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Posts Tagged Adelin Phelps

Cardboard Piano: Park Square Theatre’s Journey to Sharing Space

Breaking Character Magazine, a publication of Samuel French Inc., recently shared a report by Park Square Theatre’s Executive Director, Michael-jon Pease, regarding the company’s experience producing the play, Cardboard Piano, by Hansol Jung.

Our audience engagement with Hansol Jung’s beautiful play Cardboard Piano began with a dozen subscribers seeing the world premiere with us at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, KY. After the blistering first act, set in Uganda at the height of the terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army, they felt that Park Square Theatre had to premiere this play in the Twin Cities. “Our community needs this play,” they said.

As it turned out, we needed to produce it to further our journey toward greater inclusion.

From left: Adelin Phelps, Kiara Jackson, Ansa Akyea in Cardboard Piano. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

The play is indeed a unique offering for this time and for our place. The Twin Cities community is a sanctuary for refugees from many African nations and home to a startling number of nonprofits whose work in Africa encompasses everything from hunger relief and education to peace making and refugee services. Our key community partner for the artistic and engagement journey was The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), which works around the world healing those fleeing from trauma, including the child soldiers and persecuted LGBT Ugandans depicted in the play. They presented a pre-show talk on their work in Uganda and they promoted the play to their large constituent base of (mostly white, older) social justice champions, many of whom came more than once.

Most importantly, CVT sent two of their psychologists into the rehearsal hall to talk through the script with our artists and staff. They shared their deep knowledge of trauma on the magnitude these characters face. They pointed out what was not true to life, leading to rich discussion about the nature of art, dramatic tension and “truth.” Best of all, they confirmed that while their clients could not handle this play full of traumatic triggers, it needed to be produced. The community needed to see it.

CVT’s insights were woven into the design, direction and acting of the production and their psychologists were impressed and honored to see the result. A combination of light and sound cues, together with true to life physical “tells” from the actors immediately communicated to the audience the realities of trauma (ringing in the ears, hyper vigilance, etc.). The partnership contributed something essential and authentic to the production that it wouldn’t have had if we’d relied only on our own dramaturgical resources.

We all agreed that audiences would need to prepare themselves for the experience of the play. In addition to a deep content analysis on the website, the lobby had comment boards which invited audience members to respond to leading questions such as “What is the role of forgiveness in my life?” and to revisit their responses at intermission and end of play. Some of the post-it notes that stuck with me said,

“Forgiveness is about my personal liberation from the prison of living with resentment.”

“Forgiveness is pointless if the forgiven remains unchanged.”

“I forgive so I can be transformed.”

Wow.

We had conversations with our front of house staff and crew about ways to let audience members know they could leave if they needed to, and how to help them re-ground and rejoin the play.

For Park Square Theatre as a small traditional regional theatre led by white cis-gendered gay men, Cardboard Piano was also an important opportunity to explore how we share space with diverse artists and audiences. The questions of who owns space, who creates sanctuary and who can offer absolution are central to the play.

We chose Signe V. Harriday to lead the production, specifically to bring her world view as a queer artist of color to the process, as well as her mad directing skills. The action opens in a small missionary church in Uganda with the secret wedding of the white daughter of the missionary pastor and her African girlfriend. Harriday choreographed a playful, yet sensual opening scene between the two young women that allowed them to claim the space and unashamedly celebrate their love.

Having queer people of color own the room was amazingly affirming to many audience members, giving us survey comments like:

“I see a lot of theatre and it’s rare that I go to a show twice, but this one I came back to. As a Lesbian, it was wonderful to see myself represented on stage so authentically.”

“Representation is beautiful. Black stories are beautiful. Stories about cultures other than our own are beautiful. It was deeply moving, the performances flawless. Thank you for giving this story space. “

“It was a wonderfully well written and eloquent play that was executed very powerfully. It was a truth-telling and fully immersive experience, emotionally. This play was raw, and it was real. I went twice. Park Square should stage more works like this.”

Make no mistake, that ownership of spaceby someone other than the dominant culture, especially one as intimate as our 200-seat Andy Boss Thrust Stage, was also a big turn off for some members of the mainstream audience who responded with comments like “I am growing weary of theatres thinking they need to keep presenting productions with gay/lesbian themes” to “Sexual scenes did not add to the play and may have demeaned it.” Many who saw the postcard with two women of different races embracing on the cover simply opted out from the start.

Our world premiere commission of Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women was another powerful experience of asking women of color to own the space. The show resonated with all audiences, but the affirmation about black resilience and black beauty for black audiences of all ages was palpable.

