un peu de arts writing (artlog #1)

mes amis–

you may be alarmed by the capital letters i employ in the below posting. fret not! this is an example of what a postess with the mostess might look like were i to win an arts writing grant. let us keep our fingers crossed! or, as they say in il bel paese, “incrociamo le ditte!”

Kippy Composite #2

Omaha Stakes

The Great Plains Theatre Conference gets site-specific

By Kippy Winston

Mes amis

Travels, travails and le théâtre recently landed me in Nebraska. The bread basket of gli stati uniti is a dear place to me. As a girl I imagined an Atlantis—and antithesis!—to my East Coast upbringing.

I recall wailing to my parents, while fitfully filling out college applications, “Why don’t we live in Omaha? That way I’d only apply to Nebraska State and the University of Nebraska and stay with all my friends!” (Ten percent of my high school class attended Wesleyan—a fact that horrifies and fills me with pride.)

As Atlantis would have it, for the past three summers I’ve joyously attended the Great Plains Theatre Conference (emphasis on Great!). First I went as a giornalista (see American Theatre’s 2011 May/June issue), then as an attrice (I performed a monologue by Sibyl Kempsonc’est vrais!) and most recently I tooted about as a composite artista. Yes, my friends.  I moderated panels, led a post-show talk back, acted in a few readings and performed in a piece of my own terrifying writing.

2012 marked a new direction for the GPTC. It said farewell to traditional theatre halls and embarked on an ambitious site-specific component. The results were resoundingly successful with only one flopping flailure. (That’s a failure that flails!) Thank heavens, the flailure was not malevolent—just full of rookie mistakes. Each show gained momentum and verve and the Great Omaha Stakes.

1.

Kira Obolensky’s Raskol, a riff on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, bowed in Omaha’s Burlington Train Station—a cavernous, crumbling structure whose stage possibilities seemed limitless. The première problem pour moi, however, was the creation of a set. Why not use the abandoned station’s corners and crevasses? If it is site-specific embrace the site, do not build something else. We may as well have been in a black box with the bed and cubist set. In fact, a black box would have better suited this production whose articulateness and artfulness was lost in echoes of the spacious train station.

Quel dommage—for this was a production to be heard! (not just seen) and Obolensky’s vowels and consonants bounded around heads but not into ears. I cannot comment on the script since I couldn’t hear it—and what a Crime and Punishment that is!

Take heart. This year GPTC hosted its first ever Design Wing, helmed by such tech genies as Peter Ksander and Justin Townsend. One imagines this Design Wing will take flight (!) in future years and include sound designers (from which Raskol would have immensely benefited.)

Raskol was not without rapscallion elements to enjoy. Take, for example, the changing color palate behind the enormous once-ornate train station windows. The setting twilight tones became purple and blue before darkening into a most beautiful jade. I yearned for a tornado!

burlington train station of omaha

2.

Constance Congdon’s Tales of the Lost Formicans was slated to be performed on a prairie hill but driving rains moved the show indoors to Creighton University’s Lied Center for the Arts. C’est la vie… et la pluie!

What a marvelous and moving play. The actors were tip top—I particularly enjoyed Erika Hall’s crimped hair and hot pink 1985 jacket. I suspected such stylings were at the behest of the actress and when I caught up with Erika later that evening at a GPTC porch party, my intuitions were confirmed.

In a post-show talkback I learned that Congden wrote the tragicomic, alien-narrated Formicans (about life in the suburbs) in a swift two months. Listening to the playwright talk about her life and artistic process was most moving. Not an eye was dry! Director Cindy Melby Phaneuf also took a tearful turn discussing the play.

These days, with so many shows that wink and smile at audiences in self-aware insouciance of a post-dramatic nature, it was refreshing to experience a smart, narratively curious play that nevertheless managed to pull on heart strings despite non-traditional trappings like narration by aliens!

Apparently the prairie set had a Cadillac for the road trip scenes: le sigh! Audiences got to see the show bow the next night in prairie land…but this Kippy was on top of a parking garage. Quel horreur!

some drive, others are driven

3.

