The ends of calendar years always bring with them a certain amount of reflection, and questions that we find ourselves quietly grappling with. "Did I achieve personal fulfillment and happiness?" "Were there people I improperly appreciated or unintentionally wronged?" "What are we going to do about the Reader's annual year-in-theatre article now that Thom White has moved to Kentucky?!"
Okay, that last one was probably just my question. And one I didn't grapple with all that quietly.
As readers of our theatre coverage likely know, a family relocation meant that longtime reviewer Thom had to step down from his chief-critic position this fall after nearly six years on the beat and 328 analyses of area productions. (Yup. I counted.) In his place, we hired a team of new authors who have been contributing reviews since mid-October, and who'll continue to alternate visits to area venues. We're certainly sorry to see Thom go, but also excited about bringing a fresh group of perspectives and opinions to the area-theatre conversation - even if offering a comprehensive wrap-up on the 2015 stage scene proved, for hopefully understandable reasons, infeasible.
So in lieu of that, I offered our reviewers (and our recently relocated reviewer) a challenge: Write about anything you want pertaining to area theatre as long as (a) it's personal, (b) it allows readers to learn a bit about you, and (c) it at least somewhat touches on a 2015 theatrical experience.
What follows, I hope you'll find, are year-end essays as varied as their authors' voices. Victoria Navarro explains how youthful stage experiences led to her post-retirement appreciation for theatre. Brent Tubbs details how the stage, and the people he's frequently on-stage with, helped him through a difficult 2015. Dee Canfield shares the many inspirations behind her annual returns to Genesius Guild. Jeff Ashcraft explores how theatre can be a haven for people who feel they don't belong anywhere else.
Thom, meanwhile, offers a collective thank-you-slash-love letter to everyone who makes area theatre so special. Oh yeah: And I wrote something myself, just because it's so hard to get me to shut up - and because I saw a show that made me remember why I fell in love with this art form in the first place.
Here's to further stage memories made in 2016!
- Mike Schulz
Quaking Fright / Taking Flight
by Victoria Navarro
Most people only know me as a retired teacher and librarian. Few people know that my past included some local theatre, plus a year attending interior-design school in Chicago. And although my "acting career" was short and more than 30 years ago, I have two distinct memories.
My first attempt at acting was when, as a high-school senior, I got a walk-on part in our school play Orwell's 1984. I was to enter, hand the character Winston a large envelope, and say, "Here is the information you've been waiting for." Winston, played by Ed Motto, would then say his line, and I would exit. So on opening night, I made my entrance, walked to my mark, looked out into the audience to see my best friend and her new boyfriend in the front row, and ... I froze. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. Luckily, Motto saw my distress, and saved me by asking, "Is this the information I've been waiting for?" I came out of my stupor long enough to nod, and made my exit to the sound of the director's backstage groan. (The next night, however, I came on stage and nailed it, and thought, "Broadway, here I come!")
I also remember that in 1985, I was taking some classes at Marycrest College and saw that there were auditions for The Wizard of Oz. I got the part of "Sophisticated Witch," friend to the Wicked Witch of the West. It was a minor role in a short scene intended to lend some comic relief, and involved me flying up and off stage. (I think I got the part because of my diminutive size, not my acting talent.) I was fitted with a homemade harness with a cable attached to the ceiling of the Capitol Theatre. Off-stage were two St. Ambrose University football players, one of whom held the cable and stood atop a six-foot-high set of prop stairs. Holding the cable, he would leap off the top stair, catapulting me into the rafters and off-stage, and into the arms of the other football player (a receiver, I presumed). Crazy-dangerous! But I loved the sensation of flying, if only for that brief moment.
No longer active on-stage, I have continued my love affair with theatre by supporting local productions as an audience member and, more recently, as a reviewer, and feel that having been on-stage gives me a deep appreciation of well-done performances. Listing my favorites from 2015 would be unfair to those productions I did not attend. But I will say that among those I did see, there is one performer who stood out: Calvin Vo in the QC Theatre Workshop's Tribes, a production in which he portrayed a deaf son in a troubled family, and showed that communication is more than spoken words. I hope the 2016 theatre scene has more Vo.
