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Upcoming Events By Flying Foot Forum

Flying Foot Forum’s French Twist
(Photo by V. Paul Virtuccio)

The irrepressible percussive dance troupe, Flying Foot Forum, graces Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage in two ways this summer:

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, French Twist, a hit show previously performed in 2008 at the Guthrie, returns as a new production at Park Square from June 22 to July 15.

There will also be two Works in Progress nights, which are pay-what-you-can — Mondays, July 2 and 9, 7:30 pm — for audiences to view company members’ works in progress, including Flying Foot Forum’s own film project, Split Rock Shuffle.

Created as an incubator for percussive dance, Flying Foot Forum was founded by Joe Chvala, which only seems apt considering that his surname represents “understanding, imagination, cooperation, artistic talent, tact and patience.”* Joe still reacts with delighted amazement at the Forum’s longevity, though fans are decidedly less surprised.

Come to the cabaret of French Twist
(Photo by V. Paul Virtuccio)

French Twist is the right show to do to celebrate our 25th year because it represents so much of what we do,” Joe said. “It’s a showcase of the fun, crazy, comic and sentimental things that we do and offers a comprehensive picture of certain aspects of our work.”

The feel of the production is much influenced by Joe’s love of An American in Paris, the 1951 movie starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, which was the first musical he’d ever seen on screen at the tender age of nine.

“One summer, my parents–both teachers–got a grant to study in Ohio. They’d simply drop my seven-year-old sister and I off at the movie theater and go off to do what they had to do,” Joe recalled. “I loved the idealized picture of France–the rosy aspects of Parisian France–that the movie presented. There were so many different artists in the popular French culture of that period, and we were able to incorporate their influences through the cabaret format of our show. For instance, we give a nod to legendary actress and dancer Loie Fuller, who originated the Serpentine Dance, in one of our own dance numbers when the dancer’s long swirling fabric, with the use of colored stage lighting, dramatically unfurls into an impressionistic Paris sky.”

Although French Twist had been staged in the past, returning to it was like creating a new production. With new cast members joining some of the original ones, dances were altered to fit their personalities as well. The open structure of a cabaret additionally allowed for the reimagining of sets, scenes, dances and costumes.

A scene from Split Rock Shuffle
(Photo by Steve Campbell)

True to the ever-evolving spirit of Flying Foot Forum is also its current jump into filmmaking. You can sample their first effort during those two Monday evenings of works in progress, with a premiere of the latest cut of Split Rock Shuffle, which is somewhat of an homage to Minnesota.

“I love the magic of seeing movies and wanted to be involved in that,” said Joe. “In theatre, you do the show, and it’s over. The experience of each performance can’t be replicated, and recordings can’t capture the overall magic of them. With film, you can go back to watch or share it, plus reach a larger audience, now or even ten years later.”

La Cuisine in Split Rock Shuffle
(Photo by Steve Campbell)

But if you haven’t already experienced Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, be sure to do so now and not ten years from now! Innovative zaniness, fast-flying footwork, verbal calisthenics, side-splitting humor and breathtaking gorgeousness: that’s what to expect to top off your summer day.

Tickets and information about French Twist here.

* definition from www.meaningslike.com

Imani Vaughn-Jones, A Woman Who Acts

In Park Square’s production of A Raisin in the Sun, Imani Vaughn-Jones plays the spirited and outspoken Beneatha, the middle child and only daughter in the Younger family. Here is Imani to tell us about her role and share a bit about herself: 

I was just reading aloud one of author Grace Lin’s books to my daughter, where a character points out the difference between making resolutions and wishes. The former actively empowers one to do something to reach a goal (“I am going to start a magazine.”); whereas, the latter suggests a passive wait for fulfillment from an external source (“I wish for a million dollars.”). That made me think of Beneatha and you. What went through your mind when you were offered the role of Beneatha?

