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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.

More Funny Camping Stories

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

From September 15 to 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.

The stories just keep on coming:

We were tent camping: two adults, two kids, a baby in a travel crib and a dog. There was no room for the dog in the tent so she was outside “guarding” the campsite from invaders. All of a sudden, she was growling, then barking, then pheeww!! And more intense pheeww!!

The dog and the entire campsite was sprayed by the black and white furry invader. We had to leave and bathe the dog in tomato juice.

——

This episode took place at a church camp in South Carolina where I was serving as a counselor for a group of middle school girls. We had been assigned a covered wagon for our lodging. It was up off the ground, not easily entered or exited. Two of the girls were brand new to camping away from home. The rest were seasoned church campers. It was one of the new girls who had the challenging moment.

The six girls and I had gone to sleep after lights out. All one heard were the night noises of the forest, crickets, perhaps owls and a few mosquitos, given the humid climate of the South. Out of this lulling tranquility broke an urgent demand, “Ms. Jeannie, me gots to pee! Me gots to pee!”

Jumping to alert attention, I assessed the situation as quickly as I could. Time was not available for reaching the bathrooms down the path. Together she and I hastily determined that the only thing to do was for her to sit over the edge of the wagon and let nature take its course.

I imagine she has retold that story to her own children and grandchildren in the time since the early ’70s.

——

Camping with Jill’s son and family, we were startled when their dog, Balto, who was named after a famous sled dog, appeared on the road chasing a pickup while dragging a large log behind him attached to his dog chain.

Another time, we were camping as we traveled to Baltimore; and as I went to get some wood from a pile set up for that purpose, I saw a sign that said, “Beware of Snakes.” Well, at that time, we had no tent and I slept beside the car under a tarp. Imagine now myself, Jill and Mike all crowded inside our VW Dasher. The gearshift lever on the floor was a big challenge.

Then there was the time Jill’s brother-in-law decided to sleep on the top of the picnic table in the campground. When he awoke in the morning, he looked down to see a skunk sitting on his feet. Hmm, he escaped dire consequences even though he threw a shoe at the animal.

And finally, we have a large two-room tent whose main room has a waterproof floor. The plastic extends up the sides a couple of inches and provides ample protection under most circumstances. On a camping trip, we set up the tent; but the ground was pretty uneven. Wouldn’t you know but a storm blew in that night, and the rain and lightning were severe. Soon the rain made its way into our room, and air mattresses were of no help. Couple that with lightning strikes close by, and we chose to sleep in the back of our Blazer. The storm passed but, the Blazer was actually quite comfortable.  Well, sort of.

A Fishy Camping Tale (Yet They Are Still Married)

From September 15 to 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.

Here’s Christine of Kenyon, Minnesota, sharing a story about a camping trip with Dave, her partner of over 30 years:

Let’s get this straight right out of the starting gate. I am not a great camper. Given the choice, I would sleep in places that have ice machines and sheets and do not feature wood ticks or chiggers.

However, my husband Dave is the poster boy for camping enthusiasm. He could be a 1950s Walt Disney camping dad. He has hiking boots. He wears red flannel checked shirts. He dips his matches in wax before we go so they will stay dry. Campfires are like TV to him, and things that might dampen another person’s spirit hardly register in his mind. He doesn’t notice there are squiggly things on the bottom of a lake, and finding a leech on your foot leaves him unimpressed.

Dave loves camping so much that he will build the fire, cook all the food, haul all the gear in and out of the van, put up the tent and not be mad when you don’t want to hike AGAIN today, preferring to read your lurid vacation books at the picnic table while brushing the ants and jumping spiders off yourself.

Dave also loves to fish. If you talk to Dave about camping, fishing always comes up. I believe he is unaware that one could camp somewhere and NOT fish. Camping triggers the fishing lure (if you will). His eyes will glaze over, and he will begin to describe in detail the sheer nirvana of eating fish every day, fresh out of the lake. This man who cannot find ketchup in a grocery store and forgets to pack pants in his suitcase (when we go somewhere normal) is unfailing at remembering the cast iron fry pan, oil and cornmeal for frying fish.

This is a true story. It happened in the late 1980s. Camping then was particularly hard for a gal of my temperament. Regular folk did not have cell phones or little TVs. Laptops were unknown. We made fire with wood and charcoal briquettes and did not have fancy pop up tents or hats with mosquito nets on them. You don’t really need to know this historical detail, but I wanted to get credit for how brave I was then. I love my husband, and it was his birthday. So we went camping at Lake Texana, Texas–in the tent section because Dave is much too manly a man to succumb to an RV.

