Why I love theater

City PagesBy Ed Huyck July 9, 2014

City Pages' theater critic shows theater is better than anything on a flat-screen TV

The basement of the Soap Factory in Minneapolis isn't the most inviting place to see a show. The concrete floor saps the heat from your feet, while stiff, plastic chairs don't portend an evening of comfort.

Neither does the tiny audience, which can be counted on two hands.

Yet none of this matters when Theatre Coup d'Etat takes the stage for One Flea Spare, a drama about the ever-shifting allegiances among people trapped in a house during an outbreak of the plague in 1665 London. The tight company and well-directed script combine for an absolutely absorbing performance. Sore backsides are forgotten until after the play.

I've been to nearly 70 shows this year, from massive productions at the Ordway, Orpheum, and Guthrie to tiny pieces carved out in whatever space the performers could find. No matter the quality (a few have been so dire I've left muttering about what I'm doing with my life), I'm always eager to take in the next. Even if this wasn't my job, I'd still be out every weekend. (Note to bosses: This is not an offer.)

Going to the theater isn't easy. It's not as convenient as staying at home and watching a bootleg version of Transformers 4 or binging on Game of Thrones. (Spoiler: Everyone you care about dies.) It doesn't offer the thrill of breathing the same air as Lady Gaga or two-fifths of the original members of Molly Hatchet.

But there is nothing like being in the same room with actors performing without a net. That doesn't mean we're waiting for them to fail. It's more about the audience providing that net through our unspoken but quietly palpable support.

Theater should not be lazy. The performers need to take whatever energy they get from the audience and turn it into something engaging.

Lisa D'Amour's Detroit explores the emotional and spiritual decay of the American dream. At the Jungle, director Joel Sass and a terrific quartet of actors went for broke. There's enough humor on the surface of the story — in which the archetypical middle-aged American couple collides head-on with a pair of drug-addled free spirits — to keep the audience entertained without probing at all.

That's not what happened here. Instead, the actors went for broke with all the uncomfortable realities — a middle manager's descent into endless unemployment; a young woman's failed attempts to build a life beyond the next drink — to create a rich, moving experience. The Jungle's intimate space and Sass's clever set only added to the immersion. We felt like visitors to this backyard.

Theater should take chances. Presenting Our Town with musical interludes was certainly a risk on the part of Theatre Latte Da. So was casting a woman in the iconic role of the Stage Manager.

The Stage Manager has always been played by men. Wendy Lehr's warm and inviting presence is perfect for the role, while the color-blind casting underscored the point that Our Town isn't meant to be a relic, but a reflection of the community presenting the play.

There have been plenty of shows that have embraced a sense of adventure this year, from the chaotic fantasies of Strumply Peter to the sharp rage of The Ballad of Emmett Till; the Soviet farce of Star City to pretty much everything done by the Children's Theatre Company.

Great shows abound in the Twin Cities — offering experiences better than anything found on a flat-screen TV.

