A Christian and an Atheist Walk Into a Bar

Uncommon Loons Theatre Company

13418753_625309517627551_3136932056967622599_nA Christian and an atheist walk into a bar… they order a pitcher of beer, rehearse a play, and enjoy some live jazz thereafter.

One of the great things about a small, two-man show? You can do just that. Rehearse anywhere at anytime, provided both actor/directors are available.

The beauty of the situation was amplified by the stage directions in the script that require eating and drinking. The popcorn and IPA before the actors served well.

And thus begins the rehearsing of ‘Pistachios’ which will premier early August at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Whether you’re Christian, atheist, or just a lover of theatre, it’s a show anyone can empathize and everyone can enjoy!

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Building a Butterfly

i-MLSD7zL-LThe climax of our show ‘Ziibi’ was going to be a butterfly, and it was going to be awesome. We wanted to end with a ‘wow’! We wanted a huge butterfly, larger than life, ending the show by flying over the audience. Unfortunately, live theatre exists in a world with laws of physics and gravity.

I don’t have pictures of the building process, because it was a frustrating series of trials and errors and dead end ideas. At first we thought we could somehow attach enormous butterfly wings to a quadcopter and flap the wings with the movement of the drone up and down. That led down a path that seemed more plausible of buying or building an ornithopter that could be flown by remote control and have actual flapping mechanics keep the butterfly in flight. Besides being expensive, that also didn’t prove to be practical because of the speed it would have to travel, which would not give us the control we would need for stage. I bought a $50 ornithopter RC bird, that we thought might also be usable as birds in another number for the show. I tried extending the wings into a caterpillar, but the little, light-weight flyer did not have the torque needed for large butterfly wings.

i-v2FfwGV-LThen I figured I could build a motorized ornithoper to power the wings, but then suspend it hanging from a pole to control the speed and not have to worry about keep it in flight. I bought a little RC car and destroyed it for the motor. Again, the puny little motor didn’t have nearly enough torque to drive the large wings. Around the same time, I had ordered an ornithopter kit to build a rubberband-powered flyer. It taught me the mechanics needed, but as a small light-weight flyer, it wasn’t what I needed for such a large prop.

In the end, I built a non-flying ornithopter, which is held on a stick, powered by the puppeteer driving a PVC sleeve up and down along the handle, which powers the rods to flap the wings. Although it was built, my time with it wasn’t finished. It required numerous repairs and replacements, as the wooden dowel rods couldn’t hold the strain from the torque of the wings. Alas, it’s not much of a story, but it was certainly a learning experience.

Making a Moose

In creating a visually intriguing show celebrating life on the Mississippi and in the Minnesota wilderness, it seemed having a more-or-less life-sized moose could be pretty cool. We found some stilt designs for cosplay satyrs and werewolves and adapted them for a quad-stilt application. I had started plotting out the plan to build this in an earlier post, but now the puppet/costume is complete and so here’s a review.

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IMG_2735Oddly enough, building the stilts was more or less the easy part. The strapping system proved to be more difficult. Eventually we screwed a pair of old shoes to the 2×4’s and secured the shin rest to the leg with industrial Velcro strapping. Several people explained concerns of safety, but with 2×4’s, GRK fasteners, and metal supports, I feel that we built it with sufficient security.

IMG_3014As with the construction of the heron, we planned to make the head from a reed or sapling frame covered in fabric. This proved to be impractical for several reasons. Needing to be strong but light-weight, we ended up constructing the head from a couple of re-purposed milk jugs secured with hot glue and duct tape. Antler were made from foam sheets and backer rod, and the head was extended by two dowels from an old construction helmet. The front-heavy apparatus had to be secured down the back via two cords that hooked onto the actors’ rear belt loops. Needless to say, it also became a wicked wedgie-maker.

