Today’s TOP FIVE comes to us from Jaret Morlan, who grew up in the community theatre world. His TOP FIVE takes us away from the Corridor to other parts of Iowa. Our blog focuses on Eastern Iowa, but we’re always interested in what’s happening in other parts of the state too! So if you’re reading this in Waterloo or Sioux City or Council Bluffs or Des Moines or anywhere else in Iowa, and you want to send us a TOP FIVE… please do! But for now enjoy Jaret’s TOP FIVE shows.
I truly am stunned at how hard it was to make this list. It made me realize how fortunate I am to have a career that I am (mostly) proud of. So, here are my Top Five theatrical experiences, and what I learned from them. I’d like to thank Matt for asking me to write this and for using this series to celebrate the many wonderful artists we have in this community, of which I am humbled to be a part.
5) Production: Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson. Carroll Community Theatre, 2002.
Sometimes a production is special for reasons far beyond the final product. This is certainly the case for this show, though I am immensely proud of the final product. Frustrated with a lack of roles after my first year at the University (I was a transfer student – the lowest of the low) and eager to push myself and to create, I moved home for the summer and hatched a plan to self-produce a play. So I recruited two of my best friends from high school, Katie Braden (a brilliant performer and graduate of Simpson college, who is now a working actress in NYC), and we pitched this show to the Carroll Community Theatre; the organization in which yours truly came of age. Offering them full profits after expenses, we found a little bar/restaurant, in a tiny town outside of Carroll, who let us build a stage on one end and rehearse as we saw fit. We added lights and even pulled my folks’ minivan up to the back door to act as a pre-show Green Room.
We decided to direct it ourselves, utilizing my mom (a talented director in her own right) as our third eye and we just…did it. It was exhilarating. This was the first time, though not the last, that I was a part of producing a play, from the ground up, out of nothing. Looking back, I realize that my first year in Iowa City had been pretty brutal and that I had left truly doubting myself. I needed this production to prove to myself that I could do it, and to maintain my determination to continue to make good theatre.
But, again, the rewards are many-layered with this show. The real icing on the cake had been working so hard and so closely with Katie. We had been the two primary actors in our high school and had worked together many times, but we had never done anything like this, or performed such intense characters, with each other. Having both gone separate ways, received some training, and then come back to each other, as good as we had ever been…it was truly rewarding in every sense and remains one of my favorite acting experiences to date.
4) Risk: Noises Off by Michael Frayn. CC Stoplight Players, 2004.
If you have ever seen a play in Tipton during this era, you know that they performed in a very old high school auditorium with an itty-bitty proscenium stage that has roughly 10 feet of apron, if that. If you have ever seen Noises Off, you know that the set requires two stories, a flight of stairs, nine doors, and a picture window that one can easily climb through, and that the whole thing needs to rotate 180 degrees…TWICE. When first approach by the CC Stoplight Players about directing this show, I told them that they had no business doing it and that they should pick something else. To which they replied “Is that a no?” To which I replied, “No, I’ll do it.”
So many theatres pass on great shows because they’ve decided, for whatever reason, that they can’t be produced in their organization. But theatre is risk and if you stop taking chances, you’ve hit auto-pilot on the creative process. Bless those dreamers in Tipton who didn’t care at all about whether they “could” do it, but just wanted to try.
So we rehearsed the ever-loving hell out of it. We must have spent almost three weeks on Act II alone; staging a few lines/stage directions and running the whole thing, then staging a few lines/stage directions and running the whole thing, and so on…by the end it was muscle memory and they never missed a moment, not one single moment. And as for the set – it split down the middle and each half rotated on its own; it got its own standing ovation after the first rotation.
I learned a lot from those Tipton players, and on this list, this is the production that most represents joy, just the pure joy and pleasure of doing theatre and working as hard as you can to achieve the impossible. I’m crazy proud of this show and of those people.
3) Collaboration: Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World by Peter Parnell. I-You Theatre, 2005 & 2010.
Of the five shows on this list, Kehry Anson Lane was involved in four of them, and twice as many that didn’t make this list. Collaboration is a critical aspect of theatre: exchanging ideas, feeding off each other’s energy and choices, incorporating the creative instincts of others…absolutely essential. I’m lucky to have found a person in which collaboration is second nature, whose choices are so instinctual, and in tuned with my own, that it’s very, very easy to do.
In 2005 Kehry and I founded the I-You theatre company and produced this moving, two-person, one-act about a man dealing with the death of his best friend, by remembering their childhood together…and the inevitable distance that grows between them. It was our debut production and we presented at the first ever Iowa Fringe Festival in Des Moines.
It was as rewarding an experience as I’d ever had. We recruited our friend Jesse Blaine to be our tech guy and we could fit all the props into the steamer trunk we use for the set and we would walk our show across downtown Des Moines to our next venue. It was theatre at its simplest and most pure and I did it with two of my favorite people.
In 2010, my home town theatre of Carroll, Iowa was looking for a road show and asked us to put it back on. What was amazing was how much a difference five years of life experience makes…the play was a fresh and exciting and new, as it had been the first time around.
