116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
While the pandemic is no laughing matter, four playwrights have found humor hiding in everyday situations and frustrations that mirror the past year.
They’ve turned their musings into three original short plays taking place in a living room, and designed to be viewed in a living room — or wherever audience members kick back to stream shows at home.
Presented by City Circle Theatre Company, “Acting Out While Staying In” will be available online from 4 p.m. Friday through 11:45 p.m. Sunday.
All three shows were rehearsed separately, then filmed on separate days in March, using the same basic living room setting at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.
Elizabeth Tracey, City Circle’s artistic producer, reached out to the veteran writers, who in turn chose separate casts and directors for each 30-minute comedy. Here’s a glimpse into each, along with more comments from email interviews with The Gazette:
“Working for a Laugh”: A newly-single stand-up comedian discovers he's not the only one trapped in his apartment. Starring Michael Penick; written by Janet Story Schlapkohl and her son, Paul David Story; directed by Krista Neumann.
“ … And Quarantine Makes Three”: When a pandemic puts a strain on Kate and David's relationship, they try to get away from it all, but a bellhop inadvertently gets wrapped up in their troubles. Starring Greg Tucker, Emily McKnight and Melanie Chervek; written by Brian Tanner; directed by Adeara Jean Maurice.
“Scandinavian Death Cleaning”: Cleaning house. The phrase can have so many meanings. Simple maintenance of one's home to an overhaul of one's whole life. Walter and Marie are considering cleaning house. Their son Matt watches from the distance of social media. Hilarity might ensue. Or maybe just some kind of understanding. Starring Ron Clark, Jody Hovland and Patrick Du Laney; written and directed by Christopher Okiishi.
“Much like ‘Plaza Suite’ by Neil Simon, it's three independent stories told using the same set,” said Okiishi, of Iowa City.
Contacted in late December, the writers had about two months to craft their scripts. Inevitably, the pandemic that’s on everyone’s mind found its way into the plays, either overtly or between the lines.
Tanner, of North Liberty, even put “quarantine” in his title, saying the plot revolves mainly around “the struggles with the pandemic that I feel like everyone can relate to. While the pandemic is a backdrop to the story, it's more about how people are coping with it. I certainly didn't want to make light of the issue as it's a very serious matter, but I think the script is more about these characters and how they handle the situations they're in.”
To shape “Working for a Laugh,” Schlapkohl, of rural Iowa City, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s playwriting program, reached out to her son, a Broadway, television and film actor in Pasadena, Calif., who also has written plays.
In their first collaboration, Schlapkohl said their inspiration “came from conversations with family and friends, discussed and laughed over” with her son.
“We looked at the theme of isolation, careers being on hold, navigating relationships,” she said. “We chose not to have a direct reflection of the pandemic, but the emotional themes are present.”
Story added: “We talked about being sequestered and alone; strenuous efforts to be comedic when there didn’t appear to be much impetus in one’s current given circumstances; steering a course through breakups, moves, career challenges and relationships. The pandemic is not directly mentioned but the influence of it is perceptible.”
Tanner built directly on the pandemic for “ … And Quarantine Makes Three.”
“I keyed in on the fact that we were coming up on a year since things locked down,” he said. “I considered the toll that the pandemic situation might have on a relationship and how a couple might try to come to terms with that. Then I kicked up the absurdity for comedic effect.”
He focused on the struggles he felt everyone could relate to, and held a read-through early in the process to make sure he was handling the humor appropriately.
“While the pandemic is a backdrop to the story, it's more about how people are coping with it,” he said. “I certainly didn't want to make light of the issue as it's a very serious matter, but I think the script is more about these characters and how they handle the situations they're in.”
Timing was everything for Okiishi in forming his plot for “Scandinavian Death Cleaning,” mixing some autobiographical situations, with the pandemic as a springboard.
“I was listening to an NPR story about a design trend noted in Europe and the Eastern U.S. when my mother called to offer me the rocking chair from my childhood bedroom,” he said. “An hour later, Liz Tracey called and asked if I had an idea for a play. I am very grateful for the rocker, which is in our living room now, and getting plenty of use.”
While he doesn’t want to give away any surprises, he noted that “the play asks some questions many of us have asked during this pandemic time: What do all the things we keep in our houses really mean? And does that meaning change as we age? And it's frequently a comic look at this idea …
“I hope people will see the themes as part of us moving on from this time and getting back to the business of living and loving each other,” Okiishi said.
He cast married couple Clark and Hovland as “re-imagined versions” of his parents, and his husband, Du Laney, as a character based on Okiishi and his brother, John.
What he wasn’t prepare for was his reaction to rehearsing the autobiographical aspects of his script.
“I was not as emotionally prepared as I needed to be to direct people to play versions of my family,” he said. “And because I most frequently chat with my folks when driving home from work, I would often talk to my real, live parents then begin a rehearsal with the fictionalized version of them. It was a bit of whiplash. But it was all mitigated by the superlative cast, who asked the right questions, brought the best ideas, and made this process a dream.”
All of the playwrights were grateful to have this artistic outlet during the pandemic. Okiishi, a psychiatrist, is keenly aware of the isolating effects and lack of work, especially for the artistic community.
“I have been very fortunate to continue with some creative outlets, including SPT's online offerings and several pieces for Riverside Theatre. I shudder to think what the pandemic would have been like without these outlets, and I am so grateful to have been able to keep going,” he said.
“I love my work and I love being a doctor, and I constantly work with people whom I remind — and who remind me — that caring for oneself means making time and space to do everything that feeds your soul.”