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Breaking Hearts, Tickling Ribs: The Riverbend Theatre Collective Debuts with "Elegies: A Song Cycle" PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 07 May 2008 02:36

the Elegies ensemble Describing composer William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle, the first presentation by the Quad Cities' new theatrical company the Riverbend Theatre Collective, artistic director Allison Collins-Elfline says of the show, "It's quirky, it's fun, it's upbeat ... ."

Yet it's also a considerable risk for a fledgling theatrical organization's first outing, as the subject of the Tony-winning composer's quirky, fun, upbeat musical revue is, as its title suggests, death. "An elegy is a hymn of praise for someone who has passed on," states Collins-Elfline, "and Elegies is about all the people William Finn knew that he's lost."

First produced at New York's Lincoln Center in 2003, and premiering locally at the Village of East Davenport's Village Theatre on May 16, Elegies is Finn's ode to deceased friends and family members, and Collins-Elfline - a Moline native who also directs and co-stars in the production - concedes that "a lot of the songs are really heartbreaking.

"William Finn is a gay composer with many, many friends who passed away from AIDS," continues Collins-Elfline, who is donating 10 percent of Elegies' profits to the area not-for-profit AIDS Project Quad Cities. "But the show also deals with his mother, who passed away from lung cancer, and Peggy Hewitt, an actress in New York who passed away from ovarian cancer, and there's one section at the end - maybe four songs or so - that deals with losing people in 9/11."

Despite its subject matter, Riverbend's artistic director insists that Elegies - acclaimed by the New York Times for its "playful lyrics bursting with internal rhymes" - is anything but morbid. "The really great thing about it," says Collins-Elfline, "is that you think,‘Oh my gosh, it's a show about people dying ... ,' but some of the songs are just so hysterically funny." (Which shouldn't surprise those familiar with Finn's work in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or his witty Broadway musical Falsettos, for which he won 1992 Tonys for Best Original Score and Book of a Musical.)

Still, a production that invites audiences to laugh while presenting musical meditations on death isn't exactly the norm for area audiences, and venturing beyond the norm, says Collins-Elfline, is her goal for the Riverbend Theatre Collective. "We want to be able to give the Quad Cities a type of theatre that people maybe haven't seen yet. We don't want to do the big, Music Guild-type of huge hits. We want to do contemporary, intimate shows, with, like, a piano and a cello and a violin, you know?"

the Elegies cast in rehearsal Though the 30-year-old Collins-Elfline was involved in productions at Moline High School and Genesius Guild, and earned a vocal-performance degree from Dubuque's Clark College, the idea for forming a Quad Cities-based theatrical company came during her 2003 to 2007 stay in Cincinnati, where husband Robert Elfline was working on his doctorate at the city's College-Conservatory of Music.

"I was working there with a brand-new theatre company called the New Stage Collective," she says, "and they were doing these really amazing, contemporary works," citing such titles as Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and the Siamese-twin musical Side Show. "I got to get my feet wet in a lot of good shows."

She also found a mentor in New Stage Collective Artistic Director Alan Patrick Kenny, whose work inspired Collins-Elfline to consider running a theatre company of her own, "never thinking I would really do it," she says with a laugh. "But he [Kenny] kind of took me under his wing, and I read so many books, and I took grant-writing classes, and small-business classes ... and eventually I was like, ‘Okay. I'm ready.'"

Upon receiving his doctorate, her husband - himself a native of Morrison, Illinois - accepted a position as assistant professor of piano at Augustana College, and Collins-Elfline says that when the couple returned to the area last July, "we were just so thrilled to see these new, young theatre companies emerging. We were gone for so long, and so I was excited to see the Prenzie Players, and the Green Room. ... It was like a good sign that we should try it, too."

In October, Collins-Elfline and her husband (who serves as Riverbend's musical director) incorporated their nascent company as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, and within weeks, Chris Jansen, artistic director of Davenport's New Ground Theatre, suggested that Riverbend stage its forthcoming productions - in conjunction with New Ground and My Verona Productions - at Jansen's newly refurbished Village Theatre. "I just wanted to chat about grant-writing," says Collins-Elfline of their first conversation, "and how she got her company going, and that's when she said, ‘Hey, I've got this space ... .'

