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True Gems

I was recently inspired by Matthew Glover’s blogs on June 1 (“When 40 Feels Like a Lot”) and June 3 (“The Finish Line”). Glover was co-Director and Project Lead on Sandbox Theatre’s Queens, which just ended its run on Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage. Each of his posts gave us a glimpse of the immense dedication of artists to bring their creations to audiences, regardless of size, and how they feel called to give beyond the best of themselves—in this case, performing through excruciating pain from an injury.

Glover made me recall how I had discovered Sandbox Theatre at Park Square Theatre last season. The ensemble was performing War With the Newts, also on the Boss Stage and as part of Park Square’s Theatres in Residence Series. It was a truly groundbreaking production, described as “a deep exploration of the themes of nationalism, exploitative business practices and human nature’s self-destructive tendencies.” In short, humanity faced extinction at the hands of anthropomorphic newts. Reviewers described the play as “quirky” and “darkly funny.” The utter originality of the production simply blew my mind—in a very good way, leading me to see it twice.

war-with-the-newts-notext

As you can imagine, I could not wait to see Queens this season. But like War With the Newts, Queens also fought for a larger audience, though both garnered good reviews. The sheer quiet beauty of the sure-footed performances made me want to see Queens again as well, though I was unable to do so this time.

In a May 25 review on Queens in City Pages, Jay Gabler wrote, “If you’re willing to set aside your expectations of a conventional narrative, though, you’ll find a show built on trust—trust among the performers, trust in the material, and trust in the audience.” I think that his words would also ring true for War With the Newts a year ago. Sandbox Theatre does excellent but unconventional work that may challenge the audience in new ways; and, often, cutting-edge art takes time to be recognized for the gem that it is—to, essentially, build an audience.

Pondering on the incredible dedication of Sandbox Theatre to its craft made me think about all the other smaller theatres in the Twin Cities that have or will perform at Park Square Theatre this season–Wonderlust Productions, Mu Performing Arts, Other Tiger Productions and Flying Foot Forum–and how they “sweat blood” to inspire us, broaden and challenge our views, and bring us together.

New start-ups, such as Full Circle Theatre (co-founded by Rick Shiomi who was also co-founder of Mu Performing Arts) and Hero Now Theatre (which cast our own Vincent Hannam in its inaugural play), have only cropped up this past year; and you can be sure that others will keep coming, all bent on working to build mutual understanding and inspire a better future.

I encourage you to come and engage with these and other theatres as you discover their existence. Come be challenged. Come to explore. Come to receive their gifts—always with an open mind.

 

The Beautiful Reality of Making Small Theatre

slings and arrowsThere was a Canadian television show about ten years back called Slings & Arrows — it was a show about a Shakespearean theatre festival near Toronto created by Kids in the Hall alum Mark McKinney and others. They had a full crew, a beautiful cast, drama, intrigue, and the obscene budget to have a person sitting in the house seats with a laptop cranking out scripts or pressers, or whatever. If you love the theatre, you’d probably love S&A. If you work in small theatre, like Sandbox does, you probably think it’s cute and aspirational and annoying and adorable and poppycock. It’s all of those things because it portrays the theatre as a sustainable entity. But lemme tell you, the Slings & Arrows staff of techies, carpenters, administrators and actors are products of outrageous fortune (sorry).

Theatre can be sustainable, sure. Park Square has been making it happen (wonderfully) for four decades, but even with a front of house staff, administrative staff and crew of design artists, every one of the people at Park Square is in go-mode almost all the time. There’s very little time to soak in successes or dwell on failures. The next show is coming, or more often, already begun. When you’re producing over 20 productions in a calendar year, projects dovetail. It’s stressful and will burn a person out quickly if they don’t know how to handle it all. So even though Park Square is large enough to see itself represented in a show like Slings & Arrows, it’s probably as realistic as Wings was to a Nantucket airport.

