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The Heart and Soul of Gershwin

What do you think of when you hear Gershwin? Right now I only mean the literal name – George Gershwin. Do you think of iconic songs such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris”? How about the great opera, Porgy and Bess and it’s classic “Summertime”? Okay, now what else do you think about (again, about the man himself). Do words like “New York”, “jazz”, “immigrant”, “Great American Songbook” and “Roaring ’20s” float through your imagination?

They’re all floating about in my head and I’m just a millennial who’s about to live through a whole new ’20s!

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

 

Speaking of which, now what images are appearing in your mind? I bet it is the 1920s, the decade with which Gershwin will forever be linked. In a post-war world, the United States suddenly took the lead in cultural influence, where our figures of pop culture took on Olympian status. Athletes, aviators and artists were now more popular than any stuffy politician or war hero. Jazz, sex and money seemed to be the cultural touchstones of the era with a soundtrack composed by George Gershwin.

Born in New York City in 1898, to Roza and Jakov Gershowitz, Jewish immigrants from Russia. He had three siblings named Frances, Arthur and Ira (who would become his equally famous writing partner). The children grew up in the Brooklyn tenements and were unwittingly influenced by the cultural melting pot that surrounded them at the turn of the century.

All of this culminated in 1924 when Gershwin was commissioned to compose a jazz concerto that became Rhapsody in Blue. The piece and that opening clarinet glissando immediately established him as a serious composer at the fine age of 26.

Four years later, his next major work premiered, An American in Paris. Inspired by the years he had spent in Paris (probably the next most artistically scintillating city after New York City) he said, “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

He went so far as to include Parisian taxi horns into the composition.

With the dizzying heights reached by Gershwin and the country, it seemed poetic that the only way to go was down. The extravagance of the ’20s fizzled into the bleakness of the ’30s. The country may have been depressed but Gershwin was as busy as ever, composing a the folk opera, Porgy and Bess. A failure at the time, it is now regarded as a true American masterpiece, noted for it’s cast of classically-trained African American singers. Of course this was an extremely bold move at the time and thankfully one Gershwin was willing to make.

The work unfortunately proved to be his last, for what came after is again, almost poetic. In 1937 he suffered a  brain tumor and died.  The events were devastating as Gershwin was only 38 and seemingly poised to start a new chapter in his already stellar legacy.

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Now this winter, Park Square Theatre takes up the mantle of that legacy with The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer. That last word, a Yiddish one, means “instrument of music”. How fitting then for a man who was an instrument of so many talents.

 

The Real Life Younger Family of Minneapolis

I recently came across a piece from MPR News entitled, “Event Remembers Black Family Terrorized in South Minneapolis.” Tenderly, I read on.

The article told a short but powerful story about a couple named Arthur and Edith Lee who were among the first African Americans to move into south Minneapolis in 1931, along with their young daughter. What happened next was what you could imagine, even more so if you’re familiar with A Raisin in the Sun. The backlash from white residents was immediate and harsh – The Minneapolis Journal reported that a mob of 1,000  people surrounded the house and pelted it with rocks.

Of course this isn’t a play, but real life history from our Twin Cities. There’s no way to know if Lorraine Hansberry knew of this particular incident but she was undoubtedly aware of similar stories from Northern communities – her own in Chicago for instance. In a sad irony, freedom-searching blacks from the South ran into a buzzsaw of prejudice in the Northern cities in which they sought refuge.

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Edith and Arthur Lee

“Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country. I came out here to make this house my home. I have a right to establish a home.” – Arthur Lee July 16, 1931

This is known as the Great Migration and it lasted from 1910-1970, irrevocably shaking up the country’s demographics. Over that period, six million African Americans fled the South and moved into cities such as Chicago, New York (especially Harlem), Milwaukee and Minneapolis. If you think the homogeneity in Minnesota is extreme now, imagine what it was like at the start of the 20th century when nine out of every 10 black Americans lived in the South. The Lees, like their fictional counterparts in the Youngers, were victims of this social upheaval.

Bringing it back to the original MPR article, however, we are given hope in our modern world that a kind of solace can be attained even if we can’t change the past.