First of all, I could not believe I was offered the role of Beneatha. I believe I had great auditions, but I felt strange after my final callback and remembered going home that day thinking, “Well, I didn’t get that. And that’s okay.” So my initial response to being offered the role was disbelief. My next response was “Here we go.”

A Raisin in the Sun is such an important show to me. It was the first play I read where I saw my life and my family reflected on the page. The characters said things I’d heard my own family say all my life. The first time I read this play, it felt like home.

As soon as I realized that I was being given the privilege to bring such an important piece of art to life, I was in go mode. I knew that we had a short rehearsal process so preparedness was going to be essential to make everything run smoothly. We had two weeks to put a family together so I did as much as I could beforehand to make sure that our process was as smooth as possible.

 

Imani Vaughn-Jones as Beneatha
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What is most challenging about playing Beneatha?

Beneatha is so young. It’s funny for me to say that because we’re so close in age; but when it comes to life experience and maturity, there is an age gap between us.

Twenty is such a freaking confusing age! You’re an adult becoming. If you reflect ten years back, you have memories about the thick of your childhood. When you look ten years into the future, you’re a full-fledged adult. There is so much discovery and coming into one’s own that happens at 20.

A big challenge of Beneatha has been playing with that gray area of adulthood that is your 20’s. Honoring her womanhood and her strength, but also playing with her youth, her naiveté and her insecurities as she navigates what the world currently is but also what it could be.

 

What led you to become an actor, and what has that journey been like?

I’ve always been a creative. When I was child, I always knew that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. Back then, I didn’t know what kind of art; I just knew that I wanted to make art for a living. I acted all through middle school and high school, and I loved it; but I don’t think I really understood the sheer power of the arts.

Imani Vaughn-Jones as Beneatha and Darius Dotch as Walter Lee
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

It was when I was a junior in high school that I realized I actually had to do this for a living. I was in a production of A Piece of My Heart, a show about five women overseas in the Vietnam war. I had also just been rejected from a performing arts high school I’d applied to for my senior year. I was heartbroken and shaken about my capabilities, but the show had to go on.

On opening night, we had so many veterans in the audience. The show ends with the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; and from the stage, we could all hear the audience weeping along with us. After the show, while thanking audience members in the lobby, an elderly woman came up to me and shook my hand. She told me that her husband had left for Vietnam and never made it back. She wanted to thank me for putting his story on stage and giving her a little bit of insight into what he was going through over there.

I wept like a baby that night. Her words, along with the words of so many other veterans and families of veterans who saw that show, have always stuck with me. That was the night I realized I wasn’t just “playing pretend.” I could actually change lives with acting. I could mend hearts, give closure or at least just provide an escape. There was no longer any question. I had to be an actor.

From there, it’s been a fairly direct upshot. When I set a goal, the only thing that can keep me from achieving it is either my depression or the Devil himself. Personally, I’m convinced they’re one and the same.

I decided that my future included training with the Guthrie and the U, so that’s the only school where I applied and auditioned. I got in, I got what I needed, and I jumped head first into the Twin Cities theatre community. This is what I’m meant to do, and I’ll keep doing it until I no longer feel that’s true.

 

4. Why did you decide to leave the University of Minnesota/Guthrie theatre program?

This question has a deeply layered answer; and if I answer it in full, we will be here for quite some time. So for the sake of length, I’ll give one major reason: The way we currently categorize theatre is outdated. What I didn’t realize when I signed up for a classical actor training program was that “classical” is synonymous with “white,” and most of the time, “male.” I think we need to seriously reconsider what we label “classics.” Who wrote them and, more importantly, who said they were the gold standard? As it currently stands, theatre and European art history are basically synonymous; and that’s just incorrect. I believe that we need to very seriously reassess what we call the classical canon.

To me, Raisin is a classic. Playwrights like August Wilson and Suzan Lori-Parks are champions and bricklayers in American theater, yet so many people still don’t know their names or can’t name more than one play by each. I became disenchanted with studying a system that I believe needs serious renovation. So I left.

