I picked up The Housekeeper and the Professor by chance. It was sitting on the floor of the bookstore; it appeared to have fallen off the shelf. I had heard of the author, but I had not read any of her books - and now, here I was, holding one.
I flipped to the inside leaf, then sat on the floor and began to read.
When I eventually got up, I felt it only right that I buy the book. I took a copy off the shelf (from a little way down the aisle) and I left my reading copy where I had found it for someone else.
A beautiful story, with living, breathing, fascinating people in a world that’s so incredibly human and familiar it seems fantastical, the book is remarkable. I thought it was a lovely - and loving - journey into the mysteriousness and beauty of humanity. Don’t let the blurb description turn you off: the seemingly trite premise is incredible in execution.
Hennepin County Library link here.
Series by Katharine Horowitz
Audience immersion and interactivity have always been the mainstays of haunted houses and historical reenactment sites, but the genre seems to be experiencing a recent eruption of popularity in the United States with such productions as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, or Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell, both in New York City. The last few years have also seen some impressive interactive theatre productions in the Twin Cities, but is there a lasting future for it here? And what challenges do companies encounter when building the kind of designs and stories needed to create a successful interactive experience?
This is the second in a series of articles examining the work involved to produce interactive theatre, and how we might foster its continued growth in the Twin Cities. We continue our discussion from last month with local directors of recent interactive theatre shows. We will hear from designers and audiences in future articles.
THE DIRECTOR, Part 2
Our exploration into Twin Cities interactive theatre began with interviews of some local directors and producers of recent interactive productions; this month we take a deeper look into the shows they directed. We continue chatting with Matthew Glover and Ryan Hill of Sandbox Theatre’s This Is A World To Live In (TIAWTLI), Ryan Underbakke of CTC’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Joanna Harmon of Live Action Set’s Crime and Punishment.
How would you classify your show? (Immersive, interactive, site-specific, all three, or other?)
Matthew Glover (MG): It was always going to be immersive, and we worked very hard to make it interactive to the level each audience member dictated for themselves. Since we built our own world within the space, I don’t think site-specific is accurate for TIAWTLI. Classifying a production in these terms is something we had to do for grant proposals and it can help in selling the show, but rarely was it a concern for us to define it in creation.
Joanna Harmon (JH): Crime and Punishment is largely “immersive.” Audience members may walk around intricately designed rooms/environments that together form a collage of the world of the experience. It contains “interactive” elements because characters sometimes interact with an audience member through direct address or an audience member may engage with a physical activity that, in our case, had limited effect on the overarching action of the characters. It is “site-inspired” because it integrates the inherent architecture of the building into the theatrical design. For it to be “site-specific,” we would have had to integrate the detail of an industrial soap factory as an essential story element!
Which came first: The show or the venue? And how did the one lead the other in the choices you made?
MG: The show idea came first. We didn’t have a venue until two weeks before creation began. We sought nearly every dead and/or underused space in town, but landlords would rather a space stay empty for potential buyers than have life in it for a few months. We wanted a flexible space in which to build an entire world. Initially the thought was something maybe 1,500 square feet. A bit of serendipity came into play one day when I walked by a giant open space in the City Center. We asked the then-landlords about it and they said no. We tweaked things and pitched them again and they said yes. My mind was thinking we’d use a small chunk of their available space, but they offered it all. So we went from conceiving an intimate gallery to building a world inside 27,000 square feet. That kind of change in scope throws everything into question. Budgets, time management, etc. It’s hard to answer questions on what you want in a space when your plans were for a room 1/20th the size. It was an enormous leap of faith in an enormous space, and [scenic designer] Derek Miller did what he does masterfully: begging, borrowing, and scavenging everything he could to build something that really was pretty magical.
JH: Noah’s relationship with The Soap Factory directing the Haunted Basement gave us access to “the basement” and our minds immediately knew this was the place to produce an immersive experience. The atmosphere of the basement is very particular, and Noah’s recollection of Crime and Punishment felt like a logical match. Those two inspirations were enough to set the thing in motion and we didn’t pause to consider another story.
How did you prevent losing control of the narrative?
