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Curtain Call: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Monday, 20 December 2010 06:00

Joseph Obleton, Fred Harris, Jr., Renaud Haymon, Reggie Jarrell, and Shanna Cramer in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's FencesAs we’ve come to annually expect, there was practically no end to the highlights from this past year in area theatre.

The Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse debuted a brand-new musical (Whodunit?) and two follow-ups to previous venue smashes (Church Basement Ladies 2 and Plaid Tidings), while the Playcrafters Barn Theatre produced an August Wilson drama (Fences) that, a mere five weeks earlier, won three Tony Awards for its Broadway staging.

The Harrison Hilltop Theatre offered works by Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), and Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park with George), and Quad City Music Guild delivered a revelatory Grease that found several of its high-schoolers – gasp! – actually being played by high-schoolers.

New Ground Theatre launched into its 10th season, delivering the long-awaited debut of a modern masterpiece (August: Osage Country). The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre’s edgy Nail LaBute comedy The Shape of Things marked the first time that the “F” bomb was dropped on the Geneseo stage – at least on purpose. The Curtainbox Theatre Company produced its first full season of performances, and added to its ensemble a former theatre critic from this very paper. (Second-to-last time I mention it here, I promise.)

And through it all – or rather, nearly all – was reviewer Thom White, who began his tenure with the River Cities’ Reader in January, and offered his opinions on 54 area productions in 2010. (Not that Thom was any stranger to the area-theatre scene before this year: He appeared in Playcrafters’ 2006 presentation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and three shows during Genesius Guild’s 1995 season, and also served as the local-theatre reviewer and previewer for WQAD, for which he also blogged occasional reviews on the station’s Web site.)

Over a long breakfast conversation, Thom shared with me his take on Area Theatre 2010, as well as such topics as reviewing debuting works, dealing with angry comments, and his tendency to drive his favorite performers out of the area. (Unintentionally, I’m sure.)


What type of theatre do you find yourself more drawn to: plays or musicals?

Well, it has always been musicals. I have a music-theory degree, I love music, and I just think musicals, in general, are more emotional and more happy – even with the sad stuff, you can still leave with a sense of joy. Unless it’s Chess.

But I’m finding I like classic things when they’re not done classically, or done with a little bit more of a modern edge. Like, I just saw [Harrison Hilltop’s] Waiting for Godot. It’s not necessarily classical, but it has more of a classic feel. I’m really liking that avant-garde, abstract, odd, amusing, entertaining stuff.

I really liked The Seagull at Augustana, and at first, I was fearful of it. I was like, “Theatre people love this stuff and I’m gonna hate it ... .” But it was so unique.

It was thrilling to see that show at Augie. You generally don’t see any Chekhov in this area at all. It was about time, and it was really beautifully done.

It was beautiful, wasn’t it?

Rodney Swain and Joseph Baez in the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's RentWith musicals, do you like the re-invention of standards? I imagine there are a lot of musicals that you must have seen bunches of times by now.

I am so tired of Joseph [& the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat].

(Laughs.) Yeah. Who isn’t?

Audiences, apparently.

So let’s say you’re going to see West Side Story. Would you prefer to see a good, “classic” version of West Side Story, or do you want to see the show played around with a little?

My thing is: I don’t mind a classical take on a show, but don’t give me the movie. If I want to see the movie, I’ll see the movie. Don’t stage the movie. That’s one of my pet peeves in theatre, I think. If you’re going to keep the same costumes or whatever, fine, but at least make it your own somehow. I’m more excited about seeing something that’s a completely different take than the same old thing.

Like when Harrison Hilltop did Rent, I was so excited. And unfortunately, they had that late change of directors – where they brought somebody in late in the process – and they kind of had to re-create a lot of the original [New York] staging. They added some of their own twists, which was nice, but I was really anticipating seeing Harrison do their take on it, which I knew they could’ve done had they not had that director issue.

So yeah, it’s nice to see something done differently. Each theatre group has its own personality, and they can bring that personality to the stage, and that’s what I like to see. Harrison doing Rent in a way that Music Guild wouldn’t.

