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.

A look back at how the past year of theater began

By Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedtToday is a rather auspicious day. Though there was never a “Today We Are Officially And Without Doubt The Uncommon Loons” day, it was a year ago today that the idea to do a Shakespeare in the Park production in Grand Rapids happened, which is what needed to happen for our little theater company to be born.

I remember it quite well because of what happened leading up to that particular day. Really, the whole thing was just great timing from my point of view. The best place to start this story is probably back at the beginning of May, 2013, when my girlfriend Heather and I broke up. Actually, I should clarify a bit: she broke up with me very unexpectedly, which left me completely heartbroken. I was in love, and very suddenly, my love knew no purchase. Such events can do terrible things to one’s mind. At first I was inconsolable, but consolation gradually crept back into my life. The thing that stayed with me the longest, aside from a subtle yet nagging feeling of inadequacy, was my inability to write.

This is a problem for a writer. She had unwittingly hobbled me as if I were a dancer and she tripped me on her way out the door. Fortunately, I do make a distinction between creative writing and journalism, which is my profession. Getting stuff done at work was still a problem, but it was manageable. No, the biggest problem was the fact that I couldn’t write so much as a poem for weeks after we broke up. It didn’t have to be the case but for the fact that poetry was one of the things that bound us together. In short, she loved my poetry. Painful and distracting memories are difficult to deal with when they’re tied to the art you feel compelled to create.

Such was the case for the next month.

It wasn’t until June 8th that things began to turn around. The MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids had been gathering works by Gendron Jensen, who used to live in Grand Rapids, for a retrospective gallery of his work. The opening was on June 7th, which Jensen attended and spoke at, but I had worked it out with the MacRostie to meet with him the following morning at his hotel.

Jensen, without mincing words, is a charismatic and emotionally provocative artist. But you wouldn’t guess that from just looking at his work (he does amazingly detailed drawings of bones). We met on Saturday morning, the day after his opening reception, in the lobby of the Timberlake Hotel, and decided to wander over to the bar for a quiet place to sit and talk since it wasn’t open yet. In many respects, the interview was very much like many others I’d conducted in the past; I asked questions, he answered them, and we had a little banter in between. But unlike most interviews, he seemed to manage to cut through all the crap that we deal with in our day to day lives and to convey to me at that table in the bar on Saturday morning the essence of what inspires him. Life itself, the act of waking to a new day and being able to witness the static and the potential before him, seemed to mean more to him than critical and commercial success would mean to most of the rest of us.

And not only that, but said that he saw something in me. We were there to talk about his past work, but at a certain point he seemed more interested in talking about me than anything else. At a time when I couldn’t find value in what I did, let alone who I was, he appeared to do so after sitting together for only an hour. After a short while, we ended up ordering whiskeys once the bar opened, sharing our passions over spirits before noon.

It’s hard to distill what this conversation that I had a year ago meant to me at the time. But looking back, I recognize that it was the first moment of inspiration that I had had since my breakup a month earlier, and I was catapulted into a state of mind I hadn’t felt for awhile. I started writing again later that evening.

Old Central School

Old Central School

Once I started getting some words down, I realized that I had a lot bottled up inside me. But I didn’t really have a place to turn the bottle toward after popping the cork off. That changed a couple days later, when I finished work at the office a little early on what was a beautiful summer day on Tuesday, June 11th. I left the office and went a block away to the park outside Old Central School sit and read a book in the sunshine, when John and Steph Schroeder happened by a short while later. It turned out they thought spending some time in the sunshine after work was a good idea too. As fellow community theater advocates and practitioners, we almost immediately started talking about theater and some things we’d either like to do or simply see done in the community. If I remember correctly, it was John who, looking at the green space before us in the middle of town, said that it would be a great spot to do a Shakespeare in the Park-style show. Almost instinctually, we started taking about the logistics of how such a thing could happen in Grand Rapids, and it wasn’t 10 minutes until I turned to the Schroeders and said “We’re going to do this, right?”

Within three months, we had a successful run of a show that ran over the course of two weekends at the end of the summer. The whole thing couldn’t have happened at a better time for me creatively; I wrote the entire adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” in about two and a half weeks. The Schroeders and I took joint control of the production, each playing a particular role (on stage and off stage), yet fulfilling whatever needed to be done when it needed doing.

There’s no reason why this should’ve worked, except that we wanted it to badly enough (that and who can resist that kind of a challenge?!). And it did work. People loved the show, and we hadn’t even gotten out of our costumes yet before people asked what the next show was going to be.

So here we are a year later. We decided to make a company out of our little impulse, the Uncommon Loons, and have created three one-act plays over the winter, are about to perform a mystery dinner theater for the Wizard of Oz Festival (today, no less), and are less than a month away from our second Shakespeare in the Park production, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Considering all this, I look forward to seeing what the next year brings.

Oz Cast Announced

The Loons are putting on a custom-written mystery dinner theatre for the Judy Garland Festival. Show date is June 11, 2014. at the Sawmill Inn. Our illustrious cast of suspicious suspects pulled from our Much Ado auditions (written and directed by John Schroeder) is listed below:

Oz the great detective: Josh Cagle

Dorothy, the lady in red (shoes): Katie Benes

Scarecrow, attorney at law: Rachel Randle

Tinman, the mechanic: Tony Schmid

Lion, the bruiser: Nathan Bergstedt

Much Ado Cast Announced

The Uncommon Loons present you with the cast of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Much Ado About Nothing” (adapted and directed by Nathan Bergstedt):
Beatrice – Autumn Gordon
Benedick – Nathan Sackett
Hero – Bethani Adamson
Claudio – Simeon Aitken
Leonato – Jeff Nylund
Don Pedro – John Nalan
Don John – Malcom Wessing
Borachio – John Schroeder
Margaret – Steph Schroeder
Dogberry – Josh Cagle
Friar Francis – Patrick Zabinski

Performances are at Riverfront Park on the west side of the Grand Rapids Area Public Library.  June 27, 28, and 29. Plans are also in progress for performances July 11 and 12 in Bigfork.