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The Curious Tech of the Watson Intelligence

When I was able to catch The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Park Square and I was struck by not just the themes of technological fluidity in our history, but how the show itself was able to convey those big ideas through the technical design. Lights, sounds and especially the costumes all worked together to thread a connection between the late 19th century and the new millennium. As technology is the main concept being driven home here, and specifically it’s relationship to humanity (i.e. personalities, communication, companionship) it was impressive to see how the tech elements of this show interacted with the humans on stage and in the seats. 

Beginning the show, the lights and sounds offer a feast for the senses, and then each scene transition proving to be just as entertaining as the action of the play. In fact, the show begins with a sound montage of various phone sounds such as historical voice recording messages and that ubiquitous “ding a ding a ding a ding” of the modern iPhone. In the dark of the house I listed to the laughs of nostalgia and recognition. Hand-in-hand with the audio landscape were the lights that portrayed shadows of turning gears, conjuring thoughts of a bygone industrial age. The coolest thing about the lights, I must say, were also during the transitions and those were the silhouettes of a man who may-or-may-not be Sherlock Holmes, forever calling on his blundering assistant, Watson. I could tell this was actor, Adam Whisner, back lit behind a screen and the effect was pretty captivating.

The backstage "Steampunk Fairies" of Sam Diekman and Rachel Lantow, get to join in on the fun with their own costumes.

The backstage “Steampunk Fairies” of Sam Diekman and Rachel Lantow, get to join in on the fun with their own costumes. Photo by Connie Shaver

 

Whenever the stage wasn’t shrouded in shadowy mechanics and abuzz with the sounds of telecommunications, we had the actors on stage to engage us in the story. Aiding them (and connecting the past to the present) were the costumes that invoked the imagery of steampunk. That is, the anachronistic blending of modern styles with the Victorian era. How fun it was to see ruffled shirts, ascots and waistcoats set against the backdrop of a modern apartment! This of course, was for the dramatic effect of being able to seamlessly transition from one century to the next. Making the transitions all the more imperceptible was the fact that rather than changing garb completely, the actors would layer their clothes how they needed. For example, the actor Kathryn Fumie started off in a nice, standard set of jeans, knee-high boots and a long-sleeved shirt/skirt. Well, over the course of the show I watched this base layer get both stripped away to the underwear and elaborated on with a wonderfully Victorian dress and hat. The boots were a great design idea because I realized they’re a fashion element that has always looked good!

Check out this more in-depth summary of steampunk, but knowing even a little is enough to enjoy the rich ideas offered up by the designers and my goodness, I almost forgot to mention the actual set of the play! Like boots, brick walls have been a staple of design for centuries and so it works here to reflect both time periods. Cleverly we know it’s the present day by the addition of a neon sign or fiber-optic paneling. Simply take them away and voila! You’re in 1876 before you can even say “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence”.

A great look at a scene that takes place in the 1920s. Just one of several time periods invoked throughout the play.

This play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, is certainly a well-rounded play in terms of acting, directing and design. Owing to the technological themes of the script, however, warranted a blog solely dedicated to such aspects as applied to the show. Hopefully when you see it for yourself you can keep what I’ve said in mind, and find your own appreciation for the sensual feast you’re to encounter. 

 

What the Heck is Steampunk Anyway?

Playing the boards right now at Park Square Theatre is the play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, and one thing you might have noticed about the design of the show is the use of steampunk as a choice. Basically, it’s when you saw the modern costumes blended with Victorian garb and the computers infused with copper pipes and steam-powered devices. If you thought this was just a cool choice by the design team, you are just scratching the surface. It’s actually a much larger aesthetic known as “steampunk” and it has a much richer history and more widespread use than you might have first imagined.

Typical steampunk attire. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Typical steampunk attire. Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

While the term steampunk was only coined in 1987, it has since been applied to much earlier works of art such as those by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yes, it is a science-fiction thing and describes the genre where the Victorian era is re-imagined with modern technology that runs on steam power. The reverse is also true where an alternate future is imagined with society having to reacquaint itself with the use of steam (usually following an apocalyptic event).  You are actually probably very familiar with the look of the genre if you’ve seen TV shows and movies such as The Wild West West and any adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

Beyond it’s use as a design in various works of fiction, steampunk has become it’s own subculture of living. Whole festivals and conventions are dedicated to people donning the Victorian/mechanical clothes and really giving into the conceit of living in such a world. Such events are hosted in Seattle, New Zealand and, of course, Comic-Con in San Diego. You will also most definitely run into a steampunk or two at just about any Renaissance festival, including the big one in Shakopee. Even if a city may not host a major steampunk gathering, as the genre becomes more mainstream, elements are trickling into just about every facet of art, including real-life architecture. This metro station in Paris, is a wonderful example, instantly making you feel as if you’re on board Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.