When you’re as small as Sandbox, Slings & Arrows is almost farcical. The person often designing Sandbox sets is also our Artistic Director. He’s also the master carpenter. And a writer. And an actor. For Queens, our co-director is also a composer. And a performer. And a singer. Our other director is also our marketer, website administrator, copywriter, graphic designer, photographer, development lead, and it’s also me. Sandboxers wear many hats (on top of day jobs) — so many that the weight of them can feel more like a yoke that a beret. But it’s our job to make the audience believe. So whether we’re big or small, we make it happen with all we have.

There are a hundred other small theatre companies in the Twin Cities who do the same. This is why you see artistic directors, stage managers, directors, actors on their hands and knees drilling holes and swinging hammers when we load a show into a theatre. It’s the beautiful reality of making small theatre. It’s ingrained. We’re invested. This is what we do, and for the most part, all we want to do. We put all that we have into our art, and whether you love it or hate it, we want you to be moved by it.

Queens Load In 2

Derek Lee Miller constructed a modified sprung floor for our boxing ring from recovered lumber donated to us by Nautilus Music Theatre. Here, Derek, our stage manager Jaya Robillard, and director Theo Langason work on part 1 of its install.

Queens Load In 1

Sandbox AD, scenic designer and master carpenter Derek Lee Miller lays a sub-floor of plywood. Since Sandbox doesn’t have a shop, Derek fabricated the entire set in his garage, then reconstructed it piece by piece on the Boss Stage. Derek’s ability as a designer & carpenter, as well as his knack for obtaining nearly anything we could need via renewable/reusable/recyclable means, highlights why our best resources are our artists. Two-thirds of the Queens budget is invested in our artists. People over plywood, you might say.

Queens Load In 3

The final step in our boxing ring install was stretching 18 yards of canvas over the top. The canvas was one of the pieces we had to purchase new, but it will live a long life for us beyond Queens.

Queens Load In 4

“But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light.” Emily Madigan takes a moment to sit atop our newly constructed boxing ring floor.

I’m not sure why I decided to take on a ten year-old Canadian dramedy today — let’s just say after undergoing two surgeries in three weeks, I’ve done so out of jealousy for their health care system. Take that, Canada! (You, too, Wings.)

 

Introducing deVon Gray – the Newest Member of the Queens Team

deVon Gray

We have a new member of the Queens production team, and we’re pretty excited to tell you about him. Our new live music composer/performer is none other than deVon Gray (dVRG)! You might know deVon from his band Heiruspecs, writing/arranging/performing with Chastity Brown, and making music with Brother Ali, Atmosphere, Dan Wilson, The Honeydogs, Lazerbeak and more.

For four weeks we’ve been creating this new show, working around a missing piece of our ensemble. deVon’s work as an improvisational composer and musician is a perfect fit with Sandbox’s creation style, and we know you’re going to love him.

“deVon R. Gray may be the world’s last cultural enigma. The multi-instrumentalist, classically trained composer is as comfortable writing orchestral and operatic works as he is churning out jazz riffs and hip-hop swag. And he does it all so effortlessly even he is unaware that he’s working. While many creators spend hours perfecting their craft & skills, dVRG, as he is known, envisions the pen and watches the music write itself. Word.” - First Avenue & 7th St Entry

Learn more about deVon here, here and here.

 

Queens in the Rehearsal Room

Creation rehearsals for Queens began April 5 — this is our 12th year making new shows from scratch — you think you’re prepared for anything in the first couple of weeks … you’re always wrong. We’ve now got nine people in the room dreaming, making, moving. It goes by in a flash. There are nights when it all clicks and you look at one another and nod, knowing you’ve just birthed something juicy, something that everyone can sink their creative teeth into. Then there are nights where everything feels wrong and you wonder if you’re too old to take the Bloomingdale’s Executive Training Program.

For a peek into how we create, give this a click. It’s a good place to start.

