Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Krannert Center Announces OUTSIDE Concerts at Research Park in Champaign

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts has announced that it is once again joining forces with Fox/Atkins Development, LLC, for a two-show series of summer concerts at the U of I Research Park. Both concerts are free and open to the public. OUTSIDE at the Research Park plays upon a simple concept: great music, fresh food, a green state of mind, and an open, relaxed environment. The performance space and seating area are located just south of the Gateway building at the corner of First Street and St. Mary’s Road in Champaign. The tree-lined, grassy space hosted thousands of audience members during the 2007, 2008, and 2009 series and will now welcome two more exciting concerts for 2010. Headliners for the 2010 series will be southern Louisiana natives Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas on July 16 and the high-energy, African-rooted sounds of Chicago’s own Occidental Brothers Dance Band International with East African singer Samba Mapangala on August 13.

Krannert Center’s senior associate director Rebecca McBride notes that an important facet of the OUTSIDE at the Research Park series is to “celebrate the unique and rich community in which we live and to bring attention to the amazing people and organizations that collectively make Central Illinois such a special place.” The 2010 OUTSIDE series will continue an initiative started in 2008 that focused attention on a community service group. This year, the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club will be the featured community partner, with information available during both performances on this critical youth-focused organization.

McBride notes that that OUTSIDE will “offer biodegradable containers and utensils, easy-to-access recycling bins, and marketing materials printed on recycled paper. We’re especially pleased this season to again offer bike racks for those who choose to go green by arriving via two wheels.”

In keeping with the green theme, the August 13th event will feature a green fair that will invite sustainability-minded local businesses and organizations to take advantage of free exhibit space where they can share information about their company’s green efforts. Interested parties can contact Valerie Oliveiro at 217/244-4287 or for more information. Tours of Gable Home, a solar house built by students from the U of I that won second place in the 2009 Solar Decathlon, will be available on both evenings from 5pm to 7:30pm.

The first performance is Friday, July 16th at 7:30pm and features Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas.

Southern Louisiana is home to its own particular brand of accordion-fueled, soulfully percussive, Creole-blooded dance music known as zydeco. OUTSIDE fans who raved about the 2008 performance by zydeco sweetheart Rosie Ledet should mark their calendars for this show by Nathan Williams, one of the most in-demand practitioners of this funky roots music. Tinged with a good dose of R&B, the brushing beat of a rubboard, and the strong collaboration of a solid family band, the music of Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas celebrates the traditions of the Deep South with a fresh, fun sound perfectly suited to a warm summer evening.

Gable Home tours will be offered from 5 to 7:30 pm, and a local act will open for Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas at 6:15 pm.

The second performance is scheduled for Friday, August 13th at 7:30 pm, with the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International with Samba Mapangala on the bill.

Chicago’s Occidental Brothers Dance Band International weaves high-energy soukous, Ghanaian Highlife, and African jazz and has captured the admiration of audiences at the Ottawa Blues Festival, Lincoln Center, the Chicago Folk and Roots Festival, and the Montreal Jazz Festival. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune hailed the group as “one of ten must-sees at the Pitchfork festival.” OBDBI is led by guitarist Nathaniel Braddock, an instructor at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, who has twice been profiled in Guitar Player magazine. Braddock is joined by Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Makaya McCraven on drums. They first joined forces with Congolese music legend Samba Mapangala in 2009 for “Obama Ubarikiwe,” an acclaimed tribute to a well-known presidential candidate. Since then, Mapangala’s mellifluous, East African-rooted, rhythmically complex style has continued to serve as the perfect dance floor companion for OBDBI and its audiences.

Before OBDBI takes the stage, the green fair will begin at 5:30 pm, Gable Home tours will again be offered from 5 to 7:30 pm, and a local opening act will start at 6:15 pm.

These concerts will be held just southwest of Assembly Hall on First Street in the Research Park. Free parking is available in the lot south of the Caterpillar/SAIC Building at 1901 South First Street.

Beverages, wine, and food will be available in the concession area located at the northwest corner of the Caterpillar/SAIC Building.

All performances are free and open to the general public.

For more information, visit or call 217-333-6280 or 800-KCPATIX.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Swash Your Buckle with "The Three Musketeers" at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

No, William Shakespeare did not write "The Three Musketeers." But, from time to time, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival does include non-Shakespeare material to offset more standard fare.

This is the ISF’s second try at “The Three Musketeers,” a rip-roaring yarn written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, père (as opposed to his son, Alexandre Dumas, fils). This time, the ISF has commissioned a new version of the Musketeer story from Chicago playwright Robert Kauzlaric, which was, as it turns out, a very good idea.

Kauzlaric cuts to the chase, trimming the long and complicated plot about 17th century political and personal intrigue, including kings and queens, heroes and villains, love and death, twelve diamond studs and lots of swordplay, down to one fairly fluid tale. All of the main bits are there, but dramatized and staged in ways that make them dash along as quickly as our hero D’Artagnan, the naïve fourth musketeer, gallops on his trusty steed. (The horses are actually piled-up crates or luggage of some sort in this version, and the movement is more of a hiccup than a gallup, but that’s funny, too.)

