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ISSUE 120 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/13/2006

Ole teacher and alumnus direct at Guthrie

By Anne Torkelson
Arts Editor

Friday, October 13, 2006

Introducing playwright Neil Simon at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling called him, "without exaggeration or a smile, “the greatest playwright in the world."” Dowling may not be far off the mark – Simon is the only playwright in history with 15 "Best Plays" of their seasons, three Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Broadway theater named after him, 30 plays (including “The Odd Couple”), 25 films and two memoirs.

The play that won Simon his Pulitzer was “"Lost in Yonkers,"” which is now playing at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and is being directed by St. Olaf’'s own Gary Gisselman.

Gisselman has been the Artistic Director of the St. Olaf Theater Program since 2000. Unbeknownst to many non-theater students, Gisselman directs outside of St. Olaf in addition to his teaching on the Hill. His own list of credentials includes: Twin Cities Kudos Awards, Zoni Awards (Arizona Critics Awards), founding artistic director of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, artistic director of the Arizona Theatre Company, associate artistic director of The Children’s Theatre Company, director of the University of Minnesota’s Opera Theatre, director of “Simpatico,” “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie, the latter since 2001, and now, “"Lost in Yonkers.”"

Full of the humor for which Simon is famous, “Lost in Yonkers” is the story of a family living in New York in the summer of 1942. The play revolves around Grandma Kurnitz (Rosaleen Linehan), a Jewish German by birth who, as a 12-year-old, watched her father get beaten to death at a political rally in Berlin and had her foot crushed under a horse. Grandma’'s determination to live – and to live strongly – caused her to shut out her children, each with their own problems born from the absence of love. “"As so many American plays are, [“Lost in Yonkers”] is built around family dynamics,”" Gisselman said. “It’'s really an interesting play.”

When Simon was writing the play, Gisselman said, it started off as a story about Louie the Gangster, a character inspired by Simon’'s own relative who might have been working for a mob-run company and one day disappeared. "Simon “was always intrigued by this idea, but Bella just sort of took over the play,"” Gisselman said. Though the gangster Louie (Stephen Pelinski) is a character in “Lost in Yonkers,” Bella (Finnerty Steeves), his sister, is the real soul of the story. Though she was born with scarlet fever and thinks like a 12-year-old in a 35-year-old’s body, Bella understands enough to recognize the pain that her mother – has inflicted upon the family, and that " need to love someone who will love me back before I die."

The play "is unique in some ways in that it’s all set in one location – so many plays are episodic now,"” Gisselman said. “One of the challenges of the production, if not the play, is to set the stage so it can work on a thrust stage.”

As its name suggests, a thrust stage protrudes into the theater space so that the audience surrounds the stage on three sides. A proscenium stage is the more traditional type of framed stage. The Guthrie has both types of stages, but “Lost in Yonkers” is playing on the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage.

Though Simon originally wrote “Lost in Yonkers” for a proscenium stage, Gisselman thinks performing the show on a thrust stage works well. “"I really love the design of [the production],”" Gisselman said. Having the show on a thrust stage "makes the play play differently. I love it  –I'’d work on that stage for the rest of my life if I could.”"

"Another challenge of the production," Gisselman said, "is working with four boys at one time." The roles of 13-year-old Arty (Dylan Frederick and Ryan Howell) and 15-year-old Jay (Noah Madoff and Ryan McCartan) are played on alternate nights by two different sets of actors. The schedule allows them some time off. “"The boys are terrific,"” Gisselman said.

Frederick, who also worked with Gisselman in last year’'s “A Christmas Carol,” said, “"I think [Gisselman] is very good at working with kids, and he’'s very open to ideas. He doesn'’t just go with his own ideas, but let's other people elaborate, which is very good for actors. They need to do that.”"

Rehearsals for “"Lost in Yonkers"” began in July. "“You actually start working on [a production] about six months before, because designs for clothes and designs for sets have to be done well in advance,”" Gisselman said. As director, he saw the production through rehearsals, tech week (when rehearsals are moved to the stage), preview week (dress rehearsals performed for an audience) and opening night.

As for the new Guthrie, Gisselman loves it, but notes that he spends most of his time in the rehearsal spaces and not in those frequented by audience members. “"I think it’'s a really fascinating building,”" he said. “"I love that it’s on the river, and I love all the areas.”"

So how does Gisselman balance teaching and directing? It’'s hard, he admitted, but he loves teaching and thinks directing at other places benefits the St. Olaf theater program. “"I really do love teaching here,”" he said. “"I think the students are bright and that it’'s a strong theater program […] not just that it’'s a strong theater program, but that it’'s in the context of the liberal arts.”"

Gisselman is not the only Ole who worked on "“Lost in Yonkers"” – alumnus Max Wojtanowicz ’'06 joined him on the production as an intern director. “"Working at the Guthrie has been an amazing experience,”" Wojtanowicz said. “"The new building is incredible, and the technical support staff there is made up of the absolute best people you can find.”"

Wojtanowicz had expressed interest to Gisselman about working with him again, and Gisselman suggested an internship on “Lost in Yonkers.” Wojtanowicz didn'’t know the play before taking on the internship, “but "I read it this summer before rehearsals started and loved it. As we worked on it, I loved it more and more. Each day brought new discoveries about the play and the characters, and by the time it opened, it really became a very powerful and intimate show at the same time, which is not an easy feat to produce in a 1,100-seat house.”"

See “"Lost in Yonkers"” at the Guthrie now through Nov. 12. Look for student-priced tickets, and congratulate Gisselman and Wojtanowicz for their work in creating an entertaining and moving production.

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