Condo residents put on a play -- way off Broadwayby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
The Twin Cities area is known for its seemingly countless theater offerings.
There are the biggies, like the Guthrie and the Ordway. Then there are the more intimate stages, like the one in the basement of an Edina condominium.
For many, interaction with the neighbors is often limited to inquires like, "Can you collect my mail when I'm out of town?" or "Are you going to make your dog stop barking or should I call the police?"
Things are a little different over at the Brookside Court Condominiums in Edina, Minnesota. Residents here not only say "Hi" to each other in the hallway, they also get together to perform off-Broadway plays.
On this night, it's Joe DiPietro's comedy "Over the River and Through the Woods." And it's being staged WAY off Broadway, says cast member Dick Bormes, in the condo's party room.
"It looks like a 1962 rec room in somebody's basement," says Bormes.
In one corner is an old TV set, in the other a kitchenette complete with whirring refrigerator. About two dozen condo residents have gathered on couches and folding chairs to check out the dramatic talents of neighbors like Susanna Skripnik.
"When you're a kid," says Skripnik, "you put on puppet shows in the backyard and you invite all the neighbors and the parents to come. That's kinda the feeling this is. It's sort of like the backyard play."
To understand how five non-actors ended up doing dramatic readings in the musty basement of a suburban condominium, you need to meet actress, director and Brookside resident Anita O'Sullivan.
"I'm always looking for something fun to do here," explains O'Sullivan. "And I thought, 'What could I do?' I don't even know how to make coffee, for goodness sakes. But I know about plays."
O'Sullivan's been part of the Twin Cities theater scene for over four decades and currently works at The Old Log Theater in Greenwood.
While some people ask their neighbors if they can borrow a cup of sugar, O'Sullivan asked hers if she could direct them in a stage show.
At first, the responses went a bit like this:
"Oh, I couldn't possibly."
But O'Sullivan doesn't like to take "no" for an answer.
"I downplayed it a little bit," reveals O'Sullivan, "I'd just whet them on the content of the play and what a fun thing it is, you know, and I'd say, 'Well, Betty's going to do it and Shirley's going to do it.'"
Soon she had a stable of thespians - or, more accurately, a group of people willing to give acting a try. Cast members practiced their parts around a dining room table. After a few weeks, O'Sullivan decided they were ready to take the show public and she set the publicity machine in motion.
"I just sit at my little computer," says O'Sullivan, "and do up a little flyer and stick it on the bulletin board."
This theater troupe is luckier than most -- it's got a built-in audience base.
"I'm on the second floor so I just came down," says one resident.
"It's wonderful," says another. "We don't have to drive anywhere. This is just perfect."
On this snowy Friday evening, condo residents flooded into the rec room. Some came in sports jackets, others in bedroom slippers. All sat intently, watching their neighbors tackle DiPietro's tale of a 20-something and his grandparents.
You might say the members of this company adhere to the minimalist aesthetic. For this, the fourth show they've staged, costuming consisted of a kitchen apron and a pair of suspenders. One of the group's previous offerings called for a barking dog. O'Sullivan supplied the sound effects for that one.
"I sat over there and I barked, 'Bow wow wow wow. Ruff ruff ruff.'"
The theatergoers weren't at all bothered by the lack of props or that the lighting design amounted to florescent ceiling bulbs.
"I came once before," says one resident. "I was so impressed with it that I brought two of my friends tonight." "It was just a marvelous experience," says another.
As the show's director, O'Sullivan loves the rave reviews. But what means even more to her is knowing that, in a society where many don't even know their neighbors' names, this play was able to create connections.
"You saw people laughing here," says O'Sullivan. "You saw people weeping here. Wow. Imagine to touch somebody like that. There's a bond you never lose."
And it's a bond that's rarely cultivated by the more typical neighborly interactions, like, say, ramming the end of a broomstick into the ceiling to let the guy upstairs know your thoughts on the volume of his stereo.
- All Things Considered, 03/06/2009, 6:25 p.m.