Director Karen Kessler makes the most of Kauzlaric’s script with sharp, clever staging that continues to surprise, whether she’s showing D’Artagnan (given lots of energy and charm by Drew Vidal) bringing flowers to the evil Milady night after night, or a series of irascible innkeepers (all played by Rhys Lovell) who pop up on D’Artagnan’s travels. The laughs and the story are there.

I never understood why there were so many swordfights in a tale about musketeers, but in this adaptation, all the rapier clash and dash gets its due as choreographed by Kevin Asselin. And wonder of wonders, there are muskets, too! Yes, that’s right. You will finally see musketeers wielding muskets.

Vidal is terrific at holding all the strands together from beginning to end, and he plays very well with the other three musketeers, the original One-for-All-and-All-for-One boys. They are drawn somewhat differently here than they are in most versions, but they’re entertaining and effective, nonetheless. Patrick New is stalwart and a little scruffy as Athos, Kevin Rich is smaller than the usual Porthos, but plenty goofy and endearing, and Kareem Bandealy’s Aramis comes off handsome, intelligent and smooth as the conflicted cleric and ladies’ man.

I also liked Magdalyn Donnelly’s feisty take on Constance, D’Artagnan’s love interest. She can be a bit of a simp in some authors’ hands, but here Donnelly creates a smart girl who has a backbone and some wits about her. She’s no match for arch-villain Milady, of course, but who is?

Kathy Logelin, a familiar face from Illinois Shakespeare Festivals past (including the previous “Three Musketeers” in 2000), makes a formidable Milady. She looks much too sweet to be so dastardly, but that works very well to explain how Milady gets away with so much. No one expects perfidy in such a pretty package. Costume designer Kathleen Jaremski has clothed her in shining white gowns, which adds to her oh-so-innocent exterior.

Also on the villainous side, George Judy and Steve Wojtas twirl their mustaches nicely as Cardinal Richelieu and his main henchman, the Comte de Rochefort, and they get good back-up from Nick Dargis, Ken Mooney and Nathan Stark as the Cardinal’s sneering guards.

Rhys Lovell is memorable as virtuous Lord de Winter as well as hilarious as all those quick-change innkeepers, who bring to mind Monty Python and Blackadder, while Gerson Dacanay gives tragic Felton a three-dimensional character in just a few lines, David Marcotte is the wimpiest Louis XIII ever, and Megan Storti and Brian Rooney show off their versatility as wildly different characters over the course of the play.

This “Three Musketeers” has a large cast, a ton of plot, and a whole lot going on. It is to Robert Kauzlaric’s and Karen Kessler’s credit that the pace never lags, the swashbuckling never falters, it’s easy to tell where we are and who’s doing what to whom, and the humor and high spirits just keep on coming.

All for one and one for all? Exactly.

“The Three Musketeers,” by Alexandre Dumas, adapted by Robert Kauzlaric
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Performed in repertory through August 6th.

Director: Karen Kessler
Costume Designer: Kathleen Jaremski
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer: Jason Knox
Stage Manager: Abigail S. Hartmann
Vocal Coach: Connie DeVeer
Fight Director: Kevin Asselin

Cast: Chris Amos, Kareem Bandealy, Kyle Cameron, Benjamin Cole, Gerson Dacanay, Nick Dargis, Magdalyn Donnelly, Max Ganet, George Judy, Anthony Kayer, Katrina Kuntz, Kathy Logelin, Rhys Lovell, David Marcotte, Ken Mooney, Patrick New, Kevin Rich, Brian Rooney, David Sitler, Nathan Stark, Megan M. Storti, Demetria Thomas, Drew Vidal and Steve Wojtas.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nothing but Blue Skies for ISF "Tempest"

After several nights of thunder and lightning, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” opened under blue skies last night. The play isn’t called “Blue Skies,” yet that serene skyline seemed just right for this version of the play, directed by ISF Artistic Director Deb Alley and set on a magical golden O of a set designed by Fred M. Duer.

Duer used two golden Os, one as a doorway to exiled duke Prospero’s island refuge and one as an enchanted circle on the floor of the stage. The former was surrounded by azure skies and puffy white clouds, while the latter was filled with them. And the blue sky imagery didn’t stop there – it was painted right onto Gerson Dacanay’s Ariel and his spirit companions.

It made for some beautiful stage pictures, especially at the beginning, with rippling yards of fabric manipulated by Ariel & Co. to create the titular tempest. It’s clear from the beginning that this storm did not come from Mother Nature, but from the manipulations of a more earthly being called Prospero, bent on upending the ship carrying the brother who had stolen his dukedom, dashing the usurper and his compatriots straight onto Prospero’s shores.

“The Tempest,” widely believed to be Shakespeare’s last play, is about an aging man’s need for justice and the settling of old scores, but also about the redemptive value of forgiveness and love. As an island exile, Prospero has learned magic and tamed supernatural servants, making him much more powerful than when he was merely the Duke of Milan, yet he longs to return to that lesser place, to break his magical staff and throw away his books and go back to the pleasures of friendship and human contact.

Alley has streamlined Shakespeare’s text, which means things move quite quickly and smartly, but you also lose a little of the connection to Prospero in the first half when he isn’t around for long stretches. The love story – between Prospero’s daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, one of the people who washes ashore – also seems weakened here, since we don’t get a sense of how hard Ferdinand is willing to work to earn Miranda’s love hand with those scenes trimmed.

