It seems there are too many Midnight Mushrooms and not enough Demi-Puppets.
Sara Phoenix moves around a circle of actors, pointing randomly to this one and that.
“You,” she says. “You. You. You — no, wait. Not you. You. All right. Those who I pointed to, you are now Demi-Puppets.”
Being changed from one unusual creature to another is neither a promotion nor a demotion. It’s just that those words are the individual performer’s cue to enter one particular scene in this unusual production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” that has been taking shape over the past few weeks.
The production is part of the Tulsa PAC Trust’s Orbit Initiative, a program designed to encourage people throughout the city to become creators of arts rather than merely spectators, through classes, workshops and seminars in acting, improvisation and movement, offered free of charge to people of all ages.
The classes began in the fall of 2018 at seven locations primarily in north and east Tulsa and continued through April, when participants began to prepare for “The Tempest.”
“It was also because a number of the locations where we held classes have their own summer programs, and we didn’t want to disrupt those plans,” said Jeremy Stevens, program director for the Orbit Initiative, as well as the education and development coordinator for the Tulsa PAC.
Tulsa Orbit Initiative is an affiliate of Public Works, a program started by New York City’s Public Theater in 2013. Tulsa is the fourth city to establish such a program, after Dallas, Seattle and Detroit.
The version of “The Tempest” that will be presented at the Tulsa PAC is an abridged, musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s final play about an exiled duke who is given the chance to enact vengeance upon the brother who betrayed him. Phoenix is the show’s director, with Tony Award-winning actress Faith Prince serving as guest director.
“This piece is so different from anything I’ve ever tackled before,” said Phoenix, artistic director of Theatre Tulsa whose directing credits for that company include such epic shows as “Les Miserables” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
“What makes it so different is that it’s a very eclectic piece that demands using a variety of different groups of people,” she said.
One group is made up of local actors, selected by audition, who play the principal characters in “The Tempest.” The ensemble group is a mix of participants in the Orbit classes, some of whom are taking part in a theatrical production for the first time, along with local performers.
The third group is the “cameo” performers, featuring members of Tulsa cultural, artistic and service organizations. These include City of Tulsa Firefighters, Kripalaya Dance Academy, Life Senior Services, Oklahoma Performing Arts, The Penguin Project, Portico Dance Theatre, Theatre Tulsa Young Artists, Tonatuih Dance Company, Voices of Unity and Wise Moves Dance Academy.
“We’ve been working with the principal cast members regularly for the past few weeks,” Phoenix said. “Then we have as many as 100 community ensemble members, all with varying degrees of experience, some of whom are coming to the PAC for the first time. Then the cameo groups have been working mainly on their own. So trying to get everyone on the same page — even in the same room — has been one of the real challenges of directing this show.”
While Phoenix said it’s her responsibility to pull all the disparate threads of this “Tempest” together into a coherent show, she also knows that this likely won’t be the sort of seamless production that most theater companies strive to present.
“I think that’s part of the charm of this show,” Phoenix said. “When you’re going to have Mexican folklorico dancers and Indian classical dancers, Tulsa firefighters and a gospel choir popping in and out, the seams are going to show.
“But the whole point of this wasn’t to produce a show,” she said. “That’s just one part of the process. It’s been about bringing people together, learning about different cultures, creating this sense of community in the rehearsal room. That’s really been the purpose of what we’re doing.”
Karen Iverson has been involved in theater in the past, touring the East Coast of the country, but taking part in the Orbit Initiative’s “The Tempest” is the first time she’s been on a stage since moving to Tulsa two years ago.
“A friend of mine knows the director and knew they were looking for additional people for the ensemble,” Iverson said. “It’s really been a lot of fun, and I love the fact that it involves so many people from the community. It doesn’t matter how much experience they might have, everyone is wanting to do their best.”
Teal Fauvell is a member of Voices of Unity, a vocal ensemble that will be one of the cameo groups in the show.
“Although,” she said, with a nervous laugh, “they’re having us do a lot more than I thought they would. I thought we were just going to do a song and that was it, but now, we’re doing some of the dances and filling in some of the bit parts. I haven’t been in a play since high school, but I’ve been enjoying this.”
Jackie Kelley got involved when classes in acting and improvisation were offered at the East Side Senior Center.
“I did some theater in high school — years ago,” Kelley said. “When we were asked to take part in this, I wasn’t too sure. But I’m from Missouri originally, so you have to show me something before I’ll decide if I can or will do it. Well, they did, and here I am. And I’ve been having a lot of fun.”