Hey all. It’s your friendly neighborhood playwright/blogger here. You might have noticed a slight lull in reviewing. It’s not that I haven’t seen shows – I saw Hamlet at Park Square at the beginning of October, The Privateer at Park Square a couple of weeks ago, and In the Next Room at the Rarig Center just this weekend. I, however, have not reviewed them. It’s not that I don’t want to review them. But the problem is with my brain and the things it’s struggling through right now.
I have anxiety. And not like Zooey Deschanel-New Girl -“I’m socially awkward” anxiety. I mean the actual mental condition of generalize anxiety disorder. It’s been a greater struggle as I’ve become an adult and left the structure that school and having set classes offered and, as the years have gone on, it’s become a larger influence on my life. I only acknowledged that I had anxiety in 2015 and, since then, I’ve been working to learn to better handle it and reduce the things that provoke and trigger it. The 2016 election has been a definite trigger, so the last year has been a little rough. But it’s also been one of the best years of my life and I’ve grown in a lot of ways.
Right now, I’m relearning how to live with my anxiety. I started taking Zoloft just over a month ago and cut out a lot of things in my life that were causing me additional stress. One of those things was the number of shows I see. I decided to cut back in order to have more free time to focus on grad school and relax. However, after cutting back shows I found that I still didn’t have the desire to review. I wanted to see theater, but reviewing had begun to feel like a job – no, a relentless task, something that I was continually being asked to do and continued to accept because, more and more, I feel that the theater community is becoming reliant on bloggers to make up for the inadequate press we have in town. As much as like voicing my views on theater, I also don’t want to create the expectation that I will see all the shows and write all the reviews and always share my socio-political perspective. I like doing that, but right now I am tired and I need to take a break. I need to remember what it’s like to see a show without having to worry about getting home to my computer to write down my thoughts. I want to remember what it’s like to watch shows as an audience member, as an artist, not a reviewer. In the long run, I think it’ll make me a better artist and critic.
I’m hoping to get back into reviewing, I think, but right now I really need to make time for myself. The world is full of stresses and triggers, as it always has been, but my engagement with them has changed. I’ll continue to see shows, hopefully a couple a month, and I plan on writing here, more about playwriting and other thoughts I have on theater. In the meantime, I’m working on a series of posts about anxiety and theater for Minnesota Playlist, so keep your eyes out for that (I’ll also share them here once their published).
I’m writing this post only days after the death of Prince and, let me tell you, it’s surreal and very strange. To be working on a show that is so heavily influenced by Prince, mentions him multiple times, and likely would not exist with out him is difficult to deal with but also a place of solace and comfort. Prince created the Minneapolis Sound and defined our local music scene in many ways. His loss only makes me realize how important music is in my life and the life of so many others. And that’s exactly what the show is about – the influence of music on a whole generation.
So, I thought I’d do another behind the scenes look as I’m in rehearsals again, by taking a look at music in a show. And what better show to focus to use for this exploration than Complicated Fun. This show, described by playwright Alan Berks as 55% music, combines a variety of genres with 26 different songs by 16 different artists. It explores not only the punk scene but also R&B, funk, folk, pop, and styles that transcend genres in Minnesota music. It’s unique sort of musical – it doesn’t always follow the typical expectations of music in shows (being sung by characters, replacing dialogue with songs, etc.), it isn’t a juke box musical, but neither is it a tribute concert or play with music. It’s been dubbed a mix-tape musical and, dramaturgically, that’s the perfect way to describe it.
The process for this show started back in January 2015 during the History Theatre’s Raw Stages. I wasn’t a part of this process but I did watch the show as a house manager from the back of the house, in awe of how the ensemble had learned the music in only a week. In the spring, I came on as dramaturg to prepare for the summer workshop on the script, which took place in July. Music director Nic Delcambre played all of the music on guitar and piano and sang the majority of the music. This process was focused on the writing of the script, the story involved and how certain events progressed, what music to include, and how music was integrated into the work. Another workshop was done again in January 2016 (which I wasn’t present for and can’t speak to) and more time was taken outside of these workshops for the our director, playwright, and music director to discuss the music in the show.