What do you find you’re most inherently affected by in theatre? Story? Performances? Staging?

It used to be performances. But as I see more theatre, it’s become the underlying emotion that’s written into the script. And I never used to consider the script. After seeing so much, though, I think it just automatically happens – that you’re looking beyond an actor or an actress. And I find that there are these messages in scripts that sometimes aren’t even conveyed well on stage, but that still come through. I’m becoming affected just by hearing the playwright’s voice, and that surprises me, because I never expected that.

Jamie Em Behncke and Nathan Porteshawver in New Ground Theatre's 100 Saints You Should KnowCould you give me an example from this past year?

[New Ground’s] 100 Saints You Should Know. In the play, there’s a priest that likes the male form artistically, and perhaps a little more than artistically, but he still remains chaste, and there’s this inner struggle. And I felt that the script did well in its balance of two forces fighting – being in the priesthood, but potentially being gay – without giving a sense of definite right or wrong. I just found that script very moving. It was very not-preachy, and very effective.

Do you write reviews, or parts of reviews, in your head as you watch shows?

Mm-hmm. I do.

Do you find that distracting?

No. What I do is, as I’m watching, I’ll observe something and think, “Oh, I want to write about this,” and then I’ll think about how to write it in my head, and then move on. And I have struggled with reviews because I don’t take notes in the theatre. At least I haven’t yet. I don’t want to be distracting to the audience, I don’t want to be distracting to the actors, and I’m afraid that if I write as I go, I’ll come across as pretentious, you know?

But I also don’t have a very good memory for details, and I usually can’t write about shows the day after seeing them. I really need to process and think them through. So now I write in my head during the show, and then during intermission and afterward, I pull out my notebook and jot down several things. Then I have those details specifically. It’s been much easier for being descriptive in reviews.

Since you come from a performing background, do you ever cast yourself in shows while watching them?

(Laughs.) Rarely. There’s been a couple of times where I’ve thought, “Wow, I’d really like to play this role ... .” But I got into reviewing because I wanted to be part of the theatre community, but couldn’t perform because of scheduling. So what happens now is there are some performances where I’ll sit and I’ll just start crying openly. And it doesn’t have to be a sad show – it may be funny – but it’s so well-done that I’m moved to tears that I can’t be a part of it, or that I’m not a part of it. So it’s not so much wishing I was cast in a specific role, but just wishing I could be cast in something great, you know?

So you don’t sit there going, “Oh God, I would do this much better than this guy ... .”

No, I never do that. I do sometimes think, “I might have played this moment a little more this way ... .” But I don’t think I’ve ever done it with a whole character.

But I do think – I hope – that I’ve learned quite a bit about acting from observing so much. If I ever do get a chance to be back on-stage, I think that I would at least be a little bit better than I was. Because of watching other people, and thinking, “Okay, I think I’ve overacted in the past,” and understanding subtlety, and the use of eyes ... .

Laura Miller and Bret Churchill in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Jack Frost Saves ChristmasWell, it can’t help but be a master’s class in acting when you’re watching 50 to 80 productions a year. You almost have to learn, because there are so many people to study.

Absolutely. And you know how so many actors will say, “Oh, I act, but I really want to direct”? I have never wanted to direct ... until this year. Now, instead of casting myself in roles, I sometimes think, “You know, if I were directing this ... !”

You know, as much as I want to go in and just be another audience member, and not view shows as a critic or with a mindset of “I’m gonna be writing about this” – as much as I just want to come in and be entertained and write my impression – you see so much that it just happens. You just fall into analyzing. You’re still just another audience member, but one with maybe a little more understanding of theatre. That’s not to say that most audiences don’t have understanding, but I have more understanding of a show now than I would have had a year ago because of seeing so much.

Which bring us to your having seen 53 shows this year. [Thom saw his 54th, New Ground Theatre's The Gift of the Magi, the day after our conversation.] What are your immediate thoughts on the past year? Has it been exhilarating? Exhausting?