Anyhoo, we’re underway. We’re making new things, and we know you are going to be moved by them.

 

Thank you, Prince

When I was 12, my mother walked into my bedroom, sat down and asked me if I knew what Prince was singing about on his song Darling Nikki. The news had just aired a story about its raciness, and she knew my Controversy and Purple Rain tapes were in heavy rotation. “No,” I said, “I mostly listen to the, uh, music.” I lied. A bit, anyway. Yes I understood the lyrics, mostly if not exactly. I knew they were above a 12 year-old’s knowledge of what sex was, and I also knew what level of uncomfortable the conversation was about to achieve, so I played dumb.

As the news of Prince’s death started to sink in, I read many remembrances, personal notes and heartfelt tributes to a genius whose work inspired artists of all disciplines. A singer, songwriter, dancer, filmmaker, style icon, feminine icon, masculine icon and musician sans pareil. One of those tributes was from my partner in Queens, Theo Langason. It was about him and his mother, and their relationship to Prince. I thought it was lovely. Thanks to Theo for letting me post it here.

“Today was hard. So many feelings. So many thoughts. As I process this loss, I am constantly comforted, affirmed, and empowered.

Prince Rogers Nelson was a black man who played black music. Undeniably himself, unapologetically black. The presence of his music and his soul in my life have influenced me in ways I could not fully grasp until now.

When I saw Prince I was peering into another world of possibilities for a black boy, like me. Prince let me know it was ok to be a weirdo. Prince encouraged me to find my voice and sing it loud. Prince taught me that home is most important. He helped me when I felt self conscious about being ‘man enough.’

Most importantly, Prince gave me a direct view into my own mother’s heart and soul. She raised me on Prince, because Prince spoke to her the way few could.

So as I weep writing this, I weep tears of the sincerest gratitude. Thank you Prince, for teaching me how to speak the language of my mother’s soul. Thank you Prince, for teaching to love myself. Thank you Prince, for the music.” – Theo

 

My Blood Is On That Stage

Sixteen years ago I walked into the basement of the Historic Hamm Building to audition for Park Square’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by the late Stephen Kanee. This was my first audition at PST and the first paying gig I’d ever book. Stephen was an adjunct professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, which was more than fortune for me, because I absolutely gassed my audition. I stumbled and I stammered and I looked every bit the amateur I was. Stephen, bless his heart, took pity on me. “Ok, so that wasn’t good. Why don’t you give me something you know, something that shows me who you are.” Quickly, I shuffled through my mental Rolodex of audition material — kidding, I only really knew one more. I was terrible at preparation. “There, that’s what I wanted to see.” A few days later I got a call asking if I wanted a role. I felt big.

That year, the fall of 2000, R&J would rehearse and perform five weeks of matinees for hundreds of middle and high school kids, but, unlike most PST R&Js before, we’d also be a part of the Winter main stage season (plus matinees), making the full run about five months long with a holiday break mixed in.

It was a full scale production with 23 cast members; 19 of which were male, all in one dressing room. Tight quarters.

Stephen placed our R&J in 1950s Little Italy. The set was spartan; all steel and girders, stairs and catwalk. Sometime during tech week, Park Square drew its first blood. Of course it was mine. The plan was for my Paris, who, upon finding the scoundrel Romeo lurking around the undead body of Zombie Juliet, would pounce. We’d fight — I’d swing over Romeo’s ducking head losing my balance, after which, he’d slam my face into the steel gurney upon which the Zombie Juliet lay. The plan worked. Not stage combat style, but face-into-gurney-style. The lights had gone out a half-second early, and Romeo and I misjudged our stunt. “F#@*,” I shouted. Our stage manager Andrea said something droll like, “That’s not your line, Matthew.” The lights came back up and the bridge of my nose had been cracked. Blood flowed. Park Square 1, Matthew 0.

