right) in rehearsal with Hamlet cast members
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“The process of adapting an existing Shakespeare play isn’t as complex as adapting a novel into a play. I already have the dialogue, and now I must decide what comes out and what to change,” Joel explained. “Hamlet is already a play that usually gets some cutting done. The play doesn’t have a definitive version either; there are three or four official versions with variations in plot, language and order of events. I feel that gives me implicit permission to continue to experiment. I needed to decide thematically and plot-wise what I wanted to do to retell the story.”

“I made some obvious cuts. For instance, I chose to lose the geopolitical element between Denmark and Norway, which is not necessary to the heart of the story. And I contemplated this one seriously but decided to take out Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I looked at how the plot flows and felt that the qualities of their relationship with Hamlet could be reiterated in exchanges with other characters. Take the richness implied in their friendship with Hamlet; that could be applied to Horatio.”

Knowing that the play would also be performed for student matinees where the audience may be studying Shakespeare’s longer version, I wondered if Joel had taken that into consideration for his adaptation.

“The value of students seeing theatre is not predicated on exact replication. Theatre is more organic of an experience and art tool than that. Using the tool of theatre is all about how stories are adapted or readapted. What meaning can you get from reinterpreted versions?” Joel pointed out. “The students will know the play enough to know what’s missing. The adaptation will make them more attentive to the material.”

Joel Sass with Kory LaQuess Pullam, who plays Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

With a smaller cast playing fewer characters and mixed-gender casting, Joel’s version of Hamlet will also bring an additional dimension for not just student groups, but all audiences, to ponder. What does it mean, for instance, to have the traditionally male Polonius character now be the female Polonia? According to Joel, audiences will get to explore anew characters that they may have thought they knew well.

“I’ve created a very intimate, more contemporary thriller in this adaptation,” said Joel. “I’ve emphasized the psychology of the characters and intensity of their circumstances, which can be more diffused or drawn out in a longer version. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a compelling, universal story that can withstand numerous ways of distilling events and language. We should want to see different versions of Hamlet.”

The Triple Threat

Joel Sass is the adapter, director and set designer for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

From October 13 to November 11, a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be performed at Park Square Theatre. Not only has Joel Sass adapted this famous tragedy for our Proscenium stage, but he is also its director and set designer. Who exactly IS this talented dynamo who has taken on these three demanding roles for a new production?

Joel Sass has been in the Twin Cities since 1990, working hard to offer AND build up his talents to become the highly respected theatre professional that he is now. His accomplishments are too many to list so here are just some examples: designing and directing on 15 award-winning productions at the acclaimed Jungle Theatre, being resident assistant director as well as designing and performing with the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune and co-founding the award-winning Mary Worth Theatre Company. Joel has himself been a recipient of many awards, including a 2007 McKnight Theatre Artist Fellowship for sustained artistic excellence, 2006 IVEY for scenic design on Last of the Boys, 2009 IVEY for overall excellence on Mary’s Wedding and 2007 Alan Schneider Directing Award for national recognition as a freelance director from Theater Communications Group (TCG). Twin Cities theatre critics named him 2002 and 2008 Best Director and 2009 Best Scenic Designer in the Twin Cities. His theatre lab, Mary Worth, was deemed 2003 Best Independent Theatre Company, and the Jungle Theatre was named 2009 Best Large Theater under his interim leadership.

Joel remains a sought-after freelance artist; but as for most theatre professionals, Joel was not an overnight success. I asked him to reflect back on his long journey, particularly to inspire young dreamers, some of whom may be part of the student matinee audiences for Hamlet.

“I had been doing theatre for a long time without realizing it,” Joel said. “I grew up in a rural area without extracurricular activities. So I played in the woods or in the barn. What I was really doing was building stories. I was that bossy kid who organized everyone.”

Theatre was not on Joel’s mind upon entering college at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB). He planned to pursue visual arts with the possibility of becoming an art teacher. However, he found the path to be too solitary in nature. He was a collaborator at heart. That’s when theatre tugged at him, and he considered becoming an actor.

