Knock! Knock!

January 13, 2006.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Who’s there? Jim Lichtscheidl, who reaches back to the innocence of youth in making “Knock!”.

Jim Lichtscheidl is as happy as a kid with a new toy.

“This is what I used to dream about, making a play with my friends and my sister,” said the actor-cum-auteur. “It’s what you write about in your seventh-grade journal – ‘I want to make a show with my friends.’”

The source of Lichtscheidl’s joy is his eclectic “Knock!” which opens Saturday at the Loring Playhouse in Minneapolis. An early version was one of the top-selling shows in the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Now Lichtscheidl has worked with director Peter Rothstein of Theatre Latté Da to expand the piece to about 90 minutes with intermission. As they were in the Fringe, Eriq Nelson and Ken Rosen – buddies since their days at Mankato State – and sister Lisa Spreeman are Lichtscheidl’s play mates.

“Knock!” collates recorded and live video, animation, live performance and music in an effort to capture the world of a 12-year-old boy. Lichtscheidl plays wide-eyed Toehead, and the others fill in as mom, dad and big sister. There can’t be more than 20 words of dialogue in the entire work, but the Fringe version felt terribly witty and heady. Lichtscheidl rummaged through his childhood memories and old videos for ideas. One scene, for example, is a video of Toehead’s sister in ecstatic frenzy after opening a Christmas present; it’s based on a video of Lichtscheidl’s sister on the Christmas she got a watch.

In interviewing Lichtscheidl, it seems like his whole life has pointed at this project. He talked about using his sister’s video camera as a kid and making such movies as “Toro, Toro, Toro” about a lawnmower that attacked children. Or the time he and a friend did a music video with tennis racquets as guitars.

“They’re my muse,” he said of the tapes.

Lichtscheidl grew up in Lino Lakes with five siblings, including his older sister, Lisa.

“She’s probably the reason I became an actor,” he said, recounting how he watched in awe as she performed in “Godspell” in high school.

He followed her onto that stage and did well enough that he won a theater scholarship to Mankato State University. He intended to become a speech communications teacher but the scholarship required him to spend time in the theater and he met Nelson and Rosen.

Critics in the early 1990s heralded Lichtscheidl as a bright new face in the Twin Cities theater scene as he built his reputation as a rubber-limbed clown. He found a seminal training ground at the Brave New Workshop in the mid-1990s

“Improv lifted the top of my head,” he said. “It let the air in and a huge light bulb went on.”

“His talent and propensity for Physical comedy – not to mention two wide and curious eyes – have allowed him to work regularly at the Guthrie, Jeune Lune, Jungle, Park Square and Ten Thousand things. In 1998 he was hired for an entire season at the Guthrie and said he was very pleased to write “actor” on his tax return.

Something completely different

At first blush, “Knock!” seems an odd fit for Latté Da, the company fast building a reputation for its musical theater. Rothstein though, feels it’s in line with the mission.

“We create new connections between text, music, artist and audience by exploring and expanding the art of musical theater,” he said. “’Knock!’ is different in that there is no singing, but it’s definitely musical storytelling. The music inspires the story.”

Latté Da has been on something of a roll lately in rethinking the musical, with a chamber version of “La Bohème” (yes technically opera rather than musical theater) last winter and a collaboration last fall with Arena Dance that was primarily a dance piece on the dance marathons of the 1930s. “Knock!” seems another attempt to push at the edges.

“It’s completely new and unlike everything we’ve ever done,” said Rothstein.

The collaboration started when Lichtscheidl did a short snippet of “Knock!” during a Latté Dark cabaret performance a few years ago. Several board members encouraged Rothstein to pursue the work. Following the Fringe success in 2004, the two looked through audience responses for what worked, what didn’t and what people wanted see more of. Lichtscheidl calls the form “storyography,” a combination of movement and music in telling a story.

“The main goal is to get people to laugh,” he said.

While he is thoroughly happy working in Twin Cities theater, Lichtscheidl said he would love to pursue movies – not as a Hollywood actor but as a maker. That kid-like curiosity leads him to sit in front of his computer with iMovie and he sounds very serious when he talks about his dreams.

“Movies can be made with just a little digital camera,” he said. “it’s just a matter of memory in the hard drive.”

For now, it’s lichscheidl’s memory that is the source for “Knock!"