After the holiday break, the show underwent some changes. The actors playing Romeo and Benvolio alternated roles, one playing Romeo on Wednesdays, the other Thursdays, and so on. This meant the Romeo/Paris fight needed to be worked from scratch with a new person flinging me into metal things. Within the first week of the run, new Romeo’s adrenaline got the better of him. My death was to come when another off-balance Paris flail was dodged by an on-balance Romeo parry, and my momentum would take me headlong into the very, very solid steel bridge girder, knocking the life out of me. An accident, you see! Romeo is innocent! Well, this Romeo threw me right into the very, very solid steel girder, tearing the cartilage between two of Paris’ also innocent ribs. Pretty sure that incident caused the theatre to up its liability insurance. No blood this time, but if you’ve ever tried sleeping with a rib injury, I can assure you a broken nose is far easier to manage. The score at halftime: Park Square 2, Matthew 0.

With my ribs still sore, and the show in full run, my body decided it wanted a piece of me, too, in the form of my first kidney stone – Callooh! Callay! Three AM the Friday of a show, a fire like I’d never felt before erupted in my belly. I left HCMC with a scrip for Vicodin and an $1800 medical bill. Worse than the pain — well, no, nothing was — but exacerbating the pain, was the fact that Vicodin made me mush-mouthed. Like more than usual. Shakespeare and narcotics do NOT mix. “Of hon’rable nobility are you both, and ’tis pity that you’ve lived at odds for so long” comes out more like “Of horry nobbers-glib dogger bosht un pity rods fong.” So for six excruciating two-show days, I medicated at night for sleep, then played Paris painfully sober in the light of day. Have I mentioned the show was 3.5 hours long? Well, it was. Thankfully, my Paris lay dead on the stage for the final 30 minutes of the show. Y’know, after getting chucked into the set? Those 30 minutes were downright blissful after the grimaced writhing I’d do on the green room couch between scenes. I have vivid memories of the late and very sweet Kevin Vance catching me from passing out as I’d make this exit or that, and the dear Randy Latimer lending her shoulder to lay on backstage. Three-nil, PST.

Finally, the cursed stone passed on Valentine’s Day, 2001. There was much rejoicing … until the ear infections kicked in. Plural. Both. I spent the rest of the run unable to hear myself speak. The Friar and I worked out a subtle signal for me to crank up the volume if needed. It was totally needed. Four-nil.

My memories of that show go beyond the injuries. I met and shared the stage with a number of wonderful performers, and had the great honor of working with Stephen. It’s been fifteen years since that show closed, so it’s not like I have a score to settle, right? I mean, I did leave out the part where my pet rabbit died, and the part where school kids would fire pennies or M&M’s at my head while I lay dead on the stage. “He’s not dead, he’s still breathing.” He was right, but just barely. My blood is on that stage. I hope it was delicious, kids.

 

Addition by Division

One of the most difficult aspects of making new plays is the division of labor within the ensemble. Starting from nebulous ideas of characters, text, themes and sets can make it a challenge early on to determine who works on what and when. When Queens Director Theo Langason and I sat down in my living room to talk about music for our show, we scratched our heads a bit. As a company, we do all our sound and music live. We’ve been doing that for ten years. We’re fortunate to have an artist like Tim Donahue in Sandbox who creates soundscapes and scores as a part of the creation ensemble, so the music is as integral and natural for each show as can be. But what do we do when Tim isn’t available, or, more so in the case of Queens, not right for this play?

To build music from scratch with a play being built from scratch requires patience and time. Loads of it. So we needed to find a musician – a songwriter – who could rehearse with us from day one, have the patience to collaborate, embrace the unknown and have the artistic malleability to hold on tightly and let go lightly. It was a tall order. I had someone in mind, all I had to do was convince Theo this person was right for the job. It went something like this:

Theo: I know some people, they’d be hard to get.

