Nebraska Rep presents ‘A Thousand Words’
calendar icon22 Jan 2020 user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen
Lincoln, Neb.--The Nebraska Repertory Theatre presents the powerful and innovative world premiere of "A Thousand Words,” directed by Nebraska Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Andy Park.
Performances are Feb. 14-23 in the Temple Building's Howell Theatre. Preview performance are Feb. 12-13. For tickets and showtimes, visit http://www.nebraskarep.org.
When Jeremiah Wolcott is tasked with consolidating what matters most in life to a single box, a poetic and powerful world of images unfolds.
“’A Thousand Words’ is unlike any piece of theatre I have ever seen or made before,” said senior Katie Schini, who is the assistant director. “It is a sentimental piece that will surely make you laugh as it touches your heart. It is a relatable story that will cause you to consider your own life and what matters most in it.”
The production is devised theatre, which is a method of theatre-making in which the script originates from a collaborative, often improvisatory work by a performing ensemble.
“In a typical rehearsal process, you start with a script. You’re working on the script, and it comes together pretty quickly,” Park said. “In devised theatre, you’re basically starting from scratch. In the rehearsal process, the actors are there, the designers are there, and everyone is collaborating together to create the script and to create the show from nothing.”
Schini said she loved devised theatre and was fascinated by the process.
“It is so intricate and personal,” she said. “I feel like artists learn a lot from devised work because the process asks us to really trust our instincts and creative ideas. So much of the work that ends up in the show comes from very personal places of the people involved. This was the first time I have been on this side of devised work—the directing side. This is also my first time assistant directing a full show. I have learned so much from this experience, not only as someone who is studying directing and acting, but also as a theatre artist.”
The result can be different from the initial expectation.
“The thing about devised theatre is that you can have an idea of what it’s going to be going into it, but the reality is, what it turns out to be could be very different from what you ever imagined, which is one of the thrills of doing devised theatre,” Park said. “It really is exciting and terrifying all wrapped into one.”
That was true for “A Thousand Words,” Park said.
“My expectation was that people would bring in photos, and we would create narratives and have them tell their real stories, and that would be a first-person, confessional-style show,” he said. “But that’s just not the artists that ended up coming together.”
Last semester, Park taught a class that met in the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, where they rehearsed and did demonstrations.
“We had a really talented fabricator in the class, Jill Hibbard, who is a graduate student, and so the show took off in this really surprising direction that involved a lot of puppetry, which I also have a lot of experience in,” Park said. “There are a variety of puppets in this show, including some of the most extraordinary and complicated puppets that I’ve ever worked with.”
Hibbard, in her third year of her Master of Fine Arts degree, was happy to take on the challenge.
“I’ve always had a love for puppets, so having this opportunity, in my last year of grad school, to design and build puppets has been incredible,” she said. “With a show like this, everything is so fast paced, and it’s impossible to predict what will be needed. It’s a great atmosphere to create in.”
One character that emerged to become the storyteller is a grandfather figure.
“This puppet is operated by two people, and his eyebrows raise up and down and his eyes blink, and he talks,” Park said. “Typically you don’t work with that level of mechanism, so it’s been cool to explore that.”
Hibbard is proud of the Grandpa puppet.
“I’m really proud of the human puppet characters, especially Grandpa,” she said. “They are the most complicated technically, and it’s always a challenge to create a human character that the audience will find charming enough to carry a show.”
Hibbard has built puppets before, but not quite like this.
“I’ve built some puppets for shows in the past, but nothing as varied and front and center as this,” she said. “I have a 20-year experience as a scenic artist, props master and set designer. Puppets fall into a unique combination of all those areas.”
The puppets range in size and scale from tiny to large-scale puppets.
“I’m up to 25 puppets as of now,” Hibbard said. “They range from multi-mechanism human puppets to scenic elements with a little surprise.”
“It’s been really fun to create this world,” Park said. “Instead of it being like a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s almost like each stage picture that we create, in itself, is the picture that’s worth a thousand words.”
Park said audiences should expect to be visually stunned by the production.
“I think that the visual imagery in the show is really cool, and it’s very old school in the techniques that are used,” he said. “So often, we’re pushing the boundaries of the technology that we use, and so to go back and use techniques that have been used since the beginning of the theatre, it’s just fun to remember how powerful those tools are.”
He also said audiences should expect to laugh a lot.
“I think a lot of times when people hear puppetry, they think, oh it’s for children,” he said. “We know that’s not the case. Certainly with ‘Avenue Q,’ ‘War Horse’ and ‘Lion King,’ theatre is starting to really embrace puppetry, and so it becomes a really important tool that we can use. And it does do lighthearted well. There are moments of great levity, and there are moments where you’re like, ‘Why am I feeling emotional? I’m at a puppet show.’ Only a puppet could pull that off.”
Schini said audiences will see something unlike anything they have seen before.
“Audiences should come ready to strap in and enjoy a ride of emotion and laughter while experiencing a story that we can all relate to,” she said.
The cast includes eight people, including two that operate the Grandpa puppet, Matthew Blom and Phil Crawford. The other six actors play a variety of roles.
“Grandpa is a puppet that stands about a foot shorter than me,” Crawford said. “His legs are my legs, and my left arm is his left arm. I have had to learn to walk, gesture and move as an old man, while also working with another person who is also operating the puppet. At first it was almost impossible, but we have worked to get it down to every gesture so that Grandpa can tell the story as well as possible.”
Park’s cast and crew embraced the concept of devised theatre.
“I think everyone has been up for it, and that’s why it’s working,” Park said. “The students that were in the class, I can’t say enough about them, from our lighting designer, our set designer, our puppet maker—all of them. They really did buy into the idea and did so much work. Everyone was on board. I think everyone is a little bit terrified because it’s a brand-new show, and we came up with it from nothing. We hope people like it, and I think they will. I think they’re going to find it fascinating.”
Hibbard enjoyed the process.
“What surprised me was how much I enjoyed working on the script and figuring out what we were trying to say,” she said. “It was an interesting change in design perspective when the show is being developed and designed at the same time—really cool things happen.”
Crawford liked being in a devised show.
“Being in a devised show is fantastic because you get to create it,” he said. “If there’s something you don’t like, you can cut it and if there’s something you do like, you can use it! There are worlds of opportunity in your hands.”
Park said devised theatre is a great experience.
“It’s a wonderful way to work,” he said. “So much of the time in theatre, we put so much emphasis on the playwright and the playwright’s intentions and the script, and we forget, hey, wait a minute. We’re artists, and we have a world view, and we have the ability to create something from nothing. Devised theatre is that opportunity to remember that and to create something with the people that you’re with and to tell a story that no one else will be able to tell again. It’s this group and what we’re telling right now.”
Hibbard said audiences should expect a really powerful and unique experience.
“It will definitely change what most people think of when they think of a puppet show,” she said. “I’m really excited for people to see it.”