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Brian Sostek, A Mover and A Dancer

Doug Scholz-Carlson (l) and Brian Sostek (r) in a rehearsal with cast members
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

In The Pirates of Penzance, Brian Sostek is the Movement and Dance Director, creating the overall movements–not just for the dance sequences–in the show. It’s actually a collaborative process, starting with discussions to hash out concepts with Director Doug Scholz-Carlson, before the actors even step into rehearsals. They consider such issues as: What kind of feel do they want for this or that number?

Unlike Director Doug Scholz-Carlson and Music Director Denise Prosek, who have a script and scores to follow, Brian doesn’t already have the moves written down. He gets to work on a blank slate, though ever mindful that whatever created must support the telling of the story.

During the start of rehearsals, the cast spent an intensive three to four days with Denise to practice the music before working with Brian. The actors were hired for their acting and singing, rather than dancing, abilities so his first task was to see how they move. That helped him assess how to capitalize on their strengths and how much to push them beyond their comfort levels.

“I told the actors to expect to fail a lot,” Brian said. “Our objective is to find out what works or doesn’t.”

This process of trial and error placed great demands on the actors. Sometimes they’d have invested much energy in learning particular moves, only to have them changed.

Brian also continued to work closely with Doug and Denise throughout rehearsals. It was an organic process where sometimes Doug would be working with the cast and Brian would suggest that they try something or vice versa. Their collaboration became such that they felt comfortable jumping in to build on what the other was doing.

Brian Sostek leads cast members in movements during a rehearsal
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Although his mom and dad had been in show business before becoming academics in dance and theatre, respectively, Brian himself hadn’t planned to follow in their footsteps. He’d transferred from Swarthmore College to Carleton College in his sophomore year with the thought of majoring in Political Science and Russian.

“Then I took a class on African American poetry, and it blew my mind,” Brian recalled. “That led me to start writing more.”

In 1990, Brian earned a BA in English Language and Literature/Letters. Even so, his first job upon graduation was an internship on environmental education in Virginia.

It was Brian’s return to Minnesota–specifically to the Twin Cities–that ultimately led him down his professional path. He’d done some improv at Carleton so auditioned to get into Dudley Rigg’s’ Brave New Workshop. Failing to get cast turned out to be serendipitous. He went on to audition at the Northrop as a background dancer for a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet. (Brian thinks he got the job for being one of only three males who’d showed up, but having studied dance under his mom likely helped as well.)

Later, Brian auditioned for Joe Chvala and ended up performing with his percussive dance troupe, The Flying Foot Forum, for approximately four years. Becoming a dance instructor at a ballroom dance studio also became a major source of income.

In 1996, Brian met dancer Megan McClellan and moved to Los Angeles for about four years before the two returned to the Twin Cities. In 2000, they created the inventive theatre and dance company, Sossy Mechanics. Today Brian remains a successful writer, director, choreographer, performer and teacher.

 


Tickets and information for The Pirates of Penzance here.
Tickets and information for French Twist, featuring Joe Chvala and The Flying Foot Forum here.

Max Wojtanowicz, Pirate Apprentice

In Park Square Theatre’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, Max Wojtanowicz plays the rather naïve but lovable pirate apprentice, Frederic. His character’s accidental path to piratehood is a hoot, and so is his path to finding true love. Here’s Max to tell us a bit about playing Frederic and also a few things about himself:

1. What’s your favorite thing about playing Frederic?

I love looking at the world through the eyes of a child, and Frederic has a childlike innocence about him. He’s been on a pirate ship his whole life, and adulthood, women, and dry land are entirely new to him! And even though he’s a little clumsy with his words and his feet (I empathize there!), he still wants so badly to do right. I’m also so glad to be working on this role with our director, Doug Scholz-Carlson, who knows the play and the character so well.

