Tickets: 651.291.7005

Posts Tagged Richard Cook

“Of Mice and Men”: Putting Autism Into the Equation

Michael Paul Levin

Several years ago, Artistic Director Richard Cook saw a production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in Spain. It gave him new insight into Lennie, the big man-child whom migrant worker George takes under his wings, and ultimately led to the recasting of Michael Paul Levin as George in Park Square Theatre’s version of Of Mice and Men that has been performed intermittently since 1998.

Artistic Director Richard Cook

According to Richard, “Lennie in the Spanish production was clearly high on the autism spectrum. The actor portrayed the character as always in motion, swaying and shifting back and forth. He physicalized the role in such a big way as to make it obvious to us watching the show why George needed to protect Lennie.

When I returned from Spain, I wanted to revisit the show and do a fresh production. I reopened casting and re-auditioned all the roles. Michael had landed on my short list from the audition process. When I spent time reading with and talking to him, I knew he had the capacity to do great dramatic work. He was also raising a child with autism so living with a loved one who needs special attention–just like George with Lennie. I wondered if Michael would be interested in mining that territory and willing to invest in that point of view as a great way to explore why that relationship exists. Michael was brave and generous to say yes,”

Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) and George (Michael Paul Levin) camp by the river for the evening
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What we witness on stage with each performance, as a result, is a deeply personal and honest portrayal of George that makes the poignant dynamic between George and Lennie that much more potent.

Michael reflected, “Richard wasn’t a director trying to shoehorn his own impressions into the play. It made a lot of sense going back to read the source and seeing how close it hit home. How Steinbeck describes Lennie and how he behaves suggests Steinbeck’s trying to describe autism without having the words for it.”

In the play, George refers to Lennie as “a crazy bastard” or “you crazy son-of-a-bitch.” We also learn about Lennie’s preoccupation with soft things and compulsion to repeatedly stroke them, such as his incessant petting of mice and puppies or a woman’s satiny skirt or hair.

George (Michael Paul Levin) demands that Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) hand over a dead mouse
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Lennie isn’t retarded or stupid,” Michael continued. “Steinbeck uses words like ‘crazy’ to mean that Lennie has idiosyncratic behaviors.”

However, before the 1940s, the concept of autism was indeed associated with mental retardation and, in 1910, with schizophrenia by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who coined the word “autismus.” In 1943, Leo Kanner of the John Hopkins Hospital first used “autism” in its modern sense when he introduced the term “early infantile autism”; in 1944, Hans Asperger of the Vienna University Hospital introduced the term “Asperger’s syndrome.” In 1949, the term “refrigerator mothers” was derived from a false theory that autism was caused by a cold mothering style that resulted in psychological harm to their children. In 1964, Bernard Rimland, the father of an autistic son, provided the first solid arguments of autism as a biological condition and founded the Autism Society of America to counter the Refrigerator Mother Theory.

Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) and George (Michael Paul Levine) settle into the bunkhouse at the ranch where Candy (Patrick O’Brien) also works
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

It wasn’t until 1980 when autism was officially differentiated from childhood schizophrenia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Third Edition (DSM-III); 1987 when “autistic disorder” replaced “infantile autism” in the DSM-III-R, which finally provided a checklist for diagnosing autism; 1991 when schools began to identify and serve autistic children in special education; and 1994 when Asperger’s syndrome was added to the DSM-IV. In 2013, the DSM-V replaced all the prior jargon with the more general term of “Autism Spectrum Disorders” (ASD).

“Autism awareness has come so far,” said Michael Paul Levin. In fact, he and his wife, Stacey Dinner-Levin, also had a hand in raising autism awareness in 2007 when Autistic License, Stacey’s autobiographical play about bringing up an autistic child, was produced by Illusion Theater. It starred Michael as their son Geordy. Autistic License was named one of the best plays of 2007 by the Pioneer Press.

“As a parent raising a child with autism, you’re often silenced, overlooked or misrepresented. Stacey’s play was an honest portrayal of what it’s like,” Michael said. “She suggested that I play our son. I did it because I couldn’t think of any other actor who could do it. It was very healing for my family to see what we went through and for friends and relatives to see what our lives were like.”

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men will certainly tug at your heartstrings, but even more so from knowing how much of himself Michael has personally put into each performance.

