All our stories begin with “Once upon a time,” our personal histories included. That’s why, deep down—even if we’ve never set foot in a theatre auditorium—we all love theatre at heart. It’s the wondrous sharing of stories—others’ stories, our own—and the best stories show us how all stories are truly our own, in some way.
Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” is no exception. I’d first encountered it as a kid in Cleveland. Maybe my dad read it to me and my siblings, maybe I chose the tale from a volume of Poe and read it myself; I don’t recall. But what a crazy-creepy introduction to the world of the imaginatively bizarre! How wild and extraordinary! Poe’s strange mindscapes work their way inward on the psyche and turn things upside-down there. When I say the best stories are somehow our own, do I mean we’re all insane, meticulous murderers? Well, perhaps not—but we’ve all given murder a thought…haven’t we? Haven’t we all contemplated the ultimate revenge against someone who has hurt us or slighted us in some way, great or small? Imagination is the relief valve for the emotional pressure-cooker.
After many years taking delight in Halloween and the macabre, I’d never forgotten my love of this old gem from my youth. Such a chilling delight! Two years ago, I’d recorded this reading for my late friend and Commonweal peer Scott Dixon. Sadly, I was unable to complete it in time for him. Now I offer it to you in the hope that, at this peculiar, unsettling time of the year, you may find in it some of the bewitching charm I’ve always experienced reading—or hearing—it. Shut out the lights, maybe light a few candles or a cozy fire, and let Poe’s disturbing tale give you a vicarious thrill on a chill autumn evening.
Ben has often lead the company in readings of our favorite scary stories by candlelight. This year the tension crawls straight into your home with an audio version of his favorite spooky tale. Click here to listen to his chilling rendition…if you dare! Have a happy and safe Halloween everyone!
My last entry on this blog was while I was directing the apprentices in their capstone production of The Fox. Shortly thereafter, the world changed. The Fox was cancelled after two public performances due to the pandemic and Commonweal quickly found itself in the midst of a lockdown.
As the months have gone by, we saw show after show in our season become postponed or canceled. That’s when the Commonweal began to pursue alternative programming. One result of this endeavor is The Root River Anthology, a radio play by Catie Glynn. It is a beautiful and poignant story. I cannot recommend it enough – it’s actually still available to stream on our website until June 30th!
A few weeks ago, Adrienne Sweeney asked if I would be willing to remount my one-person show, The Art of the Entertainer, as an online offering. I was intrigued.
Soon Philip Muehe and Josiah Laubenstein were brought on to direct and film the piece respectively. We began brainstorming how to adapt the play for video and explored embracing the new medium. I had written the piece twelve years ago as a vehicle to celebrate theatre, while also parodying various genres. An original goal of the piece was to have audience volunteers come up on stage, alas that is hard to achieve on film. However, I realized that the audience gets to experience the stage through me. They are unseen spectators of the character’s clumsy journey. We also realized the medium itself could be an entity within the film. That potential has been exciting to explore within the process, and I cannot wait to see the end results.
An interesting fact: I have produced this piece four times over the past ten years. Each incarnation has been unique with different scenes, songs, sketches, etc.The Art of the Entertainer is a vaudeville piece after all, and this film is just another manifestation full of new choices and new directions.
There is a wonderful team behind this project. It could not exist without all their work. It’s strange to think that July 6th is the tenth anniversary of the first performance. It has had quite a trip, and I cannot wait for you all to experience its newest form. In these hard times I hope this piece offers the healing gift of laughter. “See” you soon!
Don’t Miss The Art of the Entertainer, which goes live on our website July 4th! Join us for a special Opening Night live stream on our Facebook page that same day, at 7pm! We will “see” you very soon! For more info on the show >>> Click Here
My semester teaching at Luther College was supposed to have me spending a lot more time in Decorah. Instead, like everyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time staying put. “Distance learning” is the phrase we’ve used, which frankly sounds like avoiding actual learning like the plague – no pun intended.
Theatre is a very in-the-room experience. That’s the whole point: breathing the same air, going through everything together, at once, in real time. No lag from bad connections, no trouble joining the right Zoom-Chat-Google Meets, you just sit in your seat and participate by being. Videotaped theatre is lacking at best. What seemed so electric in person, can feel flat when translated to the screen. Teaching is very similar. Something essential is missing. In a way this virus has made us all think about how connected we really are. How vastly one person can affect (not infect) others. How many people we connect with to the second or third degree in a week’s time. It’s an awesome number. Which used to feel so unifying, and will feel that way again.
My students are coping to varying degrees. Students who were supposed to graduate on campus, have a last hug and goodbye before tossing their mortarboards won’t get to do that. They bear up as best they can, given the circumstances. It’s been inspiring. They’re doing better than I would’ve at their age. The weekly classes help provide much needed structure; we lean on each other. A year’s worth of planning pushed back and back and back until… who knows? You know. You’ve all done the same. I’ve been around for a very short time in their collegiate lives, but if I had the opportunity to say a few words to each of them I would say this:
“It’s all about connection and community. It always has been. Both onstage and off. Real personal connection. The absence highlights the presence that was there, that will be there again. This industry is a small one. The people you meet today you’ll see again tomorrow and the next and the next. Make good impressions. And stay in touch. Let people know you care. Even if it’s only via Zoom. For now.”
The Commonweal Theatre community extends beyond Lanesboro. I’m evidence of that, and you are too. Rippling out from Lanesboro to Decorah to wherever you are and beyond. It’s heartening, and is connective in a way that I need. So thank you. To you, to the students at Luther, to the people in your lives who make you better. Thank you. I need this community. I’m glad we’re a part of it together.
Staying connected in these increasingly difficult times is hard. But know we are here for you, in whatever way we can be! Stay tuned to all of our social media platforms to continue to connect with your theatre company. We can’t wait to welcome you back as soon as we are able!