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|Boys, Assassins, and a Frog & a Toad: Reflections on The Green Room's First Season (Plus)|
|Theatre - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Wednesday, 29 October 2008 02:35|
Into the Woods (August 10 - 12, 2007): The Green Room's debut production was Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's fairy-tale musical, and many of its cast members had previously worked with director Derek Bertelsen (also the venue's Executive Director) and music director Tyson Danner (the Artistic Director) in the pair's previous, fund-raising performances for the Children's Therapy Center of the Quad Cities: 2005's Ragtime and 2006's The Secret Garden. Both vividly remember opening night.
Derek: It smelled like fresh paint.
Tyson: It did. We painted that morning.
Derek: The whole thing was a very collective, collaborative process, because the cast knew going into it that we didn't have the funds to put on a big production of Into the Woods, and didn't have the time, and didn't have the designers, and didn't have the staff that you normally have to put on a big musical. But we'd worked with most of the people before, so I think they trusted us.
Tyson: There'd be cast members who'd be patching holes in the walls and painting during the day, and then rehearsing at night. And since we were doing it without a real set, and with props that we found lying around, we were like, "Are people really gonna buy this? Or are they just gonna miss the glitz?"
Derek: We knew it was good, but it wasn't the normal Into the Woods. And it sold out the whole run. I'll never forget Jackie Madunic frantically calling me because she didn't have a ticket. I was like, "Don't worry, we'll shove you in." And the rest is history with her.
The Glass Menagerie (October 12 - 21, 2007): Madunic (Angels in America's Hannah Pitt) went on to appear in the first of - thus far - four shows at The Green Room, portraying Tennessee Williams' Amanda Wingfield opposite Eddie Staver III as Tom, Abby Van Gerpen as Laura, and Bryan Tank (composer of Angels in America's original score) as The Gentleman Caller. Bertelsen directed, while Danner composed original piano accompaniment for the production, which he played live.
Derek: I was scared going into [The Glass Menagerie], because I hadn't directed a straight play before. And I'd pretty much always worked with Tyson before, him being music director, and so it was a different level of... authority, I guess? But once we had a cast, I was a lot more confident about it. And it was really well-attended. I was looking at ticket sales for the last seven or eight shows, and that one did really well as compared to some of the other plays.
Tyson: I'd never done anything like [composing music for the stage] before. But it's really the same approach you have in directing a script: What's the show about? What's going on? Who are these characters? And the [Glass Menagerie] script is filled with specific music cues, so I used some of those and ignored some of them, and put some music in places where cues weren't marked. It's just about trying to convey the feeling of the show to the audience.
If I set out, now, to play my notes that I have [from the score], it wouldn't be what I wound up playing on opening night, let alone at the closing matinée, because it just kind of morphed - I'd just get into the feel of the show and mess around with stuff. And play Tetris on my phone.
Carousel (November 30 - December 9, 2007): In what was likely The Green Room's riskiest venture prior to Angels in America, director Bertelsen staged Rodgers' & Hammerstein's classic musical as a production performed within the confines of a German concentration camp, with characters frequently playing their own musical instruments. The show also concluded with no final bows - only a group performance of "You'll Never Walk Alone," a slow march off-stage, and silence.
Derek: I did it at Millikin [University] as my senior project. I was given a budget of a hundred bucks, and they didn't want to see the "normal" Carousel. And I had a bunch of girls who hadn't got cast in whatever musical they were doing. So I did the show with Billy Bigelow played by a guy, and all the other roles played by women, and two of them played violin, one played viola, the girl who played Louise also played the piano... . It was just kind of a necessity thing. I think if I'm good at anything with directing, it would be concept - kind of finding what the play means to me and what it might mean to audiences in today's society.
Some of the professors hated it. They hated that I just went that far with it. But I'd rather someone hate my work than say, "Eh... it's okay... ."
Tyson: One of my favorite moments of the entire past year with our theatre was the ending of Carousel. Derek told the actors, "If you feel like you need to take that bow, I don't want to take that away from you." And they all, immediately, were like, "No, we don't need that," which was the coolest moment. In this business where people are full of ego, they just said, "No, that's not what it's about." They walked off-stage, and left people sitting there, waiting for a curtain call. It was like, "Listen. We're leaving you with something. Go home and think."
Fully Committed (January 25 - 27, 2008): Becky Mode's one-man comedy, in which the play's star enacts nearly three dozen roles, was the third consecutive collaboration between director Bertelsen and actor Staver. It was also the first of several productions added to The Green Room's schedule after the season had already commenced.
Derek: The timing of it was kind of weird, because you've got the holidays and bad weather and things like that. But Eddie said he was going to be here in January, so I started looking at one-man shows and a couple of two-person plays - we had open auditions so we wouldn't get any flack about pre-casting roles and things like that, and Eddie was the only one who tried out.