 

Sources: projectautism.org/history-of-autism and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism

Tickets and more information at HERE

Label Him Talented

 

Wes Mouri as Laertes
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Wes Mouri, who currently plays Laertes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Park Square Theatre, had a propitious start to his acting career. Soon after graduating from Bethel University with a B.A. in Theatre Arts, he landed a role in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Bye Bye Birdie. This was a six-month commitment from October 2012 to March 2013 that required eight performances weekly of evening and matinee shows.

“I learned so much about myself,” Wes said. “It really hit home that this is a profession, not something that you just do for a couple of weekends. You have to be talented, but you also have to be invested in the work.”

Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li and Wesley Mouri as Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Since his professional debut at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, Wes has appeared in numerous musicals in the Twin Cities, including last season’s Flower Drum Song, co-produced by Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts. He was proud to be cast in the lead role of Wang Ta, noting, “How often does a mixed-race man get to play a romantic lead?”

However, Wes was beginning to get pidgeon-holed in singing and dancing parts when Director Joel Sass offered him the dramatic role of Laertes in Hamlet.

“Joel’s frustrated when people are put into boxes,” Wes said of the man who’d also created this new adaptation of Hamlet. “He recognizes that not seeing people for their full potential stagnates their career. Even though I’d been playing young dancer types in musicals, Joel told me, ‘I know that you have the training and capacity to play another kind of role.’ He wants to grow the artist.”

Rehearsal scene: Wes Mouri (middle) as an upset Laertes being restrained by Maeve Moynihan (left) and Tinne Rosenmeier (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What Wes actually loves about theatre arts is that one doesn’t have to be stuck in a box. Being a theatre professional requires one to be a freelance artist. Besides acting, Wes also has experience in directing, marketing, stage managing and choreographing and knows that he will continually acquire new skills throughout his career.

Wes is very appreciative of theatre professionals, such as Joel Sass and Richard Cook, who willingly help artists break out of boxes through deliberate, inclusive casting choices. This process equalizes the chance for more humans to get a shot at roles and challenges norms to broaden the narratives. Park Square’s Hamlet, in fact, crosses both traditional gender and race lines in its casting.

Wes himself was not conscious that he could be limited by race until he was participating in a post-show discussion for Mu Performing Arts’ production of A Little Night Music in 2014.

“It was a big moment in my life,” Wes recalled. “I’d grown up in Rockford, Illinois, in a white-majority neighborhood. My dad is Japanese, but my mom is Caucasian. Both my parents are teachers. I attended a small private school, and everyone knew me as me, not as ‘the Asian kid.’

At the talk-back, a woman asked me what it was like to get to play the type of role that I would never have had a chance to play if Mu hadn’t produced the play. I had never considered that, and I just suddenly cried right on stage. I had never been boxed in as a dark-haired Asian. I’d always been surrounded by people saying I can absolutely do anything. Then I realized that the way I look could make it so I can’t do certain things.”

Wes Mouri as Laertes and Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet; Tinne Rosenmeier as an attendant in the background
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Knowing this made the first day of rehearsals for Hamlet particularly meaningful. According to Wes, “We walked in and knew that this is a unique and different production. Not only is it a very streamlined version of a classic Shakespeare work for adults and children; but the cast is half male and half female, with major roles being played by women. There are also five people of color out of ten. The fact that diverse school groups will see this show is wonderful.”

In Hamlet, who Wes is and what he looks like do not stand in the way of who he can become on stage. He is the headstrong young Laertes, brother of the tragic Ophelia and son of the politically powerful Polonia. He is the right actor for the part because he is talented.

How Do You See It? (Let’s Talk About It!)

It was a lazy Sunday morning on June 27, 2017. I was drinking my cup of joe and reading the Star Tribune. Specifically, an article by Rohan Preston–“About face: Actors on Twin Cities stages increasingly reflect the diversity of their audiences. But they’re hardly ‘colorblind.'” I noted a comment made by Randy Reyes, the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts: “Where nontraditional casting doesn’t work is where you, a person of color, is cast as a white character in a white context.” I had just seen Might As Well Be Dead, the Nero Wolfe mystery, at Park Square Theatre two nights before and had a disparate reaction to a casting decision than my guest. I am an Asian American woman. He is a white male.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries fall within the “pulp” or “hard boiled” fiction genre, which is noted for its tendency toward “casual misogyny” and “glee with the unseemly parts of human nature–boundless greed, lust, and corruption,” as described in Park Square’s playbill. Might As Well Be Dead is specifically set in 1956, a time when anti-miscegenation statutes were still legal in the United States (until they were struck down in Loving v. Virginia in 1967) and interracial relationships were deeply frowned upon.

