Going Deeper

Because we know you were wondering: the provocative phrase "The Sexual Life of Savages" is taken from the title of an early 20th century anthropological book about the South Pacific islanders of Melanesia.

The play itself is set in the United States today, and instead of examining remote tribes, serves as a kind of darkly hilarious anthropology of ourselves.

Playwright Ian MacAllister-McDonald picks up on the book's fascinating idea that, regardless of culture, how we act is a balance between our individual desires and our society's moral principles: "the compromise between rule and impulse." Especially when it comes to sex, nobody can ignore their primal inclinations.

In the play, Jean has had way more sex than Hal expected, while Hal has had way less sex than his friends expected. Everyone in the story is a little different from what everyone else assumes they are -- but Hal doesn't have time to worry about that: he just needs to figure out what to do about his own relationship. You can bet it'll be funny, awkward, and ultimately an honest and important look at this most intimate part of our lives.

We're sad to report that our production of Cabal, scheduled for this summer, must be postponed. The latest in our series of interactive plays-with-puzzles (see also 1926 Pleasant and Saboteur), Cabal requires a nontraditional venue: multiple rooms for the audience to explore, a solid infrastructure to handle the large-scale challenges, and an owner willing to let a theater company take over for several months to let us keep our audience size at just 15 people per show. We couldn't lock down the right space in time for this year, but we know it's out there somewhere in the future.

The good news is that this gives our electrical engineer, computer programmer, videographer and sculptor extra time to research and develop our newest puzzle ideas!

Craig Johnson headshot
Oscar Wilde has been one of my favorite writers ever since my 10th grade English class read The Importance of Being Earnest. Actually, we listened to an audio recording featuring John Gielgud and Edith Evans which only added to the fun. Of course, it was the wit, language, comedy, and intellect that dazzled me. Only later did I find out about Wilde's life story, the trials, the aftermath, and his brilliant, complex, and, at times, maddening character. 
I've been involved in Twin Cities theater since 1979, when I played Algernon in Park Square Theatre's The Importance of Being Earnest. I've acted in or directed a total of five productions of Earnest over the years and I would say it's my favorite play.
Gross Indecency is the third time I've portrayed Wilde. In 1999 I played Oscar in a Fringe show I created with Brian Columbus (who plays Carson in Gross Indecency) for Upstart Theatre called Soapbox. I did a monologue using Wilde's letters to the British press on prison reform--two of the few things he published after his release from jail when he was living in exile in Paris at the end of his life. So that was a very somber, unadorned Oscar.
In 2010, I played a much more buoyant version of Oscar Wilde in Park Square's Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily -- a lighthearted romp where playwright Katie Forgette imagines Wilde assisting Sherlock Holmes in solving a crime. Most of my dialogue was epigrams and quotations from Wilde's own writings so it got huge laughs and was criminally delicious to perform.
In addition to three decades of work in Twin Cities theater, I've also been the manager of the James J. Hill House in St. Paul for many years. So I get to spend my days in an 1890s mansion, just the kind of place Oscar would have mocked and reveled in. Wilde did stop in St. Paul and Minneapolis during his lecture tour in 1884, but I'm sorry to say there's no evidence Mr. and Mrs. Hill attended his sold out appearances. Despite their common Irish heritage, I doubt they would have had a lot in common.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is Walking Shadow’s 28th full-length production, and unifies several major themes we’ve explored over the past two seasons: society’s views on homosexuality, the role of government in determining morality, the value and danger of opposing an unjust law, the public’s desire to see the mighty brought low, and whether art should address issues of morality or simply be beautiful.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was at the height of his career – his plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband were both running on the West End, and his reputation as England’s preeminent man of letters seemed secure. On February 18 the Marquess of Queensbury left a card at the Albemarle Club, accusing Wilde of being “a posing somdomite.” (The Marquess here misspelled "sodomite," both a slur and a legal term in the Victorian era referring to someone who performs "unnatural" sexual acts such as oral or anal intercourse.)

