Theater as a Community

As many of you might know, Saturday was World Theatre Day. In Chicago, there was a party at the Chopin Theatre, which I attended after seeing BackStage Theatre Company’s production of Orange Flower Water.

What was incredible for me to observe was the literal community in the Chopin Theatre. People were literally crammed into the theater. I would walk around and see someone that I knew, people I had interviewed, people I knew through Twitter. Through those people, I met other people and had great conversations with them. My friend Zev arrived there later than I did and he instantly saw people he knew and saw more people as he wandered around the Chopin.

It was amazing to see so many people socializing with people that had never worked with their respective theater companies. It brought a whole new idea to me as to what the Chicago Theater Community is. It was also interesting to see another critic be treated so well and received warmly. Although, that theater critic reviews tiny storefront theaters and the big established Equity companies without ever saying, “This would be great in New York.”

I realized that a real sense of community in the theater is lacking in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. You either support the Waterloo Community Playhouse or Cedar Falls Community Theatre. And with one of those theaters, you sure as hell better think it’s great theater and not support theater in Cedar Rapids. Rarely do you witness artists doing plays about both theaters. There are a few, but it’s not widespread.

Because theater artists can learn a lot from each other and from working with different theaters and different directors, shouldn’t there be more work between the different theaters? I have grown as an artist by working with different directors, even by auditioning for different directors because an audition is run differently. We can learn about how to approach an artistic process differently by working together, exchanging directors, actors, designers, in my opinion. It might be a bit Pollyanna-ish, but I would like to think that is the case.

If theaters don’t work together and they just have the same pool of artists that are always there to design, direct and act, why not ask them what type of art they want to create. It might not be something that can be pursued, but if there will be a reliable group of people to work on a show, their input should be given in the theater. You can’t have dilettante donors running a theater; people that actually invest time into the theater should help run the theater.

Why not collaborate, like theaters in the Corridor have done? Has theater become so stuck up in this area that you can’t collaborate and exchange ideas? Theater should seem fresh, not just “business as usual.” How do you keep your audience and artists engaged if what they experience and observe is stale? By working together and investing in projects as a community and in the community, you can get an idea of what audiences and artists want.

Otherwise, you will eventually lose your audience and artists.

The Roundabout is Probably Screwed

Well, it’s been quite a weekend for Todd Haimes and the Roundabout Theatre Company.

First, Megan Mullally quits the revival of Lips Together, Teeth Apart after apparently being upset with her co-star, Patton Oswalt, who was making his Broadway debut. Then, All About Me, which is currently playing in the Roundabout-owned Henry Miller’s Theatre, posts its closing notice for Sunday. All About Me which was about dueling acts of Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein, received mixed reviews and was not making enough money at the box office.

I would like to know why the Roundabout had to cancel Lips Together, Teeth Apart because Megan Mullally quit. Didn’t she have an understudy? Or was that understudy not enough of a star?

Then there’s what is happening with the Henry Miller Theatre. The Roundabout only booked one show for that theater and that was Bye Bye Birdie, and we know what critics thought of that. It closed in January and the Roundabout had an empty space, so they decided to rent it out. Did they think that Bye Bye Birdie was going to run forever? What non-profit plans their season and only books one show for one theater? (Unless you want to count The Coast of Utopia as one play)

So they go and rent out their theater and that play doesn’t prove profitable. The Roundabout will end the Broadway season with two dark theaters unless they find something to put in their theaters that opens by April 29. Which is probably not going to happen. Not that they won’t find a play, but I don’t think that it will open by the Tony Award cutoff. (Which reminds me, what ever happened to Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape?)

There have been rumors that the Roundabout has been in trouble, but this might be the last hit that they can take. However, their off-Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie has been extended. But having darkened Broadway theaters loses a lot of money.

But I do think that Can You Run the Roundabout Better Than Todd Haimes? would be a great idea for a reality show.

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-11 Season

I’ve missed writing about other season announcements, but I’ll write about Steppenwolf’s because I’m remembering to do so (I’ve been busy unpacking and dealing with angry mothers) and I was outrageously ebullient at 9 p.m.. (I didn’t read it when the Tribune posted it at 8:57, three minutes before the embargo was up.)

The theme for Steppenwolf’s 2010-11 season is the public/private self, which is a relevant thing to examine in the day of social networking. For more info, visit Steppenwolf’s website and/or the post on Time Out Chicago’s blog.

Steppenwolf has planned an interesting season that will, at the very least, make me visit Chicago regularly. A new play by Lisa D’Amour that Steppenwolf commissioned, a play by Lanford Wilson (their production of his play Blam in Gillead in 1980 was, er, landmark.), the transfer of a play from their First Look Repertory and a new Will Eno play. (I like Thom Pain (based on nothing). I’m not sorry.)

Oh, and Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? FTW! (See, Steppenwolf can get me to use FTW.)

Here’s the word from the Steppenwolf folks.