Not Your Average George, David Darrow

Broadway World Minneapolis By Noah Lee Jordan

March 29, 2014

David Darrow, with his curly hair tucked under a baseball cap, is sitting in the house of The Lab Theater, which is full of hanging light bulbs that when illuminated will resemble something of a star-filled sky. As we chat, I can't help but feel a teeny bit nervous. Only a few months ago my close friend and I sat ogling Darrow's shirtless physique (among the throngs of others) in the Guthrie's production of SKIING ON BROKEN GLASS. And sure, the play was somewhat lack luster---an opinion I still believe today---but his performance was fantastic and his body was certainly made quite the impression. And now he's sitting right next to me and telling me all about the man behind the abs. In reality, the 27-year-old, Jersey boy is actually quite relaxed---unlike his previous character---and basically just a normal, low-key guy who loves acting, owns a cat named Elvis (his old roommate owns a cat named Costello) and enjoys pizza and beer. "Please tell me if this stuff is like so uninteresting and you have no material for this article right now." the actor says jokingly. In this theatre---a place where many actors have performed for packed houses---Darrow seems at home. It's almost funny to think that he was not always a man of this particular branch of performance but a trumpet player who one day realized he didn't like being in practice rooms. "One of my mentors was the director of a theatre program and so I started acting in straight plays," he explains. "I never really got along with the music kids but I loved the theatre kids." It's about 30-minutes before he will dash away to begin preparing for the evening's performance and his role as the known but little known character of George Gibbs in Theater Latte Da's production of OUR TOWN. And although he's already reached the halfway point of the run and received plenty of great recognition for his portrayal, Darrow can still remember those first moments when receiving the role. "Peter asked me to do it out of the blue. I mean, I've worked with Peter several times and I was thrilled. Then I read it and immediately I was kind of terrified by certain parts of it," Darrow says. "But the parts I thought would be hard were not and the parts I thought would be easy weren't. It was the exact opposite." On stage, Darrow and the entire cast deliver extraordinary performances in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN, the infamous play with music that dives into the lives of the people of Grover's Corners as they tackle life and all it's challenges; from falling in love to confronting death. And while this play is indeed seventy-five-years-old, director Peter Rothstein brings together an exceptional group of multi-cultural performers that help bring a more contemporary feel to the production. Each performer offers something unique and charming to the show. Even the smallest and youngest of performers leave lasting impressions. The production is tightly synchronized as actors perform all the various sound effects---from chickens to trains---and play multiple characters from start to finish, moving around the both the stage and audience. As the play's leading man, Darrow tackles the role of George with tenacity and honesty, resulting in some moments that are heart-warming and real. At one point, he shares a very tender moment with little Natalie Tran, who plays his sister, which is very telling of the type of actor Darrow is and will always be. He gives so much, and in return receives just a much. With Darrow in the role, opposite Andrea San Miguel as Emily, George becomes the guy that will never hurt you intentionally, the guy you want to root for and the guy you want to fall in love with. And despite how others have approached the role, he has given it a personal touch that is unique only to him. "I heard a little bit of feedback from a couple people that George is usually played a little more arrogant. His major scene with Emily is in act two-it's the soda shop scene that everybody knows. Usually his response to being called arrogant and conceited to be arrogant and conceited and that makes sense on a certain level," Darrow says. "But there's not a ton of interaction between these two characters and we have to believe that they fall in love in the middle of this play. So it was interesting to me that all of these things he's saying are honest. That he really takes to heart what she says. I think that is a little bit different than how it's normally played." The two of us have been chatting for a while now and at this point a majority of the cast has assembled in the theatre to "warm-up"---singing, stretching, shaking out that preshow energy, and other various activities---a ritual that Darrow doesn't always feel the need to indulge in. The conversation has trickled down, but Darrow has one last thing to say before we part ways. "I think this has been my favorite project that I've done since being in Minnesota. It's the most honest production and I hope people like it," he says. And with that, it's time to leave. At this point, Darrow really does need to get ready. He gets up, shakes my hand one last time and asks me if I'm seeing the evening show. I am. He smiles, saying, "Oh, good! Well, I hope you enjoy it." A few hours later, the show is over. Darrow and a few of his cast mates are clumped together singing an upbeat tune as patrons exit the space---just as they have for both intermissions and a good chunk of the preshow. For a brief second we lock eyes and share a glance. He looks at me. I look back at him. And in that second we both know, I enjoyed the show.

Community of performers excel in 'Our Town'

City Pages Ed Huyck

March 19, 2014

It's easy to be cynical about Our Town, Thornton Wilder's look at the rhythms of small-town life in turn-of-the-20thcentury New England. Over the years, countless mediocre productions have stripped the play of its inner beauty and power, leaving behind memories of dull acting and dusty characters. It just takes one great production, however, to change that perception. In his production notes, director Peter Rothstein shares his eye-opening experience of seeing the show at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Local audiences have a chance to enjoy a similar experience if they take in Theatre Latte Da's new production.

