Thursday, July 14, 2011

Backstage with Soldier's Daughter

Iowa City - Dreamwell's original play, Soldier's Daughter, opens this weekend. This show marks a number of firsts for the company. The location, the style, and the fact that the show is an original play written specifically for the company are all unique experiences for the 14-year old theatre. The show is performed promenade style on a farm just short ways from Iowa City proper. We had a chance to talk with the co-writer and director of the show, Matt Falduto, who is also a founder of the company. Our conversation follows.

So where did the idea for this show come from?

Matt Falduto: Well, I saw a show by Working Group Theatre called Odysseus, Iowa last year at this farm. The audience moved around the farm to different locations and I was just so taken with the idea, the concept, that I knew I had to do a show in that style. So I decided to write one especially for the farm. And that’s when I asked the Black Doggers for help.

And now let me make sure I understand this. The audience will move around the farm?

Matt: Right. It's called promenade theatre. We are fortunate enough to have Mike Moran, the Goatsinger, be our traveling minstrel for the show. He will lead the audience to the different locations.

Kind of like the Pied Piper?

Matt: Kind of. Yes. Except we're not stealing children.

Okay, so let's talk about the writing process a little bit. You mentioned the Black Doggers. Who are they?

Matt: They are a group of playwrights from all over the Corridor who meet every two weeks to give and receive feedback on their current projects. Joe Jennison started the group a number of years ago. I’ve been a member since the beginning and it’s been a huge help with my writing to be a part of the group.

So they helped write it?

Matt: Yes, five of them did. Amy White, James Trainor, Mike Moran, Brian Tanner and Barbara Lau. I gave each of them a location on the farm – the pond, a field, the sailing ship…

Wait, there’s a sailing ship?

Matt: There is. It’s really cool. Wait til you see it. And we made a sail for it.

Okay. So each writer got a location…

Matt:Right. Random location and random concept – like love, courage or jealousy. Then they had to write a scene using that location around that concept. The only thing I told them was the story had to be a story a Dad would tell his 13 year old daughter. They came up with the most interesting stories – there are moose, Greek gods, and fairies. Something for everyone.

I see. So then you put the stories together?

Matt: I took them and created the story of Tigerlily, a 13 year old girl waiting for her Dad to come home from Afghanistan. He comes home from the war and takes Tigerlily on a story walk, which is something they have done many times in the past. They walk the farm and Dad tells her stories. Weaving the stories together and creating the through line of Dad and Tigerlily was a really interesting writing challenge.

Did you have to do any re-writing?

Matt: Yes, that’s been part of the process. I did a reading of the first draft in January or February, I can’t remember, for the Black Doggers and got some great feedback. Then I wrote a second draft. That was what we started rehearsals with, but there's been major and minor rewriting as we've moved through the rehearsal process.

Major re-writing? Has that been difficult to work with?

Matt: No, not really. There was one of the stories that the actors had a completely different take on than we had intended when it was written. So we re-worked that to take into account their ideas. It made for a much stronger scene. That kind of collaboration has been a lot of fun. We have such insightful actors in this show.

So tell us about these actors.

Matt: Well, the Dad is played by Brian Tanner, who may be the hardest working theatre person in our area. He’s always working on a show. Brian also wrote one of the stories Dad tells Tigerlily. Tigerlily is played by Makayla Phillips, who was recently seen in A Little Night Music with City Circle. She immediately got the character of Tigerlily from day one and does such a good job of taking us though her journey. We have a great group of actors with a wide range of ages. There is a 10 year old girl, Mary Vander Weg, who plays a 100 year old fairy. She’s great.

Wait a minute, there are kids in a Dreamwell show?

Matt: Yep, that is a little different for us. Though we did have a couple of very talented younger actors in Henry V. We're trying to expand a little bit.

So tell me more about these kids.

Matt: Well, there are three birds played by girls who range in age from 9 to 11. They represent Tigerlily’s emotions and sort of her younger self in a way. They fly in and out of the play at different points to give us greater insight into what’s happening in her mind and heart. The girls are doing a great job as the birds. There's a wonderful dance sequence with the birds and Tigerlily that was choreographed by Carol Johnk. It's an important moment for Tigerlily in the play and I'm really happy with how it turned out.

So which of the stories is your favorite?

Matt: Oh, I’m not picking favorites – they’re all great! I will say that the moose scene makes me laugh every time I see it. James Anderson and Mark Nidey portray the moose and they are hilarious. But I also love the Eros-Psyche scene. We have two veterans in that scene – Brad Quinn and Elizabeth Breed. Their scene really shows off the majesty of the Iowa landscape. And the fairy scene is great…and the gypsy scene…and the pond scene…

Okay, I get it. No favorites. What has it been like creating a show in an outdoor setting?

Matt: There’s been a lot of unexpected challenges. There are a bunch of animals on the farm who have been, well, loud. In a traditional show, you’re not really expecting to hear a sheep bleat right in the middle of a scene. And then there’s the sun. Oh my gosh, it’s been hot. And humid. We’ve been drinking lots and lots of water. The cast has been great though in dealing with all of that. And you know, I think it’s all going to be worth it. Creating this show outside against the Iowa landscape… well let’s just say our set designer is pretty amazing.

How does this show fit with Dreamwell's mission of exploration?

Matt: We have done so much exploring with this show. From the collaborative writing process to the unique location to creating roles in the show for children, which is not something Dreamwell is known for at all, it's been one new experience after another. I have to say I feel very fortunate that the Dreamwell Board took a chance on this show. They had no script when they committed to the project. All they had were my ideas and my promise to make it happen. I hope this becomes a regular thing that we do - ask a writer to create a show specifically for our theatre. I'd love to see more original work done in this manner.

Are you worried about the weather?

Matt: Can't worry about it. If it rains too much, we'll cancel, but hopefully things will work out. We do have two rain dates set up. Sunday, July 17 and Sunday July 24 at 2 pm. With luck, we won't need them.

Any last words?

Matt: I hope people check this show out. It'll be a truly unique experience. Theatre on a farm! Don't miss it.

Reserve your tickets at Tickets also available at the door.

(Photos by Carol Grow Johnk)

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