Hope Starts in the Dark

By Richard Chomps Thompson

Hope starts in the dark. Sometimes as a dream. Sometimes as wish. Sometimes as a prayer. Hope is born in that struggle to claim the love that is the self and to truly acknowledge who we are without shame. It’s hope that allows us to cross that chasm of the soul. E. Reid Gilbert moves us through shamble and triumph in this journey of hope in his latest production Ellen Craft: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom currently playing at The Community Playhouse.

PictureExpanding from anecdotal in his story-telling, Gilbert continues his ability to introduce his audience to history, race-relations, regional colloquialism, and oral tradition. At once examining the heartache caused by two people trying to find freedom in self-proclamation, we are thrust into a discourse of how we truly communicate ourselves to one another – and as such witness who we really are.

Begun in a low hymn in the dark, we are invited to listen to the story of the Narrator (Regina Wills), who joyously explains how she learned of her , and how she learned more about herself because she was able to know more about her history. Wills brings a deftness and candor in each of the monologues, readings, and hymns performed.

The Narrator reads from her great-great grandmother’s journal that is interpreted into scenes before us. This method of storytelling provides historical content, anecdotal musings, and even reiterates scenes just staged to provide additional context to the tale of Ellen Craft (Robin Carson) and William Craft (Dante Crossroad) through their arduous, taxing journey through Georgia in desperation to achieve freedom.

The story of Ellen Craft is told in a way that spans more than distance; it requires a telling that spans through time and director Edward Young was able to provide a solid pacing of the storied events when long periods of time would span in-between, while other moments were much more condensed. The ability to tie such integral, yet vastly disparate points together is a testament to the writer and director’s ability to weave a multi-generational story together while using multiple storytelling methods and avoiding traps of novelty.

It’s on the white painted porch of the Smith plantation that we first learn of how much love Ellen would meet from her kinfolk. Or perhaps that word is too close for comfort as we learn during a contentious – and one assumes routine – argument between James and Ethel Smith (Scott Berg and Bobbi Whitson) on what to do with the dirty little secret with which James Smith has propagated the house. Whitson provides a performance that is delightful in her horrid cruelty. She makes a scythe from a small Victorian fan that both cools her face and slices the air around her.

Born from James Smith and an unknown slave, Ellen would be the topic of concern for the entire Smith plantation from her inception. A child who was both good enough to keep around and bad enough to keep around, while simultaneously being the bad one that was never around for the good of it. If up to Ethel, her delegitimatized step daughter would have gone the way of other secrets if not for the decision of the patriarch. Just one example of how status and communication bore a direct connection to identity and its importance throughout all aspects of southern living. Women obeyed men. Ethel had a venom in her word, spitting out poison from a realization that her place was behind her husband while at the same time understanding her place in front of her property.

Stand-out performances include Shannon Oliver playing Mary Smith, who in one short scene illustrates a generation of malicious virtue signaling Ellen’s half-sister (by whom Ellen herself was owned). Oliver sweetly pronounces statements of naive dehumanization that is even more terrifying because this disregard for Ellen’s humanity didn’t stem from hate. It stemmed from something far worse; indifference. It was with the cruelest of smiles and the lightest of hearts when Oliver reminded Ellen how happy she should be to be owned by her sister! She had no hate in those words, and that one line resonates today.

The characters include a diverse cascade of bureaucratic and oppositional characters, from apathetic customs officers who care more about personal inconveniences than the wellbeing of another. One notable is the character Government Agent (Stephen Dunham) brought to a bureaucratically cold effect in which the fugitive duo encounter. He is the cold professionalism that marks a terrifying pretense that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. In this corner office, the clear message is that while a sword will always be known to take a life, this pen will rob one of their identity.

Robin Carson, playing Ellen Craft, was tasked with the responsibility of playing a character whose ethnicity may not have come from the same heritage, but does note negate the understanding of how self-worth and freedom of identity is a human struggle, and not gifted to only one man or woman. Carson portrayed a humanistic quality that didn’t delve into the over-dramatic while also resonating emotionally through small sighs and wistful glances.

