Leah’s Train: Actor Jessica Smith

Travel through three generations of adventure, grief and love. Co-presented by 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities and the Sabes Jewish Community Center, we are pleased to bring you Leah’s Train by Karen Hartman March 7-22, 2015 (all performances at theJCC).  Before and during the run of this show, we will be giving you a chance to learn a little bit more about the artists involved in our production. In this first interview, meet actor Jessica Smith.

Actor: Jessica Smith

Actor: Jessica Smith


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How/when/why did you get into theatre?

I was a late bloomer when it came to theatre.  Before I got the theatre bug, I had been doing competitive martial arts for years before taking time away to focus on college.  My first play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the part of Helena when I was 18.  After that, it was all about theatre and the arts and creating.  I fell in love with the world that allows people to play the world’s best game of pretend with people who are so passionate, so out there, and are willing to play right along with you.

Is this your first show with 20% Theatre Twin Cities? Tell us briefly about your past experience with the company?

This is my first show performing for 20% Theatre, though I had the privilege to be the company’s fight coordinator for their production of If We Were Birds earlier this year.

Tell us what originally drew you to the Leah’s Train script. What interested you in auditioning for this show?

When I read this script, I fell in love.  It was so different than what I expected.  There’s the sense of mysticism and connection that I loved about it right away as well as these awesome raw characters.  It was actually the opportunity to work for this company again that convinced me to audition for this play and I’m so glad I did!  Once I had read the script, I was that much more excited about the possibility of being involved.

Tell us a little bit about the character you play?

Ruth desperately wants to matter.  She has this incredible ancestor (her grandmother) who has been put on a pedestal by her mother and herself her entire life.  She feels as though she is never going to measure up to her grandmother’s achievements and so she has tried to disconnect from her family while trying to matter in her career field.  She relies on her boyfriend and her patients to have a place in the world, but things are about to happen that will force her to view family in a different perspective.

This experience has probably been quite different than doing fight choreography for If We Were Birds? How has it been different to be on the other side, now acting for 20%?

It’s been interesting-both absolutely wonderful and a little scary.  When I’m fight directing, I’m in charge of what’s going on and I’m the one providing direction.  It’s a switch to be in the position of the one being directed.  At the same time, though, the process has reminded me why I love acting so much.  The letting go, the moment you decide to throw everything into a scene and just let loose.  It’s magical.

What else do you do in the world, outside of theatre and/or working on this production?

For the bills, I bartend, I’ve got a great group of regulars where I work, and hearing their stories and discussing life with them is always interesting, to say the least.  Otherwise, for free time, I love dancing, being in the outdoors when it’s warm never gets old for me, and if there’s a place with live music-I’m there, and if there’s good beer there, bonus points!

What is your favorite type of transportation?

I miss riding around on the moped I used to own.  So much fun!

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Leah’s Train: Actor Zel Weilandgruber

Travel through three generations of adventure, grief and love. Co-presented by 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities and the Sabes Jewish Community Center, we are pleased to bring you Leah’s Train by Karen Hartman March 7-22, 2015 (all performances at theJCC).  Before and during the run of this show, we will be giving you a chance to learn a little bit more about the artists involved in our production. In this first interview, meet actor Zel Weilandgruber. 

Actor: Zel Weilandgruber

Actor: Zel Weilandgruber


Zel, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How/when/why did you get into theatre?

I’m 11 years old and have lived in Minneapolis my whole life.  I barely remember when I got into theater.  I had been taking a dance class and liked being in a recital.  When I was little my mom took me to an open call at the Guthrie and I got a part.  I had fun, so I did more shows after that.

Is this your first show with 20% Theatre Twin Cities?

Yes.

Tell us what originally drew you to the Leah’s Train script. What interested you in auditioning for this show/company?

I didn’t really know much about it until I read for the try out.  It seemed like it would be fun to play a kid who steals and is alone on a train.

Even though you are a young actor, you aren’t new to the scene. What show(s) might we have seen you perform in in the past?

I was Tiny Tim at the Guthrie the past two years in A Christmas Carol.  I was in Dollhouse there too when I was in Kindergarten.  Last year I was “Wally” in Our Town with Theater Latte Da; I played my accordion in that show.  I was in A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant last year too (MN Fringe Festival).   I got to be John Travolta and Prince Xenu.  I’ve done some shows with community theaters too.

Tell us a little bit about the character you play?

I play two characters- Sammy is this kid who thinks he’s tough and cool and goes around stealing on a train, he’s sort of like a runaway.  Joseph is from the past. He was trying to leave Russia but he lost his relative and causes problems.

What else do you do in the world, outside of theatre and/or working on this production?