A unique caveat to a show like this that includes music written by other people is that all rights for the songs performed must be obtained in order to use it. This affected what songs could be used and what artists – when you see the show, you’ll note that Prince is referenced but never performed beyond a few phrases. Rehearsals for the band began shortly before the cast began in April, with our musical director teaching the band the songs and transcribing and adapting them for the ensemble. The full band includes Delcambre on guitar and keyboard, Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums/percussion. Added elements to the band are the use a drum machine for synthesized percussion effects and a sound module controlled by the keyboard and produces all the sound from it, in a variety of electronic timbres (and can be especially heard in “Funkytown” and “Let Me Let You Rock Me”).
A primary focus throughout the process was to keep the sound of the arrangements as close to the original songs as possible to stay true to the work and style of the artists. There are certain songs that have been arranged differently than the original for musical theater effects – for instance, Husker Du’s “Don’t Want To Know” is slower and more lyrical to create a certain mood for the scene it appears in. The actors were given access to the original recordings in order to learn the songs and hear the unique qualities of each piece and each artists in the show. On the first day of rehearsal for the cast, a full read-through of the script was done with all the music being performed by the music director on piano and two guitars. As rehearsals progressed, time was taken to teach specific parts to the cast members (such as the Tetes Noires’ piece “American Dream,” which has two cast members singing and one of our ensemble members singing and playing violin). Transitions into pieces – especially the switch from the Replacements’ “I Hate Music” to Greg Brown’s “Downtown,” which requires a change from electric to acoustic guitar and the addition of finger picks – and vamping during scene changes also became an important part to work, as did cueing in the band, especially through character cue (record clerks putting on a tape or record, a physical gesture from a singer, etc). Once the band joined in rehearsals right before tech week, it became especially important that cues were clear so everything could be kept tight and neat.
When we started tech, we began focusing on how sound appears and runs through the the show, such as the timing of when music comes in, making sure that the song fits into the action onstage, and lining up choreography and lines so that everything fits together just right. Another large part of this process was the technical aspects – fitting actors and musicians for mikes, balancing their sound levels against the instrumentals, and balancing spoken dialogue over musical moving parts. The glorious brilliance of going from a loud punk party to being able to hear a conversation in the party is an impressive feat that the band, our sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, and electrician Josh Stallings deserve serious kudos for.
The use of the band in this show is really wonderful and unique – they stay onstage during the entire show and produce what in film would be called diegetic sound, or sounds coming from the particular scene or location, rather than added behind as underscoring or sung by the characters to convey the story. The band itself represents certain bands in the Minneapolis scene at this time, paying homage to the Suicide Commandos with the use of a Les Paul, having band members represent the Replacements and Husker Du, and incorporating certain members itself into characters in the show.
In this story about the often overlooked Generation X, the collaborative importance of theater has never been clearer. With an incredible cast, band, and production team, I am continually in awe of the work that is being produced. This is the largest show I’ve worked on in terms of people involved and it’s been amazing. We’ve got an amazing production group with set designer Michael Hoover, choreographer Cark Flink, prop designer Lisa Conley, costumer Amelia Cheever, and lighting designer Kathy Maxwell. It has been such a joy to be a part of this process and I know it will be an absolutely brilliant production. But don’t take my word for it – come see it yourself!
Complicated Fun is written by Alan Berks and directed by Dominic Taylor. It opens April 30th and runs through May 29th. Tickets can be purchased on the History Theatre’s website.
