The ocean is filled with so much waste that it has begun to form land masses made purely of junk. There are currently five garbage patches growing like a cancer on our planet. The largest is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You read that right. These masses of trash are so enormous that they have names. It isn’t any shock to most people that our planet is being polluted at an alarming rate, but how many of us really understand the gravity of the situation, and what would it take to inspire change?
“Of the Deep: Meditations Upon the Death of a Blue Whale” is a reflection on the consequences and complexities of the climate crisis. It is a community created work, facilitated by Amanda Petefish-Schrag at Iowa State University, and presented virtually at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Through visually stunning shadow puppetry, the play presents several short scenes on topics such as ocean pollution, the whaling industry, and the environmental impact of human interference in the ocean. The play was extremely aesthetically well-done, and the collaborators showed great resourcefulness and creativity in producing a beautiful work of theatre that is safe to view during the pandemic. The play’s puppets and effects were even created completely with recycled materials. However, while the play sought to highlight one of the greatest crises of our time, its sense of urgency fell flat. Climate change theatre is emerging as a prominent new play genre, but can it really compare with the shock value of witnessing environmental wreckage in real life?
I will never forget when the nation got its first glimpse at the photos from the BP oil spill in 2010. For much of my generation, this was our first major experience viewing the devastating effects of human consumption and waste. Images of otters covered in the pitch-black goo and videos of seagulls struggling to escape the oil-infested water dominated the news cycle for weeks. The shocking first-hand evidence of environmental destruction sparked some of the largest protests for climate action that our country has ever seen. For many this event was a wake-up call. We are destroying our planet, and we have a responsibility to do something about it.
“Of the Deep” may paint a beautifully tragic picture of the state of our oceans, but what is the message? Where is the call to action? The play does not bring any new perspective to the conversation. We already know there’s trash in the ocean. Most Millennials and Gen Z-ers say that climate change is one of their top voting issues, so if the goal of the play was to raise awareness, the awareness has already been raised. Currently about 83 percent of American adults say they take individual actions to consume less waste, but only changing individual habits is not enough. People need to be angry enough to demand accountability from larger corporations like BP, who view the Earth as their personal dumping grounds. What most climate change theatre misses is that shocking image that will instill fury in the audience. The image that will come to mind every time they think of climate destruction. They are missing the sea turtle whose body has grown around a plastic bag, or the baby otter dying in a pool of oil.
While I applaud the creators of “Of the Deep” for their innovation in creative storytelling during a time when live theatre is non-existent, unfortunately the show comes off as too tranquil of a look at a crisis that demands discomfort. When people become too comfortable, they become complacent. The artistic approach does not hold the power to incite protest. Climate change theatre is lacking the shocking imagery that will press people to hold large corporations accountable. The only way to achieve swift justice for our dying planet is to show people something they can’t look away from.
In the past year, I have consumed large amounts of digital theatre. This week at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, I saw more than I did the entirety of last year. The rise in digital theatre popularity due to COVID-19 has uncovered and overcome challenges that were previously untouched. All theatre has some downsides, but these positives are what has kept theatre alive this year.
In all honesty, live theatre has not always been the most accessible art form. As a college student, I just do not have the extra money to pay for admission or to take off work to go to New York. Having family out of state has also made it difficult for my family to see the productions I have been part of. However, with digital theatre my family and I can watch many productions without damaging our bank accounts. No matter where they are, they can watch plays with just a few clicks. With “Zoom plays” in local theatre, all you need is the link and a bit of free time. As far as Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, they have become more accessible as well. With the addition of Hamilton to Disney Plus many people had access, including myself to something none of us would have the chance to see otherwise. Without that I most likely would have spent my entire career with only the soundtrack.
It is safe to say digital theatre is healthier. So many of my castmates would have given up theatre to avoid the risk exposure and spread of COVID-19. As an actor, I can remember one of my castmates being sick with a stomach bug one week, and by the next week there were multiple cast and crew members with the same symptoms. This is no problem for digital theatre. Most theatre companies have zoom meetings in place of face-to-face rehearsals. When someone is sick, they do not have contact with everyone at daily rehearsals, keeping more actors healthy.
Digital theatre has expanded the entire art form and become a factory for more content. As most functioning college theatre groups were off-campus, they had to learn technology skills to keep up with classes or attend rehearsals. These skills can be applied later on when we go back to “normal” theatre. Beginning to livestream plays from zoom has changed what theatre means. Though it has blurred the line between film and theatre, digital theatre has opened a new era of theatre that is bound to be taught about for years to come. The need for relatable content that is current and usable grew. Because of that, directors, actors, and playwrights rose to the occasion. Many directors have had trouble finding a play that is compatible with zoom. Other issues directors had were complications with royalties and companies making excessive rules over what you could do with the production. Frustrated and confused, directors wrote their own plays or had their students write for them. Again, being off-campus cuts off access to plays and theatre libraries. As a result of this, more playwrights produced more content and some actors became playwrights. My personal experience with playwriting started this year. I had never written for a play before. Just this year, I wrote four monologues. Some I wrote in the need of some form of therapy, others because the things happening around me inspired me. In the end, digital theatre has been very beneficial to audiences, actors, directors, and playwrights alike.
There comes a very special point about once every other generation of theatre artist. This point being, for a lack of a better word, the worry that theatre as a whole will come to an abrupt and destructive end. The death of theatre if you will. However, at the end of crisis, after we have blanketed our worries under a façade of normalcy, we once again learn that theatre never dies. Theatre cannot die, it merely evolves.
In the midst of early 2020, global pandemic struck. Masks went from a suggestion to a requirement, social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings started being enforced, local and professional theatres started to close, and many of our fellow artists lost their jobs. Many of us, as so many have thought before, thought “this is it, this is the end of theatre.” We have never been so happy to have been so wrong.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a whole host of minute problems that accompanied it during 2020, theatre expanded into a new vein. One that, up to this point, had yet to be explored in detail. The digital era of theatre has begun and with it an expanded and revised definition of the word we think we know so well. Theatre may once again attempt to return to its roots, however the new methods explored by artists of the craft around the world will never fade. They will instead become an integral part of what we consider to be the “meta” of theatre. Tragedy has once again caused theatre to evolve, and the art will be better because of it.
I first realized this odd transformation while watching two unique productions during the virtual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival of Region 5. The first of which being Jabberwocky, By Lewis Carroll, adapted and directed by Ethan Koerner and performed by the students at Northwestern College. The production combines the use of various forms of puppetry with a heavy saturation of audience interaction via phone apps. This production of Jabberwocky highlights a first for me, and possibly for many others with the usage of digital interactivity, the likes of which you would expect from a traditional theatre performance. Koerner and their ensemble has proven that the dawn of the “digital theatre era” is upon us. That the magic of theatre, the intimate nature of theatre can still live, despite the audience not actually being in the theatre.
Another production that proved the evolution of theatre for me was that of Iowa State University’s devised production: Of the Deep, facilitated by Amanda Petefish-Schrag. Like Northwestern’s Jabberwocky, this production shares its love and expert use of puppetry to tell a story worthy of being called theatre. Unlike the previous production however, Of the Deep relies entirely on the imagery and different styles of puppetry to tell its story. What shocked me the most about this piece was the lack of dialogue. Before me stands a several different interconnected stories that have nothing to tie them together except for music and imagery. Something that that classical-elitist theatre artist in me was horrified to learn at first. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is still theatre. It is simply a new and uncomfortable way of doing it, as most experimental forms of theatre tend to be.
The era of digital theatre is just beginning, and everything that we’ve learned during its inception is here to stay. In the future, there will be more tragedy and with it more evolutions and developments in the way we do theatre. Where we our now is simply another step in the monstrous beast that we call theatre. The greatest hope that we have to continue to be theatre artists is to bow our heads to our immortal, ever changing monster.
American and Global Theater as we knew it has suffered a quick and sudden death. The productions displayed at the Kennedy Center American Theater Festival (KCACTF) give me hope that the magic and beauty of the theater may persist and grow back to the heights it had once enjoyed for so longer. However, whether we will actually witness this resurrection of biblical proportions is yet to be determined. But as it stands, Broadway and many theater spaces will remain in their caskets until at least 2025, with some never to emerge from the grave.The way that we used to consume theater, the way I grew up on, may never truly be as it once was. The days of a packed house in a smaller Iowa theater may be a distant memory.
And though it feels as though we are dragging our downcast and dismal selves through the dismay and darkness that has become known as 2020, we can take delight in the disillusion of those who believed in the “proper way to do theater” and embrace the somewhat late revelation that theater does not need to, and should not, be restricted to simply one stage in one building. And since research shows that the coronavirus can linger in still air for hours, having an audience sit tightly packed for hours is no longer a very attractive notion.
When the pandemic hit the United States, hundreds of plays were being performed, with thousands of people working on them. And all were shuttered seemingly overnight, including my own production. We were able to perform it on Zoom, but as any performer who was forced to relegate their performance to a digital box big enough for their headshot will tell you, it’s not the same. There was just something about not being able to perform it with my castmates next to me that just sort of cheapened and demystified it all.
As two weeks of lockdown grew into months and months of hibernation for the theatrical and entertainment industry, with actors not being allowed to share the same air as each other let alone a scene, the question shifted from ‘When will we be able to resume?’ to the much eerier and monumental question of ‘How do we resume?’. How does the theater live through a time of sudden social stagnation where it’s almost impossible to see blood relatives or make house payments, much less purchase an expensive ticket to a live performance in a building with poor circulation. While the early answer was table and theatrical reads of productions using the now extremely popular conferencing application Zoom, these KCACTF theatrical pieces and experiences may possibly not only answer the question of how theater survives during these incredibly tumultuous time, but how these types of productions might survive and help theaters stay open when, yes ladies and gentlemen I said when, this happens again.
These productions spanned different mediums and showed the enduring spirit and tenacity of the theater community. There were Zoom productions that were spiced up with the use of the app's green screen effect and color grading to try and help the audience suspend their disbelief. St. Ambroise University’s radio play of An Enemy of the People was a great example of the power that audio shows have, such as radio plays and fictional podcasts, in helping to create a world and suck the audience in with just the use of the actors’ voices and light soundscaping. Minnesota State University and Culver-Stockton College both performed on stage and recorded the performance, incorporating a mask as part of the costume (this is what I think the new normal might be once we have a handle of the coronavirus). Iowa State and Northwestern University both incorporated the centuries old practice of shadow puppetry to tell compelling and entertaining stories while creating an experience that is fun for everyone young and old. Northwestern even combined past techniques with present day technology to entertain the Earth’s next inheritors.
What I take from all of these productions put on by the next generation of performers is hope. I find hope in the drive to continue to create, in the variety of quality content that has come from a forced need to adapt. I find hope in the refusal to be deterred from creating to help keep one of the best historians of human culture alive and thriving. But there is one thing that is for sure. You may never see theater the same way ever again.
As I sit in a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt at my desk watching pre-recorded productions of plays, I wonder if the magic of theatre has disappeared during the pandemic. Of course, the pre-pandemic version of theatre cannot exist with coronavirus cases in the country at an all-time high, but I still wonder how theatre companies can respond to the pandemic while keeping the magic of theatre alive. I also appreciate how dedicated some universities and theatre companies are to put on in-person productions, but are the risks of these types of shows really worth the final product?
While the increased accessibility of theatre during the pandemic is great for the art form as a whole. It still has me wondering if the disappearance of the physical community of the theatre is responsible for this disappearance of theatre magic. Part of what makes going to see theatre fun is dressing up and going to meet with friends to go experience a show together. After these shows, we would always go out to eat and talk about the production together to really digest what we just saw. While Zoom hangouts after watching productions are similar in their atmosphere, nothing can level up to our pre-pandemic rituals. How can theatre companies recreate this community to keep it alive, and also not put members at risk of contracting the coronavirus?
After watching a few of the productions from this year’s pool of KCACTF productions, I got flashbacks to working on previous pandemic productions through both Zoom and in-person, masked productions While I searched to find the spark that is a part of shows gave me through these productions, I still couldn’t find it. While the shows that I watched for the festival, both in-person and virtual, covered all the bases in terms of quality of productions and skills of the actors, something was still missing. Perhaps it was the masks covering the actors’ faces during the in-person shows. Or it might have been the use of virtual backgrounds during the Zoom productions. It most likely, however, was the computer screen separating me from the actors.
While these streamed or pre-recorded in-person shows are great at providing many accessible options to audiences, they often lack many aspects that don’t make them worth the risks. These shows are often staged with over six feet of space between actors, which results in an overall drop in energy. This energy can be felt in the performance and even through the computer screen. Viewing in-person productions on the computer screen can vary based on the types of recording equipment that the theater used. While actors do wear masks, these block the actors’ facial expressions and muffle much of the important parts of the show. Theatre magic is hard to define, but for me, it’s that moment where I can feel for the characters in the show and am completely enveloped in the story. I found myself removed from these performances from my concern for the safety of the actors on stage.
The safer way of performing during the pandemic has proven to be through Zoom performances. While many suffer from ‘Zoom Fatigue’ at the moment, it has proven to be useful to connect with others during the pandemic. Theatre creatives have found ways to edit these live recordings together, using virtual backgrounds, to create an environment that resembles a theatre space. Zoom performances encourage writers to show off their skills as well as designers a chance to flex different muscles to produce different types of designs. Because of the position of actors, this mode of pandemic performance proves to be more intimate and easier for me to digest. Actors also get more comfortable with their self-image through the process.
While many creative endeavors have come from the pandemic, I suggest that we all agree that while in-person shows are ideal, there’s no sense in putting actors and audiences at risk just to pull them off. There’s no sense in lowering the quality of work just to bring back a little normalcy when we all can agree that these are not normal times. Until cases of the coronavirus have decreased and the vaccine has successfully rolled out, let’s continue to use technology to better connect us until we can safely assemble to experience the magic of theatre once again.
In September of 2020 Ben Brantley, the infamous theatre critic/assassin, announced that he’d be resigning from his critic position as the New York Times. And many rejoiced. Thousands of theatre fans, many with some theatre reference in their usernames, celebrated that the tyrant was taken down. Theatre fandom and Brantley, along with other theatre critics, butt heads. With article titles like “King Kong: The Mess that Roared,” Brantley has been under fire for being “too negative” and killing the show, a premature close. However, are critics really the only show killers? Or better, is there a future where this question will not exist anymore?
First off, let me say that theatre fandom is intense. “Fandom” is a mixture of “fans” and “kingdom,” and it’s a vast one always at war with itself. You can scroll through hours of fanart of characters, covers on YouTube, animatics, etc. What’s most interesting is the comment sections and forums. Theatre fandom doesn’t center around theatre as a whole, but on a few choice shows through some bizarre process that I can’t crack. And in these comments and forums people, being adventurous through their anonymity, have no qualms of being their own show killers by tearing each other apart.
I am not saying that this intense passion is a bad thing. On the contrary, this fanbase is the reason for theatre’s recent rise in popularity. Armed with fan blogs and theatre Twitterers, theatre is being shaped in a wonderful new way.
Through social media every theatre geek can have a voice...which is not always a good thing. As an example, let us look at Heathers the Musical. With cult followings in both film and theatre, it was only a matter of time before the show hopped the pond into London in 2018. At first, fans were so excited. But that excitement morphed into poison when it was announced that the cast was led by Carrie Hope Fletcher. Fletcher, now preparing to star in the titular character in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cinderella, is many things: a YouTuber, a regular on many book best-sellers list, and currently holds the record for the longest running Eponine in Les Misérables. She also is not a size two, something she’s not ashamed of showing through her body-positive videos and Instagram posts. It was the theatre fandom that was body-negative. Another quirk of theatre fandom is being a hardcore purist, so there already was a dislike for the show not being a carbon-copy of the Off-Broadway production. Many people called for the role to be reprised by actor Barret Wilbert Weed, the original actor. Weed is also closer to female beauty standards than Fletcher. Audiences bereaved Fletcher for her rolls and stretchmarks.
However, they are not the only ones who body-shame. In 2018, the New York Times review of 2018’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe critiqued actor Alysha Umphress’ weight. The Times later apologized, but this shows that critics sometimes take their job’s name too far. Critics do hold a very important job in the theatre scene, however. As ticket prices skyrocket, reviews help patrons decide what to buy. Like buying something online and looking at the star-rating, reviews are necessary. And theatre fandom is heavily influenced by marketing, which monopolizes theatre discourse. Critics should offer unbiased outlooks.
This is where many people point out a flaw in the institutions of modern theatre journalism. Many critics are adults, a demographic that Broadway increasingly caters to. Because of this, theatre journalism is no longer apt to judge every show, leading to bad reviews which kill a show. Theatre journalism must change.
One person of one demographic (oftentimes the most privileged demographic) can not sufficiently criticize every show because not `every show is made for everybody. However, there also needs to be some sort of structure to avoid that monopoly of theatre marketing. It has become a question of which show killer should be the most prominent, but can they work together? The future of theatre critique needs to be built off mutual respect between the two sides which will take both sides meeting each other halfway. News corporations need to recognize the changing audiences and have a more inclusive gang of critics to publish their thoughts. And theatre fans everywhere need to recognize the invisible influences that dictates their Twitter rants. Theatre is for everyone and both journalism and audiences need to reflect that. It is only then will the league of assassins will put down their knives for better theatre enjoyment.
According to the Mayo Clinic, 45 percent of teenagers are online “almost constantly.” Smartphones and social media have given today’s youth the opportunity to be more connected than ever, and during a pandemic, the importance of technology cannot be understated. However, the never-ending stream of social media can leave many feeling isolated.
Eric Coble’s “Ghosts in the Machine” directed and visually designed by Brad M. Carlson of Truman State University, tells the story of eight seemingly unconnected high school students. When they begin to get strange texts from numbers they don’t recognize, the students discover that their cell phones may have minds of their own. While trying to solve the mystery of the bizarre messages, they discover just how disconnected they are from their school community and find out that there are so many friendships to be made if they can look past their cellphone screens.
Although originally written to be performed as a staged play, the script for “Ghosts in the Machine” adapts to a Zoom reading flawlessly. There is a bit of a lag in the beginning, as one who is accustomed to seeing a show live must adjust their perspective to allow for the enjoyment of a newer form of theatre. However, it quickly becomes clear that this production has used all of the resources available through Zoom and editing to create as cohesive a theatrical experience as one might find in sitting in a theatre. Some aspects of the show were perhaps even enhanced by the opportunities that a Zoom production allows. A large amount of dialogue in the play takes place through texting. When the play is performed live, the texts are intended to be shown through projections, but Zoom allows the audience to clearly see the texts as they would appear on a cellphone. There is no need to worry about sitting in the perfect place to see the projection screen or struggling to read the far-away text.
