Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What I Want For Christmas ...


Melissa Rosenberger remembers the moment well, tearing through the wrapping paper of a box she was sure contained “more clothes,” but was soon overjoyed to find the Cabbage Patch Doll she had wanted more than anything.
Parents just love to do that, don’t they? Trick a kid into thinking they’ll be disappointed on Christmas, only to sweep in like heroes and win the day with the perfect present.
That, right there, is the essence of “A Christmas Story,” the movie the masses have loved for decades. It’s about humor, hope and wonder, not to mention just getting through the holidays relatively unscathed and, most importantly, together as a family.
So if you’re wondering (and many are) how similar MSU Theatre’s “A Christmas Story: The Musical” will be to Jean Shepherd’s 1983 movie, you can rest assured that all of these elements are firmly intact.
“There is a cult-like following with this story,” said Melissa, the director and choreographer. “I think its appeal is the common memory we share. The story was never dressed up to the point of being out of reach. Rather, it’s a lovely look at authentic family life during the holidays.”
The story, set in 1940, follows Ralphie Parker, a 9-year-old kid in small-town Indiana who wants nothing more than an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. The obstacles standing in his way? A whole slew of grown-ups who are sure he would “shoot his eye out” if his wish was granted.
Melissa’s vision for MSU Theatre’s version of the story was to preserve the way Ralphie’s child-like and imaginative perspective shaped the movie. So unlike the Broadway version of “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” there won’t be over-the-top glitz and glam.
“I didn’t see this as a glitzy show,” she said. “I wanted it to look and feel similar to the way kids play at things, like when they build a tent around the kitchen table and suddenly it’s a fort. It all has to come from their imaginations – what they would do, how they would dress it up and pretend.”
The glam will be at a minimum, but the musical numbers will be big and will enhance the funniest, most iconic moments of the film.
“The iconic moments from the movie are intact but heightened,” she said. “The musical uses the humor as a launching pad into grand exaggerated moments. For example, the leg lamp not only arrives in the home, but soon thereafter we are transported through elaborate song and dance into a big musical number.”
At the same time, the musical version is a different way of telling the story, so Melissa never felt committed to presenting scenes exactly the way the movie does. She wanted the actors, including the many children in the production, to be able to “find the funny” for themselves and bring something of their own to the roles.
“The best part about working with the kids has been watching them play and explore, knowing the story is being told through their eyes,” Melissa said.
The hardest part, she said, has been educating the kids on what it was like to live in the 1940s.
 “They say, ‘Oh yeah, we don’t have cell phones,’ and ‘Why aren’t we wearing jeans?’” she said. “I have to explain that boys and girls didn’t wear jeans to school then. When you went to school, you were rather dressed up.”
More than anything else Melissa hopes the musical will invite audiences to think fondly on their own family stories and memories of their childhood experiences.
“I hope they look at a story set in the 1940s and see how completely relevant it still is today,” she said. “We all have these shared stories and memories to laugh at. I love laughing at myself and hope everyone can join in.”

If you go
“A Christmas Story: The Musical” will be staged 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5-7 and 12-14; and 2 p.m. Nov. 7-8 and 14-15 in the Ted Paul Theatre, Early Center for Performing Arts, Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Tickets are $22 regular; $19 for senior citizens, youth 16 and under and groups of 15 or more; and $15 for MSU students.
For tickets, visit MSUTheatre.com or call 507-389-6661.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

MSU Theatre offering special performance for the visually impaired community

Helen Keller is one of those people who stand out in history as having an absolutely indomitable spirit.

Her story – the early years of which are told so beautifully in the play “The Miracle Worker” – resonates with people to this day, especially through the medium of theater.

“The Miracle Worker” dramatizes the volatile relationship between lonely teacher Annie Sullivan and her violent, spoiled charge, Helen Keller, who was stricken blind and deaf at a young age. Annie realizes that there is a mind and spirit waiting to be rescued from the dark, tortured silence.

“I think that live theater is such an interesting medium by which we can explore significant moments of the past,” said Matthew Caron, who is directing the play that opens Oct. 15 in the Andreas Theatre, Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Similarly, live performance allows an audience to witness these recreated events in a much more immediate and personal way than, say, a documentary film. Film provides some distance for the viewer, whereas theater requires the audience to be involved in the process simply because they occupy the same space as the performers.”

Creating this immediate and personal experience with visually impaired audience members also is important to Caron. He has partnered with Meridith Tietz, a teacher of the blind and visually impaired through South Central Service Cooperative, to offer audio description services during the 2 p.m. matinee Oct. 18.

Tietz will be in a room at the Performing Arts Center during the matinee and will speak into equipment that will broadcast her voice over an FM transmitter while she follows along with the play via live video feed. Blind and visually impaired people in the audience will have an earbud and an FM transmitter and will be able to hear her describing the action on the stage. That way they not only hear the dialogue of the play, but they also get a feel for how the characters are interacting, what the costumes look like, and how the set is designed.

The nuanced process involves hours of preparation studying the play and the dialogue to ensure that Tietz’s descriptions do not conflict with the dialogue.

“It’s really precise timing,” she said. “I will talk about costuming, characters, what Annie looks like, what Helen looks like, and just start building the setting.”

Caron said he had learned about audio description from his friend, Benji Inniger, who held audio-described performances at Bethany Lutheran College’s theater in the past.

“Benji talked about what a valuable experience it was for the blind patrons in attendance, but also for the students involved with the show,” Caron said.

Tietz and her former student, Megan Bening, also worked with cast members during a recent workshop to help them better understand through simulation exercises what it feels like to navigate the world with a visual impairment. The experience helped the actors craft much more realistic portrayals of these famous historical characters.

Caron said the play has been done at Minnesota State Mankato before, but it will be brought back throughout the years for good reason.

“The Helen Keller story is one of those stories that just needs to be told again and again,” he said. “It is such an inspiring tale of overcoming insurmountable odds and about the power of unrelenting love.”

If you go 

“The Miracle Worker” will run 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15-7 and 21-24; and 2 p.m. Oct. 18, 24 and 25 in the Andreas Theatre, Earley Center for Performing Arts, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Tickets are $16 regular; $14 for seniors ages 65 and older, children under 16 and groups of 15 or more; and $11 for MSU students. Discounted tickets for $14 will also be available to those with visual impairments who attend the 2 p.m. matinee Oct. 18.

Those with visual impairments who are interested in reserving audio description equipment should call the box office at 507-389-6661.

For more information, visit MSUTheatre.com.