In Rothstein's vibrant creation, Our Town becomes an absolutely immersive adventure — one that celebrates the concept of community at every turn. In the cavern-like Lab Theater, the spare stage serves as a de facto lobby before the play starts and during each of the two short intermissions. Folks mingle and talk, while the company shares a selection of folk tunes and pop songs from the early-20th-century setting of the play. Music plays a vital role here, but this isn't a musical — there are no dancing ghosts in the last act, no tender love ballad as two young people fall in love. Instead music is woven into the tapestry of the show. We hear songs before the play starts and during each intermission. It's all provided by the company members, who take up a bevy of instruments and jam as if the performance were taking place on a front porch on a warm summer's night.

The lines between audience and actor — and house and stage — are further blurred during the show, as the actors find empty seats in the house to sit in while waiting for the next scene. That's fitting for Wilder's play, which removes the fourth wall and presents a sort of meta-theater, in which the stage manager freely talks about this being a play (she even holds a script) while guiding us on a tour of Grover's Corner. And yes, the stage manager is a she in this particular rendition. Local legend Wendy Lehr takes up the role of the behind-the-scenes witness to all of the action before us. Shifting the typically male role of stage manager to a woman is only part of the overall casting. Rothstein underscores the idea that we are all part of "our" town by including a cast that reflects the modern face of the Twin Cities, a cast far from the lily-white New England of 1901.

While the play truly evokes the rhythm of life in this small town, we examine it all through the lens of two middle-class families. The Gibbs and Webbs live in adjacent homes, with families of about the same age. Teenagers George and Emily fall in love, marry, and then are separated by death during the two hours (and 12 years in time) of the play. Two extremely talented young performers — David Darrow and Andrea San Miguel — take on these roles, creating nearly instantaneous chemistry: They fall in love at an ice cream shop, as George keeps moving his chair closer to Emily. The connection grows stronger throughout the scene, until it is clear that these two were made for each other. That brings the final act — appropriately titled "Death and Dying" — into sharper focus. The recently deceased Emily discovers that the mind lives on after death, but that the ghosts in the graveyard prefer to forget what has come before. Traveling back to a day in her life, she learns why. San Miguel shows us the post-existential heartbreak, while Darrow brings out the all-too-living grief of a man suddenly alone in the world. All of this work — the acting, the music, the simple yet effective staging — gives Wilder's deep, subtle, and stunning script a rock-solid platform to work its charms, break the heart, and push the audience out of the theater with a new perspective on every mundane but beautiful moment of life.

Latte Da lets enduring appeal of 'Our Town' shine through

Star Tribune Lisa Brock

March 17, 2014

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” may be seventy-five years old but, as Theater Latté Da’s current production demonstrates, this classic of the American theatrical canon is no creaking dinosaur. In fact, what this production, which opened in Minneapolis on Saturday, singularly demonstrates is that “Our Town” needs no innovation to prove its indelible appeal.

Many of the striking elements Wilder introduced with “Our Town,” including the lack of sets, minimal props and a narrator who acknowledges the presence of the audience, have become common currency in today’s theater. That familiarity leads many to seek new ways to challenge audience expectations in the staging. In this case, director Peter Rothstein employs multiracial casting and puts a woman (Wendy Lehr) in the traditionally male role of Stage Manager.

In step with Latté Da’s musical-theater focus, he and Musical Director Denise Prosek have interlaced the show with popular American music ranging from traditional folk songs to the works of Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin. The result is a lively, tuneful production that often takes on the coloration of a hoedown, making up in high spirits for what it occasionally lacks in subtlety. Rothstein has assembled a fine cast to inhabit the world of Grover’s Corners. Lehr’s Stage Manager is a low-keyed turn from an actor more widely known for colorful character roles, offering matter-of-fact pragmatism and quiet irony as she introduces the audience to the town. David Darrow and Andrea San Miguel are charmingly appealing as George Gibbs and Emily Webb, demonstrating an innocence that’s as genuine as it is touching.