Currently in rehearsal at the History Theatre is the new show Complicated Fun, written by Alan Berks, directed by Dominic Taylor, and music directed by Nic Delcambre. Focusing on the 1980s music scene in the Twin Cities, this slice of living, local history involves a vibrant look at the Minneapolis sound, the history of First Avenue and bands such as the Replacements and Husker Du, and a passionate story of an often overlooked generation. I’m lucky enough to be the dramaturg for this production and it’s a piece that’s very near and dear to my heart. Whether you’re a fan of 89.3 The Current and First Avenue, passionate about Minnesota history, or just curious to learn more about the diversity of music in our state, this show is a must-see. And, to give a taste of what’s headed your way come April 30th, the History Theatre hosted a special preview event with the band, cast, Chris Osgood of The Suicide Commandos, who set the scene for punk in Minneapolis and throughout the US, and Steve McClellan, former manager of First Avenue during the 1980s.
Performing Curtiss A’s “Laugh It Up,” Husker Du’s “In a Free Land,” the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” and The Suicide Commandos’ “Complicated Fun” (the namesake for the show) was the show band, with Nic Delcambre and Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums. Part of the cast, including Stephanie Bertumen, Bowen Cochran, Erik Hoover, Andrea Wollenberg, Joseph Miller, and Skylar Nowinksi, performed two excerpts from the show focusing on the community and music scene.
Featuring 26 songs by 16 different artists, and a wide breadth of genres, this show is all about the music. And it’s all Minnesota music. If you ever had a song change your life, discovered a mixtape that perfectly expressed how you felt, or found a band or music scene that expressed who you were or what you wanted to be, you’ll love this show, even if you aren’t familiar with the bands featured. And if you are familiar with the bands, then you need to see this show like you need air to live. (This is an exaggeration, but only slightly.)
If the music alone doesn’t entice you, then the talent certainly will. The cast is incredible and lovely and, while we’ve only been rehearsing for a week, it seems the script already feels comfortable. Then again, much of the cast has been work-shopping this show since January of 2015. I also cannot praise the band enough. Last night was the first time we saw them perform together (as they’ve been rehearsing separately from the cast) and I think I can speak for us all and say we were all incredibly impressed. Even if you’re the biggest Husker fan and thinks that no one can shred like Bob Mould (and you are most certainly entitled to your opinion), you’ll love these covers that are incredibly faithful to the original. Don’t take my word for it – check out an audio clip with part of the band performing at Roseville Library. And if you still aren’t convinced that you need this show in your life, then come for the choreography. There will be stage diving. And a routine to the Jets’ “Crush On You.” But seriously, why are you still reading this? Go get tickets already!
Complicated Fun is playing at the History Theatre from April 30th through May 29th, with previews April 28th and 29th. Ticket prices and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.
This morning, a section of my Facebook feed was filled with people discussing the general auditions at the Guthrie. They had recently been announced and, not long after the sign-up form went live this morning, all available slots were full. A very good friend of mine missed the chance to sign up while another landed a spot due to taking the day of work to be on Minnesota Playlist and have access to the form as soon as it was available. For the many people who didn’t even land a spot, all I could do was scroll through their disappointed responses and feel… well, angry.
Being entirely second party to this – I don’t audition for my work and, while I’m a Guthrie employee, I work on an entirely different level – I still found this frustrating. It shouldn’t be like trying to get Adele tickets to get an audition slot. Now, it’s likely that extra slots will be added or a wait list may be created (as those who can’t make the audition may free up their time slot). But the issue is beyond this one scenario and one theater in the Twin Cities – it’s a problem that seems to be popping up again and again.
Everyone should have the chance to be seen and heard at the audition level. Yet it seems more and more frequently that that’s harder to come by. There is a lot of talent in the Twin Cities and I like to compliment how intimate the community feels for the number of people involved. But I grow concerned when the opportunities don’t match the spectrum that’s out there. There will always be more people auditioning than possible parts – that’s a fact of theater. When there’s not even enough space to audition, not even a chance to get out there at all, that becomes a different kind of problem. It’s being stuck in tough situation of not having immediate access to audition information, it’s not having the experience or connections to be “in the know,” it’s not having the space on an online form for your name. Auditioning is supposed to be a level playing field, but does it always? It seems a lot more difficult for those who are new to the field or have more independent theater work rather than having worked with several large organizations or worked consistently at certain theaters to break out of whatever bracket they’re stuck in.