But the magic is definitely present, helped by that gorgeous set and a lovely array of costumes designed by Holly Cole, but also by some excellent performances.

David Sitler is strong and majestic as Prospero, especially in the second half, and he is very appealing with the big, familiar speeches, like “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and “Now my charms are all o’erthrown.”

Gerson Dacanay’s Ariel is also right there at the top of the list; he dances and sings a little, but mostly he just inhabits the role of the airy sprite, and even in blue face, he gives Ariel a charming, lighter-than-air presence.

Caliban, Prospero’s other servant, is the opposite of Ariel in every way. He’s a deformed monster, the son of a witch who once inhabited the island, and he only learned to speak (or curse) when Prospero and Miranda taught him. As portrayed by Kareem Bandealy, Caliban is a bit of a devil, with red welts all over his torso and strange, crab-like appendages on his hands. Bandealy is excellent throughout, just crude and lascivious enough to make Prospero’s treatment of him seem somewhat reasonable. And I loved the way he used that golden crab claw.

Chris Amos and Patrick New are also good, making the drunken Trinculo and Stephano fresh and funny (no mean feat), Ariel’s sprightly blue companions (Kyle Cameron, Nick Dargis, Ben Layman, Ken Mooney, David Solotke and Nathan Stark) make a good impression throughout, and Katrina Kuntz is pretty and properly awestruck as young Miranda, so newly introduced to this “brave new world that has such people in’t.”

“The Tempest,” by William Shakespeare
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Performed in repertory through August 8th.

Director: Deb Alley
Costume Designer: Holly Cole
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer: Joseph Court
Stage Manager: Adam Fox
Vocal Coach: Connie DeVeer
Fight Director: Kevin Asselin
Acting Edition and Dramaturgy: Joel Fink

Cast: Chris Amos, Kareem Bandealy, Kyle Cameron, Benjamin Cole, Gerson Dacanay, Nick Dargis, George Judy, Katrina Kuntz, Ben Layman, David Marcotte, Ken Mooney, Patrick New, Kevin Rich, Brian Rooney, David Sitler, David Solotke, and Nathan Stark.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Living History: Auditions for Discovery Walk

Have you headed out to Bloomington's Evergreen Cemetery to take in the Discovery Walk in years past? Every October, actors portray real-life Bloomingtonians (and Normalites) who are buried at Evergreen, using scripts written by local writers (and, yes, I've penned a few over the years) to tell you how the people who were here before us lived their lives.

The Discovery Walk is a collaboration between the McLean County Museum of History, Illinois Voices Theatre and Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, with Illinois Voices' Judy Brown commissioning all the pieces and casting and directing the actors. As Judy describes it, visitors each year join "the McLean County Museum of History Education Department, Illinois Voices Theatre actors, and museum guides to hear a storyteller/griotte weave the stories of eight new McLean County citizens, McLean County itself, and Evergreen Memorial Cemetery into a fascinating crazy quilt of lives and experiences."

Judy has announced open auditions for this year's roles -- a paying gig! -- which include:

Grace Jewett Austin (b. Jan. 12, 1872 – d. Sept. 27,1948) Who better than this amateur playwright and poet, fashion dame and Pantagraph reporter, to fill you in on who was marrying whom, who showed up in town, who went to what party, and who wore what to women’s club meetings – in short her reporting would be right at home in People magazine – Bloomington’s own red carpet reporter.

Daniel T. Foster (b. Jul 22, 1841 d. Oct. 13, 1920) How does a man go from being a larger-than-life Civil War soldier, an owner of a local omnibus and carriage line, a raiser and racer of horses and mayor of Bloomington to being indicted for aiding a prisoner to escape and malfeasance in office?

Christopher Mandler (b. Apr 23, 1858, d. Dec. 6, 1949) What do you make of a gregarious German cigar maker who loved to sing and dance (with Mathilda, no less) and entertain all within the sound of his voice? Why, just relax and enjoy the show, of course.

Lucy Orme Morgan (b. Jan. 21, 1858 d. Feb. 27, 1944) What kind of a woman, a suffragist and ardent supporter of social support systems, is able to raise funds and keep homes for needy and homeless children up and running during financially strapped times?

Willis Stearles (b. Jan. 21, 1890 d. April 3, 1956) What is truth and what is myth about this World War I veteran, a member of the “Black Devils” regiment and longtime zookeeper at Miller Park? The Griotte will attempt to discover the truth behind the stories in this two-character scene.

Helen Davis Stevenson (b. Sept 17, 1869 d. Nov 16, 1935) How does a socially prominent woman in a rocky relationship with a husband (who is away from home for much of the marriage) cope with raising two strong willed children in an age when the success of her parenting was dependent upon the success of her children?

William Van Schoick (b. Aug. 2, 1829 d. Jul. 24, 1899) He was one of the founders of the Bloomington Pork Packing Co., the largest and most successful meatpacking company in town. How would you like to live in the neighborhood with all those awful smells? How did he deal with running a business that his neighbors hated?

William Richard White (b. Dec. 22, 1844 d. Jul. 10, 1906) How did this man who spent the first eight years of his life in near darkness, become a teacher and prize-winning inventor with 60 patents to his name?