Revolving around them is a host of characters who root them firmly within the surrounding community. Isabell Monk O’Connor is comically harried as Emily’s mother, while Tod Petersen brings sardonic humor and pathos to the role of the town drunk. Dan Hopman’s jovial, relaxed Mr. Webb contrasts nicely with Brian Grandison’s more tightly wound Dr. Gibbs, and Natalie Tran is sweetly sassy as George’s little sister. The action takes place on a mostly bare stage, configured as a long rectangle with the audience on both sides and adorned, in a clever nod to the “ghost light” that so often figures in productions of “Our Town,” with dozens of bare, hanging light bulbs. While strains of melodies often linger in the background of scenes, the majority of the show’s music is confined to interludes at the opening and closing and during the two intermissions, when the stage takes on the ambiance of a barn dance. Despite the flourishes added by Latté Da, this production doesn’t so much break new ground as simply jump in and allow “Our Town”’s innate appeal to shine forth.

Lisa Brock writes about theater.

Putting the 'Our' in 'Our Town'

Pioneer Press By Chris Hewitt

March 18, 2014

The new production of “Our Town,” being produced by Theater Latte Da at The Lab Theatre in Minneapolis, is very much about including the audience in the experience of the classic play, which is set in a small New England town about 100 years ago. That effort begins before you even enter the theater. In the lobby of the Lab, Latte Da staffer have dedicated a wall to Post-It notes on which cast members, theatergoers and friends of the production can jot down their connections to “Our Town,” whether that’s appearing in it in high school (which is the case with Latte Da Director of External Relations Seena Hodges), seeing a previous “Our Town” or knowing someone in the cast of the current production. (I was tempted to put up my own, noting that the David Cromer-directed production that played in Chicago and New York a couple years ago is one of the most revolutionary evenings of theater I’ve ever had, but someone beat me to the punch.)

'Our Town' review: A fresh take on the classic, with music

Pioneer Press

Chris Hewitt

March 16, 2014

Thornton Wilder's plainspoken masterpiece "Our Town" has been done to death, but is it still possible to bring it to life?

At least two recent-ish productions say yes. An already-legendary Chicago-then-off-Broadway production from a couple of years ago emphasized the blistering anger and waste in the sometimes-sentimental play about life in a small town; it made even theatergoers who thought they knew the play feel like they'd never seen it before. And Theater Latte Da's new production uses music -- before and between the three acts, mostly -- to place "Our Town" within an American tradition of art that celebrates and mourns everyday bits of life.

Director Peter Rothstein makes clear from the start that the "our" of this "Our Town" includes the audience. The play happens in the middle of the room, with theatergoers arrayed on two sides of the action. Actors enter and exit the playing space from seats in the audience (keep those clodhoppers out of the aisle, please, or you'll trip them). Sound effects and music also come from the seats -- I was in front of a very loud triangle -- and the whole production seems to assemble itself out of the pieces of a hootenanny, which features the "Our Town" actors performing the songs of Scott Joplin, Stephen Foster and others as audience members take their seats and wait for the play to begin. We are introduced to the action by a character known as the Stage Manager, who is usually -- for no good reason -- a man, but who is played with stern authority by the great Wendy Lehr. She tells us a little about the history of Grover's Corners, N.H., and introduces its people, whose lives are as ordinary and extraordinary as the lives of any of us in the theater's seats. Then, she summons the actors, in modern dress, to act out family dramas from Grover's Corners: Children ignore their parents' instructions, young people go to school and stumble into romance, adults fall into despair. Because we know these stories are supposed to have happened a century ago but we are seeing them performed in contemporary clothes, the idea we get is that these dramas happened not just 100 years back but also a few years ago and yesterday and that they will happen again tomorrow.

In the play, we are most closely identified with Emily (Andrea San Miguel), who, during the two hours and 15 minutes of "Our Town," will fall in love and get married and have an opportunity to look closely at the wonders around her. Rothstein makes sure this "Our Town" gives us the same opportunity. He uses lovely hanging light bulbs -- I think there are 60 of them -- to subtly illuminate key moments in the play and to help us pick out tiny details we might miss, such as the smell of heliotrope, the sound of a teaspoon in a coffee cup or the illumination of a full moon.

