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Posts Tagged Signe V. Harriday

Imagine the World with Sarah Brandner

All the action in Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano take place at a church in a township of northern Uganda on New Year’s Eve 1999, then again inside the same church on the day of New Year’s Eve 2014. It was Scenic Designer Sarah Brandner’s job to convert the Boss Thrust Stage into this church within the two distinct time periods but without doing two completely separate designs. How would the world of the play look for the actors who must inhabit it and for the audience who must get immersed into it? To determine this required much research, collaboration and creativity.

“When I first get asked to design a show,” Sarah explained, “I read the script and do some preliminary research on such things as the time period and location, but not necessarily on past productions of the same play. Then I have a conversation with the director (Signe V. Harriday for Cardboard Piano) before going deeper. I want to facilitate the director’s vision, plus our conversation also leads to more ideas for exploration. I go off on my own again to let ideas percolate and do more research before putting things together.”

Set model of church in Part 1 by Sarah Brandner

For Cardboard Piano, a big challenge was the low ceiling of the Boss Stage, especially with a key scene in Part I occurring on the church’s rooftop. Sarah, Signe and the other members of the creative team bounced around many ideas on how to solve that problem, always keeping in mind: What’s needed to tell the story? What’s the best way to serve this production in this particular space? Finally figuring out the answer made it possible for Sarah to forge ahead with the rest of her design.

In 1999, the church in the play is still in its humble beginnings; in 2014, it’s a permanent structure. Sarah discovered that many missionary churches in Africa began as “pop up churches.” They’d put up something for shelter, such as tents, and people would bring in blankets, crates or whatever was at hand to create as inviting place of worship as possible. Sarah’s design shows the church as an unfinished structure, definitely still a work in progress.

Adelin Phelps (Chris) and Michael Jemison (Pika) in Part I of Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

In 2014, the church is now a finished building, so the set shows more fully realized architectural elements, such as a stained glass window, pews, an altar and some brick walls. But for creative and practical reasons, Sarah did not need to design a completely new set to switch out for Part II.

“I like to involve the audience so I often provide the essence of an idea to allow them to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks,” said Sarah. “This is a surreal, dreamlike piece so apropos for the audience to use their imagination and become a part of the story.”

Also be sure to look out for symbolic motifs, such as the flowers, in the set design for Part I that simply get repeated in a grander way in Part II. They either mirror something similar or reflect a difference between the two parts of the play.

Set model of church in Part II by Sarah Brandner

Asked why and how she’d come to her profession, Sarah told me her story:

“I have a sister who’s five years older. I looked up to her and wanted to be just like her. She did theatre in high school and attended a summer theatre program that had theatre classes–tech, acting, dance, scene work, and I’d tag along to classes like her little shadow.

When I was old enough, I went to all the summer school classes. I didn’t like the pressures in the auditioning process but just thought I had to do it. Others would be overjoyed or depressed depending on the outcome. It was not my thing.

Kiara Jackson (Ruth), Adelin Phelps (Chris) and Ansa Akyea (Paul) in Part II of Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

But I found another way into theatre by taking design and tech classes. Initially I wanted to be a lighting designer. As an undergrad, I was thinking of doing that; but my advisor also pushed me to try scenic design. I ended up falling in love with it as well. Now I love to do both equally. If I ever had to choose, I’d choose both–not one over the other.”

Sarah holds both MLA and BA degrees in Theatre through Minnesota State University-Moorhead as well as a MFA in Scenic and Lighting Design from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Since her undergraduate years until just a few years ago, Sarah was a designer for MSU-Moorhead, including its summer theatre company, The Straw Hat Players.

As part of her MFA program at UMN-Twin Cities, Sarah did an internship at a museum. To this day, she continues to do exhibition and lighting design for museums in addition to her work for stage productions. For those who’d caught last year’s Penumbra at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, you’d experienced Sarah’s work.

Through the years, you may have also seen Sarah’s work at Park Square Theatre,  Mu Performing Arts, Penumbra Theatre and many other stages. In Sarah’s words, “With each new production I work on, I get the opportunity to work and know more of the amazingly talented artists around Minnesota and beyond.”

In her profession, Sarah gets to do what she loves: to inspire the imagination and create an environment to tell a story. Of Cardboard Piano, she had this to say: “I love it, and it breaks my heart. I hope that people really embrace the story.”