Meanwhile, because of my interior-design background, I have a particular interest in scenic design, and among the local productions I saw in 2015, two sets especially stood out for me.
The intimate venue that was the former home to the District Theatre on Rock Island's Second Avenue was transformed into a record store for its production of High Fidelity. With every inch covered in posters, album covers, records, T-shirts, instruments, et cetera - making us feel that we were right there in that shop - how could the theatre possibly fit musicians, as well? By putting them in a loft above the stage. Brilliant!
And Augustana College's Machinal was a dark drama with a set that added to its tone. Several large platforms shaped like gears and cogs served as stages for the different scenes. But within those platforms were removable pieces that the stage crew would use to construct tables, chairs, and other pieces of furniture, transforming the stage space into offices, a bedroom, a courtroom, and more, depending on the needs of the scene. Sort of like Legos on steroids.
My hope, as a reviewer, is to be informative and fair. Director Anne Bogart once said, "Theatre is where size and scale can be altered by the artists to create unforgettable journeys for the audience." I, for one, am ready to buckle on my harness and enjoy the flight.
New and Improv-ed
by Brent Tubbs
When asked to look back on the year and write about what shows or performances might have stood out, it was very difficult for me, because I had a year that would maybe have caused another person to say, "I'm not going near a theatre ever again." But I can't and won't ever say anything like that. I believe theatre can heal. I have always believed this, and in 2015 I got firsthand experience. Theatre is a beautifully therapeutic process. Whether you are performing it, writing it, watching it, or listening to it, theatre can transport you to another world, sometimes right when you most need it to.
Before I get too Montel Williams on you, I'll tell you that I perform improv comedy at the Establishment in Rock Island. I started with ComedySportz when I was just 17 and haven't stopped for the past 16 years. After studying and performing with some of the best improvisers in Los Angeles, I moved back to the Quad Cities just a few short years ago. I was lucky enough to hop back in with the local CSz group and am so proud to have been in on the ground floor of what are now the "Studio Series" shows the theatre offers on Fridays and Saturdays. I would put the levels of talent and entertainment they pump out every weekend on a par with anything I saw in L.A. So what I'll most remember about theatre in 2015 is the Establishment. But not for the reasons you might think.
It's not because I perform there on a regular basis and it's an easy plug. It's not because of the fantastic talent involved and the quality of their shows. It's not even because of a specific performance. It's because of the love, and the support, and the healing power of laughter that they offered me through what was personally a very difficult time. It's because of the incredibly big hearts of every staff member and performer at that theatre. We have a saying in the improv world: "I got your back." We say it as a way to symbolize that we will protect each other on stage. When you say it enough, it crosses over into real life as well. Every member of the Establishment not only "had my back" this year, but carried me. (Which, to be honest, is not that much, considering I'm 5-foot-4 and 119 pounds ... . But you get the idea.) Being in a theatre, and laughing, is the equivalent to eating a salad dressed with vitamins - by which I mean it's really good for you. It might have even saved me.
To anyone who has ever performed in a play, a dance presentation, a concert, et cetera, you know that those you perform with can be like family. And sometimes just by being on stage with them, without your even knowing it, you are helping them escape, even for just a little bit. Theatre is powerful. When everything falls into place, and everyone finds themselves sharing in the experience, you find yourself being transported no matter where you are in the theatre - on stage, in the tech booth, moving sets, or sitting in the audience. Everyone at the Establishment helped transport me in 2015, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Theatre, to me, is a comfort, like walking into your living room with your favorite people and sitting in your favorite chair. So I salute not only the Establishment, but the other venues in the Quad Cities that offer similar safety and comfort when welcoming people - theatre participants and audience members alike - into their living rooms. Unfortunately, I did not see a lot of theatre in 2015. But I am beyond thrilled to be reviewing for the Reader now, and cannot wait to see what's in store for 2016. If we're ever in a theatre at the same time and you see me, please say "Hi." After all, we're just hanging out in the living room ... .