"Wasn't life awful? And wonderful?" a character asks in "Our Town," and that's a key theme for Wilder, who puts us in the position of knowing the fates of some of his characters long before they do. "Our Town" is often seen as a nostalgic play, but this production isn't about nostalgia; it gets both the "wonderful" and the "awful." There's Mr. Stimson (fierce and funny Tod Peterson), for instance. An alcoholic who has weathered unnamed tragedies, it is said of Stimson that "some people ain't made for small towns," a comment that is less an indictment of him than of a town such as Grover's Corners that cannot help or understand him. Whispers of casual bigotry and marital discontent also suggest there are others who see Grover's Corners as a prison.

In the first two acts, when this "Our Town" is turning its eye to the mysteries of human behavior, it is beautiful. As George, the boy Emily will fall for, David Darrow has a couple of gorgeous little moments: one in which George commits to building his own character and one in which he reacts tenderly to a story from his little sister. As Emily's mother, Isabel Monk O'Connor quietly captures the loss of a woman who isn't sure what happens when her children grow up. And Lehr brings shattering simplicity to a line that, in context, practically invites us to hop on stage and join the play: "I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young."

"Our Town" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

Cherry and Spoon Jill Schafer

March 16, 2014

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is an American classic, first produced over 70 years ago, and continuing through the years with frequent productions in theaters and schools around the country. It's a simple story really; its three acts explore the ideas of "Daily Life," "Love and Marriage," and "Death and Dying" through the interconnected residents of Grover's Corners. But it's really quite profound in its simplicity, the final act being especially poignant as it forces us to look at the beauty of every day life and communion with our fellow human beings, something that is often overlooked in the busyness of life. Theater Latte Da adds their usual musical style to the piece, with direction by Peter Rothstein and Music Direction/ Arrangement by Denise Prosek, in a way that enhances but never detracts from the story. The result is truly a beautiful experience that transcends mere theater. The play is written in an unusual style, in which a character known as "Stage Manager" (played by the incomparable Wendy Lehr, recently named the McKnight Foundation's Distinguished Artist of 2013) serves as narrator, and fully acknowledges that this is a play, introducing scenes and cutting them off when time is short. He, or in this case she, speaks directly to the audience as she tells us the story of this extraordinarily ordinary town. We meet many people in the town, from the milkman to the constable to the town drunk, but the focus is on the Gibbs and Webb families. George Gibbs and Emily Webb (David Darrow and Andrea San Miguel, both utterly charming and charismatic) are teenagers and best friends in the first act, and the second act features their wedding at a young age. The third act takes place in the cemetery, with the deceased observing and commenting on the living. Emily has died in childbirth, and wants to relive one mundane day in her life, against the advice of the other residents of the cemetery. She chooses her 12th birthday, but finds that it's too painful to watch the careless way her family goes about the day, not realizing how precious each moment is, and begs to be returned to her grave.

