by Nathan Bergstedt
By 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.
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.
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.