The minute we got the tent set up and our stuff unpacked, Dave went fishing on the dock. It had been a long trip, so we were going to have bratwurst for supper and, hopefully, fish for breakfast. We figured Dave had an hour to fish; then we should eat and get a good night’s sleep. I got out salad, onions and buns and put the brats on skewers. When all was ready, I walked over to the dock where Dave was fishing. Beaming, he showed me his stringer with four big “Sunnies” and assured me we would indeed have fish for breakfast. After effusive admiration of the fish, I told him it was time for supper.  Grumbling just a little bit, he gathered up his things and came back to the campsite with me.

When we approached our camp site, there was a flurry of furry movement hurrying into the bushes. The brats were gone. The end of the skewers were chewed, the salad had been tossed on the ground and all the walnuts in it had been carefully picked out and eaten. We found the empty bun bag torn and mangled near some bushes leading into a wooded thicket. There were bite marks on the mustard bottle.

Dave told me not to worry.  He could fry up the fish in no time. I think I saw a tiny gleam of masculine provider satisfaction in his eye. Maybe after supper, he said, he could do a little night fishing and get more fish for breakfast. His shoulders were broad and his demeanor proud as he strode off to the dock to get his stringer of fish. Moments later, he was back, empty handed. It seems there are alligators in Lake Texana. Apparently, alligators like a convenient meal of fish served to them all in one spot. Undaunted, we had trail mix for supper. After that, Dave went back out and came home all smelly and happy with a bucket of fish. He secured the bucket with a cover and a rock on top.

The next morning, we found a big wet spot where the bucket had been toppled. There was no sign of the fish. We did see paw prints and drag marks leading towards the thicket of trees and bushes near our spot. We had egg salad sandwiches from the cooler for breakfast.

Dave went on a hike. He likes to hike in the woods. He brings home a lot of trophies from his hikes: feathers, craggy pieces of wood, wood ticks, rocks which he claims are agates. We had lunch, and Dave went out to rent a rowboat. When he returned, we had a short negotiation in which his goal was to get me in the boat and go fishing all afternoon. My goal was to define “afternoon” and to secure a promise that, even if the fish were “biting” we would go to shore within 15 minutes of any announcement from me that I needed to find a bush to hide behind. A deal was struck; and after an exciting 12 weeks (or it could have just been three hours) of sitting in the wet rowboat, we had another bucket of fish and were back on the dock. The dock had a fish cleaning station so Dave cleaned our catch and brought the cleaned fish back and put them in our Styrofoam cooler instead of the bucket. He wedged the cooler tightly under the bench of the heavy picnic table, further securing it with several BIG rocks. We flip flopped down to the camp showers to rinse the smelly fish and grime off. When we came back, the cooler was still firmly wedged under the picnic bench. It had not budged an inch.  It had a lot of little raccoon paw prints all over the surface. A hole had been chewed out of one corner. When opened, it revealed more paw prints and no fish. We had baked potatoes for supper.

The next morning, Dave was out fishing early. By the time I made coffee, he was back with more fish cleaned and ready to fry. He put them in our heavy-duty plastic cooler–the one with the latch. In a rare moment of mean spiritedness, I saw him rub the latch with a cut jalapeno pepper. He went to get cleaned up, and I did a quick search for wood for the fire. We were gone 10 minutes. I was in woods about 100 feet from our site when I heard Dave say something in a loud voice. Never mind what he said exactly. You don’t need to know every detail.

Apparently, the raccoons of Lake Texana are not in the least thwarted by a simple cooler latch. The cooler had been ravaged. It was cooler Armageddon. The egg salad Tupperware was destroyed, the butter completely gone except for a tiny wad of chewed up paper. Two withered grapes were left on a remaining grape stem. All the cheese and lunch meat were gone, not even a shred of plastic wrap to mark their existence. Bottles of beverages lay in a blast zone-like pattern surrounding the cooler. You might wonder if, when finding the smorgasbord of delicacies that inhabit a camping cooler, those hoodlum raccoons would leave the local lake fish out of sheer boredom. You would be incorrect.

We are not stupid. We cleaned up the site and tossed the Styrofoam cooler.  Our main cooler and our non-cooler bag of food were in the van. We went for a hike and found a clearing with some beautiful tame deer that people were feeding by hand. Enthralled, I went back to the van to get the enormous camera we had in those days.

Approaching the van, I noticed a torn bag of corn chips dangling from the front window. The window we had left cracked about an inch so as not to be roasted alive in the blazing Texas heat should we want to go somewhere. THAT window. The size of the opening of the window was calculated to frustrate and defeat fish theft.