Auditions will be held June 26 from 10 am to 12 pm and 2 to 5 pm and June 27 from 3 to 5 pm at the McLean County Museum of History, 200 N. Main Street in Bloomington. FMI, contact Judy Brown at or call 309-664-0708. Judy notes that she is in particular need of one African-American male between the ages of 40 and 65 and one African-American female, who can be any age. The remaining men and women will need to be adults over 30.

Auditioners are requested to bring a head shot and performance/training vita.

Please note that performance dates are an absolute commitment with no exceptions. Those dates are (weekends) October 2, 3, 9 and 10 from 10 am to 4 pm and (weekdays) October 4 to 7 from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm. There are also two mandatory dress rehearsals, on Thursday, September 30th and Friday, October 1st, with a 4:30 pm call. Rehearsals will be set according to actors’ individual schedules.

The picture at the top shows Sarah Flanders as Nannie McCullough Orme, remembering her young husband William Ward Orme, played by Eddie Saver III, in the 2006 Discovery Walk.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Mary Perkins: On Stage" -- A Peek into Life in the Theatre, Circa 1965

My friend Jon Alan Conrad guest-blogs for me again, this time about "On Stage," something we both find fascinating. Enjoy!

I suspect that our current way of getting the daily news has made all this a thing of the past, but: Back in the days of children reading the funny papers in the morning (especially on Sundays, when the strips were longer and in color), it didn't take long to discover that along with all the actual funny ones (whether your taste ran to "Peanuts" or "Pogo" or "Miss Peach") there were the non-funny ones that kids didn't care about -- that is, not failed attempts at comedy, but serious and realistically drawn continuing stories about adults, with names like "Judge Parker" and "Rex Morgan M.D." (both of which, I find, are still going!)

But there was one that was both a grownup serial drama and thoroughly entertaining (at least to me): ON STAGE (its name later extended to "Mary Perkins: On Stage"). Its main character was Mary Perkins, who came to New York straight from college when the strip began in 1957, eager for an acting career. She succeeded, becoming a respected actress on stage and screen (the live TV specials of the period, an occasional movie), but not a superstar. The dialogue had wit, and the story lines were varied and surprising. (And fascinating, to a boy just discovering an interest in theater and acting.) My parents concurred that this one was a cut above the others.

And rediscovering it decades later, I see that we were right. It really was that good! Classic Comics Press has been reissuing the strips in book form, and Volume 7 has just made its appearance, joining the six previous ones on my shelf. Each paperback book is in wide format (close to letter-size, sideways), with three daily strips or one Sunday strip (the latter in black and white) to a page, and about half a dozen stories (adding up to somewhat more than a years' run) to a volume.

Searching online, I'm learning that professional cartoonists are in awe of the drawing -- and rightly so, without doubt. Even I, no visual-arts expert, can tell how deft Leonard Starr was at framing and composing the action. But what I love most, and always have, is Starr's ear for dialogue and situation, the offhand, self-deprecating way people actually speak, with shots of humor in passing. Some of the stories here feel surprisingly real, others veer into unabashed melodrama, but they're all addictive fun to read.

This volume catches Mary in midcareer, from October 1964 to May 1966 (the strip ended in 1979). The book happens to begin and end with stories a touch more politically oriented than usual, with Mary invited behind the Iron Curtain on a supposed cultural exchange (discovering too late that nefarious doings are afoot), and then her husband, photojournalist Pete Fletcher, taking an assignment in Vietnam that turns into a daring rescue mission. In between, we often see Mary without Pete, moving from one job to the next.

That marriage, by the way, is one of the most interesting and un-dated elements in "On Stage." Starr didn't string out the suspense for years, as many serial writers prefer to: the wedding (preceded by a sparkling, flirtatious courtship) happened only two years into the strip. Mary and Pete keep their names and careers, the possibility of children never arises. and there's a touch of believable friction as they adjust to married life. Early on, Mary asks that Pete not accept foreign assignments any more, to maximize their time together; after initially agreeing to what seemed a reasonable idea, he finds the arrangement restrictive and unfair, and they renegotiate, acknowledging that in fact their careers will sometimes keep them apart. The attractive people whom actresses and photographers are likely to encounter do turn up, but handled with an adult understanding and lack of jealousy. In fact, the present volume contains the first hint that anything might be fundamentally amiss between Mary and Pete, and again it's a small but real matter that both are intelligent enough to understand and deal with: that after a few years of marriage they are taking each other for granted and becoming a bit neglectful.

In general, then, the big drama in "On Stage" tends to happen to others. There are a few continuing characters who pop up now and again -- Mary's seen-it-all agent Nat, the dashing Johnny Q who may or may not have criminal connections, sardonic housekeeper Daisy, mysterious "man of a thousand faces" character actor Maximus -- but mostly we meet a new batch of professional associates each time Mary undertakes a new role.