IMG_3020 We started with a brown primer to bring the milk jug, tape, and all components into a uniform color. Then we waffled on whether to keep it a traditional brown moose, to go with a red Dala moose, or two what we ended with, which was a blue moose that fit the palette of the show better than the red Dala moose we had been planning. A re-purposed graduation gown turned upside-down served as the cape and covering for the actor.


Actor Nick Pritchard testing the stilts

Our moose actor, Nick, took to the stilts quickly and became rapidly proficient. He was able to mount and dismount the stage from the adjacent boat and ascend and descend the slope running along the audience. The forelegs were re-purposed crutches donated by one of our cast members. We covered the crutches with pipe insulation to thicken them, and added hooves made from backer rod.


Moose in performance. Photo credit: Jennifer Mariano

The only shame is that ‘Marvin the Moose’ didn’t get more stage time in the show, but there was some charm in his rare, elusive appearances. (As a side note, Nick got pretty good on the stilts and could even walk upright. When walking upright, he bore a striking resemblance to the wendigo of Ojibwe lore.)


Moose in performance among the birches. Photo credit: Jennifer Mariano

Making a Heron


Heron in progress.

In a story celebrating life on the Mississippi, one of the first visual elements we wanted for the show ‘Ziibi’ was a life-sized heron interacting with characters and audience. Originally the hope and concept was to build the heron mostly out of natural materials, such as a body framed with young, flexible saplings or reeds covered by dyed fabric. For various reasons, that proved to be impractical, and so we ended up constructing the bird mostly from plastic, and mostly from recycled materials. The body may be recognizable as a 5 gallon water cooler jug, which I had several laying in my basement from buying water to make home brew. Legs were constructed from PVC left over from another project.


Heron in progress.

Feathers were made from various recycled milk jugs, which incidentally don’t hold paint very well. We’d recommend sanding them first so that the paint can stick. Breast and crest feathers were made from zip ties, and the neck was a flexible vinyl hose, and the head from a quart-sized milk bottle. So although the heron wasn’t made from natural, local materials as originally hoped, at least she was about 75% recycled/reused material.


Sharon the Heron before her paint job. And before her footwork.

Without movement, a puppet like our heron is just a pile of lifeless plastic. It takes talent and skill to bring such an inanimate object to life and give it character. Our puppeteer, Rachel Randle, studied YouTube videos of heron movement and did an applaudable job of bringing the bird to life and giving Sharon the Heron characterization. Little things like leading the walk with the movement of the head, shaking water off the head, and preening itself were subtle tricks that made the audience see a living heron and not a pile of recycled plastic held by an actor.


Heron in performance. Photo credit: Jennifer Mariano

Building the heron, as well as the other props and puppets, was a series of experiments, bouts of trial and error, trouble-shooting, and repair. Originally designs were attempted to make the feet and legs move with an engineering of levers and pulleys so that it could be made to walk with the same hand holding the bird’s body. This worked with minor success, but had limited control and effect. We designed to connect the bird’s feet to the puppeteer’s feet. That brought its own challenges, but proved to be the best control of movement and character. As evident in the photo, the feet were a bit gimpy and had some trouble staying aligned. If we were doing more than a short run of six shows, we certainly would have gone back to the drawing board. But as it was, the feet were generally functional and only occasionally did the heron look like she was walking in a constant grapevine action; or more accurately, only occasionally was it walking with broken ankles.


Heron in performance. Photo credit: Jennifer Mariano

We had the heron walking about in the crowd for fifteen minutes before the show, and she was a big hit. Kids loved her, dogs feared her, and adults struggled to keep their popcorn away from her. Now that the run of ‘Ziibi’ is over, I hope she will find another opportunity to come alive again.



Young Frankenstein

In February the Grand Rapids Players presented Mel Brooks’ musical Young Frankenstein. We had more hurtles to his huge show than I am used to, but we worked together as a cast and crew and overcame the obstacles. Other than some criticism of the bawdy humor (which is Mel Brooks’ fault, not ours), the production met rave reviews! Here’s a few of the photos of the show.

