Notes from TCR Underground

by James E. Trainor III


TCR – If you’ve been to the renovated Iowa Theatre Building lately, you’ve noticed a few differences. You’ve probably remarked on the uncrowded lobby. Doubtless you’ve appreciated the expanded restrooms. Maybe you’ve even enjoyed a drink in the lounge. But did you know that downstairs there’s a whole other theatre? This weekend, TCR is inviting audiences to go a little deeper, into the Grandon Studio, for the “TCR Underground” experience.

The festival serves two purposes, according to TCR Programs Participation Coordinator Erica Jo Hoye. One is two provide more opportunities for TCR volunteers. Another is to provide opportunities for TCR’s audience: these are shows that you aren’t likely to see on TCR’s mainstage. TCR Underground is all about smaller shows that take risks.

“I’m really excited about it,” says TCR Artistic Director Leslie Charipar. “Having these plays in the Grandon Studio will allow us to offer that intimate, in-your-face kind of theatre that I love. And I am so thrilled that six of the nine are original pieces. I am eager to see what these guys do with them.”

Intimate is right. The Grandon Studio is small, seating 71, and there are maybe a dozen lights in the air. But when those lights go down and the small space is filled by the voices of dedicated actors, this empty space can become just about anywhere.

These limitations are an important part of the creative process, says Hoye. Technical and spacial limitations can energize an artist and lead to innovative solutions.

“I do my best writing when I’m handed a series of parameters,” says Sarah Jarmon, whose play Big Bad Wolf is one of the six original pieces being showcased. “Creativity blooms when you are forced to fit your art into an unpredictable mold. You come up with creative solutions, make creative choices and find things you never might have found otherwise.”

“We learned a lot at TCR Lindale because of how limited we were,” says Hoye. “TCR Underground offers a chance to bring some of those lessons home.”

The festival features nine plays, six of which were penned by local writers. One of these plays might be selected by TCR’s panel of judges to represent TCR in the state community theatre festival in 2011. There will also be a chance for the audience to vote on its favorites.

“I hope it becomes an annual event,” says Charipar. “And I hope that from this festival there emerges more desire on the part of volunteers to take a risk, come to us and say ‘Hey, I have this piece I really want to do. Can I do it in Grandon?’ or ‘I’d really like to try directing.’ We have so many talented people around here, and we just don’t have enough days in the year to showcase everyone. This is another opportunity to do that.”

The lineup is as follows:

FRIDAY

Hidden In This Picture by Aaron Sorkin (Directed by Richie Akers) – An unproven Hollywood director and his production team agonize over what to do when three cows walk into the climactic shot of their movie.

These Days, written and directed by Erica Jo Hoye – Two opposing viewpoints offer wildly different takes on the relationship between a teacher and a student.

Horatio’s Purgatory, by Rachel Korach Howell (Directed by Angie Toomsen) – A spinoff of Hamlet that tells Shakespeare’s famous story from the perspective of the Dane’s best friend.

SATURDAY

Control by Rachel Korach Howell (Directed by Jason Grubbe) – A woman tries to escape after being held captive by a sadistic man in the woods.

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre (Directed by Ryan Foizey) – An existential play in which deceased characters are locked away in a room together in the afterlife.

Big Bad Wolf, written and directed by Sarah Jarmon – Following the mysterious deaths of her family, a woman questions whether she’s part of a real-life reenactment of “The Three Little Pigs.”

SUNDAY

A Midnight Clear by L.B. Hamilton (Directed by Bryant Duffy) – A pair of former lovers are awkwardly reunited in the emergency room after one of them suffers a brutal attack.

Waiting for Salinger by Duane Larson, based on characters created by Duane Larson and Rich Kimball (Directed by Jenny Rammelsberg) – Two students from J.D. Salinger High School get into a debate while waiting for the school bus.

The New Normal by Joe Jennison (Directed by Brian Markowski) – The Flood of 2008 is revisited through the story of a Cedar Rapids family that’s forced to share a home in the immediate aftermath.

Many of these plays have never been seen before, or even been performed. We caught up with four of the writers and asked them a bit about their process.

Q: Tell us a bit about your play.

Erica Jo Hoye (writer/director, These Days): This is a hard question, because whenever I tell someone about it, they say, “oh, like Oleanna” which is a play I absolutely hate. It’s almost my answer to the lack of ambiguity in Oleanna – though I would never claim that I wrote the play because I didn’t like Oleanna. I took a song title that gave me a situation, and the characters fell into place, and it ended up being about a professor and a student, but I change my mind daily about who is wrong and who is right, which I’ve come to like about my play – though originally, it bothered me!

Sarah Jarmon (writer/director, Big Bad Wolf): Portia, a prosecuting attorney, is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after killing a young girl in self defense. After an explosion kills Portia’s youngest brother she begins suffering night terrors that she is being stalked by the big bad wolf. But when her second brother – and last remaining family member – dies in a second explosion Portia becomes convinced that she has been plunged into a real-life version of the three little pigs.

Duane Larson (writer, Waiting for Salinger): It’s a short one-act play about three teens waiting for a bus to J.D. Salinger High School. They are full of pretension and somewhat detached from reality.

Joe Jennison (writer, The New Normal): It takes place on the morning, afternoon and evening of Labor Day, just three weeks after a flood destroyed most of the homes and businesses of a medium-sized Midwestern city. A businessman who lives with his very ill mother is forced to take in his sister, her husband, their two children and two cats. Also, and with no where else to go, a barista from the local coffee house moves in with his very large St. Bernard. An innocent gift from the barista’s flooded condo sparks a marital feud that ultimately results in a nervous breakdown, a busted marriage, and a lesson in survival. The play is written in such a way as to suggest a sort of constant household chaos as a result of the disaster, and although there are five adults, two children and three animals on stage, only four are ever really seen by the audience — the others appear through a growing cacophony of offstage noises. The play is meant to be both funny and dramatic as it focuses on just four characters, all of whom struggle to find meaning and hope in the wake of devastation, loss and pain. I call it a dramatic farce.

