Dance Like Everybody’s Watching And sing (or play, or act) as if you’re expecting a full house
Like MTV for Mom Actors Cabaret serves up hit singles
The Depths and the Heights of Collaboration Adapting by bike, sweat, inspiration and hours of hard work
Bravo Calendar Dance, Music, Theater 2010-2011
The Depths and the Heights of Collaboration
Adapting by bike, sweat, inspiration and hours of hard work
By Suzi Steffen
Tap-dancing mice, a torch song sung by a tabby cat, a swing gone very bad and a tragic story told by interlocking mentored and mentoring generations of theater folk.
Photo by Ariel Ogden
Herein, dear reader, lieth a tale. The tale concerns mouse kings, little girls on adventure quests, Saturdays full of parallel compositions and quicksilver musical decisions, agile young college students learning longboards and skates and trikes, designers fitting fans into magically moving boxes and more. Perhaps you missed this in May because you thought it was little more than a children’s story (as if children’s stories don’t set up our lifetimes of understanding emotions, actions, each other). If you can get there on Saturday, Sept. 25, don’t miss the UO’s Annelie in the Depths of Night, a one-night revival of a daring, amusing, frighteningly honest and — for its cast — physically demanding show.
The tale begins with a dream, or maybe in 1991, when Jennifer Schlueter showed up in John Schmor’s theater appreciation class in Kirksville, Mo., during Schmor’s first job after completing his Ph.D. at the UO. At that time, Beaverton’s Jameson Tabor was barely into the 12-18 month-old clothing styles beloved by babies everywhere.
The tale begins with these three Js — John, Jennifer, Jameson — or it begins with one A, Annelie, a girl dropped off at her grandmother’s house by her father. Like most children, Annelie’s a girl who wants to know more than she’s allowed to know. She turns the complex, veiled adult world into a mishmash of fantasy she finds under her bed, under her comforter, in the midst of delirium, as she learns the tragedy that is losing some of her innocence.
Or perhaps the tale begins with Western childhood stories like The Nutcracker, Heidi, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the few other stories that give girls their own growing-up adventures. In the late 1980s, Dutch writer Imme Dros wrote Annetje Lie in het holst van de nacht, translated into English as Annelie in the Depths of Night. The book caused some controversy in the Netherlands because of its skillful, frightening blend of reality and fantasy, its somewhat disturbing illustrations by Margaret Heymans and its ambiguous resolution for the main character.
Or the tale begins, as do so many, with conception and birth. “In 2002, I was in London with my spouse,” Schlueter says. “I was about to have my first kid, and we were trying to buy interesting books for the library.” Up popped Annelie in a London bookstore. Schlueter sent the book to Schmor soon afterward, and he contacted Dros for permssion to adapt the book.
But Schmor was busy trying to win tenure at the UO, and the powers that be intimated to him that adapting a Dutch children’s book might not be the thing to do. “I had to table it,” Schmor says. “I heard, ‘You should be doing something a little more substantial for tenure.’” The tale of Annelie, with its psychological insights, its fear of abandonment and death, its loneliness and danger, had to wait (Schmor did win tenure and currently chairs the UO’s Department of Theatre Arts).
Meanwhile, as Tabor grew older, went through middle school and high school, discovered his musical gifts and decided to attend the UO, Schlueter finished her Ph.D. at Ohio State and arrived for a few years at the UO’s Department of Theatre. Still, the tale doesn’t concern any alignments of stars or coincidences — if Annelie teaches its audience anything, it’s that any glorious world we believe in arises from the world we already know. In that world, the UO Department of Theatre Arts decided to call the 2009-2010 season “The Year of the Book,” starting with Big River (adapted from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and ending with, yes, Jennifer Schlueter’s adaptation of a certain Dutch children’s book.
“It was one of the most delightful experiences of my life,” Schlueter says, despite the many drafts the adaptation required. “Adaptation is so weird,” she says. “I loved the book because it was so weird and so dreamlike, but figuring out how to make that happen on the stage, retain that quality but have it be acheivable …” Schlueter trails off. Many images in the book simply weren’t doable on the stage of the small Hope Theatre. One character in the book horrifies Annelie by removing piece after piece of clothing and never getting to a place where the clothing removal stops. “The further we got in, the more we realized it was a design nightmare,” Schlueter says. That means a couple of characters morphed, that some were lost and that others ended up playing two parts, slowly revealing more and more of Annelie’s psyche and the characters themselves.
