Friday, March 24, through Saturday, April 1
The Mockingbird on Main, 320 North Main Street, Davenport IA
A world-premiere workshop production being staged at Davenport's Mockingbird on Main from March 24 through April 1, Anywhere but Here tells of a young man from a big city forced, by the advent of the 2020 pandemic, to move back into his parents' rural Midwestern home. It's a situation likely familiar to many. It's certainly familiar to the show's playwright and director Bradley Robert Jensen, who fashioned his own experiences into what he describes as “a family dramedy centered around people choosing each other over each other's differences.”
The resident costumer at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (and, it should be noted, this author's costume designer for last fall's 12 Angry Jurors at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre), Jensen designed wardrobe for the Rock Island venue's productions of We Will Rock You, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and the current Grumpy Old Men: The Musical; appeared in the Circa '21 Speakeasy's October rendition of The Rocky Horror Show; and was one of only three cast members in the Mockingbird's radio-show take on A Christmas Carol.
But Anywhere but Here serves as Jensen's first fully produced offering as a playwright – though, as he says with a laugh, “I've always dabbled in playwriting, and have a Google drive full of partial scripts and outlines and that sort of thing.” So for his debut, it made sense for Jensen to, as the experts say, “write what you know” … even if what he initially wrote was never originally intended as a play.
“I very much like to say that it's a work of fiction,” says Jensen. “But it was largely inspired by true events and my experience in 2020, and a lot of the dialogue is pulled from that experience. I really started writing this more as a journal than a script.
“The basic plot,” he continues, “is that this gay, 20-something, early-career man named Billy is forced to move back into his childhood home with his parents due to the 2020 shutdown. His parents are non-affirming, and so there's conflict between them. I mean, they love each other deeply, but they cannot agree on this one issue, which is Billy's queerness. And so, on s larger scale, I like to say it's a story about 'the space between.' There are so many extremes when we talk about opinions on morality. But I think the truth usually lies in the middle of those extremes, and I don't think you have to fully change or give up your beliefs to actively love someone who believes differently than you do.”
A native of rural Indiana like his Anywhere but Here alter ego Billy, Jensen received his undergraduate degree in 2019 and, as he says, “moved literally two days after commencement to California, where I was doing an 18-month internship at a theatre there. But it wound up only being a 13-month internship because of the shutdown.” Because, as everyone will remember, it wasn't as though any other theatres were producing shows at that point, “I moved back in with my parents.
“But because I was home and wasn't doing theatre,” Jensen says, “I still needed to be creative. So I created outlets for myself, and feel I grew so much as an artist. I'll always have mixed emotions about that period. It sucked because I wasn't doing what I wanted to be doing. But a lot of skills that I use regularly now were really developed in that time, because I had nothing but time.
“Usually, we think freedom and liberty are what begets creativity. But in actuality, having very strict guidelines forces you to be more creative than you would be with no guidelines, and that happened for a lot of artists. I mean, a lot of people got discouraged and stopped doing art. But for those who decided to actively engage [with the shutdown] and work within those confines, there's been a lot of really cool stuff that's come out.”
Among those unplanned inspirations, for Jensen, is his play that concerns Billy, his mom and dad, and the family's trio of friends next door. “We follow them over the course of a year,” says Anywhere but Here's writer/director. “We get to see them in late-spring/early-summer, we get to see them again at Thanksgiving, and then we see them the next spring, sort of following the time-line of Billy's best friend getting married.
“I really didn't set out to write a script, though.” Jensen explains. “After I finally moved out of my parents' house in 2021, and was separated from the experience, I wanted to process it. So I started journaling. And that journaling turned into dialogue. And then, suddenly, I was like, 'Wow, this is a lot of dialogue. If I reformatted it, what might happen?' So I reformatted it as a script and shared it with a few very close friends, and they thought it was worthwhile, and sort of a relatable scenario for people. Then I really started pursuing it, and did a few readings over the past couple of years, and now I'm finally getting to mount it.”
For Jensen, one of the primary thrills to finally seeing Anywhere but Here on its feet is the chance for him to share what he considers his play's important messages of love and acceptance.
“Whenever conservative, unaffirming families are portrayed in media,” he says, “it's usually full of angst and hate. The parents either disengage from the child, or the child disengages from the parents. That's so sad, and it's not the experience of everyone. I mean, if a queer kid is watching that and thinks that disengagement is the only option, then they can feel like they have to disengage themselves, or be disengaged from, which can make it harder for people to live authentically. But that's not the only option. Sometimes affirmation comes through discussion. And sometimes it doesn't, but it doesn't always lead to the removal of people from your life. That's something I'd like to see in media of different sorts. It's also my experience. So why would I not share that?”
As for his own' parents reaction to the material, Jensen says, “I had my mom read the script to make sure that everything felt fair. Because obviously, it was written from a point of stress –about disagreements that I had with the people closest to me over the course of a year. But because I wanted it to be about unity and love and choosing each other over differences, I felt that it was important that I have at least their blessing, and at most their active support.”
Featured in the Anywhere but Here cast are Adam Cermy as protagonist Billy; Ashley Hoskins as Billy's mother Amanda; Jim Harris as Billy's father Bill; Gillian McMahon as Billy's best friend Mikayla; and Emmalee Hilburn and Louie Fisher as Mikayla's parents. With Jensen also (naturally) his show's costume designer, his creative team includes Mockingbird co-owners Tristan Tapscott and Savannah Strandin as producers and set/lighting designers and Ryan J. Hurdle as sound designer.
And with Jensen directing his first area production, and his first since he was an undergraduate, he says, “It's been a dream to get back into it with this show – and it being a workshop production helps so much in being able to direct 'myself,' in a sense. Because I could find things that weren't working as a director and then be able to make those fixes as a playwright.
“I told everyone who was involved very early on that it was a workshop production. There's no pretending that this script was finished when we started. I was on, I think, my 15th draft by the time we started rehearsal. So we've been making changes at we go, but mostly small changes – we haven't changed the structure in rehearsal.
“Although,” Jensen adds with a laugh, “I did put a freeze on myself for the last week right before we go into tech rehearsals, just so the actors could sit with the dialogue that we'd all discovered together in rehearsals. I wanted to give them that, at least. 'The script will stop changing at this point!'”
Anywhere but Here will be presented in downtown Davenport March 24 through April 1, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and admission is “Pay What You Can” ticket pricing. For more information and reservations, visit TheMockingbirdOnMain.com.