Author: Charles Mayo

Alumnus directs play

“It is not everyday that a 23-year-old gets to co-produce and direct a full-length two act politically-infused allegorical play,” recent St. Olaf graduate Denzel Belin ’15 said.

But earlier this fall, Belin got to do just that when the Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis played host to a run of John Patrick Shanley’s “Dirty Story” from Sept. 4 to Sept. 11.

The play tells the story of an awkward meeting and later a dispute over space in an apartment as an increasingly thinly-veiled allegory for the Israel/Palestine conflict.

This particular production was supported by a program called the Arts Nest’s Fledgling Program.

“I learned about the Fledgling Program that helped me produce the show through my connection with a member of the Mixed Blood [Theater] staff,” Belin said. “I connected with this staff member because of the connection I established with Jack Reuler [Mixed Blood’s artistic director] through a visit he made to campus … I skipped two classes and attended two other classes to get the most out of his visit.”

During his time at St. Olaf, Belin was very active in the student-produced theater scene. He directed “Extremeties” with Deep End Productions, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” for the Lyric Theater and the original musical “Serving” for his senior capstone project. He also acted as an advisor and mentor to the founders of the Myswyken Salad Theatre Company during his senior year.

Belin cited the experience he gained in his four years at the college as an important factor in landing the show.

“When I applied and they interviewed me, I utilized techniques I learned from my time at Olaf applying for shows for Deep End projects and the senior directing slot. They told me that they were impressed with the level of detail and planning I brought to the application, and personally having that blueprint made the process much easier in the long run,” Belin said. “I was also able to do one of my favorite things: pay all of the artists that worked on the show.”

Belin’s crew included fellow Oles dramaturg Adam Levonian ’14 and lighting designer Ben Harvey ’14. He now plans to continue onto future projects, such as improv festivals, as well as writing and performing in Brave New Workshop’s popular holiday show.

“If I had to give a piece of advice to those who are looking to pursue any type of performing arts, it would be that the time to explore is now. St. Olaf allowed me to try so many things and figure out my voice,” he said. Belin can be contacted at dwbelin@gmail.com.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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Bizarre indie film refreshes

This past summer, a film titled “Swiss Army Man” was released in theaters. Most reading this column have probably never heard of it. The few who have likely only know it based on the reputation of its tabloid nickname: “the Daniel Radcliffe farting-corpse movie.” Yes, it does star Daniel Radcliffe. And yes, he does play the role of a farting corpse. And surprisingly enough, it is the most touching film I have ever seen.

The film, written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as DANIELS), tells the story of a young man (Paul Dano) who is apparently abandoned on a desert island until a corpse (Radcliffe) washes up on shore. This corpse begins speaking to the young man, who soon discovers that the cadaver and its natural functions can be used as a sort of tool (hence the title), including: farts used as a flamethrower, his throat to launch small objects machine-gun-style, and of course an erection that functions as a compass. I swear to God this movie is endearing – you’re just going to have to take my word on this.

I’m not going to talk too much about the plot of “Swiss Army Man” here though, as there simply isn’t much need. Though a truly original and bizarre movie, it is relatively simple. This simplicity does not weaken the film, however. Rather, it emboldens the heart of its own storytelling as it blends the macabre and the childish to reflect on the nature of loneliness, friendship and love. In “Swiss Army Man,” DANIELS explore the humanity in the insignificant aspects of life that we are often too embarrassed to talk about.

Beautiful narrative aside, another reason I love this film is that it so wonderfully highlights what is missing from most other movies. “Swiss Army Man” is a properly cinematic experience, eschewing the pablum of the film industry’s ever-increasing risk of being “spoiled” by the audience simply knowing the bare facts of a narrative. It cannot be boiled down to just a list of events. It is a story that belongs in film and film alone; no other medium could convey it honestly.

In a time when Hollywood’s near-refusal to innovate causes many viewers to become jaded amidst the cynicism of trope-ridden adaptations and remakes, the “farting-corpse movie” is a freshly genuine film that reminds us of why we first fell in love with cinema.

“Swiss Army Man” is set for home media release on Oct. 4, and I have already preordered my copy.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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Alumni reunite to honor professor

Over the course of the St. Olaf Theater Department’s two-weekend run of Cabaret, the show’s cast enjoyed performing for a highly most recptive audience on the evening of Friday, April 15. That is the night when well over 80 alumni, as well as dozens of current students, all came to honor the play’s director, Assistant Professor of Theater Jeanne Willcoxon.