As the theater community continues on its current growth spurt, it of course gets more difficult to be seen. With the Fringe Festival being larger than ever, it’s a becoming a different kind of festival, with fewer small venues and fewer opportunities for new theater groups to showcase their work. And with more discussions of Broadway becoming focused more on commercial theater rather than creating new works – something even Stephen Sondheim is concerned about – it’s becoming a general issue throughout American theater in how to bring visibility to actors, playwrights, and shows alike that are new and different.
From my own vantage of trying to create a space for myself and to fill a void I see but others may not, these frustrations related to auditioning are familiar. But I’m used to it – dramaturgs don’t audition. I don’t have the same path to finding work. So it seems doubly troubling that many actors are being kept out of the audition room by limited sign-up space that has nothing to do with whether they’re good enough for the part or available for the audition. Is it simply not enough time? Are there not enough hours a day to see all the people who want to audition in order to make requirements for casting? Are there not enough people at theaters throughout the cities to watch everyone and make decisions? Or is there a certain kind of favoritism in how information is spread, allowing certain actors advantages because of the experiences over those who have different experiences, a fault not of the actors but how the community operates?
Realistically, not everyone can be guaranteed an audition spot – this I know. Theater can be harsh at times, unkind and uncaring because it is a competitive field. But everyone should be given a chance to audition – and right now it doesn’t seem that they are. As we focus more on embracing diversity on theater, it’s important to pay attention to issues like this in order to open the doors to everyone and give everyone their fair chance. While at some level I may have utopian vision of a completely diverse and open theater that is accessible to everyone, overhearing and seeing issues such as these is striking. It’s easy to grow complacent and accept how things are in a community that is thriving, but, given as it’s Minnesota Arts Advocacy Day, I feel compelled to focus on the ways we can grow and better our arts community. I may not be satisfied with the way things are at the moment, but I know that I am surrounded by people who create their own opportunities and continually strive for new experiences. I hope that this continues and fuels the creativity in the Twin Cities, available auditions spots or no.
For the last couple of weeks, I haven’t be seeing any shows as I’m working on one myself. I’m dramaturging for Park Square’s Nina Simone: Four Women, which as been a phenomenal experience so far and a show I’m very excited about. I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the rehearsal process a little bit and describe what my part of this looks like, for those who aren’t personally in this aspect of theater or those who might be curious what a dramaturg does.
Day 1 (5pm -10pm)
The actors, director, playwright, music director, costume designer, set designer, stage manager, and I all meet in the rehearsal room. Introductions are made and the most updated copy of the script is handed out (as this is a new work, we didn’t receive this until the first day – usually scripts are sent out at least a couple of weeks in advance). The artistic director and director of education at the theater come down to welcome us and inform the actors about certain aspects of this show, such as student matinees. I have a made an informational packet about Nina Simone’s life and the Civil Rights Movement, which has already been sent out to the actors to help them prepare. The set designer gives us an overview of what the space will look like, using a model to clarify any questions the actors and director have. The costume designer shows us sketches of what the attire is planned to look like for each character. We do a read-through of the script and I read stage directions. We discuss the script, suggest changes, and break for the day. Having met on a Monday – usually a day off due to equity regulations, our stage manager notes that we will have the following Sunday and Monday off.