“I was one of the lucky ones. Someone told me early on (his freshman year) that I wasn’t a good enough actor,” Joel recalled. “But he recommended that I should look into design or directing.”

That was exactly what he did. And with UWGB being a smaller college, Joel described his experience as “getting to do a lot in his four years” to prepare him for the outside world. Then after college from 1990 to 1993, Joel worked for Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which he described as his “graduate school.” It was like being in a rigorous, practical mentorship.

“But the best way to find your personal artistic voice and approach–there are few invitations for anyone to do that–is to start your own company,” Joel advised. “So I spent years making my own work.” In 1994, he became co-founder and artistic director of Mary Worth Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where he directed, designed and adapted over 14 new works and devised imaginative reinterpretations of classic plays.

“I advise anyone thinking of going to graduate school to first do your own thing for at least three years to see if you can get something going. Find and develop your artistic voice and approach. Then you’ll no longer replicate your teachers. Your voice and approach mature over time, too. Continue to learn. There’s never something that you don’t know.”

NOTE: Look out for future posts regarding each of Joel Sass’ roles for Hamlet.

Free Spirit

Melanie Wehrmacher (Alice’s interloping sister, Diana) arrives on her motorcycle. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

“Diana is very unlike me,” Melanie Wehrmacher claims about her role as Alice’s free-spirited sister in Henry & Alice: Into the Wild, currently on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium stage. “For instance, stylistically I wear vintage sundresses and 1950s aprons; whereas, Diana wears leather and has tattoos. She’s also not much like characters I’ve played in the past, but I have known women like her. It’s fun to play someone who’s not like me but that I still understand.”

Melanie describes herself as more like Henry and Alice, who make life plans and compromises. In turn, what she admires most about Diana is how she goes against the grain of traditional, societal expectations.

“Diana can be frustrating and a pain in the ass, but she has not wavered in what she wants to do. She’s able to be in the moment and do what’s right for herself to be happy. She stays true to herself, willing to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it that way–the way the world wants me to be.’ Diana is honest with herself despite being judged or looked down on for her choices. I love that about her!”

Melanie Wehrmacher as Diana with Carolyn Pool and John Middleton who play Alice and Henry
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Then as our conversation progresses, an interesting thing happens: the portrait that Melanie has painted of herself makes a radical shift. First, she reveals that she has a sister who’s an accountant, while she’s been the artsy one. As Melanie puts it, their relationship is “a less extreme version of Alice and Diana.” They’d moved in together for a spell in Minneapolis when her sister had left her small-town life in Iowa and Melanie had left her big-city life in New York, growing closer in understanding and further in conflict as a result.

Other details emerge: Melanie doesn’t remember a catalyst that sparked her passion to act. She’s simply always loved dress-up and playing with paper dolls. She also loved watching musicals, old movies and reruns of I Love Lucy. Though supportive of her interests, her parents thought she’d eventually grow out of them.

At home, the young Melanie made her parents watch her put on shows and perform musical numbers. She went on to act in community theater and high school plays. After getting her BFA at Drake University and additional training at the National Theatre Institute’s O’Neill Theatre Center, Melanie then moved to New York City. Despite a side interest in costuming and an opportunity to be a wardrobe assistant for a Broadway production, she never wavered in her pursuit to become a professional actor.

Melanie has had a prolific career in New York, the Twin Cities and regional theatre as well as in film/television and commercial work. She is immersed in “museum theatre,” writing and performing for institutions such as the Science Museum of Minnesota. She’s also written and performed full-length one-woman shows and writes a lot of sketch comedy. Melanie is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

The last time we saw Melanie at Park Square Theatre was in 2015 for a dramatic role in The Language Archive. In Henry & Alice, she lets loose with her comedic chops. This woman who doesn’t see herself as much like Diana seems, to me, to have a lot of Diana-like qualities, especially the courage to follow her own heart. Whether, in the process, she’s been frustrating and a pain in the ass . . . well, maybe her sister can tell us that.

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