Is that enough cheesiness for you? What? I can add more cheese? Okay! I'm out! Dim the lights! Play the theme from Breakfast Club! Fist pump! I got your back!
The Phenomenon of the Stage-Right Butterfly
by Dee Canfield
I got bit by the acting bug while sitting under a starlit canopy in Rock Island's beautiful Lincoln Park, attending an early-1970s Genesius Guild production of a Greek tragedy. I don't imagine there was much live theatre available in the area during my childhood in the '50s and '60s. But having grown up in reduced circumstances in Rock Island's Arsenal Courts housing project, it's not likely that our family would have known about it, or would have been able to attend, even if it had been available. So the Guild production was eye-opening in many ways.
Seeing that performance, I was enamored with the idea of performing on the Guild stage. Prior to that, I'd only had a small role in a junior-high play, and had next to no confidence and very little acting skill. In addition, my life had not taken the usual turn. I had been married at 18, and by 22 I was a single mother of two sons, waitressing and attending college. But for several summers, my boys went for extended stays with my brother in Montana, and in the summer of '74 - with a bit of free time on my hands and the strong encouragement of an actor friend - I found myself reading Shakespeare aloud for the first time in my life while auditioning for the Guild.
To my delight, I was cast as a member of the Greek chorus in that year's production of Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. And just this past summer, I was cast as Mistress Quickly in the Guild's The Merry Wives of Windsor, giving me the opportunity to revive the role I played in the same Guild play in 1979. Although I have performed with several local and regional theatre groups, the Genesius Guild was my "first love," theatrically speaking, and I have returned to it many times over the years.
It wasn't because acting for the Guild was a walk in the park (so to speak). Guild founder Don Wooten's small-"d" democratic mission of bringing classical-Greek and Shakespearean plays to the masses is no ordinary task. But since the plays are performed in a public, outdoor setting, the Guild has been successful not only in creating audience members from unsuspecting onlookers of all social and economic backgrounds, but also in recruiting a few to the stage - bringing to life the perennial Guild joke: "Hey, kid, wanna play King Lear?"
I was happy to be cast alongside the occasionally awkward (and sometimes troubled) teen, geeky bookworm, and middle-aged salesman or housewife, as well as a few seasoned actors who would carry most of the acting weight, and to rehearse like mad - often until the wee hours - for a brief two-week period before facing the terror of opening night. And I was overjoyed to do it. I not only survived those summers, but thrived.
Like so many others, I came back for the magic - magic that included the adrenaline-enhanced experience of learning about the classics and acting and stagecraft, not to mention the magic of forming lifelong friendships. And I will never forget my early days, hearing Don talk of the poets and playwrights, inspiring in me such a wonderful sense of being a part of something timeless - like there was a direct link from the mind of the poet to those of us in that green park under those lofty oaks who were preparing to enact his words.
And, finally, there was the wonderful phenomenon of the stage-right butterfly. For several summers, some of us were visited, during performances, by a butterfly that hovered and danced around our shoulders as we stood stage-right. To me, the butterfly was a reminder that, despite the difficulties of my life in the moment, life could magically be transformed. I have come a long way from that young woman who first auditioned in 1974. The Guild's mission touched my life in a deep and profound way, and those summers in the park were an important part of broadening my horizons, and of my personal transformation and growth. I will always be grateful.
With apologies to the Bard, here is my tribute to Don and the Guild:
Where shall you find us on a summer's day?
Not knowing lines and feeling desperate.
Rough winds and words from Wooten shape our play -
And rehearsal's lease hath all too short a date.
And when too hot the eye of heaven shines,
In polyester robes with fake fur trimmed,
Upon the vasty stage we say our lines -
Or not - we miss our cues (our memories dimmed).