(Laughs.) It’s been surprising, in that ... . Well, I just love theatre. I love theatre. But I was surprised to find that there were times this summer when I was like, “Ugh, I have to go to the theatre tonight. I really don’t want to see a show.” And I felt so bad about that. It never had anything to do with the particular show I was seeing; it was just, you know, “I saw four shows last week, I don’t want to see another one ... !”

But what I found, as a side note, is that I most enjoyed the performances I saw on the days that I really didn’t want to see theatre. It was weird. So I held to that later in the year. I thought, “Well, I don’t want to see this, so I bet I’ll have fun.”

(Laughs.) So we both know this area is kind of lousy with talent, and places to see theatre. But do you think we’re over-saturated with theatre? Is there too much?

You know, I absolutely do think that this area is over-saturated. But at the same time, that’s not accurate, because all of it’s supported. I mean, there are so many theatres; I think there are more theatres per capita than there should be. And yet, the Quad Cities supports all of them, and all of them have reason to continue, because they get enough audience. Which is amazing. And fantastic.

And they’re all different. Every single venue, I think, has its own personality. Even ones that you’d think would be really similar – like the Richmond Hill and Playcrafters Barn theatres – don’t feel at all similar when you’re in them.

Yeah. They have distinct voices.

So let’s talk about some individual voices. You saw every Playcrafters show this season. What are your overall thoughts on the year there?

Well, first, Playcrafters is one of my favorite spaces for theatre. I just like the rustic barn setting, and the rows of lights on the grids counter the old-barn feel – you get the modern and the rustic. I love that mix, and I like the thrust stage a lot ... . I just really like that space.

Is that feeling intensified from having performed there?

I think so. I mean, I don’t play favorites, but I do have a special place in my heart for Genesius Guild and Playcrafters because I have experience with them. I don’t think that I’ve favored them in any way in reviews, and hope not, but I know, personally, there’s something just a little extra-special about those two groups because of that.

What [Playcrafters] shows were you particularly taken with this year?

More than anything, Fences. I thought it was really good, but I saw a preview, before they officially opened, and my one concern was that the lead [Fred Harris Jr.] was not intense enough. There was never this fear that he was actually going to strike his son – that he was abusive. But I heard from people who saw the show after it opened that he ramped it up and really brought it, and they did fear him. And I thought that was fantastic, because that was the one thing, for me, that would’ve taken the show into “phenomenal” territory.

With Moon Over Buffalo, I don’t really like camp, but there was something about that show that got me. I think it was because the cast was playing actors, and so it was kind of self-deprecating – actors making fun of themselves by overplaying themselves. I thought the performances were really good in that one.

Stephen Baldridge, Paul Workman, and Diane Greenwood in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Moon Over BuffaloWell, you had Maggie Woolley, and Paul Workman, and James Bleecker, and Pat and Patti Flaherty ... .

And you had Diane Greenwood, who was perfect for that. That was the best role I’ve ever seen her in. I was just taken by her, and the male lead [Stephen Baldridge] was excellent. Yeah, that whole cast, I thought, really played that one well. So the camp was ... palatable. (Laughs.)

And I liked The O’Conner Girls. That was a good example of a nice ensemble cast. I got a sense that these women who were playing family had really good relationships off-stage, and brought it on-stage, and it really worked well for that show.

On that subject, tell me a little bit about having to review friends when they’re in shows. Is that awkward for you? For instance, if they’re good, do you find yourself inclined to over-praise, and if they’re not, do you want to temper your disappointment?

Well, I’m fortunate that all of my theatre friends who I know outside of theatre are actually good. (Laughs.) What is awkward, though, is having made friends from reviewing people and running into them at the theatre, and then giving a bad review.

You know, no one’s perfect. I’ve written bad reviews – by which I mean I’ve written reviews that aren’t as well-written as others. Nobody’s ever on their game all the time. So there are some times that an actor is going to have a performance that’s a little off, and I sometimes worry about a bad review impacting a relationship. That an actor is gonna think that I don’t like them anymore because of one bad review.

And so far, I don’t think that’s happened. At least not with anyone that matters. (Laughs.) And I’m not aware that I’ve allowed friendship to alter the way I’ve written about someone. Maybe it has, but I’m not aware of that, and I don’t want to let it.