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Breaking Ice from Pillsbury House + Theatre, as part of the Arts on Chicago initiative in Minneapolis.

News in Brief for March 2013

From the New Mexican desert to the Windy City—this month in national news.

La Ciudad del Viento
CHICAGO: Everybody knows Latinos are populous on both coasts, but they’re making artistic hay in the heartland as well. Offering ongoing proof of the Windy City’s eminence as both an incubator of and a hub for Latino work is Goodman Theatre’s 10th annual Latino Theatre Festival, which will bring companies from around the globe to the Midwest March 22–June 30. Curated by resident artistic associate Henry Godinez, this year’s lineup includes Pulitzer-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes’s The Happiest Song Plays Last, a play about the meaning of heroism set to the sounds of traditional Puerto Rican folk music, and the acclaimed ensemble-created production of Home/Land by the multi-ethnic Albany Park Theater Project.

The festival opens with Cuba’s Teatro Buendía and its all-Spanish (with English subtitles) production of Pedro Páramo, a tale of magic and folklore within a realistic discourse, inspired by the 1955 short novel by Mexican author Juan Rulfo. Teatro Buendía, known for its adaptations of classic texts into uniquely Cuban settings, made its U.S. debut at 2010’s Latino Fest with La Visita de la Vieja Dama, and with this appearance, the boundary-breaking link continues. The three-month festival coincides with the height of the Goodman’s mainstage
season.

Poe and More Poe
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.: The Land of Enchantment has a taste for spicy food, wide open spaces and generally grim entertainments that tend to favor the occult or the supernatural—a cultural alchemy that has earned this New Mexican city the irresistible moniker AlbuQuirky. Two Southwest theatre troupes embrace the nickname this month by honoring the father of American horror, Edgar Allan Poe.

“We think our audiences enjoy a little of the macabre after the joyousness of the holidays,” says artistic director Amelia Ampuero of Duke City Repertory Theatre. Hence Poe Fest—conceived after Duke and the nearby Blackout Theatre Company noticed their simultaneous season-slotting of an original play inspired by the poet, and joined forces. The festival includes Duke City Rep’s Poe by John Hardy, which offers a penetrating look at the author through the lens of two of his most celebrated works. Also on the program is Blackout’s remounting of its popular The Poe Project: Merely This and Nothing More, an ensemble-created play inspired by Edgar’s oeuvre of poems, tales and essays.

The two burqueño companies are doing what this city does best: gathering local audiences with ongoing themed events (this is the city, after all, known for its monthlong Balloon Fiesta and the music festival ¡Globalquerque!). Poe Fest, which began in January, continues through April 7 and offers the opportunity for such social outings as a sketch-comedy show aptly titled Sketchy Poe, a series of Po(e)p quizzes hosted at local bars, and a Red Death–themed masquerade ball. Ravens not included.

Knot Going Gently
ATLANTA: No one could accuse Del Hamilton and Faye Allen of lacking an exquisite sense of theatrical timing. The founders of 7 Stages—a company with, in fact, just two stages, in a renovated 1920s movie house in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood—have been partners in theatre and in life since before starting the company in 1979. But they remained blissfully unmarried until Jan. 28 of this year, when their nuptials transpired on the theatre’s mainstage, with presentations by affiliated artists Pearl Cleage and Sahr Ngaujah.

With their exchange of rings, Hamilton and Allen also passed the torch of leadership to a new artistic director, Heidi S. Howard, and a new managing director, Mack Headrick. And lest you imagine this envelope-pushing thea­tre—which kicked off with a production of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime  and John Robinson’s Wolves, and has hosted the work of Joseph Chaikin and Belgrade’s Dah Teatar—has gone soft, or that its founders will disappear from the scene, take heart: Currently onstage is local playwright Topher Payne’s uncompromising Oscar Wilde–meets-Fight Club fantasia Angry Fags, and up next is Lydia Stryk’s Lady Lay, in which new A.D. Howard will direct former A.D. Hamilton in a role he was born to play: Bob Dylan. Add in a thriving youth theatre program and an international play-development series called Home Brew, and it’s clear that the founders are ending their tenure on a high note.

Childhood’s Edge
NEW YORK CITY and LOS ANGELES: “Why are we scared to let children be scared?” asked playwright/theatre maker Finegan Kruckemeyer in a groundbreaking 2010 essay titled “The Taboo of Sadness.” The Australian playwright was in New York City in January to develop his notion of what children can handle in a work of theatre with his new play, The Boy at the Edge of Everything. Commissioned by the New York–based theatre troupe Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, the play had several workshops in 2012. In mid-January, the New Victory Theater hosted the work as part of its new play-development initiative, the LabWorks Project, where the play had a reading. Trusty Sidekick will return to LabWorks in June to continue work on the play. True to Kruckemeyer’s mission, The Boy at the Edge doesn’t sugarcoat tween childhood confusion or misery: It imagines an instructive collision between a stressed-out 12 year old and the bored, lonely boy of the title. Not that the play is all somber: The boys’ meeting reportedly involves “lot and lots of fireworks.”

