Nautilus joins year-long theater marathon

Performing for free
Some of the Twin Cities' most talented singers, actors and composers gathered together to perform--for free--as part of the 365 Days/365 Plays project.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

On Monday night dozens of people crowded into Nautilus Music-Theater's tiny performance space in downtown St. Paul. Folks squeezed in as more folding chairs were brought out, but nobody complained. Nor did they make a fuss when the air conditioner was shut off, because the evening's entertainment was free.

Over the course of the evening, the audience was treated to seven different short plays, all written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. In 2002, Parks challenged herself to write a play a day for a year. Most are quite short--not even a page long. Some of them have no dialog--just stage directions. Most of them deal at some level with the challenges of the artistic life.

Ben Krywosz and Jill Dawe
Artistic Director Ben Krywosz and Music Director Jill Dawe collaborate in the final hours before the first performance of week 35 of 365 Days/365 Plays.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Starting last November, Parks offered them up to theater companies to produce for the bargain price of $1 per play. Nautilus Artistic Director Ben Krywosz leapt at the chance. He commissioned seven different Twin Cities composers to add music to the plays for his "works-in-progress" series, Rough Cuts.

"To a certain extent," he says, "these plays have been commissioned and composed in the spirit of Suzan-Lori Parks: very quickly. Whereas a composer might like to have a few months to ruminate on a piece, set it to music and develop it slowly over a period of time, we gave the material to the composers just a few months ago and said, 'Okay, we're going to do it in Rough Cuts. Get it ready.'"

There are certain rules to participating in this year-long theatrical event. The plays must be performed in order during the week that they are scheduled. But they can be performed as a group, all in one evening or separately.

Approximately 700 theater companies are participating. So far a dozen regional theaters, including the Children's Theatre Company, Mu Performing Arts and the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro, have produced different weeks of the project. Some theaters have performed the pieces in their lobbies before a mainstage production. Others have staged them in a local bar, or outside.

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Musicalizing Theater
For this production, Ben Krywosz chose to take Suzan-Lori Parks' scripts and put them to music, using the talents of seven local composers. Each composer was allowed to use piano and one other instrument of his or her choosing. Here Christina Baldwin prepares both to act and sing her part.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Since Nautilus focuses on musical theater, it was obvious to Ben Krywosz that he'd want to set the plays to music. Music Director Jill Dawe says the results are surprising.

"What's strikes me most about all of it is just the incredible creativity of people. Just seeing how these composers combine with the performers with just the imagination, the sheer imagination - with the willingness to dive in in a short amount of time and make something happen," says Dawe.

Nautilus Music-Theater's performance features highly acclaimed local composers and performers, and they're all volunteering their time. The result is a sophisticated evening of art that's financially accessible to everyone.

Charles Macintosh from Minneapolis was dragged to the show by a friend, and he was glad it happened.

"It was a lot different from what I expected," he says. "I expected a drawn-out, drama performance-type thing. It was very bubbly and musical and creative. It entertained me and that's all I ask for."

Suzan-Lori Parks and Ben Krywosz
Suzan-Lori Parks and Ben Krywosz at the Theater Communications Group Annual Conference, held this year at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Photo by Michal Daniel

Artistic Director Ben Krywosz says he hopes all of his audience will replace any preconceived notions they have with curiosity over Suzan-Lori Parks' peculiar accomplishment.

"The material is not conventional. If people come expecting conventional theatrical literature, they're going to be surprised. And we've tried to honor the boldness of her choices with musical material that will engage and delight and puzzle and move audiences in the same way that her text does," Krywosz says.

Nautilus Music-Theater's second and final performance of week 35 of the 365 Days/365 Plays project begins at 7:30 tonight on the Augsburg College campus. Meanwhile, Suzan-Lori Parks is not available for comment; she's hard at work on her next play, about the life of Ray Charles.