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My Blood Is On That Stage

Sixteen years ago I walked into the basement of the Historic Hamm Building to audition for Park Square’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by the late Stephen Kanee. This was my first audition at PST and the first paying gig I’d ever book. Stephen was an adjunct professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, which was more than fortune for me, because I absolutely gassed my audition. I stumbled and I stammered and I looked every bit the amateur I was. Stephen, bless his heart, took pity on me. “Ok, so that wasn’t good. Why don’t you give me something you know, something that shows me who you are.” Quickly, I shuffled through my mental Rolodex of audition material — kidding, I only really knew one more. I was terrible at preparation. “There, that’s what I wanted to see.” A few days later I got a call asking if I wanted a role. I felt big.

That year, the fall of 2000, R&J would rehearse and perform five weeks of matinees for hundreds of middle and high school kids, but, unlike most PST R&Js before, we’d also be a part of the Winter main stage season (plus matinees), making the full run about five months long with a holiday break mixed in.

It was a full scale production with 23 cast members; 19 of which were male, all in one dressing room. Tight quarters.

Stephen placed our R&J in 1950s Little Italy. The set was spartan; all steel and girders, stairs and catwalk. Sometime during tech week, Park Square drew its first blood. Of course it was mine. The plan was for my Paris, who, upon finding the scoundrel Romeo lurking around the undead body of Zombie Juliet, would pounce. We’d fight — I’d swing over Romeo’s ducking head losing my balance, after which, he’d slam my face into the steel gurney upon which the Zombie Juliet lay. The plan worked. Not stage combat style, but face-into-gurney-style. The lights had gone out a half-second early, and Romeo and I misjudged our stunt. “F#@*,” I shouted. Our stage manager Andrea said something droll like, “That’s not your line, Matthew.” The lights came back up and the bridge of my nose had been cracked. Blood flowed. Park Square 1, Matthew 0.

After the holiday break, the show underwent some changes. The actors playing Romeo and Benvolio alternated roles, one playing Romeo on Wednesdays, the other Thursdays, and so on. This meant the Romeo/Paris fight needed to be worked from scratch with a new person flinging me into metal things. Within the first week of the run, new Romeo’s adrenaline got the better of him. My death was to come when another off-balance Paris flail was dodged by an on-balance Romeo parry, and my momentum would take me headlong into the very, very solid steel bridge girder, knocking the life out of me. An accident, you see! Romeo is innocent! Well, this Romeo threw me right into the very, very solid steel girder, tearing the cartilage between two of Paris’ also innocent ribs. Pretty sure that incident caused the theatre to up its liability insurance. No blood this time, but if you’ve ever tried sleeping with a rib injury, I can assure you a broken nose is far easier to manage. The score at halftime: Park Square 2, Matthew 0.

With my ribs still sore, and the show in full run, my body decided it wanted a piece of me, too, in the form of my first kidney stone – Callooh! Callay! Three AM the Friday of a show, a fire like I’d never felt before erupted in my belly. I left HCMC with a scrip for Vicodin and an $1800 medical bill. Worse than the pain — well, no, nothing was — but exacerbating the pain, was the fact that Vicodin made me mush-mouthed. Like more than usual. Shakespeare and narcotics do NOT mix. “Of hon’rable nobility are you both, and ’tis pity that you’ve lived at odds for so long” comes out more like “Of horry nobbers-glib dogger bosht un pity rods fong.” So for six excruciating two-show days, I medicated at night for sleep, then played Paris painfully sober in the light of day. Have I mentioned the show was 3.5 hours long? Well, it was. Thankfully, my Paris lay dead on the stage for the final 30 minutes of the show. Y’know, after getting chucked into the set? Those 30 minutes were downright blissful after the grimaced writhing I’d do on the green room couch between scenes. I have vivid memories of the late and very sweet Kevin Vance catching me from passing out as I’d make this exit or that, and the dear Randy Latimer lending her shoulder to lay on backstage. Three-nil, PST.