Ryan Hill (RH): Bizarre characters, intense moments, loud sounds. The piece balanced between distraction and focus. We want you to drift and explore, but when we want to bring your attention back to a single thread, there will be a moment you can't ignore. We tried to strike a good pattern of "WTF is happening over there," and profoundly intimate moments.
Ryan Underbakke (RU): I feel like people tend to not cooperate if they feel like they are not being taken care of; If they are bored or if you are asking them to do too much, too quickly. So with that, you create a really tight show, a show where all the beats of the entire sequence are accounted for so the audience doesn't feel like you are wasting their time, or that you are doing some kind of improv show that they create. And with that the audience was usually pretty game for what we were doing.
JH: Except for a few, extreme cases of unruly or inappropriate conduct, audience members were never uncooperative. Any way an audience member chose to engage with the experience was a “correct” way to engage with it. And, if an audience member chose to seek out a narrative, there were narratives to be found. But it was not our desire as creators to thrust a singular narrative on anyone or a narrative at all.
What, if any, boundaries or limits did you give your audience?
RU: With 20k, boundaries were essential. A few years back I tried to make 20k a free-roam show (Punchdrunk style); essentially the audience got to walk around and observe the Nautilus and its crew in their own time. And I hated it. I realized I couldn't control the experience, I couldn't create scenes and and environments through the lens I wanted them to watch it through, and I couldn't tell the story I wanted to tell. So I scrapped it all and made this entirely structure-based experience and I got an overwhelmingly positive response. There is something fun about structure to audience. It doesn't mean they have to follow it, it just means that it's there for them. It's a way of letting them know we are taking care of them, that with all the excitement of this new form we are still in complete control.
JH: Audiences have become accustomed to sitting in a chair to see a play up on a stage. Sitting in a chair is a boundary. Immersive theater, and we with Crime and Punishment, broke that boundary and we put in place a new one: a 12,000 square-foot basement within which the audience could roam at anytime during the hour-long experience. Also, audience members were required to wear masks. But, though this may be seen as a confinement, we put this rule in place to unlock a freedom for the audience. A mask acts as an invisibility cloak that unveils a curiosity not felt when one’s identity is known.
MG: Before we opened, one of our company members sat in on a rehearsal and offered up her thoughts on what we should expect from Minnesota audiences. She thought they’d be reticent to participate, that they’d have to be cajoled and coerced. Not really so. Once the show grew into itself, we had people dashing around the space looking for things to play on. We worked very hard throughout creation to take care of the audience. Give them the playground and the space, and let them dictate their own level of participation. Some were discomforted, but many, many more found themselves playing in ways they’d never dreamed. We received a ton of feedback from our audiences and a recurring theme within those returns was how surprised they were by their own level of participation.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series: examining the technical details that went into designing 20,000 Leagues, This Is A World To Live In, and Crime and Punishment.
Article by Ron Peluso
Artistic Director, History Theatre
My first full-time job that paid a living wage was at History Theater (then The Great American History Theater), working for Ron Peluso. The staff often observed that the quiet Ron had an incredible knack for finding meaningful, interesting stories. An important skill for any theatre artist, but especially for an Artistic Director. But many of us who’ve worked for Ron over the years don’t know his story - and so we asked him.
I came to the Twin Cities in stages. First in 1975-76 for graduate school at the U of M. I remember vividly a production of the Snow Queen at CTC – curtain up on a witch – long blonde hair barely covering a bare-breasted actor: female. John Clarke Donahue, directing – the show was stunning. It was my first impression of the theater scene in Minnesota.
That same year, I would visit The Guthrie and the experience was over-whelming. My time in professional theater was yet to come – I had never before seen great classics on a thrust performed by nationally renowned actors and directors, let alone done on such a grand scale. Before I returned to Pennsylvania in 1976 to continue my teaching career at the high school level, I remember seeing a banner on The Old Firehouse on the West Bank. It read: INDIANS by Arthur Kopit. It was the first season and the beginnings of Mixed Blood Theatre founded by Jack Reuler. The late seventies brought Penumbra, The Illusion, Park Square, History Theatre, The Playwrights’ Center, along with the mainstays of The Old Log Theater and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres as well as the already established and important community theaters of Theatre in the Round and Chimera. Later, The Jungle, Ten Thousand Things, Frank Theatre, Theater Latte Da, Torch Theater and many others would become part of the landscape.