I'm not a huge fan [of one-man plays]. One thing I love about theatre is working with people. And Eddie is a great person to work with, but it's hard relying on one person to do it all. He told me that afterwards - "This is hard shit to do." He did a fabulous job with the show, and it sold really well, but you still miss that collaborative process.
Tyson: That was our most surprising sell to date, I think. That sold so freaking well. I don't know if it was the novelty - that people had read in the papers that he plays all these parts - or that it was a comedy... . You know, "That should be a fun night... !"
Derek: I think Eddie's name had a lot to do with it. And also, the holidays were over. You know, "Let's start a new year. Let's go out to a play and have some fun."
Eleemosynary (February 22 - 24, 2008): Lee Blessing's three-character, 1989 comedy/drama featured Van Gerpen, Susan McPeters, and recent Quad Cities transplant Angela Elliott. And despite running only one weekend, it was the first of The Green Room's productions that Danner and show director Bertelsen considered a financial disappointment, for perhaps understandable reason.
Tyson: We wanted to do a newer play, and after reading it, it was just like, "God, this is a damned good script."
Derek: I stage managed a production of Eleemosynary in college, and so I knew it was a good piece, and it was a smaller piece - the material is very abstract, with props being mimed, and you don't really need a set. You can do it with two chairs and it still works. And when we were planning the first season, we were still in that mindset of, "We don't know what will happen in a year. We might still only have four lights and a chair."
We had about 60 people over the three days. Not too good. I think the name... well, most people can't pronounce it.
Tyson: And when you get down to it, Angela had just moved here, none of her family lives here, she hadn't made a lot of new friends yet... . And in a space the size of ours, that can make or break a full house. Or an empty house. Friends and family.
The Melville Boys (April 18 - 27, 2008): While Bertelsen appeared in Quad City Music Guild's spring production of Once Upon a Mattress, Donna Hare directed Van Gerpen and Green Room newcomers Jonathan Gregoire, Andrew Harvey, and Colleen Winters in Norm Foster's comedy/drama. To date, it's the only Green Room production not directed by either Bertelsen or Danner.
Tyson: That really came out of a thing where Derek said, "I'm going to be exhausted after directing all of these freaking shows." And I had no experience or interest in stage direction at that point. So we kind of said, "Well, let's bring somebody else in. Add another voice."
I went [to rehearsal] the first day, and I said, you know, "Here's my phone number, here's my e-mail address, and we're really happy to have Donna here, and to have you here. Good luck!" And essentially got the hell out of the way. Because I knew that if I was there I'd be too invested in it, and try to do things. So I stayed away for two or three weeks, and then started going back just to watch.
Derek: We were so detached from the show - more detached than we'd like to be in the future. That was one of those learning things. It's so hard to say, "Okay, I'm going to detach myself artistically, but still be involved financially."
Tyson: To know that someone else was in the theatre rehearsing, it's like... it's strange. It's like your wife is having an affair and you know about it, and you sit at home drinking a glass of wine."
john & jen (May 29 - June 1, 2008): Danner made his directing debut with this two-person musical by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, starring St. Ambrose University students Sarah Ulloa and Ryan Westwood. Danner himself had music-directed a production of the show at St. Ambrose the previous spring, for director Scott Peake.
Tyson: I was starting to get interested in stage direction and wanted to try it out, and [john & jen] was a show I'd known really well, and had known for a long time. So it was a safe choice for me as a stage director, and I was pretty sure I could find the two people that I needed, and that I trusted, to help me learn how to be a director. And you couldn't ask for two better people to work with.
It's the only show we have paid the actors for. Because Ryan works a lot and he needed to be able to take the time off from work, and the same with Sarah... . It was one of those instances when we thought it would be cool to test the waters. But it was poorly planned on our part, because the show was a success, but we planned it for only one weekend, and we payed the actors, so we pretty much broke even. Which is a good thing, but not when you have to also pay rent.
Derek: We definitely learned that we can't run the musicals just one weekend. We have to do at least two weekends to make up for what we spend. But it did well - I think there was an average of 30 people per show for that.
Tyson: Yeah, Sarah Ulloa has her own fan base in the Quad Cities.
Jerry Finnegan's Sister (June 14 - 15, 2008): Another late addition to the first-year schedule was this two-person comedy by Jack Neary. Starring Van Gerpen and venue newcomer James Bleecker (Angels in America's Prior Walter), it was the second Green Room show directed by Danner - which wasn't its only similarity with john & jen.
Tyson: We had auditions for all three of our planned summer shows in March or April, and we'd cast Jimmy, and he e-mailed me and was like, "Dude. I know this great script that I've been wanting to do for years, and Abby and I would be great for it. Read it!" So I ordered a copy on Amazon, and it was hilarious, and I loved it, and I was like, "Okay, let's do it."
