Critical Mass: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2012 - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Monday, 31 December 2012 06:00

Jason Platt and Ed Villarreal in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's The 39 StepsDid you have any just ... odd theatre experiences this year? Because I have to tell you my favorite story of what happened to me ... .


Some friends and I went to see the University of Iowa’s production of Big Love this spring. And we’re in the last 10 minutes of this really intense, dramatic scene and the house lights suddenly come up, and the stage manager gets on the intercom and says, in this really nervous voice, “I’m sorry. But there are tornado-warning sirens going on all over Iowa City, so we’re going to have to stop the show, and everyone has to go directly to the basement.”

Oh my gosh. [Laughs.]

And my buddy Tom just lets out this soul-wrenching, “No-o-o-o-o!!!” [Laughs.] He was so into the show that as soon as it stopped, and they threatened not to do the last 10 minutes, he just reflexively yelled at the top of his lungs; he was so upset. And it was just the funniest and coolest damned thing in the world. It really spoke to how important theatre can be when you’re invested in it.

So what happened?

They scooted us all down to the basement, and we got to leave after 45 minutes or something, and they finished the show. But apparently, the cast was, like, this close to doing the rest of the show in the basement for us. It was closing night for the production and everything.

And it was a great show?

Yeah, it was great. But that whole night was unbelievable. Any nights you especially remember?

Well, when I took Madison to The 39 Steps, she wanted desperately to sit in the front row, and I ... . No. You know, every time I go to a Prenzie Players show, I panic, because I’m worried that I’m going to be pulled into the show. Literally pulled into it. And I don’t want that. I think it’s fun to watch when that happens, and I laugh and love it, but no. Please don’t put me on stage. Please please please.

And so Playcrafters makes me nervous, because you’re practically on stage in the front row ... .

Some audience members’ feet are.

Yes! So we sat in the second row – that was my concession. And then at intermission, she asked, “Ple-e-ease, can I go to the front row?” So I let her, and she sat down next to this older gentleman who talked to her during the rest of intermission, and they shared little “Oh, that was funny!” exchanges through the rest of the second half. I was nervous, because I didn’t know this person, but she seemed to be having a good time. And then I felt bad for not sitting in the front row with her. [Laughs.]

company members in Ballet Quad Cities' Love Stories[Laughs.] I can’t sit in the front row either. Like you, I feel like I’m on stage, and if I’m gonna be on stage, I’d prefer to be playing a character.

I want to be lost in a show, and if I’m thinking about how close I am to the stage, I can’t get lost, you know?

Absolutely. Tell me about your getting to also review dance this year. You reviewed two Ballet Quad Cities productions ... .

Yes! I seriously loved the Valentine’s Day production Love Stories. I studied dance in college – ballet and tap. And even though I never was a connoisseur of dance or whatnot, I love the emotion of dance, and the pieces in Love Stories were just so moving.

In general, I like more modern, more emotionally interpretive dance. I mean, those classical, very strict, often more athletic versions of ballet are okay for me. But Love Stories was less typical of ballet, and I was just so moved, and so stirred ... . It was an easy review to write. Although, actually, it was and it wasn’t, because I knew exactly what I wanted to get across, but was so nervous about saying it in a way that would get that across. It was my first time trying it.

Then I reviewed The Sleeping Beauty, and it was all classical dance. And when I wrote the review, I focused on the acting, as if it was a regular piece of musical theatre, because I just wasn’t taken with the choreography. That’s not to say the choreography was bad, and maybe I was the only one in the audience who wasn’t moved by the dance. But it was hard for me to write about that, because I quite like Ballet Quad Cities and don’t want to let them down.

I don’t mean that in terms of opinion; if I don’t like a show, I’m not going to say I do. But I worried that I wouldn’t convey my feelings clearly enough, or “poetically” enough, to live up to that company’s high standard.

The caliber of talent.


Gage McCalester, Adam Mohr, and Lilo Foster in the Internet Players' The GuardianWell, you found things to write about and praise. And you even found things to praise, God love you, in the Internet Players’ The Guardian, which might be the most staggeringly amateurish thing I’ve ever seen that was produced on a “professional” level. You know what I mean?

Oh my God. Yes.

It was kind of stunning. That scene where the guys were putting invisible golf balls? I’m sorry – the two scenes where they did that? And the “ethnic” puppet who said, “It’s hard out here for a pimp!”? I wanted to run screaming.

And the interpretive dance! Out of nowhere!

But you still found positive things to say about that show.

I’m so glad you brought that up, because [Internet Players founder] Nathan Porteshawver ... . I don’t know him, but I liked what he was trying to do. I remember seeing [the Internet Players’ The Tragedy of] Sarah Klein and thinking there was a talent there that really just needed a lot of practice and a lot of refinement. But there was something there. And I wish he would’ve produced more, so he could get some feedback from reviewers and audience members and whatnot. Because I think he could grow from that.