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Creating a Caterpillar Puppet

The upcoming Uncommon Loons/Grand Rapids Showboat production of ‘Ziibi’ involves a large caterpillar puppet. As with most of the costumes, props and puppets in this show, we hope each element will be its own piece of art. The caterpillar will be a type of marionette with its skin dyed with batik techniques. Here is a log of our process. I’m not experienced in batik or puppet construction, so we are learning as we go. Here’s to trial and error augmented by rigorous research!

Step 1: Cutting the fabric to size and stretching it on a temporary frame. image(3)

Step 2: Drawing a pattern out on paper. Inked in black marker so that it can be seen through the fabric when we flip the frame over onto it.


Step 3: Flip the stretched fabric onto the pattern. Trace the lines in wax. This took three tries to get it right. The first two attempts were not perfect, as the wax didn’t soak through the fabric entirely in some spots. This allowed dye colors to bleed into each other later in the process. The lesson learned: keep the wax hot and move slowly so it can soak through. Straight lines are tempting to do quickly, but the end quality will suffer for it.


Step 4: Brush the dye onto the fabric within the wax outlines.

Step 5: The wax was removed with an iron and newspaper. At this point I should have put the fabric in hot water bath to get rid of the rest of the wax, but with a test wash another piece dyed the same way had bled into one piece of gray fabric blah. So we left it as-is and water-proofed it with clear silicone spray.

After this, I didn’t keep detailed photos of the process, but then the fabric was stitched lengthwise and gave it ribs and form with 7″ metal rings stitched in. The front and back were made from recycled milk jugs cut down, antennae made from foam backer rod.

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Photo from the show in August 2015:


Caterpillar in performance. Photo credit: Jennifer Mariano


Caterpillar in performance. Photo credit: Jennifer Mariano

The Making of a Moose

moose stilts

Concept of moose stilts and costume

The show ‘Ziibi’ we are creating with Grand Rapids Showboat, Inc. is going to be a spectacular performance celebrating life on the river with a lot of treats for the eyes and the ears. Among other elements, we’ll be exploring with stilt walking and puppetry. One element will be crossing the two. Here’s a peek at a life-size moose we plan to build for a performer to wear/manipulate. It seems to work on paper. We’ll see how it stands the test of a physical reality.

Moose Stilts

Stilt schematics

Thankfully cosplayers who like to dress up as werewolves, satyrs, and other creatures have figured out how to turn human legs into animal legs. With a few adaptations and the addition of crutch-like forelegs this still seems feasible on paper.

Antler sketch

Antler sketch

The moose head will be suspended out beyond the actual head of the actor and so the puppet head and antlers will need to be light weight. I’m looking at a 1/2″ or 3/4″ PVC skeleton and fabric with stiff interfacing for the mass of the antlers. The head will likely be a similar construction. In the end it must be light so that the actor can easily move the moose head by moving his own head.



Loons in Residence

Uncommon Loons Theatre Company

Old Central SchoolWell it’s official! The Uncommon Loons will be artists in residence at Old Central School on the third floor for the next three months!

What will we be working on, you ask? Great question! We will be working on Ziibi!

What is Ziibi, you ask? Another great question! First off, the easy answer: ziibi is the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe word for river. It’s the ‘ssippi’ in ‘Mississippi’. Ziibi means river.

What is Ziibi in our context? Ziibi is an upcoming spectacular theatrical production that celebrates life on the river. This is idea we’ve paddling around for some time… since last winter/spring, actually. We were looking at doing Ziibi for summer 2014, but we already had a Shakespeare in the Park project in the wings; with the scope of this adventure we wanted plenty of time to pull it all together. Ziibi is a show that we are creating as…

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Successful Premiere of Picturing Grace


The premiering performances of Picturing Grace were met with mixtures of laughter and tears. A follow-up article published in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review:

The Grand Rapids Players’ fall production, “Picturing Grace,” continues its performances at the Myles Reif Center this weekend. Written and directed by John Schroeder, “Picturing Grace” tells the story of the two men made famous around the world because of the picture “Grace”; the man who posed for it and the man who photographed it.