It was within this context that I couldn’t help but notice that the female characters in the production, played by the talented Am’Ber Montgomery, Marisa B. Tejeda and Austene Van, were all women of color portraying either a spouse or mistress to high-society white men. Austene also played the businesswoman who, as described on our website, “came begging for help” from Nero Wolfe. While my guest was also initially jolted by this, he was able to “go with it” for the ride in this fictional story, whereas I remained bothered.

Were each of the women of color “cast as a white character in a white context”? Or is this play not about race at all so simply the most capable actor was aptly cast? I’m curious about what you think and so are Artistic Director Richard Cook and Executive Director Michael-jon Pease. You may reach them at cook@parksquaretheatre.org (651.767.8482) or pease@parksquaretheatre.org (651.767.8497).

 

A scene from Might As Well Be Dead

The Art of Disappearing

Actor Michael Paul Levin has a knack for disappearing into his characters on stage. When he plays Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, he is Anne’s strong and gentle father. In Of Mice and Men, he is the loyal and compassionate friend, George, to the vulnerable Lenny; and in The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, he channels the brilliant George Gershwin. Currently, Michael transforms into the ever pissed off Inspector Cramer in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until July 30.

Michael Paul Levin as Inspector Cramer; E. J. Subkoviak as Nero Wolfe; Derek Diriam as Archie Goodwin; Jim Pounds as Fritz
(photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Of course, Inspector Cramer is a fully drawn out character in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries for Michael to emulate. However, Michael was also able to model his portrayal of him after his short-tempered father.

“He had little patience in dealing with people whom he considered to be fools,” Michael said. Inspector Cramer himself does not suffer fools gladly.

This side of Michael had not been something I’d experienced of him before, having watched him on Park Square’s stage as part of its Education Program for the past three seasons as Otto Frank and for a season as Lenny’s friend George, both incredibly patient men in very trying circumstances. He no doubt pulled from his own experiences of fatherhood–Michael has four sons–to portray Otto, but he turns out to have also done so for his role as George.

“One thing that appealed to me about Richard Cook directing Of Mice and Men was that he’d seen it in Spain where Lenny is characterized as being on an autism spectrum,” said Michael. “He had me audition for George because he knew that I have a son with autism. This created an interesting dynamic between the characters of George and Lenny.”

It seems ironic that an actor must dig deep within himself to be able to totally submerge into a character that is not him. Michael’s disappearing trick, seemingly done with ease, is a testament to his talent as an actor. The illusion of ease comes from years of practice–in fact, over 30 years for Michael. He was first awakened to acting as something he’d want to seriously pursue after seeing a production of Barefoot in the Park as a high school junior; ultimately, he’d reached the point of realizing “that I’m not qualified to do anything else.” His longevity in show business is itself a testament to his skills, not only as an actor but also as a playwright, instructor, voice artist and everything else in between.

In personally meeting Michael as himself, I encountered a man who may rather “fade into the woodworks” when not in the spotlight. He’s an unassuming man who would likely rather be left to anonymously go about his own business. Yet, he owns a hairless Chinese crested dog that cannot help but draw attention to itself and, hence, its owner, an apt symbol of the paradoxical nature of being a performer.

In all those years of watching Michael on stage, why had I not caught on before?  Michael doesn’t simply disappear on stage. What he does is much more complex: Michael hides in plain sight.

Jamil Jude, We’ll Miss You

Jamil Jude

Park Square Theatre was blessed to have Jamil Jude join its artistic/production team in December 2015 to begin a two-year mentorship with Artistic Director Richard Cook, made possible through a prestigious Leadership U[niversity] – One-on-One Program award of a two-year grant to fund Jamil’s professional development via a mentorship. Jamil was one of only six early-career leaders from all areas of theatre throughout the nation to receive such an award.

