A Recap of 2014

Wow! Where did 2014 go? Though on closer examination, I guess we have a few reasons it flew by so quickly…

Not Playing with a Full Deck

Not Playing with a Full Deck

Beginning with First Friday for January 2014, the Uncommon Loons presented Not Playing With a Full Deck on the second floor of Old Central School.

Loons creative team for Twin Cities 24

Loons creative team for Twin Cities 24

Later in January we drove down to the Southern Theater in the Cities to participate in Twin Cities 24 with The Secret of Mosquitoes.

The 'Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette' Screen

The ‘Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette’ Screen

For First Friday in April we presented our shadow puppet show Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette at MacRostie Art Center.

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Japheth and Noah in Two by Two

Later that month a couple of us were involved with the Grand Rapids Players production of Two by Two.

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Oz Mystery Dinner Theatre Cast

Shortly thereafter we wrote and performed the Oz Mystery Dinner Theatre for the Judy Garland Festival and performed it at the Sawmill Inn.

Flying Monkeys After Work

Flying Monkeys After Work

We also appeared at the festival as a munchkin and two flying monkeys for the Guinness Book of World Record successful attempt at number of Oz characters in one place.

Cast of Much Ado ©Wes Bailey

Cast of Much Ado ©Wes Bailey

Later that month we performed our original adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which was performed outdoors in June at Riverfront Park in Grand Rapids and Golf on the Edge in Bigfork.

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Borachio and Lion

We thought it would be funny if Lion from Oz Mystery Dinner Theatre and Borachio from Much Ado would meet in a bar. So we wrote and performed Lion and Borachio Meet in a Bar for August First Friday in at the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation, and later for the Rotary Club at the Sawmill Inn.

Cast of Picturing Grace

Cast of Picturing Grace

In August we also had auditions for Picturing Grace, and original play premiered by the Grand Rapids Players. This was performed in October at the Reif Center.

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Just two miners. Tikka on the right and substitute Itchy on the left.

We also previewed a scene from Picturing Grace at Annabella’s in Bovey in September. And for a friend raising funds to qualify for the Olympic Games, we wrote and performed a couple of 10-minutes scenes on the topic of boxing.

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The Curse of the Werewolf cast

Two weeks after Picturing Grace performed in October was the high school play The Curse of the Werewolf, which a couple of us were involved with in leadership.

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Caterpillar skin in progress

In November we began a three month residency in Old Central School to work on putting together our original show Ziibi for the Showboat stage in summer of 2015. Work on this will continue until that time.

In November we also had auditions for Grand Rapids Players production of Young Frankenstein, which we’re all involved in, and performs in the middle of February 2015.

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

In early December a couple of us participated in the first act of the Reif Center’s annual production of the Nutcracker Ballet.

We also collectively sat in the audience for many other productions: amateur, college, and professional. Without even considering our full-time day jobs, our personal lives, and our social activity, it suddenly becomes clear to the Uncommon Loons why 2014 flew like a tomato at a bad actor. Like a vaudevillian stage manager standing in the wings with a shepherd’s hook in hand, theatre made our year disappear with one quick sweep. But we had fun! Until the curtain rises on 2016… thanks for a great year of supporting live, local arts!

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Creating a Caterpillar Puppet

ArtesianMind

The upcoming Uncommon Loons/Grand Rapids Showboat production of ‘Ziibi’ involves a large caterpillar puppet. As with most of the costumes, props and puppets in this show, we hope each element will be its own piece of art. The caterpillar will be a type of marionette with its skin dyed with batik techniques. Here is a log of our process. I’m not experienced in batik or puppet construction, so we are learning as we go. Here’s to trial and error augmented by rigorous research!

Step 1: Cutting the fabric to size and stretching it on a temporary frame. image(3)

Step 2: Drawing a pattern out on paper. Inked in black marker so that it can be seen through the fabric when we flip the frame over onto it.

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Step 3: Flip the stretched fabric onto the pattern. Trace the lines in wax. This took three tries to get it right. The first…

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Give MN 2014!

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It’s Minnesota’s ‘Give to the Max Day’ 2014! As you consider non-profit organizations to support, please consider our parent organization the Grand Rapids Players. The Grand Rapids Players build and strengthen community through performing arts. For the summer children’s theatre camp to improv nights to main stage productions, there is opportunity for everyone to be involved on stage, behind the scenes, or in the audience. The Uncommon Loons would have a difficult time without the Grand Rapids Players as they are a source for props, costumes, and fiduciary agent for us. Help us keeping rural theatre thriving! GiveMN Grand Rapids Players.

Loons in Residence

Old Central SchoolWell it’s official! The Uncommon Loons will be artists in residence at Old Central School on the third floor for the next three months!

What will we be working on, you ask? Great question! We will be working on Ziibi!

What is Ziibi, you ask? Another great question! First off, the easy answer: ziibi is the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe word for river. It’s the ‘ssippi’ in ‘Mississippi’. Ziibi means river.

What is Ziibi in our context? Ziibi is an upcoming spectacular theatrical production that celebrates life on the river. This is idea we’ve paddling around for some time… since last winter/spring, actually. We were looking at doing Ziibi for summer 2014, but we already had a Shakespeare in the Park project in the wings; with the scope of this adventure we wanted plenty of time to pull it all together. Ziibi is a show that we are creating as a new production on the Showboat stage. Grand Rapids Showboat is approaching its 60th anniversary and its amphitheater built right on the banks of the Mississippi is a rare treasure. Showboat is ready for a rebirth and we will be celebrating life on the river with a variety show called Ziibi. We like to describe Ziibi as Lion King on Broadway meets Moulin Rouge meets Cirque du Soleil meets Showboat. It will be a variety show with a lot of spectacle. Song and dance, yes, but also large-scale puppetry, colorful costumes and banners, a wild storyline, and a lot of visual and aural candy. As the name begs, we are also looking to collaborate with some Anishinaabe artists/performers.