The Lee family stood their ground in south Minneapolis for a year-and-a-half before deciding to move. Eighty years later, in 2011, the current owner of the home allowed a small statue to be erected in the yard to commemorate the family and then in 2014, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s located at 4600 Columbus Ave., and I for one am going to seek out this extremely important piece of history. I’d also highly recommend checking out the articles below for further reading.

NOTE: we have opened up tickets for purchase for our weekday morning student matinees through Dec 22. Tickets are just $25. Call 651.291.7005 or order at parksquaretheatre.org

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Randolph, Toni. “Event Remembers Black Family Terrorized in South Minneapolis.” The Cities: Notes on the News from the Twin Cities, MPR News, 15 July 2011, http://blogs.mprnews.org/cities/2011/07/event-remembers-black-family-terrorized-in-south-minneapolis/

Elliot, Paige. “House in South Minneapolis Added to National Register of Historic Places.” Twin Cities Daily Planet, 25 July 2014, http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/arthur-lee-monument-goes-national/

“Great Migration.” History.com, 2010
http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration

Dress for Success

In Calendar Girls, a group of women raise money for a good cause by posing nude for a calendar.  In the process, they end up giving each other invaluable personal support as well.

It is only fitting then that during the run of Calendar Girls, Park Square Theatre has welcomed audience members to donate gently used professional attire or handbags to Dress for Success Twin Cities, an organization devoted to, as their website describes, “empower(ing) women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.”  Dress for Success is part of a global movement to help women break out of cycles of poverty.  For a fuller description of this amazing organization, go to www.twincities.dressforsuccess.org.

If you wish to donate any items, Park Square Theatre will collect them through Sunday, July 24.

Many of Dress for Success’ clients go directly to job interviews after “suiting up,” so please be sure that all donations are ready to wear, no more than five years old, and something that you would be proud to put on for an interview.  Handbags are particularly useful to complete the professional look.

The response from Park Square theatre-goers has been terrific, and we extend a BIG thank you to all for your generosity!

 

Dress for Success vehicle filled with Park Square Theatre donations

Dress for Success vehicle filled with Park Square’s donations

Job Description: The Mentor

Producers, writers, directors, dramaturgs, choreographers, agents, actors, singers, coffee runners.  You name it and it exists in show biz, where just about every facet of the theatre has its designated leader–the one who takes control of that job.  This is done for obvious reasons: No man is an island, and burnout should be avoided.

But what about the mentor?  What function does this title serve?  Is it even a position worth considering when it comes to describing the jobs of the theatre?  I would unequivocally argue:  yes!

More than a teacher, the mentor takes the student-teacher relationship to the next level, instilling not just knowledge but wisdom upon the fortunate.  The lesson does not end when the bell rings or the class is over; the guidance continues after school and throughout life.  Through the mentor you are opened to the fact that the world is your classroom and, if you are of age, even the bar.  I had wonderful acting training in my undergraduate years, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I learned more about what drives an actor (life, love, loss, etc.) by grabbing some beers with two or three individuals who truly transcended the role of “teacher.”  They became mentors.  I maintain close friendships with them now, well beyond graduation, still asking for their advice as I navigate the always tricky waters of professional theatre.

Not everyone can attain this lofty mark, however.  Indeed, what makes the role so special is its exclusivity.  Personally I would count only two in my life, and they shepherded me through the trials of high school and college theatre, respectively.  They were men whom I looked up to for being themselves in the face of adversity and completely selfless in their work as well as patiently listening to the seemingly endless problems that can befall a student of the theatre.  Will I have more in my life?  It is hard to say, for while anyone can be a mentor, you can’t find one simply by looking through the classifieds or applying for one.  It just happens.  

While I believe everyone should benefit from a mentor’s guidance, the door swings both ways: You must take some initiative as well to cultivate the relationship in the same way you would with a best friend, faithful dog or trusted lover.  Anything lasting has to be built on a foundation of mutual respect and accountability.