Wilde chose to prosecute the Marquess for libel, which led to a series of three ill-fated trials. Throughout the trials, Wilde’s art was denounced as "immoral" and used as evidence of the author’s corruption. Wilde took the stand and defended his literature with characteristic wit and skill. Despite this eloquent defense, the Crown convicted Wilde for “gross indecency with male persons,” leading to his imprisonment, disgrace, and ultimately his death.

Gross Indecency uses primary sources to tell this story: trial transcripts, memoirs, newspaper clippings, Wilde’s published works and personal letters, reminiscences from George Bernard Shaw, and interviews between the playwright and historians. These weave together, creating dialogue between texts, and allowing scenes that never actually occurred to spring out of the documents. The resulting play is an exciting courtroom drama, a tragedy, a significant historic event, a celebration of language and wit, and an exploration of morality in a highly politicized society.

At its core, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is a story about how art and morality are perceived by society and personified in the legal system, as framed around one man’s struggle to defend his own artistic and personal identity – issues that are as vital today as they were in 1895.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the third collaboration between playwright John Heimbuch and director Jon Ferguson. Or The White Whale, their rough and lyrical adaptation of Moby Dick, premiered in 2007 at the Southern Theater. In 2009, also at the Southern, they created S. Gunter Klaus and the Story Before, a charming yet challenging re-imagining of traditional folklore surrounding the Santa Claus story. As with those productions, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow will blend a rich and exciting text with evocative movement and imagery - and has been created in Ferguson/Heimbuch's signature collaborative style, being written and devised entirely in the room during the rehearsal process, with frequent contributions from the original cast.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the playwright John Heimbuch’s seventh script for Walking Shadow (Drakul, The Transdimensional Couriers Union, Squawk, William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead, 10-Speed Revolution, and The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen). A founding member and Co-Artistic Director of Walking Shadow, he is regarded for scripts simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking. His recent direction of Jeffrey Hatcher's Compleat Female Stage Beauty for Walking Shadow received an IVEY Award for "Overall Excellence".

This production marks director Jon Ferguson's Walking Shadow debut. He is the Artistic Director for Theatre Forever (formerly Jon Ferguson Theater), and his numerous previous projects include the wildly popular Super Monkey at the Guthrie Theater, Animal Farm at the Southern, and Please Don’t Blow Up Mr. Boban at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Known for physical theater, modern clowning, and ensemble-based creation, Ferguson was called a “local treasure” by the Star Tribune.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was originally staged in November 2010 at the Hassler Theatre in Plainview, MN. Walking Shadow is delighted to be staging the Twin Cities premiere of this production.

During Walking Shadow's 2011-2012 season, we focused on gender and relationships in a variety of contexts and eras. In reasons to be pretty, Greg and Stef had very different ideas about the role physical appearance plays in attraction, and how it should be expressed. With An Ideal Husband, Lord and Lady Chiltern learned to navigate their responsibilities to each other in love and marriage, culminating in a provocative statement about ingrained gender differences. And in Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Edward Kynaston explored what it meant to be - and appear to be - masculine and feminine, both on stage and in life.

Now, as we enter our 2012-2013 season and prepare for our upcoming production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, we're especially reminded of the role that government takes in legislating personal decisions, and those families whose lives are at the center of our current political debate.

In light of our interest in exploring such important social issues, it should come as no surprise that Walking Shadow has joined Minnesotans United for All Families.

We are proud to stand with a coalition of local arts organizations, and hundreds more non-arts groups, to oppose the marriage amendment that will be on the ballot in November. We believe that the proposed amendment's sole purpose is to legitimize discrimination; marriage is a fundamental freedom that should not be denied to anyone.

Don't limit the freedom to marry: Vote NO.

Please take a moment to visit the website for Minnesotans United for All Families and check out their efforts to defend the families of all Minnesotans.