Despite not having a true set, Carlson’s design uses backgrounds to show where the characters are and create a complete “stage” picture. However, unlike many Zoom productions I have seen, the backgrounds are not the same for every character in a scene. Several different photos, taken at different angles, and perfectly formatted on-screen create clear, full pictures of the high-school hallway, locker-room, or most impressively, the cafeteria, during which all eight characters are on-screen at the same time. Carlson also plays with lighting and color effects, using a duller, grey-toned pallet for the testimonial scenes, and a brighter, more life-like pallet for the scenes that take place in the high school. The audience even gets to see the Zoom equivalent of a spotlight. During significant moments for characters, the production slightly darkens all the Zoom screens except for the speaking character. This allows the audience to still see the reactions of the other characters while highlighting key moments. The play also includes a soundscape created by Jacob Baxley that will make the audience feel exactly as if they are listening in on a conversation in a crowded high-school hallway.
The breakout star of this production is Bonnie Jeune as Melissa, the friendly, but friendless, shy outsider. Jeune’s performance perfectly encapsulates the heart of this play. She creates a character that is so excluded that she at first can’t believe that anyone would want to be her friend. Even in the more tense moments of the play, every move she makes tells the story of someone who is simply happy to be a part of something. Her presence stands out in the group as a kind-hearted, lovable character who just needed to be given the chance to be a good friend.
“Ghosts in the Machine” is a stellar selection for a pandemic-era production. Brad M. Carlson has created a performance that is visually appealing and entertaining while being safely produced through Zoom. The play also tells an important story of the way that technology can tie us together or keep us apart. We are collectively accumulating more screen time than ever, and it is important for us to remember when technology has its benefits, and when it has limitations. “Ghosts in the Machine” allows us to appreciate technology, while also looking forward to a time where we can go back to making connections outside of our screens.
The vast majority of our formative years are spent asking our parents to protect us from the monsters under our bed. We forced them check under the bed and in the closet, and even occasionally made them lay in bed with us when we were scared. My parents even made me dreamcatchers to protect my dreams against them. But what happens when our parents aren’t there to protect us?
The Jabberwocky, originally a nonsensical poem by Lewis Carroll, has been adapted and directed by Ethan Koerner from Northwestern College, to answer that exact question. The story follows a child, who after being read the titular poem by their mother, falls into a dream world where they receive no parental protection from the literary horrors that await them within. The plot is split into several different scenes, each one visualizing a unique and important moment from the original poem.
Koerner’s production is meant to pique the interest of imagination immersion as concepts. The entire production feels like a twenty-minute dreamscape. I felt as if I was placed inside the mind of the main character, that I was also falling asleep and waking up in a world filled with unknown wonder and terror. However, my experience with The Jabberwocky, probably strayed farther from the perceived intention than expected. Koerner and his ensemble attempted to immerse the audience through the use of phone applications and mock “tour guides” leading us through the different parts of the boy’s imagination. However, I just did not respond well to the audience interaction. I think that the production works well as a separated entity, if the audience is forced to set back and watch the boy navigate his dreamscape. After, if his parents cannot protect him, neither should we.
The ensemble of the Northwestern College theatre program has done a brilliant job of combining limited vocal work (primarily recitation of the poem) with masterful non-verbal puppeteering. The ensemble has clearly spent a long, difficult journey attempting to bring life to simple constructs. Therein lies the main issue, a vast majority of the time theatre is performed using actors expressing emotions. The transferal of emotion and movement from human body to lifeless body, and the ability to give a simple puppet the appearance of complex and vivid movement is not one to laugh at. Koerner and ensemble managed to make me see this puppet as a living entity. I rooted for his success and was scared for his failure. I actually felt as if I am reliving a dream from my childhood.
My many thanks go out to both the production and design teams, for without them my shared dream experience would not be possible. After all, what good is a dream if you cannot describe it visually? Ethan Koerner returns to the dreamscape once more as the scenographer. Koerner and his assistants, Altman, Schaeffer, and Van Gorp, along with the scenic and properties crew, were responsible for the largest and perhaps the most important task of all: creating not only the dreamscape, but also the characters within the dreamscape. They made the monsters, the creatures, the boy, and just about everything else you can think of. For the amount of work placed on their shoulders, the work turned out astonishingly well.
However, all of their work placed behind an unlit surface yields nothing but emptiness. The dreamscape they envisioned, and the one I experienced would not have been made possible without the help of Drew Schmidt and their lighting, sound, and technologies crews. The design is simple and primitive, for good reason. A complex, jaw-dropping design for this production just is not needed, and I can tell that Schmidt understood this. The same can be said about the underscore they created, along with the help of Frances DeArmond. Simple and effective. Why muddy a digital production with frivolous light and sound design, when the majority of it will not transfer through a computer screen anyways? Some dreamscapes are chalk full of vibrant imagery, others can be dull and drab, and I see no issue with either.
At the end of the night, when I, and many others, awaken from our shared dream-like experience we realize how incredible Koerner’s production is. This production did a fantastic job of making me actually feel as if it were I dreaming, fighting to protect myself from the Jabberwocky. Some say the pen is mightier than the sword. But is the dreamcatcher I wonder?
Picture this, a descriptive sound-based story about a group of sightless people lost in the woods. That’s The Blind that Culver-Stockton College presented this year. The play written by Maurice Maeterlinck in 1890 seems timeless. The play is short, coming in at under thirty minutes, but is effective and exceptional. The way this play is written is an artful craft that has a shocking relevance today. The world has changed drastically in the past year, messing with everything it touches. This play nods to everyday life. It shows the conflicts we have and how quick we as humans are to blame each other. It masterfully expresses how we lash out at those around us during times of fear or stress.
With the help of Director Dr. Haidee Heaton, the cast succeeded in creating a strong production which, toward the end, caused me to feel a bit of anxiety. Part of the reason the fear and anxiety are so strong is because of the overlapping sounds, each added one at a time, starting with the wind, then the leaves, followed by the footsteps which grow louder. The blind women, hearing the footsteps coming closer, raise their voices in panic. In retaliation, the blind men raise theirs too. Adding to the already intense barrage of sound, the mad woman is moaning and sobbing and the child is crying and screaming. The severe feelings made this play one that I would enjoy watching again. There is an inkling of the supernatural stalking the blind in the forest. Between the child crying at seeing something no one else can and the birds flying around at harsh moments, the fear creeps in around the small discussions and disclosing of more information.
No actors are seen on stage, but this is a great play to produce during a global pandemic. In another sense, the lack of actors on stage can put the audience into the shoes of the blind characters. Using sound effects of the sea, leaves, footsteps, and wind aided the cast in effectively telling the story. These sound effects were listed in the program as The Elements. The four-person group splendidly imitated the sounds of nature. The sounds were accompanied by a semicircle forest set and intense lighting (Seth Campbell). The reds presented fear and danger, while the greens brought the ambient forest feeling. The purple lights contrast the green lights rather well. The set and lighting were great, and the voices and sound effects are good enough to stand alone. I feel this would be a highly successful episode of a podcast, due to the recent popularity of podcasting. Overall, The Blind is worth a watch and a careful listen.
As coronavirus restrictions make performing theater in the manner that most of us are accustomed to close to impossible, many theater companies and troupes have begun experimenting with new methods to keep the show going, in the spirit of the most famous saying in show business. While some try brand new methods of performance, some are dusting off old classics and marrying them to new technologies and present life’s stipulations. Northwestern College’s presentation of the classic nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll does just this by combining the centuries old practice of shadow puppetry with activities and interactive mobile games to help keep viewers of all ages engaged.
As you are guided by a guide dressed as a 19th century woman, you witness a dramatic reading of Lewis’s original 28-line poem before being led into a performance area where you witness the Jabberwocky story as a hero’s quest. As you make your way through 7 different performance areas, you see different parts of the story; the hero finding the vorpal sword, facing off against the JubJub bird and the Bandersnatch, training with a wise knight and finally battling the Jabberwocky.
The puppet construction and performance was quite wonderful. The puppeteers were able to not only produce high quality puppets with a dynamic range of motion, but they were able to perform very close up and detailed scenes to help create a sense of depth in the story and display just how talented and dedicated the puppeteers were to this project. From a fully articulated Jabberwocky tail to finely detailed Bandersnatch hair, the commitment to consistent detail and a high quality product is really what makes the project feel complete and worth the half hour run-time.
Engaging puppets are not the only reason to experience this project. What makes this truly impressive is the incorporation of physical and mobile elements into the production. Since keeping children still for a 90 minute show is a monumental task on it’s own, this show is a brilliant example of coronavirus solutions that can benefit a theater long after the coronavirus is cured. From fun mobile games to dancing with the puts to interacting with light cues to move the story forward, never had I witnessed a theatrical experience that was as interactive as this one or made children squeal endlessly with delight as much as this. Save for maybe Disneyworld or a set of jangling keys.
The piece also had a musical score that blended with the story and performance elements well while reminding you of Tim Burton or Danny Elfman. As I took part in the virtual experience and not the physical one, this may not apply to the one held at Northwestern College. Though I believe that gives anyone reason enough to try both versions of this project. However, you can still participate in most of the activities through the virtual experience as well. It truly has the feel of a well oiled, professional production that has the ability to be performed for many years after the world returns to some semblance of normalcy.
We have all felt the effects of this deplorable disease that has derailed our routines and turned our daily lives into a desperate search for comfort. This project provides this sense of peace and comfort with a combination of old traditions that we know and present technology to keep everyone engaged. It may not be your typical theatrical performance or experience, but it has done something that is harder to do then simply adjust for a deadly virus. It keeps young, restless children happy and engaged without having to rely on technology. Simply put, this production uses a centuries old theatrical technique paired with 21st century technology to tell a 150 year old poem to a group of young children with very short attention spans. And that alone is something to enjoy.
Imagine a world where our smartphones use us to communicate with one another to create a world of their own. While this may seem like a work of science fiction, Ghosts in the Machine by Eric Coble makes it seem more like reality. As technology continues to advance through forms of artificial intelligence and more advanced computer hardware, the world described in the play seems to be approaching us at a very fast pace.
One day after lunch, Melissa receives a strange message from a random phone number. A group of students from her school receive similar messages that all deal with some type of underground activity. These messages quickly begin to escalate with one number even outing a girl as a lesbian. As the group tries to pinpoint where these messages are coming from, they mistakenly blame each other. They soon realize that they are trapped in this text chain together and none of them are responsible. It’s at this point that they realize their phones are texting each other by themselves. The group must soon decide how personal to get with their devices while not letting themselves get sucked into the world of technology.
I was drawn to the plot of Ghosts in the Machine because of how much we rely on technology as a society, especially during a pandemic. We connect with others almost exclusively through our devices and the internet. In the world of the play, characters deal with the fact that their devices are much more than just a piece of technology, but rather a connected world of virtual personalities. The play also tells a cautionary tale of the information we search for on the internet and what we choose to put out in the world. As our information becomes more valuable to sites across the web, the play warns of putting too much out there for people, or online bots, to find and use against you.
Even though this production was done virtually, it was probably the most visually interesting online play I’ve seen. Rather than just having the actors look directly into the camera to speak, Director Brad M. Carlson, had actors face one another in their frames to create a more realistic speaking environment. Not only this but the direction they faced often matched the perspective of their virtual background, creating an even more realistic environment. I was also surprised by the use of video filters and lighting changes that enhanced the overall vision of the show. While there were some questionable choices from both the director and the actors, everyone involved in this production deserves credit for creating a remarkable piece of theatre given the current global circumstances. All aspects of the show including the background design, costume design, camera angles, and video editing were thought out in a way that added to the director’s vision of the show and enhanced the viewing experience.
Throughout Ghosts in the Machine, Coble continues to ask the question about how soon this story will become reality. With aspects of this show becoming all too familiar, one wonders if a situation similar to this one will occur with the continued development of AI technology. The entire cast and crew of the Truman State University production deserve great renown for their efforts to create a relevant and creative show that can make audiences engage in a story that questions our reliance on technology and the devices in our pockets.
Jabberwocky, spun from Lewis Carrol’s nonsense poem, walks audiences through the adventures of not only the characters but also of the children themselves. Northwestern’s hallways transform into a maze-like world where the inhabitants of the play feel close and personal but are also the required six-feet-away. Spatial limitations have always been a part of theatre long before COVID. It is literally ingrained in the origin of the word: “Theatre” comes from the Greek word “theatron” which translates to “the seeing place.” There is no art without a place to perform and a place to watch, this prominent rule is what separates theatre from other art forms. And in the time of COVID, stripping away the physical place of theatre has left audiences unfulfilled. Yes, it’s nice to watch Zoom plays and livestreams, but watching from a screen will never satisfy. However, it’s imaginative stagings, like Jabberwocky, that combat this emptiness. Transforming theatre into an immersive experience for children not only produces unique storytelling, but brilliantly makes obstacles opportunities by changing what this “seeing place” is. Plus, the joy from the young audience members offers vicarious jubilation for the at-home audience.
These opportunities start with Ethan Koerner, adapter and director. Carrol’s poem is a short 166 words long, so how do you adapt it into a play that’s longer than the 84-minute read time? Koerner was inspired by the multiple readings he has done to his daughter. The nonsense names of the creatures and the steady pace quickly create an imaginary world in the minds of younglings, and it was Koerner’s job to translate that. With visuals either projected or done with puppetry that Koerner designed (with his assistants Ryan Altman, Sofia Schaeffer, Juliana Van Gorp) we can see that imaginary word start to form. The visuals walk the line between intricate enough to follow along and vague enough so the youngsters can imagine themselves as the hero slaying the title creature.
The young audience members, who seem to be between the ages of six and eleven, form a small squad thanks to the Tour Guide. These conductors trail the train of children through multiple viewing areas that bestow individual chapters of the tale. The three-dimensional personalities of the performance come to life beyond the scenography thanks to the powers of sound and light, both designed by Drew Schmidt. Yes, the projected epics are wonderful to watch, but true immersion depends a lot on the interim in between. Schmidt’s talents encompass building hallways and outside offices, creating a comprehensive world which you travel through with the show’s protagonist. Some of the best scenes are at the beginning. We start with flat, storybook-like puppets where a father kisses his son goodnight. And then when the boy wakes up to start his quest, the puppetry shifts to silhouetted people on sticks in a wonderfully crisp projection.
Jabberwocky has enough whimsy that you practically taste it through the screen. The students at Northwestern College led by Ethan Koerner have not only created a quaint quirky play but have also shown that in hard times champions adjust. Can’t fill a 196-seat theatre with children? Then let them out of the seats and let them slay the monster in the story. Through making the “seeing place” inhabit wherever it works, theatre is changing and adapting. This is a part of COVID theatre that I hope stays after all the vaccines and masks: Theatre should be a close, personal, and accessible experience for everyone. Now excuse me, I have to go wield my sword and fight the monsters.
Jaron Schoustra was selected as the Outstanding Journalist/Critic for Festival 52. Below are the four pieces that comprised the packet.
Q&A: Paige Quinlivan on Bender, friendship, and LGBTQ+ representation
Long after the one-act showcase at The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival ended for Region V, festival-goers couldn’t stop talking about John Hughes Wrote My Diary, a romantic comedy about two best friends: Marty and Tommy. Marty has ain intense, Hollywood-esque crush on the most popular guy in school: Chet. Tommy has a crush on Claire, also popular. The two decide to befriend each other’s crushes and then pull a switch at an upcoming school dance, but in the process, Marty falls for Claire and Tommy falls for Chet.
I sat down with playwright Paige Quinlivan, who took home first place honors for the show, to discuss how her rom-com came to be and where she wants the genre to go next.
What inspired you to write John Hughes Wrote My Diary?
I started writing it as part of our bi-annual “play in a day” that our student theatre organization does in 2017. I wrote the original 15-page script in about three hours at like, midnight. Obviously, it’s changed since then. It was actually inspired by a music video (to the song “What’s It Gonna Be?”) by the artist Shura, who is a lesbian. And it’s basically the plot where [the two main characters] both have a crush on the most popular kid in school, and then they flip. I saw that, and I was like, “That would make a great play.”
Marty is such a dynamic character. She starts out crushing on the unattainable popular boy, and winds up falling for a girl. What did you want to accomplish with her?
Marty is very much autobiographical. I didn’t want to directly insert myself in the story, but I took the more self-deprecating, angsty, “I’m too cool to be friends with anyone” part of myself, and I just wanted to give her a shoutout. I honestly was thinking of my 13- and 14-year-old self when I was writing Marty.
I had these obsessions with men that seemed sort of separate like celebrities or fictional characters because, I think, when you’re still figuring out you’re a lesbian, and for me particularly, I have always struggled with compulsory heterosexuality. I was obsessed with The Breakfast Club, and I was particularly in love with Judd Nelson’s character, Bender. Which, looking back, is a little, um… *cringes* I was obsessed to the point where I made myself sick, it was so bad. So, I’d pick men, and Judd Nelson was a big one. So, Marty’s high concept fantasies about Chet, and placing them in these specific situations, was meant to suggest that she doesn’t want the real thing.
I was very touched that, in a show about romance, you really focused on the friendship between Tommy and Marty. Why was that important to you?
When I was expanding the play, Bailey– who played Marty and has been my best friend since I was in the first grade– and I were sort of re-negotiating our friendship. She was in a new relationship, I had just gotten out of a very tough relationship. So as I was writing the play, Tommy and Marty’s relationship was sort of my love letter to Bailey, as an apology and also to commemorate how far we’ve come and grown together.
Also, I love the idea that gay people flock to each other without even realizing it. Bailey and I became friends before we knew we were gay, and we’re both very gay.
The audience for the one-act readings at KCACTF reacted very strongly to your show. What do you think it was that they latched onto so strongly?
Honestly, I’m still a little baffled [by the audience reaction]. I was so in shock the entire time because I knew people would think it was cute, but I didn’t know that [whoops and hollers] would be the reaction. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around it, and I think part of it was the fact that it was a bait-and-switch. You went in thinking “oh, this is going to be straight!” And then there are these moments when you think, “Hold on, this is going to be gay?!”
I really wanted to be vulnerable with this play, particularly with the character of Marty, and put my most embarrassing experiences in there. I think that embarrassment, shame and also the joy you find in finding someone who’s like you, it’s so personal, and I think that because it was personal, it touched that in other people. It’s still crazy to me that such a specific experience can be so universal.
