Flying Monkeys After Work

Flying Monkeys After Work

Flying Monkeys After Work

When it comes to Guinness World Records being broken, we certainly monkey around. It’s official: Grand Rapids, MN, claims the world record for most dressed up Wizard of Oz characters in one place. On June 13 after our successfully smashing the record of 446 with our 1,093, these two monkeys decided to celebrate a Guinness record by clinking glasses of Guinness.

Past Year of Theater, pt 5

by Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedtWe were all pretty proud of ourselves after Twin Cities 24. We didn’t even know about it two weeks earlier, and in that short of time, we put everything together and even traversed the state to make it happen. We would have anyway, but after the success of the weekend, we were particularly emboldened to put our name in the lottery for the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

It was shaping up to be a busy summer, and it was barely February. I still hadn’t written the “Much Ado” script, John and Steph just started rehearsals for the Grand Rapids Players production of “Two By Two” (a musical comedy based off the story of Noah’s flood), and we still hadn’t really begun work on the shadow puppet show we were talking about. Come to think of it, it was shaping up to be a pretty busy winter, and we were rapidly running behind.

The thing about the shadow puppet show was that none of us had ever done shadow puppetry before. Sure, on occasion, we had all managed to contort our hands in front of a lamp to make a dog or an eagle, but to actually make puppets in the shape of characters and then to manipulate them before a lit screen… we were starting from scratch. We felt that we were in the right position to experiment though; it was arguable whether or not anyone in town had ever even seen a shadow puppet show before, and we weren’t going to charge admission. Worst case scenario, the show would be a bomb and we’d come to the conclusion that shadow puppetry just isn’t our bag. Best case, we discover we’re shadow puppetry savants, have incredible careers as puppeteers, and ultimately become the puppet impresarios of the world. We figured we really couldn’t lose.

So the only question was what the story was going to be? John had some ideas floating around of separate vignettes that dealt with nature in some way: a guy ice fishing, something involving being disturbed by a mosquito, and some sort of scene with a loon (an “uncommon” loon).

The plan was to build a basic set out of some cheap wood and black fabric that would surround a painting stretcher where the canvas has been replaced with a basic plain white cloth. The characters, then, would be cut out of black construction paper, hinged with small curls of wire, and controlled via glued-on shish kabob skewers. John, being an accomplished amateur visual artist, took it upon himself to design the characters for the show that we didn’t know anything about yet.

We picked the First Friday art walk in April as the perfect date for the show. We would once again use one of the vacant rooms of Old Central School, where we did “Not Playing with a Full Deck,” and it would be great and wonderful. Only we found it wasn’t going to be so easy. It’s tough to say if we had any part in this, but within a month’s time, Central School went from having a consistent three-rooms open to being completely filled with rent-paying tenants. We have no idea whether or not our involvement with the building brought businesses in, but the timing was awfully suspicious. If we did, well, we totally shot ourselves in the foot. But whatever… we didn’t even have a show yet anyway.

And the new location problem was solved really quickly. I asked Katie Marshall at the MacRostie Art Center if we could use one of the gallery’s studio’s for the show, and she thought it was a great idea.

10153175_828938237120155_784324477_nIt wasn’t until late February that John and I actually got together to do some brainstorming on what the damned show was even going to be about. All we had really narrowed down by this point was that it was going to take place outdoors and involve some number of animals, who were possibly partially anthropomorphized. So on some god forsakenly cold evening in late February, John came over and we sat in the dinning room at my place with a few pieces of scratch paper, a laptop, and a few beers, and we got to work. There was no reason why this show would go longer than 15 minutes, so we felt pretty confidant that we could fill that period of time in a humorous or ironic manner. And sure enough, after a few hours, it all got narrowed down — it was no longer a series of disconnected vignettes, but a running story following the misadventures in the woods of a French voyageur over the course of three short chapters. Why French? Did we research the history of this general region of North America and pay homage to some of the original European explorers of the New World? No. We kept calling him “that guy,” so we decided to keep it and named him Guy, so it only made sense that he’d be French.

