Today’s TOP FIVE comes from someone known to pretty much anyone who does theatre in Iowa City/Coralville – Chris Okiishi. While Chris’ theatre home is City Circle, his impact on the theatre community extends far further. Chris is always willing to help out his fellow theatre artists with advice, props, scripts, and so much more. If you need to know who in town has a certain skill, ask Chris – he probably knows someone. So it is with much pleasure that we present Chris’ TOP FIVE shows. (Note that loveable scamp that he is, he cheated and includes more than five shows. Pretty sneaky, Chris.)
While I have a love / hate relationship with lists (love thinking about things over time / hate leaving things out), I am very excited to revisit some cherished memories, especially of something so ephemeral as theater. Every show has ups and downs, things I was thrilled with, things I wish I’d done differently. But there are some perfect moments. Here are my Top Five perfect kinds of theater moments I am proud to say I had something to do with:
5) That moment when the audience has more fun than expected…
The Full Monty, book by Terrence McNally and score by David Yazbek. City Circle, 2007.
I loved putting up shows at the Englert. Yes, it’s a tricky space—Stage Right is the definition of “structural problem”—but Michael Blake had solved most of the problems with a brilliant peek-a-boo / transforming set that created wing space where there was none, enough to store a car, even! And Ben Bentler’s orchestra was top notch. The cast was a frothy mix of veterans and talented new-to-us actors—some of the most influential names in local theater—both onstage and off—worked on that production. Costumes. Choreography. And the lighting! THE LIGHTING! Steve Hunt is a genius. Our loss was Alaska’s gain.
The Englert offers a perfect spot to watch your show and watch the audience watching your show—just shy of the side exit stairs in the audience right balcony. Every night of the run, I’d sneak up there and watch the opening number. The Full Monty is a deceptive piece—it’s purportedly naughty, and yes, there is some flesh on display—but it’s really a story about self-esteem, growing up, taking responsibility, and mostly, about family. The first scene is crucial. We have to really like one of women in the show—played by the impossible to dislike Patti McTaggart—and we also have to see her enjoy an evening of fantasy hosting a performance by a professional exotic dancer. This guy has to be good, sexy but not threatening, smooth and capable in every way the men in this town don’t feel they are. He also has to give the audience permission to have a good time but not creep them out. We had a hard time casting him, but then, magic walked into the room.
Julius Carter was an answer to a theatrical prayer. A former U of I cheerleader turned dancer, Julius came to us with no intention of ever being in a musical. I think he agreed to help us out as a favor to Jerry Howe. The audience ate him up and he was equally good in the book scenes later in the show. He got the bug and started auditioning for professional gigs later that summer. He booked the Movin’ Out tour, then the Color Purple tour, then Spiderman, then opened with the original Broadway Revival cast of On the Town this season, performing with the cast on the Tony Awards broadcast earlier this month.
But I got to see him light an audience on fire first.
And he and Patti launched us into an evening that audience will never forget.
4) That moment when the audience realizes something is going on under the surface…
The City of Coralville asked us to think of something to help them celebrate the opening of their brand new outdoor Aquatic Center that summer. Several of us had seen Mary Zimmerman’s Broadway production of her incredible play, but the rights weren’t available and it seemed like a daunting task—a full play in an outdoor venue? Lighting near water? Amplification? An outdoor show in late September?
One by one, our tech leader Brian Gilbert in collaboration with Sound Concepts solved the problems. And Mary Zimmerman herself helped us get the rights and the play was on its way.
A dream cast. Near perfect weather. The sun set right on cue every performance, leaving a ring of light and a dark blackness beyond into the deeper part of the pool. A seamless collaboration with Coralville and their Recreation department. Iowa City Community Theatre kindly lent us their risers for the audience. Grad students from the school of music sang my score live every night. In the last scene, the cast set candles afloat on the water representing the reflection of stars in the pool where Midas will bring his daughter back to life. Real stars shone overhead. It was so much more than we had hoped.
I would watch the audience from on top of one of the water slides. My favorite moment was when Rich McCarty, as the doomed sailor-king husband of Kate Thompson, stands center in the pool, narrating his voyage. Just behind him, there is a splash where no actor was visible and three bodies come into view under water, moving menacingly toward Rich, just inside the ring of lighting. The audience gasps. Rod McCrea and henchmen burst up through the water into the scene. A battle ensues. Magic and memories are made.
3) That moment when the audience won’t let you continue…
Tales from the Writer’s Room by various writers. SPT Theatre, 2014.
The theater is a living, breathing thing. It is happening in real time, in a space directly around you. The audience is a crucial part of the storytelling. And just as there is little worse than failing to connect with an audience, there is little better than making a connection so deep and meaningful that you all agree to hold up the show for a moment before proceeding.
Fall 2014, I was honored to be asked back to go play with the immensely talented artists at SPT in Cedar Rapids. I love working there. I love being asked to create things quickly and immediately and be willing to find, shape, lose, and embrace ideas at a breakneck speed. And they have engendered such audience goodwill that when things land, they LAND. My favorite memory—having to hold for laughter while Mary Sullivan whipped me with her hair. Again and again. And again. And again. For what felt like an hour of wonderful silliness.
On the other end of the spectrum, in summer 2009, we were privileged to be one of the first companies allowed to perform Rent outside of the professional theater world. This was the third year of our summer musicals for Junior and Senior High students and we were building up quite a pool of amazing performers. (We still are, by the way—check out Addams Family later this month!) Tyler Jensen had proven himself a fun and inventive collaborator, but was still in Junior High, and looked it, so wasn’t cast in a lead. The director, Michael Stokes, gave him a solo in the Seasons of Love number though. And it stopped the show. Known for years as “the note”, Tyler leapt an octave at a climactic moment in the song and the audience went crazy. I had never seen anything like it in community theater. At the end of the song, Michael wisely worked in a solo bow for Tyler or we’d likely still be sitting there in the Englert.