So how does this effect our time as artists in residence at Old Central School? We will be finalizing details of the script and show structure, but the big thing will be our time creating the puppets, stilts, flags, and eye-popping visual elements to next summer’s show.

So come on up to the third floor of Old Central School. See what we’re doing! And then mark you calendars and come see the show: July 30, 31, August 1, 6, 7, 8.

#OnlyinMN

Past Year of Theater, pt 6

by Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedtWe watched the Minnesota Fringe Festival lottery with bated breath, waiting to see if our names were called as one of the select few companies picked to perform an original show for the 2014 festival. As it turned out, we missed the mark. Of the hundreds of companies picked to perform or to wait in the wings as back up, we had yet to hear “the Uncommon Loons” be called by the lottery officiants.

This, despite our disappointment, was probably for the best. Just like that, we were absolved from the responsibility of another full-length show to perform over the summer. We were already planning on Much Ado About Nothing (which wouldn’t have worked for the Fringe Fest because of how long it was), and we were also recently commissioned by the Wizard of Oz Festival committee in Grand Rapids to perform an original mystery dinner theater for the 75thanniversary of the film.

Grand Rapids is the birthplace of Judy Garland, the famous Hollywood siren who starred in the iconic technicolor film. Every year in June, there’s a Judy Garland Festival in town, but in honor of the 75th anniversary of “Oz,” the festival name was changed. They were doing things big this year, including an attempt at breaking the world record for most people dressed up like “Wizard of Oz” characters in one place, so they hoped to have some live theatrical entertainment for their annual Oz Dinner as well.

Between work on “Silhouette, Gentile Silhouette,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and “Two By Two,” we found ourselves not even thinking about the Oz Mystery for the better part of the spring. All the same, I attended semi-regular meetings with festival committee members to let them know the “progress” that we were making. Truly, we should’ve spent a lot of time working on this show; it was our very first commission! We were actually getting paid to do this show… not a lot, but still. We were getting paid, and we didn’t have to advertise or promote the show at all. That was all on the festival organizers, so we only needed to worry about putting on the best show possible, which is about as optimum of circumstances as we could ask for. We even had carte blanche on what the show was going to be about! All that was requested was that it be a mystery involving “Wizard of Oz” characters. Beyond that and the understanding that it should be generally family friendly, we could do pretty much anything we wanted.

As it was, I was having a hell of a time even getting work done on the “Much Ado” script. Spending most of my time over the winter just trying to deal with my seasonal depression (and it was a shitty winter too, with basically constant sub-zero temperatures and blizzards), motivation to do anything that resembled constructive was an up-hill battle. But I wanted to write the script. John, Steph, and I had a hilarious brainstorm session wherein we figured that we’d do a neo-noir style play about the theft of the Ruby Slippers that made the Wizard into a private eye, Dorthy the damsel in distress, the Scarecrow an attorney, the Tin Man a mechanic with a soft spot for fashion, and the Lion a washed up boxer who worked as muscle for the mob. And of all that, the best part was the ending, the reveal of whodunit, which I will not divulge here lest we actually perform the show again (which is a possibility).

At a certain point, with less than two months left before showtime, I decided that the task of writing this show should probably be left to John, if he was willing. I simply wasn’t getting anywhere with this show, let alone the “Much Ado” adaptation, which was going to take even more time. And with luck, John actually asked me first if he could write the show; a request I was happy to hear.

Usually a stickler for research, John took advantage of the fact that he didn’t actually have to do any research for this show, and instead just focused on writing a comedy that was littered with one-liners and cheesy inside jokes regarding the “Wizard of Oz” and general pop culture. After assembling our pre-arranged cast, we basically laughed our way through our short rehearsal process. We brought back Josh Cagle and Katie Benes to play the Wizard and Dorthy, Rachel Randle to play the Scarecrow, Tony Schmid to play the Tin Man, and I played the Lion.

IMG_1737Provided we didn’t completely botch the performance itself, we figured we couldn’t lose with this one. First off, we thought it was funny. Besides that, it was chocked full of Oz-related jokes, and we were to perform it before an audience of crazed “Wizard of Oz” fans. And the audience was also being fed dinner and had access to a full bar. An act of God was practically needed for this to get screwed up.

Lion makeup complete

Lion makeup complete

And sure enough, God neglected to show up to throw a monkey wrench in our gears. The show went great. One of the things that stick out in my mind about the performance was a dropped line that was my cue for a funny one-liner, which I then wasn’t able to deliver. That’s just the nature of things though; you don’t remember all the things that went as planned, just the one thing that didn’t. But no one noticed anyway. They were too busy having a good time, celebrating an auspicious anniversary of their favorite movie starring their favorite actor, and they thought the play (and especially the ending) was hilarious.

Now we just needed to finish work on “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Arts in Itasca

We’re proud to be a part of the thriving arts community in Itasca County. As part of the Gems of Itasca series, the Arts Edition demonstrates why the arts important and how they are thriving in Itasca County. We’ve got a few appearances in this episode, including clips from our 2013 Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew. Check it out!

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.

Flying Monkeys After Work

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.