An Auspicious Change of Plans

If you are not aware, the plans for our apprentice company capstone production for 2017 changed quite rapidly at the end of last season. Suddenly, rather than having two young actors in the program preparing to mount their production of choice, there was one actor forced into an extremely difficult decision. Lewis Youngren rose above many challenges and is now reaping the benefits of his efforts in his run of I Am My Own Wife at the Commonweal. For this edition of Drama Unfolds, Lewis has provided his thoughts about, reactions to and thanks for the last three months. 

An Auspicious Change of Plans

Lewis Youngren in I Am My Own Wife

Lewis Youngren in I Am My Own Wife

This experience of choosing, producing, and performing in a one-person show has been an extraordinary milestone in my life as an actor and human being, alike. To be able to, night after night, tell a story as remarkable and astounding as I Am My Own Wife is a privilege; an honor.

This journey, like most (or at least the ones most worth taking), has not been without its own set of challenges. The biggest of those challenges was probably the sudden change of plans. Going from doing a two-person show to a one-person show was a very intimidating hurdle to jump. All of a sudden, my workload doubled in size. Thankfully, I had a team of wonderful collaborators who held me up and worked together with me to divide and conquer the massive to-do list. Choosing a new show was a little nerve-racking, but it also turned out to be a lot of fun. I read a lot of scripts that I otherwise may not have. I feel that your repertoire can never be big enough, so if nothing else, it was a small victory to add some new material to my collection. However, nothing was standing out to me as the “right choice.” A lot of the scripts I read were comedies, and don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh and bring joy to people but a comedy wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell. My feelings were rooted in something deeper, something poignant, something raw. That was when I remembered a title I had come across in undergrad, I Am My Own Wife—the title was about the extent of my knowledge with it. So I read it. Before I hit the end of Act I, I had been through almost the entire spectrum of emotions. I had laughed, I had cried, I had gasped and I had scowled. Needless to say, I was exhausted just reading it.

I Am My Own Wife by Doug WrightThis script, this story and this person stirred something in me; something I hadn’t felt with the other plays. Not only did I immediately connect to the story, but I felt that people needed to hear this story right now. Here. This specific moment. Today. You. Us. Them. In this world. In our town. In the surrounding towns. THIS is the story I wanted to tell.  That’s pretty much when my decision was made. I am happy to say, with confidence, that it was the right one.

Another challenging, but the most rewarding and impactful part of this process, has been creating this entire world of characters. From Charlotte, to Tante Luise, to Ziggy Fluß, to the Stasi Agent, I have found a little piece of myself in each of the 35 characters who inhabit the play. These characters aren’t like other characters you meet from other stories. These characters existed. They were real people. They had histories. Of course, the job of the actor is still to create and portray the character, but there has to be, in my opinion, a deeper level of honesty and reality present when portraying a historical character. Lewis Youngren rehearsing I Am My Own WifeThat way, the person doesn’t become completely lost in the interpretation, but the actor also gets the freedom to craft them into something unique; into something they want them to be. Doing this 35 times seemed impossible, especially with the timeline we were working with. Lucky for me, I had Amanda Pyfferoen (dramaturg/stage manager) and Philip Muehe (director) in the rehearsal room with me. Whenever I had a specific historical question or came to a creative road block, they were right there with the knowledge and spark of creativity that the situation needed.

I am extremely grateful and humbled by this entire experience. Thank you to everyone who has turned this dream into a reality. I cannot express in words how much you all mean to me. Your time, efforts, talents, and determination are evident through this beautiful piece of theatre we have crafted together. Thank you to the people who have come to witness this story and those who have yet to attend this weekend. Your love, support, and willingness to join as an integral part of this live performance is admirable and greatly appreciated.

This has been a wild ride. I’m not ready to say goodbye to this one yet, but all things, good or bad, must come to an end. Thank you for allowing me to share this story and for being a part of this incredible journey. I leave you with the words of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf…

“You must save everything. And you must show it—auf Englisch we say— ‘as is’. It is a record, ja? Of living. Of lives.”

As of March 30, there are four performances remaining in the run of I Am My Own Wife. Ticket reservations are recommended and may be made by calling 800-657-7025 or online by clicking here

Goodbye…For Now

by Gary Danciu

Gary DanciuAs someone who loves stories and telling stories, it’s always been hard not to look at my own life through a narrative lens. My life will have had a beginning, middle and an end. I’ll look back at my life and see the different chapters and characters that made up my story. My time with the Commonweal has been a significant and important chapter, and I know that it will remain that way for the rest of my life. After six seasons with the Commonweal, I have decided to bring this chapter to its end. I did not make this decision lightly. I came to the Commonweal as an apprentice in May of 2011, a year after graduating college. This past August, I decided it was time to move on and find new theatrical experiences in the Twin Cities.

I remember my first day in Lanesboro quite well. A few company members greeted me warmly at our artist’s residence and then I attended the opening night of Sylvia. At the opening night party, I was introduced to the variety of interesting characters that inhabited the company at the time. Little did I know, that I would meet many more characters and that my time in Lanesboro would extend all the way to December of 2016. During my time with the Commonweal, I have been given incredible opportunities to grow as an actor and a person. I performed in sixteen productions, served on the design team for nine productions and received experience in all aspects of the company’s administration.  I’ve worked with dozens of talented artists over the past six seasons and I have forged life long friendships. To be honest, when I first came to Lanesboro in 2011, I wasn’t sure if I had what it took to make a life for myself in the theatre. I knew I had talent and a passion for theatre, but I just couldn’t imagine myself going off on my own and really making it happen.  My experiences here and the people who I have worked with have all helped me to imagine that reality. I now know that I have the tools and confidence to move forward.