A few yards away, a gang of chipmunks were attempting to be invisible by sitting absolutely still in a little nest of mauled corn chip bags. I told them how shocked and disappointed I was in them. They did not seem in the least sorry.

We drove to a nearby town for lunch and to restock our supplies. That evening, I made “hobo stew” while Dave went fishing. If you don’t know, hobo stew is vegetables and meat of your choice wrapped in many layers of aluminum foil and then baked on your campfire coals in the aluminum packets. While I was sitting on guard of those packets, Dave took the rowboat out. I used my time judiciously, applying dots of calamine lotion to all my mosquito bites and unidentified itchy spots. My pale green capris complemented the pink polka dots covering my arms and legs. I was sure I was making a breakout fashion statement.

Dave returned triumphant, and we locked the evening’s catch in the cooler, in the van.  Unfortunately, after securely closing the door, we had a flurry of door openings and closings due to the need for “Nana-Ramas,” a treat that we felt we had coming to us.  Nana-Ramas are a banana with one strip of the peel pulled off, the banana split down the length, with chunks of chocolate (dark is better) squished in the split, a sprinkling of pecans and a spoonful of orange marmalade rubbed on the top. Wrap it in foil. Bake in the coals. There are lots of variations on this theme. My point is someone left the back of the van where the cooler was secured, unsecured. We are easily distracted by chocolate.

The next morning was spent cleaning out the back of the van where food goo and muddy raccoon prints were abundant, then getting the van jumped because of the dead battery due to the dome light, followed by going through a car wash for the vacuum and upholstery cleaning features. After that, we had brunch in town and went grocery shopping again. In the grocery store, I suggested we buy some fish to save us the trouble of going out again. This suggestion was not good for our marriage.

The next batch of fish were stolen straight out of the bucket WHILE WE WERE STANDING IN OUR CAMPSITE. (Okay, at the edge of the site, behind the van; but still, we were right there.) The park ranger had stopped by for a friendly chat just before leaving to go home. Our backs were turned, but I heard the bucket make a “whump” noise and looked over just in time to see a gang of furry hoodlums snatching up the fish and making a beeline for the bushes.

On our last full day, Dave had a determined air about him. We were leaving the next morning. This was his last chance to fulfill my dream of having fresh fish. I attempted to say something along the lines of “I’m just as happy with bacon and eggs,” but his lips were pressed together all thin and pinched. Being no fool, I agreed with him that this fresh fish business was my heart’s desire. I said I would make coleslaw and cut up some lemons. I should tell you now that we have been married over 30 years, and I fully credit my fish-friendly remarks to the success of our relationship. Don’t be led astray by advice from popular sources, such as daytime TV or women’s magazines. Chanel No. 5 can’t hold a candle to the smell of fried fish on your fingertips.

Dave packed a lunch for himself and spent the day in the rowboat. I didn’t see him until about 6 pm. I could tell from 200 feet away that he had been successful. He was covered in sweat and fish scales. He got a little six-pack-sized cooler out of the van and filled it with ice and cleaned fish. He started the fire. I noticed that he had one knee on the little cooler. Sitting a bit downwind of him, it occurred to me to offer to watch the fish cooler while he took a shower. I refrained from making any remarks with the word “stinky” in them. Just call me supportive. I know he trusts me, but that night Dave took the cooler with him to the camp showers. I am told he had it in the shower with him.

We did have fresh fish for supper. We watched the fire and talked about how great the fish was and about other glories and mysteries of life. Dave looked ten years younger. The little cooler was at Dave’s side, under his elbow. There were enough remaining fish filets for a hardy breakfast. These had been lovingly rinsed a second time, sealed in a plastic bag, and the little cooler had been refilled with ice.

Just before sunrise, I woke to the sound of quiet chirps and gentle rustling noises.  I looked at the tent door and saw a little grey paw patting the floor of the tent in a big fan pattern. The paw pulled out of the tent, and a little snout was thrust inside.  The snout veered toward the little cooler. Dave had brought it in the tent with us and put it near our feet. Chirping and rustling continued outside the tent. The tent door (zipper) was being tampered with, the little paws reaching now in the direction of the cooler! I moved the cooler up near the middle of the tent. I was being quiet, but the intruders panicked at my movement and scampered off.

In the morning, we found paw prints all over the van door, the back of the van, the tent entrance, the picnic table and around the campfire. Dave’s fishy jeans were lying in the grass halfway from our site to the wood thicket. His fish-scale bedecked t-shirt was gone.

We had a hearty breakfast of fish for breakfast. Dave looked every bit the conquering hero.

