Thursday, February 7, 2008

Backstage with City Circle's Shorts

City Circle - We recently had the chance to look backstage at City Circle’s upcoming Shorts festival (formerly called the New Play Festival). What follows is a conversation with festival director Andrew Juhl and two show directors, Jeffrey Mead and Bev Mead.

Andrew, what is it like being the director of the entire festival? What does that involve?

Andrew: What's it like? In a word: exhausting. The learning curve is steep, especially for a first-timer like myself. Luckily, I’ve had an immensely supportive network of helpful individuals—everything from previous festival directors and City Circle board members to the festival producer, Maria Schroeder, and my various actors and piece directors. What does it involve? Well, this year it involved putting out a call for interested playwrights, helping with the committee to decide which plays we would produce, organizing a casting weekend, helping fill-in casting holes, finding replacement actors for dropouts, organizing rehearsal spaces and times, helping design advertising materials, organizing online publicity, contributing to radio publicity, and somehow still being functional at my real job on a daily basis. So, yeah, to put it bluntly: it’s not a good mantle to assume if you’re the type of person who likes putting your feet up.

What are the biggest challenges you've had to overcome in that role?

Andrew: Casting. Fortunately, the Iowa City/Coralville area has no dearth of opportunities for interested actors of all ages. Also unfortunately, the Iowa City/Coralville area has no dearth of opportunities for interested actors of all ages, and many people were already committed to other shows on or around the festival dates. Our audition weekend was sparsely attended (and understandably so), which left a 2-3 week scramble to fill-in casting holes. I’m proud to announce, however, that all of our roles are filled with a diverse group of very competent actors.

You are directing two of the pieces - Murder by Midnight and Four for Prayer. Tell me about Murder by Midnight.

Andrew: Murder by Midnight is a film noir-style comedy piece written by the accomplished Jeff Goode, a writer whose work is anything-but-new to the area. The story follows a grizzly Sam Spade-style hacksaw as he helps a seductive damsel-in-undress solve a murder or two… or three. The piece has been a joy to direct, and it should be a delight to see.

Four for Prayer sounds like an emotional piece for and about women. As a man, what was it like directing that sort of piece?

Andrew: I’ll never pretend to understand the inner workings of a woman’s emotions, and I’d be arrogant if I didn’t acknowledge the helpful insights given to me by the four actresses appearing in the piece; but this piece carries inside it several emotions that anyone who’s ever been in love can identify with, and that’s what I chose to latch on to as the director. I don’t want to say anything more because Four for Prayer is such a short piece, and I want it to remain powerful to audiences.

They do sound like very different shows. How were you able to switch back and forth as a director from outright comedy to serious drama?

Andrew: Switching between pieces wasn’t hard, and I don’t think it should’ve been. As long as you respect a piece and give it your all, it doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy or a drama—your appreciation for the piece (and for theatre) will shine through.

Any other shows in particular that you'd like to tell us something about?

Andrew: I could go on and on about all of them. A few high notes for audiences to look for, however, would be: Negotiated Safety, a half-raucous/half-severe look at major life decisions written by City Circle’s own Chris Okiishi; Rachel Howell’s and Derek Schmeling’s performances in Rebecca Christian’s comedy Nano Romantico; and the excellent writing (and excellent cast) featured in Vicki Krajewski’s Distinctly Tasteful.

Distinctly Tasteful is directed by Jeffrey Mead. Jeff, tell us a little bit about that show.

Jeff: I'd categorize the play as a comedy-drama. The easiest way to describe it is "Streetcar" set during a candle party. The gist of the story is that Flouncy (a mix of Blanche DuBois and pesky Avon sales-person) is giving a demonstration of a line of products from a company called Distinctly Tasteful in the home of her sister, Debra. During the demonstration, Debra's husband, Harold, arrives and invades, making a nuisance of himself with Debra's neighbors, Irene and Susan, and causing mentally-questionable Flouncy to lose her composure.

Tell me about the actors. New faces, old veterans? A mix of both?

Jeff: Well, of my entire cast, the only one I've ever worked with previously is Gino Dykstra, who plays Debra's greasy auto-mechanic husband, Harold. Christen Conrad plays Flouncy, and definitely had a huge job ahead of her with this role, as she has nearly eighty percent of the dialogue, and there's a lot of dialogue in this 13-minute piece...a lot of alliteration. She's done an amazing job memorizing and putting great twists on the characterization, some that I hadn't even thought of, but loved. Lorin Ditzler, a veteran of last year's New Play Festival, plays Debra, Flouncy's sister. LaShelle Christensen and Jana Hansen play Debra's neighbors, Susan and Irene. Both are new to City Circle, and Jana is a complete newcomer to the stage, having previously only been in pit orchestras. Finally, Spencer Lundquist, who was one of the Santa's Evil Elves in A Christmas Story, plays a role simply named "Young Man".

What has been the biggest challenge for you in directing this show?