"I can't believe the good fortune of her mentioning it to me," she adds. "Because, honestly, I wouldn't have known where to look for a space."

The Village Theatre proved to be an especially ideal locale for Riverbend's debut, says Collins-Elfline, "because it's got that gorgeous bar" off-stage left of the stage area, "and we wanted Elegies to have a very lounge-y, cabaret, late-night-at-Manhattan-bar feeling."

the Elegies cast in rehearsal Consequently, the stage action will actually occur off-stage, in front of the bar, with the show's cast of five - Patrick Gimm, Jackie Madunic, Dana Joel Nicholson, Bryan Tank, and Collins-Elfline - performing Finn's song cycle to Robert Elfline's piano accompaniment. "We've got this beautiful grand ... that's way too loud," she admits, laughing. "We've got a little balance problem right now, because my husband really likes to rock out, but it'll be fixed - we're gonna tack a little felt under the lid and through the bottom to suck up some of the sound."

(Regarding her own presence in the show, Collins-Elfline says, "We didn't get a real big group for the musical auditions, to be quite honest. The only people who came to audition were Jackie, Dana, and Patrick. So I kind of made the game-time decision that while I would like to direct - I mean really direct - the show, I'm a singer, I'm an actor ... . I plugged myself in.")

Following Elegies, Riverbend will stage two contemporary, non-musical comedies at the Village Theatre: Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo in June, and Tony nominee Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown in July.

But Collins-Elfline already has plans for more musical works after her company's debut season - listing Side Show and the Stephen Sondehim revue Company as titles on her wish list - and says that whichever shows are produced, the Riverbend Theatre Collective will dedicate itself to contemporary, small-scale pieces, such as Elegies, "that deal with human emotion and the human condition.

"I don't want to say that the old [musical] warhorses don't have their place," she adds, "because obviously they do; they're so important, and musical theatre wouldn't be what it is without them. But we want to show the Quad Cities a different type of musical. Not better. Just different."

 

Elegies: A Song Cycle will be performed at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street in the Village of East Davenport) May 16 through 24, and more information on the Riverbend Theatre Collective is available at (http://www.riverbendtheatrecollective.com).

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written by W. Hess, May 08, 2008
Didn't my wife Sheri audition for this show? Didn't Allison plan to cast herself all along?

Wayne Hess
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written by Allison C. Elfline, May 08, 2008
Hi Wayne-
Thanks for bringing this up, as it will give me the chance to point out a few things.
First, it was a miscommunication on my part to Mike about the number of auditionees we had seen. Other than the three mentioned in the article, we did hear two other women sing (one, of course, being your wife Sheri). Those of us at the casting table felt that she would have been better suited for one of the two female roles that eventually went to another actor (as a director, I hope you can understand how difficult these choices are to make). I do apologize for the miscommunication, and if there were any hurt feelings, I do hope you will contact me to discuss it further.

Secondly, it was not our intent to cast me in this show, but only an idea in case we did not have a substantial amount of auditionees. Being a new theatre company, and for whatever reason, we did not have a large group come through to audition for either the musical or the two plays. To be honest, many of the roles in our two comedies were given to local actors without them having to audition, as we didn't see enough actors during the audition process. The same happened for our musical. We had hoped that a young soprano with a high belt would audition for us, but we did not have such luck. Personally, as Mike mentioned, I would have much rather directed this production than be performing in it. But as a small company just getting going, we did what we had to do to allow the show to go on (no pun intended).

Again, my apologies on the confusion. Please feel free to contact me via email or phone to discuss it further.

All the Best,
ACE
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written by W. Hess, May 08, 2008
I wasn't commenting on you not casting her. I was merely mentioning that other people did audition. I do not need an explaination on why you did not cast her, and yes as a veteran director I do understand tough choices.

Tell people what you want, I heard from the git go that you were planning on using yourself in the show. I don't have a problem with it, it is your company. It just sounds as if you are making a martyr of yourself. I am not sure if that is a great way to start off a theatre company, when so many other people in the theatre community know the truth.
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written by L G Harrison, May 08, 2008
That seems a little passive-aggressive, no? Can't we just take people at their word? Can't we assume that the only one who knows the "truth" about a decision is the one who made it? (and I totally don't pick up on the martyr thing...).