 

Tickets and information here

 

ADELIN PHELPS: Her Thread of Love

A thread of love runs throughout the story of Cardboard Piano, a play set in northern Uganda. It begins with the profound love between two teenage girls, Chris and Adiel, who perform their own secret wedding ceremony in the town’s church on New Year’s eve. One is the daughter of the white missionaries who’d founded the church; the other, a local Ugandan parishioner. Actor Adelin Phelps plays Chris, the missionaries’ daughter; Kiara Jackson is Adiel, her bride. The play takes us on a years-long journey from the night of their wedding to its aftermath.

Adelin’s copy of the script
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“When I first read this play, I really connected with Chris,” Adelin said. “I very quickly fell in love with her and with this story. I love how passionate Chris is and her strong conviction in what she believes. Yet there’s this contradiction that lives in her; she’s smart but also naive and sheltered.

I play Chris at different ages, 16 and 30 years old. And as broken as she becomes, she’s a fighter in the whole play. Women fighting for their needs and beliefs on stage–I’m drawn to that.”

Playing a rich, complex character that must sustain intense emotions as well as display a range of emotions in quick shifts will require stamina. As Adelin attests, “This is not an easy play for any of the cast members. It’s an intense story that moves quickly. What happens to Chris is difficult to execute, but getting to try to do it is so incredible from an actor’s standpoint of serving this story.”

The cast of Cardboard Piano (l to r): Michael Jemison, Ansa Akyea, Adelin Phelps and Kiara Jackson
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

A thread of love runs through Adelin’s desire to not only be in Cardboard Piano, but also to be an actor in the first place. Her desire to act began early as a deep inner knowledge, then a private acknowledgement before coming out as a public dream.

Adelin first fell in love with theatre when, as a child, she saw The Wizard of Oz with her school. The experience was so powerful that she was glued to the stage.

For a long time, however, Adelin pursued dance instead. Though she loved movement, she never wanted to become a professional dancer. And she came to realize that what she loved most about dance were its acting aspects.

“When I was 17,” Adelin recalled, “I knew I wanted to go to college and learn how to act. I had very little experience, not really doing it in high school, but I knew I had to pursue it. The fire in my belly had grown bigger and hotter every year throughout my life. And so I decided to apply and audition for schools. ”

Adelin had made no backup plan, having consciously made the decision to commit her life to acting. Ultimately, she got into her top pick of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and, as she put it, “The rest is history.”

A thread of love has steadily run through Adelin’s acting career, quite evident in a physical theatre ensemble that she co-founded with core members in 2010 after a few years of collaborating on Minnesota Fringe Festival performances. Called Transatlantic Love Affair, the ensemble’s name was inspired by the long-distance relationship between Artistic Director Isabel Nelson and Artistic Associate Diogo Lopes before they got married.

The special synergy within the group was there from the beginning. Not only do they love working together, but they also work beautifully together. That’s a good recipe for stellar productions, and their shows have been consistently well-received. In fact, their 2017 production Promised Land, a reimagined telling of Hansel and Gretel as an immigration story, sold out all its performances.

Adelin Phelps and Kiara Jackson being directed by Signe V. Harriday during a rehearsal of Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Adelin has wondered, “What would it have been like if she’d pursued acting earlier?” But she doesn’t dwell on it. She’s simply grateful that she’d ultimately followed her heart to do what she loves.

Adelin anticipates an exciting year ahead. Besides being in Cardboard Piano, she’s involved in other projects that she is not privy to reveal at the moment. So look out for her, and follow her thread of love.

Information on Transatlantic Love Affair here

Tickets and information on Cardboard Piano here

How Many Ways Can You Say “Foster Johns”?

Perhaps more ways than Foster Johns himself can imagine, despite being a voice and dialect coach for performers and a speech and communications consultant for professionals. Presently, he is teaching a Ugandan dialect to the cast of Park Square Theatre’s Cardboard Piano, a play set in Northern Uganda.

A sudden coaching substitute without prior experience in Ugandan dialect, Foster had less than a week before rehearsals to get a solid handle on the accent. His first step was to do research, which included finding any audio resources to hear actual dialogue. Such resources are now readily available online through primary resources provided by voice practitioners as well as popular media such YouTube. 

“I didn’t find a lot for a Ugandan dialect,” said Foster, “but Signe (the director of Cardboard Piano) recommended a fairly recent movie that’s set in Uganda, Queen of Katwe, that has an accurate representation of the dialect spoken in English.”

Foster also had the extraordinary luck of encountering a Ugandan woman at his day job just two days before his coaching work would begin with the cast.