Me: Well…you play the guitar and you can sing. And you’ll be there in the room creating from day one…

Theo:

I’m not gonna lie, I’m selfish about our group. Greedy even. I’ll grab on to any chance to make something with one of my friends. But now we get back to the division of labor thing — Theo is already directing this play. So we’re all going to have to share the load. It’s not the first time for us, won’t be the last. After a few weeks, he started to warm up to the idea. He sent me this:

“I was sitting in my living room, thinking about Queens; and all at once, like a punch in the gut, this song came rushing out of me. I’m really looking forward to making this show!”

 

You and me both, my friend.

 

Queens Team, Assemble!

My good friend Sam has a thing for movies where a team is assembled to perform a certain (often near-impossible) task. Oceans 11, The Warriors, The Dirty Dozen, etc. The idea being that every team member has a unique and highly specific skill we’re introduced to through foreshadowing that gets miraculously called into action just as Danny Ocean or Cleon (RIP) or Major Reisman planned. Producing a new play is like this, even if the stakes are less deadly. Still, maybe we’ll make sweet vests or something.

Once Sandbox voted to make Queens our Theatres in Residence show for Park Square in 2016, our next step was to assemble a team. Internally, we had a director (Theo Langason), a scenic designer (Derek Lee Miller), expert ensemble creators (Heather Stone, Peter Heeringa) and a project lead (yours truly). (A quick note on our nomenclature — the project lead is often the one who conceived the story, they serve as the keeper of the show’s artistic vision. The director is the one who shapes that vision into action. But these are fluid terms. Most often, the PL and director act in whatever capacity the show needs.)

We began searching for our cast of three last May; we completed our search this January. There were bumps along the way, but ultimately we have the team we were meant to have. The thing about creating from scratch is that a show, any show is inherently different from go! depending on who is on board. It’s just not possible to see a production of ours and think, Oooh, you know who would have been great in that role… because that role doesn’t exist without the person who created it. So we look for players, people who say yes, people who bring that highly specific skill that will be miraculously called into action. For Queens, we have Emily Madigan, Roland Hawkins and Neal Hazard: a dancer, an opera singer and a storyteller.

On the design side, we brought in lighting designer Heidi Eckwall, a frequent Sandbox collaborator who works seamlessly with our process. Heidi has the ability, the patience really, to know that what we have and what we need might change as the story develops. She then delivers magic.

Our costumer is fashion designer Samantha Rei Crossland. She, too, is magic. I was first introduced to Samantha’s work a few years back when I worked with the MNfashion organization. I’d try to wax poetic about her stuff, but her work speaks for her far better than I can.

http://samantharei.com/

Lasty, we brought in Jaya Robillard to be our stage manager. Like all roles within our ensemble, Sandbox stage managers are called on to help create, direct, cheerlead, argue, soothe, and wrangle. Our SMs are integral to the life of our shows, and we’re fortunate she said yes to this mess.

So imagine if you will, a golden hour sunlit St. Paul. The first jangly chords of Joe Walsh’s “In the City” play as Theo and I stride through the downtown streets toward 7th Place. One by one we’re joined by Heather, Peter, Derek, Neal, Emily, Roland, Heidi, Samantha, Jaya … we’re all wearing sweet vests.

Queens

 

The Seeds of Queens: Part II

Each year the members of Sandbox Theatre gather to pitch big ideas to one another. It’s part brainstorm, part carnival barking bluster. These big ideas are the early germinations of shows to come. We listen, we challenge, we invest in one another. A luxury of creating all of our work from scratch is that anything and everything subject-wise is on the table. Whatever strikes our interest, whatever one of us is currently obsessed with, we sell it and the group may buy it. Ballet and Beat poetry? A hoarder/sci-fi writer with a 15′ monster made of cardboard boxes in his living room? An 80 year-old unsolved Canadian wilderness mystery? Check, check and check. Last year one of my big ideas hit with everybody; that idea was Queens.