2. This is a really rigorous production for cast members. What is the most difficult thing to do as Frederic and why?

Our production is really demanding, both physically and vocally, but the most difficult part by far is not breaking character by laughing at the comedic genius of Christina Baldwin and Bradley Greenwald. Sharing the stage with both of them, and the rest of this gorgeous cast: Can we talk about a dream come true?

Max being fitted with a mic for an interview
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

3. Frederic could have become a pilot but, due to unexpected circumstances, ended up a pirate. If Max had not gotten hooked on theatre at an early age, he may have become a (fill in the blank) instead.

I think I might have become a writer. I wrote a lot of stories as a kid, and I still do! Maybe I would have ended up in journalism? That might be the best case scenario. Realistically, I probably would have ended up a bit like Frederic: out to sea, singing high Bs, not much direction in life.

4. You have a number of upcoming gigs after The Pirates of Penzance. What are they?

Cab Cabaret at Troubadour on April 16; The Good Person of Szechwan with Ten Thousand Things from May 10 to June 3; Ball ArtSHARE at the Southern Theater from June 20 to 24; and I have an ongoing Musical Mondays at LUSH with The Catalysts.

5. You’ve been a Minnesota Fringe Festival favorite for the past years. Do you plan to put on a show to keep up the tradition this year?

Not this year! We had a good run for five years in a row; and I can’t wait to be back in the Fringe with a really good idea, but that idea hasn’t quite come to me yet. Plus I’m buying a house and getting married this summer, so it’ll be a wee bit busy already!

6. What is fulfilling for you about being in The Pirates of Penzance in 2018?

Gilbert and Sullivan were writing at a time when opera was very popular, and they were really smart guys, so smart that they knew exactly how to make fun of both opera and society. They were keen on world events and satire, and I think the temptation right now is to make sure all of our art reflects the world we live in, like they did. To be frank, that would make for some pretty glum stuff. We need hard-hitting, incisive and relevant stories onstage right now, but there is also room and use in the world for fluff, silliness and frivolity. Hopefully, our show has a little of all of that. Maybe a little more silliness than anything else.

7. Do you have a favorite “piratey” thing?

I like to involve my nephews in whatever play I’m doing. They’re five-year-old twins, and they have huge imaginations, so lately my favorite piratey thing to do is pretend to be pirates and draw costume sketches and making “arrrr” noises with them!

Tickets and information here!

 

 

Terri Ristow, The Kid Who Re-Purposed Throwaways

As the Properties Designer for Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, Terri Ristow is the extremely organized and detail-oriented person who makes sure that the production has all its props. Flower petals? Check! Suitcase? Check! Those are only two of the items mentioned on the first page of an 81-page script. 

Here is Terri herself to give us an insider’s view on what she did for Cardboard Piano:

1.  Can you describe the process that you went through in your work for Cardboard Piano?   

I start my design process by reading the script and making notes of any props that are mentioned or that I think the actors will need. My next step is to research the time and place of the story. For Cardboard Piano, I explored many aspects of Uganda. I researched the wildflowers of Africa and used this knowledge as inspiration for the church flower arrangements. I read through the war history of Uganda to understand what type of handguns and other weapons were readily available in 1999. As an overall theme, the first part of the play features cheap, brightly colored plastic-ware that is prevalent in many impoverished countries. For the second part of the story, I brought in items that I hoped would convey a richer sense of African heritage and village artistic pride.

2. The cardboard piano is an important symbol in the play. What went into the design of it?

Ah, the piano. The piano was one of the last props I made for this show, for a good reason. The designer in me couldn’t make the piano; the piano is made by a character in the story. Did the character know the dimensions of a real piano, or how many keys are on the keyboard? We really don’t know. In this story, the piano was created in one thoughtful and sleepless evening.  It was fitting that I did the same thing for the prop.  Come to the show and see the results!