Our goal in building an additional stage was to expand our play selection and the range of artists and audiences who not only call Park Square home but think of it as “their” theatre. Aside from enabling our own productions to become a haven for diverse communities (new owners), another strategy we use to achieve this is to literally give the space over to diverse companies and artists for their own work through our Theatre in Residence program, “friendly rentals,” collaborations and co-productions with companies as diverse as Mu Performing Arts, New Native Theatre and Urban Spectrum. Along the way, we keep becoming more aware of who can and should “own” the room – from hiring professionals of color to moderate discussions with artists of color, to color conscious casting for our literary classics and having the welcome speech for our student matinees delivered by a person of color as often as possible for our teen audience of 32,000.

As a veteran executive director, it is a joy to recede from what can be the endless spotlight of organizational leadership to see the community take the stage in so many ways. Park Square – and the field – has much to learn about creating and sharing brave spaces. Plays like Cardboard Piano open us to exciting artistic and human lessons.

 

Originally Published in Breaking Character Magazine, April 16, 2018.

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

 

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

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

ANSA AKYEA: About Transformation and Letting Go

In Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, set in a township in Northern Uganda, the talented Ansa Akyea takes on two roles: in Part I as a soldier hunting for a runaway boy soldier; and in Part II as Paul, the pastor of the community’s church, whose past collides with his present, forcing a confrontation with his future. Particularly with the character of Paul, this sobering yet transcendently beautiful and hopeful play brings to mind these words by the Chinese philosopher Laozi: “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

When asked what playing Paul was teaching him, Ansa replied, “About transformation and letting go. By the end, Paul knows that he must start over; he can’t be the same person moving forward. There’s a new journey that he has to go on.”

Tackling such hard life lessons through the play has had Ansa “excited, scared and filled with dread.” They are, in fact, the very emotions faced by actors when they decide to take on a new role and commit to mining its depths, then perform to live audiences.

Actors Michael Jemison, Kiara Jackson, Adelin Phelps (left to right) and Ansa Akyea (far right) learning from fight choreographer Annie Enneking (center)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

As for his excitement, Ansa cited several reasons to feel that way about being in Cardboard Piano:

  • Director Signe V. Harriday: “I’ve always wanted to work with her. She’s one of the smartest artists who cares about her community and using theatre to connect with community.”
  • Playwright Hansol Jung: “It’s inspiring to have a playwright in conversation about religion, love and conflict. We also need new works to better reflect our diversity. And Hansol’s material has a freshness to it; its perspective is specific, yet universal.”
  • Being part of an intimate four-member ensemble, which includes Kiara Jackson, Michael Jemison and Adelin Phelps: “Signe cast us knowing that we’ll bring our own personal history and intelligence as actors. She chose actors who live in their bodies and hearts. These are things required from actors so they can empathize and act.”

Becoming an actor is also a journey in itself. For Ansa, a Swiss born Ghanaian-American, his acting journey began in his junior year at the University of Iowa, where he would earn his B.A. degrees in French and Communications Studies. That year, he took an elective class taught by a visiting professor from Sierra Leone who wanted to cast Ansa in his play about the 1839 rebellion on the Amistad, a slave schooner. With his parents’ blessing, as long as acting didn’t interfere with his studies, Ansa took the part.

Left to right: Dialect coach Foster Johns working with actors Ansa Akyea and Michael Jemison
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Ansa’s tremendous talent on stage as an undergraduate led his university to offer him the opportunity to earn an MFA in Acting. Cast right out of graduate school, Ansa honed his craft in Chicago, working at numerous theaters starting with Steppenwolf, Black ensemble, ITC, stage left theater and many others.

Ansa ultimately moved to the Twin Cities when his spouse got a job here. He hit the ground running, immediately being hired by Mixed Blood Theater, with subsequent stints at the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre Company. Ever since, Ansa has appeared on many stages throughout the Twin Cities and been seen or heard on television, film and radio. He has also been the recipient of the 2007 City Pages Best Actor award, 2011 Minnesota Playwright Center’s McKnight Award for Acting, 2013 Minnesota Playwright Center’s Many Voices Fellowship and 2013 Ivey Award for Ensemble Acting in the Guthrie’s Clybourne Park.

About theatre, Ansa had this to say: “This is my life. I love my profession. I have an achievement mentality; I have aspirations to always learn more. I will always work.”

After Cardboard Piano, Ansa will be teaching at North High School located in North St. Paul. He will also play Daddy Onceler in the Children Theatre Company’s production of The Lorax this spring.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

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