Dante Crossroad (an amazing name by the way!) playing Ellen’s husband and in-disguise manservant, William (‘Eurassa’), is able to look out from the stage and emote so swiftly and magnetically he easily expresses the meaningful richness behind his character, honoring the theatricality required to express such emotional cadence that straddles the wall of character and caricature. Crossroad is a formidable new actor on the scene.

This disturbing paradox of human inhumanity could only have been told through dialogue. Gilbert’s ability to emphasize the linguistic roots that bear fruit to this line of institutionalized hatred is masterful because of his skills in connecting these same themes as they affect us today. Without a doubt, this element of dialogue is a character unto itself.

The words spoken to the protagonists along with other African-Americans that delegitimize, marginalize or dissociate have only shifted into new letter combinations. These lines are spoken today; they haven’t left. And those that would see them fester in the dark until they can grow unwieldy, or those who would like to pretend that by locking them away, we won’t have to confront them again; we do nothing but safely suffocate our virtues in a pitch-black room.

The use of language and terminology was proficient. It is hurtful to hear but necessary to experience. Gilbert has no qualm using harsh language and using it in a way that disturbs the watcher. As it should. Be prepared to hear some very disturbing language and sound effects that flesh out the world of 1835 Georgia.

The Community Playhouse is known for impressive stage design and this show is no different. Created by Berg and Whitson, they handcrafted 180 degrees of stage to show Ellen’s cabin, the vastness of the Smith plantation she was owed to, and a little nook in a modern apartment where we read the journal. As the story continues into the second act, the white and green of the plantation is transformed into a transit line that becomes the center of travel and concern for the remainder the story.

The elaborate set changes are interwoven with an interesting and effective use of sound effects that provide even more effect to specific scenes; a wedding mired with the sound of a man being whipped; a woman praying as dogs bark searching for a runaway; the heavy molasses of Regina Wills vocalizations.

Some concepts are introduced that are hard to articulate in the small time given. Moments of backstory that indicate cowardice found in even in those who want to believe themselves as redeemed men; such as the slave owner who, when he died, had intended to free all his slaves. This brave white slave owner will wait to die before dealing with the social ramifications of doing what’s right because of the judgment from evil men and women that would befall him for doing what is truly humane. The judgement was not worth a single slave’s life while he himself breathed. This is the fallacy of those who extol moral superiority, while perpetuating through action (or inaction) the same system that they are trying to expose.

The story itself is one that deserves more attention. It expresses the duality that black men face in how they live every day and that even when acting right; they are acting wrong.

A point that I am having a hard time dismissing is the number of white roles versus the number of roles for blacks in this piece. It could be argued that the use of many Caucasian characters helped portray the isolation that Ellen and William felt, but I am unsure that was an intentional theme being presented. In a socially aware theatrical production regarding the lives of two black people fighting for visibility of their own being this seems like a situation of good intentions perpetuating harmful practices. There are 22+ white roles versus 4-5 roles for blacks regarding a story where blacks are undervalued, mistreated, and maligned. The irony that this ensemble piece had a cast where less than 25% were black is indicative of social reformations that are still necessary despite sympathetic minds to the cause.

But maybe that’s the idea; Paradox of identity and truth. Like when William speaks differently depending on who he is talking to, perhaps this is the real meaning behind Ellen and her husband; how to be themselves where people’s constant inability to accept another will always be apparent; a cruel goose hunt where there will never be a way to be right, because there is only one way to be white. And in one way, it’s through Gilbert’s words that this exploration can illustrate the inherent dynamic of how easy it is for people to denigrate and familiarize. Take apart and make of. But that the truth of the self is still found in ever-enduring love and the struggle of freedom for the self is not a story of A dark hope. A hope in the dark.