“I heard her accent as she was talking to a co-worker and asked her where she was from,” Foster recalled. “When she said Uganda, I nearly fell out of my chair.”

The woman was willing to answer some of Foster’s questions. He was also able to check with her on correct pronunciations whenever necessary.

When he coaches actors, Foster concentrates on teaching them what is called “the signature sounds of a dialogue.” These may be three or four sounds that an actor can hone and perfect in order to sound authentic. Just focusing on a manageable number of key sounds prevents making the dialect too overwhelming or daunting to learn.

“These signature sounds also sometimes aid in shaping the remaining sounds and help set the vocal posture,” explained Foster. These may just naturally form around the signature sounds as one speaks the dialogue.

As a dialect coach, Foster also considers how much the actors are responsible to do. How does learning the dialect balance out with all the other things that they must learn to create the characters and the world of the play? In short, how he can best serve the actors and their performances doesn’t necessarily call for complete mastery, according to Foster, “but more so ownership.”

Foster Johns (center) coaching Michael Jemison (left) and Ansa Akyea (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

In Cardboard Piano, Foster mainly coaches the three actors–Kiara Jackson, Michael Jemison and Ansa Akyea–who play the native Ugandans. But he also does some work with Adelin Phelps who plays Chris, the American pastor’s daughter, to consider how she would pronounce particular words.

“Adelin has a brief line in Ugandan, but both she and Kiara say ‘Amen’ at one point,” Foster said. “I have Adelin say ‘Ay-men’ while Kiara says ‘Ah-men’ due to her Ugandan dialect.” Doing something that subtle helps tell the story in terms of place while also revealing something about the characters.

Only seven years into this profession, Foster has worked with international, national and local organizations, which include Park Square Theatre, Minnesota Jewish Theater, Theatre Latte Da and many more. In January alone, he is coaching for shows at Park Square, Illusion Theater, SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development and Apple Valley High School.

Foster actually began as and continues to be a performer who accidentally fell into this other line of work, which is now his main focus. Here’s how it happened:

“I was always adept at doing funny voices and imitating accents. I can hear a person speak for a couple of minutes then mimic it. A friend of mine was involved in a show and asked me to help someone sound like Judy Garland and another person sound Danish. I didn’t know where to start but thought it might be fun, so I said sure.

I’d always been fascinated with how people speak. Our voices are like a vocal scrapbook of our lives. Our speech reflects where we come from, what we’ve been through, who we’ve been with . . . . from doing that first ‘Judy Garland and Danish fella’ show, I simply got fascinated with helping actors work on this very specific element of their characters.”

Foster’s earlier years of the trial-and-error method of teaching sometimes proved frustrating, as he at times would inwardly wonder about a student: “I can do it, so why can’t you?” His passion for his work and desire to do it better led him to acquire a MFA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He spent his first year of studies in London, gloriously surrounded by a variety of international accents and voices. His program required that he teach during the second year, and Foster did so at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

In training through a graduate program, Foster learned more about pedagogy and how different people learn. In turn, he learned how to approach different learning styles, whether kinesthetic, aural, visual, etc. Terrific mentors also shared their knowledge, most importantly the need to account for the actor’s process; as Foster describes it, “meeting the needs of the actor instead of imposing a process that one as the coach has deemed to be ‘the way to do it’.”

After learning in London and teaching in Cincinnati, Foster had a very strong desire to return and work in the Twin Cities. In his words, “Ever since first coming here in 2009, I’ve fallen in love with the kind of theatre work we do here and the array of talent that makes that work possible.”

“I used to think that my skill in imitating speech was just entertaining,” Foster reflected. “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t see how it would be in any way useful. Now I find it a great joy to bring it to others and be able to help them. I do like acting, but I love voice and dialect coaching. It keeps me curious.”

Amen to that!

 

Information on Foster Johns’ services here

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

ANSA AKYEA: About Transformation and Letting Go

In Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, set in a township in Northern Uganda, the talented Ansa Akyea takes on two roles: in Part I as a soldier hunting for a runaway boy soldier; and in Part II as Paul, the pastor of the community’s church, whose past collides with his present, forcing a confrontation with his future. Particularly with the character of Paul, this sobering yet transcendently beautiful and hopeful play brings to mind these words by the Chinese philosopher Laozi: “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

When asked what playing Paul was teaching him, Ansa replied, “About transformation and letting go. By the end, Paul knows that he must start over; he can’t be the same person moving forward. There’s a new journey that he has to go on.”

