“The Actor’s Nightmare and More” RSVP Productions

Saturday was one of those leisurely days that just kind of passes and you ask yourself, “What did I do?” and have difficulty coming up with the answer. Just what I needed. Lovely lunch at Lulu’s with my friend Gail – I don’t know what I enjoyed more – their current exhibition of monkey astronaut prints showing in the bar, the delicious Belmar Scottish ale on tap, or their impressive collection of Lulu fezes – who knew?! 
        Nevertheless, I managed to get my proverbial act together to make it over to the Brady Street Pharmacy/Astor Theatre (1696 N. Astor St.) to catch RSVP Productions’ performance of two Christopher Durang plays, The Actor’s Nightmare and The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of Where Babies Come From. To my surprise, I found a rock star parking spot in front of Glorioso’s (which is extremely rare on the lower east side), and had some time to chat with Uncommon Theatre’s founder and Artistic Director Mark Hooker and Terry Gavin, who both starred in their most recent production of Angels in America: Milennium Approaches
        Once again, I want to take the opportunity to rave about the space that is the Astor Theatre. Owner James Searles has lovingly converted a portion of the pharmacy into a nice little theater, complete with what I assume to be the original seats of the Astor Theater and some impressive lighting equipment. It holds maybe 50 people and lends such an intimate feel to the production, similar to the Boulevard Theatre. Granted, I would still advise getting there early, so as not to be sitting in the actors’ laps, but you get the picture. 
        I can also say with confidence that I enjoyed the Durang shows a LOT more than I had expected. Many of the same actors from RSVP’s previous production, Reckless, appeared in the plays, as well as some new faces. Dear Ruthie was simply MAHVELOUS (how could she NOT be?) as “Mrs. Sorken,” giving an impressive lecture on the etymology of drama-related vocabulary. And her handbag was exquisite, I might add. Mark and I both agreed that it’s ALWAYS a pleasure to see Kirk Thomsen in his boxers, although Mark was hoping for some tighty whities (well, you can’t have everything). The silver tights were definitely an added bonus. “An Actor’s Nightmare” played out a scenario about which I think every actor has had anxiety dreams. I know I have. “You’re on in five minutes” – and you are thinking, “What play are we doing, again?”. Watching the actors struggling to get through the scenes of four different plays with their terminally disoriented and confused co-actor was painfully funny, if it weren’t so true.
        I especially enjoyed Cynthia L. Paplaczyk’s performance in Beckett’s Checkmate. She had some great surreal expressions that would have made the late exile proud. Her rendition of the sex maniac, “Nurse Cratchett,” in “The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of Where Babies Come From” was beyond creepy – you could almost see the saliva gathering at the corners of her mouth as she prepared to devour the super-sleuthing/sweater-sporting duo who were scouting about for “clues” to help solve their newest mystery. Hilarious. Miss Ruthie took off her wig and let her leg hair down as Mark Hagen in a FABULOUS performance as Frank Hardy. It was really funny and, well, thankfully short. It wasn’t dragged out, the jokes didn’t get stale, and we got out at a decent hour for Mark and Terry to grab some pizza and I could have a nightcap with my friends. It runs through this coming weekend, and tickets are going fast, so make a point to catch it if you can. Back to topics

