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Savage Umbrella- Leaves

7 Sep

Here’s the skinny, by way of introduction and full disclosure: I was supposed to be in this show. Having worked with director/actor Laura Leffler-McCabe and the Savage Umbrella company on their Fringe musical Love Me Or Die! in 2009 and on the adaptation of Kate Chopin’s novella The Awakening that played at the Gremlin Theatre in April of this year, I was excited to play a part in Leaves. However, other opportunities that I couldn’t refuse arose and so I am simply a spectator this time around, which was quite sad as Leffler-McCabe and her Savage Umbrella cohorts are putting together a pretty impressive track record of shows that are wholly and organically created by an ensemble, resulting in authentic moments of humor and pathos and packing quite a punch. For Leaves, Leffler-McCabe and co-director Bryan Grosso used the poetry of Walt Whitman as a jumping off point, set their expectations and have been working since May to get a show off the ground. Leaves only runs this weekend, September 9-12 at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis, and you can get tickets here. Before the madness of tech week and the crunch of performance, Laura Leffler-McCabe talked about Whitman, an orchestra of a ukulele, viola and guitar, and how this show is about you.

CakeIn15: Why was it important to you to use Walt Whitman to make a play?

Laura Leffler-McCabe: We actually completely backed in to the process. Bryan Grosso wanted to do a piece with me where we were co-directing and I said, “That sounds great,” we work together a lot, that seem to make a lot of sense. We talked about what we wanted the show to be about [and] Bryan was really specific about wanting it to be about everything and also something really specific which is, you know, a hard thing to accomplish. So, he threw out the idea of using epic poetry. I’m on a kick where, as an American artist, I am trying to use American inspiration, probably more my own background of “England is awesome, everything cool comes from Europe” that I am trying to break away from. So when he said epic poetry I said “How about Whitman?” and that’s how it happened. And then as we started delving into the poetry more and more we realized how it was exactly what he had said, about everything and really specific things.

C15: When did you decide to include music and how did you work as an ensemble to coalesce the music and script from the Whitman text?

LLM: Before we even knew that we wanted to use Whitman, we knew that we wanted original music. I guess I really just like music on stage. I wish I had a better articulated answer for why, but I guess the beauty of theatre is putting so many different art forms together all at the same time, so I would hate to leave music out of that. So when we decided to include music we approached Candy Bilyk, who had worked with us on The Awakening and she said “Oh my god, no, I don’t do this kind of music, I can’t do this.” Which is funny, because she did. But we knew were work with an ensemble team of writers to create the piece so she suggested working with an ensemble team of composers to also do that. We talked to Ben Mattson, one of the original Savage Umbrella founders and kind of by accident when we were on our workshop intensive retreat, two of our cast members got together and wrote one of the songs and wound up writing two of the songs. So there are six songs, two by Russ Dugger, Emily Dussault and Amber Davis, two by Candy Bilyk and two by Ben Mattson. Using the poetry for the music, whenever we talked about how to use the poetry overall, we wanted a combination of contemporary dialogue that was inspired by the themes in the poetry and to actually use the poetry. There is no rhyme or rhythm in Whitman’s poetry so we imposed some of that in some places ourselves but for the most part, the lyrics are directly from the poems.

C15: When I sat in on a rehearsal, one of the things that struck me was the harmonizing and how it really reminded me of plainsong or Shaker music. Was that intentional, given Whitman’s era, and how did you get all these people writing music onto the same page?

LLM: Bryan and I knew that we wanted it to be all acoustic and live and happening in real space and time. Candy happens to be a string player, she plays the viola, so we decided to use strings, so it will be ukulele, viola and guitar. We suggested musicals like Spring Awakening, we wanted kind of- not that that’s necessarily what that musical is- sort of like a more folk feel to the music. Candy took a fist stab at one of the songs and she shared that with the cast and with Ben and that was her interpretation of what we were talking about and a first stab at chord progression and key and that sort of thing. So from that fist piece- which is now completely gone and isn’t even in the show- everyone worked from that central piece to branch off in different directions.

C15: How do you deal with working in an ensemble and having to let things go?

LLM: We were really clear right from the start that there was no copyright of ideas, that we were going to work together and share ideas, everyone would get credit equally, and that everyone had to be ok with cutting everything or nothing that they did. So we just set up the expectations really clearly at the beginning and then it just sort of happened that along the way one decision would be made and that would make the next decision easier because you had fewer options until you slowly hone yourself down into something that makes sense. When I look back at the process at what I thought the show would be and what it is now, it’s completely different, but I think that’s just the nature of the way things work, everything is just influenced by the people you have in the room.

C15: How would you describe the show now and how does it fit in to the Savage Umbrella season you’ve announced?

LLM: I think the show is really lovely. I think that’s the right word for it. It’s a little bit funny, it’s a little bit sad, but overall, it’s really sort of beautiful look at these people who you’re presented with. I’m going to steal this from Candy, because I think she said it really well, she said, “It’s a show about America, but America is you, so it’s a show about you.” Which I think is really true. And that fits into the canon of Savage Umbrella, where we are really interested in doing shows that are of the moment, but also come from a tradition. And then for the season, you know, it’s bit of a grab-bag, but that’s what we set out to do- we wanted to support eachother in our individual ideas, so the pieces are all really individual, there’s not like a theme for the whole season, but there is an aesthetic for the season where it is all fiercely independent.

When and Where:
The Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Ave, Minneapolis MN 55406
Sept. 9 at 7:30
Sept. 10 at 7:30 and 10* (*pay what you can performance)
Sept. 11 at 7:30 and 10
Sept. 12 at 4:30

Tickets: $12-18 sliding scale, buy them in advance or at the door.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Patriots Day | Cake In 15 - September 11, 2010

    […] courage? Courage-teaching is what LEAVES is all about. It is, as co-director Laura Leffler-McCabe promised, “…a show about America, but America is you, so it’s a show about you,” a show that looks […]

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