Finally, the cursed stone passed on Valentine’s Day, 2001. There was much rejoicing … until the ear infections kicked in. Plural. Both. I spent the rest of the run unable to hear myself speak. The Friar and I worked out a subtle signal for me to crank up the volume if needed. It was totally needed. Four-nil.

My memories of that show go beyond the injuries. I met and shared the stage with a number of wonderful performers, and had the great honor of working with Stephen. It’s been fifteen years since that show closed, so it’s not like I have a score to settle, right? I mean, I did leave out the part where my pet rabbit died, and the part where school kids would fire pennies or M&M’s at my head while I lay dead on the stage. “He’s not dead, he’s still breathing.” He was right, but just barely. My blood is on that stage. I hope it was delicious, kids.

 

Artist Spotlight: CJ Pitts, Musician

As someone who works at Park Square in various capacities, one of the best things about the job is who I get to work with. That includes the plethora of theatre artisans onstage and off, of course, but it also includes the day-to-day staff of the front of house.

Whether it’s in the ticket office, behind the bar, or tearing your ticket as you head in, we dutiful workers are not just faces in the crowd. Many of us are artists ourselves who practice our own passions when not sharing our time with Park Square.

One such artist you might meet is CJ Pitts, a singer and songwriter from Bear, Delaware who decided to make music in the Twin Cities after coming to Saint Paul five years ago. It was only in college, though, when he was first drawn to music as a way of life. Prior to that, Pitts dreamed of being a professional athlete, running track at the Olympics. Those goals may have shifted, but the drive and desire to succeed are certainly common to both and Pitts is determined to rise to the occasion.

At 24,  he’s just getting warmed up, writing songs for himself and others, including the three bands he’s currently a vocalist for. Playing a myriad of sounds and styles, Pitts puts it best by saying:

DSC_1180“My original music is a combo of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and electric sounds. I enjoy all of these styles and I incorporate them into my own art. When I’m not performing my originals, I’m singing anything from funk, jazz, pop, etc.”

If you want to see or hear CJ Pitts outside of the ticket office, check out his music here (“Shark” is probably my favorite!). Also, be on the look out for his recently released, Lost Identity, and the accompanying gigs in support of it.

Whatever we do, the front of house team at Park Square is made up of individuals with talents we’d love to share. So next time you’re milling about in the lobby, go ahead and strike up a conversation with one of us. You’re not only going to be surprised but also intrigued by what we have to say and what we (also) do.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mann!

Richard Mann at Nina Simone

One of the many great moments of Nina Simone: Four Women has to be the appearance of Richard Mann and his family when they came to celebrate his 102 birthday! If you missed this special night you can read about man, the myth, the legend here.

 

2016 Jonathan Larson Grant Awarded to Carson Kreitzer

Park Square Theatre Artistic Associate Carson KreitzerPark Square Theatre is proud to congratulate Artistic Associate Carson Kreitzer (playwright of Behind the Eye, 2014) on receiving a prestigious 2016 Jonathan Larson Grant!

Named after the composer and playwright of the Tony Award-winning musical Rent, the Jonathan Larson grants are awarded annually by the American Theatre Wing to emerging composers, lyricists and book writers. The $10,000 no-strings-attached award is meant “to help further the artist’s creative endeavors.”

In addition, Ms. Kreitzer and her collaborators will receive a week-long residency at Running Deer Musical Theatre Lab’s Writer’s Retreat, an “incubation center for new musicals.”

Carson Kreitzer is a 2015/16 McKnight Fellow in Playwriting at the Playwrights’ Center, as well as an Artistic Associate at Park Square Theatre. Her current projects include Capital Crime!, a commission for the Guthrie Theatre, and Lempicka, a new musical with composer Matt Gould. Her plays include The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Rosenthal New Play Prize, American Theatre Critics’ Steinberg New Play Citation, and Barrie Stavis Award; published in Smith and Kraus’ New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2004), SELF DEFENSE or death of some salesmen, Flesh and the Desert, The Slow Drag (New York and London), Slither, Behind the Eye, and Lasso of Truth (NNPN Rolling World Premiere). Ms. Kreitzer is a member of the Workhaus Collective, an alumna of New Dramatists, and was the first Playwrights of New York (PoNY) Fellow at the Lark Play Development Center. Her collection SELF DEFENSE and other plays is available from No Passport Press.