At Park Square Theatre, Jamil was given the title of Artistic Programming Associate, and he was placed in the foreground to help the organization remain a relevant theatre in a community with a demographic that will continue to shift towards greater diversity. During his mentorship, he would move forward the theater’s vision to be “intentionally diverse” and practice “radical inclusivity” (both terms appear in Park Square’s website).

Richard Cook

It has been nearly a decade-long journey to prepare Park Square for the 21st century and beyond. This mission was initially envisioned by Richard as he witnessed the impact of live theatre on students, particularly students of color, attending its Education programs. The long journey is not surprising as institutionalized exclusionary practices are difficult to dismantle to be able to support truly inclusionary practices. An organization must have strong leadership support and clear and consistent buy-in both from within and without to be able to broaden its scope.

In his short time here, Jamil especially impacted Park Square by being a skilled connector and unifier, doing the very hard work of fostering trust amongst diverse artist communities and giving generous access to his broader network. He has also provided crucial insights and suggestions to challenge the same old approaches in the theater’s programming and audience outreach. Some changes were made in tailoring post-show discussions for diverse student audiences, making script selections and recruiting and attracting more diverse talent to be onstage, behind the scenes, and as instructors for workshops. All his actions accelerated the impact of making real, lasting changes. However, there is still quite a bit to do even as Jamil’s mentorship comes to an end after June and the Artistic Programming Associate position dissolves.

While Park Square is a top employer of local stage talent, 64 percent of whom are women and artists of color, it still has no core staff (including leadership positions) and just one board member of color. But a few years ago, it created the role of Artistic Associate for the purpose of broadening the organization’s perspectives, and recruited Aditi Kapil, Carson Kreitzer, Ricardo Vazquez and James A. Williams to serve as ongoing Artistic Associates. Park Square has also invited local theatre companies, such as Girl Friday Productions, Sandbox Theatre Company, Theatre Pro Rata and Wonderlust Productions, to become Theatres in Residence and partnered with Mu Performing Arts to produce this season’s Flower Drum Song as mutually beneficial exposure to new audiences.

Currently, Park Square is partnering with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce to create a Community Advisory Board made up of people of color to give ideas and feedback on what types of stories need to be told on stages and who to share them with–in short, to engage in honest dialogue to better understand how Park Square fits within an evolving community. On June 21 from 5-6 pm, Jamil will be a facilitator for “Cocktails and Conversation” in our Proscenium lobby for professionals of color to give such feedback.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Park Square Theatre without the transformational presence of Jamil. It’s more difficult to question and alter inherent biases and beliefs than to organically build from the ground up with that vision in mind the way that a new organization, such as Full Circle Theater Company, can do. It’s more difficult to transform an organization with individuals at different spectrums of cultural competency regarding issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. Any stall into complacency, regression into status quo or backslide into habituated ways of doing things negatively impacts the outcome. Park Square will steadily need to match good intent with continued action to move forward into its total vision.

Jamil himself will move forward to Atlanta, Georgia, where he will become True Colors Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director. At True Colors, Jamil will also get to direct a play each year and, for the first time in his career, focus his energy within one organization rather than be, as he described, “split-brained” amongst multiple organizations and freelance projects.

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

While Jamil has certainly left his mark on Park Square Theatre, what many may not know is the wider impact he has also had on the Twin Cities theatre scene since his arrival in Minnesota in 2011. From 2011 to 2014, he worked for Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis’ West Bank as its National New Play Network Producer in Residence and created and facilitated artist/educator-audience discussions as its Free Speech Program Director. Jamil made another strong impression in 2013, receiving the year-long Playwright Center’s Many Voices Mentorship to help Minnesota-based playwright of color hone one’s craft. Within a few years, Jamil had further widened his circle and influence, joining the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Theatre Alliance (2012-16), the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (both since 2014). In 2015, he had founded the New Griots Festival to promote the work of Twin Cities black artists into the future; the festival will return this year at the Guthrie from July 6 to 16. In 2016, he directed the highly relevant and critically praised inaugural productions of Underdog Theatre’s Baltimore is Burning, written by local artist Kory LaQuess Pullam, founder of Underdog Theatre, as well as local playwright Josh Wilder’s The Highwaymen at The History Theatre in St. Paul.

Park Square Theatre and the Twin Cities theatre community will dearly miss Jamil Jude. Not only could he inspire us, but more importantly, he brought people together to get things done. Jamil Jude has left things better than when he’d arrived. What more could we ask for? We are very grateful and wish him well.