Walking Shadow's Artistic Director Amy Rummenie asked the director and cast members of Some Girl(s) to share their opinions about Neil LaBute and what it's like to perform in his work. Their responses were compiled into this video:


Later, director Brian Balcom, actor Clarence Wethern, and company member John Heimbuch met with Ed Jones of Jazz 88 to discuss our approach to staging Some Girl(s) and give some background about the production.


Minneapolis has a history of staging works by Neil LaBute. Yet after a decade of productions, his plays still inspire us by addressing complicated questions with a unique humor. Here is a brief list of local productions by this provocative author:

2011 - reasons to be pretty, Walking Shadow Theatre Company
2009 - Some Girl(s), Walking Shadow Theatre Company
2008 - Autobahn, Kaleidoscope Theatre/Workhouse Theatre
2007 - Fat Pig, Walking Shadow Theatre Company
2007 - The Shape of Things, Twin Cities Theater Company
2005 - Bash: Latterday Plays, CalibanCo Theatre
2003 - The Shape of Things, Eye of the Storm Theatre
2001 - Bash: Latterday Plays, Balance Theatre Project

How many of these productions have you seen?

Audiences often wonder about the nature of Walking Shadow's site-specific puzzle shows. Here are answers to some of the most-commonly asked questions about our production of Saboteur (summer 2011).


What is "a theatrical game with puzzles"?

Saboteur is a live performance in which the audience participates in the action of the show by doing large-scale, hands-on puzzles. These puzzles are interspersed with theatrical sequences (much like cut scenes in a video game) and the story is revealed through this combination of performance and puzzles. For an example, visit the walk-through of our previous puzzle show 1926 Pleasant.


Is Saboteur an audience participatory show?

Yes, but not in the way you might be used to. The audience isn't expected to act or converse with the performers. You won't be required to dance or wear funny hats. You just get to do awesome puzzles.


What if puzzles aren't my thing?

You'd be surprised - you may have just the insight your team will need! But there will be other people at your performance who love figuring out the puzzles, and helping them find solutions can be lots of fun.


What is Saboteur about?

We might tell you "Spies", but then you'd know too much.


Why so many performances?

Because of the hands-on nature of Saboteur, it's important to keep the audience small (around 15 people per performance). Therefore we added performances to give more people the chance to see it.


Will the audience be moving around a lot?

You should expect to be on your feet for about 90 minutes (though limited seating will be available in certain rooms and accommodations can be made for those with reduced mobility).


Will concessions be available at the show?

Bottled water will be freely available, but we ask that you bring no other food or drink into the performance space.


Where is Saboteur being performed?

Saboteur is being performed at a secret location in Northeast Minneapolis. The location will be revealed once you have purchased tickets. This venue is along major bus lines and easily accessible from a nearby freeway.


How much territory will we cover?

Saboteur takes place in one location. You'll be walking from room to room, but we won't be kidnapping you in a van and taking you anywhere. Total distance traveled will be just a couple hundred feet, all indoors.


What will I get if I win?

Success is a journey, not a destination! Saboteur won't have winners and losers. Don't worry, we're not going to time you, and we won't be comparing one audience against another. Sure, there are puzzles to solve, but it's more of an experience than a competition.


Can I purchase tickets at the door?

No. Because of limited capacity, all tickets must be purchased in advance. Prices vary depending on the performance.


Still curious and want to know more?

Read the Saboteur press release.

In March 2009, Minnesota Playlist asked Walking Shadow's Artistic Directors to explain our approach to season-planning and script selection. Amy Rummenie, David Pisa, and John Heimbuch put their collective heads together and wrote this article on the subject:

SINCE WE BEGAN PRODUCING IN 2004, we’ve discovered that there’s no single consistent answer to the question of how we plan our seasons. The simplest answer is that we stage the sort of shows that we'd want to see, and our personal tastes tend to guide us towards new works and regional premieres. We also consciously choose works that provide us with a compelling challenge, that we believe will be fun for our designers, our actors, our audience, and ourselves.