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The Arts et Metiers Metro Station in Paris. ontheluce.com

As a whole steampunk has proven to be more than just a fad or something limited to the pages of science fiction novels. As evidenced by the design of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, the look and feel of steampunk has become rather commonplace. Some critics will even lambaste this move to the mainstream as the death knell for the genre. Critics always have to criticize don’t they? The fact is that the anachronistic use of clothes and gadgets  is fun and seems to have captured the imagination of the general populace, and while it isn’t to be taken too seriously, hopefully it can be used to support the themes of a play. For a story such as The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, where times melds and the lines are blurred between two distinctly unique eras, steampunk seems like just right aesthetic to drive home some timely ideas.

 

Meet Laura Leffler, the Newest Member of the Team

Park Square Theatre is excited to welcome Laura Leffler to downtown Saint Paul as she assumes the duties of the Company and Contract Manager. With a wealth of experience, she is stoked and ready to embrace all the challenges to come her way, including carving out time in her eventful day to connect with this blogger and answer a few questions!

What’s your background? What brought you to the Twin Cities and how did you get involved with Park Square?

I’m from Kansas City. I moved to the Twin Cities for an internship with Theatre de la Jeune Lune after graduating with my M.A. in Theatre History with an emphasis in Direction from the University of Kansas. I went to undergrad at a teeny tiny liberal arts college called Baker University, where I majored in English Literature and Theatre with an emphasis in performance. After moving to the Twin Cities, I co-founded the theatre company Savage Umbrella, for which I serve as the Artistic Director.

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Laura Leffler in her spiffy new office. Photo by Connie Shaver.

I met Megan West, the former Production Manager, at the Minnesota Theatre Alliance’s Performing Arts Human Resource Training series in 2015. I admired her work and tenacity for striving for diversity and inclusion, so when she went on maternity leave last fall, I covered for her while she was having a really cute baby. That time last fall allowed me to meet a lot of the staff, and get a small taste of the culture at Park Square.

What is the nature of your new role? What is your favorite part about it and what can be a challenge?

As the Company and Contract Manager, I feel a little like I’m learning to drive the car while I’m actually driving the car (which is a fun metaphor that helps me feel less overwhelmed). It’s a slightly different job than I had while I was covering for Megan, as some staffing changes and responsibilities shifted around. My favorite part is to get to be in the room where it happens (thanks, Hamilton) and have big picture conversations with Artistic Director Richard Cook and Executive Director Michael-jon Pease. Also, having a hand in casting is great. I think I’m good at putting together a team to work together in the room, and I’m excited that gets to be a part of my every day work. Everything that involves spreadsheets is a challenge, because I’m “Queen of the Right Brains”. But, every challenge is an opportunity, and I’m always excited to jump at an opportunity for growth.

Have you always done theatre-related work?

What theatre artist ever does all theatre-related work? No, most recently I was covering a few shifts at a local co-op deli. Love me some organic veggies, but they put an inordinate amount of lettuce on their sandwiches, so I’m glad to be back in a theatre setting!

What do you like to do when you’re not working hard?

I have wanderlust like nobody’s business, so I’m always looking forward to the next trip. Camping and tromping around Europe are my favorites. I have a goal to visit all of the national parks, and I’m about 40 short still, so I gotta get moving on that. I’m an avid cook and foodie, so if you ever want to talk Michael Pollan or the latest season of Top Chef, I’m your gal. I like high-brow theatre and dumb movies, rooting for Minnesota United and the Kansas City Royals (sorry, Twins, I bleed blue), and making my 4-year old daughter laugh.

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Now that you know all about Laura, it won’t be awkward to randomly talk to her about your favorite episode of Top Chef or your last trip to a national park. As for that Royals and Twins rivalry… well… we’ll just let that play out on the field.

Welcome to our team at Park Square!