 

Richard Thompson (Actor) was born in Kokomo, Indiana. He has no relevant education from any formal institution in theater or film. His writing career comprises of columnist work for The Arizona Daily Star, editor for Persona Magazine, content creator of Looking Back manuscript for P.C.C., Sandscript Magazine contributor, and editor and columnist for Gourmet News for which he received a James Beard nomination for his article, “Holy See-Food”. He is also a Hearst Poet and a published IEEE author (2018-2019), as well as a technical writer whose proposals, grants and speeches have totaled in over $250k in gained between 2016 to now. Since 2017, The Community Players produced his stage play, Last Call, followed by performances in No Admittance (Bill Bowen) and One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief), numerous Radio Theater shows, backstage crew for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) as well as multiple roles in musical shows. In 2018, he worked under Eugenia Wood in Hark, with Ron Athey, Cassils, and Arshia Fatima in Cyclic, and produced his original manuscript The GRANDest Pageant. Films include RiseThe Righteous Twelve, and The GRANDest Pageant. In 2019, he founded Graveyard Production Company (www.gyproco.com) and will perform Exist.

Transcendent Education and Entertainment Through Theatre

by China Young

Transgender. Transexual. Cis. AFAB. It is likely that you have come across these and other terms at some point. They are in the news more and more as our nation tries to legislate bathrooms and genitalia, even to the point that the Supreme Court is still deciding whether the prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, they’re going to rule on whether employers can fire people because they are trans or gay. The conversation is heated and emotional on all sides. As someone who tries to follow the debate, I have observed a severe lack of listening and an even deeper void of understanding. Fortunately there are people willing to do the work to spread the knowledge, and Martie van der Voort (pronouns they/she) is one of those fearless individuals that has taken the helm of the conversation in their full-length, one-person show, TransFormations. Despite van der Voort only being one person, they/she provides this opportunity to meet and engage with multiple trans people in such a proficient way that I was fully engaged and invested throughout. The discussion of gender identity has become more public due to the attempts by conservative lawmakers to legislate identity, and due to the trans community’s bravery in not only fighting discriminatory legislation but demanding more visibility and awareness. If you have any questions about what being transgender means – whether you are looking for a textbook answer or an experiential perspective – you will be handed an impressive array of learning moments within the course of this roughly two-hour production.

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people standing and text

TransFormations is framed as a trans support group.  Whether they know it or not, the audience is full of new group members with varying levels of knowledge on this subject. The education begins instantly as van der Voort’s first character, Graciela (she/hers), gently invites us into the group, helping us assimilate to the conversation by giving us facts, definitions, and introducing us to some of the group members. Graciela is the leader of the support group, and though she is not trans herself, she is the parent of a transman. She tells her story first – how she learned that her AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) child identifies as a man, and therefore is a man. She even discusses the fact that, despite loving her son, she had to mourn the loss of her daughter. Van der Voort continues to introduce us to character after character, all of whom are unique and distinctly channeled through their/her skilled performance. Under the guidance of director Tom Slauson (he/him), van der Voort portrays transmen, transwomen, non-binary, non-transitioning, AND their wives and children – they/she runs the gamut.

We are quickly faced with the question of how one knows they are trans. The response can be simplified to “how do you know if you are right-handed or left-handed? You just know.” We are reminded that the modern world was designed for the right-handed. We are reminded that there was a time when being left-handed was considered “wrong,” and left-handed people were forced to use their right hands to write, eat, play sports, and so on. We are reminded that now, nobody questions the validity of being left-handed. So then, why do they question the validity of being trans? Is that clarity around one’s own identity different from recognizing that you are left-handed in a world where it’s “right to be right,” or at least easier? There are many other questions, just as complex, throughout the show; they are explored with humor, dramatic nuance, and honesty. As someone with trans friends and family, I truly felt like I knew many of these characters in real life. From beat poet and transman Mark, to the angry son of a transwoman, through the revelations made by newly-transitioning Phil (ftm – female to male) and his girlfriend Beth, you will leave knowing a lot more people in and connected to the trans community than you knew when you came in.