Tackling such hard life lessons through the play has had Ansa “excited, scared and filled with dread.” They are, in fact, the very emotions faced by actors when they decide to take on a new role and commit to mining its depths, then perform to live audiences.

Actors Michael Jemison, Kiara Jackson, Adelin Phelps (left to right) and Ansa Akyea (far right) learning from fight choreographer Annie Enneking (center)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

As for his excitement, Ansa cited several reasons to feel that way about being in Cardboard Piano:

  • Director Signe V. Harriday: “I’ve always wanted to work with her. She’s one of the smartest artists who cares about her community and using theatre to connect with community.”
  • Playwright Hansol Jung: “It’s inspiring to have a playwright in conversation about religion, love and conflict. We also need new works to better reflect our diversity. And Hansol’s material has a freshness to it; its perspective is specific, yet universal.”
  • Being part of an intimate four-member ensemble, which includes Kiara Jackson, Michael Jemison and Adelin Phelps: “Signe cast us knowing that we’ll bring our own personal history and intelligence as actors. She chose actors who live in their bodies and hearts. These are things required from actors so they can empathize and act.”

Becoming an actor is also a journey in itself. For Ansa, a Swiss born Ghanaian-American, his acting journey began in his junior year at the University of Iowa, where he would earn his B.A. degrees in French and Communications Studies. That year, he took an elective class taught by a visiting professor from Sierra Leone who wanted to cast Ansa in his play about the 1839 rebellion on the Amistad, a slave schooner. With his parents’ blessing, as long as acting didn’t interfere with his studies, Ansa took the part.

Left to right: Dialect coach Foster Johns working with actors Ansa Akyea and Michael Jemison
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Ansa’s tremendous talent on stage as an undergraduate led his university to offer him the opportunity to earn an MFA in Acting. Cast right out of graduate school, Ansa honed his craft in Chicago, working at numerous theaters starting with Steppenwolf, Black ensemble, ITC, stage left theater and many others.

Ansa ultimately moved to the Twin Cities when his spouse got a job here. He hit the ground running, immediately being hired by Mixed Blood Theater, with subsequent stints at the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre Company. Ever since, Ansa has appeared on many stages throughout the Twin Cities and been seen or heard on television, film and radio. He has also been the recipient of the 2007 City Pages Best Actor award, 2011 Minnesota Playwright Center’s McKnight Award for Acting, 2013 Minnesota Playwright Center’s Many Voices Fellowship and 2013 Ivey Award for Ensemble Acting in the Guthrie’s Clybourne Park.

About theatre, Ansa had this to say: “This is my life. I love my profession. I have an achievement mentality; I have aspirations to always learn more. I will always work.”

After Cardboard Piano, Ansa will be teaching at North High School located in North St. Paul. He will also play Daddy Onceler in the Children Theatre Company’s production of The Lorax this spring.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

Park Square Theatre and the Beauty of Trying

Park Square Theatre describes Cardboard Piano as a powerful story that “examines the cost of intolerance as well as the human capacity for love and forgiveness.” Its arrival at Park Square for its Midwest premiere (January 19 to February 18) comes at a prescient time in the Twin Cities theatre scene, as changing demographics becomes a major driver for arts organizations to reexamine how they fit their communities. It also signals Park Square’s need and willingness to strive to serve a broader audience and offer a variety of viewpoints.

Cardboard Piano at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN - 2018 - Two hands claspingHow did a play by a South Korean playwright in America that’s set in Northern Uganda land in St. Paul, Minnesota? A contingent of diehard supporters of Park Square Theatre attended its debut at the 2016 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, and unanimously chose to bring Cardboard Piano to the Twin Cities.

Playwright Hansol Jung’s explanation about her play’s title itself captures how Cardboard Piano made its way to Park Square Theatre. According to Jung, “The title comes from a story told in the play. But it comes from a deeper idea of just the beauty of trying. When we do that we are usually wanting something in life that’s real and beautiful.” (Courier-Journal, March 18, 2016)

Artistic Director Richard Cook

Like the church that is the main setting for Cardboard Piano, Park Square Theatre was founded by white male visionaries to fulfill its mission “to enrich our community by producing and presenting exceptional live theatre that touches the heart, engages the mind, and delights the spirit.” Begun in 1975 at the Park Square Court Building in Lowertown and moving in 1997 to its present locale at the Historic Hamm Building in downtown Saint Paul, Park Square Theatre has traditionally served a predominantly white audience. Within the past decade, Artistic Director Richard Cook noticed the steadily growing diversity in Park Square’s  student audiences and understood its ramifications for the relevancy and viability of the organization into the future.

