Under Construction highlights individual acts

BY LAURA WILLIS | APRIL 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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When Martin Andrew’s 3-year-old daughter was sick last week, he re-experienced the fear and hope he experienced when she was born. He felt like he was new father again, anxiously waiting in a hospital. Those emotions are what inspired him to write A Different Seat, a 15-minute play about fatherhood.

“It’s a piece about the father I want to be, the father I need to be,” Andrews said.

He will join four other solo performers Friday and Saturday at Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., for the first part of Under Construction Solo Festival, a selection of individual acts presented by the Working Group Theatre. The second part will showcase two full-length performances by nationally known performers Leslie Ishii and Working Group Theatre Artistic Director Sean Christopher Lewis. The shows will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. May 1 at Riverside Theatre. Tickets are $12 for students, $15 for general admission, and they are valid for both weeks.

“There’s just a great power and honesty in seeing a person tell a story,” Lewis said. “Acting a solo performance is a challenge. I get completely terrified and nervous, but that’s a part of it. It demands something of you on a whole other level.”

Lewis, who is best known for his raw solo performances, including award-winning Killadelphia, will showcase his play Just Kids for the festival. Like Andrews, Lewis developed his narrative through true accounts.

The story focuses on the playwright’s experience teaching acting for three months in Kansas in 2007, where he worked with children who came from emotionally traumatic environments. As he began to understand the students better through acting and writing classes, he started to draw parallels to his own life. He remembered watching his father drink excessively, eventually making him sick.

Compared with his other solo performances, Just Kids only requires him to portray 12 characters, unlike the usual 20 or 30. The stage isn’t elaborately decorated — it primarily consists of Lewis with a tape player and his father’s loveseat. Recorded conversations of Lewis’s relatives discussing events play throughout the piece.

“There’s something simplistic about it,” Lewis said. “Right from the beginning, I make an agreement with the audience that I’m not going to trick them. It’s just going to be me telling them a story.”

Ishii will also present a full-length play during the second part of Under Construction. Her performance of I Have a Spine details Ishii’s life as a Japanese-American and trying to understand her family’s experiences in the internment camps during World War II.

She began researching her family’s history after she was diagnosed with scoliosis, a condition involving “abnormal lateral curvature of the spine,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary.

She discovered that her aunt, who had been held in an internment camp, had also battled the illness. After meeting with several doctors, Ishii learned from one that scoliosis was caused by tension.

The actor has greatly expanded the play, which once was only 15 to 20 minutes long. She has tried to keep the spirit of the small play alive by portraying 10 characters and incorporating Suzuki acting — a Japanese style of acting that focuses on the actor’s energy in the lower body.

“The facial and body movements can move into this grotesque, very extreme expression of something,” Ishii said. “I touch on some of that theater genre to express the depths that some of the characters go through.”

Like I Have a Spine, the plays in Under Construction are consistently evolving. With short performances, Working Group Theatre believes that the pieces are in their most essential form. With exposure, performances can continue to be developed into something more.

“We are willing to present these pieces for the first time in a theater,” Andrews said. “That’s the way that plays get made better. It’s the way that plays get made.”

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