We’re seeing more, if not much, LGBTQ+ representation in entertainment with movies like Love, Simon. What do you want to see for LGBTQ+ representation in the romantic comedy genre?
For me, particularly as a writer, I want to tell stories that are inherently about being gay, but also more than that. I think that’s really important. And I love Love, Simon, but it feels like a romantic comedy second, and a story about identity first. I do think that has its place, but I’d also like to see LGBTQ+ cinema and plays expand into heightened genre fictions.
For example, I’d love to see a film noir that’s just, like, about lesbians. And I don’t think it has to ignore the fact that these characters are queer, because I’m not a fan of the mindset of “oh, it’s just a story about people!” No, it’s a story about queer people. But I also think it’s good to place [queer characters] in situations where they’re not just queer, they’re queer and X, Y, Z. Multifaceted.
Theatre doesn’t just need more love stories, it needs fresh ones
I watch romantic comedies because I know what’s going to happen. Harry and Sally will admit their love on New Year’s Eve. Cher will realize that Josh has been the one for her all along. Jane will finally get to wear her 28th dress. Sam Baker’s birthday wish will come true.
I have watched over half a dozen shows in the span of a single week, and no single show has really latched itself onto my mind… except for one. It was a staged reading of an hour-long one-act. The show began with one girl: a teenage girl lost in 80s-inspired fantasies and struggling with the inherent angst that is high school.
John Hughes Wrote My Diary, a genre-subverting love letter of a play to 1980s romance, did something I never thought would happen.
It surprised me.
And I loved it.
John Hughes Wrote My Diary tells the story of Marty, a teenage girl who is lost in her own fantasies inspired by the movies of late director John Hughes. She pines after Chet, a handsome hunk of a jock, and her only friend is Ducky-esque Tommy, who pines after a popular girl in Marty’s class named Claire. Tired of being lonely (and each other’s only confidants), the two friends hatch a scheme. Tommy will befriend Chet, and Marty will befriend Claire. Then, at an upcoming school dance, they will switch, and relish their happily ever afters. Things get a little complicated– and wonderful– when Marty develops feelings for Claire and Tommy falls for Chet.
The atmosphere in the Belbas Theatre during John Hughes Wrote My Diary was electric. I don’t remember the last time I was in an audience as elated as the crowd was during this show. They latched onto Marty and Tommy immediately. Suddenly, the love stories of these two teenagers was the only thing in the world that mattered. What was it about this play, I wondered, that elicited such an intense reaction from the crowd? From me?
Romantic comedies are just starting to catch up to the diversity of the real world.Theatre has been even slower on the uptake. Lo and behold, there is a market for love stories starring LGBTQ+ people and people of color! Who would have guessed?
It’s easy to forget how important representation in entertainment is when you’ve always seen yourself get a happy ending. I, and many other girls like me, never saw myself get the guy or girl. My rom-com obsession led to a lot of insecurity as I grew up. I couldn’t see myself as a romantic heroine or imagine myself as the kind of girl anyone could fall in love with. The girls who got the happy endings where white. Skinny. Straight.
Marty is a dreamer, a romantic. She’s awkward and angsty and unaware and so, so relatable. And goodness, she is just magnificently gay. So, so gay.
I could feel everyone practically jumping for joy when they realized Marty and Tommy would be gay. That moment, where every queer person in the room could finally relate to the leads of a romance, was pure magic.
Was I surprised that Marty and Tommy would wind up gay? To be honest, no. I met the playwright Paige Quinlivan before I saw the one-acts and she described her show to me as “two gay love stories.”
What got to me was how much it would hit me to experience an audience feel seen by a genre that, for so long, has only been for a select few.
Here’s my theory: everyone has a romantic in them. No matter how pessimistic we are, we crave those happy endings. Love, after all, is one of the most intense forms of human connection. When we see ourselves in love stories, we can picture that kind of happiness in our own lives.
John Hughes Wrote My Diary is a cookie-cutter romantic comedy. It isn’t just an identity piece; it allows its characters to be multifaceted. It embraces the genre of romance while subverting it at the same time.
Give me more of that. Show me romance. Show me plays and musicals that don’t force their gay characters into boxes. Show me playwrights willing to tell stories of people of color (you’ll find many of them at KCACTF).
Romantic plays and musicals aren’t boring or tired; they just need fresh heroes.
They are out there. We just need to look for them.
Sioux Falls. January 24, 2019. Jessica Johnson is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha studying to be a college professor in performance. She is also a hardworking mother of two. This is her experience
The caterpillar and the cocoon that institutionalized it.
“Do you know what to do if you ever get stopped by the police?”
I was five years old when my father sat me down to have “the talk.” It was the day following the incident which resulted in my uncle being dragged from the sidewalk in front of our house in handcuffs after the police knocked him unconscious. I stood, petrified, behind my mother’s leg. I remember not understanding why the police were something black children are taught to fear rather than to trust--but in that moment, I know.
In retrospect, I didn’t understand how being black could label me as “guilty” without trial. While my uncle had been rightfully resisting against the officer’s use of excessive force, members in our community still observed this situation, disregarding my uncle as the boy they’d known for decades, and said,
“Well if he had just followed orders, he might still be conscious.”
This scenario and other like it spark a conversation that all black parents have with their children--they try to prepare us for growing up black in America, but in the end they cannot save us from the prejudice that permeates every facet of our lives. The desired result of these constant reminders is the implant of voice in the back of our minds always urging us to be afraid, to be cautious, and to never step a centimeter out of line.
Lest we forget what happens when we do.
Passion Play, an original work by University of Missouri (MU) student Zahria Moore, capitalizes on the struggle that dominates our community--black women grow in and around the fear settled in our stomach every time our sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands venture into the world because we are born with a target that is stuck to our skin.
Following the story of Mamie, Martha, and Mary, three mothers all with teenage sons named Jonothan who died by under barrel of a gun, grapple with each other over whose son is buried in a recently upturned grave.
While enthralled by this concept, It was jarring to find myself so completely in awe of this innovative word smith and her ability to capture the raw and complex emotions one feels when losing a child, specifically to a tragedy as volatile as gun violence. Moore’s work is well written and conscientious of the times for which it was created. She is a beacon for self-aware artists in contemporary black theatre.
Contradictory, this verbally luscious work is overshadowed by the actors’ inability to slow the pace and allow for silence where silence is due. I found myself leaning forward at several instances, immersed in the give and take of what was being said on stage--only to be yanked out of it when the dialogue became lost.
Passion Play’s lack of passion from the mothers who had just lost their sons three days ago, and the awkward tumble of words tripping over themselves as an actress succumbs to her nerves rather than the situation unfolding on stage, twisted this beautiful story into the Mildly-interested Play.
However, the text itself still brings forth issues that the Black Community tries to hide from the light--suicide, gang violence, and police brutality, while prevalent in mainstream media, take a back burner to the loom of the mother’s competitiveness over whose son died the worst death. These sensitive issues serve as a vehicle for three women who live completely separate lifestyles in three obviously distinct socio-economic groups to relate, even on the shakiest of platforms, to what every black American faces regardless of class.
As it is intricately put in the show; “It don’t matter where we come from or how much money we got--we still niggas.”
What sticks out to me the most about this piece is how it manages to be about both Black masculinity and the box it is placed in, as well as the hurt that black women must work tirelessly to hide from an unforgiving world. This hurt shows weakness, and we cannot afford to be weak.
When looking at Passion Play from a modern cultural lense, one can begin to see the cocoon that surrounds the caterpillar a la Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Both pieces provide commentary on how black men are butterflies, but that society will turn them into criminals and rapists, and that this mindset permeates even into our own communities where women like, in this specific instance, Mamie and Martha will argue over whose son deserved to die.
We place a cocoon around the caterpillar who is instinctively jealous of the butterfly, unaware of his own biological capabilities. The butterfly represents the black man who has broken free of the cocoon and has become who he was meant to be. Every argument against his happiness and freedom then becomes obsolete. Who deserved to die?
The answer is neither.
Passion Project: The Creation of Step Forwardd
Love in the face of hate. The University of Central Missouri’s dance concert Step Forward does more than discuss topical social conflicts through the lens of this unifying message. Underneath emotional tableaus and patriotic messages lies a meticulous production process. According to key members of the creative team including directors Ashley Miller-Scully and Julie Rae Mollenkamp and student choreographers Ashton Bennett and Christina Foster, the show went through countless revisions before reaching an anthemic final product.
What inspired you to create a devised dance piece about social issues?
“At the time when we were deciding our next theme for the dance concert, it was right after the 2016 presidential election, and there was a lot of upheaval and division in the country. I then saw this meme on social media, and I thought ‘these are great issues that we can present through the arts in a way that might reach a lot of people and bring everyone together.”
- Ashley Miller-Scully
How much research did you complete when developing the show?
“Once I knew what pieces I would choreograph, I used research we received from partnering with UCM’s Social Influences class. At that point, I connected their dramaturgy with my own research to form the storyline of my choreography. Specifically regarding ‘Climate Change is Happening’, I spent a week compiling information about how humans hurt the earth directly and indirectly. Throughout the choreographic journey, I kept learning new facts to keep the dance relevant.” - Ashton Bennett, student choreographer
What was the most difficult part of the devising process?
“One of the hardest parts was that there were so many different directions we could have gone with the show. You never know when to stop. There were so many possibilities and ideas flowing from the group at once. This means it was difficult for us to decide on the most important societal lessons for each dance in order for the whole concert to be cohesive. The process was a true lesson in how to think together as an ensemble.” - Christina Foster
The theme of Festival 51 encourages Theatre artists to Inspire the Global Community. How does “Step Forward” support this message?
“The combination of dance, singing, spoken word, and images connect our humanitarianism with our patriotism and promotes the notion of radical empathy. UCM is working to create artist citizens who believe the world is made better through artistic practice. Theatre is one of the greatest tools we can use to connect communities, open doors, and help people grow into their best selves.” - Dr. Julie Rae Mollenkamp
Why do you ‘Step Forward’?
I step forward because I am a woman in America who needs to stand up for those do not have the courage to stand for themselves. - Ashton Bennett
I step forward in hopes to make the world a better place and for the next generation because they have voices that deserve to be heard. - Ashley Miller-Scully
A Powerful yet Passionless Passion Play
Mourning for the dead can cast a burden on the soul, but after witnessing Zahria Moore’s Passion Play presented by the University of Missouri, I send my condolences to its audience. While the dialogue rises to heavenly heights, the production digs its own grave with quiet and dimensionless performances suggestive of a middle school one-act, not an invited production.
Lights up on three distraught mothers walking to a disturbed grave. Each claims their teenage African-American son rests below the surface as a result of police brutality or mental illness. Within 45 minutes, tensions flare until the team unites around the desire for justice to be served.
Passion Play explores the instinctive urge of mothers to stand for their personal motives rather than for each other. The Black Lives Matter movement sparked conversation about the treatment of African Americans. Trayvon Martin’s death unearthed the hashtag that started a revolution. Behind these prejudicial circumstances rise the matriarchs who keep their children’s memories alive by stimulating the protest fire.
Playwright Zahria Moore crafts a layered play surrounding themes of social injustice faced by the African-American community. Composed of quick-witted dialogue and gripping monologues, Moore’s text balances colloquial language with sophisticated grace reminiscent of a Langston Hughes poem. Specifically, Mamie’s monologue contains emotional grit as she describes her son’s bullet wounds.
Even if its ending leaves questions about Jonathan’s whereabouts, the story is multilayered with rich exposition. A solid script, its concrete text cracks at the helm of Director Cat Gleason. The allegro pace and staging feel forced and contradictory to the rich text. This explains why her direction undercooks and under-seasons this five-star steak of a play.
As Mamie, Dajah Garrett breathes life into the narrative. Her fiery confidence is as authentic as a Real Housewife. Garrett’s protective instinct sours the situation and adds salt to Gleason’s flavorless cooking.
Meanwhile, De’Janna Scales-Hand and Rachael Robinson produce false emotion as Martha and Mary. Their robotic dialogue barely extends past the lip of the stage. In particular, Scales-Hand delivers mumbled accusations with the inflection of a virtual assistant.
The design elements add a quasi-real feeling to the world, but Jonathan’s grave looks lonely as the only one onstage. Lighting designer Babs Randazzo enhances this atmosphere with a gentle midnight blue afterglow over Cat Gleason’s ordinary cemetery set.
The minimalistic design contains an iron fence curving from a dirty red brick wall with an elevated grave at its center. A rounded rectangular dirt latrine surrounded by a turf hill serves as the safety net for the emotional matriarchs.
Moore offers a eulogy of equity and mistreatment with a story that could be taken from a news segment. The play still unpacks a difficult argument regardless of poor direction and careless performances that abandon narrative roots. Nevertheless, she paints the isolated image of a burial site, highlighting how easy it is to walk over a life meant to be honored and remembered.
Passion Play’s potential is left buried under six feet of dirt.
Every Spring Christians remember and celebrate the death of a man too young to die. The Passion of Christ is known as possibly the greatest act ever performed by a mortal man. Jesus Christ sacrifices himself to save the sins of the rest of the world. This willingly sacrifice is followed by grieving mothers, an empty tomb, and a confusion unlike any other. This same type of confusion is the crux of the University of Missouri’s Passion Play, written by student playwright Zahria Moore.
Passion Play’s words soar above the stars as Moore masterfully explores the
deaths of three black youths all sharing the same murderer: a gun. The plays shortcomings arise from fleeting dialogue and muffled diction. A lack of realism exists like a quite fog high above the set, only being kept at bay by Moore’s elevated writing.
A single grave marked “Jonothan” lies center stage. No last name, just a single bible verse lay over the words “Rest In Power.” No one knows who exactly is buried there. Not even the Gravedigger (Alan Toney) as he begins to dig up the grave. A somber mother named Mamie (Dajah Garret) enters the stage caring a bouquet of flowers and quickly becomes distraught as she sees the dirt being removed from “her” son’s grave. The Gravedigger stops digging and leaves to the mother’s short relief. Mamie soon becomes enraged as not only one, but two mothers come by the gravesite claiming their sons are buried in the exact same spot. Martha (De’Janna Scales-Hand) and Mary (Rachel Robinson) confront Mamie defending their claim to the gravesite.
Whose grave is it? Which son is buried there? These questions are what make up the baseline conflict of Passion Play. However, as important as knowing where your own child is buried -the location of the sons’ bodies become backdrop to determining which death deserves the most respect.
Mamie’s son becomes a symbolic character sparking hashtags and cries for justice after he is gunned down by a cop. Passion Play allows the audience to take a step into the lives of matriarchs left with one less child due to gun violence. Each mother’s experience brings to life the aftermath of gun violence, inside and outside the Black Lives Matter movement.
Director Dr. Cat Gleason somehow found a way to turn a diamond of a play back into a piece of coal. The lack of direction created sparse moments of reality as the actors never found the heart of their characters. Uninteresting movements and forced action took you even further out of the play and closer to a coffin of boredom.
Alan Toney’s rich voice and quirky demeanor works as the perfect bookends to a play whose potential was left buried six feet deep. Toney sings a sweet Christian hyme as he opens and closes the show and leaves the audience smiling and wishing that all of Passion Play had as much heart as his small role did.
Dajah Garrett’s portrayal of Mamie is fierce and the most authentic piece of acting that keeps Passion Play alive. Mamie’s monologue blaming herself for the death of her son pulls at your heartstrings and makes you want to reach out and hug the distraught mother.
De’Janna Scales-Hand and Rachel Robinson’s imitation of mothers was there but that’s all it was imitating. The range of emotion was non-existent and muddled dialogue revealed the students and not the grieving mothers.
Passion Play’s simplistic set design of a single grave, bench, and brick fence allowed the actors free range to command the stage, which unfortunately never happened. Dr. Gleason was also the scenic designer and used real dirt in the middle of the turf grave. This allowed the actors to actually dig up the grave and gave the simple set just enough reality to it.
Lighting Designer Babs Randazzo casted a dusk-like-blue over the stage, setting the audience in a relaxed yet apprehensive mood. Sound Designer Brad M. Carlson adds distance chirping of birds to solidify the outdoor space of the graveyard.
Moore delivers a complex message in a simple way. No one’s story is the same, but we can all come together on the experiences that make us equal. Passion Play’s potential was buried underneath mediocre acting but will rise again as her words are unearthed in another time to come.
Thank you Women of KCACTF Region 5.
I am so thankful to be a man. Wait, that’s not right. I am happy the University of Missouri has chosen to produce the tragic-comedy Waiting For Godot this spring. No, that’s not quite it. I am grateful that directors for Waiting For Godot have strictly casted men for generations and I have more opportunity to perform this semester than my female counterparts! Okay, that’s what I meant to say.
Honestly I am excited to be a part of the cast for this show in the spring.
But, honestly I can’t ignore the fact that the department chose to do a male-only show when women, students and faculty, out number the men in the department 3:1. I am not saying we don’t have talented male actors that will do the job well. It is just when over 90 percent of the stage managers, production staff, and directors are all women. . . you start to question why produce a male only show? Each theatre season is different and each year the roles are never consistent. I get that, but why is there still this type of imbalance.
I am being honest here and I have to say I would have never even thought about the disparity in roles available due to gender if it wasn’t for KCACTF. Specifically due to the powerhouse of women at KCACTF.
The whole reason why I am writing this article is because WOMEN ACTRESSES CARRIED EVERY SINGLE SHOW. Argue with me if you want, but in every invited production there wasn’t a male actor that was better than their female counterparts on stage. Want examples? Sure, I’ll give you them.
The University of Nebraska at Kearny’s Eurydice was swept away by the powerful female-lead chorus of stones.
Step Forward’s entire ensemble from the University of Central Missouri gave one of the most impactful performances I have ever seen. However, the songs chosen let their female members shine.
Iowa State University’s Iphigenia would have been dull and lackluster without the performances of Clytaemnestra and Iphigenia. The myth’s typical male tragic-hero was turned on its head as the female actresses stole the stage.
Written by a female student(shout out Zahria Moore), the University of Missouri’s Passion Play has three actresses tell us the story of grief, confusion, and gun violence in the black community. Any errors in production were small in comparison to the elevated writing of the female playwright.
From the first moment of Morningside College’s Trifles, the play’s women had you on the edge of your seat. Mrs. Wright’s eerie demeanor created a platform for the actress of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to find a real base of emotion and reality throughout the rest of the show.