The present volume has the usual variety of good story ideas (I was happy to see Mary flying to the Caribbean to play Miranda in a telefilm of "The Tempest," with Maximus as Caliban having a life-changing experience), but if you're new to "On Stage," I might suggest beginning with an earlier volume and working your way through. Vol. 1 has the start of it all, with Mary trying to catch her first break, getting a temp job as a coat-check girl, and meeting Pete when he is assigned to do a story about her. Vol. 2 has Mary doing a season of summer stock (complete with brilliant but tragically self-destructive young male star, a la James Dean), dealing with a too-good-to-be-true offer of Hollywood stardom, and accepting Pete's proposal only to see him assigned overseas. In Vol. 3, Mary and Pete are reunited (after he is released from behind the Iron Curtain) and married in Switzerland. Vol. 4 (probably my own favorite) has feisty ex-Follies-girl Daisy invading Mary's apartment to clean and cook, former child star Julep Tandy cutting herself loose from an overbearing mother, high adventure (including a baby!) on location in a Caribbean storm, and Johnny Q's infatuation with an abrasively untalented new chanteuse. And that still leaves the "Hamlet" for TV in Vol. 6, with an untried (even unwilling) Hamlet and some of my favorite self-critical lines for Mary (Ophelia, of course): "Want to know how much Shakespeare I've done? I played Rosalind in high school. Millions of girls have played Rosalind in high school!" (with, please note, no explanation of who Rosalind may be) and later, "I've still got the quakes about it... But then again, faint heart ne'er won fat part, so here goes nothing!"

And through it all, the Manhattan high life of yesteryear, snazzy restaurants (with gossip columnists lurking behind every fern) and classy nightclubs, all of them patronized regularly by our cast and all vividly brought to life by Starr's visual and verbal skill. Here's a chance to be part of that enticing scene, all these years later.

With all the film versions of vintage comics these days, why has "On Stage" been overlooked? Julie and I agree that in its own era, Mary Tyler Moore and James Garner would have been ideal casting for Mary and Pete. Now -- well, I'm thinking Anne Hathaway and Cheyenne Jackson, but am open to other ideas.

Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins On Stage, Volume 7 (October 12, 1964, to May 4, 1966). Introduction by Sal Amendola. Classic Comics Press, 260 pages.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Don't Miss: Young at Heartland Showcase Friday

With Young at Heartland's Showcase at Heartland Theatre coming up at 1 pm on Friday, I interviewed YAH founder Ann White (pictured at left) to get the inside scoop.

How did Young at Heartland get started? Can you tell us a little bit about where you got the idea?
I knew a number of seniors who now had the time and interest in acting but were finding the opportunities for senior actors to be very limited. My mother had been in a nursing home and had no interest in Bingo but loved attending theater. These two trains of thought came together with the idea of forming an acting workshop for senior citizens. This would be a chance for seniors to entertain seniors.

I also felt that a senior acting workshop would make seniors more informed audience members and build a core of actors who would have the skills needed to provide local theaters with a strong audition pool.

I first presented this idea to the Heartland Theatre Board in 2003. The board supported the idea and in 2004 a McLean County Arts Center Grant provided the funding needed for a trial program of a six-session workshop. The success of that workshop led to the formation of Young at Heartland. I have served as the program director since its inception.

How has YAH changed since the beginning?
Our first workshop met twice a week for six weeks and that has evolved into weekly classes of 2 hours that meet for two months in the spring and for another two-month session in the fall.

Is there anyone who has been instrumental in YAH’s success that you’d like to recognize?
We have had talented instructors from John Ficca, Connie deVeer, and Kay Lynn Perry to D.Ann Jones. This year marks D.Ann’s fourth year with us.

Terri Ryburn joined us in 2005 and her original plays have given us marvelous material that is relevant and interesting to seniors. Through her encouragement other YAH members are now writing plays for us. Her book of plays Age on Stage is the 2010 best seller for ArtAge Senior Theatre Resource.

How many participants are there this year?
This year we set a record of 30 participants and we have a waiting list hoping to join us this fall. Our first workshop had ten members and five of those are still active in YAH.

Can you give us a glimpse into what happens during a typical YAH class or session?
Our classes begin with physical and vocal warm-ups. D.Ann leads us in acting exercises that improve concentration and articulation. Members work in groups of 2 to 4 to create brief scenes or to improvise on a given idea or topic. Activities to hone the use of mind, body, and voice are invaluable to developing acting skills. Auditions are held for the season’s scenes. Once parts are assigned then the members of each scene work through script analysis and character analysis as they prepare to rehearse.

D.Ann has said, “These aspiring actors are energetic, great fun and ‘up for anything.’ They are not afraid to tackle anything put before them and they put forth their best effort.”

Young at Heartland strives to build an ensemble of seniors who share the values of continuing education, creative self-expression, and community outreach. It is designed to accommodate and support performers’ comfort levels with memorization. The goal is to find appropriate pathways to showcase performers’ gifts in a fun, stress-free atmosphere.

Are there any particular moments that stand out in your mind as highlights from over the years?
Enduring friendships have resulted from YAH membership and new members are warmly included. A strong sense of family has developed among the members.

In our 2007 season Vicki Hill and Larry Eggan were performing Terri’s “Edge of Forever.” This play is about a couple getting ready to celebrate their 50th anniversary. At our performance in LeRoy there was a couple about to celebrate their 50th. They were delighted by the show and wanted to have their picture taken with those actors.

Carol Scott and I get repeated requests to bring back the Southern comedy “Ethel’s Closed Casket.”