But those eternal summers shall not fade,
Nor lose their magic as in age we grow.
Those lofty oaks above us giving shade,
Our happy band - we few - cavort below.
Comedic chases, timeless tragedy,
And so much joy - and so - our thanks to thee.
An Island for Misfit Toys
by Jeff Ashcraft
What does one write about when, as a new theatre reviewer, one is assigned to write about theatre? Not a specific play, character, or musical. Not a specific company or genre. Just: "Write about Quad Cities theatre." Ask me for an opinion on something, anything, and I will issue an opinion. However, just to begin writing about theatre in general is like opening the monochromatic door of Dorothy's house and seeing Munchkinland for the first time. It's just so vast and vibrant!
Let's start at the beginning - my beginning, to be specific. Theatre lit up my world for the first time when I was cast in the title role of an elementary-school production of Rip Van Winkle. It was my first audition and, not to brag, I completely nailed it. I knew when I had finished reading that I would be cast as the lead. It still makes smile today; I wasn't the most gifted athlete or class brainiac, so it was the first time I recall feeling like I was truly meant to do something. As a fifth-grader, it just seemed the most natural act to slip into a completely different character than my own. (Plus, I got to wear Miss Calcari's awesome Santa beard.) Much like Rip Van Winkle, the entire experience had awakened me from a slumber, and began to shift my perspective on my young life.
You should understand that I never felt like I quite fit in anywhere - and still don't, for that matter. Not in college, or in my work or church; not in my Rotary club; not even with my own family. Most of my life, I have had this feeling of being like a misfit toy. "Nobody wants a Charlie-in-the-Box," right? This may be a surprise to those who know me, because over the years I have acquired the skills to play whatever role is required of me throughout any given day. I've learned from life experience that the acting classes I took as a young man provided me so much more than how to define, interpret, and express the intentions of specific characters. They taught me how to cope and navigate through aspects of my everyday life. In a sense, theatre taught me how to be myself.
Throughout high school, college, and beyond, I spent years working on various aspects of theatre while maintaining a full-time day job and building a home and family. I have been blessed to direct productions in several Quad City community theatres, and also at the high-school and collegiate level. I was even one of the founders of the old Ghostlight Theatre - a predecessor to several of the independent theatres that dot the current theatrical landscape. But years and years of shows took their toll, and in 2002 I burned out and needed a break.
Fast-forward to 2015, a year that has been a time of theatrical resurrection for me. And yes, the pun is intended, because after more than a decade out of the Quad Cities theatre scene, I decided to jump back in and direct Countryside Community Theatre's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It brought me back together with a group of dear friends for one of my favorite musicals. Just as importantly, the gig allowed me to work with some energetic young talent on a fast-paced, intense production with a great amount of intimacy shared by those involved. The experience revived my passion and awakened me from a long theatre-less slumber.
With renewed fire in my belly, my wife and I made it a point to attend more productions this year than we have in a very long time. We saw Quad City Music Guild's Urinetown, Young Frankenstein, and Cats; Playcrafters' Harvey; Countryside's Big Fish; and the District Theatre's A Few Good Men and The Addams Family. I was also fortunate enough to be chosen by the Reader to become a member of its theatre-review crew, which allowed me to publicly share my thoughts on Augustana College's Machinal and the District's Big Rock Candy Christmas. Reviewing put the art into a different perspective, because not only was I providing an opinion; I now had to back up my view with reasonable thought and reflection. Some of the 2015 productions I saw were well-produced and some not as polished, but the eye-opener was finding new admiration for those who continue to create the art by bringing a diverse and captivating menu of theatre to Quad Cities audiences.