Theater Latte Da "does theater musically," so they've added music to their production of Our Town in a really effective and organic way.* It's not a musical where characters break out into song, in fact songs never interrupt the flow of dialogue. Occasionally there is a soft musical undertone in some of the scenes, adding ambiance and color to the story, but most of the music comes before the show and during the two intermissions, when the cast (most of whom play instruments) sings and plays songs of the American Songbook, from traditional folk songs to Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin. It's as if we're watching a community celebrate and share music in between telling us their story (although it belies the line about there not being much interest in art and culture in Grover's Corners). Our Town is meant to have minimal sets, but this production takes it to the extreme. Walking into the gorgeous open space at the Lab Theater, the stage area contains only musical instruments and a few stools. Not much more is added during the play, other than a few chairs, benches, and ladders. It's extremely minimal, allowing the focus to be on the story and the music. The audience sits on both sides of the stage area, adding to the community feeling. The simple light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, occasionally lowered or darkened as the scene calls for, completes the mood of the piece. Nineteen actor/singer/musicians portray the residents of Grover's Corners, diverse in age, ability, and race. They often sit in the audience while not onstage, or come through various aisles, as if the audience makes up some of the rest of the 2642 residents of the town. It's such an incredible ensemble, each one of whom breathes life and color into their character and the story. A few favorites include: Warm and wonderful performances by all four actors playing the parents - Brian Grandison and Sara Ochs as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and Isabell Monk O'Connor and Dan Hopman as the Webbs. Blake Thomas' authentic country voice and great musicianship on the slide guitar, banjo, fiddle, etc. (he's one of my favorite local musicians - check out his albums on iTunes). Tod Peterson's trademark humor as the alcoholic choir director. A sad story with a sad ending, but it's hard not to laugh at Tod's carefully practiced walk barely disguising the drunken stagger. Mary Fox's animal sounds coming from the audience and hilarious wedding outbursts. The surprisingly sweet Irish tenor of David Carey. The adorable and talented children, especially 9-year-old Natalie Tran and her sweet brother/sister relationship with David Darrow's George.

A heartbreakingly beautiful solo by David towards the end of the second intermission, setting the tone for the somber final act. Our Town continues at the Lab Theater through April 6. Don't miss this chance to see an American classic in a fresh new music-enhanced production. It's simply beautiful.

*For me, Our Town naturally comes with musical accompaniment, since the only other production of the play I've seen, at Yellow Tree Theatre three years ago, also had music. Blake Thomas and Mary Fox also appeared in that production, and are currently creating a live radio show from Duluth called Take It With You, to premiere next month. Check out their website and Stay Tuned to Cherry and Spoon for more info.

Wendy Lehr takes on the Stage Manager in Latte Da's Our Town

City Pages By Ed Huyck

March 12, 2014

Wendy Lehr first encountered Thornton Wilder's Our Town as a teenager. "It was a watershed moment for me. We read it in English class. When my teacher got to Emily's speech, she was weeping in class. It opened my eyes a bit," she says. Lehr returns to the show starting this weekend, performing as the Stage Manager in Theatre Latte Da's music-infused production.

"It's a really interesting assignment," she says of the role. "In the best sense of the term, I consider myself a character actor. It is creating a character that is really interesting to me. What you bring to the Stage Manager is essentially yourself. You are the mouthpiece for Thornton Wilder. I have so few scenes where I interact with the other actors. Everything else is commentary and narration and description. You're just out there."

The play takes place in a small New England town and focuses on the rhythms and experiences of everyday life. The work grows increasingly cosmic, as much of the third act takes place in the graveyard among the characters who have died. Casting Lehr in a role traditionally played by a man isn't the only shift made by director Peter Rothstein. The company is multi-ethnic.

"I think Peter's idea was 'our' town -- this area and this time and the people who live here. He cast people whose faces are reflections of our town. It is not at all a museum production where everything is done the way it always has been done," she says.

There is also the music. A selection of turn-of-the-20th-century songs, from the likes of Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin, makes ups the score. To underscore the notion of this being an Our Town for the community, the company also serves as the orchestra.

"It works on several levels," Lehr says of the music. "It sets the time and the tone. You also see them in the community in several iterations. It is just lovely to see the constable picking on the banjo or Mr. Webb playing the string bass. It's an act of community that amplifies the sense of community in the play."

The whole experience has been "exhilarating. You don't just sit back and let the play wash over you. You are constantly challenged to listen to what the people are saying. The idea [of the production] has grown organically. It is revealing itself. That is very palpable," Lehr says.

Peter Rothstein Q&A: On his new 'then and now' staging of 'Our Town'

MinnPost By Pamela Espeland

March 13, 2014

It’s easy to dismiss Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Our Town” as simple, sentimental and bland. Set in the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., at the start of the 20th century, it has a minimal set and no scenery. The story is uncomplicated – the three acts are titled Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death – and the language plain-spoken, if by now a bit old-fashioned (the play was first performed in 1938). No wonder that on any given weekend during the school year, it’s being performed at a thousand high schools.