After breakfast, Dave decided he would look for his “lucky” t-shirt one more time before we left. A bit later, he came back to our campsite and got me. He led me into the thicket of woods, past the bush barrier. There, strewn in a giant oval, were the shreds of hundreds, yes HUNDREDS of empty food containers: bread bags, bun bags, pizza boxes, chips bags, occasional cereal boxes, peanut butter jars, Tupperware and random food tins. It was awesome.  It was the elephant’s graveyard of raccoon booty.  It was the lost city of Raccoon Gold. We were the Howard Carters to the Raccoon Tut burial chamber. It was a testament to the unparalleled food thievery powers that define the raccoon essence. We were humbled in the presence of these masters. We gave up the search for his lucky fishing t-shirt. It would have taken years.

Even with this loss, Dave smiled all the way home. At one point, kind of out of the blue, he said, “Boy, they really know what they’re doing.” He didn’t say a lot more, but I had the impression that losing all those fish no longer rankled now that he understood the scope of his opponent’s powers.

Another Funny Camping Story: The World’s Worst RV Park

From September 15 to 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. Before and during the run of Henry and Alice, I’ll share some humorous camping stories submitted to our blog. Be prepared to laugh until your stomach hurts after reading this one from Calvin of Asheville, North Carolina:

Calvin, Zach and Isaac before their horrible camping experience.

After riding our loaded bicycles since dawn in the 90+ degree heat, we stopped at the World’s Worst RV Park in East Cape, Ilinois, at about 7 o’clock. I was so hot and tired and fried from riding all day in traffic that I was ready to camp in the gutter. Maybe that’s why the dusty gravel parking lot that was supposed to pass for a campground looked OK to me. When I get really exhausted, my mind is less than keen. Blinded by the sun, I felt my way into the A-frame office, where a woman with a big black wig told me it would cost us $21 to pitch our tent under a leafless tree 20 yards from the highway. Wanting desperately to avoid crossing a busy bridge just down the road during rush hour, I forked over the dough. By the time we set up our tent, we knew we should have kept going, even though we had already ridden 70 miles. Steady traffic from IL Highway 3 assaulted us with noise, dust and fumes. A bouquet of sewage wafted out from under the bathhouse we were camping behind.

“We paid $21 for this dump?” Zach said. “We could get a motel for $30.”

“If we could make it over the bridge without getting killed,” I said.

He snorted. “The smell alone’ll kill us by morning.”

“This is what hell’s gonna be like,” added Isaac.

I bloodied my leg killing a mosquito and walked over to the pay phone on the wall of a car wash on the other side of the parking lot. The receiver of the phone was so hot I could barely pick it up. I stood sweating in the late afternoon sun talking to my wife Maria.

“We’re in an RV park a mile from the Mississippi.”

“That’s great! I can’t believe how far you’ve gotten. What’s all that noise?”

“Could be all the traffic on the highway we’re camped beside,” I told her. “Or maybe the boys kicking the drink machine?”

“How’re you feeling?”

I took a deep breath. “This has been one of the worst days so far. Hot, tons of traffic, incredibly awful camping spot, right by the outhouse. We’re all ready to come home before we kill each other.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll bet it’ll be better once you get back on some better roads.”

“Hope so. We gotta get through Cape Girardeau before we find any better roads.”

“How you gonna get across the river?” Maria asked.

“Bridge is only a mile away. we’ll cross early in the morning before the traffic heats up.”

“Be careful!”

“My middle name.”

We showered in the foul-smelling bathhouse and swatted at mosquitoes while we ate spaghetti and French bread again for what seemed like the hundredth time in a row. The dust settled on my sweaty body and transformed me into a Cape Buffalo.

“This sucks,” said Isaac. “I’m going home.”

“I may go with you,” I said.

“We should have gotten a motel,” said Zach.

Craving sugar, the boys walked across the highway to a restaurant. They returned with six huge slices of homemade blueberry, coconut creme, lemon chess and cherry pies.

Darkness, usually a sign of bedtime, brought to life bright sodium lights that lit up the inside of our tent like a police spotlight. If we zipped up the tent, it got hot as an oven. If we left it open, the bugs feasted on our sugared flesh. We spent a miserable night listening to heavy trucks grind toward the bridge to Missouri, swatting bugs and trying to find a dark spot in the brightly lit tent. We were too depressed even to listen to the radio. It was a lousy end to a long, hard day. The boys complained a little, but then Zach fell asleep and Isaac got quiet, too.