It's Not a Manifesto by Nate Norfolk

An interview with Ben Turk and Tracy Doyle

If you've been approached by a young man carrying a red suitcase and asked to buy a T-shirt featuring George Bush's face and the words, "Mess with Texas," you've met Ben Turk. Likely his comrade Tracy Doyle was with him, peddling their goods. They may have even tried to sell you model cars and other toys painted red and emblazoned with the hammer and sickle logo of the former Soviet Union. For a moment of your time, they'll tell you about their idea of entrepreneurial communism and their discontent with W. However, Turk and Doyle's endeavors have evolved beyond T-shirts and toys. In 2003 they wrote, produced and directed their own play, ReVerb, a modern adaptation of Sartre's No Exit. Combining art and activism with a touch of style and humor, their second play, Bring the War Home, written by Turk and directed by Doyle, will be staged this month at the Astor Theater.
      Bring the War Home takes on some of our era's most pressing political questions by using a template from another troubled time in America's past. The play is loosely based on the lives and actions of the infamous Vietnam era radical group the Weathermen. Set in the near future when the current conflict in Iraq has escalated, a core group of radicals ponder violence as the only means to further their cause. For those familiar with the documentary The Weather Underground, the characters' names should strike a note. Playwright Turk took the liberty of using some of the real Weathermen's names for his characters. Turk insists the play isn't about the war as much as it is about asking what the next step is to cause political change.
        Noize: Why theater? Do you think it's as effective of a vehicle for change and commentary as it once was?
        Tracy Doyle: Yes. I think it can be a beautiful vehicle. To me theater can be very emotional. I just saw Miss Saigon in London and at the end, there was not a dry eye in the house. The entire huge place, everyone's crying. Some movies can get people to react like that, but to get people to laugh and respond and to really interact, it's [difficult] ... Laughing and crying is more shallow than what we want. What we want is to get people to get up and to think, which is much harder.
        N: So it's more organic. There's an actual interaction between human beings as opposed to just a projection on a screen.
        TD: Yes. There is definitely interaction. The actors play off of the audience and the audience feeds. It goes back and forth.
        Ben Turk: Theater is the best medium, and I think that it can be as effective as it has been in the past. I don't see movies, I don't see Michael Moore's documentary as being anything other than a commodity. It's just another thing that people go and watch and buy. And it doesn't really put that many people into action. Look at Fahrenheit 9/11. How effective was that movie? I really feel like if that movie was truly successful, then we would have had a better Democratic candidate and we would have had a different election result.
        TD: Do you think this play is really going to be that successful?
        BT: If this play reached the same number of people as that film did, yeah.
        N: Who do you see as your target audience?
        TD: Young people.
        BT: Yeah. Activists.
        TD: Some people who still have a chance; I mean, activism has always targeted young people because young people are the ones who still have energy and the desire.
        BT: I would like if anybody came and saw it, but I think it's mostly written for people who already think about these things, who already have their position on the war. I want them to kind of change the way they think about things. The play is not about the war; the play is about what we should do about the war. It's a statement about America and what we should do in the face of a war that we already know is wrong.
        N: Your press release is explicit about the dissatisfaction with the electoral process and the current war. If there had been different election results, would you still have put this on?
        BT: Yes.
        TD: I say no. I bet you wouldn't have because he was writing this play before he went to Europe. He had been working on the idea for a really long time, and then the election results happened and it was like, "Okay. Should we leave the country? Well, what are we going to do if we stay here? I guess we could put on a play and that's a good enough reason to stay." If [Bush] hadn't won, then we probably wouldn't have that motivation to do it.
        BT: Yeah. We wouldn't be doing it now if the results were different, but I was writing it about six to eight months ago; right after I saw the documentary. I was working on a play with similar themes right at the end of Reverb, but it was stagnant. It wasn't going anywhere. Then I saw the documentary and I thought, "That's a much simpler package for these themes." And I realized I could just put this together and put it out that way. Then I started doing some research and [the script] languished again. Then Tracy saw the documentary at the end of August, and she said, "We have to do that play. This is good. This is really important." So I started working on it much more in earnest. The basic outline was written before the election results. When the election happened, we got this place booked.
        TD: Like within a week and then we committed to it.
        BT: So we made that decision and since then, we've been running and living on the edge of financial ruin and lack of sleep and everything for the play. Making the decision really kicked us into high gear.
        N: Are you using this play as a call to action, and if so, what do you recommend as audience members' first step from just being vocal to being active?
        BT: It's a call to action but it's not a straightforward call to action. It's not a manifesto. It's a call to action in that more action needs to be taken. As far as what, specifically, people should be doing, it's much more up in the air. How could the current anti-war movement be more effective? It could raise the stakes, and raise what they're talking about. The war in Iraq has nothing to do with American people's security; the war in Iraq is making us less secure as American people. It's creating a haven for terrorists. The justification the Bush administration uses for this as the war on terror is complete bullshit. The war on terror is just a way for them to pursue an aggressive international foreign policy. It's the same thing as the Cold War and the left isn't talking about that. They're just talking about how peace is beautiful and we should be peaceful, instead of talking about the real actualities of what's going on with this war. They're turning up the rhetoric, but that's not enough either.
        Bring the War Home will be performed at the Astor Theater, on the first floor of the Brady Street Pharmacy, 1696 N. Astor St. Showtime is 8 p.m., January 14-16, 21-23 and 28-30, 2006. $6 suggested donation.
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DIY Theatre in Milwaukee? by Ben Turk
Putting on a play like Bring the War Home from scratch, with no budget, no actors, no set, and no crew, is a daunting task. But on Nov. 3rd when I heard John Kerry concede Ohio without counting all the votes I decided we had to get it together by what would've been his inauguration day. I had thought the outcome of the election wouldn't make a difference to our play; Kerry wasn't going to fix Iraq any time soon and I'd been working intensely on Bring the War Home since August, it was going to happen someday no matter what.
     I was wrong. The election turned up all the heat on the project, it meant we had a deadline, it meant this was more important, and it meant a majority of Americans were opposed to what we were about to do. Fortunately for us, it 
also meant there were a lot of people looking for something to put their angry energy into something big and loud, something like a play about militant activists who go after the American public at large. Bring the War Home is going to be successful because those people volunteered, donated, took interest and helped us.
        This is not only a play about what we can and should do about America's current political situation, it is also a testament to what we as Milwaukee artists and community members can create. Let's keep it going. The writing process for our next play is underway now and we're going to do everything we can to gain momentum on the success we've already had. Back to topics

