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Curtain Call: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2010 - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Monday, 20 December 2010 06:00

ensemble members in the Internet Players' The Tragedy of Sarah KleinLet’s talk a bit about The Tragedy of Sarah Klein, which was staged by the Internet Players. Tell me a little bit about having to review a debuting work, because you actually had to do it several times this year, with Hard to Believe [at Playcrafters] and with Whodunit? [at Circa ’21]. Is it easier to review an established piece, because you’ve got things to compare it to, or is it easier to deal with something that almost no one has seen before?

You know what? It’s harder to review new works, because it takes much more thought to analyze a script than it does individual performances. But I prefer it, because often I want to write about a script or a score. You know, I did it with Rent [at Harrison Hilltop and the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre], because I’ve long wanted to ... well, I have some issues with that show, and I really wanted to mention them. I don’t know that doing that is really so valid for a local production ... .

Right. It’s not like they’re not going to change the script of Rent.

So these were opportunities where I was like, “Oh, I actually get to really examine a script, and it’s appropriate to examine it.” It was a challenge, but I hope for more opportunities for that.

And on that note, I think it’s interesting that Sarah Klein, Hard to Believe, and Whodunit?, I would say, were three of the year’s bigger disappointments for you. Do you think that’s tied to their being debuting works, or was that just coincidence?

I really don’t know. It might be coincidence, because I thought Whodunit? had enough strengths that it could be shaped into something better than it was. Unfortunately, around here, there’s not really a community of development for scripts. So with these local shows, like Sarah Klein, there isn’t a think tank, a workshop, where there’ll be input on the process. So the problem might be with our environment – while it’s great for theatre, I don’t know that it’s great for playwrights. Whereas if you were in New York, you would have workshops, and you’d have plenty of input.

I saw Sarah Klein, too, and I think we both agree that it had incredibly strong visuals, and the first five minutes were kind of intensely thrilling. You know, the live music, and the weird lighting ... .

Yes, I loved the first five minutes. I was so excited about the rest of the show. I was thinking, “This is weird, and unique, and creative – I love it!” And then it just didn’t ... .

And what you brought up before, about feeling like it’s a requirement to give a positive review? I think, now that we bring up Sarah Klein, that I really did want to like it a lot. Because the playwright and the director [Nathan Porteshawver] ... I mean, he seems so likable. I really enjoyed him in 100 Saints You Should Know, and reading your interview with him ... .

Siara Cooper in Augustana College's Wrestling with Angels & DemonsYeah, I liked him a lot.

So I really wanted to like his work. And so I was disappointed, but I couldn’t give it a positive review. At the same time, I don’t want to be a part of, you know, squelching his passions. (Laughs.) I also don’t want to give myself too much credit – that I have any power to destroy someone’s dreams. Because that’s ridiculous. But while I was honest in what I wrote, I wouldn’t want the review to be taken, at all, like he should think, “I have to get out of this business.”

I think that was one of the best-directed shows I saw this year. And the directing was really impressive because of the material he was working with. I was just blown away by the direction – the music, and the set, and the use of lights ... .

The script just needed some shaping and cutting.

And deepening of the themes, I think.

One of the comments I got on Midsummer was that I wasn’t supporting local theatre because I wasn’t giving it a good review. And that’s one thing I just absolutely disagree with. Because I think it would be less supportive to applaud mediocrity – and I’m not addressing Midsummer right now. I’m just saying that applauding mediocrity means that a theatre, potentially, will continue with mediocrity. But constructive criticism offers the opportunity for a theatre group to grow, and build, and become even better.

You know, Harrison Hilltop has grown in leaps and bounds since it started, and I remember giving it a lot of ... you know ... constructively critical reviews early on. (Laughs.) And they’ve just really improved. They’ve figured out their voice in the community, and their shows are generally fantastic ... so I think there’s value to constructive criticism.

Another debuting work that you saw was Augustana’s Wrestling with Angels & Demons, which you quite liked, as I recall.

Yes, although I cursed you under my breath through the entire performance.

(Laughs.) Really?

A little bit, yeah.

Why was that?

Because I thought, “Oh my gosh, why am I reviewing this? This is not really a play!” It was more like a dramatized thesis presentation. Seriously, I kept whining to my theatre companion the next day, like, “I don’t know how to write this review!” But yeah, I really liked it. I liked the message; I liked the performances. But it was not like anything else that I’ve reviewed. It was great, but it was a tough one to write about. It was so tough.

Was this your first time seeing shows in Augie’s Potter Hall?

That show and The Seagull, yes. I love the space. It feels like a professional theatre but still has that college-art-scene feel to it. I just think it’s the perfect space. It’s comfortable, there’s no bad seat in the house, and while the stage is lower than the seats – and I tend not to like that – it’s not really noticeable.

Brandi Clark, Megan Baumunk, Alison Guzman, and Danielle Coffin in Scott Community College's A Coupla Bimbos Sittin' Around Talkin'You also saw your first shows at Scott Community College this fall [the one-acts To Burn a Witch and A Coupla Bimbos Sittin’ Around Talkin’].

Yeah!

Weren’t those delightful? I adored those shows.

That was one of the few times where I did go in with expectations. I thought, “This is not gonna be the best theatre with the best performances,” you know, because these are community-college kids who are just getting together to do something that they enjoy doing. And so I went in just expecting to enjoy the shows for that.

But they were just so charming, and so adorable, because the cast just seemed to be having such fun on stage. Even during the Salem Witch Trials, where there was no fun on stage (laughs), you could tell they were having a good time.