Props for Cardboard Piano
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

3.  How did you become a props designer? What was your journey?

I always loved painting and drawing, but a career in art was not encouraged or supported in my family in those days. So I went to college for a science degree and worked in a chemistry lab for many years until my job was eliminated during the recession. With jobs scarce and time on my hands, I had time to revisit my love of art and writing. I took a community education class in acting with the idea of learning how to write character dialog. There I met a wonderfully supportive group of theater fans and a friend who hired me as her props person. It was a wonderful match, a way for me to combine my lifelong love of art, history, collecting junk and gluing stuff together. I have since returned to science jobs, but I can’t even imagine giving up my props designer work. I was always the kid who collected throwaway items and re-purposed them into toys, art and things to sell. Who knew this would become my job later in life?

See more of Terri’s work here

Tickets and information here

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

 

(In)Famous Pirates of Stage and Screen!

In rehearsal at Park Square now is the ageless musical comedy, The Pirates of Penzance, by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Fans of musical theatre and classic drama will no doubt be familiar with the opera; it has been making people fall in love with dimwitted pirates since it premiered in 1879 in New York City, and it accompanies H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado as Gilbert and Sullivan’s most produced works today.

All of my research into this show now, has stirred my latent fascination with pirates – especially those buccaneers we see in film and on TV. Of course, Pirates of Penzance was turned into a movie in 1983 starring Kevin Kline and Angela Lansbury. This film was based on the acclaimed 1980 Broadway production, produced by Joe Papp.

But who else makes up our motley crew of fictionalized swashbucklers? Who did I leave out and who shouldn’t I have included?

1. Let’s go back to the beginning, when pirates made their first big splash on the screen. Errol Flynn as the debonair renegade, Captain Blood, in the 1935 film that launched his stardom. Now that I think about it, why did it take over a hundred years to make a Pirates of Penzance film?

2. Of course, before film there was literature and coming out only a few years after Pirates of Penzance, was the dastardly Long John Silver of Treasure Island. This is absolutely the character that set the template for all the pirate-isms we know and love today. The peg-leg, the eye-patch, even that squawking parrot! Thanks Robert Louis Stevenson…. Naturally there have been dozens of depictions of Captain Long John and even a tasty fast-food joint. Famous actors such as Charlton Heston, Wallace Beery, Orson Welles and Jack Palance have all had a turn with the black spot, but who doesn’t love Tim Curry’s portrayal in Muppet Treasure Island?

3. Another infamous pirate has to be the one and only Captain Hook. While made famous the world-over by Disney’s 1953 animated classic, the character first appeared in the play Peter Pan (1904) by J.M. Barrie and the subsequent novel in 1911. The archenemy of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, Captain Hook attributes his name to the sinister iron hook that has replaced his hand (bit off by a very persistent crocodile). I would say that he and Long John Silver would certainly get along well!

4. Well, I think we’ve had enough of villainy for the time being, haven’t we? Let’s get back to the lovable-rogue archetype that Flynn perfected so well. Next up…. that captain of the Black Pearl and scoundrel of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow! Thanks to Johnny Depp’s chameleon-like transformation in Disney’s 2003 classic, Pirates of the Caribbean, this pirate not only became famous but a world-wide phenomena, launching a multi-billion dollar franchise and four subsequent sequels (for better or for worse…) The only question we have now is – why is the rum gone?

5. Finally, I figured we would end this whole escapade where we started it, with 1983’s The Pirates of Penzance and Kevin Kline’s performance as the Pirate King. Kind-hearted and gentlemanly, the Pirate King is not your typical brand of bloodthirsty buccaneer, and that’s what makes the character so endearing!

(Now we have someone even better stepping into the role for Park Square: the multi-talented Bradley Greenwald.)

Bradley Greenwald (Photo by Petronella J Ytsma)

Piano As Metaphor

The refurbished family piano
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Over 20 years ago, an old piano was passed down to us from my husband’s maternal side of the family. We were the third generation to own it, so it was in pretty rough shape. Without the financial means nor free time to repair it, we simply moved this heavy load to serve as a handy surface for knickknacks and random paper piles from one home to the next. In many ways, the piano well-represented the fragmentation within that maternal branch of the family’s relationships at the time. Though riddled with ever-new spats, long-harbored grudges and back-turning silences, they still managed to (sometimes barely) hold together with old glue–the family blood that binds.