 

5. You are the Founder and Editor in Chief of the digital magazine Super Dope&Extra Lit. Can you tell me how it all got started or anything else you’re willing to share?

Oh, sweet SDEL. Super Dope&Extra Lit was something I wanted to do for a while. This actually relates to what you mentioned in your first question: the difference between resolutions and wishes.

I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world, and I’ve always wanted to empower people of color. That’s always been my wish. My life’s work has been figuring out how I was going to do that. SDEL ended up being the answer.

I wanted a new medium for people of color. I grew up reading Ebony and JET, and I loved them. Unfortunately, today they’re outdated. I wanted to create the next generation of those magazines but with an unapologetic tone. As much as I love our predecessors, they had an air of assimilationism to them. SDEL lacks that completely. There is no attempt to censor ourselves so that we’re more palatable to the mainstream. SDEL manages to be both raunchy and educated, and that’s what I love about it.

I crowdfunded some money, spent a lot of my own and grabbed some friends who shared the vision. Within two months, we had launched something that very quickly became a wave.

I think that’s so important. The balance of wishes and resolutions. They need each other. Your wishes need resolutions behind them in order to make them come true. Your resolutions must be motivated by wishes; otherwise, you have nothing you’re working towards. I really do think they’re equals.

When you think about your future, you should be able to answer how you’re going to achieve it. On the same hand, when you look at what you’re doing, you should know what you’re doing it for. Wishes without action are nothing but dreams. Action without passion is aimless. They need each other. And funny enough, I think that’s something that this play explores a lot.

 

Learn more about Super Dope& Extra Lit here.

Tickets and information for A Raisin in the Sun here.

Joel Sass, the Adapter of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

LONGEST HAMLET: Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play, with over 4000 lines, 20 scenes and 33 characters. Normally, it would take over four hours to perform.

FASTEST HAMLET: In 2008, a 15-minute version was performed by Austin Shakespeare in Texas. That production was called The World’s Fastest Hamlet; and after the show, the four-member cast then did a two-minute Hamlet, followed by a ten-second Hamlet.

PARK SQUARE’S HAMLET: This season, Park Square Theatre unveils a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Joel Sass, who is also its director and set designer. With a performance time of two hours 20 minutes, including intermission, and a cast of nine playing multiple roles, it will be performed for general public and student audiences.

Joel Sass has done several adaptations for the stage throughout his career, including William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Pericles for the California Shakespeare Theatre as well as Pericles for the Guthrie. In 2011, he’d adapted Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist for Park Square Theatre, following up in 2016 with his adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations on our Proscenium Stage. Then he successfully pitched the idea to adapt a shorter version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square.

“I’ve gotten into the reflexive habit of exploring how to do big stories imaginatively and economically,” Joel said. “Hamlet at 4+ hours may be a great experience, but there are a lot of other ways to approach it by being more selective and creative on the story elements. I also wondered how I could manifest the world of Hamlet with less cast.”

The germ of Joel’s idea actually resulted from his conversation with former Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling who’d wanted to do Pericles but could only afford to hire nine actors. Having successfully explored that possibility for the Guthrie inspired Joel to consider a similar approach for Hamlet.

Joel Sass (second from right) in rehearsal with Hamlet cast members
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“The process of adapting an existing Shakespeare play isn’t as complex as adapting a novel into a play. I already have the dialogue, and now I must decide what comes out and what to change,” Joel explained. “Hamlet is already a play that usually gets some cutting done. The play doesn’t have a definitive version either; there are three or four official versions with variations in plot, language and order of events. I feel that gives me implicit permission to continue to experiment. I needed to decide thematically and plot-wise what I wanted to do to retell the story.”