Days 2-5 (roughly 11am-4pm)
Our rehearsals are during the day, as our stage manager has a show going on in the evenings at another theater. I work my day job several of these rehearsal days and arrive late. On day two, another read-through has taken place and some changes have been made. Day three, we receive and updated script and I read stage directions again for the new read-through. By day four, the actors are on their feet and begin blocking (or learning where they will stand and move throughout the space as the show progresses). A simple set with furniture is brought in and props begin to appear as they are found/requested. I begin to bring in photos to post on a board to inspire the actors, focusing on women involved in the Civil Rights Movement and 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. Our music director begins to arrange songs and work on what musical interludes should appear and what they should sound like throughout the show. Our costume designer takes measurements and brings in accessories such as hand bags for the actors to use. Additional changes are made to the script and questions are asked to clarify interactions between the characters. In my evenings after rehearsal, I continue to do research, either looking up information I am asked to find during rehearsal or adding to the photos in the rehearsal room. I beginning planning a lobby display I hope to showcase, getting in contact with the marketing director at the theater to see what my options are. In between all of this, I manage to grab eat dinner (either brought from home or from Afro Deli), catch A Chorus Line at the Ordway, and also catch a cold.
Days 6-9 (3:30-9:30pm on days 6 and 7, 4pm-9pm on days 7-8)
After a two-day break, we’re back to blocking and pacing, getting a feel for how the show will unfold, what the major arcs are and what needs to be emphasized. I continue to research (having mostly recovered from my cold) and am now putting together a timeline of the events of 1963 to have displayed in the lobby. As far as the script goes, all major changes are done, minus a few word tweaks. Our music director is given specific time in the rehearsals to practice songs, assign harmonies, and work through a capella pieces and improv components. Our costume designer takes additional measurements and continues bringing in wardrobe pieces – especially shoes – to see if they will work for our cast. I’m bouncing back and forth between my day job and rehearsals and miss part of rehearsal on day 7 in order to see a performance at my theater for work. Rehearsal is cancelled on day 8 due to a cast member’s absence for a family obligation and I have the evening off to do some writing, finish the timeline, and do some errands.
Days 10 and 11 (12pm-8:30pm on day 10, 12pm – 6:30pm on day 11)
Our two longest days in rehearsal are in front of us and give us the opportunity to really dig into material. Songs are run and rerun, particular scenes are focused on to see what isn’t working, to bring out important emotional components, and to focus on what is giving the actors trouble. We begin to work a song that includes choreography and sound elements performed by the actors, getting help from another artists in the community to help work this scene. I’m given the task of researching accents, something that usually would be given to a dialect coach, but as there isn’t one for the production (and the Birmingham accent isn’t as difficult to learn as a South African accent, for instance) I’m happy to help. I scour internet resources and Youtube videos, trying to put together a guide for vowel and specific word pronunciation. Watching Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls documentary after rehearsal on day 10 becomes my most useful source of pinpointing the accent while also expanding my knowledge of the historical root of the show.
Day 12 (3:30pm-9:30pm)
After a day off, we review what we worked – focusing on accents, remembering new blocking, and tracking props. At the top of rehearsal, the actors are fitted for microphones and new underscoring ideas are tried for the musical elements of the show. We run certain portions and focus specifically on a difficult song.
Day 13 (4pm-10pm)
Our first day onstage. I’ve received the materials I need for my lobby display and I post it while the actors warm up and practice music while on mics. This rehearsal focuses on memorizing lines, exploring the space, and working on blocking to aid sight lines in the space. I wander about the theater, sitting in various locations where the view isn’t as good to see how the show looks from these spots.
From here on out Days 14-17 are tech days. This is when lighting and sound elements are worked into the show along with the actor’s lines and movements. Costumes are worn and refitted and certain make-up and wig elements are tested. This process is very slow going at first, going from cue to cue to make sure that each sound element and lighting effect properly sets the mood and tone. It feels a little bit like stop-motion, tweaking each moment to get it right. I stick around to help with sight lines in the theater as well as to stay on book and take line notes for the actors as they continue to memorize and practice their lines. These days are long and exhausting but it’s incredible to see all the pieces fall into place during this process.
That’s the process! Interested to know more or have a specific question? Feel free to ask. If you want a more specific look at dramaturgy, please check out my guest post on my friend Kendra’s blog – and check out the rest of her amazing blog while you’re at it!
And come see Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre in St Paul. The show starts previews on March 8th, opens March 11th, and runs through the 26th. Ticket information and prices can be found on Park Square’s website.