The Brilliance of Tyler Hayes Stillwill: An Appreciation

DSC_0283(Left: Sam Card as Mowgli in “Jungalbook”)

Children’s theater is a marvelous thing.

It exposes children–especially those that would not normally be exposed to the theater–to one of the finest art forms. It can instill in them something magnificent: a love for live theater.

For almost five years, the Black Hawk Children’s Theatre has been helmed by a fine director that has executed this with profound skill. Tyler Hayes Stillwill has given many productions the vision needed to turn them from words on a page to simple, yet breathtaking, haunting, and moving works of art.

The first production that Stillwill directed as BHCT director was “Junie B. Jones.” All of the plays picked that season were chosen under the previous director, Greg Holt. (I remember during talkback sessions for school performances for the shows that season, when a child asked “How did you pick the shows?”, Stillwill’s response was, “I didn’t pick the plays.”) What could have been a slight, annoying play was fairly amusing. The adults all wore rubber-looking wigs. If you think about this concept, to Junie and her classmates, the adults seemed weird, foreign, an idea furthered by the use of the wigs.

The next season, Stillwill began writing his own scripts. The plays he adapted were not the sugar-coated Disney stories may want to hear. They were real, human, true to their source. In “Cinderella”, the stepsisters had their toes cut-off. It should be noted that in his adaptation of “Rumpelstiltskin,” the title character did not rip himself in two, like he does in the Brother’s Grimm story.

His production and adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” used minimalist aesthetics and stayed true to the tone of Lewis Carroll’s book. The Duchess was abusive to her pig-baby and our attention was focused to the play since it was more or less on a bare stage. The inhabitants of Wonderland seemed truly foreign due to the use of paper-mâché masks. It was intriguing, amusing, frightening, just like Carroll’s book.

In fact, all of Stillwill’s productions seemed to capture the mood of the play perfectly. In April of 2005, “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” was whimsical with a use of primary colors and white foam mouse ears. That November, his production of “The Phantom Tollbooth” used dim lighting and outrageous costumes to convey Milo’s bewilderment.

One of Stillwill’s finest achievements was his production of “Jungalbook.” While Edward Mast’s script called for it to be set on a jungle gym, this production transpanted it to the inner city. Platforms with graffiti, old newspapers, and a chain-link fence the actors climbed over became their playground. The actors gave raw, emotional performances. This show was frightening in its realism–which was mainly present due to the setting–yet it was incredibly moving from the actor’s performances. Anyone can stand on a stage and say lines. A director can help the actor give a performance it’s fullest potential.

2008 and 2009 seemed to be Stillwill’s crowning years. His production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” is the finest production I have seen at the Waterloo Community Playhouse. The production captured the emotion and reflectiveness of Sondheim’s score and James Lapine’s. Watching the show it was very clear how much Stillwill and musical director Joel Waggoner cared for the show. Sadly, several of the inhabitants of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area failed to attend this production. Their loss.

In January of 2009, Stillwill’s direction of an adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” opened amidst frigid Iowa weather. The production was like a revalation; a burst of warmth and hope amongst the weather. With Geoff Ehreneich’s minimalist abstract set, the production did what so many plays at BHCT did under Stillwill’s direction: it focused on the play, the action. It never became entertained with itself or was just there to give kids a mind numbing entertainment for an hour. In my review, I said that it was “one of the greatest performances ever seen on that stage.” It was joined in March by another production directed by Stillwill.

On the first weekend of March, “The Velveteen Rabbit” opened. Stillwill played Older Steve, who told the story of his relationship as a child with a velveteen rabbit. He did not just simply narrate; he delivered his lines in a manner that it was like he was interacting with the audience, without actually doing so. He observed the action of the story, supplying some commentary. And his reaction to the side of the story he missed due to his younger self being ill was utterly moving.

The production, which also had an unbelievably poignant performance by Zoe Thune as the title character, was moving. It was not like watching some dumb show; it was the witnessing of a tragic, then hopeful, and then once again tragic relationship.

Stillwill’s final production was a bang. He transplanted the story of Rumpelstiltskin to the trashy talk show circuit. But it worked. It seems as though who gets a baby is a common topic and it worked magnificently. In the tellings of the story, someone was made to look bad which had an effect temporarily. And towards the end, the audience got to vote on whether the queen or the little imp got the child. Normally, audience participation detracts from a show, but with this, due to the set up of the show, it worked wonderfully.

Theater is a collaborative business. Along with the magnificent ensembles that were directed under Stillwill, his productions were aided by the technical aspects. The set designs of Katrina Sandvik and Geoff Ehrendreich, the lighting designs of Terry Allard, Ehrendreich, and Brad Brist; and the costume designs of Patricia Stillwill, Sandvik, and Danielle Warnke all complemented the plays. They did not detract, they simply aided in the telling of a story.

It is indeed a shame that Stillwill is leaving the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. He has made major contributions to the theatrical scene over the course of the last five years, giving audiences productions that were like nothing they had ever seen. One can only hope that his directing made an impact in the lives of children that attended them. I can say that they have certainly left an imprint in my mind.

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