As I grow older with various real-world experiences of my own, I’m learning to “send the elevator back down” and give a hand to those younger than me.  Not that they’re much younger, of course, but age has very little to do with experience.  I’m finding that with even the little amount that I possess, I can share some with kids whom I meet in elementary and high schools.  They’ve got a long way to go so if I can give them just a nugget of insight, it could be the difference in having them reach the next level.  Such was my case so, to all the mentors out there, thank you; and to those of us who have them, appreciate what you have and never let go.

 

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Hellooo, St. Paul!

As I walked away from Park Square and the Hamm Building tonight after a box office shift, I couldn’t help but look up at the clear, crisp sky lit by both stars and city lights, and wonder about where I am in the world. Before you get all heady and introspective yourself, I just literally mean where I am. Like, my geographical presence on the planet.

Like, how did I end up in Saint Paul when I was born and bred and central Florida? I know it’s the same country, but it really is two different ways of living and I’m not complaining; in fact, I’m celebrating! Minnesota’s been very welcoming, especially all the artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with (looking at you, Park Square) and while I may have first moved to Minneapolis, I have definitely settled into the charm of the Twin.

One huge reason for that is the monthly Saint Paul Hello that’s held at the Minnesota History Center. Now for those of you who might not know, the event is a large social gathering that’s just one big welcome party with dozens of local vendors such as Park Square, Summit Brewing, the St. Paul Saints, The Current, a plethora of restaurants, artisans and so much more. In addition to all the friendly faces that greet you is all the FREE swag those faces give out!

Stickers! Pins! Candy! Tickets!  SNAPBACKS! Even custom designed eyeglass lens cleaners! What??? It’s the best, but if you’re not sold on any of that, the climax of the event is the beloved Hat Ceremony. It is at this moment where everyone who signed up for the event receives their very own faux fur-lined winter hat with the ear flaps. Saint Paul Hello oozes with kindness and generosity all because the founder just wants newcomers to love Minnesota as much as she does. 

Well, not only did I move here but I have stickers and pins to prove that I enjoy it as well. Even if you’ve lived here for years/ were born and raised eating hotdish, I would highly recommend checking out Saint Paul Hello. You’ll definitely get a spiffy new hat and probably make some new friends too; especially now that we’re right in the middle of winter, there’s nothing warmer. The next one is Tuesday, March 8. Stop by the Park Square table and say “hello.”

 

General Observations from the PST Generals!

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer at Park Square for the General Auditions. Remember, I said I’d see you there?

Well, I don’t know you. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see you! In fact, were you to introduce yourself to me now I would probably go, “Oh! It’s you! You were so nice and punctual!”

In fact, I would probably say a lot of things and to make it easier to read, I will list them in handy dandy bullet points. Therefore, allow me to ruminate on all the things that I happened to notice in my weekend at Park Square.

  • Brush up your Shakespeare! Maybe there was something in the air, or perhaps some specific auditioning, but 99.9% of the monologues I saw this weekend were from the Bard. Which is totally awesome! As an actor myself, I relished the chance to see five different Claudio’s and a handful of Ferdinand’s. Just as every actor is a unique individual, so then do they bring their own uniqueness the the same familiar words.
  • Every one who auditioned was so polite! After the weekend we got plenty of emails from the talent commending the volunteers, but truly, the credit goes to you fellow performers for making the job easy.
  • The people watching the auditions were so polite as well! And definitely patient. My favorite assignment was sitting in the room as the timer and getting to watch the directors as much as the actors. No matter if the computers were slow or the performer a little less than prepared – everyone was gracious and willing to wait.
  • There was no better time to go to the bathroom or scamper off down a hallway than the minutes before it’s your turn to audition. Without fail, I was always hunting down a stray actor.
  • Going back to my intro, I commented once that getting to see my friends audition was like a “greatest hits” of the Twin Cities theatre. Of course when you’re in a show with someone you often only get to know that one side – so how delightful it is to watch them do some Shakespeare or something off the wall.

So there ya have it! After reading all that how could you not be jazzed to attend yourself? You’ve got a whole year after all, so dust off some of your favorite pieces and mark you calendars!

 

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