In reviewing educational theatre, do you treat those works differently than you do community theatre or professional theatre?

With the Scott shows I did, because I knew there was no theatre department, no acting studies ... . It wouldn’t be fair to compare their performance to, say, something at the Curtainbox, because it’s just not going to compare, if you do that.

But with Augustana, knowing they do have a department, and the students do have experience – although the actors weren’t all theatre majors – they were on par with anything else, to my mind. They’re studying this, so they’d better be good. (Laughs.) We were talking about constructive criticism before, and they [students] are the ones who need to know, “How am I doing?” from a voice outside of the people they act with and their professors.

Switching gears completely, let’s talk about Circa ’21. Do you expect more from a Circa production than you do from other venues? Do you hold them to a higher standard?

I used to. When I started reviewing with WQAD, I was under the impression that they were the only professional theatre in the community, and by raising my expectations so high, I was often disappointed. Because I went in with unattainable expectations. I thought, you know, “This should be like Wicked on Broadway!” (Laughs.) And that’s unlikely. So I had to temper those expectations, and approach them on more of an equal ground with other theatres.

Ben Holmes, Sara Nicks, Laura Miller, Andrea Moore, and Bret Churchill in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's 8-Track: The Sounds of the 70'sWhat were your thoughts on this season then? I think you saw six of their 10 shows, including your first Circa children’s show [Jack Frost Saves Christmas].

My first children’s show since I was a child, even. And it was just the sweetest thing. Like I said in the review, I thought, you know, “I’ll be amused, and I’ll try to find joy through the kids’ enjoyment.” But I found joy myself, and I was surprised by that. It was so sweet and so adorable. Like if the show had cheeks, I would pinch them. I didn’t put it in the review, but after we saw the show, we went home and decorated the Christmas tree – we were so in the spirit from it.

I also saw my first Bootlegger show [8-Track: The Songs of the ’70s], which was really neat. It was nice to see them doing something with much more involved singing and choreography than their normal pre-shows. By necessity, those need to be simpler, but in this, they finally had the chance to really shine.

That group is really crazy with talent.

Absolutely. It was a lot of fun.

I liked several Circa shows this year, but what I missed, personally, was a Peter Pan, you know? Or a Full Monty. Something that really just takes your breath away.

What’s unfortunate is that Peter Pan did not sell well, from what I hear, and it should have. It was wonderful. That was another one where I went thinking, “Oh, you know, it’s a children’s show, I might not enjoy it that much,” and I was just floored by it. And I fear that too many people thought that same thing, and missed out. It was just so magical.

But what I’ve learned from Circa is that a theatre is also a business. Like, I’m not disappointed that I didn’t have to see Church Basement Ladies 2. I saw the first one, and I liked some of the performances in it, and I loved the set. As far as the script and the music goes, though, I just think the show is not that good. But audiences ate it up. Wasn’t it like their best-selling show?

Yeah. From what I understand, it sold better than Cats.

And that’s great. I think it’s fantastic that Circa found a show that audiences love. That’s wonderful. You’ve got to bring in the crowds. I just have to remember that as much as I want to see, you know, Equus (laughs), it’ll never be at Circa. So if I do go in with any grain of salt, it’s that – there’s a business aspect to it.

Rachelle Walljasper and ensemble members in Countryside Community Theatre's AnnieYou saw Jack Frost with your girls. [Thom’s partner, Matt, is the father to Hannah, age 11, and Madison, age seven.] And that leads us to Countryside Community Theatre, where you also got to see Annie with them. Was that your first trip to Countryside, by the way?

Yep. My first viewing at Countryside. I don’t like Annie. I like some of the songs, but I don’t like the show. But I enjoyed Countryside’s production. I liked what the director [Christina Marie Myatt] did with it; there was some really creative use of the set, which was simple and yet had a grand impact. And there were some really nice performances.

Madison was six when we saw Annie, and you know, it’s different going in and viewing a show with a child. Because if I’m sitting next to a six-year-old, I want to make sure she’s comfortable. “I hope she’s having a good time, because we’re going to be here for two and a half more hours ... !” Even if I’m not going to include her in the review, I’m still not only there as a reviewer; I’m also there as a parent with a child.

I would imagine it would have to enhance your pleasure at times. Like Annie, for instance, is a show that you might not necessarily want to see again, but if you get to see it through the girls’ eyes ... .

There’s kind of an innocence that’s brought into the experience, you know? I would love to take them to everything, actually. I thought, sometimes, about taking Hannah to stuff that she shouldn’t go to – don’t worry, I didn’t. I didn’t. She would not see Equus. (Laughs.) But I think she would like Sweeney Todd. Just for the experience. Even though that’s not appropriate, either.

It’s so easy, though, to work them into the reviews! Like when Madison made that comment about the wig in Annie? [“I really don’t like her hair!”] She said something innocently, and it was just a really funny point to bring out – and a good point – and it added some humor. You know, that whole “through the eyes of a child” thing ... !

This summer also marked your first trek to the Clinton Showboat. What were your thoughts about it?

Well, for one thing, it’s not as far away as I thought. Matt and I would actually make plans to go ahead of time for dinner and then see the show. It is still a drive, but it’s not that bad.

What I really like about Clinton is their use of the same actors throughout the summer, you know? It’s nice to be able to see what an actor can do, and what range they have – it gives you a good impression of their abilities in a really short period of time.