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.
Here are the Festival 50 journalists in the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy. Their first assignment was to introduce themselves to the festival in a 100-word biography. We are lucky to have professional journalist Michael Morain with us again this year as our festival guest…
Rachel Bland is a graduate assistant at the University of Central Missouri where she is earning her masters in theatre and graduate certificate in women, gender, & sexuality studies. She also enjoys serving as a lead teaching artist for The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City. Originally hailing from Dallas, Texas, Rachel holds her bachelors in theatre performance from Ouachita Baptist University. Before returning for her masters, Rachel taught high school theatre/ AP language and worked in children's theatre in Arkansas. In her free time she enjoys eating tacos and watching good movies with her husband and cat, Princess Buttercup.
Matthew Briggs is a sophomore at the University of Central Missouri pursuing a degree in Speech Communication and Theatre Education. At UCM, he has served as an actor, director, and technician. His favorite experiences include playing a “White Dude” in The Toxic Avenger and being an Assistant Director for Tartuffe. Some passions of his include watching reruns of Friends and drinking “Starbucks.” This is Matthew’s first year attending the festival, and he is thrilled to participate as an ITJA respondent. He looks forward to growing as a writer and improving his ability to analyze and interpret productions.
Mariana “Jo” Jabben is a freshman Elementary Education major and Theater minor at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. In addition to theatrical criticism, Jo is active in MNU’s hair and makeup departments and appeared in their production of The Greek Olympiaganza, as well as the upcoming Much Ado About Nothing. Additionally, Jo will stage manage MNU’s spring production of Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing. In the future, Jo hopes to utilize her love of theater -- specifically criticism and stage management -- in urban school districts, preparing young children for life-long theatrical learning.
Allie Kantack is a senior English Writing major at South Dakota State University. After graduating this spring, she hopes to someday become an editor. Throughout college, Allie has served as a writing tutor, a magazine editor, and a publicist for State University Theatre. She occasionally appears on stage, most recently in “Unnecessary Farce” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Besides theatre, Allie enjoys playing piano, figure skating, and wearing purple Crocs. This will be her fourth year at KCACTF and her second year participating in the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy. She is thrilled for the opportunity to improve her writing and to experience another side of theatre.
Lindsay Koehler is a senior double majoring in performing arts as well as journalism and mass communication at Iowa State University. Blowing in from the Windy city her focus is on producing and promoting theater. During her time at Iowa State, Lindsay has worked as a stage manager and as a student representative for the performing arts department. She has also served as a production assistant for the Chicago Festival Association, producing the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade. This is her first year participating in the ITJA and she cannot wait to see where her writing goes.
Lydia Lonnquist is a senior at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. She is majoring in English and theatre with a minor in communications. Lydia has had several creative works published in Inkwell magazine (such as a Profile Essay on her 80-year-old motorcycle riding grandfather), as well as articles in the Canby News during her 2017 summer internship. Possible careers she wishes to pursue are that of freelance journalism, playwriting, and acting. Currently, Lydia is playing Ellen in BLC’s winter musical, Oklahoma. Throughout the semester she will also be adapting the Anne of Green Gables series into a stage play.
Kendall McKasson is a junior theatre major with a minor in arts administration representing St. Ambrose University. She has a long history in theatre where she has explored almost every area, but has minimal experience in journalism, she is excited to expand her knowledge and enthusiasm on the topic as she returns to KCACTF for her third consecutive year. Kendall is currently preparing to assistant stage manage her university’s production of Cabaret. She aspires to be a college level theatre professor and share her love of theatre with as many people as possible.
Rachel Phillips is a senior at the University of Missouri where she studies arts and culture journalism and theatre performance. During the past year, she performed in a musical revue titled “Sinners and Saints” and served as master electrician for “The Laramie Project.” Her writing has been seen in the Missourian, Vox Magazine and single-topic publications for brands like Newsweek and Teen Party. In her free time, Rachel enjoys singing with MU’s University Singers, reading and watching an obscene amount of Netflix. This is her first time attending KCACTF, and she is enjoying taking in all the festival offers.
Gabriela Velasquez is a junior arts & culture journalism major and theatre minor at the University of Missouri. When she’s not watching football or studying “Star Wars” trivia, she manages the social media and performs for MU Improv, Mizzou’s only long-form improv troupe. Favorite onstage roles include Mark Antony (“Julius Caesar”), Nehebkah (“Aida”) and Henry Drummond (“Inherit the Wind”). She has covered education, crime and culture for the Columbia Missourian and Vox Magazine, and covers women’s professional wrestling for SmarkOutMoment.com. She is thrilled to return to her roots at KCACTF and write about her greatest love: theatre.