Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Underground New Play Festival isn’t going under during the pandemic. It’s emerging from its usual subterranean Grandon Studio haunts and Zooming into the internet ether Saturday (5/16) and Sunday (5/17).
That’s appropriate for this year’s theme of “The Mysterious,” boasting 13 original short scripts by local playwrights and starring local actors, plus one local actor, Sage Spiker, who recently moved to the New York metro area. The shows will be presented in three two-hour sets, free to viewers via Zoom, and awards will be presented after Sunday’s matinee.
“‘The Mysterious’ can mean a lot of things. It can mean murder mystery, it can mean the mysteries of life. It was interesting to see all of the different takes on it from our submitting playwrights,” said Angie Toomsen, TCR’s artistic director and the festival’s co-coordinator, along with Chelsea White.
Without knowing the identity of the writers, a committee read the 60 entries and selected the shows to showcase. Actors were invited to audition via video, then the directors chose three people for each role, and the roles were divvied up. With nearly 70 roles to fill, everyone who auditioned was cast in one or more shows.
Between the new format and the COVID-19 pandemic, “we were wondering if anybody would want to audition at all,” Toomsen said. “We were overwhelmed. We got the number of people who audition for musicals auditioning for this. It was a really big and encouraging and earnest turnout.”
So even in the digital realm, the event remains popular.
“There is something very fun and scrappy about the Underground Festival,” Toomsen said. “It tends to involve new directors, sometimes people who are new to directing, and so they’re getting to try something out and explore something they haven’t before. It involves a piece of writing that hasn’t been performed before, and so it’s exciting for the cast to get to be a part of something that’s brand-new.
“Sometimes the playwright will make adjustments to the script as they’re working, because that’s part of the process. You learn things about the material as actors start to embody those words and actions.” That’s something actors and directors find rewarding, she added.
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“(The festival) has been a vibrant thing for volunteers who want to try working at TCR who maybe haven’t auditioned here before,” she said. “It’s also been something seasoned veterans look forward to, because they find it to be rewarding and fun to be part of the development of a new work.”
It’s the 10th year for the festival — and for Duane Larson of Cedar Rapids, who has been involved every year as a writer, actor or both.
Even though one of his plays wasn’t accepted in the festival’s second year, two were accepted later on, so he can still say he’s had 10 scripts produced during the festival. And he participated in the second season, so he’s been involved all 10 years.
The key to his submissions success, he said, is learning how to write for the Grandon’s intimate space — something he said he really didn’t take into consideration that second year. In retrospect, he said: “I see why it wasn’t accepted. It would have been really difficult to do in that space.”
He now limits his casts to between three and six actors, and doesn’t include any elaborate scenery or costumes.
“You want to keep it as simple as possible, because of the (space) limitations,” he said, “which actually kind of helps in the creative process, too. By setting limitations, it forces you to really think about what you’re doing.”
This year’s entry, “W.I.S.E. Inc.,” looks at “the mysteries of existence,” Larson said, noting that Spiker plays a young man who journeys to a remote location to ask the ancient wise ones about the meaning of life. It will be presented Saturday evening, and features five actors and another one reading the stage directions, to help guide viewers through the action they normally would see onstage.
“There’s something that’s really exciting and enjoyable” about the festival, Larson said. “I love the whole idea of the Underground Fest, where you get these local writers and actors and directors together to do original stuff. There’s such a wide variety of styles and shows. Some are really hilarious, some are really dark or really thought-provoking.
“As a writer, it’s great having my work be presented, just to see what people what think of it,” he said. “It’s a great outlet. I’ve met so many wonderful people through the Underground. Whenever you do a show of any kind, you meet new people, but with the Underground, I’ve just met so many people that are just really amazing.
“It’s been a wonderful experience all around.”
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Now 55, and working in the technology field at Titantv Inc. in Cedar Rapids, Larson took a playwriting class in college, as well as a few other theater courses. He’s enjoyed putting those skills to use in the past decade as an actor, writer, and this year, as a director. He’s also exploring how to get his works published.
He’d rather work with a director than be one, he admitted, but since this year’s festival will appear on-screen instead of onstage, he doesn’t have to worry about scenery, lighting and moving the actors through a physical space. So that removes a layer of worry.
Unlike a regular TCR show, which rehearses about six weeks, the Underground casts will have three rehearsals plus a dress rehearsal, and then they perform.
Even though the TCR staff decided to move the festival online before doing the same with the spring production of “The Skin of our Teeth,” the response to that production provided the building blocks for the festival’s format. And yet, they realize seeing a show online during social distancing isn’t the same as gathering in an auditorium.
“We miss — and everyone will continue to miss — breathing the same air,” said Katie Hallman, TCR’s executive director. “The lifeblood of what makes theater so electric and gorgeous and thrilling is that we get to share oxygen. It breathes through moments of laughter. I got to know that because it’s in my house every week” through “Out the Box,” husband Cavan Hallman’s Mirrorbox Theatre online play reading project.
“It’s very different to present theater without an audience,” she said, “and not hear their reactions and hear their sighs and hear their crumples and coughs — everything. You miss it so much, and that’s hard.
“From a viewer perspective and feedback, what I’m hearing from the community at large is that people feel so enriched and so moved by seeing something different and having stories told in a thought-provoking way. And that’s also what theater is — it makes us think and feel things, and even though we’re not seeing it the way it’s meant to be, we’re still able to be moved by the stories.”
Even though TCR has laid off most of its event staff and has no clear date for reopening, Toomsen, Hallman and the TCR board members are looking for ways to stay engaged with the community, and see how parts of the virtual world can still be incorporated when the curtains once again go up.
“It’s a time to ponder how the theater can better serve the community and continue to grow and push forward,” Hallman said. “We’re taking the time to push ourselves and our board to think strategically, and that gives me a lot of hope.”
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For Toomsen, hope comes from hearing the gratitude from the Underground Festival casts who are “so hungry” for this opportunity. The key is “remembering that we’re a service organization,” she said. “We’re not just an entertainment venue — we have a bigger mission than that — we can still find ways to live that mission right now.”
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