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By Donald V. Calamia
Theaters come and theaters go: That's the life cycle of a rich and constantly evolving arts community. What often drives the creation of new theater companies is a constant influx of young voices into the business, all of whom are filled with energy and innovative ideas. That certainly describes Keith Paul Medelis, founder and artistic director of The New Theatre Project, who talked recently to EncoreMichigan.com about his new Ann Arbor-based company and its debut production, The Spring Awakening Project.
You're artistic director of Ann Arbor's newest professional theater company. How did the company get its start? And when did the concept start taking root?
It was very organic actually. And completely unplanned.
I approached David Wolber (artistic director of the Performance Network) about half way through my apprenticeship there. I wanted to direct a piece inspired by Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening. One of the great things about the apprenticeship at Performance Network is the ability to approach the staff and tailor-make your time there with things that are of interest to you. He gave me the space and some performance time.
Well into rehearsals for the Spring Awakening Project, I realized this was something more than just a one-time thing. I have learned so much, met so many great people, and know Ann Arbor better than I ever have. After talking with Wolber as well as Bart Bund (artistic director of the Blackbird Theatre) I was steered in the right direction.
We are very much an experiment, we may last a short while or it could be my life's project, and both are perfectly acceptable.
I don't want it to seem like The New Theatre Project was started because of a gap or absence in the community. We are adding to an already vibrant theater scene in Southeast Michigan and are very interested in collaboration with all these wonderful groups.
Who are the company's founders? And what are their backgrounds?
The company was founded by myself. I hold a B.A. from Albion College with a degree in theater and history. Although I don't like to think of myself as the sole owner of this group.
We are heavily ensemble based, and I hope to continue working with the founding members of The New Ensemble: Luna Alexander, Matt Andersen, Mandee Forrester, Caleb Kruzel, Amanda Lyn Jungquist, Jason Sebacher, Ben Stange, Janine Woods Thoma and Austin Michael Tracy. These are some of the most exciting and brave young artists I have ever worked with.
Some are from or recent graduates of University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. We have so many beautiful people in the ensemble: composers, dancers, designers, directors, singers. Janine is the technical director of the Performance Network Theatre.
Jason Sebacher is our playwright-in-residence, a dear friend of mine who I have worked with many times in the past. He will enter Carnegie Mellon University in the fall as a candidate for their M.F.A. in Playwriting program. His voice is so original and he will do nothing but good things over there in Pittsburgh. Hopefully he will always remember his biggest fan!
What's the mission of The New Theatre Project?
Our mission is to produce new plays, restore established plays for a new audience, explore newer and largely undiscovered texts, and present plays that created new theatrical revolutions. The New Theatre Project is committed to ensemble work that uses non-traditional, non-hierarchical ways of organization to produce theater.
What types of shows will you produce?
We are getting ready to announce our inaugural season titled Season 1: Identity. I am very excited by the possibilities. Almost everything we are doing is a world premiere, though we also have lined up some very excited plays that I consider to be "revolutionary" to start us off. I plan to create a kind of umbrella theme for each season and the plays will attempt to approach the topic from many different perspectives.
I want to create theater as the Greeks intended: to debate relevant issues. Theater is a pillar of democracy intended to provoke and explore so many important matters. I never want to produce a piece of theater that leaves you easily and that does not compel an audience to engage in discussion.
It is also important to me to create inexpensive and unpretentious theater. We'll never charge more than $15 for a ticket. Ever. And you'll never see a guy dressed in black playing the bongos and telling a story of his own conception or something. I promise.
That's good to hear! (laughs). Why Ann Arbor, when the city already has Performance Network Theatre and the Blackbird Theatre?
Simply, Ann Arbor is my home and I am happy to be among such talented artists. Although, it should be noted, that we also do not necessarily have plans to stay here. We will be doing lots of theater all over Southeast Michigan, specifically in the Detroit area. Stay tuned...
What makes your company unique? In other words, what sets it apart from the competition?
Let's not use the word "competition" in an artistic setting. Our patrons and artists should visit and work for us just as much as they should visit the Blackbird Theatre, Performance Network Theatre, Magenta Giraffe Theatre Co., or Who Wants Cake? Theatre in Ferndale just to name a few.
But to answer the first part of your question, we are unique in that we focus on original work and reinvention of established work, the latter you will see an example of with our upcoming performance of The Spring Awakening Project.
You're starting off as a "gypsy" troupe - that is, you don't have a home theater in which to produce your shows. How does this impact your planning and the selections of shows you'll produce?
I'm not sure I would say "gypsy." I like to consider us a site-specific company. If the play is better suited by environment "x," then I will do my best to take it there.
I also don't really like working in conventional theater spaces. I am trying to plan shows for this upcoming season that will fit in spaces that I know will be available to us. Some are just perfect for one place but completely inappropriate for another. I often consider a conventional theater to be vastly unsuitable for many plays.
Is there a long-range plan to find a home of your own?
Approximately how many shows a year do you plan to produce?
Probably four "mainstage" productions in addition to smaller workshop projects and a special event during the summer that we will announce very soon.
Your first show is The Spring Awakening Project. Since the national tour of Spring Awakening was just here, I imagine people are wondering how a new, upstart theater is able to get the rights to a major Broadway musical. But that's not the case, is it?