“I made some obvious cuts. For instance, I chose to lose the geopolitical element between Denmark and Norway, which is not necessary to the heart of the story. And I contemplated this one seriously but decided to take out Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I looked at how the plot flows and felt that the qualities of their relationship with Hamlet could be reiterated in exchanges with other characters. Take the richness implied in their friendship with Hamlet; that could be applied to Horatio.”

Knowing that the play would also be performed for student matinees where the audience may be studying Shakespeare’s longer version, I wondered if Joel had taken that into consideration for his adaptation.

“The value of students seeing theatre is not predicated on exact replication. Theatre is more organic of an experience and art tool than that. Using the tool of theatre is all about how stories are adapted or readapted. What meaning can you get from reinterpreted versions?” Joel pointed out. “The students will know the play enough to know what’s missing. The adaptation will make them more attentive to the material.”

Joel Sass with Kory LaQuess Pullam, who plays Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

With a smaller cast playing fewer characters and mixed-gender casting, Joel’s version of Hamlet will also bring an additional dimension for not just student groups, but all audiences, to ponder. What does it mean, for instance, to have the traditionally male Polonius character now be the female Polonia? According to Joel, audiences will get to explore anew characters that they may have thought they knew well.

“I’ve created a very intimate, more contemporary thriller in this adaptation,” said Joel. “I’ve emphasized the psychology of the characters and intensity of their circumstances, which can be more diffused or drawn out in a longer version. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a compelling, universal story that can withstand numerous ways of distilling events and language. We should want to see different versions of Hamlet.”

Introducing Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg

Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

In a previous blog post, “The Theatre Ambassadors Program: An Arts Leadership Program,” I’d promised to introduce you to two Park Square Theatre Ambassadors so allow me to first present Greta Hallberg, a senior in Minnehaha Academy. You will meet a second Ambassador in a future post.

Park Square’s Ambassadors Program originally offered only one-year ambassadorships to 10-12th grade students before also giving a two-year option for those interested in continuing. However, a few Ambassadors have wanted to stay for a third year, and Greta is one of them.

While a freshman in high school, a good friend had piqued Greta’s interest in the program, and she joined the Ambassadors during her sophomore year. With Minnehaha Academy being a relatively small school, she loved that Park Square would be able to offer her a more robust immersion in all aspects of theatre than her school could. She would learn about “all things theatre” through personal interactions with a slew of professionals in the field.

“I used to be more one-dimensional in my understanding of theatre,” Greta admitted. “All I knew was acting, but the program changed my perspective on what I may want to do in theatre from my talks with lighting designers, directors, stage managers, and so on. I have a better understanding of what goes into a show, and I’m now more open to my future options.

Another wow factor for Greta was that the Ambassadors Program provided a teaching artist of her choice to hold a workshop in her school, with the expectation that she would do the legwork to coordinate and advertise the event. This perk resulted in a visit by Stephen Houtz, who is a director, music director, actor, composer and vocal coach, to teach “Acting Through Song” in her school.

The community-oriented aspect of the Ambassadors Program was definitely a strong attraction for Greta. Not only did the program outreach to her school community, but it has also provided her with a strong community of theatre-loving peers who can freely and comfortably share and express ideas, opinions and thoughts with each other. That has been HUGE.

“I’m naturally more of an introvert so at first it was intimidating to make connections with people from other schools, but the friendships I’ve made through this program got me out of the bubble of just being in my school’s theatre program and really helped me to branch out a lot,” Greta said. “And each time we see a show together, we meet afterwards for a discussion. The kids are smart and have different perspectives on how they see things. Mary Finnerty (Park Square Theatre’s Education Director) encourages us to be honest about why we liked or didn’t like something, and whatever feedback we give is valued and respected. Mary has even shared our comments with people involved in the show, and sometimes they’ve taken our suggestions. I feel like our opinions really matter!”

Greta steadily became more aware of the interconnectedness in the Twin Cities theatre community as well. She would recognize actors whom she’d met or seen at Park Square Theatre on other stages in town. She noticed that the theatre professional who’d coached her on monologues as an Ambassador was involved in the Guthrie’s Native Gardens.