League of YouthWhat I have valued most at the Commonweal is the chance to feel a part of a greater team and community. Throughout my life, I’ve always had the good fortune of doing what I love in service of something bigger than myself.  At the Commonweal, I’ve always been made keenly aware of the effect my work has had on our audience. I’ve always known what my work and the work of my colleagues means to Lanesboro. There are good days and bad days at the company (as there are everywhere), but I have found every experience, good and bad, to be educational and valuable. Wherever my path leads, I hope to eventually find that sense of connection and community that has been so deeply satisfying during my time here.

I’d like to take this opportunity to express my overwhelming feeling of gratitude to all of you who have made my time here in Lanesboro such an unforgettable and wonderful chapter of my life. I’ve been thinking a lot about all the people I’ve gotten to know over the years, artists I’ve worked with, patrons, and the people of Lanesboro. I also want to thank my parents for all the trips they made the see me perform and for all of their love and support from afar. You have all played a part in my journey, and I hope in some small way I was able to do the same for you. Even though I am moving on to the next chapter, the Commonweal and Lanesboro are places I will proudly and always call home.

The Many Faces of Gary’s Commonweal Career:

A Living Theatre

by Brandt Roberts (Commonweal Resident Ensemble Member)

vaudevilleOnce upon a time, there were theatres and opera houses in nearly every small community in this wide country of ours. Vaudeville shows, symphonies, magic acts, acrobats, circuses and touring companies gave the teeming masses a balm to contend with life’s travails. Live entertainment was the rage and had been for centuries. These performances gave men and women an escape, an entrance into the world of their imagination where they could view humanity in its heightened form: distilled to its essence.

But those days came to an end. Thomas Edison invented a way to capture life in celluloid. No more would a performance exist solely on the stage. Now stories could be confined to film for the world to see at its leisure. It became cheaper to ship cans of celluloid than to ship train cars of actors. And so the live performance halls were converted into cinemas.

cansIt was the age of Hollywood. Movie stars graced the silver screen and millions of viewers across the country idolized these monochromatic giants. Edison’s little contraption had unwittingly changed the face of theatre. No more could plays be performed as naturally or realistically as the public demanded. Film was able to capture the real world far better than any stage set. The audience had become accustomed to their new viewfinder world.

So the stage was set for Avant-garde, Surrealism, Absurdism, and many other “isms.” Theatre became an experimental playground, more so than it had ever been in its three thousand year history. It had to reinvent itself.

Over the years, people have professed to me that theatre is dying—from within the profession and from without. With the advent of film, television, radio, YouTube, iPhones and the like, how does the modest theatrical performance stand a chance in our world of mass media? The answer—easily. Within the phrase “theatre is dying,” there is the implication that it is something that is alive, something that can die. Film, on the other hand, is already “lifeless.” Trapped within celluloid, the film La Voyage Dans La Lune will be the same today as when it was released in 1902; only the audience has changed. When people say that theatre is dying, they are referring to popularity and not vital signs. But is theatre truly out of fashion?

In the southern region of America, there does seem to be a decline. A few years ago, I toured the northern part of our country with a theatre company. Within these small towns in the north, old vaudeville houses and single screen cinemas, which were closed due to the onslaught of multiplex theatres, had been renovated into live performance spaces. So why not renovate old theatres in the south? Well, the demographic in the south has a hard time supporting a theatre because generally speaking, they are not live theatregoers. Some of this has to do with income. A lot of the areas in the north that have renovated theatres also have a wealthy demographic with a philanthropic soft spot for the arts.

A Commonweal audienceSo why do we need theatre? We have film, TV and the Internet. And besides, theatre isn’t financially practical. We need it for one very strong reason: human beings are social creatures. We thrive on human interaction. If a baby is raised in isolation it will develop severe social and mental disabilities. The same can be said of an isolated society. Besides the audience breathing together, you have the actors on stage breathing with each other, but also breathing with the audience. The audience affects the action on stage. They are active participants in the experience, not passive bystanders. They are not isolated but intimate.

When you have a conversation with someone, you want that person to respond to you. Think about live performances as a conversation. It is an organic experience. The performance you see will never be seen again! Differences in the actors, audience, temperature, weather, politics and region all have an effect on the product. It is alive. A performance is born and dies every single night.

So, why do we need theatre in a small town? Because the residents of an area know what stories need to be told to their community. No one else will tell the tales that need to be told. It is a theatre’s job to build worlds that are only open to a few. Isn’t it great to share a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with other people in your community?

Brandt Roberts

Brandt Roberts

Arts foster this in our children and our children’s children. Art is the foundation of a successful culture and as long as there are humans who will listen to a story, there will be theatre. Theatre doesn’t need a set or a stage, elaborate lighting or costumes. It doesn’t need a camera, electricity, a computer or a satellite. It just needs a storyteller and an audience. The only difference between a story and a play is when the storyteller becomes a character. It is odd to admit it, but we all act. Each and every day you play a different character: a wife/husband, a carpenter, a teacher, a father/mother, a child, a doctor, an athlete and a lawyer… the list is infinite. You may say these are just social roles, but do you not behave differently depending upon these roles? And are not the characters in a play called “roles” for a reason? As Sir Laurence Olivier said, “Surely we have always acted; it is an instinct inherent in all of us. Some of us are better at it than others, but we all do it.”

Theatre cannot die. It is a part of who we are.