We read and read and read plays. We’re constantly researching what’s happening in theaters in Minnesota and elsewhere, both to find new plays and to build a context of what’s being done locally, nationally, and internationally. We haunt theater bookstores and playwright organizations. We contact playwrights and solicit their scripts. We see who represents a given author and look at who else they represent. We ask friends around the country to see plays on our behalf, and we see plays wherever we travel. When we find scripts that we enjoy, but aren’t quite right, we see what other plays the author has written, what other plays the original producer has staged, and what other scripts their publisher has published. We read reviews and subscribe to new play journals and magazines. And of course we get recommendations, pitches, and submissions. But mostly we simply read and see a lot of plays. We see at least 80 shows a year and read at least 100 more. And we miss even more. Sometimes, John, for example, will read four plays a day for four days straight; other times — we simply have to ditch out and play Rock Band with friends.

As Co-Artistic Directors, the three of us share the work of season planning. When one of us finds a compelling script, the reader passes it on to another company member, often without explanation. “Here, read this.” We’re all busy enough that we don’t recommend scripts to each other without cause, but we try not to give much insight about why a script stood out – for fear of prejudicing their initial read. If the script resonates with the second reader, it should be reasonably clear why it was suggested, and it gets passed on to the third company member. If it doesn’t immediately resonate, we talk about what does and doesn’t recommend it for production, after which it may still be passed along to the third company member – especially if one of us feels truly passionate about it.

After a script has been read by all three of us, we talk about it extensively. While there’s a tremendous amount of overlap in our tastes, we each have our personal preferences: John likes compelling and quirky narrative structures; David likes difficult questions asked in fun ways; and Amy likes complicated emotional journeys that allow for interesting staging. Hence, Walking Shadow plays usually possess these elements, as well as, frequently, a sense of moral ambiguity – the feeling that the world is what we make of it.

Beyond that, some of the basic qualities we look for are: Intelligence, i.e. is it well-constructed? Does it posit interesting ideas? And Sexiness – is there something mysterious and alluring about it? What feelings does it evoke?Awesomeness – does it give wonder? Does it demand to be a live experience?Cleverness – is it theatrically aware, well-paced, humorous, fun? Honesty – does it ring true? Or does it have a compelling reason to ring false? Challenge – will it give us something to strive towards? Does it ask difficult questions?

Naturally, there are pragmatic concerns as well – how difficult or expensive it is to obtain the rights, how large or small a production has to be, what casting or design specifics it requires, and what venues are available – although these factors are rarely part of our initial discussion.


that transcends the effect of simply reading it. The American Pilot, for example, had an ending that could not be fully conveyed on the page. The characters spend the entire play discovering their shared humanity, until a brief misunderstanding causes a horrifying conclusion. In the script, there are just clinical stage directions about a gunfight, but in performance the emotional content of the scene slaps the audience in the face unexpectedly, leaving them wishing hard that things had worked out differently. The Cryptogram, 36 Views, and Seventy Scenes of Halloween demanded to be staged, as they required the intricate subtleties of actors’ performances to make sense of their quirks and leaps of logic. And some of our plays have required a significant imaginative leap in staging: Mr. Marmalade takes place in the mind of a troubled 4 year old girl played by a 20-something-year-old woman, while Amazons and Their Men was ostensibly a string of discarded film clips and was written in the language of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematic style.

Sometimes we stage shows for the sheer thrill of creating an unusual experience. In1926 Pleasant, the audience solved puzzles in an unfinished condo to move the story, loosely based on Japanese ghost films, forward. This play came about because we dared ourselves, “Could we do a show with puzzles? What would that mean?”Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead was meant to woo the audience with the meta-theatrical concept behind it, while inspiring awe at the spectacle of staging such a large-scale show in the Fringe Festival.