Loose Canon Theatre presents
"Merchant of Venice" at UW-Parkside

The Loose Canon Theatre Company, a troupe made up mainly of recent Theatre Arts graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, comes to campus Aug. 25-27 to present Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." Held in the August Wegner Studio Theatre, Loose Canon will present two evening performances and one matinee show.
        "'Loose Canon' focuses on presenting classical works in a way that's easily accessible and relevant to contemporary audiences," said UW-Parkside graduate Brian James Rott. "I am directing the production and our seven actors will play multiple roles."
        Rott, along with fellow UW-Parkside alums Jacquie Beyer and Kyle Tikovitsch, and current student Derek Ewing, helped form the theatre group earlier this summer. They present five performances of the play at Milwaukee's Astor Theatre Sept. 1-9.
        The UW-Parkside productions are Friday and Saturday, Aug. 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 27, at 2 p.m. in the Wegner Theater. Admission won't cost patrons a pound of flesh. Tickets are just $12 for adults and $10 for all students. For more information, call (262) 595-2404. Back to topics

Tracy Doyle and Ben Turk

A Do-it-yourself Theater Partnership by Nicole Sweeney   bsweeney@mkeonline.com

Posted: May 18, 2006

It's opening night for "The Plight of the Ruling Class," and the cast almost seems to outnumber the crowd watching in the darkened Astor Theatre, a tiny space in the back of the Brady Street Pharmacy.
As the evening's three short plays unfold, Tracy Doyle watches from the audience. Ben Turk pauses to observe from a side aisle, wincing when a prop window crashes down unexpectedly.
        Ben and Tracy are the self-dubbed "boss man" and "boss lady" of Insurgent Theatre, a small group with a big dream: "To galvanize and politicize theatre from the ground up."
        It's part of what some call Milwaukee's "underground" theater scene. Tracy and Ben think of it as "DIY theater."
        They aren't affiliated with a college or organization; they don't qualify for the United Performing Arts Fund; they work with small budgets, hand-made props and novice actors. They produce only local, original scripts. They're not afraid to tackle topics in controversial and disturbing ways: In "The Plight of the Ruling Class," one play involves race and cannibalism, while another depicts a rape fantasy that gets out of control.
        So far they've managed to survive, even thrive, without having to "kiss anyone's ass for big funds." A donation plea in their program goes like this, only without the swear words dashed out: "Give us your f-ing money! Put it in the bag, and - Hey! Don't look at me. Don't f-ing look at me, pig. Just give me the f-ing money. NOW! In other words, generous donations of money or materials are always appreciated."
        Audience members buy $15 "bourgeois" tickets in advance or $8 "proletariat" tickets at the door. The goal is to compete with movie ticket prices.
        "Everybody complains about how nobody's going to theater anymore...and it's a dying art or whatever," Ben said. "But I don't think it is. It just needs to shift to its audience. And we've successfully done that."
        It started in 2001 when Ben launched S-MartKino with another friend. "It's nonsense," he said of the name. "It means nothing." S-MartKino's activities were just as random: Celebrating "Marxmas," a.k.a. Karl Marx's birthday; passing out communist T-shirts; stopping people on the street with survey questions along the lines of "Define 'beauty.'" "Draw 'truth.'"
        When Tracy arrived and began helping with surveys, "There were a lot of philosophical, existential, high-falutin' questions," she recalled. "My surveys were a lot more low key - not as pretentious as some people's." She threw a look in Ben's direction, and the two erupted in laughter.
        Both natives of Racine, the couple met through a mutual friend at an experimental movie screening at UWM a few years ago. Now they live together in Riverwest with their three cats and a whole lot of theater props.
        It was Tracy's influence that brought S-MartKino from the street to the stage. She'd been involved in theater since middle school, but her passion was really ignited after working with Madison's Broom Street Theater, which performs edgy, original works. Soon, she and Ben were collaborating on ReVerb, a modern translation of Sartre's "No Exit" that starred a punk rock anarchist and a sorority girl.
        They produce a show whenever they find a script that catches their eye, or when Ben writes one himself. He wrote about Iraq in "Bring the War Home" last year, and they'll restage a revised version this fall.
        Tracy doesn't identify with a particular political camp. Ben, who majored in political science in college, calls himself an "entrepreneurial communist," which helps explain his approach to Insurgent. . "We're taking theater out of the hands of the rich and bourgeois people," he said, "and making it more available to see as an audience and more available to participate in."
        Half of the theater's proceeds are split among the cast, while the other half helps fund the next production.
        Ben's the writer; Tracy's the editor. She directs the actors; he handles the technical stuff.   Back to topics

The Actors Nightmare and More
It's Not a Manifesto – Interview
Merchant of Venice
DYI Theater in MIlwaukee?
Theater Partnership, Doyle – Turk
Your Article
Vaudeville – Burlesque Photos
Other Stages
Jim Rankin – 1946 - 2007
Vintage Playbills
Imperial and Uptown Theater Handouts
Your Article
Rev of the Garbage (PDF)
Stage Passion: Show People
SEARCH Astor Theater Site
Behind the Wall (PDF)
Your Article