What can we look forward to at the Showcase this Friday? Can you tell us a little about what or who we’ll be seeing?
There will be 22 of our YAH performers in the Showcase this year. There will be another new play by Terri Ryburn and four other scenes written by YAH members. The theme is surprises and there will be plenty of those. Five of our members are also cast in this year’s Ten Minute Festival so this a chance to see them in different roles.

What’s the biggest challenge in putting on a YAH season?
Our biggest challenge is to find enough “senior appropriate” material. The scenes need to be believable for senior actors and engaging for senior audiences. All but one of our shows is “on the road.” That means we are coming into the “homes” of many seniors and as guests we want a show that will not offend or be a downer.

Our locations for shows vary from dining rooms and basements to sanctuaries and multi-media rooms. There can even be door alarms or P.A. announcements at some places. That keeps us on our toes!

We are now getting many requests for our shows so our schedule of 12 June/ July shows and 8 in October fills very rapidly.

What’s the best part for you?
It’s been terrific to have an idea be met with such enthusiasm. The YAH members are so filled with vitality and love of life. The bonds of friendship that this experience has created have enriched my life immensely. It has been so rewarding to watch the confidence, skills, ingenuity, and creativity of these seniors flower and create a dynamic acting troupe.

Thanks, Ann!

Young at Heartland will perform their summer Showcase at 1 pm on Friday the 18th at Heartland Theatre.

Friday, June 11, 2010

"Inns & Outs" in Ten Minutes or Less at Heartland Theatre

Full disclosure: I am very involved with Heartland Theatre's 10-Minute Play Festival. I chair the committee that selects the plays, which means I read each and every play, I discuss each and every play with other members of the committee, and I form opinions of them based on what they were like on the page. All of which means there is no way I can be a dispassionate observer when it comes to the actual production of the plays on stage at Heartland.

I love the ten-minute play concept. It just suits our attention-deficit world, doesn't it? In those ten minutes, playwrights have to pack in compelling characters, a complete plot (beginning, middle and end), and enough of a hook to keep the audience's attention for the whole ten minutes. Sound easy? It's not. But the good ones... Ah, the good ones. You see something like Greg Kotis's "An Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship Presented as Some Kind of Cop Show Parody" or Sheri Wilner's "Bake Off!" and you find yourself transported and satisfied. In ten minutes. Amazing.

This year, Heartland's theme was "Inns & Outs" or the hotel lobby, which is a subject I know a bit about. Growing up, my sister and I both spent many a summer (and school year) working at Pheasant Run Lodge, a resort hotel complete with several restaurants, a golf course and a playhouse. I know what it is to be a hotel babysitter, switchboard operator, room service cook and waiter, pool attendant and front desk clerk. I love hotels almost as much as ten-minute plays.

This year's roster of plays, featuring playwrights from Connecticut to Seattle, has a variety of viewpoints on hotel life, from funny to sad to downright touching. That's what great about an evening of theater like this; they're all so different from each other.

Several would have you believe it's mind-numbingly boring to work at the front desk. (Nope. Hotel babysitter and switchboard operator are far worse.) But they all offer intriguing characters and very different viewpoints on how and why people might interact in a semi-public place like a lobby.

I was struck by how many of the plays show off good acting partnerships and excellent scenes with just two characters. Nico Perez-Jandrich and Akeila LeClaire dance around each other nicely in Philip Kaplan's virtual reality rom com "Almost There," directed by John Ficca; Gregory Hicks and Todd Wineburner are subtle, strong and affecting in Dave Krostal's "If Only," directed by Holly Rocke; Ann Bastian White and Gayle Hess connect and click in Elena Naskova's mood piece, "Driving Through the Fog," directed by Misti Sommers, and Rosemary Luitjens and Kevin Wickart are simply wonderful as a mother and son in Bara Swain's "Civil Disobedience," directed by Chris Gray.

I also enjoyed Dave Lemmon as an officious desk clerk in Corey Case's "Not in My Lobby, You Don't," and Becky Miller as a brand-new hotel maid in R.D. Wakeman's "Going Nowhere." Lots of good acting happening in this year's festival.

"Ursula Fernhouse Checks Out," a goofy piece by Michael McGuire about a hapless hired killer (Herb Reichert), a frisky front desk clerk (Kim Behrens) and the world's oldest bad girl (winningly played by Rosemary Luitjens), closes out the evening on a high note. Director Christopher Connelly goes for a definitely wacky tone that works quite well.

"Inns & Outs" plays through June 27 at Heartland Theatre. There will be a talkback after the Sunday matinee on the 13th, with Holly Rocke, Todd Wineburner and me answering questions about the process. We'll also reveal next year's theme if anybody is interested on getting a head start on the competition.

For reservations, click on the Heartland link at left to see showtimes, ticket prices and box office information.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Tony Awards This Sunday: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn is one of my favorite playwrights, and I'm looking forward to seeing two of his plays later this year. In August, Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisconsin, is producing "Comic Potential," a fun futuristic piece about a robot soap opera actress who starts to feel human (I am not making this up), and my husband is taking me as part of an anniversary celebration. And then, this fall, Heartland Theatre, right here in Bloomington-Normal, offers "Woman in Mind," a brilliant, subversive play about a woman who hits herself in the head with a garden rake and imagines a much nicer family for herself than the one she really has.

