Making theater from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis

There was very little specific intended when I started the Uncommon Loons Theatre Company last year with my colleagues John and Steph Schroeder, short of the plan to produce some sort of outdoor show each summer. Beyond that, we just thought that we would create shows when and where we felt like it. Maybe something more concrete would be developed, but it wasn't a primary concern. It didn't take too long before we decided to do semi-regular one-act plays during Grand Rapids' monthly First Friday art walks. Given the minimalism of our shows, by nature and by design, we also thought it would be great to take a show on the road somewhere; to leave the relative confines of Grand Rapids and to entertain audiences in other communities within the state, and possibly even beyond. So with all these vague “plans” in place, it was pretty much a no-brainer that we would participate in the Twin Cities 24 theater festival after we found out about it... the day before registration. Within two days of learning about the festival, which took place on Saturday, January 25, we had registered for the event, assembled a small crew of actors, and developed a vague plan for how we would prepare for a show that we needed to create from scratch in a day (when we all lived more than 150 miles away from the theater). As luck would have it, I was scheduled to be in the Twin Cities during that time anyway, and was just about to be free of obligation a few hours prior to the 24-hour theaterathon. Since I was acting as the Uncommon Loons' playwright for the event, we worked it out that everyone else in the show would stay in Grand Rapids until Saturday morning. By that time, I had to be done with the script for our original one-act play, so John and the others would be able to gather a few miscellaneous props and costume pieces from our local community theater, the Grand Rapids Players, prior to driving down to Minneapolis. With this plan, provided everything worked out, they would have the entire drive to work on memorizing the script together, too. With a plan in place and the will secured to make it happen, each member of the troupe was free to start worrying about how well we would do. There's a stigma that if you're from a rural area, you're lacking cultural sophistication, a country bumpkin, and therefore any art you produce is very likely to be inferior to what you would find in a metropolitan area. Even though this concept is ridiculous on its face, it doesn't mean that the fear of traveling a long ways in order to simply fail wasn't a present reality amongst the Loons. There is much more talent in the Grand Rapids area than most people realize. The problem is that it's not always active talent. Many of these performers only come out for auditions at select times and for select reasons. One of the beauties of producing smaller, one-act shows is that there generally isn't a large cast to fill; a definite perk when you run the risk of having poor audition turn outs. For Twin Cities 24, besides myself, John, and his wife and fellow co-founder Steph, we felt that we needed two more actors to fill whatever roles might be necessary, ideally one male and one female. Having worked with both of them before, I first called Josh Cagle and Katie Benes, knowing that they would be able to handle pretty much anything that would realistically be thrown at them. After checking their respective calendars, they both agreed to join the troupe. Another issue was rehearsal. Sure, we knew where we were going to be performing, but where would we work on the show throughout the day before tech rehearsal? Fortunately, my cousin and her husband, Laura and Tomasz Majewski, were kind enough to open their doors to a gaggle of theater geeks for the day. In the nearly two weeks between registration and the actual event, there wasn't really any other preparation needed in order to be ready for the show. The day of the show itself? Yeah, it was gonna be mad. But prior to 8 p.m. the Friday before the show, there wasn't much that could be done. We didn't know the setting, the theme, or anything else that signified what the show would even be. All we knew was how many people we had to put the show on. Which once again left us with plenty of time to worry. Before we knew it, the day of the event arrived (and by "day" I mean the 24 hour cycle that began on Friday evening and ended on Saturday evening). Cousin Laura joined me at the Southern Theater to see what the set was going to be (it was a campsite). We found out the theme (“missed connections”). And then, all questions answered, the writers of the seven ensembles were set loose to write their respective scripts. Trying to write a script in one night that you know is going to be produced the following day is an interesting process. It's even more interesting, I suppose, when you're not on your home turf. There's no real time to stew on the different options for where your story could go, so you're forced to make some hasty decisions. This isn't always a bad thing, but it helps to be relaxed. From the station where my train of thought departed, I found that my play was quickly getting fairly metaphysical, with a strange dynamic between god and the devil, though there was also an ambiguity left intact that allowed for the whole thing to just be a delusion. Bottom line, when you're tired, high on caffeine, and have a couple beers in you to boot, things can get weird. Oddly enough, I didn't even realize how weird it was until the next day. But that's fine. All in all, weirdness for an event like Twin Cities 24 is probably a good thing. So as we sat around Laura and Tomasz's place (happily eating Chipotle burritos that aren't available to us in Grand Rapids), we learned the script, laughing at the absurdity of it, trying not to get frustrated at the complete lack of time we had to put on the show we would ideally like to. Once we all got to the Southern Theater for tech rehearsal, things got just that much more exciting, as well as nerve-wracking. The nervousness of being completely overshadowed by the other companies, embarrassing ourselves as well as all the other rural artists whom we unofficially were representing with our presence, had developed in its most complete form once we were in the heart of the action. A little nervousness goes a long ways in theater though, and our tech rehearsal was arguably our best run through of our show the entire day. There was a final dress rehearsal before show time, so each of the companies was able to watch everyone else's shows. Here it was, we were finally able to see the caliber of theatrical quality that we were going to be paired next to. This, if I say so myself, was fantastic. OK I'll also admit that I personally felt more nervous after seeing some of these other shows, but in hindsight, it was wonderful seeing the work created by fellow artists, work that was unique to this event. We were the rare few who were privy to the creative beauty present at the Southern that day, and, being able to sit in the audience during dress rehearsal, we also got to see it before anyone else too. And what's more, it was nice to see that we weren't completely out of our league. As a matter of fact, we seemed to fit right in the middle of everything. We were even fourth out of seven to perform. One of the more interesting things about the show as a whole was how differently each ensemble interpreted how to use the same theme and set. Here we all were, presented with a campsite and the words “missed connections,” and all of the shows were completely unique from one another. Some were comedies, some were dramas. One group created a montage of three different storylines, while another did an absurdist comedy about being constipated on the way to the Twin Cities 24 theater festival. We saw the pain of a daughter who lamented the recent passing of her father and the pain of the parents of an unborn baby who they would never know. And from our vantage point from backstage, the audience seemed to love the whole thing. You may be wondering, how'd the Uncommon Loons do? Well, we came out right in the middle of the whole thing, and with the audience nicely warmed up, took the stage and gave it our all. They didn't laugh at the opening joke (the sound crew did though during tech!), but the show went off without a hitch, to very warm and welcome applause at the end. There's not much more to say. It was a fantastic experience traveling to Minneapolis to join fellow thespians in a one-time-only event. Sure, there will be more Twin Cities 24 events in the future, but the shows produced last month will likely never be seen again. With any luck, we'll be back next year for the second round of TC24.
Headshot of Nathan Bergstedt
Nathan Bergstedt
Nathan Bergstedt is the Arts and Entertainment Editor at the Grand Rapids Herald-Review and is the co-founder of the Uncommon Loons Theatre Company.