—-

(Note: Be sure to also read the previous blog post, “What’s That Got to Do With Jamil Jude?”)


 

The Case of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club

  1. It was a dark and stormy night

Robyn Hansen, blog writer, Park Square Theatre, Saint Paul, MNTwo men stood outside the door of the Hansen-Clarey home. The glow from the front porch light revealed one man to be rather neatly and nattily dressed; the other, a bit more bohemian and slightly disheveled. They were Michael-jon Pease and Richard Cook, the executive director and artistic director of Park Square Theatre respectively. Why had they come? What was on their minds?

They had come with a scintillating proposal for longtime Park Square supporters Robyn Hansen and John Clarey: Would they consider being the producers for a Park Square play? Would they provide the funding of a show sans the day-to-day responsibilities of production? Would they consider supporting this concept that had never before been attempted at Park Square? And, while we’re asking . . . how about if we focus on the mysteries with which Park Square traditionally closes its seasons, since John is a mystery lover?

When the door opened wide, the men stepped inside, never suspecting how their action that evening would impact Park Square Theatre for years to come.

  1. The plot thickens

John and Robyn heard the two men out. Then this socially-inclined couple suggested a counter-proposal: Let’s assemble a large group of like-minded friends to create a producers’ club.

And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club was born!

Members contribute 1,000 dollars or more per household to help underwrite new productions, new adaptations and new scripts. In return, Club members enjoy special access to behind-the-scenes events, such as production and concept meetings, rehearsals, an opening night dinner with the director (and writer for new commissions) and much more.

 

  1. Page turner

In the 2013-2014 season, the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club presented its first world premiere commission, The Red Box, adapted by playwright Joseph Goodrich from the fourth of 33 Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Rex Stout from the 1930s to 1970s. Peter Moore directed The Red Box, and actor E. J. Subkoviak perfectly embodied the role of the brilliant and eccentric armchair detective.

The Red Box proved to be a huge success, spurring the Club to offer in the following season Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, an adaption by local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher of local author Larry Millett’s novel of the same name.

Audiences were then treated to the musical mystery, Murder for Two, in the middle of the 2015-2016 season. Directed by Randy Reyes, this unique production featured just two talented actors on stage, Nic Delcambre and Andrea Wollenberg, playing all the roles.

Not only have Club productions been delightful, but Club activities connected to its shows also proved to be so informatively and socially fun that a member declared, “It’s the best 1,000 dollar donation I’ve ever made!”

 

  1. Surprise ending

This season, courtesy of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club, Park Square Theatre features a second world premiere commission of a Nero Wolfe mystery, Might As Well Be Dead, on its Proscenium Stage from June 16 to July 30. The production brings back the winning team of Goodrich-Moore-Subkoviak as playwright, director and Nero Wolfe, respectively, in what Park Square describes as a case that “draws the detective into a web of deceit and regrets.”

The plot: A wealthy St. Paul business owner wants to make amends to her son Paul, whom she’d thrown out of the family business 11 years before. But where is he? Does he even want to be found?  And could he be the same Paul who is currently on trial for murder?

Might As Well Be Dead will be another fun ride for sure! And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club lives on for another surprise ending and others yet to come.

 

——

Note: Some dramatic license was taken in the telling of this tale.

Photographs of members of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club (from top to bottom): Robyn Hansen; Wes & Dierdre Kramer (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas & Mimi Stake (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Jim Rustad & Kay Thomas (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas, Jim Rustad, Ken Lewis & Diana Lewis (photographed by Rachel Wandrei)

Jamil Jude, Artist Plus

Since December 2015, Jamil Jude has served as Park Square Theatre’s Artistic Programming Associate. As such, he is mentored by Artistic Director Richard Cook through the Leadership U[niversity] – One-on-One Program to foster the professional development of early-career, rising leaders of theatre. Jamil was only one of six exceptionally talented applicants awarded such a mentorship by Theatre Communications Group, the national organization formed to strengthen, nurture and promote professional nonprofit American theatre.