Jeff: Considering this was my directorial debut, I actually found it to be surprisingly stress-free. Casting really was the biggest challenge. We had to do some outside recruiting to get all of the roles covered. Jana, for example, joined the cast as Irene because the actress I'd originally offered the role to had to turn it down literally the day before our first read-through.

Can you tell me about the rehearsal process?

Jeff: For me, as a director, I like to just give the actor the script and let them go through it without any direction from me, just to see what their take on the material is. Then, if there's something I'd rather they do differently, I give them the notes on those specific things. I consider myself very lucky to have some very talented and intuitive actors. Yes, I've made changes as we've gone along, but a lot of those changes were things that I'd not thought of before we got into working the blocking and business.

You and your mom are both directing shows in the festival. Have you been working together at all and sharing ideas or are each of you doing your own thing?

Jeff: Yes, actually, she's assistant directing for me, and I for her. She's been very helpful to me since she's directed before, making suggestions if things aren't working, reading in parts if an actor isn't available for a rehearsal, and holding script once the actors had to be off-book. And for her show, I've been standing in if she needed a body. We've both been very helpful to each other.

What do you think, Bev? What has it been like working with your son on this project?

Bev: We have discussed how we want things to look, sound, et cetera. We work together pretty well, I think. We bounce ideas off each other and usually find we're thinking the same thing; but not always, which is where our collaboration works well. We often find that the other's different ideas are even better than what we initially thought. It's fun! The rule we go by is - we can suggest things and we will discuss them, but the director has the final say about anything. And it works. And I think the way our shows are working out proves that we each have good ideas, and we each know how to get across to the actors what we want our actors to get across to the audience, and our actors respond beautifully.

Now, Bev, your piece is Negotiated Safety. Can you give us the short synopsis?

Bev: Melissa is a single woman who is preparing for a new stage in her life, and she discusses that stage and her plans with three of her current lovers. Melissa wants a baby, in a two-parent family, and she wants to know which of these men would be willing to participate fully in such a relationship.

Tell me about the actors. Anyone stand out in your mind?

Rachel Howell plays Melissa, Esack Grueskin is Josh, Kehry Lane is Alan and Greg Kilberger is Robert. All of them have been seen onstage before, though Greg is pretty new to the Iowa City theatre scene. Esack is new to me, but has been onstage in other productions. I'm extremely pleased with my cast. I believe they have all been able to take these "characters" and make them real people. When they interact with each other, I truly believe I'm a fly on the wall, watching something occurring in someone's living room. And, while it can be a little disconcerting at times, there are real moments of truth, beauty and compassion - as well as a lot of comedy, particularly in the facial expressions of Josh, as he reacts to what is said to and around him.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in directing this show?

Bev: The biggest challenge for me, personally, is the fact that I really would like to have seen this as a longer piece, a fuller, perhaps one-act show. I've become so enamored of these people that I want to know more about them, I want to see how they came to be where they are, and what happens to them "when the lights go off", as it were. Plus, the fact that I've really come to love being with the actors portraying them is making it hard for me to realize our time together for this show is rapidly coming to a close. I'm pleased to say, they all call me "Mom" - since I always try to adopt the kids I work with in theatre, this is really a joy for me. Oh, yes, there was one other challenge - Esack was a little shy in doing what he had to do with Rachel... suffice it to say, it's difficult for one guy to be involved with another guy's fiancée, when he's part of the cast -- and watching.

What has the rehearsal process been like for such a short show?

Bev: Because this show is currently running at no more than 12-13 minutes, and none of the men have more than a couple of pages of dialogue, the rehearsal process is much abbreviated from what would normally be required of a full-length production. But the intensity with which each of the actors has taken on their roles is the same. They have labored lovingly to create people out of words on a page, with true emotions and actions, and they each make you see and feel what they are seeing and feeling.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Bev: I've been involved in community theatre, from NW Iowa to SE Iowa, for 36 years now… this month, actually.


Bev: Thank you. And, while I've done things backstage, including ushering, building, painting and decorating sets, working on costumes and props, most of my "life" has been onstage. I'm a singer, and an actor, and I dance a bit. But for the past few years, I've begun realizing my dream of directing. And I can honestly say this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. A great script, a great cast -- a director can't ask for more than that! I congratulate and thank all of them for making this a show one I'm very proud to say I was a part of!

The show opens Friday at an interesting venue - the Iowa Children's Museum located Coral Ridge Mall. However, my understanding is performance space notwitstanding, these are not shows aimed at kids. Check back next week for a review. A complete list of shows follows:

Murder by Midnight by Jeff Goode
Go Fish by Rachel Howell
Nano Romantico by Rebecca Christian
Four for Prayer by Ellen Harris
Negotiated Safety by Chris Okiishi
Sacrificial Bunt by Kent Forsberg
The Scene of the Accident by Amy White
Distinctly Tasteful by Vicki Krajewski

Go here for more information.

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