Park Square: It’s a Family Affair

If you have been to Park Square Theatre then you have probably met or seen our indefatigable House Manager, Jiffy Kunik, who runs a tight ship while being just the darn coolest.  I’m here now to let you know where she gets all that pluck, grit and charm – her father, John Kunik.

Kunik is currently an understudy in The Diary of Anne Frank, serving as back up for the roles of Mr. Van Daan and Mr. Dussel. He hasn’t had to go on yet, but you can bet he’s ready at a moment’s notice thanks to a lifetime in the theatre. This isn’t his first gig at Park Square but you would have to go back in time a bit to discover his previous credits…

… It was 1975 and America was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial while trying to figure out just where it was going. While the nation was coping with the end of war, Watergate and a crippling gas shortage, Saint Paul was ushering in the beginning of a new theatre called Park Square. This is where John Kunik got his start in Twin Cities theatre, working with founder Paul Mathey. They collaborated on shows such as The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd (1978), A Delicate Balance (1979) and even Kunik’s original one-act play When You Get in Trouble, Call Time Out, based on two characters who appear in Young Bucks, a full-length play he wrote in graduate school.

Young Bucks was the SIU-Carbondale entry into the American College Theatre Festival and was produced professionally in Chicago and Off-Off Broadway. A favorite memory of his in recounting the old days when the theatre  was in the Park Square Court Building across the street from Mears Park, was when a deer jumped through the window of the ground-level bar, completely destroying the glass. It was a Dixieland Bar and patrons had to wait two weeks for it to be repaired!

Photo by Stephanie K. Kunik

The father-daughter duo of John Kunik and Jiffy Kunik. Photo by Stephanie K. Kunik

Not only is Kunik a veteran of the stage, but a Viet Nam era vet as well. Right before he was set to begin graduate school, he was drafted and following basic training was sent to Seattle to await orders to go to what was surely Vietnam. Fate decided to have some fun, however, and Kunik was surprised to learn that he was headed to Anchorage, Alaska with the special services unit. His duties included being in charge of the entertainment division. As a private he was in charge of lieutenants and sergeants, directing them in various shows. One awesome story was when Kunik was directing Come Blow Your Horn with the father in the play was being acted by the head of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Alaskan Command who he was apparently investigating the guy playing his son, for drugs. What happened? Well he waited until after closing to bust him, of course!

Kunik spent a couple years in Alaska doing important work and gathering some incredible stories. When he was discharged he went back to school at Southern Illinois University and moved to Chicago to pursue a career in theatre. What brought him to the Twin Cities was a friend who came to visit and inspired him to move on a dime. Since then he has acted, directed and written shows for a plethora of companies including The Children’s Theater Company, Theatre in the Round, Lakeshore Players, Hey City Theater (home of the long running Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding). He recently performed in The Gin Game at Pioneer Players in St. Cloud and directed The Sunshine Boys for Buffalo Community Theater. Perhaps the coolest credit on his resume is performing in a show at the Amsterdam Bar that was produced by his daughter Jiffy and entitled “Metal Not Metal” where, fully regaled in his tuxedo, he performed heavy metal lyrics as poetry….

It’s all pretty incredible and unfortunately we’ll have to wait for the autobiography to hear more. Park Square certainly loves both John and Jiffy and is happy to have them on the team!

FOH Employee of the Month: Michelle Clark

Michelle ClarkThe first Front of House employee of 2017 to earn the distinction of Employee of the Month is… Michelle Clark!

Although she will work in the ticket window and patrol the lobby as House Manager, you’ve probably seen her more often than not tending bar this past season. Want to take advantage of our specialty show drinks or maybe go big with a 12 oz. wine pour? Michelle will gladly assist you in starting your Park Square experience on the right foot, and has been an invaluable presence to the team since the fall of 2013.

In another life, before Park Square, Michelle was born in Maine asvher dad was stationed there in the Navy. The family moved back to Minnesota, when she was a year old, so she definitely considers herself a true-blue Minnesotan. Growing up in Stillwater will do that you.

Michelle attended Moorhead State University and after that she got a job at the Ordway Theatre, as a Ticket Associate. Spending six seasons there was her way to gain valuable experience in the theatre and pursue her desire to work in marketing. Fast forward now to Park Square and you can see just what a great fit she is to the team!