Finally the all female cast of Alice In Wonderland from the University of Northwestern St. Paul ended the week on a high note with a whimsical rendition of the classic tale. The actress playing Alice brought out every audience members inner child through her innocent and sensible disposition.
All I am trying to say here is that this week was all about women. This is my first KCACTF festival and I did not know what I was getting myself into. Okay. I’m going to South Dakota for a week for one thing. Like what type of theatre was I expecting to see in South Dakota? I had no idea what to expect, but here I am now writing about how amazing it was to see some genuine performances and pieces of art.
The festival’s theme of inspiring a global community could even be more specific into inspiring a global community of women. All these stellar women performances made me think about the opportunities for women in theatre on my campus and across campuses everywhere.
How do we be advocates for each other at all times? I think we can take a page from Step Forward’s book and just be kind to one another. Look out for each other when no one else is. From my campus to the 1500 other KCACTF participants I can say without a doubt, that the theatre community is the most welcoming group of people I have ever been apart of. We are also extremely extroverted and quite weird at times but hey that’s what makes us, us. As a male I want to be there for any of my female friends or any women in general when they need me. I know that by being an advocate and ally to all we can each make this world a better place.
So I would like to say thank you to all the women at KCATCF for melting my heart and putting on some of the best performances I have ever seen in South Dakota. . . and anywhere else.
This year region 5 introduced a student advisory board, which is a group of students that are looking for ways Festival can be improved over the coming year. Damien Page who is a student on the advisory board has agreed to answer a few questions about his experience.
What does being on the student advisory board mean to you?
I think that being on the student advisory board is a great experience because it’s new and it can help people’s experience in the coming years. This year especially we have a diverse group which can help create underdeveloped voice for minorities in theatre. I also like how the leadership of the festival decided to create this group because it gives them an inside view of what works and what doesn’t, and I feel like I’m making every future festival goer’s experience more worthwhile.
What are some things you’ve done to make sure you’re doing your job on the advisory board?
Since the beginning of festival I always ask people how festivals going for them and what they like and what they dislike. I feel like asking people I don’t know is more helpful than asking the people I came here with.I’ve been taking a notepad to workshops with me and I write down whether or not people are getting the experience they deserve out of the workshop. For example I feel that a LGBT discussion group or forum would help so more people can better understand themselves or can support members of the LGBT community.
What all happened at the student councils?
It started with the festival leadership giving a brief over why they want actual student councils created. Then we all brought up issues we had experienced at festival. For example a lack of workshops, scheduling conflicts, and walking distances. We were talking about forming multiple student councils for students of different communities, for example students with disabilities, LGBT students, etc.
After your experience at the student council, what are some changes you plan on making to give a better response at the closed session on Saturday
I plan on contributing more, because I listened so I can find out more about what they’re looking for and I plan on asking people from my school for a detailed response as to what needs to be changed and why it needs to change. I know the people from my school won’t be nervous to be honest with me. I now understand the importance of communicating things that don’t work and that do work.
How has your experience been at festival? Any issues or problems you’ve experienced?
I find the festival to be really enjoyable, it’s been better than I could have ever imagined. Unfortunately I’ve found issues in the scheduling because i’ve missed workshops that were scheduled right after each other and I didn’t have enough time to make it. The designs workshops have been fun but way too limited and they fill up too quickly.The walking distances are fine until you have somewhere you need to be, and then it becomes a problem, because things fill up too quickly.
Do boundaries belong in art
All of my life, I have been an advocate for pushing the boundaries. I will keep going until someone tells me to stop. Over this last week at KCACTF there have been a few shows that have maybe crossed the line a little. I find myself torn about this because part of me says “that’s gross and now I’m uncomfortable” but another part of me asks the question should art have boundaries?
Are people more bothered by subject matter or how realistic the scene is? I feel like it can be both. There are definitely some areas artists should not explore, such as racial slurs and stereotypes. Everything else is free game unless the art supports hate and/or exclusion. Additionally artists should not be idolized if they have sexual assault/ rape accusations against them or if they promote hate culture.
An example of a show that made people say “he went too far” was at opening ceremony. #//<Embedded>//# created and performed by Patrik Motwani has a few graphic scenes. The moment I’m mainly referring to is when a character gets a little intimate with himself and has an orgasm. Now I wasn’t necessarily bothered by this, but all week I’ve spoken to several people who were. I understand where the negative feeling comes from, but also it’s art why should other people dictate whether it stays within acceptable boundaries. There was several more moments during the performance that people were uncomfortable with, and a lot of people have said they didn’t like it.
There shouldn’t be boundaries in art. Art is a way people express themselves, and no one should be able to limit how someone else expresses themself. Trigger warnings definitely need to exist, and for the most part they do, just not at Festival for some reason.
During the invited scenes a scene was chosen that features a young girl, Michaella Deladia, who goes through the process that occurs after taking a Plan B pill in a bathroom. Once again certain audience members were outraged by the sensitive material. I once again found myself a little uncomfortable, but that wasn’t because of the subject matter, it was because it felt so real. With the combination of great acting and a lot of fake blood, I honestly felt like I was watching a real event happen, but just because I felt uncomfortable does not meant the scene crossed any line. Just because the audience doesn’t have a pleasant feeling throughout the whole show doesn’t mean it’s a bad show or that the show is too intense. I don’t want to go to a show that has a happy story, no set backs, and doesn’t make me feel anything but joy; no one wants to see a show like that. I want theatre and art in general that makes me question things, makes me have several different emotions, and makes me feel more than just happy or just sad.
A personal experience of mine was during my first full length production. I had a scene during which I was thrown to the ground, and I was told that my fall looked to realistic and my director didn’t want audience members to be concerned about me. As an actor I have been told over and over again to be realistic as possible, but all of the sudden I’m being told to not be real? Theatre artists are told not to be realistic with things like falling, fighting, sex, ect. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly tell actors and/ or artists to pull back
In an ITJA session, we talked about Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Blasted is a very difficult show that features a lot of gruesome scenes and it never really has a chill moment. Blasted belongs to a movement called In-Yer-Face Theatre, this movement was all about not filtering writing, and Sarah Kane had no filter. While talking about Blasted the group read a review of the show. The review said that the show was going to make the audience extremely uncomfortable, but it wasn’t a bad production. While Kane hits a few nerves, she expresses herself this way and she should not be restricted from doing so.
Step Forward is a great example of art that may be opinionated and may make some upset, but the show is an honest expression of how the cast feels about issues in society. While Step Forward didn’t trigger anyone, the show definitely features topics that could. Step Forward makes its audience think which is what art should aim to do.
Bottom line art is created for the artist, and The only person that should have say over what is acceptable and what isn’t is the artist themself.
‘Iphigenia’ turns female anguish into a weapon
Women loom large in Euripides’ Iphigenia, adapted by Amanda Petefish Schrag and Ben Schrag for Iowa State University and staged in Sioux Falls’ Orpheum Theater. Female emotion– rage, despair, hope– quite literally beats through every scene with handheld staffs. High-octane performances and technical creativity make a centuries-old tale feel timeless.
Iphigenia, first performed in 405 B.C., is Greek tragedy in its purest form: If famous general Agamemnon (Ryeland Doolittle) wants to sail for Troy to fight in the Trojan Wars with his army, he must sacrifice his beloved daughter Iphigenia to Artemis. He reluctantly agrees, and lures his wife Clytaemnestra (Emily Heckle) and Iphigenia (Lena Menefee-Cook) to Port Aulis, where his ships lay in wait, under the false pretense of a marriage to war hero Achilles (Ben Mayer). When the women discover the ruse, however, everything falls apart.
This adaptation of Euripides’ tale follows the original text closely, but the chorus plays a more active role in the story. Ben Schrag’s music ties them more deeply into the story itself than modern audiences might expect. It’s not quite a musical, however. The songs provide context and exposition because most Greek plays have at least five myths’ worth of backstory to consider going in. Schrag’s music is not very complex, but the alternative, chant-like melodies provide an effective soundtrack to the show. Though I was not a fan of the onstage, three-piece band, I did take a liking to the clever use of the cello as both an instrument and a sound effect tool.
Director Amanda Petefish Schrag has a vision and follows it. She hones in on the choral nature of Greek theatre and trusts her chorus to carry the story. The ensemble of 12 are indiscernible at the top of the show, using staffs to drum the beat of a war song in unison. They take on characters by wielding large, geometric puppet masks large enough to cover their faces and torsos if they so desire. The masks, designed by Schrag herself, are all unique; Iphigenia’s has white linen that falls from the girlish face like a dress. They are not just sources of identity, but also of power. At times, Schrag gives too much power to the masks, drawing focus too much from the actors, who did not have a concrete method of using the masks to convey emotions. Sometimes, they would simply be wielding them. Other times, the masks were embodied. As much as I love the masks, I found myself wishing for both more clarity and less infatuation with the masks.
Kelly Marie Schaefer’s costumes, while clearly Greek-inspired, take inspiration from both Ottoman and Greek fashion. Her costumes are neutral-colored, but she uses a variety of layers, fabrics and textures to create unique looks for the cast; Agamemnon’s dark gray wool sweater resembles chain mail and is paired with slate leggings and a leather overskirt. The gender-neutral costumes allow the chorus to be on a level playing field, even while telling a story where gender parity is not even a twinkle in someone’s eye.
Natalie Hinning opts for a collection of large platforms and strips of white linen falling from the ceiling to the stage in her scenic design. The set does not blow me away, but it does allow the designers and cast both to use the stage in other ways without making it too busy.
Most impressive, however, is lighting designer Patrick J. Immel’s use of silhouette screens as yet another exposition tool alongside Schrag’s blocking. At the top of the show, seeing the growing shadow of Agamemnon leading his troops is, for lack of a better phrase, really cool. Immel uses color with care, and never washes out the set or actors.
Despite playing the show’s namesake, Lena Menefee-Cook has very little of substance to do as Iphigenia. The character is underwritten, but Menefee-Cook utilizes her time as best she can. She commands the stage with dignity and poise when she is embodying Iphigenia and carries heartbreaking levels of both innocence and poise, most notably at the show’s conclusion.
Euripides caught a lot of heat from his contemporaries for his sympathy to the disenfranchised. In his writing, even the tragedies, women take control of their fates. Look at Medea, Helen or even Trojan Women. The women in his works, for good or ill, have as agency. They are free thinkers. They are murderers. They are characters, fully formed and fascinating. We see a bit of that in Iphigenia, who commands her own destiny at the show’s conclusion, but it’s even more present in her mother.
Emily Heckle gives a standout performance as Clytaemnestra. She carries herself with the raw desperation a mother who is about to lose her child would have. Her strong contralto voice carries with an aura of authority, only faltering in moments of intense emotion. She delivers her lines with such ferocity that even audience members struggling with the dense prose of the play reacted to one particularly satisfying interaction between her and her husband. She contrasts greatly with Ryeland Doolittle, whose portrayal of Agamemnon seems purposefully restrained, as if he is always on the edge of breaking. Perhaps he is. Either way, their dynamic provides delicious drama that is all the more interesting because of Clytaemnestra’s defiant nature.
Schrag spends a lot of time focused on Clytaemnestra’s rage and despair, almost to the point of discomfort. Heckle spends a lot of time isolated on stage in the fetal position, shaking with wretched sobs. Moments like these are dangerous; women’s pain is often romanticized in entertainment (looking at you, Game of Thrones) for no other reason than producers’ inability to elicit emotion from audiences any other way. Iphigenia toes the line with Clytaemnestra, but succeeds by focusing the lens on her. Her pain is not used as a prop for Agamemnon or even Iphigenia. By the play’s end, her pain is the show’s heart.
This shift of focus is the crowning glory of Iowa State’s Iphigenia. It does not settle for telling the story of Agamemnon’s fall from grace. Instead, Clytaemnestra asserts herself as the true tragic hero of the story. This results in some thematic confusion, since the script wants to tell Agamemnon’s story, but it overall works out because modern audiences crave characters as complex as her. Schrag does not fight this, rather, she lets the emotions of Clytaemnestra's loss carry the show’s final scenes.
Her gamble, however untraditional it might be, pays off.
Caught in the Age of the Social Justice play, Step Forward provides a unique look into the American struggle from the eyes of the United States Constitution
When looking at contemporary American theatre, it’s impossible not to see the opportunity for discussion and self introspection that inevitably comes with it. We live in a time where societal issues are a part of day to day life, and modern theatre strives to open a dialogue for change. We live in the age of “Theatre for Social Justice,” and in several ways we are more connected on issues that affect us all than ever before.
The University of Central Missouri’s devised piece Step Forward is a show that invites the audience not only to look within themselves but also to understand that how Americans deal with social justice is different than it is anywhere else. Step Forward it is a saturated, harmonic, and uniquely American piece of theatre that I deeply enjoyed and won’t soon forget.
As is common with most devised pieces, the performers began with a set of movements rather than a developed text. While using the United States Constitution as a map on their journey, they explore the idea of what struggle looks like in modern day America and wrote their own Preamble in response to the ideas presented in the original.
This “New Preamble,” as it were, challenges the audience to take a vow of loving thy neighbor as thyself without condition or limitation. It begs the audience to consider that while we may not always agree with or even understand the way in which people live their lives, this does not render them undeserving happiness and safety. This new Preamble challenges the audience to take away what is useful, to leave the rest, and consider and how each of us can work toward a kinder, more accepting “tomorrow,” for everyone.
Episodic in nature, each chapter capitalizes on and ranges from issues such as Black Lives Matter and police brutality, Love is Love, to women’s rights, and even climate change.
The set, bare so that the performers have space to move, is complete with four massive projection screens used for the purpose of flashing historical images in tandem with each corresponding piece. These include snapshots of various marches for change, civil rights leaders, and images of brutalized black men. The audience is seated close together in a protective thrust, a set up which is essential for an impactful performance such as this one--all too often theatre is packaged and topped with a shiny red bow. In traditional performance, the audience comes expecting to comfortably watch a show and leave feeling content and complacent. Step Forward forces the audience to challenge that logic.
The lobby, intent in keeping with a theme of destroying complacency, is littered with paintings depicting guns with flowers sticking out of the ends and once the show begins a massive neon American flag serves as the backdrop--From the moment I entered the theatre, I knew their message was going to be something special.
With very few spoken lines, the performers use dance and other forms of forced movement to tell the story, and overall it was successful and ravishing visually.
Certain moments outshine others such as the Black Lives Matter portion where the audience is asked to step into someone else’s shoes. More on this later. In contrast to the complete success of this chapter, however, there are a few “episodes,” which have a much clunkier feel than others, specifically the movement regarding climate change.
While the choreography is stimulating in the sense that it strays farther away from improvised movement and further into ballet, what really disorients me is the dialogue of this particular scene. Performers accompanied their graceful, flowing movement with random shouts of phrases such as “the earth is dying! We must save her!”these random declarations are redundant as the audience is already interpreting those truths from the movement itself.
In a piece where language is obsolete and second only to movement, it’s bizarre that they felt the beautiful choreography had to be accompanied by on-the-nose language that seems to be an afterthought in comparison.
This, however, is not an issue in the Black Lives Matter/ police brutality portion where a performer asks the audience to raise their left and right hands and to leave them there for the duration of the piece in order to stand in solidarity with the “Hands up, don’t shoot,” movement. As a woman of color this moves me to a place of utter heartbreak. I sit, tears streaming down my face, with my hands above my head in a silent theatre; already we know the ending to this story. In this delicately crafted breath between the reality of the stage and the one in which we live, we were all
My cousin, Mac Davis,
And Sandra Bland.
In this moment we must decide how we will react the next time another black face flashes across our TV screens. This is how successful theatre gets its audience to introspectively view the world around them as a place that is home to more than just themselves. This is how successful theatre enacts change in us all. Step Forward is a strong production that trusts in its audience’s ability to take away the vibrant lesson at its core; above all else, be kind.
Hiding Behind the Mask: Iphigenia’s flaws outweigh its strong message
As the sun rises on a deserted wasteland, the sound of a thundering herd floods the stage. But don’t get ahead of yourself. This is by no means as optimistic as “The Lion King.” With every step, a company of soldiers’ stomps onto the Orpheum stage with faces as stoic as the hypersymmetric masks looming above them. Adapted from the Greek myth by Euripides, Iowa State University’s production of Iphigenia attempts to capture the desolation of war-torn land and broken familial ties. While live original music and evocative mood lighting thrust the narrative forward, the company shows little enthusiasm and opts to let the stone-faced masks do the talking.
Caught in the middle of a war, Agamemnon chooses to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis to send troops to war to preserve his honor. After hearing Iphigenia’s fate, her mother, Clytemnestra, and betrothed, Achilles, vow to protect the young bride at whatever the cost. Add in a sibling rivalry, a motherly protest, and a spouse’s sacrificial promise, and you get a familial feud more complicated than the Kardashians.
Pride, revenge, and deceit are common character flaws laced within tragic Greek characters. As relationships unravel and power is abused, the stories of their failures leave audiences more defeated than hopeful. Often, the downfall of the protagonist creates a chain reaction affecting their loved ones the most. Audiences only remember the central figure while supporting characters are lost within the personal woes of self-inflicted wounds, murder, and sexually charged motives.
Nevertheless, this version of Iphigenia aims to change this notion.
Though the original myth follows Agamemnon’s downfall, this energizing adaptation flips the saga on its head, recognizing Clytemnestra as the protagonist. Adapted by Amanda Petefish-Schrag with Bohemian war-cry music composed by Ben Schrag, the reinvented presentation contains a seamless structure interweaving archaic plot points with harmonious tunes.
Along with a liberating feminist twist, a live band including a cello, guitar, and female vocalist leads the company in minor folk melodies that accent a hostile domestic lifestyle. Together the chorus echoes the text, but alone, Barbara Fisher struggles to keep the energy alive with her breathless, alto voice. Band members also manipulate stringed instruments to create sound effects including an arrow screeching across a bow.
The company of Iphigenia functions as a unified army holding wooden staffs acting as weapons hammering the floor. The intermittent rhythmic patterns are a second language within the play and italicize significant plot shifts. Rather than actively listen, chorus members stare, expressionless as clay warriors escorting the Greek princess to her grave.
At the heart of this show is Emily Heckle who portrays Clytemnestra with valiant honesty. In fact, she offers the only wholly engaging performance within the production. Her yearning toward Agamemnon, played with dull aggression by Ryeland Doolittle, is both heart-wrenching and empowering. Rather than play Clytemnestra as a victim, Heckle embodies courage in the presence of fear, delivering frank heroism. Upon hearing of his selfish decision, she attacks Agamemnon with a message emblazoned with motherly conviction and wit.
