UI theater students craft play from scratch with Moving Company


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A cross section of a dingy abandoned building sits in the Thayer Theater, featuring a rusty garage door, a locker stuffed with a long trench coat, and bricks, buckets, and books resting in front of the stage. It hardly seems the scene of anything spectacular — until an arm sprouts from the sleeve of the coat, and a man emerges from the locker, sits on the ground, and starts to tell a story.

Like most fairy tales, things in the fantastical new play Out of the Pan Into the Fire aren’t quite what they seem. But cast and crew said this was the founding principle of the upcoming Mainstage Series production premièring at 8 p.m. today, which was conceived, written, and produced in fewer than three months by University of Iowa theater students and professionals from the Minneapolis theater troupe the Moving Company.

The two were brought together through the Iowa Partnership in the Arts program, which strives to facilitate the production of cutting-edge work by allowing residents and students the freedom to experiment. This is demonstrated in the various visual and audio effects, original script, and off-color characters in Out of the Pan, which will then be performed by professionals at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis in May.

“I wanted to do something contemporary, but I didn’t want to do something didactic,” said director, cowriter, and cofounder of the Moving Company Dominique Serrand. “I thought if we did a fairy tale, you could really speak in a contemporary way that was more poetic and fantastic.”

Junior Elizabeth Hinkler, who plays Elsie, said the play combines drama and comedy with a dark effect.

“It’s more imaginative, fun, and expressive,” she said. “What is gruesome is funny, and some things are so funny, they’re tragic.”

This tone was accomplished largely by incorporating tricks of theatrical “magic” that the Moving Company is known for.

“We try to always use performance-oriented techniques, just because that’s the way we’ve always been — we’re more attracted by a theater that’s visceral,” Serrand said.

Along with music and sound effects, the set is designed to accommodate water leaks, wind, an opening and closing garage that reveals various moving scenes, teleporting limbs, and a giant spider, hatching bird, and other creatures.

RJ McGhee, who plays Angelo, said the cast focused on inventing illusions in quick flourishes, such as actor switch-outs and disappearances.

“We improvised and tried to make magical things happen with the coat,” he said, describing the trench coat from which he “appears” in the first scene. “It definitely adds to the play being fairy-tale-like, that these weird things are happening.”

UI freshman Ari Craven, who plays Roland, said the Moving Company’s focus on exhibition provided a learning experience for *Out of the Pan*’s actors.

“We come at it with more of an academic perspective, while they want to get us up on our feet and moving, as the Moving Company would,” he said. “Their ideas of hand and eye illusions bring a really good sense of magic to a theater, while we bring our technique.”

These skills were challenged from the beginning of production. When writers Steven Epp, Nathan Keepers, and Serrand arrived in Iowa City in November, they were armed with only a few monologues and concepts; the actors, who were cast before receiving parts, became part of the process of fleshing out the show’s characters, plot, and staging, based in part on Grimm Brothers’ tales.

“For the first about two weeks of rehearsal, it was pretty much all improvisation,” Craven said. “We had an idea of the range of characters we were looking for, [but] a lot of times we were working on our instincts. It’s really been a constantly changing production that’s constantly editing itself and making itself better.”

After winter break, the actors received their scripts, which feature the story of an old man named Angelo, who inconsistently recollects the story of his two youngest adoptive children — intelligent-to-a-fault Elsie and her fearless but dim-witted brother Thirteen — as they encounter monsters and mayhem in their isolated home.

Hinkler said the process of making a show from scratch was a liberating experience that gave the actors a crash course in post-college theater.

“It’s extremely collaborative, and sometimes, that’s scary for a lot of actors, but I actually really enjoy it because I know that it’s not set,” she said. “Everything is permeable; we have so much room to play and figure out what we want to share about these people and this world.”

Even as they entered their final rehearsals, the cast and crew said Out of the Pan is still evolving, and it will change even more when the play enters the professional stage. But Hinkler said the mission of the group’s first day remains its driving principle.

“We had to figure out ‘How do you tell a story?’ ” she said. “It’s like going back to being a kid again, and experiencing a fairy tale, and not knowing how it’s going to work out.”

What: Out of the Pan Into the Fire
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Feb. 13-16, 2 p.m. Feb. 10 & 17
Where: Theater Building Thayer Theater

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