In juxtaposition to depth of the material, the technical elements are fairly modest. The set consists of some chairs in a semi-circle, most topped with some sort of clothing or accessory to denote a character’s seat. The lighting, by Emil Lamanda (he/him), is predominantly a simple wash of light, with a couple of strategically-placed instances of isolation. Before the show begins, there is a projector that is used to display images setting the tone of the production. This is valuable because the show is void of sound design, a tool often used to set the mood and help guide the audience through the journey. I did question the need for its use in the middle of the second act, though I appreciated the information it revealed and reinforced. I found the minimalist design to further allow space for van der Voort to fully embody everything about each character, making the show truly about them.

I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one with van der Voort after the performance. I learned that they/she has been working on this play for over a decade.There have been several other performances, but this was the first fully-produced run (and hopefully not the last). When I asked about the spectrum of characters and where they came from, they/she said “they just kept coming out of me,” although they/she acknowledged that many of them were inspired by friends or acquaintances. There is even someone that didn’t make it into this iteration of the show because van der Voort and director Slauson felt the character wasn’t ready for the stage.

TransFormations is a show that does everything I yearn for theatre to do: entertain and educate.

Presented by Something Something Theatre at St. Francis in the Foothills, the run continues through November 17th, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30pm, and Sunday afternoons at 3:00pm. Purchase tickets online at https://www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com/ or by calling 520-468-6111.

 

Grins, Giggles, and Guffaws for All

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

Pinocchio is a fairy tale that children and adults are all very familiar with, so what could be new? Tyler West’s adaptation at Live Theatre Workshop is not only novel, but highly entertaining for all ages. From the very beginning when we are asked, albeit non verbally, to silence our phones, and mind the exits, the audience is drawn into the world of make believe. Under the direction of Angela Horchem, who is also the mask and puppet designer, we are enchanted for an hour that goes by all too quickly.

Hannah Turner as Pinocchio and Lorie Heald as Geppetto. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Hannah Turner as Pinocchio and Lorie Heald as Geppetto. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The masks and puppetry are the highlights of the show. Each one is individually crafted to highlight the person or animal that it embodies.   The puppeteers were visible throughout the production, but this did not distract from their efficacy. The cricket was especially convincing due to the many ways it was able to move, and the apt handling by Lorie Heald, Naima Boushaki, and Kyleigh Sacco. Each handler was able to convey the cricket’s persona in both a lively and entertaining manner. The sounds the cricket made while sleeping had the audience in stitches.

The physical acting used throughout the show comes in as a close second favorite part of this show. Lorie Heald’s background in mime was evident as she portrayed Geppetto, as well as several other characters. Boushaki, Sacco, and Turner all used their bodies skillfully as well, to reveal not only the actions but feelings behind whoever they were embodying. Each character had very specific movements to solidify their individual personalities. The charisma that the actors used was endearing to the entire audience. Director Horchem was successful in relaying the central theme of Pinocchio, “everyone is unique”.

This show uses an entirely female cast to portray all the characters. The director is female as well. Although Geppetto is referred to as male, and Pinocchio as a boy, the use of the clever masks and gender-neutral costumes really don’t make this an issue. It is refreshing to see that gender does not need to be used when casting is done in a play. What matters is the efficacy of the actors breathing life into the roles.

Michael Marinez composed the score, and the catchy tunes added to the light-hearted atmosphere of the show. The lyrics reinforced the themes of honesty, kindness, family, and friendship that this fairy tale uses to teach these universal values.

The set and costumes were minimal but very effective. Fur coats for the cat and fox were a delightful bit of fashion flair. The use of shadow to portray some of the scenes was convincing and added to the humor. A large trunk that was carried on to the set helped to set the stage for a time period in the past.

