the brainchild of two extraordinary theatre minds, Meat & Potato
Theatre has made a nice name for itself while establishing itself
among its peers over 2009. Producing provocative and inviting plays
in Washington DC before moving to SLC, the company has established
its home at the Rose Wagner with the intent to continuing their
groundbreaking work. This week they bring their final production of
2009, SHADOWS OF THE BAKEMONO, to the stage with a unique kabuki
telling of original works. I got the opportunity to talk to M&P
co-founder and Utah theatre alumni Tobin Atkinson, as well as two of
the actors in the upcoming production, Josh Theomke and Ruth Ann
Jones. Talking about the company, the production, local theatre and a
few other topics.
Tobin Atkinson, Josh Thoemke, Ruth Ann Jones
Gavin: Hey guys, first off, tell us a little about yourselves.
Tobin: I am originally from Salt Lake City. Graduated from SUU in 1988. Graduated with an MFA in directing from the U of U in 1995. Graduated with an MBA from American Military University in 2009. I co-founded Plan B Theatre Company in 1991 with Cheryl Cluff, artistic directed the company off and on for nine years, and then joined the army in 2000. Served as a rifleman with the 16th Infantry at Fort Riley, Kansas, and was later assigned to Army Entertainment at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Cofounded Meat & Potato Theatre with Marynell Hinton in 2005 in Washington, DC. Moved back to SLC in 2008 and mounted the first M&P production in Salt Lake in the spring of 2009.
Josh: I moved here with my family in June, having acted in southern California for the last ten years or so. Prior to that I lived in Virginia where I got my BFA and performed up and down the East coast. While I've done both stage and film, I much prefer acting on stage before an audience.
Ruth: My name is Ruth Ann Jones. I am an acting student at the University of Utah, I am in my Junior Year of the Actor Training Program.
Gavin: What inspired all you to take an interest in theater?
Ruth: My interest in theatre began with dance from about five years old, as i got older and in to Jr High School, I realized I could also go on stage and open my mouth, because I was quite a chatty kid. Since then it has just kept going.
Josh: When I was a child living in Camarillo, California, my mom would take me to see Moorpark Melodrama, a performing troupe from a local college. It was love at first sight, and I went to a children's theater workshop that very summer.
Tobin: Theatre was a way to get out of work. Our family business was yard care and a nursery. My sister and I weren’t allowed to play sports for fear of getting injured—thus eliminating a quarter of the work force from the business—but we were allowed to participate in any arts activities: band, dance, drama, etc. Doing so got us out of work. This lead to college scholarships, which lead to degrees, which lead to creating theatre companies, etc. My sister and I both have MFA degrees in the theatre.
Gavin: Tobin, you have a long history with local theater, specifically starting up Plan-B. What was it like for you first starting up that company?
Tobin: Drive and energy certainly made up innocence and naivety. We had no idea what we were doing—artistically or as a business. All we knew is we wanted to create theatre. Over the course of nine years we slowly began to discover our roles in the company and became pretty good in our areas of responsibility. Cheryl Cluff continues to brilliantly manage the business aspects of Plan-B and was even recognized for her efforts a few years ago in a newspaper expose on her labors.
Gavin: What were some of your favorite plays from that period, and why?
Tobin: I think my last full year with the company was my favorite. We mounted two new plays in the basement of SLAC: POE 2000 which was an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s works and A PLACE IN THE SKY, about the women pilots of WWII. Solid productions. Meat & Potato even remounted POE 2000 as our second production in DC in 2005.
Gavin: What eventually led to you leaving Plan-B in 2000, and what from there with your career?
Tobin: I left Plan B in 2000 because I volunteered to join the US Army Infantry. However, you might take the boy out of the theatre, but you can’t take the theatre out of the boy. During my first year in the army I wrote two plays—an adaptation of BEOWULF and MORALITY OF TRIBES. Soon after the September attacks in 2001, I submitted my packet to Army Entertainment for what was ostensibly a six month assignment. Army Entertainment—a command whose battle cry is “For the Soldier, By the Soldier”—discovered I had a masters degree in the theatre and invited me to join as a permanent party member, which I accepted. While at Army Entertainment as a soldier, I participated in four world tours, including a group of four soldiers I lead through Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Korea, and Japan with a show I also directed.
Gavin: How did the idea of Meat & Potato Theatre come about and how did you get it set up?