Schlueter adapted in consultation with Schmor, who was set to direct. Many (he says 11; she says 12) drafts and several months of practice later, the play opened in mid-May to generally positive reviews, including mentions of Tabor and Schmor’s collaborative songs. And the thread of Jameson Tabor returns. As a freshman in 2008, he says, “I began corresponding with John about the department’s view on musical theater and why it isn’t done more often at the school.” In the spring of 2009, Schmor asked Tabor and some other theater students to compose and perform music for Metamorphoses, and Tabor’s talents in composing incidental music for theater rose to the surface.
For Annelie, the composers/co-directors started working on the music early, and Tabor says that at first, Schmor told him the piece was supposed to have just a couple of songs and “be more about the text.” Beginning in January, Schmor and Tabor met almost every Saturday to hash out the sound, the reasons for and the lyrics of the songs — and music took on greater importance to the entire production. The tale of Annelie, who falls deeper and deeper into her dream/subconscious/serious illness/grief, wouldn’t be nearly as emotionally effective without the songs, especially one that came to Schmor on his bike ride home after work one day.
The song, which he says makes the college-aged members of the audience cry (though other former audience members can say that it’s not only the college students crying at that point in the show), starts simply, sung by a hedgehog to Annelie as she lies, ill, in bed. The hedgehog serves as one of the multi-layered characters; he’s also seen, briefly, as Grandpa early in the tale, carrying an oxygen tank and telling Annelie he’d “fix it” (an image Schlueter says was inspired by an elderly man in Young at Heart singing the Coldplay song “Fix You”). Fix what, though? Schlueter says, “The thing I love about Annelie is that the story’s about the way her parents leave her stranded at a key moment in her life. That piece of it intrigued me.”
Indeed, the girl’s abandoned at various times by her mother, her father, her grandfather, a seemingly friendly Moon, a playmate-like Mouse King, her cat (who turns out to be a seriously no-good animal) and even the dear hedgehog, who can’t help his going away. Parts of Annelie feel like parts of Pinocchio or Dumbo — the adventure that is childhood turns into something much darker, much less fun than the protagonist expects, even before puberty, and a half-threatening, half-Burning Man-like punk circus doesn’t help matters. Then there’s Snatchweed Harry, creepy and charming and horrid and fascinating. The cast members learned to move themselves around in boxes (that portion, Schmor says, was inspired by 2007’s Anonymous, the last play in the pre-remodel theater building, and Box Man) and perform rather demanding physical roles in general, but some of them never quite mastered the songs.
Tabor says that at first, “I wanted everything to sound like what it has sounded like on my computer.” Cast members who hadn’t sung before; cast members whose voices weren’t in the register in which Tabor and Schmor had written the songs; cast members who could sing but had to learn to sing while tap dancing or controlling a large, weird-looking antique tricycle — yep, Tabor had to deal with all of that and his own desire for the music to be “perfect.”
Schlueter and Schmor both praised Tabor’s ability to adapt to changing conditions and to teach his peers about everything from tap-dancing to singing (shaky) harmony.
Possibly the biggest challenge came when the collaborators, or confabulationists as Schmor would have it, needed to cut the two-act play to a 45-minute traveling version for a three-week September tour through schools in rural Oregon. That tour ended only last week, and the cast (many of whom graduated in June) had to commit not only to that tour but to another week of rehearsals for the full show, performed on Sept. 24 for new freshmen interested in theater (not open to the public, so don’t even ask!) and Sept. 25 in a first-come, first-serve, $7 a ticket evening at the Hope Theatre. Some cuts Schmor and Schlueter made (before she left for a tenure-track position at Ohio State) remain for the full-length performance.
Schlueter says she’s interested in putting Annelie on again, “but not without John!” She also knows that this confabulation closed a circle while opening another one. Just as she was one of Schmor’s first crop of students, the cast members of Annelie were hers. “There is this lovely kind of linkage,” she says. “We’re threaded through.”
Annelie in the Depths of the Night returns for one night at 8 pm Saturday, Sept. 25, at the UO’s Hope Theatre. Tickets are $7 and only available at the door.