You and half the people who auditioned might believe this! I want to make it very clear that this is NOT the musical. Certainly Spring Awakening is most well-known as the recent Sater/Sheik musical that just won many Tony Awards. It is less well known that the musical is based on a very controversial and influential play from 1891 written by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Controversial because of the play's frank honestly about sexuality and suicide in the lives of young people, this play was not performed uncensored until the 1960s.
So how - and why - was this chosen as your inaugural effort?
The play is beautiful and so vital. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater have cast light on this dusty old play that few outside of the theater community had any awareness of prior to the musical. Both the play and musical have their faults. And we are not doing either. Our version is only inspired by the Wedekind.
How was the script put together?
I'm glad you asked!
I have called our process a collaborative adaptation. I'm not entirely happy with that phrase, though, so maybe someday we'll come up with a better name.
I believe the Wedekind script leaves a lot unsaid. As controversial as it is, this was still Victorian Germany after all. A lot of characters and ideas in the play are simply skimmed over to serve as a way to say, "Look how controversial we can be."
Well I hope that we have moved beyond protest and can actually explore these topics in a contemporary sort of way.
We began with a cast - casting only six of the 30-something characters. The entire play is formed around their lives, stories, talents and thoughts. Absolutely nothing was written or formed in my head until we had these people.
At the first rehearsal I asked them to write in their journals about "a moment in which you realized you were no longer a child." From there I asked them further specific prompts; we had many discussions, did lots of drama exercises, some free-writing and collecting of existing work from the cast.
I am so thrilled to tell you our production contains quite a bit of original music composed by Caleb Kruzel, an amazingly talented musician and beautiful person. He also plays Melchior in the show.
The Spring Awakening Project has collected all of this material and created a piece using Wedekind's play as a kind of skeleton. Characters are explored at a much deeper level and their fictional stories have become meshed with our own lives. This process has proven to me just how important and universal this play still is after so many years. We are able to take contemporary, true stories and place them alongside the stories from 1891 and have created a rather slick, seamless production if I do say so myself.
And as much as I have enjoyed working with these actors, I believe it could be replicated with any number of young people. Certainly the product would look drastically different, but these are stories that everyone has. This is truth.
What time frame are we talking about? When did you start the creative/collaborative process, and how long did it take to get the material into a shape you were happy with?
We cast the show at the end of January and met for the first time at the beginning of February.
How long until I was happy with the material? Last week. And now I am so happy with the material it makes me weep with joy to think about it.
What's been the most frustrating part of the process for you?
Well just today I had about three different versions of the script in my hand and had no idea (which) was the current one! But I think that's been straightened out now.
And the most surprising?
Surprising? I'm not sure I’ve been surprised at all. I am just extremely pleased and continually impressed with the bravery and talent of our cast.
The show will open with "pay-what-you-can" previews June 18 and 19 at 2 p.m. at the Second Stage Theater at Performance Network, and then run Sunday, June 20 through Wednesday, June 23 at 8 p.m. What prompted this rather unusual schedule?
The Performance Network’s schedule. Obviously they are a fully operational theater company, and doing our show during their Thursday-Sunday schedules would be odd. I am so thankful to David Wolber and the people of the Network for their generosity and willingness to share their space. Shameless plug: Be sure to check out their production of The Seafarer June 10-July 18.
The show then moves in mid July to Pot and Box, also in Ann Arbor, for a three-weekend run. Why run it in two different locations in the same town? And what type of space will you perform in there?
I cannot stress enough how much I love the Pot and Box. Lisa Waud (owner of Pot and Box) is so awesome. Honestly, the somewhat unusual nature of this was because our company formed so organically. I was originally given four performance dates by David and that was going to be it. When we decided that all of the work we were doing warranted not only more shows but a company devoted to producing more work like this, we found Pot and Box and they graciously have given us access to their space for the performances. It is a lovely, intimate warehouse attached to her shop. They sell flowers, and floral arrangements, and she's great for special events and weddings I hear!
How difficult will it be to move the show from one spot to the next? And how do the spatial differences between the sites impact the show's vision?
I don't foresee too many problems. They are fairly comparable in size.
The one tricky thing is that the Second Stage Theatre is a black room and Pot and Box is white, floor to ceiling. This is an interesting challenge for our designers!
So what's next for The New Theatre Project?
All in good time! I promise we will announce our plans very soon.
ABOUT KEITH PAUL MEDELIS:
Keith Paul Medelis recently completed an apprenticeship at the Performance Network Theatre and holds a B.A. in theater and history from Albion College. At Albion, he founded the Dead Pinocchio Theatre, a student theater company devoted to producing original and experimental work. Here, Keith directed and oversaw the development of many new works for a company that still thrives today. Academic directing credits include four original plays by Jason Sebacher, Endgame, Hair: the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, Food for Fish and Tennessee Williams' Summer at the Lake. He directed the staged reading of Victoriana by Sebacher for the Performance Network's Fireside Festival of New Work, and at the Riverside Arts Center, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged]. Additionally, he has worked as a stage manager for the Arbor Opera Theatre and Interlochen Center for the Arts.
The New Theatre Project's The Spring Awakening Project opens in previews June 18-19 at 2 p.m. (pay what you can) at the Second Stage Theatre at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. The show then runs Sunday, June 20 through Wednesday, June 23 at 8 p.m.
The show then moves to Pot and Box, 220 Felch St., Ann Arbor, where it will be performed July 16 - August 2. Show times are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Mondays at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $15; $10 for industry and students. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.thenewtheatreproject.org.