September 9 – November 7, 2010
A new play by Lisa D’Amour
Featuring ensemble members Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

Picture-perfect couple Ben and Mary fire up the grill to welcome the new neighbors who’ve moved into the long-empty house next door. Three barbeques later, the fledgling friendship veers out of control, shattering Ben and Mary’s carefully maintained semblance of success—with comic, unexpected consequences. Detroit is a fresh, off-beat look at what happens when we dare to open ourselves up to something new.

December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011
Edward Albee’s
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Featuring ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

On the campus of a small New England college, George and Martha invite a new professor and his wife home for a nightcap. As the cocktails flow, the young couple finds themselves caught in the crossfire of a savage marital war where the combatants attack the self deceptions they forged for their own survival. Ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton face off as one of theatre’s most notoriously dysfunctional couples in Albee’s hilarious and harrowing masterpiece.

January 20 – May 15, 2011
Sex with Strangers
By Laura Eason
Directed by associate artist Jessica Thebus
Featuring ensemble member Sally Murphy with Stephen Louis Grush
In the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre

Ethan is a hot young writer whose online journals of “sexcapades” are the buzz of the blogosphere. Olivia is an attractive 30-something whose own writing career is fizzling. They hook up, sex turns into dating and dating into something more complicated. A break-out hit at Steppenwolf’s 2009 First Look Repertory, Sex with Strangers explores how we invent our identity – online and off – and what happens when our private lives become public domain.

March 24 – May 29, 2011
The Hot L Baltimore
By Lanford Wilson
Directed by ensemble member Tina Landau
Featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman and Yasen Peyankov
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

The Hotel Baltimore used to be the swankiest place in town—now it has a date with the wrecking ball. Eviction notices just went out to its residents, who live on the fringes of society and call the seedy hotel home. This acclaimed play from the author of Balm in Gilead is filled with everyday humanity—unexpectedly intimate and moving. Helmed by visionary director Tina Landau, Hot L Baltimore reveals the private lives of an unconventional community about to be turned inside out.

June 16 – August 14, 2011
A new play by Will Eno
Directed by Les Waters
Featuring ensemble member Alana Arenas
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

Mary Swanson just moved to Middletown. About to have her first child, she is eager to enjoy the neighborly bonds a small town promises. But life in Middletown is complicated: neighbors are near strangers and moments of connection are fleeting. Middletown is a playful, poignant portrait of a town with two lives, one ordinary and visible, the other epic and mysterious.

“Hobbit”-gate is Over


That was fun.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But normally people don’t throw personal attacks at me when they’re upset over my review.

In less than 24 hours, I received 18 comments, two of them weren’t attacks of me or my review, two of them were from members of the theater’s board of directors. I had to finally close the comments because it was getting out of hand.

And since no one has sent me an angry message on Facebook, I’m declaring it over.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to working on Hot Box of Crazy.

Review: “The Hobbit” — Black Hawk Children’s Theatre

Upon entering the Hope Martin Theatre for the Black Hawk Children’s Theatre’s production of The Hobbit, you instantly see Geoff Ehrendreich’s magnificently designed set, which features a hobbit hole, complete with round door, some mountains, some holes with bars for holding prisoners, and a backdrop that happens to be an detailed map of Middle Earth, complete with Elven runes. It manages to be stunning, realistic and efficient for this production; it works well.

That statement can’t be said about the rest of Anita Ross’s production, which has the main problem of having actors that really come off a bit too much as a bunch of kids running around on stage in fake beards. Never for once do we really believe that this is J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic tale coming alive before our eyes, which isn’t aided by the fact that Edward Mast’s script comes off as being a Middle Earth-themed episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood due to Bilbo’s (Zack Thune) asides and narration. It makes a lot of the play seem all warm and fuzzy and sweet. Except for Gollum (Whitney Molln).

What the play primarily suffers from is a lack of emotion in the actors’ performances, which leaves many of the performances unmemorable. But there are also some actors that simply speak too quickly, like Thune. Smaug is reduced to a unintimidating cartoon thanks to Linnea Nicol’s voiceover, which is unfortunate since Smaug is supposed to be a fearsome dragon. Wesley Word’s fight choreography is inconsistent due to some scenes seeming too fake. However, Molln’s performance as Gollum is delightfully creepy and pathetic, making it a performance that you wish would go on for longer. The scene also features a terrific lighting effect that makes it appear as though there is a stream reflecting on the cavern walls. (The lights are designed by Brad Brist.)

For young children with no previous exposure to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, this might be the right introduction for them; there’s nothing too scary about this production. But for those that are fans of Tolkein’s book, this will be a disappointment.

“The Hobbit” continues through March 7 with performances at 2 p.m. at the Hope Martin Theatre in the Waterloo Center for the Arts (225 Commercial St., Waterloo). Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling (319) 291-4494.

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminates against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I did not pay for my ticket for this play. I received a press ticket.