I would return to the Twin Cities in the early 80’s to complete my MFA in Directing and begin working my way into the theater scene. First at Mixed Blood as a stage manager, then shortly thereafter I convinced Jack to let me direct Gary Trudeau and Liz Swados' satirical Reagan musical RAP MASTER RONNIE. Working with H. Wesley Balk and Ben Krywosz on new musical theater projects with Minnesota Opera and with Wesley's Opera Institute, I would soon find a niche in the opera/musical theater world, and then with other theaters. A few years later in 1988, I assumed the Artistic Directorship of the Minnesota Festival Theatre (AEA summer stock founded by Michael Brindisi) in Albert Lea and eventually, after 8 seasons, I landed at the History Theatre as the Artistic Director and have had the honor to commission and/or direct 73 new works with 87 playwrights and composers over the past 21 years.
In the early 1980’s, I vividly recall the Theatre de la Jeune Lune production of THE KITCHEN – a brilliant young company that would make its mark here and nationally for nearly 3 decades. In St. Paul, The Actors’ Theatre of St. Paul sprouted wings as a collection of young actors, designers, playwrights, stage managers and directors built an AEA company that included Sally Wingert, Jim Cada, Barbara Kingsley, Nayna Ramey, Janet Hall and others who still make an impact on the Twin Cities scene.
All this is to say, that the mid-size theaters founded in the late 1970’s, 80's and early 90’s still play a major role in the creation of new work, reinventing the classics, and serving as a springboard for new up-start companies that continue to pop-up and grow, inspiring all of us to “do good work.” Moreover, this is a great theater community where audiences are willing to see a new work, go to Broadway touring shows and be daring enough to support the works of upcoming young artists who are building their own unique vision for the theater in the Twin Cities.
Above all, I believe that this theater community is welcoming to new artists. I learned an important lesson from my friend Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood, and that is, “be open to new faces, provide them with an opportunity, and see where it takes you.” I was one of those "new faces" that Jack took a chance on – and to this day, when Jack has someone that he thinks I should meet, a new actor or designer has come to town, he’ll send them my way – I’m always willing to find time to meet with them and let them introduce themselves. In return, I send newcomers back to Jack for an introductory visit.
Over the last 40 years, I’ve witnessed the changes at The Guthrie as they moved from the Liviu Ciulei to Garland Wright to Joe Dowling and now to the new reign of Joe Haj. One of Joe's first items on his agenda was to meet with as many local Artistic Directors and artists on a one on one basis as he could, and that speaks volumes for his understanding of what our talented community is all about. "Welcome, Joe."
This is a unique theater community - and an incredibly intelligent and innovative one at that! I'm honored and fortunate to be a part of it!
Article by Andrea Gross
Costume Designer: www.agrossdesigns.com
By now, Costume Designer Andrea Gross should need no introduction. For this issue, she shifts from the technical to the reflective and gives us an important essay on the importance of the performing arts, her life in the field and the changes that have come with parenthood and time. This is an essay for all of us.
The days grow shorter, and we snuggle into the end of the year. It’s wise to look back at the year with both gratitude and a critical eye to how our artistic practice can continue to evolve.
This past calendar year I designed costumes for five productions, and served as shop manager on a sixth. In August, I marked a decade of living and designing in Minnesota, and in October I opened my 75th professional costume design. It wasn’t a particularly record-breaking year of design by the numbers, even with those milestones.
In January 2016, our child will turn two. As I constructed that last sentence about design by the numbers, I first had to delete some versions of “it wasn’t the busiest year” or “it wasn’t the most work in a year” because it definitely was some version of both those things. I did work I am deeply proud of. I also did work I was not fully engaged or invested in. (In some moments, either of those things could be true of the same project). Above all, I tried very hard to remain connected to how the process on each of those productions was going so that I could learn from it.
