“SPECIAL TALENTS” by Terri Munson

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As a cohort, I never know what to expect when I arrive at a rehearsal. I was in for a special treat yesterday when I watched them work on the tent bit. It was over-the-top funny. As they were trying out different moves, the actors made comments comparing the effect of the moving tent to:
  • Mummenschanz
  • A giant emoji
  • A huge pet cage that you put under your seat in an airplane–with an unhappy cat inside

Actress Gail Rastorfer, who plays Liz, remarked that she can now add “tent sex choreography” to her list of special talents. Director Sean Daniels commented that this scene alone is worth the price of admission.

-Terri Munson, Cohort

SPECIAL ALERT! When I went to purchase tickets, I noticed that they are going fast. DOn’t miss out on the opportunity to laugh out loud and have a blast at Women in Jeopardy!

Photo by Arup Malakar, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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Women in Jeopardy! runs February 15 – March 12. http://www.mrt.org/Jeopardy

TOP COMEDY

A rehearsal between snow storms. Only one more day at the rehearsal hall, before moving to the stage, and folding the next set of stage elements into the play. At a little less than an hour per act this play clocks in more than some we have seen this season. Yet given the physical actions and the dialog this play moves you may watch the time evaporate.  So many scenes. Sean takes the time to remind the cast that they need to pace their energy for the performance and have reserved the right levels for the end scene.  Of course last week end we saw players who ran out of energy in the third period and lost it (poor Falcons).

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In rehearsal for “Women in Jeopardy!” Lou Sumrall, Ashley Shamoon, Jacob York, Jessica Wortham, Julia Brothers, and Gail Rastorfer. Photo by Meghan Moore.

 

So then the rehearsal went into the fine tuning I have seen so often. Where the placement on stage of the conflict between the young players is moved to lessen the distant that is needed for stage exit. This and other details checked and double checked to ensure that the tempo of the play is kept in a way that will hold the audience attention. My expectation is that the audience will be amazed at how quickly this story plays out. I expect everyone will be laughing heavily at the end.  My experience with a top comedy like “Murphy Brown” that a second view showed jokes I missed the first time. After watching the rehearsals for “Women in Jeopardy!” the playwright Wendy MacLeod has done the same, so I hope some people will take the time to catch a rerun and enjoy the details they may miss on the first high energy viewing.

-Richard Pitkin, Cohort

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Women in Jeopardy! runs February 15 – March 12. http://www.mrt.org/Jeopardy

STORYTELLING

I find myself watching rehearsal scenes in Women in Jeopardy! with different eyes than I did for 45 Presidents. I am watching Sean add the visual to the script, where visual is hardly written.  Being a bibliophile, I am quite at home in a solitary world of written words, so reading a play is reading any story. But a play is actually something different. So I am seeing a metamorphosis from the written to the visual.

I am watching Sean add to the words of the story aka play with the personal movement of the actors that will hold the attention of the audience.  This entails the coordination of movement to hold those views as the story dialog unfolds.  One scene I watched has the actor’s moving together, and is for me a remembrance of actions from childhood cartoons, where related characters stepped together toward the action.  Now given that this play is quite funny this subtle action holds my attention. In other scenes being rehearsed similar motions add to the overall story, and involve me much more than just words being read.
It was interesting talking to Jessica about learning her lines. It seems that the physical actions that Sean and the actors are adding to the written text, are part of what is learned with the lines, and changes in the physical action require relearning the lines.  The two are linked, in ways that are seamless to the audience on a single viewing, but provide a rich story on multiple levels that enhance our live experience of the performance. Sean also pointed out that in a live theater performance that time and timing limit what can be done by the actions of the performers. Film and television  manipulate our view in more direct ways, with say a close up of a knife or shadow, and for live performances a different palette is required that is more subtle.

Epic tales, such as Homer’s Iliad, must have had actions added to the telling of the war and its heroes. Homer’s tale was told for centuries before the Greeks committed the classic to written words.  For so much to be learned and told through out the whole of the ancient Greek world, the telling must have involved learning much as Jessica mention, actions and words to tell the story and keep the listeners attentive. So seeing a bit of rehearsal today is a contemporary step of what my bibliophile experience provides as long human history of story telling.

-Richard Pitkin, Cohort

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Women in Jeopardy! runs February 15 – March 12.

http://www.mrt.org/Jeopardy

SEX, MURDER, PAPRIKA by Terri Munson, Cohort

I made a big mistake when I went to the January 20th first read of Women in Jeopardy!  I didn’t bring any Kleenex.   I’m ashamed to admit that I used my sleeve to wipe away tears that I couldn’t stop as I laughed throughout the reading.  I should have known better because when I read the script at home, I laughed so often that my husband asked me what I was laughing about.   As funny as the play was when I read it by myself, it was a million times funnier when I heard the actors read it.  I know that when I see the final production, it will be a zillion times funnier still.  I can’t wait.

