Farewell 2017

The beginning of each season at the Commonweal, and this one was my sixth, seems a daunting prospect for all of us involved. It means many hours in the theatre, many hours with our heads in scripts, many hours fielding box office phone calls and many days when it does not seem worthwhile. And then the season becomes a whirlwind and comes to a close before we know it. The final week of each season turns into a period of reflection as we realize just how many lives we’ve touched and the great memories made in that process. Without further ado, the highlights of Season 29 for CWL company members.

The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works                              of Henrik Ibsen

David Hennessey: Sending up 20 years of Ibsenfest with The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, especially using a “death toll” chalk board; outstanding one-actor shows—Lewis Youngren in his apprentice capstone I Am my Own Wife and Brandt Roberts in The Art of the Entertainer at Lanesboro’s St. Mane Theatre; the pinheads lullaby to Merrick as he dies and watching him rise from his deathbed to cross over in The Elephant Man; M’Lynn’s emotional breakdown at the conclusion of Steel Magnolias; Christmas Past in The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge enjoying herself on the witness stand; winning the Nonprofit Excellence Award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Ben Gorman: The whole production of The Elephant Man.

Adrienne Sweeney: The very best thing about this season, for me, is the new patrons I have met that have become friends. Perhaps because I was in 3 of the 5 shows, I feel like I met a lot more folks this year, be they first-timers, new season pass holders or people who attend regularly but I just haven’t had the chance to meet. The conversations I have had at Encore and opening night parties, in the lobby and sometimes even in restaurants and shops, have reminded me that what we do is vital and the human connection is so powerful.

I Am My Own Wife

Philip Muehe: As the director, seeing I Am My Own Wife come together so well. It was a long and intense process, and both Lewis and I were pushed to our limits. But watching that first audience respond so positively was an experience I won’t ever forget. Chatting with people about the show and what it meant to them was so humbling. The fact that opening night was Charlotte’s birthday made it all that much better. Very thankful for the support from our patrons and the entire company!

Hal Cropp: The amount of use that the typewriter exhibit got after every Ghost-Writer performance. It was terrific to see all the people engaging in real typewriting, especially younger people who didn’t even have a clue what a typewriter was! The four glorious weeks of fun in the rehearsal room getting The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge on its feet, from Philip Muehe’s mastering gibberish AND drywall stilts to Jeremy van Meter’s discoveries of how to irritate David Hennessey’s Judge to Elizabeth Dunn’s sheer joy as Christmas Past to Eric Lee’s very fey Marley to Ben Gorman’s poker face to Abbie Cathcart’s delightful flirt Harriet Dilber to Megan Hanks’ blithely unaware Bailiff—just a joy everyday!

The cast of When We Dead Awaken, 2017

When We Dead Awaken, 2017

Elizabeth Dunn: Enjoying (and having many successful) student matinees and workshops. Especially our When We Dead Awaken matinee for students from Mayo H.S. Best. Teens. Ever. Second is the ensemble in our production of The Elephant Man. And finally, being a part of the last Ibsen production within the annual commitment.

Megan Hanks:  One of my absolute favorite activities from this year was playing with theatrical masks at company class, or “Playground.” There is so much talent and creativity in this company! It was awesome to see everyone just let loose and go crazy behind the mask.  Although it seemed tedious at the time, looking back I warmly recall searching for the play we’d chose to be our apprentice capstone. I love cold reading scripts out loud, especially with talented and dedicated peers. I love the in-school workshop program offered by the Commonweal as part of education outreach. I had an awesome time visiting schools and work-shopping with hundreds of students! It is so important to keep children and young people excited about theatre, and it was such a joy to have been a part of that this year!

Stela Burdt: So many patrons moved to tears by The Elephant Man and Steel Magnolias.

Abbie Cathcart: I loved being in the rotating rep of Steel Magnolias and The Elephant Man. It was a total blast. Performing and directing in the Waterways 10-minute play fest. It was a bit of a blur, but also super fun. Finally, getting to do like 5 different accents/dialects in one season was challenging and great fun.

Amanda Pyfferoen: The highlight of my year was working on I Am My Own Wife. Having the privilege to tell Charlotte’s story of her strength, determination, humor, love, and zest for life is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. Charlotte was not afraid to live her life “as is” and that mentality has inspired me to do the same. Philip’s (Muehe) masterful direction of Lewis’ (Youngren) exquisite performance was a joy to watch each night. From the bottom of my heart, danke Charlotte.

