Running right now at Park Square Theatre is Of Mice and Men, and it’s a show you can catch on the weekends or if you’re bold enough, every weekday morning with dozens of high schoolers!
Yep, Of Mice and Men plays just about every morning between now and mid-December to students who get to enjoy a field trip to the theatre. If you’re not familiar with Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, you should know that it’s kind of something they’ve earned as a reputation over the years. Steinbeck’s classic has been produced every-other-year in this fashion for at least a decade now. When I tell friends that I’m in it, they say, “Oh, I remember seeing that when I was a kid!” (For the record, I’m 26).
It seems darn near everyone takes the trip to Park Square and enjoys the show! Which I think is amazing, for so many thousands of people to share such an experience in the Twin Cities and throughout the region. I mean, the evening schedule is wonderful but I get such a unique joy from performing my role for teenagers who may never make a habit of watching theatre. I feel that’s a common sentiment among actors, but I really do take a pride in it and that’s thanks to my own field trip to see a play back in middle school.
I can’t even remember what the production company, but I remember taking a field trip in eighth grade to see a production of The Tell Tale Heart (and The Monkey’s Paw) at the Tupperware Center in my home town of Kissimmee, Florida. It was certainly a touring company of some sort, maybe even a high school production, but I remember superb production quality and the thrill of watching a man slowly lose his mind over the incessant beating of the heart under the floorboards. I wasn’t even an actor then! At that point in my life, theatre as nowhere near the forefront of my mind. It’s only now, looking back, that I can recognize it as a formative experience in my life’s chosen path.
Who knows if these students will think about this show after they get back on the bus, and back to class. I hope they do, not just for the sake of being exposed to the arts, but because the themes in Of Mice and Men are so poignant and relevant. The idea that people can only live for so long in an oppressive society. That sometimes you need action in order to make your life a better place. Surface-wise, there’s not too much hope being offered in this play, but just scratch that surface and you’ll find a wealth of courage and resolution.
This is what I hope to share with these kids.
Whenever people or the IRS ask what my occupation is, I do say “actor”. That’s what my training was in and I’m fortunate enough to often be cast in something or another. While my occupation may be “actor”, that’s not exactly how I “make my living”, i.e. making the money I need to literally survive. Yes, I have a “day job” (lots of quotes in this one) but fortunately that job isn’t something I hate and in fact, it’s at a theatre company! The National Theatre for Children, to be exact, here in Minneapolis.
As a company, NTC works with clients in the corporate world to provide schools free educational plays based on that client’s message. So for instance, if a big utility company has money allotted to spend on community outreach, NTC will provide just what they’re looking for – a play to teach students the finer points of energy conservation. So what do I do during the week, Monday through Friday? More often than not, I’m on the phone’s calling prospective schools and simply trying to get a dubious principal or harried secretary to book the show.
I’m going on my third year now, and while it’s all pretty routine at this point, once in a while I get to shake things up and jump over to the production department where all the magic happens.
That was the case this month when I was asked to direct my second show for the company. Last year I jumped in the deep end with The Conservation Caper and this year I tackled The Energized Guyz. Both plays are by in-house playwright, Jon Mikkelsen, and while it ain’t fine art, the scripts are actually rather clever and quick-witted. My two actors, in turn, were committed to the material and over the course of a week’s rehearsal, they managed to continuously crack me up. Trust me, that is high praise when you’ve seen your same show for the umpteenth time! Below is a great example of exactly the show I handled.
As an actor, I really do make the effort to practice other aspects of my field. Not only do I recognize the benefits that directing has for me as a performer, but I do like directing and it’s a nice change of pace when those opportunities arise. Thankfully, I work for a theatre company that allows me to stretch those muscles and funny enough, as The Energized Guyz tours throughout northern Ohio, being seen my hundreds upon hundreds of students, it’s gotta be the most viewed work I’ve ever done!
For those of you who are interested, the adaption of The Oresteia that I was in last year is actually being published! The original is by Aeschylus, of course, but Minnesota writer and poet, Rob Hardy, turned the trilogy of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides into one action-packed narrative.
I think it’s pretty good and will definitely be getting my own copy, which includes a forward about the original production from Hero Now Theatre. Fun fact, this is the first time I have been listed as an actor in a published script!