Though not perfect, Lena Menefee-Cook and Ben Mayer enliven the play’s action as Iphigenia and Achilles with moments of passionate resilience. Menefee-Cook’s retaliation against Clytemnestra’s wishes is anything but childish. Poised with her back arched, she glides across the stage holding her mask as a valuable artifact. Alternatively, Mayer commands the stage as Achilles searches for answers.
Natalie Hining designs a simplistic set comprised of a long, rustic boating dock. At both sides of the runway, two multistep seaweed-green platforms serve as the “home bases” for the chorus. While the set satisfies the needs of the narrative, the paint job swipes across platforms with the same precision as cheap souvenir gemstones.
Charged with coloring a world by the sea, lighting designer Patrick Immel fills the sparse stage with orange sun-rays. Just as effective, baths of deep blue and blood red light flood the stage as Clytemnestra mourns and Iphigenia struts toward death. The only concerning quality about Immel’s design lies in the dark lavender light which cast a split shadow over the actors’ faces, leaving the mask as the focal point. In truth, the overall production followed suit by bringing the geometric masks to the forefront rather than the actors behind them.
Behind a bland color pallet and questionable texture choices, Kelly Marie Schaefer’s costume design combines the warlike garb of Vikings with free-flowing Romanesque fabric. Deep shades of greys and greens differentiated from the story’s key players adorned in shades of white, but the color scheme could not save the chorus from being swathed in thick, coarse yarn. Meanwhile, brothers Agamemnon and Menelaos, wear leather skirts that display the tough dexterity of hot-rod motorcyclists.
Lastly, Amanda Petefish-Schrag’s puppet design is innovative, to say the least. What is thought to be carved out of aged wood is, after all, made from layers of cardboard angled to display specific facial features.
Although there is no “Disney-fied” ending for these characters, the courage they evoke inspires all, especially women, to stand up for what is right. Unified in its theme, the production drew questions about the social correctness within classical theatre literature. Though lackluster on numerous levels, a powerhouse female-lead, gorgeous masks, and inventive orchestrations take Iphigenia from tragic to mediocre.
Iphigenia turns potential into disappointment
Have you ever written a story that you thought was going to be this huge poetic piece that solves all of the world’s problems, but ended up falling short? Iowa State University’s production of Iphigenia is one of those stories.
Where this adaptation fails is in the execution. Iphigenia would definitely be more comprehensible to a viewer that knows the myth. Since I had no prior knowledge of the myth I found myself lost right from the beginning.
Iphigenia opens with a hunter killing a deer, which just happens to be a prized animal of the goddess of hunting, Artemis. To atone for this, Artemis orders Agamemnon to kill his oldest child, Iphigenia. Agamemnon creates a fake wedding where he plans to kill his daughter for Artemis’ favor in an upcoming war. Agamemnon’s plans are foiled by his wife and Iphigenia’s supposed fiance, Achilles. Agamemnon decides to not kill his daughter, but Iphigenia chooses to be sacrificed anyway.
The message the show presents is that our ties to family are stronger and more important than anything else. Iphigenia definitely hammers this point home; the show features several moments where characters change their goals and objectives because another family member is greatly affected by it. An example would be Menelaos pulling his support for the war after learning that Iphigenia would have to be sacrificed to help war efforts.
Clytemnestra, portrayed by Emily Heckle, holds a strong role as Iphigenia’s mother. Heckle has some very intense scenes, and she definitely brings the required skills to the table.
Juawan Thomas, who portrays Menelaos, and Vivian Cook, who portrays Calchas, disappear into the chorus after one scene as their non-chorus characters, which left me curious as to what happened to those characters.
The chorus members do a fantastic job of keeping the story moving. The chorus chimes in with the occasional word or phrase that can at times feel like a character’s internal monologue, and other times provides subtext. The chorus’ blocking helps the show a lot. The chorus always finds a way to evenly frame the main action of every scene. Even while moving and banging their staffs on the floor, the chorus never draws focus from the action.
Iphigenia keeps it traditional by having non-chorus characters hold stylized masks, but the effort to try something “new” isn’t entirely working for the show. Some actors rise to the challenge of manipulating the mask and show emotion with voice and body language since facial expressions are for the most part blocked, but other actors couldn’t pull off the switch causing their performances to fall a flat. The actors were constantly battling the masks for who shows the most movement, in one specific instance an actor turned to talk to another actor, but they left their mask facing the audience. The use of masks also made it difficult to distinguish between characters, honestly I couldn’t tell the difference between the attendant and the messenger.
The band helps keep the audience’s attention. The band also provides a jarring sound towards the end of the show as Clytemnestra slowly lowers a dagger. With this movement the cello player makes a hair-raising scratching noise on one of the strings.
Blocking flows very well in Iphigenia; each actor is like a gear in a big machine. The whole cast also does a great job with synchronizing their staff slams; they’re almost always one hundred percent on time.
Natalie Hining scenic design for Iphigenia is large and involved, but it also has a very open feel to it. White thin strips of fabric hang from the rigging above, and these strips of fabric serve as entrances and exits; two strips meet in the middle of the stage and also serve as an entrance. A lighting instrument behind a backdrop allows actors to create silhouettes when they are acting out flashback scenes. The set also features three wooden platforms. One is a long flat platform that is used as a main acting space, and the other two serve as risers for the chorus. The set serves the production well because it frames action without limiting movement.
Lighting is featured in this show. As soon as audience members walk in they can see the side lighting on either side of the stage. One really cool thing that Lighting Designer Patrick J. Immel did for this show is use light to make thematic connections, most pointedly the linking of character deaths through repeated use of color. Overall lighting for Iphigenia is experimental. While using more standard colors like Bastard Amber and Special Lavender, Iphigenia isn’t afraid to use yellow, red, and blue to change the mood of the show.
Iphigenia succeeds in all design aspects, but holes in the plot leave uninformed audience members out of the loop and questioning—how much prior knowledge can you assume an audience to have?
‘Eurydice’ is pleasing to the eye, but still feels incomplete
The world of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice as performed by the University of Nebraska at Kearney feels drawn forth from a neon ballet fantasy. Vibrant imagery, a strong chorus and a creatively adapted script push an otherwise underwhelming show forward.
Eurydice tells the tale of Orpheus and (you guessed it) Eurydice from the latter’s perspective. In the original myth, Eurydice dies soon after wedding Orpheus, a poet, and he descends into the underworld to retrieve her. The god of death, Hades, agrees to let her go, but only if Orpheus can lead her from the underworld without looking back to see if she is following. Ruhl’s script complicates the tale by adding Eurydice’s long-lost father in the underworld and a chorus of walking, talking stones.
Director Noelle Bohaty’s background in dance shines in the contemporary movements she weaves into every scene of the show. Dance is a second language in the world of the production, communicating desperation and longing alike. Ruhl’s world is all shifting memories, fleeting moments, and puzzled introspection. Bohaty’s choreography fits so well with the poetic prose of the script that the show feels like a musical without songs. And in a world where words are hard to come by and even harder to understand, movement feels like the most honest form of expression available. The only flaw with the ever-present dancing is that sometimes, it blocked important moments of plot and action.
The bedrock of any Greek show is the chorus, and the four moving, talking “stones” are as solid a foundation as a show could hope for. Hunter T. Scow, Trisha Marie Miller, Kalee Reams and Mary Dworak almost never leave the stage, providing exposition and context alike with intensity and vigor. The strength of the chorus, however, overshadows the leads in many ways.
Mary Joyce Storm (Eurydice) and Hayden Nelson’s (Orpheus) chemistry never truly takes off despite solid individual performances. Storm’s lyrical clarity can’t quite mesh with Nelson’s cartoonish naiveté. In the play’s opening scene, their characters flirt and tease, but even when they are standing close, they never quite touch, lacking familiarity. The scene should lay a foundation for world-shattering romance, but it falls short. Their energies don’t feel like two halves of a whole, resulting in an underwhelming romance.
The visual design of Eurydice, however, is anything but underwhelming. Ronald Altman’s sheer, pastel costumes flow beautifully with the contemporary choreography. Anthony Knudson’s set is simple yet stylized. The design elements blend very well. The stage, featuring a central rotating platform, is washed in bright shades of blue, pink and violet, courtesy of Del DeLorm’s psychedelic light design. DeLorm utilizes black light effectively; the underworld feels abstract and foreign, complementing the set and costumes both.
In all, Eurydice is pleasing to the eye, even if the direction and acting does not always live up to its fullest potential.
Eurydice, While Electric and Feverish in Design, Lacks Luster in Performance
The University of Nebraska at Kearney’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, while noble in its thwarted attempt to speak on a father’s love for his daughter, left much to be desired.
Ruhl’s 2003 version of this well-known Greek Tragedy follows the title character into Hades after she is seduced and essentially captured by the God of Death. Overcome with grief, Orpheus follows his bride into the depths of hell in order to retrieve her. Hades strikes a deal with our hero; Eurydice will follow him out of hell so long as he does not turn around. Ruhl’s version, however, focuses more on Eurydice’s relationship with her long lost father, a nonexistent character in the original myth, and her decision to remain in Hades rather than return to Earth with Orpheus.
Thus, the high-risk nature of this tale begs for intense, raw, and feverish emotion to be at the forefront of everything. I was gravely disappointed.
With the exception of Hunter T. Scow and the Stones’ adaptation of a biting Greek Chorus, other principal characters fell short of their potential. Several important moments lacked sufficient pacing and intensity. In saying this, I must specifically point out Eurydice’s father.
There are several moments where the audience is succinctly told how deep and prevailing his affection for her has been, even in death. This is highlighted through the thousands of letters he has written to her while in Hades.
I, along with several other audience members, yearned to feel the brevity of this intense father/daughter bond, however both performers never managed to bridge the gap created by lengthy pauses and clunky exchanges. Thus, I was never able to fully buy into the story.
While other aspects begged for critical improvement, I did enjoy the contemporary dance added by director Noelle Bohaty’s choreography; in a world where language is obsolete as Eurydice grapples with her own death, movement is a powerful outlet for expression. This managed to be a glimmering highlight.
Scenic Designer Anthony Knudson did not consider how sight lines get devoured in a deep thrust. Several key points, such as Eurydice’s arrival and the rising action of Orpheus’ journey were blocked upstage. Because of this I missed many of the performances that were delivered on the higher platforms, and various snippets of dialogue were cut as the music shrieked loudly next to my head.
There were several technical aspects that were not clearly marked as necessity, including an elaborate teakettle/water pump that was used only once. Nestled on a revolving platform center stage, “the river of forgetfulness,” which served its purpose for only half of a scene, provided nice beams of light reflected off the water within.
While nightmarish and jaring, I felt the design could have been a little more cohesive and functional. All in all, I applaud UNK for the risks, however unsuccessful, that were taken in this production.
Matthew Schmittdiel--Step Forward
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota – If you are proud to be an American, then you should exercise your capitalistic right and go buy a ticket for Step Forward. This new production by the University of Central Missouri paints in red, white, and blue what it means to be American, but more importantly what issues define us as a nation.
Step Forward is a newly devised, social justice, performance art piece, developed by a student company. Woah. That’s a lot right there. If you think this would be a hard show to understand-you’re wrong.
Directors Ashley Miller-Scully and Julie Rae Mollenkamp somehow found a way to tell individuals’ stories as a collective and the collective’s story as a whole. From the moment the house doors open, cast members are engaging people to be more than just an audience, but a part of the show. The performance starts off by asking the audience to stand and take a pledge-right hand held high: a modern preamble to the constitution. However, this time we are pledging our solidarity for women’s rights, immigrant support, and an end to police brutality. Each act begins with a new pledge and in episodic rhythm, the story of today’s America is told.
Social justice theatre is tricky. Often a show only touches on one subject plaguing our world, and sometimes it doesn’t even fully explore that one issue. This was not the case for Step Forward. This production discovered each issues’ core and brought that to the forefront of the stage.
The performance art piece uses choreographed dances, songs, and even a step-number to speak on what makes this country great and what makes this country so frustrating to live in. I was surprised at how insignificant any performance mistakes were compared to the message and emotions being delivered by the actors. The chemistry between the ensemble was genuine and highlighted individual’s talents without overshadowing the integrity of the show.
The stage was blank and open for all kinds of movement, with only the audience seating to get in the way. The lights and music worked seamlessly to give each act its own perspective into American life. Above your head four large screens displayed infamous images surrounding each issue or topic, which only drove you deeper into your emotions.
The ensemble’s ability to create a piece bigger than themselves further promoted the overarching message of the night: be kind. The cast members gave out suckers with “be kind” written on the surface. As I walked out the theatre and started licking the sucker, the message on its face soon faded away. However, the message of the night has not left me since and I doubt it has left anyone else that had the chance to see this new production that any American should be proud of.
Michael Cooprider--Step Forward
Friday April 20th, 2018, Hutchinson Kansas, 10am. Students gathered in the quad of Hutchinson High School to protest gun violence in America;as a member of the crowd a certain energy came across me that morning, a prideful and emotional energy. That same energy was felt during Step Forward.
Step Forward is a devised theatre piece from the University of Central Missouri that tackles a number topics affecting several Americans every day. The issues are deforestation, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, and global warming. To tackle the issues the cast performs music and dance numbers ranging from contemporary motions to stomp- clap routines, and occasionally the cast gets the audience involved, for example, in a song about the Black Lives Matter movement audience members are asked to put their hands up.
The show has a very relevant theme of be kind, the audience can see these two powerful words on the projection screens around the auditorium, as well as on the suckers that cast members pass out before the show. The production is intended to unite the audience despite their differences; literally one of the songs is about taking the hands of those around you. The cast also help unite audience members by interacting with them as much as possible, and a large portion of seating is brought onto the stage with the performers.
The choreography for Step Forward is wonderfully orchestrated. Every move flows into the next like an ocean. Additionally the choreography has a clear meaning behind every move, and the actors’ facial expression and body language help further convey the meaning behind every move. One issue with blocking is that the accompanists aren’t very visible and any audience member that isn’t sitting on stage has no idea that the accompanists are actually present. None of the actors drop character, nor do any actor ever miss a step. Every move is perfectly timed and calculated.
Step Forward features fantastic lighting designs; one specific instance is during a song about police brutality red and blue flashing lights shine on an actor shouting “Please! Don’t shoot!”and after the actor falls a spotlight hits another actor on stage in mourning. Lighting for the show is very coordinated, as lighting often is, but the lights add a mood to each song that really draws the audience in.
A weird dynamic of the show is that some parts of the songs, the saxophone and guitar parts, are performed live while every other instrument in the songs was recorded. Another sound aspect of the show that may hinder the audiences experience is that none of the actors or musicians have microphones.
Even without a set the show still has a creative aspect by waving white sheets over the audience during one of the final songs of the shows.
Step Forward left me with an inspired feeling, even though the show is about how divided society is, I left the theatre feeling more united with everyone else in the audience than ever.
ITJA – Day 2. Here are reviews from the second day of performances from student journalists. Look for additional pieces in upcoming posts.
Antigone’s Resounding Call to Action
by Matthew Briggs
What is “power”? To many, it is the ability to influence. However, in the midst of this belligerent political climate, power is handed to those with wealth and status. But, what if we overlook this arrogance and appreciate the valor of our individual power? In the University of Minnesota Duluth’s production of “Antigone” translated by Don Taylor and directed by Jenna Soleo-Shanks, determined characters battle to maintain balance within their crumbling world. The profound play, performed by an occasionally mesmerizing company, transported the audience to a convoluted Senate chamber where characters accentuate the invulnerability of the actions they take even though humdrum design elements hindered the journey.
Sophocles’ Greek tragedy centers around the title character’s banned burial of her brother’s body and the repercussions elicited by her future father-in-law and king of Thebes, Creon. As the tyrannical king complicates matters between his son, wife, and the Gods, his immoral actions gradually lead him down a path of hysteria. The metamorphosis of Creon is complex because his dream to triumph as the supreme leader collapses thanks to Antigone’s act of rebellion. The most stimulating aspect of this production lies in its postmodern concept. In having chorus members imitate politicians, the play concentrated on the defects within governmental leadership, and with Antigone’s spoken anthems of mortality, themes of defiance and advocating for humanity strike a nerving conversation about the world we live in.
Antigone, played by the graceful Tolu Ekisola, commanded the runway space with fierce determination epitomized by the women of the “Me Too” movement. She gnaws on her words, especially in her hopeless surrender to the senators in Act II. It must be acknowledged that the only women of color in the play were Antigone and her sister, Ismene, played with captivating innocence by Lauren Hugh. This directorial choice lends itself to the ongoing conversation on the unethical treatment of ALL women. Alternatively, Creon, played with sustained energy by Ryan Richardson, ruthlessly delivered the character’s bitter opposition, but rarely developed his character, rambling the text on one clamorous note. One particularly engaging performance was delivered by Luke Harger playing the Soldier. Harger expressed the Soldier’s stories with ease and allowed audience members to picture Antigone’s transgressions. Lastly, some chorus members stalled the play’s momentum with monotonous deliveries of the language. At times, they sounded like talking heads speaking jargon obviously outside of their comfort zones.
Aside from the cast, Leah Benson-Devine’s plain Saharan set design with red-spattered platforms only elevated actors for sightline purposes. Above the audience, mangled white sheets served as the background to Jon Brophy’s modern projection design comprised of war and funeral procession videos. Meanwhile, Mark Harvey’s lighting design failed to benefit the story and left the performers either in darkness or overwhelming red hues during urgent moments. Laura Piotrowski adorned the cast in pale and and monochromatic printed suits, including Antigone’s filthy avocado green dress. Lastly, Jon Trophy’s discordant sound design with original music by Will Brueggeman drowned the actors at inopportune moments, especially during Creon and Haemon’s intimate heart-to-heart accompanied by the artificial sound of twinkling piano keys. Overall, lackluster technical elements detracted from the robust story and dragged audiences away from the devastating truth.
Ultimately, while the design elements depreciated the play’s evocative elegy of morality, the majority of the cast delivered the turbulent text with finesse. The character Haemon perfectly describes how power is found in an individual’s ability to “value other opinions, learn from them, and change their mind.” For thousands of years, humanity has struggled to balance power with civility, but through this play, audience members learn that they too possess Antigone’s steadfast strength. Production flaws aside, the play left a lasting impact, and sparks a new question: How will you use your power?