And so I really wanted to like The Guardian, because I liked what Nathan was trying to do, and I wanted him to succeed. But it was so bad. All around. And I don’t want ever want to completely trash anything in a review, but with that show, it was hard to come up with other things to say.

As I recall, you didn’t mention any of the show’s actors by name except for Gage [McCalester], the little kid, whom you liked.

Yes. That was intentional. And that’s kind of unfortunate, because there were some good actors in that show. It was just that script. Nobody could swim in that.

Actually, if I fluffed any review this year, it would be the one for [Augustana College’s] Bat Boy. I was honest about how I felt, but I praised some things, and that praise was actually relative to the overall production being just bad. But I think my praise came across as “Oh, well, this was good, and this was good ... ,” and these things weren’t always good. They were just better than other things in the show.

I wrestled with that review, but I thought that writing harshly about this production was warranted, because everything else in the season had been really good. I knew they had the talent to do better. I did like the Bat Boy himself [Calvin Vo], though. He was good. And I remember liking the set, too, because it reminded me of Beetlejuice. The mother from Beetlejuice who buys the house. It was her taste. [Laughs.]

Lilli Pickens, Samantha Kammerman, and Bill Cahill in Augustana College's Bat Boy: The MusicalThis doesn’t apply to Bat Boy, but in general, it seems that the productions you don’t care for seem to be ones with what you feel are weak scripts. In the end, is the script what will most often kill a production for you? Like, if you’re stuck with a script you think is weak, there’s little that can be done to make the show worthwhile for you? I was thinking of shows like [Playcrafters’] Titanic Aftermath or [Richmond Hill’s] A Nice Family Gathering ... .

Yeah, maybe. With Nice Family Gathering, the show was actually well-staged, it was well-acted, it was well-directed ... and that helped raise the script a bit. I wish I had the chance to review scripts more.

You just got to, a bit, with [the District Theatre’s] Altar Call.

That was great, because it was by a [formerly] local writer [Melissa McBain], and so you have more reason to delve into the script. Like with Rent, why bother? It’s been out for decades.

You also got to with The Guardian, of course, and with New Ground Theatre’s Bad Habits, that collection of one-acts by local playwrights ... .

I love new work, and writing about new work, and I would hope that playwrights would see criticism as an opportunity to grow. In terms of reviewing, I have a tendency to lean toward acting, and it could be argued that I neglect too many other things because I’m so focused on the acting. So when there are local playwrights to review, like in Bad Habits, I know that I can talk about the script, and I should talk about it, and I’m able to give it more attention than I would normally. Bad Habits was fun to write about. Michael Callahan’s piece in that production was very disturbing.

Patti Flaherty in New Ground Theatre's Bad HabitsWas that the monologue with Patti [Flaherty]?

Yes. And I remember, right after the show, the grumblings in the audience – people saying, “Oh, I didn’t like that one! That was so disturbing!” And I was like, “You were moved.” And that’s why I praised it. Because yeah, I was disgusted and disturbed, too. But we were supposed to feel that way, and those feelings were valid, and that was more emotion than I got from anything else that night.

Michael did his job, and Patti did her job.

Yes. They did. So I wanted to tell those people, “Don’t write this off because you didn’t care for the content.”

One thing I’ve noticed in your reviews of locally written works is that you wish more dialogue sounded the way people actually speak.


Could you be a little more specific about that? Because I think I know what you mean, but all stage dialogue is, of course, inherently stagy.

The only time I bring that up is when dialogue really doesn’t sound like what humans would say. Like, when it sounds like it’s out of a poem. Or when dialogue sounds forced because the words the actors are saying are unnatural in conversation, and the actors then have trouble delivering it in a way that sounds natural. You can just tell when a line is too artsy, or too heady, or too cliché ... . It’s wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t say “wrong.” But it’s off.

One of the core things I look for when I’m looking at acting is that I don’t want to be able to tell you’re acting. Unless there’s something intentionally campy about the performance, or something, I shouldn’t be able to tell that you’re pretending to be something else. And it’s the same thing with dialogue. I shouldn’t be able to tell ... .

Christopher Tracy, Liz Blackwell, Andy Davis (standing), Gregg Neuleib, Dianna McKune, Justin Raver, and Dana Skiles in the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's A Nice Family GatheringThat these are words on a page?


But when you say, “I don’t want to know that you’re acting,” that could be misunderstood – like only the most naturalistic performances really work for you. Can’t someone give a performance where they’re clearly acting – Pat Flaherty as King Lear, say – but you’re so rapt in the character that you’re buying it regardless?

Absolutely. And of course, with Shakespeare, I could say the same thing – “Nobody talks that way.” [Laughs.] Maybe, with acting, it’s not so much “I don’t want to see you acting” as it is “I want to see you turn yourself into the character.” Which I don’t think is as hard as some people may think. You know, some people are just phenomenal at it. But with some actors who maybe aren’t as great, there’s still a naturalism to the way they take on characters – it feels like they become another person. I don’t think it takes a “fantastic actor” to avoid – .

To avoid falseness.

Yes. Falseness.