Ayckbourn, to me, proves that comedy can be every bit as moving, as deep, as meaningful as drama. And sometimes more. That's why I'm especially happy that he will be receiving a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement at this year's ceremony. In conjunction with that, Pat Cerasaro has interviewed Mr. Ayckbourn on the Tonys website. Read, enjoy, and join me in watching to see what the master playwright has to say.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"Inns & Outs" Opens This Week

Heartland Theatre's 10-Minute Play Festival, this year on the theme "Inns & Outs," where all the plays are set in a hotel lobby, opens Thursday, June 10th. That first Thursday is "Pay What You Can" night, with all other performances ranging from $6-12, depending on day of the week and whether you're a senior, a student or just a general member of the public. Friday and Saturday night tickets are $12 for everyone. Go here for more information on tickets and ticket prices.

This year's line-up includes playwrights from coast (New York and Connecticut) to coast (California and Washington) as well as central Illinois (Bloomington, Clinton and Mackinaw are represented). On Sunday, June 13th, the 2 p.m. matinee performance will conclude with a talk-back from some of the people who work on the 10-Minute Play committee, including Todd Wineburner, Holly Rocke and me. All three of us have read and discussed every play submitted. This year, Holly is directing play called "If Only," while Todd is performing in that one. So the three of us can speak to what we're looking for and what we find in plays that are entered, how the process works, and what it's like to see a play on the page and then try to bring it to life on the stage.

If you have questions or comments about Heartland's 10-Minute Playfest, you'll want to attend that Sunday performance and stick around for the talk-back afterwards.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Twisted Saga of "In a Lonely Place"

It’s curious to me that “In a Lonely Place,” the 1950 Humphrey Bogart film playing at the Normal Theater Saturday and Sunday, is considered film noir. Yes, there’s a murder, but the solving of it isn’t really part of the plot. Well, it’s tied up there at the end, but we don’t see any unraveling of any great whodunit plot, and the revealing of the culprit doesn’t contribute to any cynicism about the world or who’s in charge, in classic noir fashion. There’s no big conspiracy, no crime (except for that already-mentioned murder), no seedy henchmen, no double-dealing dame, no opportunity for the hero and his shady moral code to get beat down by baddies. Not even his apartment gets tossed.

There is some cynicism and moral ambivalence, but it’s mostly involved in Humphrey Bogart’s character, a Hollywood screenwriter with a drinking problem and a bad attitude. His agent has convinced him to try to make a comeback by adapting a popular novel for the screen, but our boy Dixon Steele (okay, he definitely has a noirish name) doesn’t want to bother reading the book. Instead, he takes home a hatcheck girl who’s already read it. He gets the basic plot from her, and then basically tells her to get lost. Unfortunately for both of them, she gets murdered on her way home from his apartment.

The police are immediately suspicious of snarky, uncooperative Dix, who doesn’t seem particularly upset that a girl he dismissed so easily got strangled and tossed down a canyon moments after leaving him. But a woman who lives in a nearby apartment, played by femme fatale favorite Gloria Grahame, gives him a solid alibi, even though she doesn’t seem at all sure whether he actually did commit the murder.

That’s the whole plot, really. Dixon Steele is cranky and unpleasant, his neighbor Laurel likes him for reasons we can’t fathom (well, he is kind of hot, being Humphrey Bogart and all, and in the movie, he’s also a semi-celeb, as a famous screenwriter and Hollywood insider), she pops up out of nowhere to tell the cops he couldn’t possibly have been the murderer, and then he continues to be so unpleasant that she starts to wonder if he did it, after all.

As opposed to most film noir, where a labyrinthine plot is king, I think I would call “In a Lonely Place” a character study, completely focused on Dixon Steele. Who is he? Is he violent? Or just a jerk? What does Laurel see in him? Is he worthy or capable of love? And what will eventually happen to him if he can’t control himself?

It’s compelling enough, but lacks the intriguing minor characters and dark humor that make other film noir pieces of that period stand out. I can understand why “In a Lonely Place” is a lesser-known Bogart, even though he turns in a terrific acting performance as the haunted, hopeless Dix.

The back story may just be the most interesting thing about “In a Lonely Place,” when you consider that it was directed by Nicholas Ray, the real-life husband of Gloria Grahame, and the two were breaking up while they were filming it. It was a stormy marriage, and they split up for good after he caught her in bed with his son – his 13-year-old son – from a previous marriage. Some ten years after “In a Lonely Place,” Grahame actually married the younger Ray when he was 23 and she was 37. Given all of that, it’s hard not to read a whole lot of subtext into the central couple’s also stormy love affair, but I shall try to refrain.

But if you go to see “In a Lonely Place” on the big screen in glorious black-and-white at the Normal Theater, you can draw your own conclusions about what was going on in the Roy/Grahame household.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Summer Season at the Station Theater

The summer season opens tonight at Urbana's Station Theater, with "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" first up.

"Picasso," a quirky comedy involving Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, and a few denizens of a bar in Paris, was written by comedian Steve Martin. The Station's production is directed by Mikel Matthews and runs June 3-6, 9-13 and 16-19, with all performances at 8 pm.