Jamil Jude with Alix Kendall on The BUZZ - Fox 9 to promote Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre until March 5 (photo by Connie Shaver)

Jamil Jude with Alix Kendall on The BUZZ – Fox 9 to promote Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre through March 5th
(photo by Connie Shaver)

While Jamil may be most visible to our audiences as the facilitator for post-show discussions, such as the upcoming Sunday, February 19, Musings for Nina Simone: Four Women or most recently as a promoter of Nina on Fox 9 with Alix Kendall, his work at Park Square, Jamil explained, “is really focused on advancing our broader inclusivity goals.”

“Richard began the work by expanding Park Square’s repertoire–the stories we tell and the artists who tell them,” Jamil elaborated. “I’ve been lucky enough to assist in that effort, retooling our process of identifying plays and artists, introducing new systems meant to streamline our production process and being another set of artistic eyes as plays move towards the stage. It’s amazing to witness a theatre like Park Square in this part of its growth.”

Over 40 years later, Park Square Theatre remains a work in progress, an organization in dynamic change to, as Jamil describes, “develop a deeper understanding of its place in the community and how to respond to the needs, wants and aesthetic desires of said community. To play a small part in that is a humbling experience.”

Jamil Jude, "Artist Plus" (photo by Farrington Llewellyn)

Jamil Jude, “Artist Plus”
(photo by Farrington Llewellyn)

Work in progress is also an apt description for Jamil Jude himself. He, too, continually  examines his purpose and relevance as an artist. Self-defined as an “Artist Plus,” he works as a freelance director, producer, playwright, dramaturg, speaker or whatever role needed to pursue an artistic vision. That vision is, more often than not, in service to social justice. He has, in fact, more specifically described himself as a “social justice based art maker dedicated to building communities, bringing new communities to the arts and to using the arts as a means to eliminate artificial barriers that society imposes.”

Besides Park Square Theatre, Jamil has been involved in various ways with other theatre organizations throughout the Twin Cities, including Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater, Daleko Arts, Theatre in the Round, Minnesota Fringe Festival and more. He is also a co-producer of The New Griots Festival, dedicated to promoting the work of the next generation of Twin Cities black artists across disciplines (visual, performing, literary, etc.).

Also fitting is that Jamil recently directed Baltimore is Burning, a new play about the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. It was the inaugural production for the promising new theatre company Underdog Theatre, which “creates art for the underserved, underrepresented, and unheard,” and satisfyingly garnered good reviews. Kory LaQuess Pullam, who has graced Park Square’s stages, is its playwright and the founding artistic director of Underdog.

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Dear to Jamil’s heart is his latest project, directing The Highwaymen, a new play based on research that Jamil and playwright Josh Wilder did on the destruction of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood in the 1960s to make way for I-94. The demolition of that thriving, predominantly black community echoed similar occurrences throughout the nation to make way for progress on the backs of people of color. Josh dedicated The Highwaymen, which runs through February 26 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, to “the memories we step on and the lives we drive over.”

In November 2015, Jamil was listed in American Theatre, a publication and theatre communications group, as one of “Six Theatre Workers You Should Know.” Whether as part of Park Square Theatre, someone else’s team or working solo, he’ll ever strive to bring us socially relevant theatre to spark constructive community interactions and inspire social change. Whatever Jamil touches, you can just feel them coming: those positive vibrations.

 

Pease–Perfectly Cast

Michael-jon Pease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

TIMELINE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hope and Inspiration

One cannot help but be reflective after Election Day, and one thing that I’ve been thinking about is the role of theatre arts in society as a source of hope and inspiration.

In my work at Park Square Theatre, both as blogger and daytime usher, I get to witness firsthand some of the dynamic changes occurring within the Minnesota scene as Elders begin to hand off responsibilities to a younger generation, as organizations soul-search on how to remain relevant to their audiences and as they ever strive to fulfill their missions–all while trying to stay financially afloat to be able to come back to do it all over again season after season. What I have discovered is that a theatre is a place of service, and those who work in one are more likely than not following a calling. The theatre “bug” is not foremost a pursuit of fame and fortune (though the latter would be a welcomed help) but a dedication by those involved to work for the greater social good.