It was at the same time as john & jen - that was when we had the most free weekends in the theatre - but that was really stupid, because I was like, "Let's rehearse both at the same time." So for three weeks or so I'd rehearse [Jerry Finnegan's Sister] from, like, three to five, and then john & jen from six to nine or so. And there were times when I felt I was doing two productions of the same show - both had one man and one woman, and the relationship between Beth and Brian in Jerry Finnegan's Sister is very close to the relationship between john and jen... . It was a crazy time.
Derek: I really enjoyed having a break. I also did James & the Giant Peach at Junior Theatre at the end of April, so for the month of May I was just... done. And doing research for Assassins. So that was nice for me. Some Derek time.
A Year with Frog & Toad (June 27 - 29, 2008): Before Assassins, though, Bertelsen returned to Green Room directing with this Broadway musical by Robert and Willie Reale, based on Arnold Lobel's popular children's books. It was another show that was added to the line-up after the season had already been announced, and one that Bertelsen and Danner admit could've benefited from more thorough planning. (During our interview, I mentioned that Frog & Toad is a pretty demanding show to add late in the game, and Bertelsen replied, "I know that now.")
Tyson: We just thought it'd be good to have a kids' show, and bring in some families. We'd been doing all this pretty adult stuff, so it was like, "Let's see if we can get all those parents who've been coming to our shows to bring their kids, and not be scared."
Derek: I think that [youth-friendly theatre] is something that we need to do for the future generations of theatre-goers and actors. I mean, I remember the first show I saw was The Sound of Music at Circa ‘21 in ‘94, and I will never forget that first theatre experience.
I was very happy with Frog & Toad, but the process was a little bit of a nightmare. Usually, we plan maybe five, six weeks of rehearsal, and I went into this one thinking, "Oh, it's children's theatre, it's easy - all I need is four weeks." And it came together really well, but two or three days before we opened, it was a mess.
Tyson: It was yet another lesson - we took it so casually, as directors, and I think that trickled down really quickly to our actors. And I don't really know how many kids came to the show. Not as many as I expected. Maybe 10 or 15 total. It was adults there, having a good time as kids.
Assassins (August 1 - 17, 2008): The Green Room's biggest financial success to date - and, Bertelsen and Danner agree, its biggest artistic one - was this Stephen Sondheim musical, which inspired the Green Room's proprietors to add a third weekend of performances, as well as an experimental initiative that allows ticket-buyers to "pay what you can."
Tyson: We knew we wanted to do another Sondheim, because we opened with a Sondheim, and there were several we thought about. Sweeney Todd was a big one. We thought long and hard about that one.
Derek: I remember thinking about the election, and what was going on in the news. And I think it's probably the best show we've done at the Green Room.
Tyson: I love that we did a Sondheim show that not a lot of people knew. Constantly, I had people coming up to me and saying, "Thank you. Thank you. I never thought I'd get to see this show."
Derek: Both weekends sold out, and that was when we started the pay-what-you-can performances. That first Saturday, I'll never forget my mother calling me and asking, "Is the Saturday-afternoon show for poor people?" "No, it's not for poor people. It's for people like me who don't have 15 bucks to see a show."
Tyson: Or people that would kind of like to see it but maybe don't want to spend 15 bucks. And that first Saturday brought about 30 people, and we figured out that the average [ticket price] wound up being about 10 bucks. So it's not like everyone just showed up and walked in the door. That was really gratifying.
I wish it was feasible to just have a bucket at the door for people on their way out, to pay whatever they think the show deserved. How cool would that be?
Misery (September 25 - 28, 2008): The Green Room's first presentation of its second season was Simon Moore's adaptation of Stephen King's horror novel, and found Bertelsen directing two performers familiar to area theatre-goers but new to the Rock Island venue: Jason Platt (Angels in America's Norman "Belize" Arriaga) and Angela Rathman.
Derek: Angela is the president of Richmond Hill and was dying do to Misery, but of course, Richmond Hill can't do Misery. It has the "f" word.
I had never done a thriller before - I don't know that I'm a fan of the genre - but with two people in it, coming off of Assassins, I knew it'd be a little simpler, rehearsal-wise. And The Green Room hadn't done a thriller, and the title is really well-known.
Tyson: I always think of people like my mom. If she lived here, she'd be the type of person we need to bring in - the kind of person who usually has a good time at the theatre, but you need to kind of draw her in a little bit, and if she comes to a show and enjoys herself, she'll generally come again. And I was telling her about what shows we were doing this season, and she's like, "Oh, Misery?! I love that movie! I have to come see that!"
Derek: We went into it wanting to try something different, and if you're going to try something new - I learned this after Eleemosynary - have a name to it, or a Pulitzer Prize to it, or whatever. And Misery has a name to it. Kathy Bates.
Derek Bertelsen and Tyson Danner discuss The Green Room's current production of Angels in America in "To Eternity, from Here."
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