From the smell of the makeup to the sounds of a gathering audience, there is nothing quite as comforting and renewing as the theatre to my weary soul. Maybe there is a place for this Charlie-in-the-Box, after all. Cheers to 2016, and to viewing, reviewing, and experiencing more theatre in and around the Quad Cities.
by Thom White
Five-plus years as a reviewer with the River Cities' Reader leaves me with a lot of memories. There are so many great productions that will stick with me for years - as well as some, um, not-so-great ones - that I feel like I've experienced a five-year master class on acting, directing, and producing. Quad Cities theatre is alive, thriving, and evolving, and it has been a wonder to behold.
Through my reviews, you may know what I've thought about every production I've seen in the Quad Cities over the past five years. There are a few things, though, that I will miss that were not a part of those reviews.
I'll miss chatting with theatre owners and box-office staffers before performances, as I frequently did with New Ground Theatre's Chris Jansen - we once joked about how my partner wasn't my "plus one" for a show even though I really wanted musical-loving Matt to see a well-written, notably produced play. The QC Theatre Workshop's Tyson Danner and I would chit-chat a bit, though my admiration for him always made me feel self-conscious, and I remember the first awkward hug I shared with the Harrison Hilltop-turned-District Theatre's Tristan Tapscott; he wanted to shake hands, but after seeing him so often on-stage, I felt I knew him better than that. (We hugged at every subsequent meeting.) Though we talk at great length through Facebook, Countryside Community Theatre's Christina Myatt and I would simply acknowledge each other in the lobby, out of professional courtesy. The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre box office afforded me the chance to meet some of my favorite actors face-to-face, such as John VanDeWoestyne and Jackie Patterson, as well as catch up with Molly McLaughlin. The ladies working the Playcrafters Barn Theatre box office were great fun, always providing a laugh as I retrieved my tickets. Then there's Quad City Music Guild, where I consistently forgot that the will-call area is not the same as the box office and was embarrassed every single time ... .
I also made a surprising number of off-stage friends along the way. It was always a pleasure to see a seat saved for me next to dedicated theatre-goer Mike Reid at the opening-night performance of a Prenzie Players, New Ground, or Genesius Guild production. While my preference was to arrive about 10 minutes before the start of a performance, I'd often arrive earlier if I expected to see Mike, so that we could chat about HBO's True Blood or movies he recommended. And I formed a good friendship with former Quad-City Times theatre reviewer David Burke. David frequently messaged me during the week to ask about my theatre schedule so we'd know whether we'd bump into each other during our reviewing duties. At intermission, though, we always avoided discussing our opinions about the evening's entertainment - such talk would be saved for our chats at another play or musical after our reviews were published.
The masochist in me will also miss checking my phone on Sundays, sometimes all day, to see if Mike Schulz needed more revisions on a review. I always gave my best while writing, but consistently feared that my best wasn't good enough. (I turned in each piece over the last five years thinking, "This will be my last, because Mike will have grown tired of so much editing.") While I won't miss that not-good-enough feeling, I will miss Mike's notes, typed in boldface, throughout my early drafts. He never held back his honesty, wrapping it in humorously harsh wording that, because of our long friendship, I actually welcomed.
I could go on and on about favorite moments as an area-theatre reviewer, such as laughing with the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse Bootleggers as they bustled by with trays full of salads, or how it startled me every time the box-office attendants at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre and Timber Lake Playhouse recognized me on sight. With sadness, I could lament the discontinuation of several favorite theatre companies during my time with the Reader, such as the Curtainbox Theatre Company, the Green Room Theatre, and the Riverbend Theatre Collective. Or I could praise, at length, the delightful simplicity of the productions at Scott Community College and the sometimes awe-inspiring work at Augustana College and St. Ambrose University. Instead, I'll leave it at this: I love you, Quad Cities theatre community, and miss being a part of you. You'll forever hold a special place in my heart.
Friends with Benefit
by Mike Schulz
On December 15, St. Ambrose University hosted a fundraiser for the theatre-department costume designer Dianne Dye - a cabaret event held to offset medical expenses in the wake of her husband's recent passing. Friends, fans, colleagues, and current and former students (some traveling from as far as the East Coast) were in attendance, and if you've followed SAU theatre through the years since Dianne's first production in 1998, it was one of those nights when you couldn't stop seeing people you recognized, and most likely adored.