I have always considered my process as a designer (meetings, conversations, note-taking techniques, research, organizing information for a show, communicating design choices, executing the costumes, working with actors and the director and other designers through tech to create a whole image) to be something that requires both flexibility and the potential to change, and a certain rigidity of principle to keep me from overloading myself or losing sight of what I’m doing. But in the past two years I’ve felt that almost nothing I used to rely on to do my job is available to me in the same ways.
That’s not an entirely “full picture” view, obviously. First of all, I am profoundly privileged to have full time daycare for our son. My partner is able to confidently parent our kid while I’m in tech. I have a remarkable support system. But frankly, there are ways in which that just makes me feel like I’m being ungrateful when I acknowledge that it’s still hard. Many things seem unchanged: I can use the library and the Internet to collect images, I can communicate what I like about those things verbally and with shared Pinterest boards and sketches, and I can shop and conduct fittings.
But here are a few examples of things have changed for me:
I am aware of my capacities, both in the ways in which becoming a mother made them limitless, and in the ways in which there are very hard edges to what I can accomplish in the face of other responsibilities.
In some ways, feeling like I have more limited personal resources means I am better about hiring people to help me, and better about explaining to producers that labor budgets are as important as materials budgets. In other ways, I feel so much less free to really submerge myself in a script and the research for unconstrained amounts of time.
I don’t seem to have access to the mental dexterity of letting one problem marinate while solving another. On the other hand, some decisions just get made a lot faster because of those limited personal resources.
There’s been an exponential increase in the number of things requiring my focus and attention, but no corollary increase in the resources I have to devote. Even when I’m not actively parenting, some part of my brain is aware of what I need to be doing, what I “should” be doing, or what I’m not going to have enough energy for at the end of the day.
As I’ve reflected on this, I recognize that one thing I mean by “almost nothing I used to rely on to do my job is available to me in the same ways” is that I can’t do it the same way I used to. When I was single, I could design three or four shows at a time, and tech them concurrently or sequentially, as long as I had enough coffee and toilet paper in the house. The option to just let go and free-fall from one item on the to-do list to the other was available to me. Now I’m learning how to compartmentalize tasks to figure out where things are going to fit in the calendar in order to get it all done. I require more time on the calendar to think about things as well as to execute things. I frequently remind myself that I can’t make those decisions in a vacuum, and while I need to think about design elements early, I also have to keep options open for things other designers, the director and the actors are learning from the process. That balancing act has not always been successful this year.
There’s an added piece... I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a 40hr/week job that you are interested and engaged with, but which ends at 5pm. I can only say that the added pressures of feeling like you don’t have enough energy to prioritize work you do “for love” or because it’s “your passion” is brutal. This work has always taken more out of us than we have to give, but for years I’ve given it gladly because the return is so high. Now I’m tired (profoundly tired: because I haven’t slept through the night in two years; because I can’t be available for the work I miss doing; because the friendships that came with it have shifted and can’t always be recognized from where I am now; because I can’t think a thought through from inception to completion without an interruption about excavator trucks or buying broccoli for dinner). I’m tired pretty much all the time, but I’m also struggling to come to terms with the ways my priorities have shifted. And I struggle to accept the fact that my priorities couldn’t help but shift.
I’ve never been more certain of the importance of artistic storytelling to the health of our culture. I want my child to grow in a place where the kind of perspective and wonder afforded an audience by live theater is an integral part of his development. In the past year, I’ve become more aware than ever of how exclusive the stories we tell are, and how desperate the need is to crack our narratives open to make them broader and more inclusive. I’m eager to hear points of view that have been overlooked or ignored for centuries, and for my family to learn how to build a better world through that experience. I have no doubts of the importance of theater in my life and in the life of my family. And yet, it remains true that I don’t have the same focus and endless reserves to give to the medium that’s been the most important form of expression in my adult life. This circumstance is uncomfortable at best.
I wouldn’t change my life for anything. I miss my old life every day. Those two notions in tension are one definition of “parent.” The ways it impacts my life as a freelance costume designer have continued to be surprising this year. In the end, everything is a moving target, and all this will be different again in another year. Which is the closest thing to comfort I’ve found on the topic.
(Special thanks to Ursula Bowden, Anissa Gooch, George Miller, and Lacey Zeiler for their insight and help writing this essay.)