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Theatre group highlights local issues in its productions

BY SAMANTHA GENTRY | MARCH 03, 2011 7:20 AM

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Jennifer Fawcett believes Working Group Theatre is a company with a conscience. The cofounder wants to produce works that are thought-provoking and create an effect in the Cultural Corridor.

“We want to use theater as a springboard for conversation in the community and, with that, getting people to come into the theater to talk about it,” Fawcett said.

Working Group isn’t the type of company to put on a typical Shakespeare piece. Don’t be surprised if the troupe puts a twist on a traditional play by reinterpreting the story and bringing it to a nontraditional audience, such as a prison or a shelter. The group’s focus, however, is to highlight original and relevant productions and tell stories that are brought from the fringes to the spotlight.

While most of Working Group’s productions are long-term projects, it also has monthly events that bring a little risk to the actors and a little fun and entertainment to the audience. One such example is Bingo Bedlam.

Working Group will present Bingo Bedlam at 7:30 p.m. March 6 at Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St. Admission is $5 at the door.

Bingo Bedlam, a show created by cofounder Martin Andrews, the company’s producing director, is a marriage between playing bingo and improv comedy. Based on the Chicago show “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” Bingo Bedlam is one of the most ridiculous and fun productions the company puts on, Andrews said.

Not all productions are as fun as Bingo Bedlam. Aside from the company’s monthly events, Working Group also wants to produce major plays at Riverside because it is a company in residence with the theater.

Since the company’s formation in 2009, the three cofounders were interested in what was happening in the Iowa City community and bringing those stories to the stage.

The company was formed by Fawcett, Andrews, and Sean Christopher Lewis, who all received M.F.A.s from the University of Iowa. After touring, writing plays, and acting all over the country, the trio of former Hawkeyes had a goal of starting their own theater troupe.

Working Group is working on several projects that are sure to get people talking and make a statement in the Iowa City community.

One project, titled Under Construction, will be the company’s second show in residence at Riverside. Its title comes from the belief that new theatrical work is in a constant state of development. It will feature two original solo plays — one written by Associate Artistic Director Fawcett called “Three Maps,” an autobiographical travelogue that questions where we’re meant to be, and the second, “I Have a Spine,” written by guest artist Leslie Ishii of Los Angeles, about the effects of war on our bodies. The event will also feature a reading series by local authors.

Lewis’ long-term project deals with the influx of families who move from Chicago to Iowa and how Iowa City is dealing with diversity as a whole. Lewis, as an artist, is excited to tell a story about how a lot of communities and cultures in Iowa City have to deal with this issue.

The project is in the interviewing process, which will then be turned into a play. Lewis said the political and social piece will integrate a lot of music, mainly hip-hop, video and projections, and scenery from an art-installation artist. The New York native’s goal is to make the play look more like an interesting museum than just something that you sit back and watch.

“There are a lot of interesting and fascinating stories that happen in the Midwest that people should be aware of around the country,” Lewis said. “How race is working in the country is a conversation I want to start here and then eventually bring around the country, with a lot of rap music.”

Andrews is partnering with the UI Center of Human Rights to create a production, titled Make It Better Iowa, about the true coming-out stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Iowans.

Working Group’s members said they’re striving to make a difference in the Iowa City community with the productions and hope to eventually have an international collaboration with other theater companies.

Ryan West, the senior vice president of West Music Co., works on the music side of the theater industry, collaborating with Riverside and other local theaters. He believes that Working Group Theatre is creating a new level of artistic rigor and creativity to the Iowa City area.

“Iowa City continues to build and develop its creative voice, and a company such as Working Group demonstrates how a company can create and sustain artistic talent in Iowa City,” West said. “They are truly talented artists creating anew.”


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