Bailey Otto: Watching the many different versions of Steel Magnolias that came with having 3 regular understudies. And seeing Philip learn to be comfortable on stilts for his Ghost of Christmas Future in The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Megan Pence: Reuniting Brand & Gerd in The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. Directing The Elephant Man with an overwhelmingly talented group of actors + an incredible script + beautiful designs = an extraordinarily fulfilling project. Getting to play in Truvy’s beauty salon for a few performances of Steel Magnolias as both M’Lynn & Truvy – both extremely challenging roles in but in completely different ways.

Brandt Roberts and Jeremy van Meter as Merrick and Treves in The Elephant Man, 2017

Brandt Roberts and Jeremy van Meter as Merrick and Treves in “The Elephant Man,” 2017

Brandt Roberts: One of the most rewarding aspects of this season was the chance to portray Joseph “John” Merrick in The Elephant Man. It was a labor of love for me and it taught me so much about humanity and what is important in the vapor of a life. Next, serving as the props designer for The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge called for tools and expertise that were beyond what I could do at the Commonweal proper. As a result, I got to work with local artisans Don Bell and Anna Loney in their shop right here in Lanesboro. I learned a ton and forged deeper friendships. It was thanks to their help that a magic lantern projector came into existence on the stage. And then there was the spit-take into Jeremy’s face during The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. I always managed to release a lot more water than was needed!

Patrick Vaughn: Listening from the lobby to the laughter of happily captive audiences during Steel Magnolias, The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, and Myra and Franklin’s editing sessions in Ghost-Writer. Finding out how effective mirroring the behavior of certain animals can be in creating multiple separate and distinct personalities for a multi-character track in The Elephant Man. Not only doing it myself in the rehearsal process but getting to watch other cast members doing it—that was fascinating.

The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works
                             of Henrik Ibsen

Jeremy van Meter: Being sprayed with an avalanche of Silly String along with Megan Pence during the limited and hysterical run of The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. And every performance alongside my amazing colleagues in The Elephant Man.

If you have your own special Season 29 highlight, please add it to the comment section. Thanks for watching this space and following our artistic exploits from here. I’ll be back in the editorial seat of this page in 2018 and, of course, I’ll see you at the theatre!

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.

Friendship and Camaraderie through the “Act” of Violence

by Aaron Preusse (Stage Combat Choreographer for The Three Musketeers)

Aaron“All for One and One for All!” is an iconic line that brings to mind images of swashbuckling Musketeers banding together to beat impossible odds. This classic phrase and its ideal is also, I believe, the foundation for stage combat.

Keeping someone safe while trying to kill them is a bit like rubbing your stomach while patting your head—it’s easy to do only after lots of practice. It’s this paradox of partnering safely while trying to commit acts of violence that I have come to call a “Contest of Generosity.” As a character, I might be trying to stab you through the heart but as the actor, I am doing everything I can to keep you safe and have it “appear” as though I am threatening your life. It’s this working together and abiding by the safety mechanisms which allows the actors to explore their character’s intentions fully, while at the same time delving into a relationship of trust and compassion with their scene partner quickly forming a tight bond with each other.

Aaron Preusse teaching fightSome of my best friends have come from “crossing swords” with them and the relationship that is formed in that process. This connection is not unique to me, it is found any time you have two or more individuals collaborating together while giving everything they have to their partners. It is why theatre is such a wonderful art form. Theatre is the collaboration of actors, designers, directors, playwrights and the audience and the connection that ensues when telling and receiving the story. Stage combat has that same collaboration, you just happen to be doing it with weapons.

Litograph artwork for Three Musketeers

It’s an amazing thing that happens when you put a sword into someone’s hand, they instantly want to play, where they can be Zorro or Luke or…one of the Three Musketeers. There is a sense of power that comes from stage combat, not the power that you might think; instead it’s the power of connection, trust and generosity. This comes from a commitment to make your partner look good, to give them what they need and in turn receiving the same. It is through this play, commitment and camaraderie that you have a scene that is safe, believable and exciting. This reliance on each other cuts to the heart of what is needed and creates an honest visceral moment. In that connection you build trust in each other and in yourself and there forms the alliance. “All for One and One for All” becomes a contest of generosity. Not a bad way to live your life!