Peter Rothstein, founding director of Theater Latté Da, once sneered at this American chestnut. He wrote his final college paper on Wilder’s “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth,” skewering both. The same day he turned in his paper, he went to a performance of “Our Town” at a theater in Spring Green, Wis., and wept. He remembers that night as “one of the most thrilling and moving experiences I have ever had in the theater.”

Fresh from the success of his recent “Cabaret” at the Pantages, Rothstein brings his re-imagined “Our Town” to the Lab Theater starting Saturday for what he calls “my apology to Thornton Wilder 20 years later, to honor his great play with humility and an open heart.” He has assembled a diverse cast of actor musicians, added live music, made the marvelous Wendy Lehr the stage manager (the play’s narrator, sometime character and omniscient MC), and stripped down the set even further than Wilder did, which was radical for his time. We spoke with Rothstein last week.

MinnPost: Why “Our Town,” and why now?

Peter Rothstein: It’s the 75th anniversary of the play, so that was the first thing that made me say, “Maybe now is the time to do it. And maybe there’s a way to infuse it with music.” Latté Da doesn’t always do musicals, but music has to be instrumental to the storytelling.

It is America’s most popular play, our most produced play. There's a production of “Our Town” happening somewhere around the planet every day of the year. I thought – if our town today created “Our Town,” what would that look like? How could I make this play reflect Minneapolis to the best of my ability? What if I took this play and paired it with American popular song? That would be a way to diversify the voices. By adding music, I can now have African-American writers, Jewish-American writers, immigrant writers. We now have Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin and Stephen Foster and Charles Ives. And we have Latino actors and African-American actors and Asian-American actors. We have actors with disabilities.

MP: Because Grover’s Corners is pretty homogeneous.

PR: Very homogeneous. But right away, at the beginning of the play, [Wilder] puts the idea of diversity on the table. He tells us that the Methodists are over there, the Baptists are down by the river, and across the tracks are the Polish families and other foreigners, Canucks, who came to work in the mills. Even though we wouldn’t define that as diversity today, certainly in 1901 that would have been how we talked about diversity. I wanted the town to look like our town today.

We’re not doing New England accents, and we’re not doing period clothing. We’re doing contemporary dress with period accessories. So our little newspaper boy will put on the period newsboy cap, or the mother may don a tiered apron. I want the audience to see the then and the now at the same time. The actors are in contemporary dress, but they’re each donning one character signature piece.

MP: What about the set?

PR: We’re doing chairs and no tables, no trellis. I actually started out by saying I wasn’t going to do ladders. What happened with “Our Town” was the stripped-down set became its own kind of vocabulary, its own twee aesthetic. Our furniture is silver metal Windsor chairs. The ladders are 14-foot wooden ladders that have been brushed with a metallic pewter paint. The pieces themselves are period, but with a very contemporary finish. Again, this notion of the then and the now.

The other thing we’re doing is there’s a permanent bank of seats in the Lab Theatre, and we’ve built a parallel bank of seats opposite that. I’m staging the play stadium-style, like a football field, where the audience is on two sides. So the backdrop of the play for everyone seeing it is people in our town today. The actors enter and exit from the audience. They become part of the audience when they’re not part of the action.

MP: What else is new about this staging?

PR: There are 18 actors, and most are playing instruments. For me, in the design process, I’m always saying that when you put something in you have to take something away. Theater thrives in negative space. I’m adding music, but I’m taking away costumes. There’s very little scenery, but there’s banjo and guitar, mandolin and upright bass, flutes and pennywhistle, harmonica and chimes and piano, and an old pump organ. Tons of instruments.

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
The cast of Theatre Latté Da's "Our Town"

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about theater being this communal experience. It clearly is one, but in some ways it’s becoming less of one because people are rushing into the theater with their cellphone on down to the last possible second, and intermission comes up and the cellphone is back on, and the play ends and you beeline out of there to be the first one out of the parking ramp. For a play that is about community, I thought – how do I wake up that communal experience?