Check it out here at http://heronowtheatre.org/store/
In just a few weeks I will have the enormous pleasure to portray Romeo in Mission Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet!
The show is directed by Penelope Parsons-Lord and will be at the Crane Theater in Minneapolis from June 2 – 17. What excites me most about doing this show is the chance to breathe some freshness into a story we all know. We all know what “violent delights” brings at the play’s conclusion, but what I’m challenged to do as a performer, is make you completely forget that the ending is as inevitable as all that.
That is my challenge and my joy. Romeo to me is not only a young lover but the embodiment of a love we all wish we knew. Whether it’s been lost or never had, that kind of undying, passionate, over-the-moon love is so beautiful and (whether it exists or not) the idea of it is enough to make us burst with emotion. Those feelings are certainly fueling Romeo’s desires, but it’s also the very real stakes of the play that really drive it all home.
Romeo and Juliet are two characters constantly fighting for what they believe in since it seems everyone is against these two people simply being together. Their parents, the government, even the freakin’ stars. I’m simplifying, of course, but by boiling it all down to the basic “what is this about”, you really expose the absurdity those aforementioned obstacles. Why can’t people live and let live? Why can’t love just be pure and innocent? Why do people and governments feel as if they have a right to butt into other people’s private affairs?
Romeo, therefore, is a truly hopeless romantic. He is a good person, a stand-up guy who is well liked and only wants to marry the girl of his dreams and yet… he is killed, thereby causing the death of his equally innocent counterpart, Juliet. Now that is some fickle shit from ye old Fate. Nonetheless, that is life after all and the tragedy the play presents. To present a show just about two angsty teenagers who kill themselves would be absolutely unbearable to watch. No, what the play is about is why they come to the conclusion that this is the only way out. How suffocating does a situation have to become for someone to take such drastic actions? When you look at the play that way (and most plays, really) it is as compelling and riveting a story as any in the canon.
I’m so grateful to be telling this story to audiences and doing so with a truly remarkable team, both on stage and off. It may be Romeo and Juliet but they are only as good as the ensemble around them.
You think you know the story of two star-crossed lovers who took their lives… but there is so much more than the title characters; there’s something bright, attractive, and urgently relevant about this play when fearlessly performed. And that is what this production will bring to audiences. We will aim to look specifically at unending cycles of violence, at the people it affects, and that violence is NEVER self-contained; violence breeds violence. This production will be ambitious, brave, fast, funny, and relentlessly tragic.
Friday, June 2 @ 7:30pm
Saturday, June 3 @ 7:30pm
Sunday, June 4 @ 2:00pm
Monday, June 5 @ 7:30pm
Thursday, June 8 @ 7:30pm
Friday, June 9 @ 7:30pm
Saturday, June 10 @ 7:30pm
Monday, June 12 @ 7:30pm
Thursday, June 15 @ 7:30pm
Friday, June 16 @ 7:30pm
Saturday, June 17 @ 7:30 pm
Eric Balcerzak as Lord Capulet
Tyus Beeson as Tybalt
Michael Terrell Brown as Balthazar/Ensemble
Gary Danciu as Friar
Caitlin Featherstone as Ensemble/Dance Captain
Vincent Hannam as Romeo
Ashley Hovell as Benvolio
Tamara Koltes as Mercutio
Jason Kornelis as Prince/Ensemble
Bethany McHugh as Juliet
Stanzi Schalter as Friar John/Ensemble
John Stark as Paris
Anneliese Stuht as Nurse
Maggie Mae Sulentic as Ensemble/Fight Captain
Andrea Rose Tonsfeldt as Montague/Ensemble
Amy Vickroy as Lady Capulet
Penelope Parsons-Lord: Director
Ellen DeYoung: Stage Manager
Tony Stoeri: Lighting Designer
Leazah Behrens: Set Designer
Steve Herzog: Sound Designer
Penelope Parsons-Lord: Costume Designer
Krista Weiss: Assistant Costume Designer
Michael Kelley: Fight Choreographer
Andrea Rose Tonsfeldt: Hair/Makeup Designer
Turi Jystad: Assistant Stage Manager
With every blog I write here, I try my darndest to make the title as clever a pun as possible. I consider this in the spirit of good journalism. I also consider this in the spirit of my current show, The Ghost Train, which lends itself to a litany of loco locomotive puns.
