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Posts Tagged Michael-jon Pease

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.

Meet Mackenzie: the force behind the gala!

When you hear the word arts, what’s the next word that pops to mind?

The younger me may have said, “Crafts”; but the older me says, “Funding!” For any arts organization to stay afloat, it needs adequate funding through multiple revenue sources, from ticket sales to donations. Key to Park Square Theatre’s fundraising efforts is Annual Fund Manager Mackenzie Pitterle, a self-professed lifelong “theatre nerd” who came aboard last December and is spearheading the upcoming Shakespeare Soiree: the Streets of Verona, named for the education production of Romeo and Juliet, currently on stage. But as with all who have ever landed at Park Square Theatre, Mackenzie’s journey here had actually started long ago.

Mackenzie Pitterle at her desk
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Mackenzie grew up in Verona (no connection to the Montagues and Capulets), a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, in a family and school community that valued the arts. She herself plays the horn and performed in school bands and pit orchestras for musicals, but she eventually to realize that her passion for the arts lay in supporting rather than producing art. This led her to pursue a degree in Arts Management at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where she paid her way through college with no loans and finished in three years with honors.

With a specific interest in learning how to manage nonprofit arts organizations, Mackenzie acquired internships with an orchestra, a theatre and the Wisconsin School Music Association (WSMA), which lead to a position as the Development and Marketing Associate for the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music.

“My job included getting up at 4 am to set up the route for a fun run and anything else to keep music in our schools,” Mackenzie said. “I loved helping to raise money to pay for that.”

Eventually Mackenzie was ready for change and a new challenge, setting her sights for a move to Minnesota after having lived in Wisconsin all her life (yes, she’s a diehard Packers fan) which brought her to Park Square!

“Over a year into my position, I can’t imagine a better fit for me. Being onsite at Park Square, I get to be immersed in theatre. I witness school group visits; I get to see each play. I got so excited about Hamlet after sitting in on the first rehearsal. That immersion keeps me grounded in what we’re doing.

I also truly enjoy getting to know donors, patrons, staff and volunteers and learning about what they love about Park Square Theatre. My job isn’t just all paperwork; I get to meet with people and hear stories about what’s important to them and how we impact them on such a deep level.”

Mackenzie revels in how she is, in her words, “impactfully utilized” and must keep “wearing different hats” to adjust to the different needs of each day. She loves that she gets to be in the room to discuss campaigns and big changes as well as learn how decisions affect every department. Currently, Mackenzie is hard at work organizing Park Square’s annual benefit gala, Shakespeare Soirée: The Streets of Verona, coming up on April 30. “We have incredible team of volunteers, committee members, interns and artists all working together to make this best party Park Square has ever thrown. It’s a night you won’t want to miss.”

At Park Square Theatre, words such as commitmententhusiasm and possibility bring to mind several people. One of them is definitely our very own Annual Fund Manager, Mackenzie Pitterle.

How Do You See It? (Let’s Talk About It!)

It was a lazy Sunday morning on June 27, 2017. I was drinking my cup of joe and reading the Star Tribune. Specifically, an article by Rohan Preston–“About face: Actors on Twin Cities stages increasingly reflect the diversity of their audiences. But they’re hardly ‘colorblind.'” I noted a comment made by Randy Reyes, the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts: “Where nontraditional casting doesn’t work is where you, a person of color, is cast as a white character in a white context.” I had just seen Might As Well Be Dead, the Nero Wolfe mystery, at Park Square Theatre two nights before and had a disparate reaction to a casting decision than my guest. I am an Asian American woman. He is a white male.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries fall within the “pulp” or “hard boiled” fiction genre, which is noted for its tendency toward “casual misogyny” and “glee with the unseemly parts of human nature–boundless greed, lust, and corruption,” as described in Park Square’s playbill. Might As Well Be Dead is specifically set in 1956, a time when anti-miscegenation statutes were still legal in the United States (until they were struck down in Loving v. Virginia in 1967) and interracial relationships were deeply frowned upon.

It was within this context that I couldn’t help but notice that the female characters in the production, played by the talented Am’Ber Montgomery, Marisa B. Tejeda and Austene Van, were all women of color portraying either a spouse or mistress to high-society white men. Austene also played the businesswoman who, as described on our website, “came begging for help” from Nero Wolfe. While my guest was also initially jolted by this, he was able to “go with it” for the ride in this fictional story, whereas I remained bothered.

Were each of the women of color “cast as a white character in a white context”? Or is this play not about race at all so simply the most capable actor was aptly cast? I’m curious about what you think and so are Artistic Director Richard Cook and Executive Director Michael-jon Pease. You may reach them at cook@parksquaretheatre.org (651.767.8482) or pease@parksquaretheatre.org (651.767.8497).

 

A scene from Might As Well Be Dead

The Case of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club

  1. It was a dark and stormy night

Robyn Hansen, blog writer, Park Square Theatre, Saint Paul, MNTwo men stood outside the door of the Hansen-Clarey home. The glow from the front porch light revealed one man to be rather neatly and nattily dressed; the other, a bit more bohemian and slightly disheveled. They were Michael-jon Pease and Richard Cook, the executive director and artistic director of Park Square Theatre respectively. Why had they come? What was on their minds?

They had come with a scintillating proposal for longtime Park Square supporters Robyn Hansen and John Clarey: Would they consider being the producers for a Park Square play? Would they provide the funding of a show sans the day-to-day responsibilities of production? Would they consider supporting this concept that had never before been attempted at Park Square? And, while we’re asking . . . how about if we focus on the mysteries with which Park Square traditionally closes its seasons, since John is a mystery lover?

When the door opened wide, the men stepped inside, never suspecting how their action that evening would impact Park Square Theatre for years to come.

  1. The plot thickens

John and Robyn heard the two men out. Then this socially-inclined couple suggested a counter-proposal: Let’s assemble a large group of like-minded friends to create a producers’ club.

And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club was born!

Members contribute 1,000 dollars or more per household to help underwrite new productions, new adaptations and new scripts. In return, Club members enjoy special access to behind-the-scenes events, such as production and concept meetings, rehearsals, an opening night dinner with the director (and writer for new commissions) and much more.

 

  1. Page turner

In the 2013-2014 season, the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club presented its first world premiere commission, The Red Box, adapted by playwright Joseph Goodrich from the fourth of 33 Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Rex Stout from the 1930s to 1970s. Peter Moore directed The Red Box, and actor E. J. Subkoviak perfectly embodied the role of the brilliant and eccentric armchair detective.

The Red Box proved to be a huge success, spurring the Club to offer in the following season Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, an adaption by local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher of local author Larry Millett’s novel of the same name.

Audiences were then treated to the musical mystery, Murder for Two, in the middle of the 2015-2016 season. Directed by Randy Reyes, this unique production featured just two talented actors on stage, Nic Delcambre and Andrea Wollenberg, playing all the roles.

Not only have Club productions been delightful, but Club activities connected to its shows also proved to be so informatively and socially fun that a member declared, “It’s the best 1,000 dollar donation I’ve ever made!”

 

  1. Surprise ending

This season, courtesy of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club, Park Square Theatre features a second world premiere commission of a Nero Wolfe mystery, Might As Well Be Dead, on its Proscenium Stage from June 16 to July 30. The production brings back the winning team of Goodrich-Moore-Subkoviak as playwright, director and Nero Wolfe, respectively, in what Park Square describes as a case that “draws the detective into a web of deceit and regrets.”

The plot: A wealthy St. Paul business owner wants to make amends to her son Paul, whom she’d thrown out of the family business 11 years before. But where is he? Does he even want to be found?  And could he be the same Paul who is currently on trial for murder?

Might As Well Be Dead will be another fun ride for sure! And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club lives on for another surprise ending and others yet to come.

 

——

Note: Some dramatic license was taken in the telling of this tale.

Photographs of members of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club (from top to bottom): Robyn Hansen; Wes & Dierdre Kramer (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas & Mimi Stake (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Jim Rustad & Kay Thomas (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas, Jim Rustad, Ken Lewis & Diana Lewis (photographed by Rachel Wandrei)

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