On the opposite coast, L.A.’s acclaimed 24th Street Theatre is venturing into similar territory with its new show Walking the Tightrope, which deals frankly with a young girl, Esme, confronting the death of her grandmother. Using what director Debbie Devine calls a “26-page poem” by English playwright Mike Kenny, the artists and designers of 24th Street have created a multicharacter piece set at the circus that “works on multiple levels”—exploring the grandfather’s grief as much as his granddaughter’s puzzlement over why Nanna is gone this summer. Devine points to a series of choices that put some distance between the sensitive subject matter and the contemporary audience: the circus backdrop, the casting of an adult actress as the young girl, the setting of the play in late 1950s England.

For all this stylization, though, the point makes a theatrical impact on young audiences too often pandered to or sheltered from serious subjects. “Thea­tre can show you how to feel,” Devine says. “A six-year-old mind is really capable of going through a catharsis, and of feeling the whole range of emotions.”

Soloing Together
LOS ANGELES: From a chance meeting of two solo performers at an arts conference in Pasadena, Calif., was born a two-decade tradition. Adilah Barnes, who had developed touring one-woman shows as African-American icons Sojourner Truth and Angela Davis, met Miriam Reed, whose shows portrayed women’s rights pioneers Margaret Sanger and Susan B. Anthony. The two didn’t just hit it off; they started a kind of following of solo women performers from Los Angeles—and so was born, in 1994, the first Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival, held at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and hosted by Angela Bassett.

This year’s 20th anniversary festival, held March 21–24 at the Renberg Theatre at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, includes dozens of performers, and not all of them women, bearing solo shows about historical figures, as well as more personal and topical pieces. This many solo performers in one place almost constitutes an honorary ensemble theatre company.

City Sites
MINNEAPOLIS: All theatre is site-specific, whether it intends to be or not. But in the case of the Arts on Chicago initiative, a series of “creative placemaking” projects in four neighborhoods along Minneapolis’s Chicago Avenue, where performances will pop up this spring, inform the pieces’ creation and their meaning to a larger-than-usual extent.

As one of 47 organizations to receive funding from ArtPlace, a collaboration of a dozen leading national funders, Pillsbury House + Theatre will roll out 20 projects in the coming months, including Eye Site, a nighttime tour of Chicago Avenue that makes creative use of a network of privately owned motion-sensor lighting devices, created by Jenny Schmid, Drew Anderson and Andrea Steudel. Pillsbury will also present a youth stilting and performance group run by Masa Kawahara; Dylan Fresco’s What Grows Here?, a 60-minute storytelling performance/guided tour of a portion of the avenue; and Breaking Ice, a 16-year-old Pillsbury House program that uses improv and ensemble-created theatre to bridge cultural divides.

Individual projects, which also include mural painting, creative signage and fiber art, are receiving grants of $5,000 to $9,000. If indeed they advance “livability, vibrancy, economic and community development” throughout the city, that sounds like money well spent.

Case Studies
CHICAGO: Chicago may be known for its hot dogs, theatre scene and Midwestern friendliness, but recently the Windy City has been receiving attention for something less benign: its increasing murder rate. “The city is also stuck with deep segregation that has left a number of communities in poverty,” says Anthony Moseley, executive artistic director of Collaboraction.

But instead of lapsing into apathy or despair, Moseley and his company set out to address these social problems in the best way they know how. “I wanted to create a piece of theatre that would put onto the table how we got here and re-sensitize audiences. The media has lost its ability to make the people of Chicago feel.”

The result is Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology, which runs through March 10 and is a participating production in Chicago’s Now Is the Time to ACT initiative (see sidebar, page 12.) The immersive, audience-participatory event dramatizes three Chicago crimes: the 2000 mistaken-identity killing of 12-year-old Orlando Patterson; the 1997 attack on 13-year-old Lenard Clark, which left him in a coma; and the 2010 baseball-bat beating of Stacy Jurich and Natasha McShane.

“The Jurich and McShane beating was the one that broke my back,” confides Moseley. “When that happened, it moved me to a point where I felt like I had to be part of the solution.”

Devised with an ensemble of community activists, Crime Scene will tour to various parks throughout Chicago during the spring and summer. Says Moseley, “We want to show all sides. And because it’s an anthology, we can always add a new chapter.”

Recover, Return, Reorganize
WILLIAMSTOWN, N.J.; ST. PAUL, Minn.; KETCHUM, ID.: The Grand Theatre of Williamstown, N.J., had a very bad spring day in May 2010, when its roof collapsed, totaling the entire venue. Record snow loads from the previous winter were reportedly to blame. This past February saw the Grand’s reopening after a $1.3-million rebuilding effort. The first production in the still-intimate 200-seat venue, which has been the home of the Road Company Theater Group, Inc. since 1976, is Hairspray (through March 2). You can destroy a theatre, but you can’t stop the beat.

Meanwhile, the Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, Minn., has returned from the brink, after an emergency fund­raising campaign that began last fall to save it from closure. A goal of $340,000 was exceeded; $359,000 was raised from 1,400 individuals, corporations and foundations. So the 2012–13 season will go ahead with Spunk, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston stories, and a new co-production in the fall with Arizona Thea춗re Company and the Guthrie Theater. The shadows have lifted, for the moment, at Penumbra.

Finally, in Ketchum, Id., Company of Fools officially joined the Sun Valley Center for the Arts as the center’s theatre-producing arm. COF will continue to base its operations at the Liberty Theater in nearby Hailey, but its core artists John Glenn and Denise Simone will now help develop the center’s thematic programs, under the executive directorship of the center’s Sally Boettger and the artistic directorship of Kristin Poole. All will now answer to a single board of directors. Wonder-twin powers, activate!

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