Next on the schedule is "Ug, the Caveman Musical," directed by David Barkley, with musical direction by Alex Smith. "Ug" features music by Rick Rhodes, lyrics by Jim Geoghan, Vivian Rhodes and Rick Rhodes, and book by Jim Geoghan. Geoghan's cavemen sing and dance as they invent romance, cooking and the concept of musical theater. Why not? Somebody had to.

At the end of July, the Station will present "The Little Dog Laughed," the snarky, cynical Douglas Carter Beane comedy about a movie star, the hustler he falls in love with, and just how fast his agent will dance to hide the fact that her client is gay. "Little Dog" was a hit on and off-Broadway, and it earned both the Best Play Tony as well as a Best Actress Tony for Julie White as the take-no-prisoners agent.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Are You Ready for June?

I admit I'm shocked it's already June. The good news is that the SUMMER SEASON starts now!

Even though the University of Illinois has suspended their summer repertory, there's plenty to do and see. The Illinois Shakespeare Festival, right here in Bloomington-Normal, is back with all its usual delights, plus my favorite, Heartland Theatre's 10-minute Play Festival, starts very soon.

If you've been following my blog, you already know that the theme of this year's 10-Minute Play Festival is "Inns & Outs," with all eight plays set in a hotel lobby. Brand-new plays came in from all over the world, the winners were chosen in three painstaking rounds of judging, directors were assigned, actors were cast, and performances begin June 10. Click on the Heartland Theatre link at left for more information.

As for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, their schedule this year includes "The Tempest" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," as well as a new translation of "The Three Musketeers" by Robert Kauzlaric and a "Theatre for Young Audiences" version of "As You Like It" performed on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

"The Tempest," directed by ISF Artistic Director Deb Alley, opens June 24th at 7:30 pm, while June 25th is the world premiere of Kauzlaric's "Three Musketeers," with a special reception benefitting "Celebrate the Arts in Our Community." The reception begins at 6, with the performance at 8. Tickets for that special event are $75, although you may also purchase just a ticket to "The Three Musketeers" if any are left.

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" doesn't open until July, but tickets for all three shows are available now.

You may also find madrigals, jazz music in the courtyard, backstage tours, picnics, post-show talkbacks or an ice cream social. Information on all of those choices is available at the ISF website under "Shakesperiences." The ISF box office is open from 11 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 309-438-253. On performance dates, call the Ewing Park box office directly at 309-828-9814between 5:30 and 9 pm.

What else is happening in June? Lots!

The Normal Theater offers a mini-Bogart film fest June 3-6, starting with "The Desperate Hours" on the 3rd and 4th at 7 pm. This 1955 film stars Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March as men on the opposite sides of the law, as a group of convicts on the lam hold a family hostage. Next up is "In a Lonely Place" on the 5th and 6th, with Bogart as a screenwriter suspected of murder. Gloria Grahame is both his alibi and his new girlfriend. Can she keep believing in him when he clearly has a twitchy, scary streak?

Over in Urbana, the Station Theater opens its summer season with Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile, playing June 3-19. All shows start at 8 pm, and ticket prices range from $8-15, depending on the day you pick. "Picasso" is a funny and philosophical musing on the nature of genius, imagination and creativity, showing a day in 1904 when Pablo Picasso (played by Mathew Green) and Albert Einstein (Mike Prosise) shared drinks and conversation at a bar in Paris. Mikel Matthews directs "Picasso" for the Station Theater.

"The Music Man Jr.," presented by the Penguin Project, comes to Bloomington Central Catholic High School at 7 on June 18th. The Penguin Project showcases a group of children with disabilities and their peer mentors performing on stage. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for youth through high school age. Tickets are available at the door and at the Bloomington Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts office. Contact Barb Wells, or visit for details.

This year's Miller Park Summer Musical is "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," with performances in July. But auditions are in June, so I'm giving that information here.

Auditions for children entering grades 1 – 8 will take place on Sunday, June 13th. There will be two time slots: The first is from 10:00 am – 1:00 pm with check-in from 9:30 – 10:00 am. All auditioners need to be there the entire time. The second time slot is from 2:00 – 5:00 pm with check-in from 1:30 – 2:00 pm. A maximum of 50 individuals will be accepted per time slot. Call 434-2260 to schedule a time.

Auditions for high school age and older are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, June 13and 14. Auditions will be from 7:00 – 10:00 pm on each night with check-in from 6:30 to 7 pm. You only have to show up for one night and do not need to schedule a time.

If you're looking for music, Sister Groove and the Boat Drunks headline the first outdoor concert of the summer on June 18th on the BCPA’s CEFCU Summer Stage. Sister Groove kicks off the concert with tunes by Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Roberta Flack. The Boat Drunks then close the night with the tropical rock of Jimmy Buffett. General Admission is $5 and the concert starts at 6:30 pm.

Also on the musical front, Urbana's Krannert Center keeps its "Uncorked" series going, with a soulful sextet called the Painkillers playing the Krannert lobby on Thursday, June 3rd at 5pm, and LaMonte Parsons, a solo guitarist, playing June 10th at 5 pm. You can grab a beer at the bar, sample that week's wine selections (from Friar Tuck Beverages on the 3rd and Sun Singer Wine & Spirits on the 10th) and drink in the tunes wafting from Stage 5.