“I’ve also gained a broader human perspective,” Greta continued, “on how we connect with each other. Theatre creates empathy; it promotes empathy for people with different lives than our own.”

Besides theatre, Greta also has a strong interest in music, just like her mom, who is the band and orchestra instructor at Minnehaha Academy. Greta herself has been in bands and a youth symphony. She prefers the humanities, while her dad and brother veer towards the sciences but are invested in the arts as well. With still one more year of high school left and plans to attend college, Greta has plenty of time to explore her interests. But whatever her route in life down the road, Greta knows one thing for certain; she will always maintain the love of theatre that was further nurtured by her involvement in the Theatre Ambassadors Program at Park Square Theatre.

Stacia Rice Returns

After a two-year hiatus from the Twin Cities’ stages, the inimitable Stacia Rice is back! Now through July 23, you can catch her on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage in Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight, directed by past Ivey-award winner Craig Johnson. Stacia plays Irene, the enigmatic Russian companion to the unsavory French businessman, Achille Weber, and romantic interest of American entertainer Harry Van.

“My last show was To Kill A Mockingbird at the Guthrie (in 2015),” Stacia said, while discussing her choice of Idiot’s Delight as her return vehicle. “Kirby Bennett (Girl Friday’s founder and artistic director) and I had talked about doing something together in the past, but the stars had never aligned until now. I adore Kirby as a human and a producer, and I’ve loved working with Craig before.”

In fact, Craig had been the director of the first production by Torch Theater, founded by Stacia in 2005. Housed in the Theater Garage at the heart of Uptown Minneapolis, Torch was formed as a means for Stacia to, as she put it, “work with good humans and performers” and, once she’d become a mother, engage in projects that “are worth being away from my children.” Stacia is, indeed, contemplating steps for Torch Theater to eventually return, just as she has.

Some cast members of Idiot’s Delight
(Photo by Richard Fleischman)

But at present, Stacia is focused on her new role in Idiot’s Delight. When we’d talked, she was still getting to know Irene and loving that the character is so mysterious and not strictly defined in the script. Is Irene really Russian? American? Or some other nationality? What is she hiding and why? Nothing was completely spelled out by Playwright Robert E. Sherwood, which left Stacia more creative freedom to flesh out her character.

“It’s always lovely to play a rich character as you get older yourself,” Stacia added. “Irene can sometimes be very over the top. She’s pretty colorful. It’s nice to play a really big, colorful character and find out what makes her a real person.”

Throughout her acting career in the Twin Cities, Stacia Rice has gained nothing but accolades for her powerful portrayals of women. Be sure not to miss her this summer in the Pulitzer-winning dramatic comedy, Idiot’s Delight!

Jamil Jude, We’ll Miss You

Jamil Jude

Park Square Theatre was blessed to have Jamil Jude join its artistic/production team in December 2015 to begin a two-year mentorship with Artistic Director Richard Cook, made possible through a prestigious Leadership U[niversity] – One-on-One Program award of a two-year grant to fund Jamil’s professional development via a mentorship. Jamil was one of only six early-career leaders from all areas of theatre throughout the nation to receive such an award.

At Park Square Theatre, Jamil was given the title of Artistic Programming Associate, and he was placed in the foreground to help the organization remain a relevant theatre in a community with a demographic that will continue to shift towards greater diversity. During his mentorship, he would move forward the theater’s vision to be “intentionally diverse” and practice “radical inclusivity” (both terms appear in Park Square’s website).

Richard Cook

It has been nearly a decade-long journey to prepare Park Square for the 21st century and beyond. This mission was initially envisioned by Richard as he witnessed the impact of live theatre on students, particularly students of color, attending its Education programs. The long journey is not surprising as institutionalized exclusionary practices are difficult to dismantle to be able to support truly inclusionary practices. An organization must have strong leadership support and clear and consistent buy-in both from within and without to be able to broaden its scope.