A part from her duties at PST, Michelle loves to dance and cook in her free time. She was a part of an Ethnic Folk Dance group at Moorhead called the Heritage Dancers and travelled to Kentucky every summer for a week long Ethnic/Folk Dance camp called Kentucky Dance Institute. Now in the Cities, she’s an avid Belly dancer and has been taking classes for the past several years. Of dance, Michelle says, “There is a lot you can learn about other cultures by studying their dances.” How right you are.

Although she may not exactly be dancing when you run into her in the lobby, she’ll certainly be impressing you with her smile and attitude. If it happens to be behind the bar, then you can show your gratitude with a couple extra ones, eh? Thank you Michelle and congratulations on a much deserved Employee of the Month!

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Laura Topham

One amazing stage manager at Park Square Theatre is Laura Topham, who already has two shows under her belt this season (The Realistic Joneses and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is preparing for her third- The Diary of Anne Frank. That and Midsummer are part of Park Square’s Student Series, a line up that annually reaches 32,000 students a year, offering them “literary classics and cutting-edge contemporary theatre”.

Part of that incredible outreach is Topham, who has been with Park Square for five years and has worked on A Midsummer Night’s Dream on four separate occasions. With the show, she has performed various duties such as run crew, assistant stage manager and stage manager twice. As for Anne Frank, this will be her fifth year working on the popular staple of the student series.

Just how did Topham get involved with Park Square Theatre? Well, originally from Baraboo, Wisconsin she moved to the Twin Cities to pursue a theatre degree at the University of Minnesota. Originally an actor, she decided to branch out and take some stage management classes, leading to a new realization and focus on the other side of the table. Upon graduation, she mailed resumes to just about everyone who might be interested and Park Square’s Production Manager, Megan West, reached out and hired her.

Laura Topham

Laura Topham hard at work.

 

Of course with someone as seasoned at Topham, other companies in town vie for her skills. She has worked with Climb Theatre, Theatre Latte Da, and the Ordway Theater’s Flint Hills Children’s Festival.

With all of that time devoted to her passion, what else could possibly interest her? Well, dance is one past time that has kept her busy as well as a certain dish known as fruit pizza. I’ve probably just been living under a rock, but I’d never heard this and can’t wait to try it out for myself. You should too and when you see Topham in the theatre share a piece with her as thanks for all the hard work she puts in. The shows Park Square produces just wouldn’t be the same with out her, especially considers all those thousands of students.

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Come see The Diary of Anne Frank too, on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage, running February 28 – April 28.

 

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Lyndsey Harter

Ringing in the New Year on the Proscenium stage at Park Square will be Flower Drum Song, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with a book by David Henry Hwang. The play is a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. As noted in the previous Chronicle, it is being stage managed by Jamie J. Kranz, and assisting her in that role is Assistant Stage Manager, Lyndsey R. Harter.

Harter has been with Park Square since the fall of 2014, although it was just this past one when she was able to join Actors’ Equity, the professional union for American actors and stage managers in the theatre. This distinction is something an aspiring individual must work for and Harter was able to helm her first play with such a distinction at Park Square with The House on Mango Street. This was after a summer stage managing plays at the Great River Shakespeare Festival with oft PST director, Doug Scholz-Carlson.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

Lyndsey R. Harter.

 

In fact, Harter frequently collaborates elsewhere and will follow Flower Drum Song with another play from Mu Performing Arts in the spring at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. She and Randy Reyes have previously worked together at Park Square on Murder for Two.

So how did Harter find herself in this position? Raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, she moved to St. Paul in order to study costume design at Hamline University. Despite notable achievements, including two awards with the Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival, she began to gravitate toward stage management and the unique challenges it afforded. It was during her junior year the stage manager of one of the school’s plays had too many conflicts and needed a new person. Employing her excellent organizational skills and affable attitude, Harter was well poised to jump in. She immediately fell in love with seeing how “all the pieces fit together and how one change affects five others.”

Harter grew up in a military family and while real-world duties of actors and soldiers couldn’t be more different, they both share a sense of extreme discipline and teamwork. These attributes have no doubt been an aid to her career. Whenever she is not behind the tech table she loves to stay physically active and finds exercise to be a great way to find “balance and mental space.” Oh, and peanut butter M&Ms are also a little pleasure of hers.

Who knew all of that was going on behind the scenes at Park Square? When you see Flower Drum Song, don’t hesitate to thank the crew and if you want to bring some of those M&Ms, it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Come see it on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square, running January 20 – February 19.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

In the control room at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Megan Winter.

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

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