The Jewel of the Corridor

When I saw The Producers, I also had the joy of being able to see the newly reopened Iowa Theatre Building, which is the home of Theatre Cedar Rapids. For those of you that are unaware, the building suffered extensive damage after the floods in 2008, causing TCR to relocate while they renovated the building.

One of the ads in the program says, “When life hands you lemons? You build a better theater.” This is the best way to describe what TCR has done. Before, the space was definitely a very nice space and one of the nicer spaces in Eastern Iowa. Now, their theater has facilities that are on par with those at Steppenwolf and the Goodman while maintaining a classic elegance.

In some aspects, the flood proved to have its benefits. Crown moulding that had been covered up by drywall was discovered when taking down that drywall. According to a program for the grand reopening, there used to be chandeliers that hung above the opera boxes in the auditorium that were removed at some point. In 2009, an antiques dealer contacted the theater and said that they had found the missing chandeliers in storage. The chandeliers have now been restored to their home, which only adds to the historic ambience of the theater.

Because of the restored historic look and color scheme, it gives you a feel of what the theater might have looked like when it first opened in the 1928. But the facilities bring that feel to the needs of the modern theatergoer. There are actually comfortable seats in the theater. There is not only an actual concessions booth in the lobby, but there is also a lounge that is adjacent to the lobby. The lounge features large windows that overlook First Avenue and dim lighting, which gives it a swanky, upscale, big city feel. The lounge also gives people additional places to stand or sit before the show or during intermission, keeping the lobby from being incredibly crowded.

The photographs that used to hang on the walls in the lobby are no longer there in the physical framed picture form. However, there are now flat screen TVs in the lobby that have the pictures on a slideshow, in addition to screens that have information on upcoming productions at the theater.

I didn’t get the chance to look at what the second floor or the new lower lobby look like, but I was still completely stunned by the beauty of the new building. It is a facility that will enable Theatre Cedar Rapids to produce the high-quality productions they are known for doing, while catering to the needs of the audience. But beyond that, what is completely astonishing is that the theater reached their deadline for reopening their theater. It is wonderful to know that not only does Theatre Cedar Rapids have the support of the community, but also that the city and the entire Corridor have something to be proud of.

Review: “The Producers” — Theatre Cedar Rapids

Theatre Cedar Rapids has it and they are flaunting it.

The award-winning Mel Brooks’ musical has come to the newly reopened Iowa Theatre Building in a knee-slapping and thoroughly exciting production directed by Leslie Charipar. To say it is a blast is an understatement; to say it is a superb production might come across as a cliché. It is simply a must-see production that is quite possibly the most fun I’ve had at the theater in quite some time. (And I’ve seen The Producers on Broadway.) It is the biggest and best way to reopen their home and Theatre Cedar Rapids has given it their all, with an end result on stage that pays off.

The musical, which is based off of the 1968 film of the same name, follows washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Scott Schulte) and timid accountant Leo Bloom (Trevor Debth) as they try to pull of a seemingly sure-fire scheme by producing the worst show ever written, Springtime for Hitler by Franz Liebkind (Jason Alberty), and raising more money than is needed. It is the sort of story that can only happen in the theater; a musical with a bit of an odd redemption tale and a happily ever after show business ending. And, like many of Brooks’ creations, the characters are cartoonish versions of stereotypes. In Charipar’s production, they are given heart by the actors portraying them.

Schulte and Debth play off of each other and have an incredible chemistry as the titular duo with magnificent solo performances. Both of them become the character, never seeming to try to imitate Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. They are clearly the driving force of the show and it never slows down.

Alberty, who possesses a beautiful singing voice, hams it up while being a bit charming as Liebkind, prancing around the stage in lederhosen. In costume, it is a delightful caricature of Germans but his performance does make the crazy character a bit more unique. Katie Knutsen manages to be sweet and a bit ditzy as as the sexy Swedish secretary Ulla, while Tim Boyle and Nathan Cooper are magnificently swishy as Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia.

In addition to the main performances, this production features a strong ensemble and various cameos from local personalities ranging from Brucemore executive director Jim Kern to TCR veterans like Cherryl Moon Thomason. Charipar’s production is sprinkled with sight gags, such as a blind violinist wandering from the ensemble during the number “The King of Broadway.” Bret Gothe’s set is of a professional quality with a detailed exterior of the Schubert Theater that comes flying in to smaller pieces to represent the various locations.

The production is a visual feast because of the set and Joni Sackett’s 1950s costumes. TCR’s production is a reminder of the magic of life theater and the potential of community theater to do stunning, professional quality productions. It is certainly the best way to reopen the Iowa Theatre Building.

“The Producers” continues through March 14 at the Iowa Theater Building (102 Third St SE, Cedar Rapids). Tickets range from $20-$25, $15 for students, $12 rush and can be purchased by calling (319) 366-8591 or by visiting

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminates against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I paid for my own ticket for this play.