In his short time here, Jamil especially impacted Park Square by being a skilled connector and unifier, doing the very hard work of fostering trust amongst diverse artist communities and giving generous access to his broader network. He has also provided crucial insights and suggestions to challenge the same old approaches in the theater’s programming and audience outreach. Some changes were made in tailoring post-show discussions for diverse student audiences, making script selections and recruiting and attracting more diverse talent to be onstage, behind the scenes, and as instructors for workshops. All his actions accelerated the impact of making real, lasting changes. However, there is still quite a bit to do even as Jamil’s mentorship comes to an end after June and the Artistic Programming Associate position dissolves.

While Park Square is a top employer of local stage talent, 64 percent of whom are women and artists of color, it still has no core staff (including leadership positions) and just one board member of color. But a few years ago, it created the role of Artistic Associate for the purpose of broadening the organization’s perspectives, and recruited Aditi Kapil, Carson Kreitzer, Ricardo Vazquez and James A. Williams to serve as ongoing Artistic Associates. Park Square has also invited local theatre companies, such as Girl Friday Productions, Sandbox Theatre Company, Theatre Pro Rata and Wonderlust Productions, to become Theatres in Residence and partnered with Mu Performing Arts to produce this season’s Flower Drum Song as mutually beneficial exposure to new audiences.

Currently, Park Square is partnering with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce to create a Community Advisory Board made up of people of color to give ideas and feedback on what types of stories need to be told on stages and who to share them with–in short, to engage in honest dialogue to better understand how Park Square fits within an evolving community. On June 21 from 5-6 pm, Jamil will be a facilitator for “Cocktails and Conversation” in our Proscenium lobby for professionals of color to give such feedback.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Park Square Theatre without the transformational presence of Jamil. It’s more difficult to question and alter inherent biases and beliefs than to organically build from the ground up with that vision in mind the way that a new organization, such as Full Circle Theater Company, can do. It’s more difficult to transform an organization with individuals at different spectrums of cultural competency regarding issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. Any stall into complacency, regression into status quo or backslide into habituated ways of doing things negatively impacts the outcome. Park Square will steadily need to match good intent with continued action to move forward into its total vision.

Jamil himself will move forward to Atlanta, Georgia, where he will become True Colors Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director. At True Colors, Jamil will also get to direct a play each year and, for the first time in his career, focus his energy within one organization rather than be, as he described, “split-brained” amongst multiple organizations and freelance projects.

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

While Jamil has certainly left his mark on Park Square Theatre, what many may not know is the wider impact he has also had on the Twin Cities theatre scene since his arrival in Minnesota in 2011. From 2011 to 2014, he worked for Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis’ West Bank as its National New Play Network Producer in Residence and created and facilitated artist/educator-audience discussions as its Free Speech Program Director. Jamil made another strong impression in 2013, receiving the year-long Playwright Center’s Many Voices Mentorship to help Minnesota-based playwright of color hone one’s craft. Within a few years, Jamil had further widened his circle and influence, joining the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Theatre Alliance (2012-16), the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (both since 2014). In 2015, he had founded the New Griots Festival to promote the work of Twin Cities black artists into the future; the festival will return this year at the Guthrie from July 6 to 16. In 2016, he directed the highly relevant and critically praised inaugural productions of Underdog Theatre’s Baltimore is Burning, written by local artist Kory LaQuess Pullam, founder of Underdog Theatre, as well as local playwright Josh Wilder’s The Highwaymen at The History Theatre in St. Paul.

Park Square Theatre and the Twin Cities theatre community will dearly miss Jamil Jude. Not only could he inspire us, but more importantly, he brought people together to get things done. Jamil Jude has left things better than when he’d arrived. What more could we ask for? We are very grateful and wish him well.

—-

(Note: Be sure to also read the previous blog post, “What’s That Got to Do With Jamil Jude?”)


 

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