Beyond what we figured out that night, there wasn’t much fleshing out of the story. It was kind of the running joke that since the characters were two-dimensional, the storyline might as well be too. But after a few weeks of rehearsing and building the set, the show was about as ready as it was ever going to be… unless we were to actually come up with a story that wasn’t a series of fart jokes.

Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette

Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette

We had dabbled in Shakespeare, had plunged into the metaphysics of the battle of good and evil, sought the nuance of the human condition for greed, but now we were official agents of juvenile potty humor. But it wasn’t completely lowbrow. I think one of the things that made it funniest was the fact that the show was called “Silhouette, Gentile Silhouette,” leading the audience to suspect that it might be of some cultural significance, and what they got instead was a French guy farting on mosquitoes.

Ok, I may be underselling the show. It was certainly geared more to younger audiences, but it was fun little romp through an ancient form of storytelling. One of the more interesting things about it is that no one who came to the show had ever even seen a shadow puppet show before (to the best of our knowledge) despite the fact that it’s one of the oldest known art forms.

Once the show was over, we gathered at John and Steph’s place for a “cast party” (it was just the three of us in the cast, so it wasn’t that much different from other times we’d gathered together). To shake it up, we also invited our friend Rachel, who was technically part of the crew since she operated the video camera. While we slowly sipped blended scotch whiskey and smoked a hooka, we took turns reciting poetry from a variety of different books and a few of our own original compositions. But when a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry came out, perhaps from still enjoying the romance of animating puppets earlier in the day, we quickly figured out what the next shadow puppet show was going to be: a full-text reading and shadow interpretation of “The Raven.” And the October First Friday art walk seemed like the perfect time for such a show.

Past Year of Theater, pt 4

by Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedtBy the time “Playing with a Full Deck” was finished, we had a few ideas for different shows that we wanted to do, namely our next Shakespeare production, which was already decided would be “Much Ado About Nothing.” Aside from that, John was talking about doing a shadow puppet show, and we had decided to throw our hat in the ring for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the third largest theater festival in North America, which takes place each year in the Twin Cities.

An element of what has made the Uncommon Loons project so interesting has been that of surprise. We’ve joked around that our unofficial motto is “We just do stuff.” We don’t always know too far in advance what that stuff is going to be, but we’ve developed a habit of coming up with an idea and then just doing it. Case in point, in mid-January, about two weeks after “Full Deck,” I came across an advertisement for Twin Cities 24, a 24-hour theater festival that was taking place in Minneapolis at the Southern Theater. They were looking for theater groups around the state (though more specifically in the Twin Cities, since that’s where it was taking place and that’s where most of the theater groups existed) to take part in their first ever festival, challenging these ensembles to create short, one-act plays for an evening of original theater. And it was happening at the end of the month – January 25.

The deadline for signing up was only two days after I first saw the ad. So after contacting the Schroeders to gauge their enthusiasm, I called the organizers of Twin Cities 24 to make sure this was something feasible for us to put together in time. The call was greeted with excitement that a theater group was planning on attending from so far away; it was their first run of it after all, so they were more than pleased that they were attracting talent from outside of the city.

The excitement was mutual. Granted we had only been a group for a little over six months (taking “Shrew” into account), but this would be the first time that we would take a show on the road. Following “Shrew,” John looked into some venues in Duluth to see if it would be within our means to take our first Shakespearean show outside of Grand Rapids, and into a metropolitan area at that. Those inquiries stayed at just about that: inquiries. So at the prospect of doing a show in Minneapolis… well, it seemed like an opportunity that we couldn’t hardly pass up.