As noted in Part I, I’ve been interested in boxing for years and it’s not uncommon for me to spend an hour or two reading old essays and newspaper reports about Joe Louis v Max Schmeling (I & II), Floyd Patterson v Sonny Liston (I & II), or Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier (I, II & III), so when in the spring of 2013 I came across this: The 100 Greatest Fighters of All Time, I was surprised to find I wasn’t nearly as versed in boxing history as I’d thought. Not only were there 50-odd fighters I’d never known on this list, but four of the top ten were total mysteries to me. A fifth name was only recalled casually, like yeah, maybe I’ve heard of him … or was he the guy on Quincy, M.D.? I’ve never heard of 50% of the top ten fighters of all time? C’mon. But sure enough… They had names like Harry Greb and Joe Gans, and they had records that were peppered with losses and draws and something called Newspaper Decisions. A guy with a 145-10-16 record is no.8 all time and undefeated Rocky Marciano is no.65? Mike Tyson doesn’t even make the list!? Sitting at Number One is a man named Sam Langford — heralded as the best fighter never to win a title. A subjective list, yes. One man’s opinion, yes. But my interest was peaked.

I began formulating the rough edges of a story about a boxer who lived his whole life without a title shot. A man who fought for something else. But what? A hundred years ago, fights weren’t even broadcast on the radio, let alone $50M PPV events. What would make a person fight for a living if, rather than the promise of riches and glory, the promise was … what? How far will we go to feel belonging, to feel worth, to feel understood, to feel heard?

I pitched it to the company last February. My friends and fellow Sandbox artists Theo Langason and Peter Herringa came on to help dream it all up. The company voted and the show was chosen. The I is gone. This show is now a We. We settled on a world, a framework, a few characters and a title. The rest of Queens will be built from the ground up by our ensemble, featuring three cast members, three ensemble creators, three designers and a creative leadership team. We’re 120 days from opening night and we have no script. This is where the real fun begins.

 

The Seeds of Queens: Part I

I was five years-old when Muhammad Ali took on Leon Spinks in defense of his Heavyweight title. I remember racing home from a classmate’s birthday party to watch the fight with my dad. Ali, The Greatest, lost. I cried a lot.

A few years later I was squirreled away in my parents’ bedroom, tuned into a 9″ black & white Panasonic television to watch Larry Holmes take on Gerry Cooney in Las Vegas. I kept score. Holmes won. I cheered a lot.

As a kid, boxing was a big deal to me. It wasn’t until I was much older, long after my interest waned, that I realized why; boxing mean time spent with my father. I won the parent lottery with my folks, no question, but dad and me didn’t share a lot in common. I liked basketball, he liked cars. I liked Public Enemy, he liked Marty Robbins. But we both liked boxing. So for a while in the mid-’80s, big matches became our shared ritual. We watched Marvin Hagler, James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Mark Breland, Thomas Hearns. We watched as 19 year-old Mike Tyson went from Kid Dynamite to Heavyweight Champ. I have a crystal clear memory from a 1986 match between Tyson and Marvis Frazier (son of the great Joe Frazier). The phone rang a few moments before the opening bell. Dad got up to answer and rushed through a quick chat with his brother Richard. I could hear the urgency in his voice. Then this happened:

Within the span of a 30-second phone call, Frazier was down, I was euphoric, and dad was incredulous.

The sport of boxing took a big leap in the late ’80s — from network TV to cable to Pay-Per-View. My dad’s job took a big leap from local operations to travelling 200 days of the year. We spent less time together — me, my dad and boxing — and eventually our shared ritual faded into memory.

I stopped following boxing around the same time I began to feel mortal. When you’re a kid, you lose great-grandparents, great-uncles — when you’re an adult, you begin to lose friends, friend’s children. Your eyes are opened to the realities of life, of violence. So my interest now is a nostalgic one; one of popcorn and Pepsi, and my dad fumbling with the antenna on a 19″ console color TV.

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