While student audiences at Park Square Theatre have grown in diversity, general audiences have not yet kept pace. But Park Square continues its commitment to broaden the scope of its repertoire of stories being told on stage with such offerings as Cardboard Piano, as well as to attract more POC artists into its fold to teach, advise and practice their art.

Jamil Jude

Key to accelerating this effort was Jamil Jude, a social justice-based artist who had moved to the Twin Cities in 2011 and is presently the Associate Artistic Director of True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia. From December 2015 to June 2017, with funding from a grant, Jude served as Park Square Theatre’s first Artistic Programming Associate, generously sharing his wide network of POC artists to bring fresh talent and ideas to the theatre. Amongst the artists whom Jude had brought to Cook’s attention was Signe V. Harriday, an artist based in Minnesota and New York, who was asked to direct last season’s production of The House on Mango Street and returns to direct Cardboard Piano.

Signe V. Harriday

“The play, at its core, is asking questions about big ideas,” said Harriday of Cardboard Piano. “My work is to create the experience and the audience’s to digest it in whatever way they choose.  But the danger with this play is that it may be easy for audiences to say ‘This is a Uganda issue. We don’t behave that way here.’ The issues raised in this beautiful piece, though, can force us to face our culpability and connection.”

How the global, national, local and personal all interconnect will be further driven home through Park Square Theatre’s partnership with the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), an international nonprofit headquartered in Saint Paul, during the run of Cardboard Piano. The mutual benefit of “sharing the Square” with organizations for which the story of our plays connect with their missions originated with Jude as a creative means of community outreach.

As a community theatre with a social conscience, but staff and board members at different spectrums of cultural competency on issues of diversity, inclusion and equity, Park Square Theatre gamely paddles against strong social currents–both internal and external–with the hope of creating what will ultimately be real and beautiful.

 

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

Atquetzali is Hope

Atquetzila Quiroz

Atquetzali in her backyard  (photo by T. T. Cheng)

This fall, The House on Mango Street appears on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage on October 21 and 22 for public audiences (Education weekday matinees continue through Nov 4). Adapted by playwright Amy Ludwig from Sandra Cisneros’ acclaimed novel of the same title, The House on Mango Street is a story-told-in-vignettes about Esperanza Cordero, a young girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago. The young Esperanza, whose name means “hope,” is played by Saint Paul Public Schools ninth-grader Atquetzali Quiroz.

image-only-mango-a-960x480-10-14            image-only-mango-b-960x480-10-14

Scenes from A House on Mango Street (Photos by Petronella J. Ystma)

Miss Quiroz had never acted until the summer before sixth grade when she took part in a camp program called Flipside TeenVenture. She and her friends were tasked with creating a performance on bullying, and Miss Quiroz played the bully. This fun experience opened her up to later take part in school plays, including auditioning and getting a lead role in the seventh grade.

In 2015, she appeared with her mother Mary Anne in a Lake Street Arts! Stories Matter video series shown at Pangea World Theater, highlighting their work as local artists and culture-bearers of Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli and Indigenous Roots, with a relation to Minneapolis’ Lake Street. And in 2016, she reconnected with Pangea, becoming part of its ensemble for Conference of the Birds (Quiroz was a sparrow), a play based on a 12th-century Sufi poem by Farid un-Din Attar and staged to counter the nation’s unrelenting negative political rhetoric.

This July, Miss Quiroz completed filming for her first movie role in Director Jesse Mast’s Kid West. The movie is about a cowgirl and her Native American friend, played by Quiroz, in a race against neighborhood bullies to find a mysterious treasure possessing mystical powers. It is still in post-production.

But it was Miss Quiroz’s work at Pangea’s Conference of the Birds that caught the attention of Signe V. Harriday, the director of The House on Mango Street. Harriday asked her to audition for the play, then ultimately cast her in the role of the young Esperanza.

Miss Quiroz did not read Cisneros’ book until after getting the part but described it as “my mom’s favorite book.” During her own reading of Esperanza’s story, she easily connected with the character, her coming-of-age journey and the Mango Street setting.

The past few years have been unexpectedly heady ones for a girl who had not initially ever considered being on stage. Now, she may consider a performing arts school when it comes time to consider high schools.

Rehearsals for The House on Mango Street began in mid-September, the day after Atquetzali’s birthday. Matinee performances for school groups started will run until November 4.

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