Q: How did you hear about TCR Underground’s festival? Have you been involved with TCR in the past, or is this a new experience for you?

Jarmon: I’ve been hearing about Underground for about a year now, it was just a matter of when TCR was going to do it. I’ve been involved with TCR plays as an actress fairly regularly since I graduated from Coe. But I jumped at the chance to write a piece and earn some exposure as a playwright.

Jennison: I have been working with TCR since I arrived in Cedar Rapids in 2003. I actually approached Casey and Leslie as soon as I knew that the new theater had a black box space about utilizing the space for one of my plays. Months later I read about the festival and applied.

Larson: Brian Markowski asked me to help out with Joe Jennison’s play. My TCR experience includes “New Faces” in 2005, and the WTCR Big Broadcast radio shows.

Hoye: I work for TCR, and I have been the theatre’s organizer for the festival.

Q: Has the play changed a lot during the process?

Jennison: The process has been normal as far as theater goes. We did some actor juggling in the beginning. Several actors had committed and for various reasons had to move on. It all worked out in the end. I am very happy with the cast. One member of the cast has been working on the play since the very beginning: Amy White. She is a part of the Black Dogs, the playwright group that I work with. She has been reading the same lines since I began writing the play in 2008.

Hoye: We’ve changed tons of lines on the fly. Something just won’t sound right, and we’ll adjust it or cut it as needed. At a rehearsal a couple weeks ago, I discovered that I had the order of scenes wrong in the script. The cast had done a couple of scenes so well, that it become horribly clear that I’d written the scenes were in the wrong order, so we sat down as a group, and reworked the scene order until we were all happy with it.

Q: How is your relationship with the play’s director?

Jennison: I am working with my old friend Brian Markowski (director) on this show. I have known Brian M since college (1983-1987). We both went to Iowa State and worked together on several projects there. We reconnected when I moved to CR in 2003. This is our third play in Cedar Rapids.

Larson: I have attended most of the “Salinger” rehearsals. The play has evolved, most notably through the introduction of a third character. Jenny’s ideas have inspired the rewrites.

Hoye: I have been directing my piece myself.

Jarmon: I am actually directing my own piece which is new and different and terrifying and exciting. It’s really scary, and strange. As a writer you hear and record these stories from your mind these characters you’ve never met and yet you know them, you made them, and they are a part of every piece of yourself. Then as a director you have to carefully fit this being inside of an actor and all of the sudden you’ve got this new vibe of a familiar friend just bursting out of a sensitive container and the nuances are thrilling. And then you realize all that scary was inside your head. Wow, there is no way to articulate this without sounding crazy. Good thing I surround myself with theatre people, who rarely mind.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for theatres to produce original work by local playwrights?

Hoye:We ended up having 6 original plays accepted to the Festival, which I was floored by. I knew there were writers in the community, but it was thrilling to see so many come out of the woodwork. I’d like to see a New Play Festival start happening in the area, to showcase Iowa writers. We clearly have the talent in the this area, and the interest, and I think there’s nothing more exciting as an audience member than to say “I saw that play when it was first being work-shopped” and I think it shows the community that great work can happen here – that you don’t need to be in a huge metropolitan city – you can see great art without trekking to Chicago or Minneapolis or New York.

Larson:I think it’s important to have smaller, non-main stage productions in addition to the more commercial main-stage shows, and hope that TCR continues to host these types of programs. Spotlighting pieces by local authors gives the community a greater stake in local theatre.

Jennison: I think it’s important for every theater to support original plays and playwrights. Local playwrights as well as other artists in our community record our culture. The history and culture of any community is individual and unique – our story can’t be told from New York or Chicago. Our local artists are responsible for recording that culture. Without local artists, our history is lost. I don’t claim to speak for the entire community, only for the small piece that I have witnessed. But without this piece, and others like it in all mediums, a large part of our story would go untold. Future generations would not have access to our individual stories.

Jarmon: God bless TCR for providing people like me with a chance to do something we can be really proud of.

Q: Parting words? Shout-outs?

Larson: I would like to thank Jenny Rammelsberg, Brian Smith, Paul Freese, and Tom Renfer for the great job they’re doing!

Jennison:I enjoy writing the plays and working with other playwrights through the Black Dogs. I would certainly recommend working with a group of other writers to anyone who calls themself a writer. A peer group has made all the difference to me and my work.

Hoye: We hope that people will come to this festival even though you may not have heard of the plays or the authors or the directors. The ticket price is $10 for a night, and you’ll see three plays that you probably won’t see on many other stages – that’s darn inexpensive for a night of theatre, and these are works that aren’t necessarily family-friendly (meaning it’s harder to get a theatre to take a chance on them) and many are by local writers who have never been produced before. So take a chance with us on this Festival and come see it.

TCR Underground opens Friday, November 5th and runs until Sunday, November 7th. Each day will showcase three different shows. Tickets to each day of the Festival are $10. A three-day pass for the entire festival is also available for $25. The Festival lineup begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday night, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. An awards ceremony will be held at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

(Photos: Amanda Forman and Nathan Scheetz rehearse scenes from These Days under the direction of Erica Jo Hoye. Photos by James E. Trainor III)

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