Before anyone saw it, Jeanette Plourde’s YOU’RE LOOKING GOOD (cabin pressure) inspired dread. Plourde had made a nervy showing at a lunchtime panel discussion the day before her show’s debut, proclaiming, “I have no idea what it is you will see!” with Elaine Benes herky jerky flair. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of the dance show to come? Buzz indicated Plourde and her actors only managed eight rehearsals on a parking gararge roof in sweltering heat. Plus, there was nervousness that Plourde was filling in for the inimitable David Neumann, who had been pulled away to choreograph a Broadway-bound Sponge Bob Square Pants. [c’est vrais…!]

It was a brisk 55 degrees Fahrenheit the evening of YOU’RE LOOKING GOOD. Audiences sat in two groups facing one another atop the garage, including such VIPs as playwrights Kira Oblensky, Rebecca Gillman and Omaha-based playwright Ellen Stuve, who snuggled and huddled under a large comforter of an orange blossom pattern.

The performance began 30 minutes late. Hmph! This is irksome and most disrespectful to audiences, yet, a small part of me loves the ostentatious disregard for time, the sheer rudeness. Late starts always raise audience expectation and consternation.

Communque, Allora and Nevertheless, Plourde’s team of talented young movers and shakers proved that patience inspires virtue. First the actors—each more cute than the last—performed a bike parade with commedia like characters and animus. One girl, in harlot red lipstick, gave a bored expression while pushing up the incline. A sultry toss of her curls sent a ripple of laughter throughout the audience. Another young woman wore an exasperated expression and huff-hunched over her vehicle, the bun atop her head bobbing all the way. In a poetic turn of gleeful mishap, her skirt later got caught in the wheel of her bike. Watching this simple parade reminded me of how fine commedia and clowning can be when done with such precision and committment. Bravi!

Later a rolling luggage dance had actors moving, courting and caressing their bags. Plourde purred into the microphone, “Aaaaand blossom like a flower,” as the actors obeyed and their luggage trailed behind them. A shopping cart sequence produced the sounds of simpler times—new grocery store carts made of plastic don’t create the same cacophonous, tinny rattle on cement that older models do.

[Later, at another infamous porch party, I caught some iPhone footage of the show a wily onlooker had taken. In it, an elderly patron “walked out” by wheeling herself away on a rocker. It looked strikingly like the performance—as if her walker were a shopping cart. Ho!

A clown car bonanza face off was another highlight for this Kippy, but the final moment was the best. The actors lit a miniature hot air balloon made of magenta paper and sent it skyward. Not only was this image beautiful and arresting but—like the performance itself—it defied logic.

paper hot air balloon

the one i saw was hot pink

4.

2012’s honored playwright Rebecca Gilman—or Old Gillyboots as I like to call her!—rounded out the shows. The Crowd You’re in With is smart-as-a-whip funny with great one-liners and caustic jibes about bourgeois issues set in a backyard BBQ. In other hands, this play might have been a tired look at white people and their middle class problems. (yawn) [(Fears and anxieties over societal pressure/expectation to have children abound in le script.)] But potential triteness was cleverly subverted with a nearly all black cast. Under Denise Chapman’s sly direction, the ensemble elevated what might otherwise have been philistine sitcomish language into something subtly profound. By not talking about race, the play reached new depths, heights, and shades of meaning—even, perhaps, pointing to possibility.

I was also most charmed by the actors who delivered such lines as “A diaper cake isn’t something you eat,” and “You thought George Elliot was a man,” with dignity, zest and great aplomb.

i hankered for a burger!

The heartland comes with its own set of perils: tornadoes, gluten, and a penchant to talk about new plays in an Aristotelian—and increasingly outdated—model. (No offence to my fine Greek feathered friend!) Nevertheless, GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler and his band of cohorts are moving in interesting directions. They are getting out of the black box and opening up stages for the community and its members.

At the first performance I attended an older gentleman with a monastic haircut asked me why so many people were wearing name badges. He didn’t know about the conference—he was just grateful to learn about free theatre performances from the local paper. “My daughter did a bunch of theatre in high school,” he recalled fondly. I spotted him in cheerful attendance at each subsequent show and we waived to each other each time.

a bientot!
kippy

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