I go to school mostly, and play with my Legos.  I also read a lot and play my accordion and piano.  I like drawing too, and watching Nova on TV or “Stampy Cat” and “Good Mythical Morning” on the computer.

What is your favorite thing about the Twin Cities?

Well, it’s where I live.  And it’s not too hot here.

What is your favorite type of transportation?

My mom’s car, because it’s warm in the winter.

If you have one, tell us a little bit about your most memorable train ride?

I guess I took the train to Chicago with my family when I was three, but I don’t remember it at all.  We take the light rail around sometimes, and that’s fun.

Leah’s Train: Director Chava Curland

Travel through three generations of adventure, grief and love. Co-presented by 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities and the Sabes Jewish Community Center, we are pleased to bring you Leah’s Train by Karen Hartman March 7-22, 2015 (all performances at the JCC).  Before and during the run of this show, we will be giving you a chance to learn a little bit more about the artists involved in our production. In this first interview, meet director Chava Curland.

Director: Chava Curland

Director: Chava Curland

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How/when/why did you get into theatre?

My dad took me to see shows at a very young age.  We had regular tickets to CTC and when I was 10, he started taking me to see shows at the Guthrie.  I was enchanted with this make-believe world where anyone could be someone. And when a friend of mine convinced me to take acting classes in middle school, I was hooked.  While I was a teen actor at The Children’s Theater Company– though it is weird for me to think of myself as an actor for them as I only did 2 shows, small parts there–I remember thinking during a  particularly arduous technical rehearsal that the decisions the director was making, the questions he was grappling with with the designers were ones that I had ideas for, ones that I had my own answers to.  I thought, I can do this. So, I changed from an fine arts to a theater major going into Ithaca College and said “I’m a director’.  Big headed to say the least—I am highly embarrassed by what I must have been like as a know-it-all freshman in college.

Since then, my road in theater has taken me many different directions—as an actor, a mask maker and puppeteer, a dancer/movement theater artist, playwright, world traveler–but I always come back to directing and to the power of the rehearsal process. Directing is not just telling people where to move like chess pieces in space–it is excavating a story, like an archaeologist, digging deep into the dirt of the lives of the characters–its forging relationships within this micro community of a production–crew, cast, company, audience–we are a little microcosm–and it is also to be a visual artist, the painter who sees the whole canvas of the evening but must decide which strokes need to be made to reach the final image. Thats why I stay in it–to be an explorer, a painter, and part of a community all at the same time.

Have you worked with 20% Theatre Twin Cities in the past? How and in what capacity?

I last worked with 20% as an actor in Changes in Time.  I played Court.

How has this directing experience been different than working for 20% as an actor?

I get to see the full picture.  I can follow the little tendrils of my thoughts on a scene, experiment with different points of view and different arcs to the play–and certainly a lot more responsibility to the play and actors in that sense. Otherwise, I would say working with the company and the people in it isn’t that different as a director. Everyone has been so wonderful and supportive—though that was the same as an actor, too 🙂

Tell us what originally drew you to the Leah’s Train script. Why did you want to direct it?

Its deceptively simple.  You look at the words on the page and think–hmm, this seems pretty straight forward.  But when you look at the motivations behind the words and the disconnect between what people say and do, there is a whole deeper level of tension and intention that is going on.  It’s a play full of rich emotion and specific history, yet takes place in the neutral impersonal space of a train.  I saw a prime opportunity to work on a powerful, reality driven story but within a more abstract onstage world.

I also feel strong personal connection to sense of ancestry and healing of generations past in the play.  My father’s side of the family is Polish Jew and they fled during WWII to Russia, then Siberia, then Uzbekistan, and at the end of the war to Berlin before finally getting passage to NY in 1951. While Leah’s train predates WWI, the haunting echos of the past the follow Ruth on her journey I feel in my own life.

Did you have a specific vision for what the cast would look and feel like during the audition process?

I didn’t have a specific vision for the cast, but rather a sense of how they needed to function together—Hannah and Ruth needed to be powerful players together, Ben needed to have chemistry with Ruth and Hannah, Leah needed sense and Sammy sass. But beyond that, I tried not to have any preconceptions of how they would look or talk.  I wanted to be surprised, discover what could work or not based on what was coming out of the actors mouths.

Do you have any hopes about what the audience will walk away from this production knowing, feeling, thinking, etc.?

I hope they come out of this thinking about their own family and the journey that had to happen for each person to end up where they are right this moment.  Ruth says “family is made, not born”, but I think that’s false.  We can’t runaway where we come from–we can only accept it, make peace with it, and build our own lives from there.