Most importantly, it solidified Kehry as my life-long collaborator. We have a chemistry and a trust that I have yet to experience elsewhere and I am so grateful for the art we’ve created together and for him in my life. Theatre gave me that.
2) Commitment: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Iowa City Community Theatre, 2014.
When you are an actor of my size, you find that almost nobody writes “large” characters. You may play any character at all, but they aren’t written with you in mind. And more often than not, you’ll resign to a career of “bad guys” or “comic relief.” So, as an aspiring young actor at the age of 16, I read Of Mice and Men for the first time, realizing that only a large person could play Lennie, and I knew it was the part I had to play, needed to play, before I was through.
Eighteen years later, the dream came true…and be careful what you wish for…I have never been so intimidated by a role. So iconic, so specific, so…important. It became clear, at the READ-THROUGH, that faking my way through Lennie’s “slowness” simply wouldn’t do and I would never be able to live with it.
So I researched my tail off. I spoke to doctors, to English scholars, to counselors of people with special needs…and to people who are all three…and together we diagnosed Lennie. Even though they didn’t know what it was at the time Steinbeck wrote it, I needed to name it and study it so that I could honor it properly. Anything less would risk being offensive.
What resulted is what I consider my finest acting work and something I feel I will probably never reach again. I lost myself in Lennie, very specifically and methodically, and to be honest…he haunted me for awhile. It felt so complete and fulfilling, that the desire to get back on the stage has yet to come back. I’m sure it will eventually, but for now, Lennie was my full circle.
But enough about me, because it should be noted that the show was damn good. Perhaps the overall best show I have ever been a part of. Wonderful direction from Kehry Anson Lane, a beautiful set by Michael Blake, and one of the most excellent, across the board, casts I have ever worked with, including Joe Wise, Gavin Conkling, Matthew James, Rip Russell, Carl Brown, Eric Burchett, Joshua Raheim, and Rachel Howell. And then of course, Brett Borden, my “George”, without whom I could never have given what I did; we gave to each other as much as we got, it was terrific.
1) Choices: Desert Pepper by Arlen Lawson. University of Iowa, 2004.
When deciding what to put on this list, Desert Pepper was the first show I wrote down, and immediately placed in the #1 spot. It’s really no contest. This was the moment that I truly became a director, where I trusted myself, and this is this piece of art I am most proud of.
Though I have incredible love for the UI Theatre department, it is not exactly a land of opportunity for an undergrad. But every once in a while something truly, magnificently special comes along that can’t be held back. Arlen Lawson, and his beautiful play, was that special. He was given a gallery, which during our time was pretty unheard of for an undergrad, and he asked me to direct. I was floored and ecstatic (again, almost ZERO directorial opportunities for undergrads) and together we went all out.
For starters, we put our money where our mouths were and utilized undergrads for almost all elements of the production: set design, costumes, Stage Management, etc. We had three extraordinary actors, Alex Elliot-Funk, Kehry Anson Lane, and Christafer Sobbing and I got to work side-by-side with Arlen to bring his show to its feet.
But, what this show really taught me, first hand, is the importance of making choices. Arlen’s play is a series of monologues, a bakers-dozen or so, by three men…all of whom are killers. The only scene in the show where the three men interact, is the last one, which comes to a tragic close.
I wanted to go a step further than simply featuring spoken monologues. I started making choices about how to include the actors in each other’s monologues through staging, utilizing title cards, and taking time to figure out the chronology of the monologues to stage the narrative. So often, it’s easy to fall back on stage directions and, as a director, take the role of traffic-cop. But theatre is its most fulfilling when you are making choices, when you are saying something with how you choose to portray it. It was something I knew, but Desert Pepper put me to work.
With Arlen and this amazing group of untested, passionate artists, we created a cohesive, disturbing, and bombastic piece of art. And it is the thing I am most proud of.
Check back soon for another TOP FIVE. And check out the previous TOP FIVES here:
Jaret Morlan “grew up” in Community Theater, attending rehearsals as early as the age of two with his Mother, President and Director for Carroll Community Theater. Since those early days, Jaret has been privileged to work as a Director, Actor and Board Member locally and for theaters across Iowa for over 25 years. He attended The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, holds a BA in Theater from the University of Iowa and was co-founder of I-You Theater Company (Iowa City, IA). His favorite acting roles are Lennie in Of Mice and Men (ICCT), Juror #4 in 12 Angry Men (ICCT), Stepfather in Sinderella (UI), Prince Dauntless in Once Upon a Mattress (ACTors), and Scooter Thomas in Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World (I-You). His previous directing credits include Lonely Planet (UI/I-You), Tale of the Allergist’s Wife(City Circle), Noises Off (CC Stoplight), Desert Pepper (UI), Man of La Mancha (ICCT), and Romance/Romance (ICCT). A lover of Iowa City, Jaret makes his home here with his wife Leah and their two boys, Toby and Milo. Jaret has served ICCT this past season as a Member-at Large on the BOD, and the chair of both the Publicity and Nomination Committee. He is currently serving as Vice President.