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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

 

A Hope for Peace

The set of Migra, created by 7/8th graders at my daughter's school  (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

The set of Migra, created by 7/8th graders at my daughter’s school
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Yesterday afternoon, I was a proud parent at Mixed Blood Theater, watching the play Migra, written by the 7/8th grade students of my daughter’s school. In the program, the Notes from Artistic Director (the English Language Arts instructor) explained:

This play marks the end of a semester of exploration for the students. We began the semester asking the question, “Who walked this land before me?….We followed that question with, “If my people weren’t Native American, when, how, and why did they arrive here?” Rather than a genealogical study, the exploration looked to literature, art, film, and nonfiction from the countries of students’ ancestral origins and reflected informally in journals and conversations as well as formally in essays. Students considered the past and the present and contemplated the impact of immigration and ancestry on their present day realities. Some students had not thought much about their ancestors, others had vast knowledge, and some had no choice but to constantly be considering their ancestry. While presidential race debates discussed current issues including immigration viewpoints, and our own city experienced the tragic loss of Philando Castille, these topics made their way into the students’ writing, and ultimately into Migra….The views expressed in the play are not intended to represent the ideals of the school as a whole, or for that matter be directive, but they are, like all good theatre, an attempt to encourage the viewer: to question, to discuss, and to feel joy, disgust, fear, and passion. We hope that you take away the beauty of the adolescent mind–and the power of talking about all things sour and sweet, just as these brave individuals show us is possible.

Then in the evening, I attended the second of a three-series talk on the African-American experience by Macalester Professor Duchess Harris, co-author of two books for 6th to 12th graders, Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA (Hidden Heroes) and Black Lives Matter (Special Reports).  These have been in-depth talks followed by audience Q&A, finally shedding light on hidden American history and its overlooked impact on America’s past and present. Notable about these events, which are open and free to the public at Roseville Public Library (final talk is on Thursday, February 2, at 7 pm), is that the room is packed with people hungry for a broadened perspective and an honest start of a dialogue about their and our narratives as Americans.

Hidden Human Computers: Duchess Harris on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/195655453

Recently Park Square Theatre drew a crowd to the commemoration of The Ghostlight Project. This is an effort by theatres throughout the country to, according to Randy Reyes, Mu Performing Arts Director as well as a national steering committee member of the project, declare our theatres as “brave spaces where all are welcome to be who they are and engage in debate and dissent–and leave inspired to take action….Together, we will create light for those who need it most and pledge ourselves to work that honors all and celebrates the unconquerable human spirit.”

Attendees at The Ghostlight Project commemoration event posted their pledges (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Attendees at The Ghostlight Project commemoration event posted their pledges
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Soon Park Square Theatre will also participate in the Coffee Sleeves Conversation Project with Coffee House Press, an internationally renowned independent publishing company and arts nonprofit in Minneapolis. Through its Books in Action programming, they have designed a unique way to create community discussions on race and the arts at local coffee shops and our theatre.

And as a parent, I am also proud of the fact that Park Square Theatre has a robust Education Program that opens the door to meaningful dialogue amongst our young people, many of whom are first-time theatre attendees. For instance, our on-line study guide for Flower Drum Song, currently on our Proscenium Stage until February 19, offers activities and resources for classrooms to consider “Stereotypes: Real, Perceived, or Debunked?,” “Charting the Immigrant Experience” and much more. For A Raisin in the Sun, which will return by popular demand next season, they did not shirk from topics of redlining and white privilege. Park Square’s study guides are, as our website describes, mindfully “created for teachers by teachers to introduce students to the world of the play” and, by extension, share and broaden their view of the world around them.

Educators met during the summer to create the study guide for Flower Drum Song (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Educators volunteered their time during the summer to create the study guide for Flower Drum Song
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Today we see arts funding once again coming under attack. But I wonder, as I go to a variety of venues and events featuring writers, actors, dancers, visual arts, students, etc.–often trying to be as financially and publicly accessible as possible for its creators and audiences, do people overall actually support this push? Do they truly not believe in the value of the arts in society? Or, this time, are they grateful for the arts but being fed, once again, the message that adequate arts funding is superfluous to the well-being of our communities? Is it a message that comes from the expansive Heart, or from some place much smaller?

a hope for peace by artist Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio (Photo by Bob Schmitt)

a hope for peace by artist Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio, who’d created a logo for Theatre Mu, before it became Mu Performing Arts
(Photo by Bob Schmitt)

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