Behind the Eye, Park Square Theatre, 2014

Annie Enneking (member, actors’ equity association) as photographer Lee Miller in “Behind the Eye” by Carson Kreitzer, 2014.

 

Mann, What a Life

This month will mark not only the opening of Park Square’s much anticipated, Nina Simone: Four Women, but also the looooong anticipated birthday celebration of Richard Mann, a 102 year old St. Paul resident. What do the two have in common, you ask? Maybe more than you think. We’ll get to that soon but first we’ll just start by saying that Park Square is honored to be having Mr. Mann and his family attend Nina on March 12th to celebrate his big 1-0-2.

Born in St. Paul in 1914, Mr. Mann has lived his entire life in either St. Paul or Minneapolis, with his family moving back and forth between the two cities throughout his adolescence. He was only 11 when his father died. He went to work, instilling in himself a strong sense of self-determination and activity. In the late 1940s he went into the nightclub business, opening the Treasure Inn in Roseville that became a popular spot for the black community and college students. Prince Rogers, father of… well, Prince, was one famous artist to play there. Needing to support a family of his own, however, led him to change course and in 1953, he started working at the Post Office where he stayed for 30 years.

Mr. Mann’s greatest contribution to the Twin Cities, though, would have to be his community activism. He was a Boy Scout as a kid and then grew up to be president of the Sterling Club, a charitable organization that works with other groups to provide beneficial activities and programs to the African American community. To honor his 90th birthday, the Richard Morris Mann scholarship was established to benefit graduating African American high school seniors attending college.

Even after all that, Mr. Mann continues to make a name for himself and proving his vitality by becoming a recent internet hit when a video of him shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk went viral this winter. Bound and determined to live an active lifestyle, he continues to shovel walks and loves playing golf.  Surely this must be a “key” to living such a long life. Although, I would add that having such a large family helps. When the Mann family sees Nina on the 12th, there will be no less than 16 representatives in the seats! That’s like, a whole section of the Boss Stage house! So if you can’t get a ticket you know who to thank.
Nah, I’m sure you’ll be fine, and what a performance to see if you really want one of those “special times in the theatre.” Not only will you be basking in the inspiration of Nina Simone’s music but you can look over at Richard Mann, sure to be tapping his foot and smiling, and soak up his own unbridled inspiration.

Also, go ahead and watch him shovel snow. It’s the best.

 

 

Addition by Division

One of the most difficult aspects of making new plays is the division of labor within the ensemble. Starting from nebulous ideas of characters, text, themes and sets can make it a challenge early on to determine who works on what and when. When Queens Director Theo Langason and I sat down in my living room to talk about music for our show, we scratched our heads a bit. As a company, we do all our sound and music live. We’ve been doing that for ten years. We’re fortunate to have an artist like Tim Donahue in Sandbox who creates soundscapes and scores as a part of the creation ensemble, so the music is as integral and natural for each show as can be. But what do we do when Tim isn’t available, or, more so in the case of Queens, not right for this play?

To build music from scratch with a play being built from scratch requires patience and time. Loads of it. So we needed to find a musician – a songwriter – who could rehearse with us from day one, have the patience to collaborate, embrace the unknown and have the artistic malleability to hold on tightly and let go lightly. It was a tall order. I had someone in mind, all I had to do was convince Theo this person was right for the job. It went something like this:

Theo: I know some people, they’d be hard to get.

Me: Well…you play the guitar and you can sing. And you’ll be there in the room creating from day one…

Theo:

I’m not gonna lie, I’m selfish about our group. Greedy even. I’ll grab on to any chance to make something with one of my friends. But now we get back to the division of labor thing — Theo is already directing this play. So we’re all going to have to share the load. It’s not the first time for us, won’t be the last. After a few weeks, he started to warm up to the idea. He sent me this:

“I was sitting in my living room, thinking about Queens; and all at once, like a punch in the gut, this song came rushing out of me. I’m really looking forward to making this show!”