Antigone by Sophocles and translated by Don Taylor is presented by the University of Minnesota Duluth for the KCACTF Region V Festival and plays at the Des Moines Social Club: Kum and Go Theater (901 Cherry Street Des Moines, IA 50309) on January 24th at 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM. The production was directed by Jenna Soleo-Shanks. This is a free-ticketed event for registered festival attendees only. Tickets may be reserved through Eventbrite on KCACTF5.org.
Cast: Ryan Richardson as Creon, Tolu Ekisola as Antigone, Lauren Hugh as Ismene, Kevin Dustrude as Haemon, Amanda Hennen as Teirsias, Cally Stanich as Eurydice, Luke Harger as Soldier and Simon VanVactor-Lee, Maggie Thompson, and Bud Gibson as Chorus members.
Design Team: Set design by Leah Benson-Devine, Costume design by Laura Piotrowski, Lighting design by Mark Harvey, Projection design by Dan Fitzpatrick, Sound Design by Jon Brophy, Original Music composed by William Brueggemann, and Dramaturgy by Andrea Leonard
“She Kills Monsters”: A Multiplayer Journey for Nerds and Noobs Alike
By Allie Kantack
Whether you have accepted your throne to the kingdom of nerds or know nothing about Dungeons & Dragons, Normandale Community College invites you to join their game. Written by Qui Nguyen, “She Kills Monsters” plays well to nearly any audience no matter how far they’ve leveled up. Apart from Ngyen’s sidesplitting and energetic script, this production directed by Anne Byrd took every measure to extend the world beyond the stage and ensure that the audience felt welcome to play along.
After the death of her parents and younger sister Tilly (Ruby Segal), the mediocre Agnes (Kelly Anderson) discovers a notebook that contains a Dungeons & Dragons module created entirely by Tilly herself. With the help of a local nerd, Agnes plays the game in hopes that she might learn more about the sister she lost. Along the way, she joins a vibrant gang of magical warriors, including the gallant image of her sister. But the longer she stays in the adventure, the closer she gets to facing the realities of her own life and the grief she has yet to overcome.
The technical designs of this production wove seamlessly together to construct a versatile space for reality and fantasy to play with one another. With the use of projections, the scenery provided just enough detail to keep us on track, but left room for our imaginations to fill in the blanks. To accompany the action, the sound design featured epic battle music, amusing sound effects, and (of course) a few smash hits from the ‘90s. Complete with special effects, the world of these characters came alive before our eyes, and although it took a while to understand the rules of their world, the moment we did, we wanted to play too.
With such believable characters, the actors clearly did their research and developed distinct personalities. In particular, the actors within the game consistently upheld their characterization by speaking, moving and pulsing much like video game avatars. While the entire cast frequently led the audience into bouts of roaring laughter, they occasionally failed to wait for the noise to die down before continuing the dialogue. Even with their strong breath support and diction, the audience lost many lines over their own giggly guffaws.
Though each actors’ performance brought something unique, none surpass that of Kelly Anderson who rightfully earned her title of protagonist. Compared to the warriors, Agnes initially seems boring and stiff. But as time went on, Anderson filled this blank slate character with a contagious funk that compelled the audience to cheer her on. Whether she brawled with vicious bug bears or simply tackled the day, we never stopped wanting her to win.
Fight Choreographer Joshua Scharback filled the stage with impressive battles of both weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. His choreography allowed many characters to fight simultaneously, giving the audience plenty to watch. In turn, the actors masked their moves (for the most part), creating realistic and perfectly timed strikes. However, they also gave the play a slight Monty Python vibe by fighting with intentionally absurd effects, such as bright red cloths for blood or obviously fake limbs to detach. The audience thrived on these silly moments as they both complimented the realistic choreography and brightened the actors’ badassery.
Eventually, the cast and audience become equal parts of the story. Whether we hurrahed for the heroes or booed at the bad guys, we clearly felt welcome to participate — so welcome, in fact, that Segal treated us to a brief moment of audience acknowledgment. In one scene, the laughter lasted so long, that Segal felt the need to send the crowd a quick head nod, barely cracking the fourth wall. Though sometimes this can ruin a performance, here it appeared as an effortless invitation for the audience to step further into the adventure.
Closed with a standing ovation, this production of “She Kills Monsters” did more that present a story; it led the audience into a fantastical world dictated by hilarious or heartbreaking truths of reality. All we can say to the cast and crew is thank you for letting us play.
“She Kills Monsters,” Slays the Audience, but Maims in Storytelling
By Lindsay Koehler
“She Kills Monsters,” must have had a wizard behind it because it is real magic. Written by Qui Nguyen and produced by the Normandale Community College was a show with untapped potential and treasures beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Old geeks, new geeks, and non-geeks alike will be spellbound by it, no matter how hard reality hits them.
Through the epic storytelling that D&D supplies, “She Kills Monsters,” takes us on the adventure with Agnes, a teacher whose family was killed in a car accident. Upon finding her little sister’s final D&D campaign she embarks on an adventure like no other. Making companions, fighting enemies and in the ending fighting her biggest fear, grieving the loss of her sister.
The fumble taken with the storytelling is its focus on narration. While campaigns of Dungeons and Dragons are usually narrated with one voice, the dungeon master, this one used a whole village. At times this made the story difficult to follow because the audience could not put all their trust into the ever shapeshifting narrator.
When walking into Hoyt Sherman Place January 24th, the devil was in the details. If director Anne Byrd was a noob to the role-playing game, it did not show. Informational sheets of classic D&D monsters hung in the hallway. The program was set up like a dungeon master’s notebook, complete with all of the actors’ stats. These small details tickled every nerd pink right from the get-go.
Agnes’s fear into losing her sister are championed by Kelly Anderson. Anderson seems very natural in a role that claims to have it all together but clearly can’t tell a barbarian from a bard. Anderson’s struggles to follow through with her feelings really brings the complex character into the light. Anderson’s performance paired nicely with Ruby Segal who played her nerdy sister Tilly. Segal brought an air of fantasy and lightness to the character. Tilly is written as a beautifully strong character, and Segal lived up to the legendary expectations. Although some scenes of Anderson’s and Segal’s relationship fell flat, particularly after Andersons’ Agnes denies her sister’s identity, the relationship maintained a balanced power dynamic.
The big draw to the show was its technically heavy influences. This show is a technical dragon; it is impossible to get all the grand fantasy world on stage. Well, this production team slayed that dragon. Costume designer Annie Cady made each of the fantasy actors look like they had just stepped out of the D&D guidebook, and yes I mean the second edition. The fantasy world wardrobe was unreal, and spookily accurate. The costumes leveled up the characters of Lilith (Katelyn Storch) and Kaliope (Abby Holstrom) charisma and agility as they owned the stage.
These costumes aligned perfectly with the lights and set designs. Lights and projections designed by Jim Eischen, separated reality and fantasy, giving the real world a dull glow, but giving the fantasy world lighting of epic proportions.A simpler set created by Tom Burgess accompanied the other dramatic technical elements. The minimal focus on the set of five projection screens and small desk pieces led the way for easy transitions and audience’s imagination to run wild. All of these elements and underscored by one epic soundtrack by set designer Topher Pirkl . Filled with fantasy orchestrations and 90’s jams the sound will leave anyone nostalgic and rocking out in their seats.
Although it was said that the roleplaying game was not a place for escapism, it was. This was one of the shows major flaws. The fantasy world was massively strong, as in final boss strong. Their fight choreography and designs made this place a world the audience was entranced by. The fantasy world felt interactive with all the whooping and hollering from the audience. It felt like a roleplaying session, and we were invited. It was the nature of D&D through and through. However, this overpowered the connections of the real world. With all of the commotion, actor’s lines were lost and the start of the show was rough to grasp fully. Anges’ reality felt lesser because of this and it couldn’t live up to the heart-pounding events within the game. This also led to troubles with the real-life characters like Anges’ boyfriend (James Jantilla). The character was such a roll of the dice. Was he a hero? Was he a villain? But the most important question to ask about him was, did we really care to know? I can tell you that my answer to that question was I did not, I just wanted to slip back into the world of colossal stage fights, both by weapon and by dance. This flaw may have lost its show some hit points, but it did not kill it, which I am thankful for.
So yes, a magic missile was cast over the audience of, “She Kills Monsters,” last night. The show was a natural 20 (out of 20) for viewers. Although there were some rough moments the in this story, the nerds were victorious. Whether you are popular cheerleader, or a nerdy level 20 paladin,you will like the show for one reason, “because it's awesome.”
A Near Nat Crit
By Lydia Lonnquist
Ever want to become the hero of your own story? With Dungeons and Dragons, it’s easy! Well, at least it is for Tilly. But for her older sister, Agnes? Not so much. Written by Qui Nguyen, “She Kills Monsters” was an exciting adventure students thoroughly enjoyed.
Set in 1995, this show was action packed with pop culture references that thrilled the audience, keeping them singing, clapping and laughing throughout the entire show. I mean, who doesn’t love a demon binge watching “Friends”? At first, average Agnes is a nat fail in New Landia, the world Tilly adores, finding that connecting with her little sister is the most difficult battle of all. If trying to get a handle on the game wasn’t bad enough, Agnes finds herself lost in dark caverns she never knew Tilly had. Suddenly, the quest isn’t so much about fighting mythical bug bears as it is realizing, acknowledging, and cutting through the monsters of people and issues in real life.
The director, Anne Byrd, did a wonderful job of giving the show high stats with a colorful and impressive set, costumes of monsters and classes any avid D&D fan would rave about, and magical fight sequences that kept everyone on the edge of their seats. One element that would have made this show even fiercer would have been microphones.
With dialogue that captured the audience’s attention like a thief, there was some disappointment whenever actors couldn’t be heard. However, in a theatre as large as the Hoyt Sherman, this was somewhat forgivable. Although, sometimes actors did not seem prepared for laugh lines, and would speak while the audience was still getting over a joke. This was agonizing since we wanted so badly to be part of the journey and not miss any new perception checks. That being said, there was one moment near the end when the cast masterfully waited patiently for the audience to die down after someone from the balcony shouted a profanity after a hidden trap in the plot was sprung.
This moment was right before the final tumultuous fight of the show. The boss battle flared up with fiery lights and smoke, and received an instant cheer from the audience. But unlike the well-choreographed grueling confrontations earlier in the show, this struggle didn’t score as effectively. Overall, the ending of the show felt rushed and somewhat anti-climactic, whether this was the misrolled die of the playwright or director.
Interweaving reality with dark magic, the show tackled the issues of learning the hidden secrets of a younger sibling too late. Just like missing a treasure on a quest, sometimes people don’t put too much effort into making sure their intuition rolls are nat crits. Sometimes our quests aren’t really all about us. As the old saying goes, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”.
“She Kills Monsters” successfully shakes up stereotypes and so much more
By Rachel Phillips
Picture a typical dungeon master. For those of you unfamiliar with Dungeons and Dragons lingo, that’s the person who controls the game. So, did you picture a 16-year-old girl? Probably not. Enter Tilly Evans (Ruby Segal) from Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters,” the female nerd anthem you never knew you needed. She is a revered dungeon master and a symbol of girl power. Yet, Nguyen’s play is more than just an ode to an often-overlooked faction of nerd culture. It is also a genuine look into family relationships and the power of imagination. And in the capable hands of director Anne Byrd and her team from Normandale Community College, it did indeed “kicketh ass,” to steal a phrase from one of the characters.
Set in a time before widespread growth of online roleplaying games (otherwise known as 1995), in Athens, Ohio, and the magical realm of New Landia, Nguyen’s dramedy, which was performed Jan. 24 at Hoyt Sherman Place, was heartfelt and empowering. Average, pop music-loving, TV-watching Agnes Evans (Kelly Anderson) could not be more different from her nerdy younger sister Tilly, but when Agnes’ family dies in a car crash, she must connect with her sister the only way she can: through the Dungeons and Dragons quest she left behind.
Nguyen’s script is imperfect. At times the jokes are drawn out for too long. Side plots, such as the growth of Agnes’ boyfriend’s (James Juntilla) relationship with her friend Vera (Andrea Pasutti), distract from the main story. But this matters little when compared with what Nguyen does well. He is endlessly clever when it comes to ’90s references and innuendo and makes Dungeons and Dragons accessible to newbies and pros alike. Furthermore, the relationships between his characters are grounded in realistic emotional vulnerability, keeping them compelling.
Byrd assembled the perfect cast to bring the script to life. Although they had to battle to be heard in the large venue, the actors from Normandale executed Nguyen’s script with the commitment and emotional depth that it deserved. From Zack Hastad’s nerdy and sweet dungeon master Chuck to Andrea Pasutti’s dry and sarcastic guidance counselor Vera, there wasn’t a single weak link.
However, Anderson’s performance as Agnes stood out. She displayed just the right amount of awkward, allowing herself to be clumsy in battle scenes and milking the uncomfortable moments when her character didn’t understand the game. She also demonstrated honest emotional depth when she expressed her frustration that she didn’t truly know her sister before she died. The vocal strain of her anger and sadness had viewer’s hearts breaking.
Segal as Tilly was a delightful opposite to Anderson’s Agnes. Where Agnes was awkward in the Dungeons and Dragons world, Tilly was strong, and Segal manifested this strength with shoulders out and voice booming as she commanded her party. But, Segal also accessed Tilly’s emotional immaturity. When upset, she managed to capture the whiny voice that parents of teenagers know all too well.
These magical characters needed a magical world, and the show’s designers created one that seamlessly transformed back and forth between reality and fantasy. A key partnership in this collaboration was scenic designer Tom Burgess and lighting and projection designer Jim Eischen. The design featured five individual, irregular hexagonal screens on which Eischen brought the world to life by projecting everything from sketches to backgrounds to magic spells and blood splatter effects. The screens could then be raised to reveal various set pieces. This made the transitions smooth and allowed the production to visit many different locations without long, unwieldy set changes. Eischen also enchanted the audience with exciting lighting effects such as multicolored dance lighting and the fire for the fearsome dragon.
The costumes, designed by Annie Cady, were also crucial in shaping the world. Her creations for the party of adventurers looked like they had leapt off the pages of your favorite fantasy novel. Small details such as adding adventurer-esque pieces like a belt to Agnes’ look as she became more invested in the game helped bridge the character’s real and fantasy worlds.
No fantasy realm would be complete without its monsters. In this case, some were created through costuming, but many were brought to life through Gabe Gomez’s puppets. In turn, they gave life to the realm. The beasts were impressive and innovative, sometimes made up of more than one puppet piece. It is just unfortunate that the audience didn’t get to enjoy them for very long as the characters were simply too good at slaying them.
Yes, throughout the play, the fierce group of women did slay these actual monsters as Agnes played her way through Tilly’s quest. Yes, this brought light to a real-life group that doesn’t get noticed enough. But, the play’s real strength was that it went deeper, a strength that the team behind this production realized. At the end of the play, Tilly’s friends reveal that she wanted to be seen as “strong, powerful and magical.” And in this production, she was, as were all women who dare to be different and create their own world.
“She Kills Monsters” rolls a natural 20
By Gabriela Velasquez
Geek culture can often be a minefield for women. But fantasy itself can be a saving grace for the marginalized. Fantasy doesn’t just contain magic. It is magic, and Normandale Community College captures the wonder of role play and Dungeons & Dragons with fantastic sincerity in its production of Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters.”
“She Kills Monsters” follows Agnes (Kelly Anderson), a relatively average woman who uses an unplayed campaign of Dungeons & Dragons to connect with her younger sister Tilly (Ruby Segal), who died in a car accident two years prior. With the help of Tilly’s friend Chuck (Zach Hastad), who serves as her Dungeon Master, Agnes embarks on a quest to recover her sister’s lost soul.
Kelly Anderson is wonderful as Agnes. She imbues the character with a fun blend of charisma, wisdom and strength, no easy feat. Early on in the campaign, she has a hilarious fight scene with a horde of monsters, and her wild swings and clumsy blocks as she figures out D&D’s turn-based combat system are endearing and hilarious. Serving as the audience’s proxy in many ways, Anderson is honest in her portrayal of a lost and searching woman. Even with her classically theatrical projection, she delivers lines with invitingly natural cadence.
Ruby Segal portrays the heroic Tilius the Paladin, Tilly’s D&D alter ego, perfectly. She’s quirky, skipping about the stage in full armor, but retains the youth that her character never got the chance to grow out of. Segal also shines in moments where the play’s comedy slows down into heartfelt moments of drama. It’s incredible that this is only her first production with Normandale. Equally fun and surprisingly poignant in his portrayal of Chuck is Zach Hastad, whose character channels the fun-spirited guiding energy of Matthew Mercer throughout. Hastad’s friendly dorkiness feels both organic and comforting, and his scenes with Anderson are a blast to watch. As he explains the rules of D&D, he makes the game accessible to both audience members and Agnes.
Equally deserving of praise is Agnes’ faithful party of lesbians and misfits. As Lilith the Demon Queen, Katelyn Storch is a powerhouse, balancing her character’s rambunctious sexuality with a hidden depth that is best displayed when she’s onstage as Lily, Lilith’s real-life counterpart. With her droll tone and slow, confident saunter, Abby Holmstrom constitutes the perfect dark elf as the dexterous Kaliope. Her contralto voice is smooth and crisp, and she somehow manages to be graceful in disco-style platform heels. The other two men of the show, Orcus (Bill Stevens) and Miles (James Juntilla), while not written to be showstoppers, were fun additions to the very strong ensemble.
Anne Byrd’s direction doesn’t get in the way of the dialogue-heavy script. Instead, it elevates it. She has fun with the geeky comedy, building on her confident ensemble to create a casual and bright atmosphere in both the world of Tilly’s campaign and in Agnes’ real world.
The biggest world-builders, however, are the show’s designers. Tom Burgess’ simple set and Jim Eischen’s flawlessly executed projections and lighting make the play feel like both a comic book and a storybook. The projections are used as storytelling tools and scene setters. Gabe Gomez’s puppets and Annie Cady’s costumes heighten the fantasy aesthetic built by the scenic design with remarkable attention to detail.
They even had a Mind Flayer. Who thinks of that?
Most stunning, however, was Joshua Scharback’s fight choreography. The shoulder-tosses are the kinds of things audiences expect to see in WWE. Scharback’s choreography is fearless and the cast executes it to near-perfection, as if they all rolled natural twenties.
The only botch of the show was the venue. The upper balcony of the Hoyt Sherman Place was clearly built before the age of projections and lights, because those clunky pieces of equipment blocked most of the downstage action. Just seeing the show felt like a battle as ridiculous as fighting bugbears.