All of this aside, I, for one, am extremely excited to see this show and I think I speak for many when I say that I don't really care how it was cast or what the process was like in getting it to the public...

As a longtime fan of local theater, I think this just might be a great way start off a theater company!
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written by Martha, May 08, 2008
I am really excited about seeing this show. I don't care how it was cast, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. I hope it is a great success.
Tyler McWhorter
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written by Tyler McWhorter, May 09, 2008
It is peculiar that the slogan on the website for Riverbend Theatre Collective reads, "High Art, Low Maintainance," when it seems the converse is clearly more appropriate.

I must also add that I am a huge fan of William Finn's work and appreciate that someone is bringing his work to the Quad Cities, but it seems his genius is being somewhat undermined by false admissions and half-truths.

The "Not better. Just different" Ms. Collins-Elfline used as a means of differentiating her company from others in the area is certainly true. The impression she is making is certainly not better than anything we have seen before; and is most assuredly different.
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written by Becky DeVore, May 09, 2008
I'm looking forward to seeing the show after the great clips...and especially because my daughter, Jackie Madunic, is in it...she is one talented lady!
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written by an iowa city actor, May 09, 2008
I guess I am confused. The one poster suggests the slogan be reversed ("Low Art, High Maintenance??") but then admits to liking Bill Finn's work. I thought you considered it "Low Art"...

I too love Bill Finn and am planning on driving from Iowa City to see the show and echo all previous posters in saying that I could care less about the supposed "false admissions and half-truths."

Finally, (as this seems to be coming up a lot in this little corner of the Internet)as a working actor, there is not a theatre company in existence that doesn't engage in the things that have been characterized as "false admissions and half-truths." If you expect otherwise, get out of show buisness (or better yet, start your own theatre company where you can make the rules - just see how long you last before you might be forced to cast yourself). It seems clear to me (not knowing any of those involved, mind you) that we are witnessing an argument between "David" (this new company) and various members of "Goliath" (another theatre company that feels threatened). Or perhaps several "Goliaths"? Am I wrong?
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written by an actor, May 09, 2008
somebody started a theatre company in the quad cities? SHOCKER. i am no longer impressed by this. it's been done. new ground, my verona (and what in the happened to those groups?). and that was years ago. i hate to be the one to break this to you: theatre companies have been bringing contemporary works to the area for years. it's nothing new. the area will not accept this company as a grace from god. you're just like everybody else.

that said, i am very excited about the local arts scene. we have some serious talent here and it's great to have so many chances to see them! here's to continued success here in our little arts mecca.
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written by Max W., May 09, 2008
Congratulations Riverbend Theatre Collective! I look forward to seeing your production. We are so very fortunate to have so many choices for theatre in the Quad Cities now.

I do have to say that I found the comments concering "the truth" by Wayne Hess to be ironic. As the "King of Nepotism" he has cast his wife as the lead in the shows he has directed at QCMG prior to actual auditions. Shortly after (not before) he began "dating" his wife, he even cast her as a lead.

I bring this up to show the reason why it is hard to get people to audition, especially for certain directors, such as Wayne Hess, as he has repeatedly shown family bias. He is not the only one to do this, but he certainly does stand out. Hopefully QCMG will rectify this in the future to improve their audition turn-outs!

As for Riverbend, I don't think they are headed down this path as their leader has legitimate resons for her casting choices, and what a powerhouse cast she has!
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written by W. Hess, May 09, 2008
max