Despite the fact that it was in only two weeks, the timing couldn’t have hardly been better. I was going to be in the Bloomington, just south of Minneapolis, the couple days prior to the festival on account of the annual Minnesota Newspaper Association conference, where I was to accept an award for a piece I wrote for the Grand Rapids Herald-Review the year before. All I needed to do was stick around the rest of the weekend. This was especially fortuitous since we had so far to travel for the festival. The big question we had when we started planning for the show was how we would be prepared for it since any and all of our costumes and props exist 300 miles away from the theater. So we planned it thusly: I would go down early for the MNA conference, and then stick around for the festival; I designated myself the writer for the production, so on that Friday, I would go to the theater to find out the theme and the setting for our play; after finding out that information, I was to keep in contact with John and Steph, letting them know the general direction I was going with the play so that they could have a basic idea of what was needed for our show; I’d write the play throughout the night; and on Saturday morning, the whole cast would come down to Minneapolis together, giving everyone time to work on their lines during the drive.

Once again, we recruited Josh Cagle for the show, as well as Katie Benes, who we had all worked with before with Grand Rapids Players shows. Since we didn’t know anything about this show, except that it was to be about 15 minutes long, we brought Josh and Katie on for their known ability to memorize lines well and to be able to develop a character quickly. And if absolutely nothing else, they did exactly that.

Things ended up working almost exactly as planned. I showed up at the theater on Friday evening with my cousin Laura, whose house I was staying at for the weekend. We found out the set was a campground, and the theme was “lost connections,” so the cast made sure to have campware ready for the show. Laura and her husband, Tom, kindly set up an office in the basement of their house for me to write, and I got to it once we got back to the house. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I made sure that I was sufficiently set with coffee, a few chocolate bars, and plenty of beer (Tom brought me to a liquor store that had a fantastic selection of micro-brews earlier in the day), and then I was ready.

It’s funny how once you’ve been awake for the better part of 16 hours, fueled primarily on caffeine and alcohol, that you begin to get a bit metaphysical. I recall how John and I had talked about mosquitoes as a possible part of the potential shadow puppet show, and since the show took place in a campground, I took the idea of mosquitoes to a whole different level with this overnight script I was writing. Before I knew what happened, I had taken the concept of the mosquito into the realm of monotheism, developed into a script that introduces a character who is on a camping trip with his girlfriend when he is visited by the ghost of his ex-girlfriend, who was subtly introduced to him by an ethereal figure called Marvin, who is actually God, but who is actually a mosquito. It seemed great at the time, but when I woke up, I re-read the script, and wondered what the hell I just did.

Scene from The Thing About Mosquitoes at Twin Cities 24

Scene from The Thing About Mosquitoes at Twin Cities 24

Really, it wasn’t that bad. It was fairly decent, all things considered. It could’ve used some polishing, but for having written it in less than 12 hours, it was fine. More than anything, it was just kind of weird. And a little awkward. There’s probably no better time to acknowledge this than now: John and Steph Schroeder are conservative Christians and I’m a liberal atheist. By some means, we all managed to come together in a creative partnership that has kept us all satisfied without getting too political or religious. Or at least without fighting about the political or the religious. So when I woke up, I thought again about the script that I had written, and I sat there at the counter of my cousin’s kitchen with a cup of coffee hoping that I hadn’t overly offended anyone. In all reality, it wasn’t that bad of a script, but when you consider the fact that God, who was a mosquito, was swatted to death, it was at minimum awkward.

Fortunately, the minimum was about all we had to worry about. The greater concept was a little awkward for some of the members of the cast, but beyond that, we just had fun with it. I ended up playing the role of Marvin the mosquito, otherwise known as God, in which role I wore a silk robe and a long proboscis on my face. There was a certain amount of satisfaction that John thought that Marvin should be a pseudo-Hugh Hefner.