Willcoxon, who has taught at St. Olaf for the last decade, will not be returning next year and Cabaret was her final production at the college. Her longtime friend and colleague, Artist in Residence Dona Werner Freeman, organized a post-show celebration of Willcoxon’s work at St. Olaf on the Friday of the play’s second weekend.

In order to keep the event a surprise, Freeman reached out to Willcoxon’s former and current students via Facebook, informing them to either reserve their tickets for that night if they could, otherwise she would reserve one for them. Freeman ended up reserving 62 tickets and several more made their own arrangements with the box-office.

Willcoxon was, for the most part, kept in the dark about all these proceedings until the last minute, and was moved to tears upon seeing all the alumni that had come to see her play in its last weekend. She spent time catching up with former students outside of the Theater Building until it was time for the show to start. All the guests made their way to their reserved seats as Willcoxon watched from the back of the room.

The infectious energy from the earlier gathering spread to the performance as the cast of Cabaret was treated to its liveliest audience of the entire run.

The play ended with a standing ovation of extended length, and a reception followed downstairs. Attendees enjoyed punch, cake and other baked goods from the bakery owned by the parents of Cabaret star Ben Swenson-Klatt ’16.

Once the cast had emerged from the dressing rooms, Freeman stood up on a table to capture the attention of the crowded Theater Building basement. After saying a few words of her own, she introduced three current or former students from different eras of the department’s history to stand up and give their own speeches.

The first was Scotty Gunderson ’10, who presented a small notebook in which compiled multiple personal essays from Willcoxon’s former students on the topic of how they had been enabled “to go further” in their lives by what they had learned from her. Willcoxon unsuccessfully held back tears as Gunderson read several entries out loud.

Second was Andy Lindvall ’14, whose boisterous energy and personal stories kept the room alternating between tears and laughter.

Last of the three speakers was current student Jenna McKellips ’16, who had arranged a collection of letters from students praising Willcoxon earlier this year.

After these speeches, Willcoxon tried to say a few words, but her own joyful crying cut her remarks short.

The party then continued for a couple more hours until visitors slowly faded away, returning to their normal lives after this refreshing night of appreciation and human kindness.

“After flying to/from college over the last four years, it felt very fitting that I had collected just enough flight miles to make it back to St. Olaf for a weekend to celebrate our dear professor, Jeanne Willcoxon. To see so many alumni coming from all over the country, returning for one evening was incredible, and reinforced in my mind that Oles are a special group of people,” alumna Noelle McCabe ’15 said. “I am so thankful to have had Jeanne as a professor, director, and mentor, and continue to have her as a friend in my life.”

Although Willcoxon does not have a Facebook account, she posted the following message through another account on the “Celebrating Jeanne Willcoxon” Facebook page:

“Thank you all so much for a night I shall never forget. It has been a hard year for all of us in the Theater Department – seeing you all again brought back all of the reasons why this past decade has been so wonderful: the incredible students of St. Olaf and my incredible colleagues. I have been lucky indeed to have been a part of such a group of passionate, intelligent and talented people! … I love you all and will carry you in my heart forever!”

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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A good title shouldn’t monkey around

W

hen conducting film criticism, scholars often speak of narrative, of technique, of style and of artistry. But it seems to me there is one aspect of a film that has often gone criminally overlooked: the title.

Now, a title is a very important thing for a film to have. Without it, how would we be able to reference a given film in discussion, or to decide what to see during a blissful trip to the cinema? It would be chaos out there if every time we wanted to mention a movie, we had to begin by giving a synopsis of the whole thing until finally people realized which one we were talking about.

Movies must have a title, and a good one at that. In a way, a film’s title is its most base form of advertisement: all other marketing is based around it. Dress it up with all the fancy trailers you want, no one is going to go see a movie that has a really bad title. Think: Tax Law: The Movie. No one wants that.

A good title should not only be able to give potential audiences an idea of what will occur in the plot, but also provide a general sense of the tone. And it is for that reason that the most well-titled movie of all time is, of course, 2011’s We Bought A Zoo.

Based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name, this picture – directed by Cameron Crowe, distributed by 20th Century Fox and starring Matt Damon – tells the story of a family that purchases a dilapidated zoo. They renovate it and reopen it to the public in a series of wacky hijinks and feel-good moments. But I didn’t need to tell you any of that because just hearing the title of We Bought A Zoo evokes that exact image in its entirety.

One never has to wonder: “What occurs in this We Bought A Zoo movie?” The title perfectly summarizes the action of the film. They buy a zoo. That’s pretty much it. And one never has to ponder, “What’s the general feeling that this movie will evoke?” Just say the title. Say it. Out loud. “We Bought A Zoo.”