A scene with cast members (l to r) Ansa Akyea, Michael Jemison, Adelin Phelps and Kiara Jackson
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

When my husband, with some professional help, finally did refurbish the piano about a decade ago, the newly functional instrument became a unifying symbol within our own immediate family. Unable to continue piano lessons as a young boy with divorced parents who’d kept moving from place to place, my husband now began tinkling on the keys during those brief moments of waiting–for the tub to fill, for our young daughter to be ready for her bedtime story, for the bathroom to be free . . . . Sometimes our girl would sit next to him to see what Daddy was up to as he slowly picked up some of his former piano-playing skills. Simply watching turned into fingering the keys herself until, one day, she asked for piano lessons, which she enjoys to this day as a teen.

Piano as metaphor. I am betting that’s a more common concept than one may imagine.

Ansa Akyea as Paul
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

In fact, when speaking to Ansa Akyea about his roles as a soldier and the pastor Paul in Cardboard Piano, I noted that pianos have now figured prominently in two plays that he’s been in. In 2008, he played Boy Willie in a Penumbra production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in which the family’s upright piano, carved with ancestral portraits, loomed large as a metaphor of their history–past, present and future. In Cardboard Piano, playwright Hansol Jung introduces two accounts of a cardboard piano that are central to the themes of the play and what happens to Ansa’s characters. That the piano is made of cardboard, not wood, is significant.

Asked if he played the piano or owns a metaphorical piano, Ansa replied, “I used to play the piano but switched to the saxophone when I was 8 or 9 because I didn’t like the teacher whom I had. It’s one of my biggest regrets to have stopped. At around 10 or 11, I’d turned my attention to sports.

As for my metaphorical piano, it is my instrument–my body and my craft. I try to let chords pour through and into me. My body has a range, and I make sure to take good care of it, both physically and spiritually. I’ve matured so do things that are good for me to bring life to my instrument. Everyone has a calling, and I listen to my instrument to fulfill that passion.”

 

 

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano 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

MICHAEL JEMISON: Living With Intention

Michael Jemison reviewing his script prior to rehearsal.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Asked by Courier-Journal reporter Elizabeth Kramer in March 2016 what had planted the seeds for writing Cardboard Piano, South Korean playwright Hansol Jung answered, “There was a lot of media noise in 2013 about northern Uganda kidnappings by Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army and about child soldiers. There also was a lot of coverage about gay marriage in the United States and Korea. Uganda also passed a bill in 2013 punishing homosexuality.” Michael Jemison’s two roles in Park Square Theater’s production of Cardboard Piano directly reflect those seeds.

In Act I, Michael plays Pika, a 13-year-old runaway child soldier in Act I; in Act II, he is Francis, a 22-year-old young man banished from his local church due to his homosexuality. Both are incredibly resilient survivors against the cruelties of an intolerant society.

As a black queer artist who also happens to be 22, Michael came on board able to relate to important aspects of his characters but also learned much during the rehearsal process.

“I’ve learned so much about trauma (through the Center for Victims of Torture),” Michael said. “Trauma is something that varies for so many people and affects people in different ways. In the play, Pika’s a young boy taken at ten years old! But trauma happens here in the US, too! There’s queer-bashing and the murder of transgender people, for instance. Or preachers feeling high and mighty and doing awful things to their congregations with their power.  All these things are not new.”

Michael Jemison as Francis.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Michael was very drawn to the dynamic aspects of his roles and how they can be played in so many different ways. He’s enjoyed the creative process of building his characters by “playing around” and “trying different things.” It’s been additionally exciting since, according to Michael, “the roles fit where I am in life.”

After much self-reflection, where Michael is in life is a place where he stays true to his own inner compass. He is mindful to be involved in doing art that reflects current times, has a lot to say and gives voice to those creating it. Being in Cardboard Piano fit all those criteria and drew him out of a long hiatus from stage performance.