Since that first summer in the park with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2007, our summer program has given hundreds of young performers as chance to grow and dozens have gone on to study theater and begin careers in the arts across the country. I am grateful to the teams that keep it going. Theater is a hands-on educational experience. You must work to learn and you must learn to do good work.
2) That moment where there is silence…
Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. City Circle, 2015.
Walking the Wire by various writers. Riverside Theatre, 2015.
No Shame Anniversary Special, 2006.
I have been very, very fortunate in my life. I get to see a lot of theater. In fact, I think my best role has been as audience member.
I am forever searching, like Spaulding Grey describes in Swimming to Cambodia, for a perfect moment. In the theater, sometimes it’s a show-stopping song met with huge applause. Sometimes it’s a turn of phrase so perfect that you convulse with laughter. And sometimes it’s just stillness so perfect that everyone and everything seems in sync.
Three moments of the latter type:
No Shame Theater gave me my first theatrical home in Iowa City. Perfect time commitment while I finished up med school and residency—I could write any time in the week, show up an hour before on Friday, and have a piece open and close in 10 minutes. I loved getting laughs, but I grew to love direct address monologues as well. I was so honored to perform one of them, an imagining of a Neil LaBute play from the perspective of a minor character, at the 2006 20th Anniversary celebration. For the first time, I felt connected to a room full of people like never before.
This year, Riverside Theatre generously gave me a chance to perform a very personal piece as part of their Walking the Wire series. Working with Jody Hovland on anything is a joy, but particularly this time as she helped me prune down the story to its essentials. I could literally look into the eyes of the audience and speak about my own truth and have them look right back.
Into the Woods was a thoroughly thrilling experience for me—working on a show literally about life and death just as my own health fell into question and I lost a dear friend, almost 10 years my junior, to a sudden illness. Theater is how some cope with life and I needed to cope.
We approached the second act in particular with as much clarity and honesty as we could. One moment stands out: Josh Sazon and Patrick DuLaney singing the ghost-father/son duet, “No More.” They finish a beautifully harmonized section. Josh stands. The orchestra cuts off. He walks slowly upstage. He turns. He waves goodbye. He exits. In many musicals, this is a cue for applause, but no one every clapped. Patrick finished the song and the applause was thunderous then. I like to think it was because we all were thinking of that moment when a loved one went away for the last time. Or more so, what it would be like to be able to say goodbye to someone we have lost, never having had the chance to do so properly in life. The moment was special to me and I’m so glad it worked for others as well.
1) That moment when it all comes together…
Hairspray by Marc Shaiman, Mark O’Donnell, and Thomas Meehan. City Circle, 2011.
I have been fortunate to collaborate with some incredible theater artists. Writing music and music directing for John Cameron’s 14. Setting Janet Schlapkohl’s lyrics into songs for Combined Effort’s Camo. Six shows with the Iowa Children’s Museum. Three with the Englert. Two with ICCT. Four years of collaboration with Dreamwell on the All-in-a-Day Festival. Building the Holiday Cabarets with Patrick DuLaney. Was the Word with Working Group. Every collaboration has been satisfying and educational and worthwhile and is written in my heart. And I hope there are more to come.
Hairspray was a dream come true for so many of us. The first fully staged show at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, we had been gearing up for this for our entire theatrical existence. Chad Larabee came back to direct it. (Anyone who tells you not to work with your friends is dead wrong. When he left town, I felt like I was losing a brother.) Leslie Nolte choreographed it and lent us her studios for rehearsal. (I fell in love with her and her team and the Notle Academy’s can-do, no-limits mentality.) High School wunderkind Jason Arnold stage-managed it to perfection. (He will change theater some day—mark my words.) Michael Blake built and designed the set—a hanging city suspended above the stage. Kent Keating’s impeccable music direction and all-star orchestra was utterly thrilling. And that cast! THAT CAST!
The overture starts. The curtain goes up. Elizabeth Breed sings, crawls out of bed, and gets ready to face her day. Then the lights expand, the cast joins her on stage, the set is fully illuminated for the first time, and the chorus kicks in: “Good Morning, Baltimore!”
Good morning, indeed. A new era in our little theater was launched. We could never look back.
Sometimes, it all works.
But sometimes, it doesn’t.
Sometimes, you get really, really lucky.
Sometimes, you have all the right pieces, but they don’t fit together for some reason.
Or no reason.
Or you don’t have enough time.
Or too much time.
I saw my first show when I was 4. I worked on my first show when I was 5. I have spent most of my lifetime—certainly the most joyous and at times the most painful parts of my life—trying to figure out how to tell a story on stage. I am so grateful to have been welcomed into this community at this time and with the truly gifted people who are a part of our theater world here.
I never for a moment take it for granted.
Thank you, Matt Falduto and the Iowa Theatre Blog for this chance to look back a bit.
Now—let’s get back at it. We’ve got a show to do. ————————————————————————————————————————————————-
We hope you enjoyed Chris’ recollections. Check back tomorrow for another TOP FIVE!
Christopher Okiishi is a child psychiatrist. When not practicing medicine, he is likely in a theater or rehearsal room somewhere. He has appeared on and off stage working in nearly every capacity anyone will let him. His favorite role is appreciative audience member, whether he has worked on the show in question or not.