I don’t know who enjoyed the show more. The children in attendance were enthralled and often squealed with delight. Adults were equally entertained. This performance really is one for children of all ages. 

Pinocchio plays at Live Theater Workshop on Sundays at 12:30 PM through October 20th. Ticket prices are $7 for children and $10 for adults. Tickets are available on the website livetheatreworkshop.org and also by calling the box office at 327-4242. The box office is open Tuesday through Saturday 1:00 – 5:00 PM, and one hour before showtimes.

Elevator Goes Nowhere

by Gretchen Wirges

ElevatorSeptember 11, 2001. It was a day that changed me. It was a day that changed the lives of many people I know. It was a day that changed our country irrevocably. On the anniversary, I often find myself shying away from social media and general news content to avoid the sensationalism and morbid reflection. Instead, I lean more toward artistic solace in the form of music and theater. This year, I attended Elevator, written and directed by local playwright Patrick Carson, currently being staged by The Tucson Community Theater Company.

The story is a fictional account of a group of individuals who were in one of the elevators of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the events occurred. Stuck together in the elevator for the duration of this play, we learn more about the occupants  (played by actors David Updegraff, Elizabeth von Isser, Charlize Diaz de León, Tony Eckstat, Jade Ashton and Peter Bryfogle.) 

As an actor and a director myself, I always appreciate the work that goes into forming a full-scale production. The set looked like an expanded version of a real elevator that you’d find in any high-rise. It’s accuracy was impressive. Because the entire play takes place in that elevator, the size was exaggerated, and the walls cheated out to provide enough room, while giving the visual cues of the context of the play. 

However, the facility used for staging the production -a big banquet hall- was less than ideal. Half of the audience were sat in chairs at folding tables covered with plastic table cloths. I mention this only because it set a tone of amateurish informality that made me already feel separated from the expression of the work. Because of the less than ideal setting, the sound quality and production was also lacking. Each of the actors wore a lapel microphone that popped, hissed, and/or squealed with feedback every time they physically interacted with each other or moved in their costumes. Toward the end of the play, the characters are often coughing from smoke inhalation, which exacerbated the sound issues. 

The script itself is unbearably cliched and problematic. The characters were archetypal caricatures: bigoted business man, powerful lesbian woman, pregnant Muslim woman, uneducated blue-collar man, affable Englishman, and naive, pretty secretary. Because of these broad strokes, there are rare moments of realness between the characters. Instead, the play often devolves into trite declarations, predictable platitudes, and borderline offensive depictions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism. The Muslim woman literally says fewer than 10 words in the first 30 minutes of the play. I saw it as an attempt for the playwright to make a social commentary with this device, when in reality it plays off as empty altruism. 

In addition, there are issues with the story’s plausibility. For example, throughout the majority of the play, smoke is seeping in through the cracks of the elevator. It isn’t until the play is almost over that there is a real reaction to that environmental factor. This is just one example, among many, that constantly took me out of the story because the action did not support previous information related earlier in the play. 

The performances by the actors were hindered by a script that never allowed them to fully realize the humanity of their characters. Further, the direction glossed over believable reactions to the events at hand. There was never really a sense of fear or urgency or pain or panic or grief that would make sense in such a situation. This disparity in logical reaction, in combination with an incredibly thin script, had many of the performances just falling flat for me. 

Von Isser (Edie) and Diaz de León (Tina) managed to find some lovely moments for their individual characters that gave us a peek into their emotions and grounded their performances as the most believable and interesting to watch. I truly believe the other cast members, with stronger direction, could have come off as so much more than the stereotypes they were burdened to play. 

In the end, I was not able to find even a crumb the artistic solace I was looking for. 

Elevator will run through September 29th. Performances are Thursday through Saturday (with the exception of 9/21) at 7:00 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. All performances will be at the GLH Hotel Event Center at 1365 W Grant Road.

 

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.