“It’s been an amazing experience working with this director, cast and crew. Everyone is so passionate about this story and cares about it,” Michael said. “And I knew that Signe would be the type of director who’d let me have my say in the room. More rehearsals should be like this. A lot of actors don’t get much of a voice in the rehearsal process.”

Perhaps Michael will again be seduced to perform in another production after Cardboard Piano, but it may be hard to tear him away from what he calls his “dream project,” the podcast Challenge the Woke, “dedicated to creating space for black and queer people of color to hold important conversations as it relates to race, gender, class and sexuality.”

Michael Jemison

What had planted the seeds to produce Challenge the Woke were Michael’s “beautiful conversations” with people during his intense period of self-reflection. The idea came in 2016; but it wasn’t until 2017, after a successful crowdfunding effort and a lot of planning, that the first broadcast aired. Since then, he has interviewed social activists such as Black Lives Matter co-founder Michael McDowell; TV journalist, arts supporter and entrepreneur Robyne Robinson; and most recently, Andrea Jenkins, the first black transgender woman elected to public office in the US. Future conversations will follow with sensational artists and other awesome guests from the US and globally. Challenge the Woke has steadily blossomed under Michael’s hard work and tender care.

This young transplant from New York to the Twin Cities has every intention to continue following a personally meaningful path. In his own words, “I am here and ready to go on a journey and continue to discover!”

Listen to Challenge the Woke here.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here.

The Indescribable Experience of “Cardboard Piano”

Adelin Phelps and Kiara Jackson
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano is like watching a drop of love and a drop of hate fall next to each other, causing two ripple effects that collide and intersect.

Part I is set in a church in a Northern Uganda township–“not one of stone and stained glass, more a small town hall dressed up to be a church” with a hole in the roof (script description)–where two 16-year-old girls in the congregation have fallen in love. Christina Jennifer Englewood, played by Adelin Phelps, is the daughter of white missionaries; Adiel Nakalinzi, played by Kiara Jackson, is a local Ugandan girl. They meet in the church on New Year’s Eve 1999 to hold a secret wedding ceremony to bind their forbidden relationship–their pure but forbidden love for each other.

Michael Jemison

What hateful act happens on that New Year’s Eve when 13-year-old Pika, an injured runaway child soldier, played by Michael Jemison, seeks refuge in the church proves to reverberate throughout everyone’s lives within the play for years to come.

Watching a drama in the depths of a Minnesota winter and a harsh political/social climate may seem daunting to some, as expressed by one season ticket holder who’d told me, “This season I decided to just see all the comedies.” But I hope that she reconsiders because, in my opinion, she’ll really be missing out.

It’s hard to describe the special quality of this play that made us emit a jaw-dropping “Wow!” upon having either first seen it at its world premiere in Louisville, Kentucky, or read the script in our own living rooms. I find myself frequently using the word “transcendent” and others, “beautiful,” due to how playwright Hansol Jung so ably captured the humanity within a so often inhumane world. The patrons who’d seen the world premiere performance described it as “an extraordinary experience that doesn’t tell you what to think, but opens your mind to the human capacity for hatred, forgiveness, love and faith–and perhaps hope.”

Adelin Phelps reads her script.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Perhaps actor Adelin Phelps, in our recent conversation, best described why Cardboard Piano is a “don’t miss” play: “The world is in a lot of pain now and has been for a long time. When we watch stories unfold in front of us, it connects us in different ways. When people see Cardboard Piano, they may not leave feeling resolved but more open and connected to each other. With a play that has difficult moments, it can be cathartic, healing and inspiring.  The play is also about love, forgiveness and how we move forward. When I first read it, I remember being aware of the painful parts but also how it was like a beating heart.”

Come join us at Park Square Theatre to see Cardboard Piano on the Boss Thrust Stage from January 19 to February 18. Tickets and information are available 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

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