Eric Enstrom, a Swedish immigrant photographer, is disheartened by the pessimistic views in his community. In his search to capture the photograph that will make people conscious of the things they have rather than the things they have to do without, the international renown picture “Grace” emerged after a chance meeting with a Swedish immigrant peddler, Charles Wilden. The play tells the backstory behind the famous picture, sharing local history in a dramatic presentation that is humorous, heartwarming, and even heart-wrenching at times. Audiences for the show’s opening weekend left the theater with rave reviews.

Performances are on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 17 and 18, at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Oct. 19, at 2 p.m. Tickets are on sale at Reed Drug, the Reif Center, and online at reifcenter.org.

A few reviews from audience members were published in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review:

Picturing Grace was Spectacular

“PICTURING GRACE” – what a remarkable production going on at the Reif. Written by local artist, John Schroeder, who was inspired by the picture GRACE taken by Eric Enstrom in 1918 in Bovey. If you want a great Sunday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. or Friday, Saturday, Oct. 17,18 at 7:30 p.m. this play is a must. The acting is so excellent that I was drawn into the production with emotions ranging from high laughter to sadness and for some even tears.

Those in charge of the lighting and technical aspects create several dramatic scenes simply by just flipping a light on or adding musicians in the background. I haven’t witnessed a production so heart-warming as this in years. The play also delves into the history of the Enstroms, their studio fire, the town being nearly wiped out by the flu epidemic, and of course the ethnic issues created by the “melting pot” of people working in the mines. If I was to rate this production, it is spectacular. Congratulations to the Grand Rapids Players and I hope those of you reading this will venture out for a feature production you will not forget. Pictures tell stories…and this one will make you thankful.

-Brian Carlson, Grand Rapids

Thank you to all involved in heart-felt production

Kudos to the Grand Rapids Players for a very moving and incredibly good rendition of the story behind the picture of “Grace” in their production of “Picturing Grace.”

This performance which my husband and I attended on opening night, Saturday, Oct. 11, held us captivated with the choreography, background music, acting and the history behind this famous photograph.

The special effects with the silhouettes behind which, in black and white, we could see Maggie Anderson and Olivia Skaja, members of the Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program, play their instruments beautifully, interspersed with early scenes of Bovey at the time of the photo “Grace,” was taken by Eric Enstrom, a man, who espied to the theory that we need only the basics to make us happy, the exact feelings he captured and what made “Grace,” what it is today.

If you haven’t already seen this inspiring performance, go to the Reif this coming weekend and see for yourselves, the image of “Grace.” Thank you to all involved in this very heart-felt Production.

-Juliet Jones, Grand Rapids

Amazing ‘Grace’

A special thanks to the Grand Rapids Players and John Schroder for their wonderful play, ‘Grace.’

As a local historian and a theatre buff, we were thrilled to watch the story unfold. If you get a change to go, don’t miss it. This critic found nothing to criticize.

-Stan and Laurie Watson, Grand Rapids

Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette

1491671_818894424791203_433852922_nThe art of puppetry has been intriguing me for quite some time. While making sketches and plans for various other projects, it seemed that shadow puppetry would be a good way to get the feet wet with less investment in time and material to get started. The art is not without its challenges and it takes some extra thought to figure out how to move things in a two-dimensional space and how to manipulate a being believably with 2-3 sticks. But it has been enjoyable. We are problem-solving on multiple planes including technical issues (lights, screen, and puppet construction), manipulation skills, and narrative development. The project should be ready to launch with a 10-minute show at the MacRostie Art Center for the First Friday walk on April 4th.

UPDATE: The show was a success. We had seating for 30. Both shows had 40-50 in attendance. Here’s the video of the first performance:

And a behind the screen peek at the second performance: