Filmmakers and theater artists in KC find symbiosis

This story originally appeared Sept. 23, 2013 on kansascity.com.

By Robert Trussell

Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.

One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The Rainmaker.”

“There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place,” Attaway said.

469385283_640In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.

“Originally my idea was Starbuck’s just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye,” Attaway said.

Brian and Norris didn’t have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.

It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.

“They made it a better idea,” Attaway said. “I love those cats.”

A still from the Jetpack trailer for "The Rainmaker."

A still from the Jetpack trailer for “The Rainmaker.”

The slick trailer for “The Rainmaker,” shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Room’s 2012 production of “Bucket of Blood,” a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.

Since then they’ve shot trailers for “Burn This,” “Fool for Love” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the Living Room; “The Rainmaker,” their first for the MET; and “The Mountaintop” and “Venus in Fur” for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.

Visit a theater company’s website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity.

“We’ve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting,” Brian said. “And it never makes me want to see the play.”

Norris put it this way: “What’s more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?”

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the "Venus in Fur" trailer

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the “Venus in Fur” trailer

Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasn’t much overlap between the two communities. But that’s changing. When Attaway directed “Fool for Love” for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor — Robert Elliott — but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film — Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.

“I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting,” Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.

“Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it,” he sad. “We were all raised on television and movies.”

Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatre’s second production of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which his daughter played a zombie.

“After watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this,” he said.

Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, approached him about writing a “Living Dead” sequel. The result was a 2009 production of “Maul of the Dead,” a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.

“For me it was great,” Brian said. “I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you don’t get to do when you’re writing a movie.”

Subsequently, Brian wrote “Sorority House of the Dead,” an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came “Bucket of Blood,” also performed at the Living Room. Now he’s firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.

The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.

“There’s a lot of creative synergy right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more crossover. There’s just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.”

Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadn’t known.

“Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am,” Norris said. “I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me it’s like networking.”

An image from the "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'" trailer for the Living Room.

An image from the “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'” trailer for the Living Room.

Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.

“It went from a zero to a thousand for me,” Norris said. “I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: ‘This is kind of lame, sort of stupid.’ But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I’m kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.”

When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a “Rainmaker” trailer, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, let’s go for it,” Paisley said. “It’s interesting when you’re working with a modern audience. We can’t make theater be a medium that it isn’t, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.”

Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris’ work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for “The Mountaintop,” the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.

Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.

“The quality is fantastic,” she said. “They’re filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for ‘Venus in Fur’ to open the season.”

Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed “Stay Clean,” a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. They’ve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.

Where can they be seen? There’s no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norris’s work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the MET’s website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.

Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.

“No one has been disappointed yet,” he said. “A lot of it is getting people to trust you. We’ve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but it’s true. We live and breathe this stuff.”

© 2013 Kansas City Star

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KC theater companies big and small prove there’s room onstage for all

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Funny thing about alternative theater — there comes a time when the word “alternative” begins to lose its meaning.

You might have read about the 2012-13 season announced recently by Kansas City Repertory Theatre. But if you failed to pick up on the historic, precedent-setting nature of what the Rep has planned, allow me to put it in perspective.

On paper the Rep season looks solid. But it’s noteworthy for artistic director Eric Rosen’s continued willingness to roll the dice and push boundaries. Consider:

• Ron Megee — actor, director, playwright, producer, prop designer, parodist — will make his Kansas City Rep debut alongside Rep veteran Mark Robbins in the crazed, cross-dressing comedy “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

For years Megee was the guy who made things happen on the fringes of the local theater scene. The co-founder of Late Night Theatre staged elaborate send-ups of vintage films — “Valley of the Dolls,” “The Birds” — and became known as a comic actor who was willing to try virtually anything onstage.

Through the years he has gained increasing respectability — performing tour-de-force multiple roles in Coterie Theatre productions, for example — and he was memorable in a Unicorn Theatre production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

But for Megee to appear at the Rep means that nothing less than a seismic shift has taken place in local theater. A man whose career was the very embodiment of “alternative,” Megee is now mainstream.

Ron Megee as fat Elvis in "The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge" at the Unicorn. (Cynthia Levin)

• The Rep season also includes “American Buffalo,” an early David Mamet play about three small-time criminals planning a heist in Chicago.

In the 2004-05 season the Rep presented a production of “The Voysey Inheritance,” an Edwardian play about financial corruption that Mamet adapted, and several years earlier it staged his blistering two-character essay on sexual politics, “Oleanna.”

But “American Buffalo” is what we might call “pure” Mamet — a staccato drama about characters on the margins. For the first time Rep audiences will be peppered by a barrage of Mamet f-bombs in all their poetic glory.

The last time local audiences saw “American Buffalo” was in 2007, when the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre staged it in its previous downtown space on Walnut Street. It was a good choice for the MET, a fringy theater that has slowly but surely made itself an estimable cultural force in town.

But “American Buffalo” at the Rep? Until now, that possibility seemed as remote as, say, frogs raining from the sky, or Ron Megee appearing on its stage.

Kyle Hatley (Kansas City Star)

• The Rep will also present Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” but not in its venerable, familiar form. This will be a re-staging by Rep associate artistic director Kyle Hatley of a stripped-down, raw-essentials production he first put up at the Living Room, a truly alternative theater company (and bar) near 18th and McGee streets that came into existence only two years ago.

For the Rep to lend its imprimatur to a local theater company — especially one that doesn’t always play by conventional rules — is more than a big deal. It says volumes about the quality of talent in this town and the creative firmament that produces memorable work.

I’ve written often about the growth of professional theater in Kansas City in both quality and quantity. I try to restrain myself from using words like “phenomenal,” but the fact remains that theater arts in Kansas City are functioning at an all-time high.

People sometimes ask why this is — Why Kansas City? Why now? — and there’s no simple explanation. But the basic reasons are these: The population of theater professionals — actors, designers, directors among them — in Kansas City has grown steadily in the last 10 to 15 years. Sometimes young theater graduates from area colleges decide to settle in Kansas City, at least for a while, while other artists have actually moved here from such far-flung locations as New York, California and the upper Midwest.

But the real key to the growth I’ve witnessed is artistic cross-pollination. When Hatley was new to town, one of the first things he did was to start writing and directing original material that he staged for the Kansas City Fringe Festival. These weren’t officially Rep productions, but his status with the organization indirectly lent the festival a virtual stamp of approval.

The same is true for the Living Room — first, because Hatley was involved in “Carousel” there, and now because the Rep is inviting the Living Room production into the hallowed Spencer Theatre.

Other alternative groups, such as the Fishtank Performance Studio, are producing new material and Kansas City premieres. But as alternative theater companies go, the Living Room is in a class by itself.

The poster for "Bucket of Blood" (The Living Room)

Just recently I was there to see “A Bucket of Blood,” an amusing stage adaptation of an old Roger Corman movie, and the combination of theater, arch comedy and live jazz was like nothing you’d encounter anywhere else. The Living Room, in the virtual blink of an eye, has established itself as an incubator for talent, where artists can reinvent themselves repeatedly.

Musicians, visual artists and stage designers might appear as actors. Actors may collaborate with photographers to create visual arts exhibits. Musicians might try their hand at directing. It’s a place where playwrights can act and actors can direct. You might see an actress or actor you know from a memorable Living Room production tending bar.

But the Living Room isn’t just an isolated iconoclastic pocket. Actor Rusty Sneary, a co-founder, appears often at other companies, including the Rep, the Unicorn and the American Heartland Theatre. And other respected local actors — Scott Cordes, David Fritts and Vanessa Severo, among them — have performed at the Living Room.

Nobody sees as much theater as a theater critic, so the occasional theatergoer may not realize what’s cooking in Kansas City. But take a look: The city’s theatrical life is a constantly surging, swirling stew of audacious ideas and creative dialogue.

In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s Kansas City become known internationally as a jazz town because musicians came here from across the country and fed on one another’s creativity. I think we’re seeing something like that again — only this time the surging art form isn’t jazz. It’s theater.

Read more theater coverage at kansascity.com.

‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ still fights the good fight; stage version of Kesey’s novel resonates now as much as ever

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Oh, how we love our rebels — even if we know they’re doomed.

Somehow, that makes us love them even more.

Thanks to Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, we can return to one of the most enduring themes of 20th century American literature: the eternal struggle of the individual to declare his humanity in opposition to the strictures of an oppressive society.

The MET’s intimate environment is giving theatergoers a chance to experience the genre up close and personal with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on Ken Kesey’s classic novel. And as the epic antagonists — troublemaker Randle McMurphy and authoritarian Nurse Ratched — we have two of our most respected Kansas City actors, Scott Cordes and Jan Chapman.

Scott Cordes plays iconic rebel Randle McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

Perhaps no author has articulated the rage-against-the-machine theme as famously as Kesey, whose book, published 50 years ago, was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman in 1963 and became an Oscar-winning film in 1975.

Its depiction of McMurphy, an authority-flaunting war veteran, and his conscious disruption of order in a psych ward ruled by a control-freak nurse, dovetailed perfectly with the 1960s youth rebellion and civil rights struggle. The book ultimately came to be seen as a statement on conscientious objectors and draft dodgers during the Vietnam War.

“He makes a lot of sense to me,” Cordes said. “You’ve got to fight the Man. You’ve got to question the Man. In this case, the woman. I just like the idea that he comes to this place that hasn’t heard laughter or singing, and he gives something to each one of these men. He helps them out. He gives something back to them that they had before but lost. The way this nurse treats these men, it just seems like she’s (castrating them), which doesn’t seem like a way to heal somebody.”

Jan Chapman as Nurse Ratched at the MET (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

“Cuckoo’s Nest” reflected a thematic streak that ran through much of the fiction and movies of the ’60s and ’70s. Donn Pearce’s chain-gang novel “Cool Hand Luke,” which became a widely seen 1967 film starring Paul Newman, owed a debt to “Cuckoo’s Nest.” And both followed Edward Abbey’s 1956 novel, “The Brave Cowboy,” in which an anachronistic cowhand unsuccessfully confronts the mechanized modern world. Abbey’s book was the basis of “Lonely Are the Brave,” a classic 1962 film produced by and starring Kirk Douglas.

Indeed, Douglas played Randle McMurphy when the stage version of “Cuckoo’s Nest” opened on Broadway, but he could never get a film made. Eventually his son Michael produced the movie version but cast Jack Nicholson instead.

Nicholson’s work then was dominated by characters who were philosophical rebels — the doomed country lawyer in the iconic “Easy Rider,” a concert pianist working in the California oil fields to escape his past in “Five Easy Pieces,” a Navy lifer reluctantly escorting a kid to the brig in “The Last Detail” and a private eye confronting raw power in “Chinatown.”

But you could argue that “Cuckoo’s Nest” remains the most powerful distillation of the notion that to fight the good fight — to confront monolithic authority — rebels do so at their own risk.

Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces'

“When those in power are questioned, they come down on those who question and speak up,” Chapman said. “It’s a little microcosm of what’s going on in the real world, and I don’t think things have changed a lot.”

The talented Chapman, a MET company member, and Cordes, who has chalked up a series of memorable performances in MET productions, were cast even before a director was in place. Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, said she often looks at actors’ schedules well in advance as she seeks windows of opportunity for them to do shows.

“I had thought of it for Scott a long time ago,” Paisley said. “I was thinking that it would be fun to do. … And of course we started planning it probably a year ago, so in some ways it was a vehicle for Scott. But we always try to pick really extraordinary plays that are going to create extraordinary experiences for our audiences and pick material for actors to do what they were meant to do.”

Douglas in "Lonely Are the Brave"

Paisley asked William Christie, the American Heartland Theatre’s resident stage manager, to direct the piece after she saw his staging of the quirky “39 Steps” for the Heartland.

“I appreciated the creativity he brought to ‘The 39 Steps,’ ” she said. “And it was a semi-minimalist approach, which is our normal mode of operation.”

Christie’s first task was to fill the rest of the show’s 16 roles through open auditions. That’s a huge cast by current standards, and the group includes a number of MET regulars — Alan Tilson, Priest Hughes, Sam Wright, Chris Roady and Ari Bavel, who plays Chief Bromden, the novel’s narrator. Other notable cast members include veteran theater artist Tyler Miller as Ruckley and Dan Hillaker as Billy Bibbitt. Read the rest at kansascity.com.m

A sad, comic journey from light to darkness in ‘The Seagull’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s impressive production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is remarkable in several ways, but most remarkable of all is how contemporary this 1895 play feels.

Nobody really lives the way Chekhov’s characters live – nor have they for a very long time – but the fate of men and women who are by turns foolishly idealistic, delusively ambitious, emotionally controlling, morbidly romantic and defensively distant will inevitably remind us of people we’ve known.

Robert Gibby Brand and Cheryl Weaver in "The Seagull" (Bob Paisley)

Tom Stoppard’s 1997 translation certainly has a lot to do with the work’s contemporary sensibility, but so do the actors in the MET production. Director Karen Paisley’s ensemble delivers generally strong performances and some of them are exceptional.

Chekhov’s play, which he considered a comedy, begins in the warmth and sunlight of summer and concludes in the icy rain of winter – a clear metaphor for the collective journey taken by his characters. It is, indeed, very funny at times, even as circumstances push some characters to a tragic fate. Foolish people can be quite amusing until their folly triggers fatal consequences.

The piece opens as young Konstantin (Coleman Crenshaw) prepares for a lakeside performance of his new play, with which he hopes to impress his mother, the visiting actress Irina Arkadina (Cheryl Weaver). Among the spectators are Masha (Jessica Franz), the estate manager’s daughter who is being courted by Medvedenko (Chris Roady), an impoverished school teacher, although she’s in love with Konstantin.

Also on hand are Irina’s lover, the famous writer Trigorin (Forrest Attaway), and her older brother Sorin (Richard Alan Nichols), who owns the estate. Dorn (Robert Gibby Brand), a doctor, is present, as are the estate manager Shamraev (Alan Tilson) and his wife Polina (Nancy Marcy).

Ashlee LaPine and Forrest Attaway (Bob Paisley)

Konstantin’s play is a surrealistic affair, performed by young Nina (Ashlee LaPine), an aspiring actress from a neighboring estate. Nobody can make any sense of the play, which Konstantin insists points the way to a new kind of theater that breaks from the trite traditions of his mother’s theatrical universe.

The relationships are a sort of kaleidoscope of dead-end romantic fantasies. Konstantin is in love with Nina, but Nina becomes enamored of Trigorin, who responds to her charms at the expense of his bond with Irina. But Irina, well aware of her lover’s wandering eye, exerts a hold on his affections that he cannot fully reject. Dorn and Polina, meanwhile, appear to have been lovers and perhaps still are.

In the end, nobody really gets what they think they want. Masha enters a loveless marriage with the school teacher. Nina and Trigorin become lovers but he eventually goes back to Irina. Konstantin becomes a published writer, although he struggles to find his voice. Nina becomes an actress in the provinces, although she’s not much good at it. The others try to continue life as they always have until they are rudely reminded that time never stands still.

Some of these actors deliver spectacular work. LaPine’s Nina follows an arc from naïve aspirant seduced by the allure of fame to a broken woman on the brink of madness. LaPine negotiates the transition with a note-perfect performance. With equal finesse, Weaver balances Irina’s pat imperiousness with her sheer desperation when she thinks she’s losing Trigorin.

Attaway, as Trigorin, comes up with another fascinating performance as an author and playwright who doesn’t believe in his own talents but is nonetheless compelled to write. His big scene with Nina, in which he explains the plight of being a famous but under-appreciated writer, is as memorable for its humor as it is for its subtlety.

When Attaway is matched with the excellent Weaver or the luminous LaPine, the production achieves a high level of artistry. Delivering superior support are Brand (who has racked up a phenomenal string of fine performances at the MET), Nichols, Marcy and Tilson.

Franz is memorable as Masha, Roady seems a bit forced and Crenshaw delivers a deeply felt performance that isn’t as specific as it needs to be. At times, the dramatic balance is a little out of whack, and some of the events on stage have minimal impact. Paisley makes a few missteps — music threatens to drown out the last line of dialogue in the play and she overdoes the sound effects — but for the most part she seems in command of the material.

This is a handsomely mounted show, thanks in large part to Jason Coale’s rustic scenic design and especially Shannon Smith’s costumes, which are the best-looking clothes I’ve ever seen at the MET.

At the end of the day, this production lingers in the mind. Chekhov’s characters seek meaning in art and happiness in love. They play a high-stakes game that can make them winners in the short run. But it’s a journey that inevitably leads to desolation.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.