About 15 minutes before the show, actors meander on stage and begin performing songs. We’ve done our own arrangements with a more contemporary sensibility – the then and the now. And we actually roll right through the intermissions. After each act, the lights slowly come up and the action keeps rolling with music. We’ve picked a lot of music that has a great sense of joy, and this community making music together has a palpable energy.

MP: What do you think “Our Town” is about?

PR: I think it’s about how we live our lives, and how we’ll look back upon the life we’ve led. Do human beings ever really realize how wonderful the world is while they’re here? Ultimately, I think that’s what the play is about: how to live in the moment and embrace the power and the wonder and the beauty of your life for the relatively small fraction of time you get to live here.

[In Act III, the character] Emily says to her mother, “Can we just take a moment and look at each other – really look at each other in this moment? We’re all here. We’re all together. Can we just look at each other?” I think that message has become all the more important and vital in contemporary society. There’s so much that’s wonderful about the information age, and we have so many more tools to connect with one another, but I’m not sure it puts us more in the moment.

MP: Take us behind the scenes. Tell us about something that happened in rehearsals or during the planning – something especially memorable.

PR: We have an early Irving Berlin tune called “Play a Simple Melody.” Wendy and I had spent a day rehearsing on our own while the rest of the cast was off playing with music. They were running this number, and Wendy and I were sitting and watching, and it’s so silly in so many ways, and totally delightful – xylophone and accordion and piano and an amazing fiddle player. As the number keeps building, they keep adding more and more instruments, and then pretty soon five of them come out with bottles filled with water, including Isabell Monk, and they’re all making music out of blowing into bottles. Izzy has had this amazing career, and she’s there playing a bottle.

The number finishes, and I look over at Wendy, and tears are streaming down her cheeks, and she says, “It is so beautiful to see this collection of people making music together, so much joy and sense of play, and that’s what it’s all about.” She was so moved by something that seemed so silly, such a bauble. And that was pretty great.

Theater Latte Da and "Our Town"

June 25, 2013.by Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Several people have wondered what Theater Latte Da is going to do with “Our Town” next season. First, what the company is not doing: Ned Rorem’s opera based on the Thornton Wilder classic. It will be the play, said artistic director Peter Rothstein, with all the dialogue and scenes.

Behind the show, however, will be soundscapes and interspersed throughout will be songs sung by actors who play their own instrument. Actors who can do both, of course, don’t just grow on trees. Rothstein said over coffee that he plans to use contemporary dress and a multicultural cast that reflects a current community rather than the tweedy confines of Grover’s Corner, N.H. But the script will be just as it always has been.

Latte Da did something similar to this with 2012’s “Beautiful Thing,” which featured Erin Schwab stepping in and out to perform Cass Elliott songs between scenes. Also, 2003’s “Burning Patience” was a straight play with a soundscape that gave it a cinematic feel. Rothstein noted that “Patience” used a recorded score. “Our Town” will be all live, all the time. “Our Town” will run March 12-April 6 at the Lab Theatre in Minneapolis.

Latte Da starts its season in September with a fully staged “Steerage Song,” a piece that Rothstein created with Dan Chouinard a few years ago. They did a semi-staged concert version at the Fitzgerald Theatre in 2011. The show reflected the journey of European immigrants during the great wave that occurred around 1900. The creators have continued to work on the piece since then. It runs Sept. 25-Oct. 20, also at the Lab.

At the Pantages Theatre, Latte Da will partner up with the Hennepin Theatre Trust for two shows: “All is Calm,” with Cantus, is back for the Christmas slot, Dec. 19-22. Rothstein will stage “Cabaret” Jan.15-Feb. 9. Last season, Latte Da and the Trust started a collaboration called “Broadway Re-Imagined” with distinct takes on familiar musicals.

More information on the season is at theaterlatteda.com