I bumped into one such adored party in the lobby. After a hug and some small talk, she asked if I was among the evening's scheduled entertainers, and I said no, I was just there to watch. "And I'm reviewing it." After enjoying her incredulity for a couple of seconds, I told her I was kidding. But it appears the joke's on me. Because now, in my reflective frame of mind, I really want to review it - or, rather, suggest why that two-and-a-half-hour benefit exemplified everything I love about theatre.
You'd have to search long and hard to find a human being as warm, kind, and gifted as Dianne Dye ... and even post-search, you might not find one. Yet while I've been fortunate to call her a friend for many years, I can't fathom that anyone attending that December 15 event - whether or not they knew her personally - left with any doubts about Dianne's profound effect on those who love her. All you had to do was look at the lineup of performers, whose collective talents made the cabaret's $25 ticket price an absolute steal.
For longtime fans of SAU theatre, this thing was unbelievable - a ceaseless cascade of happy memories. With theatre professor Corinne Johnson serving as the night's graceful, grateful emcee, alumni reprised beloved roles: Seth Kaltwasser delivered his dynamic "Magic to Do" opener from 2008's Pippin; Dan Hernandez made a riotous return as the Adolpho of 2010's The Drowsy Chaperone; Daniel Sheridan and Daniel Rairdin-Hale - now, respectively, the artistic director of Davenport Junior Theatre and the chair of SAU's theatre department - revisited their Jerome siblings from 2003's Brighton Beach Memoirs, proving that no fundraiser is truly complete without a bunch of good masturbation jokes.
There were beautiful, funny, touching numbers performed by graduates whose work you always admired: Andrew Benson, Chris Galván, Emily Kurash, Stephanie Seward, Jenny Stodd. (Louis Hare and Aaron Randolph III, meanwhile, teamed up for a hilariously bro-mantic rendition of REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" that won't be forgotten any time soon.) There was an enjoyably cheeky turn by SAU senior Jonathan "J.J." Johnson, and terrific solos by former students perhaps previously unknown to you. If, like me, you missed the department's City of Angels in 2001, you missed what emcee Johnson revealed was your one chance to catch Jill Schmits in a university musical, and the alumna's gorgeous soprano and endearing stage presence on Tuesday made you instantly regret it.
And, oh, the heavy hitters that came out for this thing! Broadway's The Boy from Oz director Philip Wm. McKinley, who helmed SAU's 2007 world premiere Crème de Coco, crooned a lovely Christmas tune in Act I before returning for Act II wisecracks sporting a dime-store wig, house dress, and lopsided breasts. (It was that kind of evening.) Crazy-gifted SAU scenic designer Kris Eitrheim and indefinably great actor/professor Michael Kennedy read a collection of poems that started silly and ended gloriously sweet. Guys & Dolls' "Fugue for Tinhorns" was given vibrant life by what Johnson called a "holy trinity" of talents: frequent Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse director and University of Indiana Southeast professor Jim Hesselman; Bill Thiessen, director of opera for the University of Iowa's School of Music; and Circa '21 resident costumer Greg Hiatt, the latter singing on-stage for the first time in more years than he'd probably like me to reveal.
But perhaps the most purely moving moment of the evening - beyond the thunderous, tear-filled standing ovation that greeted Dianne Dye's ascent to the podium - came from the former students sending their well wishes via video montage. Even though they couldn't be in attendance, all of these graduates had been clearly affected by Dianne's guidance and friendship, and clearly needed that feeling to be shared. And watching that video, seeing those performances, and sitting amidst that delighted audience made me feel humble and honored: This, I thought, is what theatre is about. Participants and patrons alike - we're there for the love of the art, and the people who make that art, and the people for whom it gets made. We're all there together. We're there to support one another. And we're there when we're needed most.