After a night of sweating in the hot tent by the busy highway under the bright lights enveloped by the stench of the bathroom, I knew the World’s Worst RV Park, in East Girardeau, Illinois, had taken its rightful place amongst the worst camping experiences of my life. I lay awake in my self-made hell, waiting for sleep or dawn, whichever might find me first.

Funny Camping Stories

John Middleton

From September 15 to 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.

Carolyn Pool

Camping in the Great Outdoors can certainly be a terrific bonding experience amongst loved ones; but more often than not, it provides some of the funniest memories to cherish. Before and during the run of Henry and Alice, I’ll share some of the humorous camping stories submitted to our blog. Here’s two to start you chuckling:

One funny memory I have of our many camping experiences is one Memorial weekend when the girls were quite young. We went camping with our family of four and Ed’s brother’s family of four.

Shortly after we had all retired to our tents to go to sleep, a quite impressive thunderstorm began. In the middle of the night, with the storm still raging, our youngest said in a tiny little voice, “Papa, I have to go to the bathroom.”

Ed tried to talk her into a quick pee outside of the tent, given the weather conditions, but she was having none of that. She wanted to walk to the outhouse to pee! So they donned their rain gear and headed for the outhouse.

Upon their return, Ed shared that there were literally RIVERS running through the campground, almost constant lightning lighting up the sky and incredible wind. We stuck it out in our tent until morning and as the sun came up and we poked our heads out of our tents, we realized the extent of the storm. Trees were down everywhere; you could see remnants of where the “rivers” had flowed through the campground and the lake level had risen almost a foot overnight! It was quite the thing to see!

But, when you have to pee, you have to pee. I was grateful she’d asked for “Papa” and not “Mama”!

——-

My family camped throughout the first week of our two-week road trip out West. We were staying at KOA campsites with modern facilities (mostly hot showers and bathrooms with toilets). It was a far cry from diehard camping in the wilderness. Yet, the first night that we spent in a hotel room, my daughter had an immediately strong reaction to its king-sized bed:

 

(Look out for further posts of Funny Camp Stories!)

Henry and Alice: Before the Sequel

With the Minnesota Fringe Festival revving up, it seems apt that Park Square Theatre will soon afterwards start its 2017-2018 season with Henry and Alice: Into the Wild. It is Canadian playwright Michele Riml’s sequel to Sexy Laundry, which got its start in the 2002 Vancouver Fringe Festival, ultimately playing at regional theatres across Canada as well as being produced in Great Britain, Germany, South Africa and the United States. Sexy Laundry played on our Proscenium Stage, proving to be a smash hit during Park Square’s 2014-2015 season. Although both laugh-out-loud comedies are centered around the plight of spouses Henry and Alice, each play can be seen as a standalone. It’s not necessary to have seen Sexy Laundry first.

For those who’d missed its Park Square production, Sexy Laundry is about a middle-aged couple trying to put some romantic spark back into their 25-year marriage with a weekend getaway at a fancy hotel, sans their three children. Henry really doesn’t want to be there; he’d rather keep the status quo. But Alice is revved to go, arming them with a copy of Sex for Dummies for inspiration. Although a comedy, Sexy Laundry also reveals the serious undertones within the relationship of old-marrieds.

In April 2012, Riml continued the story of the longtime couple in Henry and Alice: Into the Wild, which also became an international hit. This time, the pair try to reinvigorate their marriage through a low-budget camping trip, foregoing their usual summer cottage in order to reduce costs after Henry has lost his job of 30 years. With a copy of Camping for Dummies in tow, they are ready to rough it and continue to navigate life’s unexpected challenges together.

In an interview with Nick Miliokas for Backstage at the Globe, Riml cited a camping trip with a high school friend in North Vancouver and their sons as the inspiration for Henry and Alice: Into the Wild. Although the trip ended well, the first day was horrendous with a trailer refusing to shift gear into reverse and a ferocious windstorm that caused them to ditch their tent to sleep in the car.  (Source: “Camping adventure inspired Henry And Alice: Into the Wild writer Michele Riml, January 14, 2013, globetheatreregina.wordpress.com).

Park Square Theatre’s production of Henry and Alice: Into the Wild will be its American premiere. Sexy Laundry’s director, Mary Finnerty, returns to direct this sequel. John Middleton reprises his role as Henry, and Carolyn Pool plays Alice. Melanie Wehrmacher plays Alice’s sister, Diana.

So come on out and camp with us anytime between September 15 and October 22. In the dark with just the stage lights glowing, we’ll tell you a story that will make you laugh hard enough to need to hold it in your seats.

 

Sexy Laundry

Charity Jones and John Middleton as Alice and Henry in Sexy Laundry during our 2014-2015 season
(photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

 

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