Tobin: As I was transitioning out of the Army back to civilian life, I was actually hired by Army Entertainment to be their royalty’s specialist. The US Army is the world’s largest producer of plays, underwriting over 200 productions a year. While there, I landed a role in Studio Theatre’s production of BLACK MILK—a terrible Russian play—where I met a bright-eyed young woman named Marynell Hinton. We joined forces to produce INFANTRY MONOLGUES in the back of a DC bar in July of 2005, have been running the company together ever since, and married each other in 2008.
Gavin: What have the productions been like since you've started, and how is the audience appeal to it as a different company?
Tobin: By the time M&P left DC, we were starting to acquire a reputation as a feisty voice in the local theatre scene. Our productions might be small (every production we did was performed in the back of the Playbill Café on a 17’ wide, 12.5’ deep stage), but the production value always high, the acting exceptional, and the themes bold and important. It takes a set of brass what-nots to mount an adaptation of 1984 in which Bush is Big Brother in DC and only 14 blocks due north of the White House. All of this is tied to the execution of our mission: to tell compelling stories in the most powerful way possible.
Gavin: How did the idea for the Laboratories get started?
Tobin: During the last hour of the 2008 Intermountain Theatre Conference, Jerry Rapier and I were standing outside the theatre talking about the local theatre scene. We each had concerns that there were really no formal training programs for playwrights or directors in Salt Lake anymore—not at any of the local colleges, universities, or theatres. This lead to a conversation about creating a playwrights’ laboratory run by both Plan-B and M&P. We would both run it AND we would both be able to use the playwrights that went through the program. The playwrights’ laboratory went so well, all eight participants voting to continue for another year, that we decided to create a directors’ lab to compliment the playwrights.
Gavin: Tell us about the upcoming one acts for SHADOWS OF THE BAKEMONO.
Tobin: After a successful and critically acclaimed run of INFANTRY MONOLOGUES, Marynell really wanted to show Salt Lake audiences that M&P wasn’t just about doing heavy dramatic productions—that telling “compelling stories in the most powerful way possible” could take a great many forms. She suggested doing something with puppets and masks, a style that had served us well in DC. I agreed. M&P put out a call for scripts to the Playwrights’ Laboratory in June of 2009. The two guideline to the playwrights were: 1) “Japanese ghost stories”, and 2) 10-20 pages. We received eight scripts from seven playwrights and selected four of them for production. I added my own script to the mix and selected the title SHADOWS OF THE BAKEMONO. “Bakemono” is Japanese for “shapeshifter”.
Gavin: How was the audition process like for you and what was it like getting the part?
Josh: Tobin asked for a "physical monologue." He readily admitted he had no idea what this meant. I chose to do a piece from Peter Barnes' "The Ruling Class" which seemed appropriately physical. It did the trick, as Tobin offered me a part then and there.
Ruth: I was really excited to get a part in a production outside of the University, it is a great opportunity to get a good dose of the "real world" and to work with more people. I feel that the more people I work with the better understand I will have of my self as a performer and I will have a more rounded education.
Gavin: What's was the process like in developing your characters and adapting to this style of play?
Ruth: Approaching this play was a very new experience there is a greater more emphasis on the vocal aspect of telling the story because there is a lot to be told with the lines since the dolls can't make facial expressions. There is also a big adjustment (for me) in work with up to three people on one character, there is the voice, which also operates the hands, the head operator and quite often the feet operator, learning how to work in sync with others in such an intense way was often over whelming but fun.
Josh: This has been a tremendous learning experience from day one, as I had zero puppetry experience short of watching The Muppet Show growing up. It's certainly one of the most physically demanding theatrical endeavors I've undertaken. That being said, it's also extremely satisfying to see these bits of foam and fabric truly come to life.
Gavin: What's the significance behind the masks and puppetry work going into these plays?
Tobin: We find that the puppet and mask are incredibly powerful storytelling devices and since our mission is to tell compelling stories in the most powerful way possible, it seems a natural fit for M&P to mount a production like this. One of the incredible things about puppets is that the actors and puppeteers can only bring the doll to life half way. No matter how precise and believable the manipulation of the dolls by the performers, it is the audience that actually “fills in the blanks”. Because of this, the audience becomes an active participant in the production. It is a prop: an arrangement of wooden dowels, paper mache, some cloth, and sculpted foam. But three people take it hand and manipulate it in such a way to suggest human movement and someone in the audience observes that movement, interprets it to be human behavior, and magic is created. In fact magic is probably the best example of how puppetry works: as the coin in the magician’s hand didn’t really vanish, so too did that puppet really weep. It is the observer that says it did so.