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Jessica Wortham

During a break, I chatted with Jessica Wortham, the actress who plays the sweet character Mary, an attractive, divorced librarian.  Jessica was saying what fun it is to be in a comedy for a change.  I asked if hearing laughter throughout a comedy makes it more rewarding since actors usually don’t get feedback in a drama until the ending applause.  Jessica said that comedies can be a little scary.  She told me that she assumes the audience is with her when she is acting in a drama, even if the house is quiet – that silence means the audience is listening.  On the other hand, not having laughs when you expect them in a comedy, can be disconcerting.  I told Jessica that there is no way an audience can remain quiet during this play.  She agreed, as do the other actors.  The last character to appear in the play is Trenner, a clueless teenaged snowboarder played charmingly by Jacob York.  I overhead one of the actors

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Jacob York

say to another “Jacob is the icing on this cake.”

Director Sean Daniels talked about the very democratic process of putting on a comedy.  If expected laughs don’t happen, lines maybe reworded or cut. We have a vote on the plays we see at MRT and how they will be shown to future audiences.  That’s pretty cool.  As I’ve been telling all my friends, please don’t miss the opportunity to see Women in Jeopardy.  This play has everything—sex, murder, paprika, and a creepy dentist.

Oh, and when you go, don’t forget to bring Kleenex!

-Terri Munson, Cohort

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Women in Jeopardy! runs February 15 – March 12.

http://www.mrt.org/Jeopardy

 

CREATING CONTEXT

Well, I went to the meet and greet for my third MRT Performance as a cohort member, the next play Women in Jeopardy! A bit of the familiar, a bit of the new.  It was interesting to see the actors, interested in the cohort members, and talking to them, as they look to find out where stores are in the city.  Always nice to have new visitors to share the city with. I hope they find the food and drink delightful.

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The cast of Women in Jeopardy! Julia Brothers, Ashley Shamoon, Gail Rastorfer, Jessica Wortham, Lou Sumrall, and Jacob York.

From the first reading of the very dialogue-rich comic play, it seems  that Sean has again picked a group that both works well and connects with the writing.  Since this a show with outlandish laughs, I expect that the audience when they see the play will enjoy a real fun experience. I did find myself think of comedy as I watch the reporting of the death this week of Mary Tyler Moore.  There were a couple of interviews with Dick Van Dyke where he related to his reservations with working with a young woman, (who was only 23 at the time,) who was unfamiliar with what comedy required. But Mr. Van Dyke shared his amazement at how fast Ms Moore learned.  At one point he indicated it started with Ms Moore being the ‘straight’ man, and after a time he became the ‘straight’ man.  What all this relates to for me is that context, that is the environment is crucial to getting the job done.
After the first reading for the play there was a break, and most of the people that attended, left.  Being retired, I stayed to see what happened next.  Of course this is the time I get to see Sean make his contributions to the play. Contributions not in an authoritarian way, but as I have seen before in sculpting clay into the inner shape that needs to be expressed. I watched as the play was restarted, and page by page, Sean encourages the actors to explain what they understand as the experiences behind the characters. Of course Sean also explains his perceptions of the back story. Now in talking to Sean about this at the break, he explained that all this background creates the environment that the actors deliver the performance from a stronger base. I continue to be amazed at how a significant part of Sean’s contribution is to create context for people who have not worked together to become a cohesive team that delivers a top level performance. I have little doubt that given the players I have seen and the talent the MRT has in staging that everyone will really love this play.

-Richard Pitkin, Cohort

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Women in Jeopardy! runs February 15 – March 12.

http://www.mrt.org/Jeopardy

Q&A: WENDY MACLEOD, “Women in Jeopardy!” Playwright

wendy-2Q&A: Wendy MacLeod

Wendy MacLeod is an Ohio-based playwright whose other works include The House of Yes, Sin and the Schoolgirl Figure, Juvenalia, and The Water Children. She is the James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence at Kenyon College and Artistic Director of the Kenyon Playwrights Conference.

I’ve been told this is (loosely) based on a true story…

A few people have questioned the dark turns this purported comedy takes, but that was the real stuff.  There was a murder in our little Ohio town, and the body was found in a hollow tree.  Once the murderer was behind bars, I noticed that everyone was eager to show how close they themselves had come to the danger—they had worked out at the same gym as the murderer, they had gone to the Dairy Queen where the victim worked…

Why is the play set in Utah?

I need to know a place before I can set a play there, and I had gotten to know Salt Lake when I was in rehearsals at Pioneer Theater.  It offered the wilderness I needed for the final chase scene, and it offered the possibility of ridiculous Mormon rumors.  A new location just offers me different imagery and possibilities.