Really I cast my wife before auditions? Have you been there? Were you on my staff? How could this happen and me not know about it? You ask anyone that has worked on the staffs of my shows how I cast and you will find out that there is NO nepotism involved at all. It is all about talent and my wife is extremely talented. I didn't cast in her as The Witch in Into the Woods, Mother in Ragtime, Mary in Jesus Chrsit Superstar etc. She gets cast because she is talented.
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written by Theatre Fan, May 09, 2008
Ok everyone, let's all just take a deep breath and have a simultaneous un-bunching of our panties, shall we? As someone who has both acted and directed, I would be fooling myself if I said that talent was the sole issue when it comes to auditions. Trust plays a HUGE factor in the equation. We want our shows to be the best they can be and sometimes, when we see talented people audition and we have to make a choice we go with the person who we trust will work the hardest and commit the most to the role. How do we know that? Well if we know the person, we know their level of commitment and the decision is much easier. This is why most theatre groups consistently use the same people. They've seen their work ethic and trust that they can do the job. Every group in the QC has a core group of actors that pop up in almost every show they do. Music Guild particularly is notorious for this practice. And if those actors do well in their roles and the show is a success, who cares if the lead is married to the director, or if one of your leads also happens to be the artistic director? Most of the audience doesn't care about that crap, they just care that they've gotten their money's worth.
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written by Sammy Sosa, May 09, 2008
Go Cubs!
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written by Cathy W., May 09, 2008
Just once, I'd like to read comments on an article written by Mike that are positive. Lately, it seems there are many folks who read articles, then the comments below, who are just trying to be nasty to each other. What is with all the negativity? I am in agreement with many of the posters in that I don't care what kind of casting process certain companies have, but that the product they put on is good, and that we get our money's worth (right on, Theatre Fan).

That being said, I do agree with Mr./Ms. Iowa City in that there seems to be some sort of competition between a new company and the older others. Why does it seem that on all these comments, no one says anything nasty about the older companies in the area, yet the newer ones (Green Room, Prenzie, My Verona) get slammed with ugliness and spite? Just something to think about...

In response to a few posters, I feel the tenor of Mike's article was not that Ms. Collins Efline and company are trying to be better or thinking of themselves as bringing newer works to the stage. Of course other companies in the area are doing that. But that Riverbend Theater is offering an alternative to other shows we might see in this area that aren't being done. I look forward to the day when Jason Robert Brown finally makes his way to the QC! I am glad this new company is giving us a choice to see something different. While I love the old favorites, there is something to be said about having the guts to try something new and different, and I think the Quad Cities may very well like what they see.

Finally, I think it's great that we have so many different theater companies in the area to choose from! It means there will be something for everyone, no matter your taste.
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written by W. Hess, May 09, 2008
My intention for originally posting was that I felt that my wife and others did not get credit for auditioning. I also heard that some roles were pre cast.

Anyway, I did not want to start a rift between old theatres and new ones. I support the Green Room, I hope to direct in that space some day. I support Prenzies, I know and perform with a lot of them at CSZ. I myself have been in several My Verona productions. I want Elegies to be great, one of our families best freinds is in it. I get bent out of shape when I feel that my wife has been disrespected, because well she is my wife. Being a performer, director and educator of theater I think that it awesome that there are so many choices!

PS - I love Mike Schultz!
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written by Tyson Danner, May 09, 2008
Allison has been on our stage at The Green Room, and this weekend she's presenting a one act play she wrote. She's a smart and talented woman and a great addition to the local theatre community. It's always exciting to see more theatre opportunities in the area (though I must note in the most non-bitchy way possible that "An Actor" is totally right in saying "it's been done" in the QC). She chose three works that form a challenging first season, but one that seems representative of exactly the works she wants to produce. Brava!

That being said, I have to say that I would have to be in a very desperate situation to cast myself in a show. I don't believe that a director can be objective or see the big picture when they are in their own show. Perhaps it wasn't possible to find a suitable singer to fill the role, but wouldn't it have been possible to find another director? At the end of the day, it all comes down to making the show the best it can be. Sometimes to make the show happen the way it needs to, you have to take desperate measures. And Allison is certainly determined and talented enough to make it work.

I'll also admit that I thought the part in question had been precast, along with at least one other. Perhaps I misread RTC's website or misunderstood idle chatter.

As for the "nepotism" issue: Part of the beautiful thing about community theatres are the close-knit communities. It's inevitable that theatres such as Music Guild develop into families. (Both figuratively and literally!) And I disagree with casting choices at QCMG quite often. However, just because a husband casts his wife, we can't automatically assume it's all a set up. When Derek Bertelsen and I cast her in a lead role in our production of "Ragtime", I certainly wasn't married to her! (No offense, Sheri! Just not gonna happen! haha) I've cast her in shows since then, and I'd cast her again in the future. In my opinion (and it's only an opinion): more often than not it's the jealous actor that lost a role to the director's friend or family member that immediately cries "nepotism".