Loons creative team for Twin Cities 24

Loons creative team for Twin Cities 24

To date, this was the only Uncommon Loons show that we’ve performed in an actual theater. It was a great experience working with the organizers and getting to see the other ensembles’ productions that evening. We were all a little concerned that we would be in way over our heads amongst the other theater groups from the Twin Cities, but it ended up not being the case at all. We fit in quite well; certainly not the best, but nor were we the worst. We weren’t the funniest, nor were we the most dramatic. We were pretty much right in the middle of everything.

And once everything was over, we all went back to Laura and Tom’s place, where a party was just finishing. The last guests were leaving as we walked through the door, kind of like a changing of the guards. So we completed the night with a living-room dance party, as well as a impromptu restaging of our show for our gracious hosts who were unable to make it to the theater earlier in the evening.

The Past Year of Theater, pt 3

By Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedtOver that pitcher of beer, John and I brainstormed a bit and decided, essentially, who our local dream team cast would be if we simply had our pick of actors in the community. It seemed a bit of a stretch since we didn’t even know if one of them was going to be in town, having gone off to college a couple months earlier, but that’s why we called it our dream team. But besides the cast, we thought one of the vacant rooms in Old Central School, the lawn of which was where we performed “Shrew” a few months earlier, would be the best spot, and First Friday in January was to be our date.

I got in contact with Patty Kampa to see if she were, by any chance, planning on coming home to Grand Rapids during winter break. John and I agreed that she would do a great job as Sabina, the sultry and vindictive contortionist. As luck would have it, she was going to be back in town the week we planned on starting rehearsals, and she wasn’t going back to college until the Sunday after the show. I’m not exactly sure where the saying “Flattery will get you nowhere” came from, but for the record, it’s horseshit. Despite her relatively short stay back in Grand Rapids, she agreed to take on the role of Sabine. Truly, how apt would one be to decline such an offer after being told that you were hand picked for it?

Josh Cagle was cast as Andre, the primary protagonist, because he played it originally for InsomniActs and was a big part of the reason the show was even being revived. And for the role of the harsh and demanding Petra, Catholic school music teacher Marina Whight fit the bill perfectly. And both of them, same as Patty, were in. We actually had our dream cast.

We borrowed a rack of stage lights from a local musician who had some just sitting around. Wasn’t using them. Honestly, what a strange thing to have just laying about. From there, we borrowed some supplies from the Grand Rapids Players in order to make a simple set, as well as a few articles of clothing for costumes.

Since we decided that we were going to keep putting on shows, it seemed like a good idea that we should develop a partnership with the Grand Rapids Players. As it was, we had an informal relationship with the board, all of us having been involved with the Players for a number of years as actors and directors, but this was something pretty different. We needed something a bit more formal so that everyone would know the extent of the relationship so that no one was being taken advantage of. For the time being, the board was cool with us rooting around for this show. There was a gentleman’s agreement that all set pieces, props, and costumes would be returned in proper order.

Not Playing with a Full Deck

Not Playing with a Full Deck

It should be noted that whereas the script was left essentially untouched from the original production, I did take the story a bit further through another medium. Between October, when we decided to revive the show, and December, when we did the work of reviving the show, was November, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. I’d attempted to write a novel in a month, as per the challenge, in past years, but hadn’t succeeded. So I decided I’d try again, only this time I’d take a different approach. Instead of taking the story idea too seriously, I took the character of Andre, came up with a vague starting point and an even more vague ending, and from there just presumed that there was no wrong answer in the telling of this story. That was it. And as it turns out, that approach works. Over the course of November, I greatly fleshed out the story of Andre, Petra, and Sabine with a 50,000 word novel. Since I knew so much about these characters, I decided to direct the revival of “Full Deck,” and John took a producer role in the show.