While at Park Square Theatre, I get to brush shoulders with living Minnesota theatre history–the people who have been the shakers-and-movers of Twin Cities theatre for decades, not much in the limelight but still tirelessly dedicated to bringing quality live theatre to you from behind the scenes. To name just a few, there are Artistic Director Richard Cook, who co-founded and built up Park Square’s stature in its Saint Paul community; Education Director Mary Finnerty, who created what is likely the strongest theatre education program for middle- and high-school students in the state; photographer Petronella J. Ytsma, who can tell you photoshoot stories that span the change of photo-technology; and newly hired Group Sales & Community Engagement Manager Linda Twiss, who has likely, unbeknownst to you, already touched some aspect of your theater-going experience in Minnesota through the years.

Then there are our Future–the younger generation who also carry on the vision and mission. In my two seasons at Park Square Theatre, I have watched House Manager Amanda Lammert rise to Audience Services Director and, as such, clear the path for  millennials, such as Jiffy Kunik to become Performance Supervisor, Adrian Larkin to become Lead House Manager and Ben Cook-Feltz to become Ticket Office Supervisor. Our stage managers, such as Jamie Kranz, Megan Dougherty, Laura Topham and Lyndsey Harter, tend to be young female leaders with sure hands on each production that they oversee. My own fellow blogger, Vincent Hannam, is so clearly a Student of Life through Theatre; I get to see him grow not just as a theatre artist but as a wholehearted human being as I blog alongside him. And I have interviewed so many up-and-coming theatre professionals, from actors to designers, working with such intensity and creativity in their chosen fields. To be amongst such passionate young people, committed to theatre as a social cause is a constant source of hope and inspiration.

Park Square's A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Connie Shaver.

A scene from A Raisin in the Sun (Photo by Connie Shaver)

And this fall I am witnessing the fruits of the prior year’s labor to carefully select this season’s plays, culled from suggestions by theatre professionals, theatre goers and volunteer script readers–all committed to fulfilling Park Square Theatre’s mission. The whole process is a mixture of intentionality and serendipity, resulting in a breathtaking season of anticipation and high hopes that we got it right. This season, we started out with The Liar and The Realistic Joneses, both in their own ways guiding us to what is true and real. Then came The House on Mango Street and currently A Raisin in the Sun, both uplifting the human spirit in the face of adversity. In December, we look forward to The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, a style of music brought to us by Jewish immigrants.

Park Square Theatre’s mission is “to enrich our community by producing and presenting exceptional live theatre that touches the heart, engages the mind, and delights the spirit.” It is theatre in service to the common good and, by extension, a source of hope and inspiration. To all.

Note: We have a very limited number of tickets available for A Raisin in the Sun evening and weekend performances through November 20. But you may now purchase tickets for weekday student matinee performances through December 22. (You would be watching the play with school groups.) Student matinee tickets cost just $25.

banner-soul-of-gershwin-960x356-10-19

Tickets for The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer evening and weekend performances are available through December 31.

To order, call 651.291.7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Park Square Theatre Seeks Resident Theatre Partners

Is your  theatre company interested in participating with Park Square Theatre as a member of the second generation of resident theatres?

Park Square is seeking to work with up to three groups, beginning with the 2017-2018 season.  

We need partners who:

  • Can produce one full production per year, for at least two consecutive seasons, as part of Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage subscription season
  • Have a track record of successful producing for a loyal audience
  • Have plans and ambitions for continued programming and the ability to program ahead (18-24 months out)
  • Are willing to collaborate with Park Square and other Partners to coordinate programming, scheduling and marketing

Park Square’s contribution to the partnership includes:

  • Use of the  Andy Boss Thrust Stage for tech/dress and performances
  • Ticketing, sales and house management
  • Direct marketing and promotion as part of the Theatre’s subscription series
  • Collaboration for joint/shared marketing and the potential for joint fundraising

To be considered for 2017-2018, please submit your expression of interest to Richard Cook (cook@parksquaretheatre.org/651.767.7482) no later than November 1, 2016.

 

  Big Money at Park Square Theatre, 2017             Up: The Man in the Flying Chair at Park Square Theatre, 2017

Current Resident Theatre Partners Sandbox Theatre (photo of Peter Heeringa by Matthew Glover), Theatre Pro Rata and Girl Friday Productions present Big Money, Up: The Man in the Flying Chair and Idiot’s Delight, respectively, for the Park Square Theatre 2016-2017 season

          Idiot's Delight, produced by Girl Friday Productions, at Park Square Theatre, 2017

Page 1 of 212
    tagline-color

Theatre News for you!

Sign up to get the latest Park Square news