It’s hard to find shows that capture the beauty of female geek culture so intelligently and accurately. Nerd shows, whether on stage or the silver screen, tend to be woefully masculine, with women serving only as romantic interests, villains or eye candy. But the reality is that women make wonderful, vibrant contributions to geek culture. They play critical roles in countless campaigns, attend cons and expos and create content. Nguyen’s script shows remarkable insight into the female geek experience. And with a cast as talented as Normandale’s, his work feels as alive as Tilly’s imagination.
She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen. Presented at 7:30 p.m. on January 24th, 2018 at the Hoyt Sherman Place Theatre, Des Moines, Iowa. Cast: Kelly Anderson, Ruby Segal, Zach Hastad, James Juntilla, Katelyn Storch, Abby Holmstrom, Bill Stevens, Andrea Pasutti, Leah Walk, Gigi Lefebvre, Michael Perez-Santana. Artistic Staff: Director: Anny Byrd; Scenic Designer: Tom Burgess; Costume Designer: Annie Cady; Lighting/Projection Designer: Jim Eischen; Sound Designer: Topher Pirkl; Puppet Master: Gabe Gomez; Fight Choreographer: Joshua Scharback; Stage Manager: Sarah Dorey.
"Gruesome Playground Injuries"
By Jo Jabben
Elementary school is a stepping stone in establishing an education and the impacts made there may set children up for life. A few of those children won't retain anything, fewer remember as little as the chronological order of their days, but every once in a great while an individual can have a pivotal life experience that sticks.
"Gruesome Playground Injuries " written by Rajiv Joseph gives an example of this in a way which characters Kayleen played by Hannah Oldham and Doug played by Hunter Meyer both have impacting moments in elementary school. Kayleen a girl who has accumulated mental injuries meets Doug who has accumulated physical injuries. These young children were just playing in an innocent state. But as the play continues throughout both of their lives till the age 38, both characters find themselves drawn to each other. As the play goes Doug develops a theory that Kayleen can heal him physically and that whenever she touches his injured area it transforms to its original state, and throughout the play as Kayleen develops more and more mental illnesses Doug heals her by making her laugh and enjoying life.
The audience was in an utter silence when they witnessed the unsettling moment of Kayleen pulling down her leggings to show Doug her self-inflicted scars. I didn’t experience the intended reaction due to my position in the audience on stage-left, from my view I was only shown Kayleen's buttock. The set of "Gruesome Playground Injuries" were dynamically placed. It made sense for the characters to be doing their own quick changes on stage even though there was an eerie silence in the audience as we just watched them change for the next scene. The actors staring in this production were adequate in their roles, it was odious in their acting that they could relate to what the characters went through and some of the choice they made. Overall the show was an intense to watch and is worth watching again!
"Gruesome Playground Injuries" was worth doing because the world needs to recognize that people don’t have to be just physically injured they can also be struggling mentally with issues. I think the director Adam Terry made some good blocking choices so that the meaning of the show was known. The actors accomplished their roles and the tech helping in this production aced their jobs.
ITJA DAY 3 – In addition to their work on theatre criticism and self-introduction, participants in ITJA 50 were also invited to submit journalistic pieces about the festival. Here are several examples of their work.
The Awakeners (A Profile of Aaron Scully)
By Rachel Bland
Robert Frost once said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” This is exactly what a good mentor is for their students: an awakener of passion.
Aaron, or Mr. Scully to his students, has become an awakener in his new position as a faculty member in theatre and dance department at the University of Central Missouri. On top of his responsibilities in this new role, he is also serving at the KCACTF region 5 festival as an Irene Ryans mentor and vice chair elect for the playwriting program. But for the past five years, Aaron attended the festival as a masters and doctorate student competing as an Irene Ryan partner and playwright.
When Aaron first attended KCACTF in 2013 as a graduate student, he came as an Irene Ryans partner, not fully understanding what the festival was. He recalls that first day as being one of fascination, finding himself surrounded by over 1500 theatre artists there to hone their craft for the pure love of the art. The exposure to this was life changing for Aaron.
Seeing the play readings of original works that first year specifically intrigued Aaron and in turn spurred him to enter his own work the following year. Falling in love with the art of playwriting, he continued to submit plays every year with a building success. Many of those plays have sense gone on to be produced by theatres outside of the festival. The plays include The Disappointments, a full length play featuring an alcoholic's journey in a treatment center, which is being produced at the Mizzou new play series next month. These moments of triumph are certainly not taken lightly by Aaron, but are seen as a privilege and opportunity to pass on his passion.
Every time I have spoken with Aaron about his work, he is quick to humility. When speaking about it, he hangs his head a little lower and speaks softly to the honor of having his works selected and performed. Scully feels that there is a responsibility when you are lucky enough to get that kind of recognition and mentorship to follow up and digest those ideas. The work does not stop at the festival, but should be shaped further with every instance of feedback. His advice to students is “to listen. Listen with both ears open. Listen with everything that you have; take in what the mentors and respondents have to say about your work. It is an honor and a responsibility to take these experiences to heart.”
The most rewarding thing for Aaron at the festivals was the various faculty members that offered advice and guidance. Having the chance to be mentored throughout the week was an invaluable learning opportunity that would not have occurred otherwise and helped guide his art. So when it was his turn to step into a faculty position, Aaron was ready and willing to become a mentor at KCACTF
Going from student to faculty member has been a rewarding journey for Aaron. Although he is no longer the one competing, Aaron has been able to mentor several UCM students as they have prepared work to submit. He especially sees this fruition in becoming a mentor in the playwriting program.
This where I come in. I met Aaron one year ago at this very location during KCACTF 49, my first festival at region 5. Like Aaron, I saw readings of many original works; I actually saw three of his plays as stage readings. Something inside of me was awakened and begged to be addressed. It was right then and there that I was inspired to write a play of my own.
When I found out that Aaron would be leading the Central Missouri writer’s workshop at UCM, I jumped at the chance to learn from him. With his guidance and feedback, I wrote my first play. And then rewrote it. And then rewrote it again. But that’s what good mentors like Aaron do-- they challenge you to rework and rewrite, not stopping until the best in a piece is found. They awaken the potential.
I am now finding myself in a place similar to where my mentor Mr. Scully found himself years ago. My original work is being read at KCACTF this year for the first time. As my nerves build at the thought of seeing my words on the stage, I remember what Aaron has divulged to me: this is a learning experience and one that I will not receive anywhere else
So as I go through my last few days at festival and look forward to seeing my own words jump to life on the stage later this week, I choose to soak up the words and examples of faculty member that are now mentoring me. I choose to not see KCACTF so much as a competition, but as an invaluable learning experience. And I hope that when I find myself making the journey to faculty member in the future, I too will jump at the chance to mentor and awaken the passion in my own students.
“Let’s play.” Director Kasey Cox Discusses Caucasian Chalk Circle
By Matthew Briggs
Kasey Cox plays many roles including those of a director, actress, and musician to name a few. However, she will be quick to admit that she is an educator at heart. “My students inspire me,” she says. Along with teaching History of Theatre, Drama Ministry, and Oral Interpretation courses, the 30-year-old instructor of Theatre and Communications at Missouri Baptist University works to tell not only stories about other people, but also those of her students. “Their own stories are varied, dynamic, hard and traumatic, and yet [my students] show up every day desperate to learn and excel in their craft. In spite of any baggage that they carry, they still have hearts that grow to include each other.” Altogether, experiences in the classroom and in rehearsals for productions such as Caucasian Chalk Circle have taught them how to “feel empathy for these characters.”
Like her students, Cox has an immense passion for stories. Shortly after receiving a Music degree from MBU, she became a student at Fontbonne University seeking her Master of Arts degree in Theatre. During her sophomore year, she caught the directing bug and fell in love with “finding the story and collaborating with others.” To this day, the biggest challenge she faces when telling the narrative, especially that of Caucasian Chalk Circle, is maintaining “clarity.”
Bertolt Brecht’s play is a politically charged interpretation of the story of King Solomon and the settlement between two women battling for the same child. When analyzing the play, Cox found that the best way for the actors to connect to the piece was by being involved in blocking decisions. “I would come in[to] every rehearsal and say, ‘Let’s play.’” Cox also mentioned how her “blocking notes are detailed and exact, so it was a struggle to balance the collaboration with healthy direction.” Altogether each aspect of the Biblical tale with intersecting sub-plots, whether it be the blocking, the set drawn on chalkboards, or the actors who play multiple characters, needed to remain lucid, comprehensible, and hopefully memorable.
By the end of the play, Cox hopes audiences walk away asking questions such as: “Did the story have to end that way? What if the characters had made different choices?” She emphasizes that “Brecht wanted audience members to think critically about what they were watching.” With that being said, she encourages audience members to “consider alternate endings and explore the possibilities." “[Caucasian Chalk Circle] is a play about deserving,” Cox said. “Who deserves land? Those that inherited it or those who can do the most with it? Who deserves a child? The one who bores it or who loves it? We all know that the answer to these questions tends to be ‘those with power,’ but through Brecht’s charging play, she hopes audiences question conventional ideas of ownership, and discover their capacity to love and seek justice.
Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht presented by Missouri Baptist University for the KCACTF Region V Festival and plays at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown Hotel Ballroom (700 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50309) on January 23rd at 7:00 PM, 10:00 PM, January 24 at 10:00 PM and January 25 at 10:00 PM. Cast: Tyler Gruen, Rachel S. Yarbrough, Matthew Riordan, Jett Wallace, Sarah Ratcliff, Nick Cook, Lindsey Peters, Daniel Dilworth, Cameron Tyler, Nathanael Pezzo. Directed by Kasey Cox and Art Direction by Emily Rice.
Chelsea Smet an Untold Story
By Jo Jabben
Chelsea Smet is one of the playwriters at the KCACTF festival I chose to interview her because I have read a few of her plays and I can relate to them in a sense I cannot relate to most things. (Been lightly edited for readers.)
Q-Where did you grow up?
A-"I was born in Poway, California but raised in Maize, Kansas."
Q-Where did you go to college and what for?
A-"I went to Newman University in Wichita, Kansas for my undergrad degrees. I have a BA in Theatre Performance and a BS in Theology. I am currently at MidAmerica Nazarene University getting education certified."
Q-what influences around you impacted your choice to become a playwriter?
A-"I was reading a lot of modern plays and I wasn't finding anything about people my age (early to mid 20's) or with normal, everyday experiences. I wanted to write a play wrestling with themes I was not seeing explored."
Q-What inspires you?
A-"My cat, Anakin. But to be serious, my mentors Heather Tinker and Mark Mannette as well as the incredible students that help produce readings of my play so that I can continue to improve my work."
Q-What was your original dream? And how did it change over to what you're doing now?
A-"My original dream was to be a director, and it is still something I want to work on pursuing. However, I have found that my strength is in writing. I was originally working on journalism before I found myself drawn to writing plays."
Q-What are you currently working on that led you to KCACTF?
A-"My full-length play The Other People was the NAPAT nominee for Region 5 and I will be working on editing it and resubmitting for nationals.
Q-What all are you involved in at KCACTF?
A-"I am somewhat of an Irene Ryan nominee coach, as well as involved in many of the playwriting competitions."
Q-Does being a part of KCACTF do to help you with your future dream?
A-"Yes! There are so many opportunities here and chance to share your work and collaborate with others. Additionally, it is a great networking opportunity."
Q-What will you have coming up in the future?
A-"University of Central Missouri and MidAmerica Nazarene University are each producing one of my one acts this semester. Newman University, my alma mater, is producing my full-length play “The Other People”. Also, I am about to play Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” at MNU! I am so excited!"
Today and Tomorrow: The Future of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival
By Allie Kantack
In spirit of the festival’s 50th Anniversary, Brad Dell (Region Chair) encouraged us to celebrate not by looking back, but by moving theatre forward. Here is a look at what the future may hold for KCACTF.
What is your favorite part about KCACTF?
“The variety of different things that are available to us. I feel like there’s always something new that I could be doing. I went to a workshop and they talked about how theatre can help with the #MeToo Movement and how we can, as a community, further that discussion. I really appreciate the wealth of knowledge that’s here. Everybody I’ve talked to that have led workshops are so knowledgeable. I’ve learned so much in such a short amount a time.” - Ellie Larson, St. Ambrose University
How does it feel to be a part of something that’s now 50 years old?
“Oh my gosh. That’s crazy! This is my third year and each year I’ve been doing something else. I always see the same types of workshopping done, but it’s always something different. Being able to take a festival like this and adapt it each year is something that’s really spectacular. And also just the type of plays that they decide to showcase here. That’s probably my favorite part. Going to the shows every year where you’re all seeing the same new thing but you’re all interpreting it in different ways.” - Breana Burggraff College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University
Is there anything new you would like to see in future festivals?
“I would love to see the people who don’t go through the Musical Theatre Intensive event get a chance to workshop their performances. If not all of them, at least a decent group of them. I would also love for there to be an annual opening night performance like we had this year with Brian Quijada. That should definitely not be a one-time thing!” - Doni Marinos, Mankato State University
How do you predict future festivals may change in upcoming years?
“In the opening ceremony, they talked a lot about diversity and inclusion, and I think that’s amazing. I really want to see growth of that in the future. Theatre is all about connecting with each other, and I know that we learn a lot when we talk to people and hear what their stories are. I’ve seen a lot of different backgrounds in KCACTF this year and hopefully it just grows to be more colorful.” - Melvin Thampy, Wichita State University
How do you predict theatre will change in the future?
“The way in which we tell stories is changing. There are new structures that speak to broader audiences. As we examine the human condition, which exists in the way we communicate with each other, I think the artist will lead the way to make the world great again by reminding us that we are united, not divided, by our diversity. Our strengths are in that union. In theatre, we’ll create the community that will change the world. I have great hope.” - Julie Mollenkamp, National Playwriting Program Chair for Region V
Playwright Amy Taylor takes full advantage of KCACTF’s offerings
By Rachel Phillips
It’s only been a few years since Amy Taylor wrote her first play. She started at the University of Missouri as a pre-med major and ended up hating it. A friend suggested she take a playwriting class to relax, and that simple recommendation changed the course of Taylor’s life. Biochemistry was out; playwriting stuck.
Now a senior, Taylor returns to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for a second time. Last year, her full-length play “Reincarnation” was recognized. This year, her play “Glass People” will be performed in the 10-minute play festival.
I sat down with Taylor to talk about her KCACTF experience. Her responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to write “Glass People”?
I was reading a book called “The History of Love,” and it was about the evolution of people. It said that at one point, people were made out of glass, and I thought that was a really interesting concept to run with. So, I wrote the story about a man who thinks he’s made out of glass and thinks he’s going to shatter at any time.
What made you want to bring this play to the festival?
I got to come last year, and I had a really good time. I was proud of this play that I wrote, so I was like I might as well just submit something. It’s my last year that I can go. I’m a senior, so I was like, I might as well do it. I was excited because it was so fun last year. And it’s held up; it’s fun this year, too.
What has your experience working on the 10-minute play festival been like so far?
It’s been really fun. I got lucky. My director is Alex Hollmann, and he’s awesome. We, from day one, were on the same page with our vision. We just cast it a couple days ago, and my cast is really sweet. There are only three of them, but it’s been fun. Everyone’s really open to ideas.
What are you hoping to gain from the experience of putting the show on at the festival?
There’s going to be a talkback afterwards with the respondents, so I’m excited to hear that. I signed up for the NPP [National Playwriting Program] mentorship, so I’ve talked to Jessica Wang about it already. There’s going to be three other respondents who’ll give us feedback on it, which I think will be really helpful. I’ve put it through workshops at Mizzou, and I got some stuff out of that. But, I already have a bunch of ideas for edits for my play when I get back home. I’ve thought things in the last few days that I never really thought about.
What else are you involved in this week at the festival?
I’ve just been doing workshops really with the rest of my time and seeing plays. I have a lot of friends here that wrote plays, so I’ve been going to all their stuff, trying to support the Mizzou family as best I can.
The 10-minute play festival will be performed at 1 p.m. on Jan. 26 at Temple Theater. Alex Hollmann directs the cast of “Glass People,” which includes Tyler Hughes, Jack Warring and Brooklyn Schiesow.
ITJA REVIEWS – ROUND ONE. Students in the institute for theatre journalism and advocacy share their reviews from the first day of Festival 50. Their assignment was to write a 500-word review of one of the opening productions. Their reviews are posted alphabetically. Seven submitted their reviews on “Gruesome Playground Injuries.”
‘Gruesome’s’ Gorgeous and Grueling Rollercoaster
by Matthew Briggs, University of Central Missouri
Love. Everyone longs to receive affection from another, but how far will one go to obtain this perpetual desire for meaningful connection? In Rajiv Joseph’s playfully dark drama “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” produced by Johnson County Community College and directed by Beate Pettigrew, love is a sensitive cycle of confusion and pain, seizing hearts tirelessly hunting for the truth. While complex and exhausting, this sensation irradiates this rousing play filled with sharp comedy and heart-pounding moments and delivered by a breathtakingly vigorous company.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” follows a couple’s bittersweet relationship as it evolves in a series a vignette’s spanning thirty years. Along the way Doug, a mischievous adrenaline junky and Kayleen, an apprehensive traditionalist, obtain arduous physical and emotional injuries which complicate the status of their peculiar partnership. The playwright does an exceptional job alternating between adolescence and adulthood while plainly capturing the mental strain on the characters as they discuss topics ranging from first kisses to self-harm. Ultimately, by concentrating on the challenges faced by varying age groups, all are able to experience the universal desires to feel wanted, conquer personal fears, and overcome grief.
Kayleen and Doug, played by the exhilarating Hannah Oldham and Hunter Meyer, bring impassioned honesty to the characters and delicately reveal these desires. Whether during rowdy childhood moments or subdued instances as adults, the level of connection between both actors was remarkable. This link was evident before the play began when Kayleen challenged Doug to games, including hopscotch as if inviting the audience into their resplendent world.
Oldham, in particular, delivered a chilling performance while capturing the bravery hidden beneath Kayleen’s anguish. For example, after revealing her clenching sexual encounter with a new boyfriend to Doug, her sorrowful display shocked audience members and left many in hushed tears. Meyer perfectly captured Doug’s persistence and courageous optimism throughout his lifespan. Specifically, his interpretation of a giddy 8-year-old is extraordinarily believable. However, one thing seems to challenge both actors: age. After twenty years old, it was difficult to distinguish between their 23-year-old and 38-year-old mindsets.
