Food for the soul

BY GRACE HAERR | APRIL 16, 2015 5:00 AM

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Food is the foundation of many a hallowed tradition, from the Jewish festival Passover in which unleavened bread called matzo is eaten during a week of prayer to the annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival held in Des Moines, in which attendees consume more than 15,000 pounds of bacon in a single day. Almost all cultures and communities come together under a culinary banner.

“Food is really the central part of any gathering,” said Charles Swanson, the executive director of Hancher. “Food drives our lives; food drives our economy.”

Food was the driving force in the creation of All Recipes Are Home, a musical by Working Group Theater, a local professional theater company that has toured nationally performing its original works.

“So much personal history that you can’t find in textbooks comes from food. These stories live on from generation to generation and are kept alive through conversation, art, and of course cooking,” said Cara Viner, an actor in All Recipes Are Home.

Working Group Theater and Hancher have partnered for the conception and production of All Recipes Are Home, accompanied by the band Awful Purdies. The show will première inside a historic barn on the Johnson County Fairgrounds at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Both showings are sold out. 

“This piece is a collaboration not only between theater artists and musicians, but with our communities across the state where these conversations of food and family history were brought to light, and we have the incredible opportunity to bring them to life for others,” Viner said.

Complementing the barn’s character are barrels of hay scattered on the set. Coffee-can lanterns strung between ladders for lighting accentuate the interior of a decades-old barn in which All Recipes Are Home will début. 

“I love that this show is taking place in a barn. What is more iconic and has more history in Iowa than a barn?” said Katie Roche, a member of Awful Purdies. “It’s really a clever and unusual use of musicians and use of space.”

With agriculture a centerpiece of Iowa’s livelihood, interviews with real Iowa farmers will be included in the play.

“Every Working Group show uses interviews with people involved with the issue central to the show,”said Sean Lewis, the artistic director of Working Group Theater. “So this was just a natural connection.” 

Hancher and Working Group made a connection nearly three years ago, when the organizations first starting planning their new musical. At the same meeting, they established the UI’s theme semester for spring 2015, “Food For Thought.”

“We [at Hancher] had thought ourselves about a play featuring food and we met to find they were on the same page,” Swanson said. “We both were pleased and thought it was time for a more joyous subject. This one was quite serendipitous.”

In the past, Hancher and Working Group Theater have covered more serious themes in their productions, including Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, cyber bulling, and the changing demographics in the community.

“As a lover of food and community, the Food for Thought Theme speaks strongly to me,” Viner said. “… We all have stories of where we come from and how food fits into that. I have memories of my grandmother's famous chocolate chip cookies and we still have the crumbled piece of paper she wrote it on decades ago while in Charleston, West Virginia.”

All Recipes Are Home is the fifth “full-length” play Hancher has commissioned with Working Group Theater since 2009. In their 40 year history, Swanson said Hancher has commissioned more than 100 new musical, dance, and theater works.

While food was already on the table, a musical was not in the original plan for the performance.

“I knew if I was writing a play about food then I was also throwing a party. And if it’s a party it needs music,” Lewis said. “When the Purdies came on board I then started to look at what their involvement would be ... they have such amazing songs that it felt like the songs needed to be part of the show. And if they were part of the show then the actors should sing and ... once that happens you basically have a musical.”

Awful Purdies is an all-female quintet with a modern folk sound including Katie Senn on cello, Katie Roche on accordion, Nicole Upchurch on banjo, Marcy Rosenbaum on mandolin, and Sarah Driscoll on guitar.

“Sometimes we are simply setting a mood behind the scene or building a landscape behind the performers that lets the audience know how they should feel in the same way an orchestra does,” Roche said.

The musicians will not be playing in a pit like an orchestra would. Roche, who is also acting in the play and serving as a narrator, said the band will perform alongside the cast.

“I absolutely love having them on stage; they act as the heartbeat of the story and uplift us to a higher level of passion and artistry,” Viner said.

Lewis drew from the Awful Purdies’ existing work when adapting sound to the stage, Roche said.

 “There is so much dedication that goes into finding a place for a song to live within the narrative,” she said. “Sean has dug into our last two albums. It’s really wild and wonderful to have a song that I wrote eight years ago now live in this theatrical landscape suddenly. It’s exciting to me that a work could be so flexible.”

All Recipes Are Home is Lewis’ first musical project, presenting challenges he found stimulating.

“I liked that a musical scared me,” he said. “Each Working Group show usually incorporates something that could fail miserably, otherwise I get bored. That can sound flippant, but it's true.

“So with our shows we tend to invite in a dancer or a visual artist or someone from a discipline I know nothing about. It then changes how you have to approach the work for better or worse. In the very least it's exciting.”

In All Recipes Are Home, Viner said, she transforms between two separate characters: Tilly, the storyteller’s daughter who invites an interactive story of her family; and Erin, the storyteller’s grandmother, who sets out to find her love Josef and discovers who she truly is along the way.

“Everyone is so invested. We see traces of all our input in every aspect of the play and it’s a really empowering way to get to work,” Roche said.

For an audience with an appetite, dining tables are to be set in front of the stage – guests are encouraged to pack a picnic and enjoy it throughout the ensemble. Ticketholders can also purchase non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages at the venue, while cans will be collected at the door to benefit Iowa City food banks and United Way.

“I think it will immediately become a communal event,” Lewis said. “We often go to the theater and don't pay much mind to the people around us. Theater is meant to be communal but we still have very isolated and singular experiences … I think sitting next to people you don't know and sharing a meal with a performance in front of you is really exciting. So simple and obvious, but essential.”

Working Group Theater: All Recipes Are Home
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Johnson County Fairgrounds
Admission: $10-$30 (Sold Out)

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