Ruth: I think the significance of using masks and puppetry is that it breaks a lot of expectations about theatre, and its interesting to see theatre performed in a new way.
Gavin: What's the overall feeling from all of you going into opening night?
Josh: Personally, I feel like we're in a good place prior to opening. We've come very far from where we were at the beginning of this process, and I'm confident we will continue to grow throughout the run.
Tobin: I think there is going to be a great amount of nerves. This is a theatrical experiment that could fall flat on its face. The puppets and masks look great, the set and lights are awesome, the actors are giving everything they can to bring those dolls to life—and Salt Lake audiences might think it a horrible waste of their time. But we hope not.
Ruth: Going in to opening night i feel nervous but excited, an audience always puts a much needed boost of energy in to the room and I feel that it helps to renew a sense of excitement that some times gets lost in the repetition of rehearsals. Outside of Shadows I will also have four auditions on Friday night as well as potentially call backs on Saturday which will be a potentially packed weekend, but ultimately I am excited because that's what i'm in this business to do.
Gavin: Going state-wide a bit, how do you feel about the recent moves to “bring Broadway” to Utah?
Ruth: I think it's great because i think that the more people are thinking about theatre, the more they'll go--to both local and touring productions.
Tobin: It’s an insane waste of money to bring theatre to Utah when we have so much happening here already. There is a lunatic push by both Salt Lake and Sandy to build a 2500 seat theatre for touring shows. Why? So people from outside of Utah can make money off of their art? What about the local artists? Why not support them? The Rose Wagner is a wonderful space, but it is beginning to feel the strain of so many new local theatre companies fighting to get in and use its limited space and resources. Instead of spending millions of Utah taxpayer money to house non-Utah theatre, why not spend a fraction of that to expand an existing facility to be used by local theatre companies? It’ll never happen though. The choice to build a new theatre complex will be made by people who have never actually worked in the theatre. Truly sad.
Gavin: Do you feel like local high schools and colleges do enough for their performing arts departments as of late?
Tobin: I think it’s a crime that they eliminated drama competitions from high schools. Competition creates better work. There is an incentive to be better, to fight harder, to succeed through discipline, to actually realize how the world—particularly how the arts—works. It sets young artists up for success. Not now. With no incentive, with no prize to fight for, students saunter through drama meets knowing their true value: worthless. So more and more every year, the actors coming in to audition are less impressive and companies are forced to compensate by picking plays with less and less actors in them. The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s annual competition is the only drama meet that means anything anymore in this state.
Ruth: Being a student at the University I feel like we're always struggling to promote our productions, as of late it seems like we have very little budget for advertisement and i feel that the University as a whole could help to boost our promotion, especially in the online media. And I have to admit, sometimes it's like pulling hair to get The Utah Daily Chronicle to write an article about an upcoming production. As a whole I feel the university values it's performing arts departments, and is doing quite a bit to help us through this economic struggle.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you the rest of the year?
Ruth: I personally hope to be doing a production at the University. And hope to be working with Tobin and Meat & Potato again soon.
Tobin: Meat & Potato will be mounting adaptations of two Medieval plays this spring: “Everyman & Judgment Day: Morality Plays for a Modern Age”.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Tobin: Meat & Potato is a 501c3 theatre company dedicated to telling compelling stories in the most powerful ways possible. Therefore: All plays must have a clear storyline with a beginning, middle and end: adventures. Every production must employ at least one overtly theatrical element or style: puppets, masks, multiple and/or cross casting, one-person plays, musicals, dumbshows, farce, biomechanics, audience participation, Kabuki, Theatre of Cruelty, the Alienation Effect, etc. There is a firm cap on production costs. The talents of local, emerging artists will be used whenever and wherever possible. Ticket prices will be kept affordable to the general public and especially as an enticement to younger audiences.
Ruth: I'd like to promote the U of U's Theatre Department- its amazing to me that so many of the people involved with SHADOWS OF THE BAKEMONO are Utah Alumni or Students. Also, this year we have a free production space, Studio 115, with some great work being done, and our usual season in the Babcock Theatre.