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December 16, 2013

Theatre Department Alums Shine in Guthire's Born Yesterday and A Christmas Carol

This month Guthrie stages brim with holiday fun-- Garson Kanin's classic comedy Born Yesterday and Charles Dickens' perennial favorite A Christmas Carol now in its 39th season. Both companies shine with U of M alums -- talented actors who learned their craft through the Theatre Arts & Dance Department.

Nearly half of the professional actors in this year's A Christmas Carol cast trained and graduated from the U of M's theatre program earning B.A., B.F.A, and M.F.A. degrees. All have appeared on the Rarig Center's stages during their student days. Several gained invaluable experience performing on the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat. Those in the U of M/Guthrie Theatre BFA Actor Training Program have studied in London for a semester.

From Young Scrooge (Paris Hunter Paul) and Belle (Eleonore S. Dendy), to Mrs. Crachit (Virginia S. Burke), to nephew Fred (Hugh Kennedy), to Mrs. Fezziwig (Suzanne Warmanen) and her daughter Dora (Virginia S. Burke), Deirdre (Anna Reichert), and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Torsten Johnson) all are former students strutting their stuff on the Guthrie's thrust stage.

Anna Reichert, who plays several characters and sings as a chorister identified training for the stage as one of her most valuable lessons. "You can always take [it] with you. When I feel I'm a bit too tired, I have come to depend on my physical training. I learned to be alive and present on the stage. Through training I can always rely on being there." The movement classes taught in the BFA program "with the dance and physical warm-ups, keep me physically fit ...yes, training and technique carry you through," especially on multiple show days. With the large number of characters in Dickens' tale, the play's production requires many actors to perform multiple roles making lightning-quick costumes changes and instant character transformations.

Another connection to the Guthrie is the costume design by award-winning U of M faculty member Mathew J. LeFebvre, creator of both the evocative Victorian costumes for A Christmas Carol and the elegant 40's look (described as "amazing" by the StarTrib) for Born Yesterday. Reflecting on that experience and the theatre program's Guthrie association, LeFebvre, said, "It's so gratifying to see all that work on stage--amazing to me because all those artists--the tailors, drapers, the dyers, technicians make me look better than I deserve. They invest so much of themselves into making them, so the result is always richer...I grew up in the profession working in this theatre, I learned so much in my sixteen years at the Guthrie. In a way, it's been my alma mater."

Behind the scenes, alums Jason Clusman (Assistant Stage Manager) and Joseph Stodola (Assistant Director) keep the large cast of 20 professional players, 11 non-speaking performers-- Party Guests, Pallbearers and Carolers, plus 14 children right on cue for every entrance. A Christmas Carol continues on the Wurtele Thrust Stage through December 29, 2013.

Asked about the most valued lessons learned, theatre arts alum Stuart Gates was quick to answer, "Interaction with local artists. Artists who had lectured, or taught as us as professionals, or people I had workshopped with, who I had seen on stage that was powerful...As someone starting out, you can say 'I speak the same language' because you were there (at the U)... A few years ago I had a class on the nuts and bolts of auditioning taught by director John Miller- Stephany, working with someone in the profession makes you rise to the challenge." Little did Gates know five years ago that he would be in the Born Yesterday company at the Guthrie directed by John Miller-Stephany.

The Born Yesterday company boasts five U of M theatre grads including Jennifer Blagen as Mrs. Hedges (BA), Stuart Gates as Hotel Manager (BFA), Miriam Schwartz as Manicurist (BFA), Michael Hanna as Bellhop (BFA) and Warren C. Bowels (MA and Ph.D). Calling the cues in the control booth, you'll find BA alum, Karen K. Wegner (Stage Manager) from the Duluth campus and Noah Bremer (Assistant Director ) trained at the U of M-Twin Cities helped with rehearsals notes and staging.
Two current seniors, Ryan Colbert as Waiter and Michael Fell as Bellhop, just 5 months shy of completing their Guthrie Theatre BFA Actor Training requirements, take stage complementing the Gopher contingent. Born Yesterday continues through January 5, 2014 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage.

In addition, Theatre Arts faculty/ associate faculty members made artistic contributions to the productions. Marcus Dilliard (Lighting Designer), Lucinda Holshue (Voice & Dialect), and Marcela Lorca (Movement) helped to bring Born Yesterday to life on stage, while Ryan Connealy (Recreated Lighting Design) and D'Arcy Smith (Voice & Dialect) added to the the success of this season's A Christmas Carol.
To paraphrase Tiny Tim, "God bless 'em everyone!"

December 6, 2013

Theatre Faculty Member Marcus Dilliard's work broadcast on PBS World Premiere of "Silent Night" by Minnesota Opera

On Friday, December 13, 8pm CST, as spotlights bring the stage to life for the national PBS broadcast of Minnesota Opera's Silent Night, the production's lighting designer Marcus Dilliard, who also heads U of M's Theatre Arts graduate program in Theatre Design and Technology, can smile with a sense of accomplishment.

"Silent Night has been quite the journey--starting in St. Paul, then on to Philadelphia, and now sharing it nationwide," said Dilliard, who has designed for opera, theatre and dance across North America and in Europe. His numerous Minnesota productions include work for the Guthrie Theater, Theatre Latte Da, Children's Theater Company, Minnesota Dance Theater and Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Recent designs include Born Yesterday for The Guthrie Theater, The Tempest and Metamorphoses for PlayMakers Repertory Company, Steerage Song for Theatre Latte Da, The Mikado for Lyric Opera Kansas City and Cosi fan Tutte for Boston Lyric Opera.

In the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning opera Silent Night, composer Kevin Puts recalls an incident during World War I in which Scottish, French and German soldiers negotiate a Christmas truce and share their provisions and personal stories. The opera's libretto, by Mark Campbell, is in English, German, French, Italian and Latin. It was commissioned, and then developed through the Minnesota Opera New Works Initiative with the Philadelphia Opera Company.

While press notices were very enthusiastic for Silent Night as a whole, one reporter commented that Dillard created "a vibrant lighting display... capable of shifting from the chaos of battle to the tranquility of evening" (examiner.com). Another remarked the production was "evocatively lit by Dilliard" (Lorenzo Bassi, GB Opera).

"Theatre -- but especially opera -- is always a rich collaboration of artists," noted Mr. Dilliard. "Every production is a unique experience, but giving life to a new work like Silent Night is particularly challenging and rewarding. Each production element needs to be in harmony, working together, always telling the story."

In a related item, Mr. Dillard's lighting design supports Theatre Latte Da's production All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, in another portrayal of the ceasefire, at Minneapolis' PantagesTheater this holiday season.