The winter was wicked cold and ridiculously snowy. January First Friday wasn’t much of an exception, though there was a relative break in the brutality that day. It was only ridiculously cold by normal winter standards, not by all standards. Still, the people of northern Minnesota are a hearty tribe; they can only be shut in for so long before they decide enough is enough. So we got a good size audience from for each of the four performances of the 17 minute show we did that evening (except the second one, for some reason. We only had a couple people in the audience for that one). The former classroom that we transformed into a theater was full of life on that cold winter evening. Most everyone, minus perhaps some of the parents who brought their young children without knowing that the show incorporated some sexual double entendres, appeared to have a wonderful time.

The Past Year of Theater, pt 2

By Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedt

The beginning of last month saw the one year anniversary of when the Uncommon Loons began. The funny thing about anniversaries is that they, once recognized, trigger something in your brain that makes you remember stuff you thought you had forgotten. This is for better or for worse, but I took the opportunity to recall how things lined up in my life for that particular day to have significance for me, even without knowing that it would turn into a theater company and a fulfilling creative partnership with the Schroeders.

But since it did turn into a theater company and a fulfilling creative partnership with the Schroeders, and since we’ve successfully finished our opening weekend of our second Shakespeare in the Park production, I find myself recollecting how the last year of independent theater unfolded.

The first thing I recall is the feeling of stress prior to the opening of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Fortunately, our expenses were minimal, so there was no worrying about going bankrupt with the production, but we didn’t know if we were going to have an audience, let alone whether or not they’d like the show. What’s more, the weather forecast wasn’t looking promising for opening night. The first Shakespeare in the Park production in Grand Rapids, and we were facing a thunderstorm.

Looking back, we certainly had enough justification in worrying, but in reality we really lucked out. We only had a rain location for one performance, and that happened to be the night that it rained like hell. And despite the lousy weather, we had a huge crowd inside the MacRostie Art Center, which we temporarily adapted into a theater for the evening. We all walked away with big smiles on our faces from knowing that the gallery was standing room only for the show.

The next couple performances, for which we didn’t have a rain location, were blessed with weather that was almost unseasonably gorgeous for the first week of September. And once the run was completely over, we got to bask in the reality of how wrong we were on our initial audience-size estimates: we anticipated 30-some per show, and we got 100-some.

When we first thought about doing “Shrew,” there was no actual plans for having it be anything more than a rag-tag group of thespians getting together to do a show in the park. There was strong allure to that idea, actually, as if we had shucked the bonds of organized arts bureaucracy in order to create our gonzo vision of what Shakespeare could be in the 21st century.

And that’s how it stayed for awhile. Sure, there was talk about doing another Shakespeare show the following summer, especially after we heard so many people say they looked forward to seeing what we did next, but we still collectively imagined that it would be another “rag-tag thespian” effort. But in October (my memory for dates is nothing short of awful, so I’m doing my best to narrow it down to a given month), John Schroeder and I talked about doing another show, this time just a one-act play, and to have it done during the monthly First Friday art walk in Grand Rapids. “Shrew” was the first time the theatrical arts were incorporated into the art walk, and we wanted to keep it going. John recommended we revive “Not Playing with a Full Deck; or Something Has Gone Tarot-bly Wrong,” a play I wrote and he directed earlier in the year for InsomniActs, a theater project wherein a play has to be created from scratch within 24 hours. The original production turned out really well, but given the fact we only had a single day to put it on, we thought it could be done better.

notplayingwithafulldeckpostThis raised a few questions, like “what were we doing?” Was this to be an ongoing thing, where every couple months we’d come up with a new idea for a show that we planned on producing? If it was, should we have a name? If so, what should we be called? John and I were sitting at the VFW listening to Sam Miltich and Friends play their particular flavor of gypsy jazz when the idea of reviving “Full Deck” was brought back up. If this was to be an ongoing thing, I thought we needed a name. I remembered John blurting out the name “Uncommon Loons” the first time it was ever proposed that “Shrew” be advertised under a company name, so between pitchers of beer I asked “How about Uncommon Loons?” to which he responded, “Sure.” We then ordered another pitcher and continued with the plan for how “Full Deck” would be produced.