As for the technical elements, scenic designer Atif Rome created a tattered, metallic set filled with rusted swings and monkey bars, and Rachel Carney’s lighting design split the stage into complimentary pools of violet and golden yellow light during transitions which contrasted the merriment of childhood with the monotony of adulthood. Sound designer Sean Leistico deserves special recognition for perfectly layering high-pitched jibber-jabber of children at play with eerie orchestrations.
Altogether, the adaptation, layered with potent authenticity, emphasized the immense desire to be included. Euripides once said, “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.” This quotation accentuates the play’s bruised undercurrent of human attachment. Conclusively, through a vivid representation suffused with jolting twists and turns, “Gruesome” kindles a love that derives from our beautiful internal and external scars.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries,” A Boy Meets Girl Story for the Bruised
by Lindsay Koehler, Iowa State University
What connects us to one another? In preschool it was our shared love of superheros. As we grow up, we may connect by grieving. In the play, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” by Rajiv Joseph, moments of connection are seen through pain and healing. The production by the Johnson County Community College was directed by Beate Pettigrew put on in the Stoner Theater on January 23rd was a gloriously terrifying example of how we connect through pain.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries,” follows Doug and Kayleen, two kids whose lives intertwine when one day they meet in the nurse's office. This play goes around as if it is a carousel, showing glimpses of their lives. Over time the audience catches scenes of the kids from the age of elementary school all the way through their adult lives. The play shifts back and forth from one hardship to the next. Gaps are created early on in the script, but only to be filled as time goes on.The writing is clear in its moments childlike wonder but is followed by a crisp poignancy.
The performances of Doug, played by Hunter Meyer, and Kayleen, played by Hannah Oldham, were spectacular. Meyer’s compassion for his partner was pure. His honesty gave a youthful innocence to the character when he was afraid to let go after Kayleen talks about her heartbreaking experiences. Oldham’s portrayal of the cautious and sometimes neurotic Kayleen kept the piece grounded in it’s reality. The chemistry they shared was always full of a fluttery rush, and it easily came off as that of being a fast kindergarten friendship. However, the childish wonder gave the play some moments of awkward pacing by driven excitement cutting off the moments of harsh reality that were needed.
The world that held the story was inviting and innovative. The manipulation of the childlike set pieces forming into mature set pieces kept the play fresh. Having the actors move the set, do makeup, and get dressed in front of the audience during transitions really deconstructed the fourth wall, capturing the actors relationship between the character’s scenes. These moments were building blocks of what this play was about, the truthful connections we share. The unlimited playable set that designer Atif Rome gave to his actors was a gift. Costume designer, Katie Coen, made the costumes versatile and age appropriate for the actors to play children all the way through adulthood.
However, the most captivating technical element was the soundscape. The ambient sounds that filled the audience's ears throughout the play bursted with realism and dreamlike wonder. The sound designer, Sean Liestico, keeps the soundscape grounded when in the reality of the scenes, but whimsical during transitions. The meld of these two contrasting ideas melted perfectly, just like a kids imagination and perception of the world around them.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” is a play of simply deep connections. It’s the unconditional love you feel when you instantaneously connect with someone for the first time, which overall captures the message that sometimes our cuts are what can connect us.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” Leaves an Elaborate Scar
by Allie Kantack, South Dakota State University
Wounds leave their marks on us, and until we heal, it hurts when someone touches them. But not all scars can be seen and some tear through even the thickest skin. In their recent production of “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” Johnson County Community College touched many scars through a piercingly honest performance. Written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Beate Pettigrew, this play illuminated the ups and downs of a sporadic companionship that “hurt like crazy” from childhood to adulthood.
Through non-chronological chapters, the script exhibits a severed relationship between two durable but damaged individuals. Over a span of thirty years, we see Doug (Hunter Meyer) and Kayleen (Hannah Oldham) portrayed as playmates, friends, possible lovers and practically strangers. But regardless of their relationship, their intimacy allows them to both hurt and heal one another as they struggle through the physically and emotionally painful parts of life.
The cast of two clearly demonstrated a deep sense of trust and comfort with one another. Their connection as actors translated into a strong bond between characters who cannot seem stop caring for each other. These actors also convincingly sculpted their characters in childhood, adulthood, and anywhere in between by using the characters’ experiences to define their behaviors. Yet their strongest quality was the ability to seem lovable even in the most loathsome emotions, such as fear, anger or loss.
The scenery, designed by Atif Rome, served both the script and the thrust stage well. The clever use of playground equipment efficiently held many purposes, such as the seesaw which turned into a bench. While the set did not include any major obstructions, the chalkboard floor could not be seen from every seat. On the other hand, the fact that audience members stood up to glance at the drawings on the floor proves that they were engaged.
Designer Sean Leistico crafted a detailed and believable arrangement of sound with everything from ambient noise to suitable music. In theory, the design was perfect; in execution, not so much. The nonstop noise made it difficult to hear every line, particularly when actors used younger or softer voices. Fortunately, the problem quickly resolved as the actors or the levels eventually adjusted.
Between each scene, transitions included the actors moving set pieces, changing costumes, or applying makeup wounds. With so many technical elements to change, these interruptions felt both rushed and lengthy. However, the actors took advantage of this time by giving purpose to their tasks. Whether by conversing with each other or simply sharing a look, they turned these seconds into moments — a detail that did not go unnoticed.
Through this performance, Johnson County Community College gave the audience a fragmented glimpse into the heartbreaking lives of two suffering personas. The cast and crew immediately caught our attention with endearing and relatable characters trapped in painful circumstances. Distracted by a beautifully irregular love, the audience didn’t realize that while these characters left their marks on each other, the performance had left its mark on us.
A Gruesome Experience
by Lydia Lonnquist, Bethany Lutheran University
One boy. One girl. One mixed up, gruesome, yet somewhat romantic story. Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries was written for those with a liking for something that begins light-hearted, but eventually slips into darkness. Hopscotching forwards and backwards at five year intervals in Kayleen and Doug’s lives as they gradually grow older, the two seem to constantly just miss each other in opportunities to develop a romance. Surely, that love story would have been filled with bloody bandages, and hopes that the healing touch of love can conquer any form of brokenness.
Through a string of varying injuries that Doug suffers in each scene, Kayleen attempts to suppress her feelings towards him as the two gradually wound their way further into the playground. Oldham and Meyer took advantage of the two swings hanging down from either side of the set, a small see-saw downstage center that was later doubled as a bench, and a small nursing facility upstage right. The two friends fight for and against their building and crumbling relationship, as easily changeable as the clothes ripped off and mended back together between scenes.
Hannah Oldham and Hunter Meyer played together pre-show to give a hint of their characters personalities’. Between drawing a chalk shark with a butt to making a comment about what could be put on a resume, it was difficult to tell at times what age they were supposed to be. This same problem came back during scene transitions when the two actors’ adlib felt almost forced, but who could blame them? When an actor is rushing to continue a show, his or her mind is focused on how to get from point A to point B. This could be clearly demonstrated the same way as Doug not quite always knowing how to reach out to Kayleen, even though he knows he must.
Admittedly, just as Kayleen battled with trying to understand her own wants and desires, the transitions must have been difficult to block. Two possible solutions to this problem would have been to either pantomime speech, or to maybe not have dialogue at all. Simply watching the two quickly shifting into their next ages was interesting enough, such as near the end of the play when their older selves became more distant.
There is no doubt how challenging this show would be to produce thanks again to the quick morphing between ages, and for that, the show was well attempted. The explosions of energy between Oldham and Meyer were intriguing, although sometimes slower scenes drifted from this. The show was one that the 4 o’clock audience seemed to enjoy, laughing at many of the outrageous situations such as Kayleen and Doug staring into a garbage can filled with their vomit, and slowly mixed together. There was something truly sickeningly sweet that rippled throughout the audience as many cringed, laughed and were touched by the friendship of one boy and one girl.
Gruesome Playground Injuries and the Scars that Connect Us
by Kendall McKasson, St. Ambrose University
In both life and love, pain is unavoidable. It presents itself in many different forms but no matter what, it takes a toll on each of us. Johnson County Community College’s production of “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph depicts a not-so-traditional love story through a series of fragmented vignettes. The story follows Kayleen, played by Hannah Oldham, and Doug, played by Hunter Meyer. It begins with the two meeting in a school infirmary and from there the story jumps back and forth through the pivotal moments of the relationship that the two characters share for the next thirty years.
Though there were some unclear aspects in the production, it wasn’t difficult to see where this show was successful. One interesting aspect was that this set was incorporated into a playground as it showed a childlike aspect that remained in the kids from the day they met and as they grew up. With that being said, the staging of the show sometimes made it difficult to establish a sense of place because of the outdoor park elements that were incorporated into scenes that took place indoors.
One thing that really stood out in this show was the natural connection that the two characters shared. The show was able to hold the attention of audience members because the connection that Oldham and Meyer shared seemed so perfectly right even when the world around them was anything but. Both characters did a great job of establishing their relationship and showing how it changed as they grew from children who shared fun and innocent banter to adults facing love and loss. There were a few areas during the production that seemed confusing. During scene changes it became difficult to distinguish whether the dialogue that was being exchanged was meant to be delivered in character or if it was meant to be conversation between the actors during a quick change.
Overall, this was an all too true story that shows that not every love story ends in a happily ever after. It shares the honest truth that love is complex, and you have to fight for the people you love even if you don’t always win the battle. This show was successful at sending a message. Life is love, life is pain, and the realistic truth is that we can’t avoid being presented with both. The beautiful thing is that they each have unique ways of connecting us and creating bonds that are unbreakable no matter how broken life can make us feel.
Layered performances elevate “Gruesome Playground Injuries” from good to great
by Rachel Phillips, University of Missouri
An idyllic scene greeted the audience of Johnson County Community College’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” The lights cast shadows on the floor, and birds chirped as two actors bantered and played on playground equipment. But, as the title suggests, that peace didn’t last. It did, however, establish the electric chemistry between actors Hannah Oldham and Hunter Meyer, whose performances made a compelling but underdeveloped script a must-see.
Taking place over 30 years, the drama by Rajiv Joseph, whose play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, was dark and raw, examining self-destructive behavior and friendship. The play, which ran Jan. 23 at the Stoner Theatre, follows the tumultuous relationship between bruised but unbroken Kayleen (Oldham) and Doug (Meyer), jumping back and forth through time as they are brought together by injuries, both internal and external.
Joseph’s premise is compelling. Throwing together two messed-up, accident-prone individuals made for good drama. Yet, after a while, the structure of moving through time at certain intervals became formulaic. Furthermore, with only glimpses of their background, at times, the characters felt like a list of injuries rather than a complete person.
Yet, Oldham and Meyer moved the script past its flaws with their layered performances. While Kayleen often harshly pushes Doug away, Oldham also captured Kayleen’s brokenness and vulnerability by becoming quiet and internal. For example, when discussing her cutting, Oldham spoke softly with voice shaking, showing Kayleen’s emotional side.
Meyer expressed Doug’s restless, daredevil nature. He was in constant motion, communicating Doug’s perpetual energy and agitated state. But, he also skillfully portrayed Doug’s rage-filled, violent side. For example, his clenched fists and harsh, forceful tones when he was angry with Kayleen’s boyfriend communicated this other side of him, making the character layered and compelling.
The chemistry between the pair was the highlight. The two were at ease. They laughed and bantered back and forth at a comfortable speed. This ease carried throughout both the scripted scenes and the scene changes as they continued to talk and play as they changed clothes and applied wounds in full view.
Talented designers aided the performers in elevating the script. Sound designer Sean Leistico covered scene changes with the sound of children laughing while scenic designer Atif Rome created a literal playground complete with swings, a teeter-totter and even monkey bars. This reflected not only the title of the play, but also the stunted maturity of the main characters.
Director Beate Pettigrew then effectively utilized this set in her blocking. She had the actors using the playground equipment throughout, even during those scene changes. For example, when the pair was talking in the nurse’s office, Doug played on the monkey bars. This not only created visual interest, but also reminded viewers of the characters’ playfulness.
The ending of play was the opposite of the idyllic picture presented in the beginning. The pair’s future looks bleak as Joseph’s script drops off, lacking a strong resolution or commentary on the toxic nature of the character’s relationship. Yet, the actors’ chemistry remained strong keeping the show compelling until the very end.
Imperfections elevate harsh yet romantic “Gruesome Playground Injuries”
by Gabriela Velasquez, University of Missouri
The first kiss shared by the supposedly star-crossed lovers in Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which ran on Jan. 23 at the Des Moines Civic Center, is bittersweet. It’s a brief moment shared between an insecure teenage girl and a confused boy. This moment embodies the tragic “almost” quality of Joseph’s messy romance, put on by Johnson County Community College.
For Kayleen (Hannah Oldham) and Doug (Hunter Meyer), the fault is not in their stars, but in themselves. In a series of non-linear scenes following their messy relationship between the ages of 8 and 38, the two compare their scars as they navigate their ever-changing feelings and individual crises.
Doug’s pain is externalized. He is reckless and unlucky, and this manifests in a new injury in every scene. Hunter Meyer imbues him with as much sincerity as cluelessness, making Doug likable even when he just can’t stop pushing.
“I’m not stupid,” he says to Kayleen at one point. “I’m just brave, that’s all. Please don’t leave.” In moments of brutal, emotional honesty like this one, Meyer’s voice cracks and his eyes glisten. The moment feels achingly real. There’s no dramatics, just open, imperfect humanity.
While Meyer’s performance is grounded in physical expression, Hannah Oldham is tasked with internalizing her emotional conflict. This is a monumental task for any actor, but she tackles it with the kind of grace and poise not seen in actors twice her age. Oldham delivers an enthralling performance as Kayleen, who struggles with depression as the play progresses. In Oldham’s hands, Kayleen feels like a young Diana Goodman: multi-faceted, wildly emotional, but still believable and sympathetic. Oldham shines brightest in a lengthy monologue near the play’s middle that allows her to display her full emotional range.
Scene designer Atif Rome has crafted a remarkably versatile set that creates a toy box-esque atmosphere. The stage is adorned with colorful chalk art. Beds and seesaws double as cots and benches. Two swings hang from the black box theater’s scaffolding on the left and right of the thrust stage. Rachael Carney’s colorful lighting design creates a dreamlike atmosphere that amplifies the play’s isolated moments in time.
Director Beate Pettigrew draws heavily on the natural chemistry between Meyer and Oldham to drive the production. Her blocking follows patterns: Doug chases, Kayleen retreats, Kayleen relents, advances and so on. Her vision makes the script, which feels incomplete at points, fresh and investing.
Despite the gut-wrenching performances delivered by Oldham and Meyer, the ending to “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is wholly unsatisfying. This is a problem embedded in the script, which seeks to be open-ended but winds up being more confusing than thought provoking. The questions swirling in the theatre are more about plot than the potential toxicity of Kayleen and Doug’s relationship.
Despite the vague ending, however, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is a master class of spectacular acting and storytelling. For about an hour, the world becomes just what’s shared between Meyer and Oldham’s eyes, and that, more than anything, is enough.
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Beate Pettigrew presented by Johnson County Community College for the KCACTF Region V Festival and plays at the Des Moines Civic Center: Stoner Theater (221 Walnut Street Des Moines, IA 50309) on January 23rd at 10:00 AM, 1:00 PM, 4:00 PM, and 7:30 PM. This is a free-ticketed event for registered festival attendees only. Cast: Hannah Oldham as Kayleen and Hunter Meyer as Doug. Scene design by Atif Rome, Costume design by Katie Coen, Lighting design by Rachael Carney, Properties design by Katherine Allison, and Sound design by Sean Leistico
“Chalk It Up to The Text: Missouri Baptist University’s production of “Caucasian Chalk Circle”
by Rachel Bland, University of Central Missouri
Lights up. Or not.
Missouri Baptist University takes on the daunting task of presenting Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the region five KCACTF festival. In a retelling King Solomon’s judgement in which two women claim to be the mother of the same baby and the Chinese parable “The Chalk Circle,” Brecht has made a strong statement on the political climate in which he lived. With director Kaset Cox at the helm, the ensemble cast pushes the audience to consider the oppressed people of a society, urging them to consider if the goods of the land should “go to those who are good for it.”
Brecht believed that realistic plays failed in producing active thought in an audience. He strove to evoke real thought through a presentational style of theatre, alienating an audience to the point where there is no doubt that what is seen is a play, nothing more. The idea was that this would build empathy in an audience, which is definitely something that is needed in today’s audience.
Running at a solid two hours the play jogs along without an intermission, forcing its audience to endure the harshness of the story itself and the wordy and complicated text that demands constant attention to follow. When a play functions under these conditions, it is up to the ensemble to carry out the intention of the playwright through a strong connection of clarity and understanding to its audience.
And they tried. They really, really tried. Moments of direct audience interaction, a steady stream of catchy music, and ridiculously absurd accents attempted to capture and keep its viewers. They even went as far to include a condensed synopsis in the program to follow along with, as if predicting that their audience would get lost amidst the barrating text. Where the production fails is in its attempt to reach the audience in this marathon of a production. But no matter how strong the ensemble or how loud the actors can yell, they simply miss the mark in their long jump towards the finish line.
The technical elements of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” accomplish Brecht’s goal in that it jars the audience just enough to pull them out of the comfort accustomed to when attending the theatre. In place of a beautiful set, a crude platform and simple blocks of various size lie on top of the gaudy carpet of the Marriott hotel salon. Instead of warm lights gently lighting the actors while audience members sit in the dark, all experience the show beneath harsh fluorescent lighting. This presentational style is driven even further with small chalkboards held by actors, drawn on to show a number of different items from a knife to hot water. And it does the job. Having no darkness to hide behind, the audience is forced to actively watch.
Brecht wanted his audience to think about his deep and unsettling themes. But with Missouri Baptist portrayal, the audience eventually just finds themselves thinking, “how much longer?”
The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, Translation by Eric Bentley. Marriott Hotel Salon D, Des Moines, Iowa. Cast: Tyler Gruen, Rachel S. Yarbrough, Matthew Riordan, Jett Wallace, Sarah Ratcliff, Nick Cook, Lindsey Peters, Daniel Dilworth, Cameron Tyler, Nathanael Pezzo. Production Staff: Director: Kasey Cox, Assistant Director: Rebekah Side, Art Director: Emily Rice, Stage Manager: Alle Head, Carpenter: Nick Cook.