In a way, the title of We Bought A Zoo is so functional that it makes actually watching the film unnecessary; one can have an equivalent experience just hearing the title as they would from seeing it in theaters. Some might ask of that assessment: is that a praise of the title or an insult to the content? And I reply: why not both?

The real genius of We Bought A Zoo’s title is that it couldn’t be for any other film. The same cannot be said for other titles – not even those belonging to classics. For example, The Godfather could be a nice Christian movie about a guy that two parents have just bestowed with the honor of being their child’s spiritual mentor. Citizen Kane could be a scathing documentary about the nitty-gritty of the current state of social security. The Pelican Brief could be the newest Disney/Pixar film about a happy-go-lucky bird that dreams of being the world’s best mailman. These are all actually gripping works from the annals of film history, but the title doesn’t necessarily indicate that.

But We Bought A Zoo? That could not be anything other than a family friendly comedy where Matt Damon buys a zoo with his kids to get over the death of his wife – who he quickly forgets about when Scarlett Johansson comes in and quickly becomes attracted to the 40 year old man going around making impulsive zoo purchases – in a wild, 124 minute ride that Roger Ebert called “too much formula and not enough human interest,” and featuring a monkey named Crystal and a bear named Buster.

The only time that we will ever again see another film be titled We Bought A Zoo in our lives is in 50 years from now when they remake it to insert a few more numbingly mellow songs into the soundtrack, and maybe to add a sickeningly fun musical number where the romantic leads dance with the animals.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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First-year musician makes St. Olaf debut in The Lair

“I was just kind of thinking that it was time to play here at St. Olaf,” Emily Cardinal ’19 said, just 45 minutes before her Saturday concert. “I play a lot at, like, pubs and coffee shops in the Twin Cities, so it was like, ‘Why not bring it on home to ‘Stolaf,’ y’know?’”

She cited a cover an Elvis Presley as one of her favorite songs to perform. The cover in question later revealed itself to be a soulful rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”

When asked what, if any, songs she was dreading to perform, Cardinal laughed and replied, “Oh yeah, most of them actually.”

The first-year solo musician took to the small stage of The Lair at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 5. The show attracted a good crowd that comfortably filled the space. The stage was decorated only by Cardinal’s instruments of choice – a guitar and piano – as well as a microphone and the warm glow of Pause Tech-provided lighting.

“I didn’t ask for those [lights], but they’re here and I’m pretty excited about it,” Cardinal said. “Pause Tech is just doing their darndest to make this an awesome experience, and I’m just very glad about it.”

The audience was both made up of several of Cardinal’s friends, but also other students who were interested in coming to see a weekend concert. In addition, three of the faces in the crowd were Cardinal’s hometown pals that had traveled over three hours from Norwood Young America, Minn. to attend the show.

The concert was stylistically diverse, ranging from more contemporary hits like the show’s opener, “Valerie,” to golden oldies such as Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and the aforementioned “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“I especially enjoyed the cover of ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash” audience member Ian Sutherland ’18 said.

The show was not without a few technical hiccups, however. For example: while Cardinal was trying to rock it like Elvis, she may have rocked it just a little too hard, nearly knocking the mic away.

“Woah, that was close!” Cardinal said, after stopping in the middle of her song to catch the mic. After a few chuckles from the audience, she picked up right from where she had left off.

Many of the other mishaps were similarly played off with humor. Cardinal practically made a stand-up routine of constantly restarting her cover of “Blackbird” by The Beatles while the light technician struggled to find a setting that did not blind the singer. When situational jokes ran dry, Cardinal turned to just straight up chit-chat with the audience, which was also well-received.

“She really had a great sense of interaction with the audience, which I think really added a social lubricant element to the show. It was wonderful, it was beautiful,” Alexander Prophet ’18 said.

Though covers mostly dominated Cardinal’s set list, she peppered in a couple original songs as well. The first was “If I Told You,” which Cardinal described as being about the anxieties of making yourself vulnerable when getting to know someone new. The second, which closed the concert, was titled “Megan’s Song,” a tribute to her best friend from home – one of the three that had traveled to St. Olaf. The titular Megan burst into tears about halfway through the song.

Cardinal’s original songs tended to expound upon many of the same themes of the covers she chose to perform – energetic yet thoughtful ponderings on life’s somber sentiments.

“It’s music that you can think to. She’s got a beautiful voice, but the things that she sings about resonates with personal experience,” Christine Menge ’18 said.

Updates on upcoming Emily Cardinal performances can be found on the artist’s Facebook page.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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