Many scripts are interesting enough to be read by all of us without ever making it into one of our seasons – these plays enter a low orbit around our discussions, and are used as conversational touchstones – but the scripts that really succeed are those that one of us feels passionately about: a script that haunts us long after reading it, that keeps coming up in conversation. If a script really resonates strongly we’ll hold onto it until we’re ready to stage it (and cross our fingers that no one else produces it first!)

Though people have occasionally commented on the cohesive artistic vision of Walking Shadow, we’re simply guided by personal taste. Above all else, we look for material that will be satisfying enough for us to pour in all the time, energy and love that staging a show requires. The scripts that we produce conform to one standard above all others: they’re the kind of shows that we would be excited to see.

In October of 2006, Minnesota Fringe Festival’s New News interviewed Walking Shadow company member John Heimbuch. Topics included Walking Shadow's recently-closed production of 1926 Pleasant and the upcoming Seventy Scenes of Halloween, as well as the launch of our first full season. The full text of that interview has been reprinted here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival New News: Congratulations on your 2006 Fringe show 1926 Pleasant!

John Heimbuch: Thanks. It was a lot of fun.


MFFNN: Were you surprised on how well the show was received?

JH: Pleasantly. We anticipated that it might do well - but it was a shock how much word of mouth there was. Everyone had heard about us.


MFFNN: When did you first decide to do a site-specific show?  How did you decide on the site of an empty condo?

JH: Walking Shadow company member David Pisa had been developing large-scale treasure-hunts for awhile now. Last winter he ran a fairly intense weeks-long puzzle hunt for the cast and crew of Aladdin Jr. at the Children's Theatre. Afterwards our fellow company member Amy Rummenie suggested that he create a puzzle-hunt Fringe show. We spent many hours looking for good sites - bookstores and art galleries especially, and even thought about creating something that spanned several Fringe venues, but the logistics were ridiculous. One of our board members suggested this beautifully renovated building she owned. A great location with an interesting history, and handicapped accessible. Perfect.


MFFNN: Everyone was impressed by David Pisa's mad puzzle skills! Where on earth did those come from?

JH: We're big nerds. The entire company used to be avid fans of puzzle-based computer games like Zork, King's Quest, and Seventh Guest. David's a natural problem-solver. He knows how to look at a problem and either see the answer or work diligently to find one. There's a very small difference between passionate puzzle-solvers and passionate puzzle-makers. David started creating his own puzzle-hunts in college and continues to develop them as an active hobby. In other words, he learned by paying attention and practice practice practice.


MFFNN: What was the biggest challenge in putting the show together? Did you modify the show as the Fringe progressed? The most unexpected outcome?

JH: It was unlike anything we had created before. Nor did we have any examples to turn to. This particular type of audience interaction, combining puzzles and theatre, seems to be completely unknown territory. So we brainstormed hundreds of ideas, devised some puzzles, and structured the story around them. It reminded me of the Oulipo literary group - where the constraints of form are more important than the aesthetic results. As an artist you have to say "These are my limitations, how can I use them to make a satisfying experience?" Most people seemed satisfied with the results, and a few weren't - that happens. But the positive audience response is only a secondary satisfaction to having achieved our primary goal of creating a successful marriage of puzzle and theatrical form. There were many stressful moments, but in the end I think it was worth it.

There were slight changes every night to eliminate false positive results, or prevent the audience from finding red herrings. We intentionally never defined the boundaries of the audience, and as result discovered that the show was very easy to break, and even easier if you tried. There were three notable incidents during the course of the production: Our first audience missed both introductory clues and went immediately out to the patio where Cherri and I were sitting, after staring at us for a nerve-wracking two minutes David snuck out of the tech room and handed them the clue envelope. In one performance we accidentally switched two clues the audience received, and skipped to the end of the show as a result. And one gentleman entered the space and immediately picked the lock to the final room.

As the festival went on we became concerned, and justifiably so, that the audiences who were attending 1926 Pleasant were coming only because it was a hot ticket, and not because they had a great passion for puzzle-solving or experimental theatre. While in theory the show was built so that anyone could enjoy it, it's possible that some of our target audience missed out as a result. To address that concern, we put up a complete walkthrough of the show on our website. You can view it here.


MFFNN: Any fun behind-the-scenes stories you can share?

JH: We get to keep some secrets.


MFFNN: We saw Walking Shadow at the 2004 Fringe with The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Was that the company's first production?

JH: It was. Amy Rummenie and I produced a show in the 2001 Fringe because Dean J. Seal told us to. We used an obscure pagelong script by Edward Gorey and combined his scenarios with a melodramatic acting style and parlor mystery plot devices. It worked like a dream. Dean saw the show and was kind enough to call it "perfect". Two years later he cornered us at the Fringe afterparty and vehemently insisted we do another show. David Pisa assisted us in creating The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen and Walking Shadow became an official entity as a result of that production.


MFFNN: Why did you choose Seventy Scenes of Halloween as your next project?

JH: We wanted to try doing a holiday show, but Christmas isn't really our thing. Actually, we've had our eye on this script for awhile now. Basically, it's a rollercoaster - from the first to the seventieth scene the actors are always 'on'. Adjacent scenes don't necessarily have anything to do with each other, which allows for many possible interpretations, sort of like an onstage Kuleshov Effect. And, to be entirely honest, I have a soft spot for modular plays.


MFFNN: Are there really seventy different scenes?

JH: There are only sixty-six scenes. Four scenes were removed from the original production and never re-instated. The playwright Jeffrey M. Jones kept the title because he liked the erroneous specificity of it.


MFFNN: How scary is it on a scale of 1 (little kid dressed as a ghost) to 10 (watching Psycho on a rainy night)?

JH: It runs the spectrum, mostly hanging out around 3, with occasional spikes to 10. But when the script isn't scary, it can be astoundingly funny. There are a lot of sheets.


MFFNN: Aren't you exhausted from the Fringe? Where did you find the energy to produce an entirely new production so soon after August?

JH: You just do. We wanted to hit the ground running this year and we're working pretty hard to accomplish that, but it's made easier because we're lucky enough to be supported by a dedicated audience and many talented artists.


MFFNN: What other projects are you working on right now?

JH: The next two shows in our season: The Cryptogram, written by David Mamet and directed by Annelise Christ; and Fat Pig, written by Neil LaBute and directed by Amy Rummenie. Personally, I'm writing for Hardcover Theater's London After Midnight series and preparing to collaborate on Or the White Whale with director Jon Ferguson for Civic Stage and the Southern Theatre while David and Amy research scripts and plan our next season.


MFFNN: Many people who read the Fringe Web site are thinking about taking that initial leap of faith - to produce, perform or write their very first Fringe show. What advice do you have for a first-time producer or performer deciding whether or not to submit an application for the 2007 Fringe?

JH: When I look at the costs of creating art in Minnesota compared to other cities I'm astounded by the difference. In New York it costs a small fortune to rehearse a Fringe-scale show, let alone perform and promote it. The Twin Cities occasionally reminds me of Lost Generation Paris or 1970's Manhattan as an inexpensive place to create amazing work. But the major difference is that audiences of those eras had a passionate need, born from societal desperation, to see art that was new, risky and unique. Generally speaking, Americans are still too comfortable to passionately need artwork that challenges us. But for whatever reason, during the Fringe Festival people find that passion, and this makes it Minnesota's best place to take artistic risks.

If you have an idea, go for it. See what others are doing. Look at what succeeds and what doesn't. Don't be afraid to ask anyone for help. Determine what you want to accomplish, and do it in the most distinctive way you can. There's no better place to cut your teeth than the Minnesota Fringe Festival.


MFFNN: Thank you so much!

JH: You're welcome. Thank you!


Reprinted with permission from the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

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Production History

Walking Shadow Theatre Company

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