Any  scenes have a good story behind them?

Most of the first scene came from a real dinner party where we were first introduced to a friend’s unfortunate new boyfriend, who disturbingly resembled Christopher Walken and said the creepiest things.

What do you love about writing comedy? Is it different than writing other genres?

Honestly, I just begin writing a play and it decides whether it’s a comedy or not.  At a certain point in the rewriting process, the fundamental question becomes:  what’s the funniest thing that could plausibly happen here?

Can you talk about the evolution of this play?

The play grew out of a program at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater, The Writers Room, which commissioned a play with a guaranteed workshop production at the end of the residency.

The program also offered an audience the chance to see a script develop, so at various points in the rehearsal process we had the audience in the room, which is tremendously helpful for developing a comedy. (Though it was less helpful when one man urged me to change a line he found offensive—he insisted that the word “womb” would be funnier than the word “vagina.”  I disagreed.)

And then the first full production at Rochester’s Geva Theatre Center…

Sean Daniels did the premiere there, and was a tremendous dramaturg—he helped me to hone the story and cut the flab.  He is, as I’m sure Lowell audiences know by now, a gifted director of comedy.  He invented the character-driven interludes, the connective tissue between the scenes, that kept the play moving.

What do you love about writing for the stage?

I always sit where I can watch the audience watching the play, and I love seeing that look of anticipatory delight on their faces, and it’s even better when you see them laugh in such a way that they rock back and forth in their chairs, and look over at their companion to share the laugh.  I have seen people actually slap their knees watching this play.

Do you see the play as having feminist threads?

I’m afraid that making middle-aged women the protagonists constitutes a bold feminist act.

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Women in Jeopardy! runs February 15 – March 12

http://www.mrt.org/Jeopardy

CREATION UNFOLDING by Geoff Bryant

I would be exhausted if I kept up their pace. As I wrote before, there is so little time to pull this play together. Admittedly, Sean, Danny, Aysan, and Peter have workshopped the play in San Francisco and Abu Dabi, so everyone isn’t starting from scratch, but Peter took all those ideas and parts of the script and pulled together a real script to start here in Lowell – a mere 2.5 weeks before previews (which are real shows in front of real audiences). And there were breaks for Christmas (including cross country travel for Danny and Aysan) and some days off. So, they come to Lowell and get started.

My last visit came on New Year’s day. Well that night actually. Everyone had been working 11-11 on New Year’s Eve and started at 11 on New Year’s Day. When I got there in the evening they had just finished doing tech. This is a fascinating time when things really come together.    The cast has been working in the rehearsal hall. Others have been working on sets, props, costume, etc. somewhere. During tech, they all meet in the theatre to pull all these pieces together.

So, that evening, the tech is “done” and they then did a run of the play. A few days earlier I saw them in the rehearsal hall still with scripts in hand or nearby. Now at the theatre, after so many hours, they did a run.

It’s amazing how few times Danny and Aysan call for a line. Clearly they are exhausted, but on they go.

And it looks good.

Oh, one thing I got to do that night was go down to the green room with Peter. Expectation: a comfy room painted in green with sofas, maybe a TV, food, drinks…  Reality: let’s just say, not so glorious. But it was a delight to meander down under the stage.

My wife and I are season ticket holders for the Friday preview – the third night with an audience.   One really great thing about this is if you’re a season ticket holder, MRT makes it real easy to change your tickets to another show if you can’t make it. Some years, that seems to be every show and some seasons maybe 1 or 2, but a great benefit.

For The Making of a Great Moment we came on our night – Friday preview. I really wondered what my wife would think.  I really don’t tell her much when I visit as a cohort. I hoped she would laugh and enjoy it. She did! And I did too.

Danny and Aysan are very good actors. They are especially good with their facial expressions. I noticed this some during rehearsals, but they really had it during the show. Their faces told so much.

One thing I find hard to catch is what was taken out. One little detail – the oak branches were gone, but I had liked them so much during the tech run through. They were part of the “other” cast members who are seen on stage handling props, making things happen with the bikes, walking a stop sign as scenery. But not the oak branches. Too bad – it was a nice touch.

I have to say, I really enjoy and am honored to be a cohort, especially for this play where the creation of the play really unfolded in such a big way in these couple of weeks in Lowell. Peter, Sean, Danny, and Aysan are a very talented group. I was privileged to chat quite a bit with Peter – getting to know him a bit as a person, learning about the process and what a playwright’s life is like. He is one of but about a dozen playwrights in the U.S. who are funded by a grant to be resident playwrights. That is really cool.

-Geoff Bryant, Cohort

The Making of a Great Moment runs through January 29.

http://www.mrt.org/Moment

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Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik in The Making of a Great Moment. Photo by Meghan Moore.