P.S.: Cathy W. - you won't have to wait much longer for a JRB show to hit a QC stage! (hint, hint!)
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written by rob elfline, May 09, 2008
Gosh, I guess it is time to add my two cents...

There is a misconception running about regarding this show (several, actually) and I just wanted to point out a few things for the record (not that there is one...)

Ally is not directing this show. Yes, she is performing in the production, but the task of direction is being equally shared by all seven performers. The collaborative nature of this production is a method that Ally and I have both experienced while working in other communities and it is a truly thrilling way to work. Interestingly (and unintentionally) enough, this character ends up being expressed in the name of the company "Riverbend Theatre Collective," which one might interpret as mening that all involved have an equal say in artistic decisions and an equal stake in the outcome of the production.

When the article above mentions Ally's choice to appear in the production, you will note that she makes this distinction ("... I mean *really* direct..."). At the time casting decisions were made, we realized that to be in the show was not to *really* direct (in the usual sense of having a single director), so we felt it best to make the move to work collaboratively. This is certainly a risk, but we have seen a wonderfully creative and engaging rehearsal process and I suppose you can all be the judge of whether or not what we are doing seems to be working. (If it's not tell us - we are not so dogmatic as to assume that we know best and would love to engage our audience in conversation).

This way of working has proven extremely sympathetic to the nature of the piece itself. At its heart "Elegies" is an extended piece of chamber music and we are treating it that way (in the same way that there is no conductor in a string quartet). However, after witnessing the unusual and compelling process at work in rehearsals of "Elegies," we feel this model can work equally well in larger settings (for example, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra produces outstanding work without a conductor to manage its fifty-some players). So, while some of our next productions will have directors (*real* directors), many future productions will not.

We were neither despereate nor failing in our objectivity when deciding what tasks Ally would undertake in this production. It just seemed like the right thing to do (and I'm sure that most would agree that some of the best artistic decisions come from "the gut" so to speak...).

I hope this helps. If you have questions, comments, concerns, tirades, screeds, or rants, I can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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written by Theatre Fan, May 12, 2008
That's all well and good and certainly understandable considering the circumstances that surround a first production. You just have to be careful that over time the wealth is properly spread around, other wise your well-intentioned mission will seem like nothing more than an ego trip. That's why I will never spend money on a Music Guild show (how's that for some established theatre bashing?). I've seen too many shows that felt like ego trips for people who clearly did not have the right set of abilities for the roles they were cast in. I know that the QC talent pool is far deeper than their shows would lead us to believe, yet they continually use the same people (That does not include Sheri as I have never seen her in a show but have heard many positive things). Hopefully that will not be the case here.
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written by schqc, May 12, 2008
The old blood/new blood divide isn't happening at all, and that is quite a slap to people who have been staging theatre here for over 50 years. People who kept theatre alive here to half empty houses and in horrible conditions.

I am quite happy there's a boom and see no problem with old or new companies.

This is simply airing the types of things that go on backstage at most theatre companies old and new.

Just don't lump everyone in the same boat.

I've been all over and haven't been in a bad production yet! :)

A thriving theater environment is going to engender much talk. People will be slighted. Gossip will fly. Having been in the business for 20 years, not a day goes buy that we aren't all bitchy in one way or another.
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written by Theatre Fan, May 13, 2008
If there isn't a divide, how come many of the Playcrafters/Music Guild regulars seem to refuse to set foot in any of these new theatres? Only an enlightned few (such as yourself) realize we should try to embrace everybody's attempt at creating art. Who knows, it just might inspire them to raise their game a little.

Obviously any group that has opened a theatre and kept it open for decades deserves respect, but we shouldn't deny that with that acheivement comes a bit of snobbery.

The more theatre the better, I say. Let's just hope with this increase in quantity that quality does not suffer.
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written by pixels, May 14, 2008
For us who are new to the theater life, best of luck to my uncle Pat Gimm and the rest of the crew. I can't wait to come see the show.

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