Now in case you’re still thinking The Ghost Train is a serious commentary on the state of the U.S. infrastructure, let me clarify even further by saying that it’s about a band of disparate travelers who’s night train has broken down, leaving them stranded at a rural station in northern Maine. This is no ordinary train station mind you… in fact, it is HAUNTED by a paranormal locomotive that drives any witness to madness. The travelers must then put aside their personal troubles to solve the mystery and save the day.
For my part, I play Charles, a newly married young man who would love nothing more than to get to his honeymoon hotel. Believe me, those are some pretty high stakes but don’t get too caught up in the details, this play is just plain fun.
Aiding in the irreverence is the time period in which The Ghost Train was written. The play, by Arnold Ridley, is full-on 1920s and premiered in London in 1923, running sold-out for over a year. In the subsequent decades it was made into several movies and established the trope of “strangers who get stranded and have to come together to defeat something bigger than themselves.” I would also say that William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were probably familiar with this play when they produced Scooby-Doo – there are so many of the same conventions!*
With such a history, it escapes me as to how I’ve never heard of this play. It may be almost a hundred years old but the humor is astoundingly fresh; it’s silly and absurd what some of these characters do in the midst of a haunted train station.
This production also promises to offer a unique perspective on the play. Produced by Wayward Theatre Company and Mission Theatre Company, the show is be performed in partnership with the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul. The museum itself is in an old train depot and includes actual train cars! It’s super cool and brings a level of authenticity to the hi-jinks abounding. Definitely look into it and come to the show early enough to be able to look around the place and seeing some really interesting bits of history, when trains were the only practical mode of transportation.
You can do that soon when The Ghost Train pulls into the station on March 31st!
*Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were the actual creators of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, so in all fairness to them, it was probably they who were inspired by The Ghost Train.
Last month I was back in the director’s chair with a fifth grade production of Treasure Island. The show was at Sunset Hill Elementary in Plymouth, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis) and I was actually co-directing with another theatre artist in town, Amy Abrigo.
The show was something that was handed off to me late in the game but of course I accepted with eagerness. While I’ve directed a bunch of community theatre and high school students, it had been a while since I’d been in charge of so many little ones. I had been a substitute teacher in Florida and experienced what a handful of second graders could be, but to be fair to all those fifth graders reading this, they’re not that bad. They are in a transitional age group where they are old enough to be “cool” and talk to you like an adult, but still young in that they have very little self-control, respect or understanding of the consequences their actions may have. In short, it was a mixed-bag of screaming and praising.
While the rehearsal process lasted a few weeks, it was only for two short afternoons a week where most of my time was spent herding cats and being a disciplinarian. The whole time I kept reassuring myself that “it will all come together in the end”, because I am no stranger to the way shows work out sometimes. However, while I knew at some point those kids would listen to me and memorize their lines, I wasn’t fool enough to think it would just happen on it’s own.
I did the kids, Amy and myself a favor and took a hatchet to the already short script. Being that Treasure Island a story we’re all kind of familiar with I said nuance-be-damned and essentially cut out anything that didn’t feature Jim Hawkins or Long John Silver. The show was a musical as well so that really helped bridge any gaps in the story. Even with those cuts, the show was just under forty minutes! Which flew by but was plenty, believe you me.
Of course my eternal optimism was rewarded in the end and the two performances went off without a hitch. The little bastards pulled it off and I was ultimately proud of them. I was even witness to some extremely humble moments when they would confide in me about how nervous they were to perform in front of their peers… it was very touching! It’s so funny working with kids that age because you really do want the best for them and think they are just the cutest, but damn do you want to wring their necks. I say all of this, of course, with tremendous love and I think anyone who has shared my shoes gets it 100%.
Finally, I would just like to include the cast list here (pictures will come at some point on my directing page) so one day one of those little munchkins can Google their name and read exactly what I thought of them. Also, here’s a song from the show that was the absolute bane of my existence.
Yo ho ho!
Sunset Hill Elementary
Kathryn Schultz Miller
Vincent S. Hannam and Amy Abrigo
Jaden St. Urbain
Noah Stephens, Jacob Behr, Thomas Theising,
Luke Schultz, Nadia Fessenmeir, Talia Eddy, Nate Lindblad
Technical Director/ Producer: