Memory, Mental Health, and Relearning How to Be Human

by Leigh Moyer

You have amnesia so badly you can’t even remember your name. You have no idea who you are or how to regain your memory. No one will even try to help you. You wind up in a care home for people with similar issues; mental breaks and complicated personalities. It is here, at Paradise Found Care Home, that anyone will even attempt to crack the mystery. And, as a blank slate with no idea of your own history, traumas, or coping mechanisms, you are uniquely able to listen to people who have been written off by the rest of the world. This is where Nemo, as his new friends name him, finds himself in Identity Crisis.

I liked this show. It was funny and ultimately deep and heart wrenching. Sometimes it was frustrating that it always went for the joke even in the heavier or more emotional moments, but the play is less about Nemo’s memory and more about the ways we all avoid the pain and problems in our own stories. Because playwright and director Gavin Kayner named each character clever variations on their own mental plagues, I believe this is purposeful. There’s the foolish Professor Inanis (the Latin root of the word inane). And Nemo, the name he gives the memoryless main character (Nemo means nobody). Then Nulla, perhaps a play on null as the young woman is nothing without her imagined alter ego Phanta, a name which sounds more than halfway to fantasy. Even the stage name of the psychic in the house and person who sees Nemo most clearly, is a play on words: Claire Voyient. The characters seem to know they are exaggerations, even calling themselves caricatures, while still being trapped by their own crises. 

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

This show hits close to home. I left questioning if it is okay to make so, so many jokes about mental illness. I have gone back and forth on this because while the show is thoroughly enjoyable, it is a show that depends on a cartoonish depiction of people suffering from mental states severe enough that they are removed from normal life and live mostly forgotten and sequestered from the outside world. But that same cartoonishness allowed for a glimpse into what struggling with a mental health issue can look like without it being a total bummer.

I have a mental illness. I have found myself, for about the length of time Nemo finds himself at Paradise Found, in a mental health hospital. It was different. Real life tends to be less on the nose. But the strange people who become momentary best friends, the darkness, the coping in any way you have to, and, maybe most accurately, the truly horrible food were all familiar. 

So too were the moments when a character could shed the unhealthy coping mechanism, even if it was only moments before realizing how hard and scary the world is and rushing back to the safety of a bad habit. This was beautifully and painfully well done by Erin Hepler as Nulla. She made my heart ache for Nulla. Hepler shows Nulla’s extraordinarily bizarre way to face a world full of disappointment and hurt, and shows that Nulla knows it was extraordinary and even not ideal and yet can’t not return to the safety of that coping mechanism. 

I was also impressed by Mike Manolakes as Professor Inais who essentially played three distinct characters. His ability to take on different affects, not to mention accents, seamlessly, made his particular mental trap, while silly, feel true. True to the professor at least.

This production is also fascinating for the acting done off stage. There are a number of times when the stage, and by proxy, Paradise Found Care Home, are made bigger by conversations held in full earshot of the audience off stage. This was taken to the next level by Jessica Spenny as Phanta who interacts with everyone on stage from off stage. Her timing and inflection was informed only by what she was hearing. The cues that can make an actor become a character were literally blocked from Spenny’s view. She lands both jokes and tender moments, her acting limited to what she could do with her voice. Credit must also be given to Hepler for her ability to interact with a character she couldn’t directly act with.

It was wonderful to watch a small group of actors playing very odd and very ill people create a world that was believable. Without a solid cast that trusted each other, it would have felt like a cruel portrayal of broken people. Instead, there is a real love that the actors create for the characters. This was helped by the beautiful set that felt very much homey and not at all like a home. 

Identity Crisis runs through July 28th with performances at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays in The Scoundrel & Scamp theater at the History Y (738 N. 5th Ave.). Tickets are available at the door an hour before the show or by calling (520) 780-7476. 

Make Time to Laugh with Family Theatre

Editor’s Note: This is the forth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Talking the serious business of making time to be silly, plus bringing live theatre to Tucson’s children with Live Theatre Workshop Family Theatre artistic director Amanda Gremel.

by Leigh Moyer

Live Theatre WorkshopIn the theatre business, you hear a lot about doing it for the love of art or as a passion project. For Amanda Gremel, the Live Theatre Workshop Family Theatre  is certainly a passion project, but isn’t just a love for the craft; rather, it’s a calling and an obligation to future generations that she is only too happy to fulfill. Gremel’s life is steeped in Live Theatre Workshop. As a teen, she discovered her love of acting in their educational programs. As an adult, she pays it forward as a teacher in the same educational programs where she got her start, acts regularly, and is the artistic director for the Family Theatre.

While theatre for all ages is often shorter and lighter than productions rated for adults, it is no less important. “So many times, adults underestimate the power of kids to show us the way,” Gremel explained. “Sometimes we have to stop and take a moment and look at it through their eyes to be reminded that we can problem solve our way, can feel what we do, and it’s okay. Adults get wrapped up in our lives and forget that it’s okay to take that time to laugh.”

“I come to the family shows and I can’t tell you how funny they are.” Deborah Daun, the theatre’s marketing and public relations representative chimed in. “Not only are these shows really hilarious and the playwrights, mostly local playwrights, are really good, but there is incredible quality represented in these shows.”

Beyond being entertaining, the Family Theatre reminds children that they can face big problems, even monstrous ones like in the season opener Tabitha Turnpike Has a MONSTERous Problem, and with trust, determination, and, often, imagination, they can solve those problems. It might seem like a simple lesson, but it is one worth learning at every age, especially when you feel small in the face of problems that seem too large to tackle.

Overcoming life’s challenges with humor isn’t the only important work the Family Theatre productions do. Gremel works hard to expand not only what wonderful worlds children can imagine on stage, but who portrays the characters on stage.

Leda Robinson as RAPunzel and Evander Alan Gains as the Prince. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Leda Robinson as RAPunzel and Evander Alan Gains as the Prince. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

“One of my favorite shows, and audiences loved it, too, was RAPunzel. I loved the script, loved the songs, being able to tour it in schools was great, and the diversity we had was great. We had an African-American Rapunzel and we don’t get to see that very often, right? For young people, and particularly the students in the Title 1 schools we tour in, to be able to see someone that looks like them on stage, in the lead role and singing their hearts out — that is what we are doing this for,” Gremel said of a 2018-2019 hip-hop musical adaptation of the fairytale Rapunzel. “In our world right now, it is so important to showcase that it is okay to be you, regardless of what you look like or who you identify as. The more I can bend the outdated norms, the more I want to. I want these kids to be like, oh, I am going to be this because there shouldn’t be boundaries. It is our job to show that story.”

“Part of the Live Theatre Workshop mission, and we’re very community oriented, is to create the next generation of theatre people,” Daun added. “We have shows for youth, but also education programs both in and out of school. It is a very organic way that LTW cultivates young people. We’re working with teachers and working with young people to come and audition, to be the next generation of actors and audiences.”

To do that, Live Theatre Workshop provides a number of educational opportunities from summer camps to acting classes. One of the programs that Gremel enjoys most is taking two shows from the season, one in the fall semester and one in the spring semester, and touring them in schools. The tours bring shows to children who might not otherwise have access to live theatre.

It isn’t easy to make all this happen. Running two seasons concurrently (Live Theatre Workshop also hosts a full mainstage season as well) isn’t always a fairytale come true. Productions, not to mention classes and other programs, share the same space. That can add up to some logistical challenges. “We have to get very creative in our Family Theatre shows. We only have one stage. Our shows are running at the same time. Our pieces and back drops need to be able to be hung in front of and hide the mainstage show, and often overlap multiple mainstage shows. We have to adjust to accommodate them to make one show work on a new set– in the middle of the run. So we come in early to make it work,” Gremel said. “Tucson has such great talent and passion. There is such passion that the young kids of Tucson are getting the same quality as in the mainstage shows.”

With the new season starting this Sunday, June 30th, who should be getting tickets for Live Theatre Workshop Family shows? Performances are open to everyone. “Audiences range from kids as small as breastfeeding babies, as young as six months old to people in their eighties or nineties,” Gremel answered, “Mainstage season ticket holders enjoy our Family Theatre shows, with or without children, right alongside enchanted kids.” The whole season is online and outlined below. You can become a season ticket holder now and ensure that you and your kids (or your inner child) get five Sundays of theatre.

And which show should you definitely see? Gremel laughed, “I hate to cop out but you are going to get and feel something different from each show. One might make you laugh and let you be silly with the actors on stage, one might let you feel something you forgot how to feel, especially as an adult. One might bring back memories. One might tell an old story in a completely new way, like this season’s adaptation of Pinocchio, done in the commedia dell’arte style using shadow puppets and mask work. They are all so different.”

2019-20 FAMILY SERIES Season

Live Theatre Workshop Family’s 2019-2020 Season:

Tabitha Turnpike Has a MONSTERous Problem
An original musical story by Richard Gremel and music by David Ragland
June 30 – August 11, 2019 (no show July 21), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
Tabitha Turnpike is a little girl with a big imagination. But when her imagination gets her in trouble with her mom and dad, they insist that she quit being creative and grow up. Only problem is, Tabitha discovers a monster living under her bed and she can’t tell her mom and dad about it, because they will think she’s using her imagination again. Her monster has problems of his own. So the two team up and travel to Underthebedland to use their creativity and prove that all of us, monsters and humans, are great despite of our differences.

Pinocchio: The Legend of the Wooden Boy
An original musical adaptation by Tyler West and music by Michael Martinez
September 8 – October 20, 2019 (no show September 29), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
This is a new adaptation based on the beloved characters from Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio: The Adventures of a Marionette.” Watch as three players set up their stage and tell the legend of the wooden puppet who came to life. With the help of masks, costumes, and shadow puppetry they will portray over a dozen of characters; like Geppetto, Pinocchio, The Cricket, The Fox, The Cat, The Blue Fairy, and many more!

Molly Shannon’s Tilly the Trickster
Adapted by Jeremy Dobrish, music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola, orchestrations by David Abbinanti
November 29 – December 28, 2019
Friday and Saturday nights at 7 PM, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 3 PM
Tilly is a mischievous girl who loves nothing more than causing a little trouble. From leaking cups to toothpaste-flavored cookies, Tilly has a trick for everyone: her mom, dad, brother, classmates, and even her teacher. But when the tables are turned and her family does some scheming of its own, will Tilly decide to change her trickster ways? Molly Shannon has created numerous unforgettable characters on Saturday Night Live and in movies such as SUPERSTAR and NEVER BEEN KISSED and now introduces young readers to her latest hilarious creation, TILLY THE TRICKSTER, the musical! Fun for all ages, this is a show you and your family won’t want to miss. Starring Samantha Cormier as Tilly!

Mona Lisa on the Loose
An original musical story by Gretchen Wirges with music by David Ragland
January 26 – March 8, 2020 (no show February 16), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
The Mona Lisa has hung on the walls of an art museum for over 100 years. But what visitors don’t know is that when the lights go out, the paintings come to life! On this day, she overhears the museum officials saying she is no longer drawing people in, and make plans to move her somewhere else. Come join us for a secret view into the mysterious life of the Mona Lisa and other paintings after hours as she plots a way to save her spot on the walls of the Louvre!

The Old Ball Game
An original musical story by Kristian Kissel with music by Michael Martinez
April 19 – May 31, 2020 (no show May 10), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
Forrest Foster LOVES baseball. He comes by it honestly – his Dad played, his Grandfather played, his Great-Grandfather played, his… well, you get the idea. The only problem is that Forrest can’t seem to get into the game yet. But when his little league team’s star player gets injured, his coach just might have to look to the end of the bench and give Forrest his chance. He’s spent countless hours studying the game, its history, its players, and his own opponents. Now he’ll need to take everything he’s learned and put it to use to try to lift his team to victory – all for the love of the old ball game!

Send in the Clowns

by Jess Herrera

quirkuscircusThey say the circus arrives without warning, but what happens when the circus blows its top? That’s exactly what happens in Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster, a new addition to the family series at Live Theatre Workshop.

The show attempts the impossible, seeking to create a storyline that can be enjoyed by the youngest members of the audience while also entertaining adults. And while it has moments of perfectly walking this tightrope, it also comes dangerously close to toppling in others.

In the story, written by local playwright Tyler West and featuring original music by Michael Martinez, we follow the Quirkus Circus troupe as they discover their ringmaster has packed up and headed to join Cirque du Soleil – taking all the animals with him.

A lovable, silent clown named Eddie, played by Stephen Frankenfield, first sets the stage and invites audience participation. He quickly becomes the highlight of the show. Without spoken dialogue, he launches through the rows of audience members to get kids jumping out of their seats just moments after the lights go up. And his impeccable physical comedy quickly wins over even the oldest and most skeptical audience members.

Eddie is joined by the acrobat Margaret, played by Taylor Thomas. Her performance is delightfully earnest without being saccharine. And with a swirl of her sparkling dress, she elicits squeals of excitement from the audience (particularly from my five-year-old daughter, who joined me for the show).

The last members of Quirkus Circus are Natasha and Boris, played by Ericka Quintero Heras and Jon Heras. Unsurprising to anyone who remembers Rocky and Bullwinkle, they’re a married duo whose act is a mix of magic tricks, death defying feats, and a healthy dose of bickering.

Finally, after the revelation that the ringleader is missing, a replacement named Paul is quickly pulled from the audience. Paul is played by William Seidel. He is believably timid and hesitant to join the performance.

Through Margaret’s coaching and Eddie’s encouragement, we follow Paul as he finds his voice as a ringleader and gains confidence to help lead the circus. In the process, we learn an important lesson: You should be willing try things that might be scary because it’s the things that give you butterflies may have the biggest payoff.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Under the direction of Kristian Kissel, the players seamlessly mix their interactions with one another and the audience. The choreography and sets are simple but add just enough flourish to take the audience to the big top.

Unfortunately the musical numbers were a bit unbalanced. The songs were catchy, but the harmonies were occasionally off. The stronger vocals of some cast members overpowered others.

And a few moments that felt as if they were written for the benefit of the adults fell flat. Boris and Natasha, with their borrowed names, needed a stronger storyline. And the depiction of a stereotype was borderline offensive. Their ambiguous accents wavered from a loose Russian to French and even a familiar Sonoran dialect. Their tango number made things even more confusing.

Accents can be very difficult to master, and it’s even harder to emulate characters the audience may be familiar with. I think Boris and Natasha could benefit greatly from a rebranding and a shift away from their ambiguously Russian caricatures.

Despite these few pitfalls, Quirkus Circus is an excellent way to introduce young children to theater. Running at just 45 minutes, it’s participatory, light, and overall highly enjoyable.

Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster is playing at Live Theatre Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through June 9. You can buy tickets on their website, http://www.livetheatreworkshop.org/, or by calling the box office at (520) 327-4242.

The Deeper Meaning of Sports

by China Young

 

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Spoiler Alert: My Life in Sports, a one man show written and performed by English professor Bill Epstein and performed at Scoundrel & Scamp, is not actually about sports. Well, not entirely. I felt as though sports served more as a loom and thread. A tapestry of life experiences is woven before our very eyes. The structure of the story-telling takes on various shapes and patterns as Epstein connects memories through time, using anecdotes and metaphors that often circle back to where they started.

The simplicity of the direction and production design by Bryan Rafael Falcón and the sincerity of Epstein’s delivery of the dialogue drew me in with a comfortable warmth that felt like I was 8 years old being told a folk tale by my grandfather and hanging on every word. Now that I think of it, the play starts when Epstein is 8 years old, so perhaps that was the intention all along. I found it to be a very effective way to draw people in, although at times I did find myself drifting simply from the soothing tones of the narration. Still, I was very impressed with the production and how the concept of sports, whether literal or metaphorical, took me on a journey that touched me profoundly.  

The thing I appreciated the most was Epstein’s reflections on the relationship between sports and the “construct of masculinity.” We all know that there seems to be this unspoken “romance” between men and sports. Not all men experience this of course, and not all people that experience this are men, but somehow society has created this construct of “boys play sports” that this production explores a little more deeply and with a self-awareness that is appreciated in a time where constant social examination and re-evaluation is needed. Epstein does a fantastic job capturing the essence of the time in which he was raised, amplifying the understood gender norms, racial inequality, and his privilege of being not only a white male, but also his father’s son. He discusses, at times, how sports, or sport-like behavior, was how boys established their pecking order. In his Author’s Notes he states “Virtually the only live and unrehearsed programming still on network television, the subject being discussed, endlessly, on twenty-four-hour talk-radio stations across the country, the section of the newspaper most men turn to first, sports are a powerful and influential narrative formation, one of the crucial ways that American men construct identity.”

We all saw this truth during the NFL “taking a knee” controversy, which, as you’ve noticed, has disappeared as quickly as began (maybe because it’s off-season, or maybe because those that were “offended” by it have moved on to other asinine battles… but I digress). My biggest fear is that sports is to America what the games of the Colosseum were to Rome, a tactic to distract the poor from their poverty in the hopes that they would not revolt. I don’t dislike sports, and played them for many years (before theatre took complete reign of my life), but I believe they have the power to keep the masses complacent just as they have the power to fuel the “masculinity complex.” Although he used some derogatory language on occasion, and I hate giving him the “product of his time” pass, I wasn’t terribly bothered by it because it was made clear that that was in fact the past, and not the present, and I believe and embrace the social evolution of which we are all capable. If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t possibly accurately assess where we are.  

There were several other lovely elements of the production. The space is lightly littered with a baseball bat and glove, eventually a coat rack with a jacket to signify Epstein’s scholarly career choice, and even a pair of ballet shoes to represent Epstein’s late wife, but to also remind us that dance is another sport that significantly impacted his life. The use of projections offered environmental settings, magnification of text, and the creation of emotional atmospheres. The subtle sound effects enhanced those atmospheres, as did the simplicity of the lighting. Epstein includes references to Tennessee Williams in his Author’s Note, describing memory as “dimly lighted” and “poetic” and “seems to happen to music.” The design team, comprised of Bryan Rafael Falcón, Josh Hemmo (Projection design), Connor Greene (Production Design Associate), Brian Graham (Lighting Designer), and Tyler Berg (Sound Design), manage to capture that description of memory within the intimate performance area with skill and artistry.  

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Though I could call out this production for is male-heavy team (Stage Manager Marguerite Saxon being the only female name listed) and focus on the voice of yet another white man, the content of the work gives me faith that these men understand the privileged patriarchal patterns society perpetuates. Besides, if they are engaging in the creation of theatre, they have likely broken from the “construction of masculinity” imbedded in a “life in sports.”

My Life in Sports plays at Scoundrel & Scamp Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. For tickets call 448-3300 or visit scoundrelandscamp.org.