What else do you do in the world, outside of theatre and/or working on this production?

Theater and Non Profit Admin–I work as a Company Associate for Girl Friday Productions and Communications and Outreach Coordinator for the Germanic-American Institute.  I also have fun training my dog, Ruby-Rue the Corgi-Aussie, playing very nerdy board games, salsa dancing, making masks/art creations, practicing yoga/acrobatics—and exercising (which means using the steam room) at the JCC.

What is your favorite thing about the Twin Cities?

The lakes, rivers and the bike trails—especially around late April/May when everyone is waking up from hibernation and spring fever is catching on.  I love seeing all the people, dogs and life bustling around on the Greenway and the Grand Rounds.

What is your favorite type of transportation?

Anything that lets me feel the breeze.

If you have one, tell us a little bit about your most memorable train ride?

While I don’t have a specific train ride in mind, I’d say the times when I commuted between NYC and The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in CT.  I was living in NYC, with a real nice off-Broadway literary internship, but me being the crazy-always-need-to-be-busy person I am, decided that I also wanted to Apprentice under the Droznin Russian Movement teacher at the O’Neill’s National Theater Institute.  I would leave Queens at 2:30am and take a 3-4 hour train ride (including subway and connections) up along the dark coast.  I’d see the bright city fade away to old, abandoned looking towns, then trees shoot past my window until I could see some brief silver glints of the ocean.  I would arrive in New London in the bluish- predawn light, and just as I would pull into the O’Neil grounds, the sky would go pink and a round orange sun would pop up over the horizon.

Then, I would beat up my body for 6 hours of intense acrobatic work, ride back that night and go to work the next day.  It was grueling, but those train rides, which brought a sense of peace, freedom, and possibility, were the thing that often got me through the week in the Big City.

 

Leah’s Train: Gina Sauer

Travel through three generations of adventure, grief and love. Co-presented by 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities and the Sabes Jewish Community Center, we are pleased to bring you Leah’s Train by Karen Hartman March 7-22, 2015 (all performances at the JCC).  Before and during the run of this show, we will be giving you a chance to learn a little bit more about the artists involved in our production. In this first interview, meet actor Gina Sauer.

Actor: Gina Sauer

Actor: Gina Sauer

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How/when/why did you get into theatre?

Ever since I stepped on stage at age 6 for my first dance recital, I have been completely bitten by the performing bug.  I’ve been singing, dancing and acting ever since.

Is this your first show with 20% Theatre Twin Cities?

Yes!  I have a number of friends who are long-time fans of 20% Theatre, so I’m very excited!  Particularly because this is a theater whose mission I wholeheartedly support.

Tell us what originally drew you to the Leah’s Train script. What interested you in auditioning for this show/company?

Oddly enough, it was the title.  The phrase, “Leah’s Train” has a very particular meaning among my group of friends, though completely unrelated to this show.  I don’t believe in coincidences, so I took it as a sign from above that I should audition for this show.  And I was right.  Working on this script with this cast and production crew has been truly amazing.

We hear that you’ve been away from the theater scene for awhile. What brought you back?

I took probably the world’s longest hiatus from acting — more than 20 years.  One day about a year ago someone asked me what I was going to do now that my son was away at college and I was an empty-nester, and without thinking I blurted out, “I’m getting back into acting.”  So then I had to.  I was committed!

Tell us a little bit about the character you play?

You know the cliche…”there are no good roles for women over 40.”  Hannah is definitely an exception to that. She’s a multi-faceted character who runs the full gamut of human emotions through the course of the show.  Her mother’s death sends her into full-on, mid-life crisis mode and she goes on a journey to reconcile with her daughter and re-invent herself.

What else do you do in the world, outside of theatre and/or working on this production?

I like to call myself a “recovering lawyer.”  I work at a large law firm but I don’t practice law anymore, I’m more on the HR side of things now.  And I just finished writing a feature length screenplay, so if anyone out there knows any producers…

What is your favorite thing about the Twin Cities?

The fact that you can be downtown enjoying great restaurants and theater one minute, and then drive just thirty minutes in any direction and find yourself surrounded by cornfields and quaint little towns.  We stay true to our Midwest roots here, and it keeps us grounded.

What is your favorite type of transportation?

Like my character, I have a great affinity for European trains.  I especially like the German ones, which are famously punctual.

If you have one, tell us a little bit about your most memorable train ride?

Like a couple of characters in the show, I travelled through Europe alone on trains when I was young.  I had no itinerary, just got on and off when I felt like it.  One day I got off somewhere in Bavaria and ended up in a 1000-year old monastary with a bunch of monks who served me the best meal and home-brewed beer I’ve ever had!