 

You and me both, my friend.

 

Queens Team, Assemble!

My good friend Sam has a thing for movies where a team is assembled to perform a certain (often near-impossible) task. Oceans 11, The Warriors, The Dirty Dozen, etc. The idea being that every team member has a unique and highly specific skill we’re introduced to through foreshadowing that gets miraculously called into action just as Danny Ocean or Cleon (RIP) or Major Reisman planned. Producing a new play is like this, even if the stakes are less deadly. Still, maybe we’ll make sweet vests or something.

Once Sandbox voted to make Queens our Theatres in Residence show for Park Square in 2016, our next step was to assemble a team. Internally, we had a director (Theo Langason), a scenic designer (Derek Lee Miller), expert ensemble creators (Heather Stone, Peter Heeringa) and a project lead (yours truly). (A quick note on our nomenclature — the project lead is often the one who conceived the story, they serve as the keeper of the show’s artistic vision. The director is the one who shapes that vision into action. But these are fluid terms. Most often, the PL and director act in whatever capacity the show needs.)

We began searching for our cast of three last May; we completed our search this January. There were bumps along the way, but ultimately we have the team we were meant to have. The thing about creating from scratch is that a show, any show is inherently different from go! depending on who is on board. It’s just not possible to see a production of ours and think, Oooh, you know who would have been great in that role… because that role doesn’t exist without the person who created it. So we look for players, people who say yes, people who bring that highly specific skill that will be miraculously called into action. For Queens, we have Emily Madigan, Roland Hawkins and Neal Hazard: a dancer, an opera singer and a storyteller.

On the design side, we brought in lighting designer Heidi Eckwall, a frequent Sandbox collaborator who works seamlessly with our process. Heidi has the ability, the patience really, to know that what we have and what we need might change as the story develops. She then delivers magic.

Our costumer is fashion designer Samantha Rei Crossland. She, too, is magic. I was first introduced to Samantha’s work a few years back when I worked with the MNfashion organization. I’d try to wax poetic about her stuff, but her work speaks for her far better than I can.

http://samantharei.com/

Lasty, we brought in Jaya Robillard to be our stage manager. Like all roles within our ensemble, Sandbox stage managers are called on to help create, direct, cheerlead, argue, soothe, and wrangle. Our SMs are integral to the life of our shows, and we’re fortunate she said yes to this mess.

So imagine if you will, a golden hour sunlit St. Paul. The first jangly chords of Joe Walsh’s “In the City” play as Theo and I stride through the downtown streets toward 7th Place. One by one we’re joined by Heather, Peter, Derek, Neal, Emily, Roland, Heidi, Samantha, Jaya … we’re all wearing sweet vests.

Queens

 

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!

 

It’s a Small World

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said, “It’s a small world,” I wouldn’t need to buy a Powerball ticket. Every day it seems there is something that brings me to that observation. Whether it’s discovering that What’s-His-Name worked with your friend What’s-Her-Face three summers ago or mysteriously running into that one person at every audition. We all know it’s a small world, but I am truly amazed at what a tiny planet showbiz is.

One such instance occurred recently when Callie Schroer, an actress in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Lyric Arts just realized she was working with a director who literally changed her life. That director is Zach Curtis and the life changing moment was in 2007 when Zach played “Lennie” in Of Mice and Men at Park Square. You see, Callie had seen that very production and in her own words exclaims what a thrill the experience was for her: “… it was fantastic and one of the most meaningful shows at the time to a young kid who realized what she wanted to do with her life while viewing this show,” she said. “I felt all of the things, and knew if I could make someone feel so much emotion after a performance, that was all that I wanted to do with my life. So. I’m literally in shock that this is a thing, and that I remembered it all by seeing that one picture.”

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