Derek: On Cryptids, Kung Fu and La Bete du Gevaudan

la bete statue

It’s a common question for Sandbox: “How did you come up with that idea?” Usually it’s as simple as one of us getting turned on by something and getting passionate about it. Enthusiasm is often contagious, as it was with Derek Lee Miller and La Bête du Gevaudan.

I first heard of the Beast of Gevaudan from the French movie Le Pacte des Loups, which I saw in college when it came to that one tiny theater in Decatur, IL that would play foreign and indie films. It was not exactly the existential drama that I had been led to believe all French films were. In reality, it was a bloated action movie with a confusing plot and for some reason, a Native American man that somehow knew Kung Fu. Oh, and the wolf was actually a hyena wearing armor made of leather, spikes and chains, which looked cool on screen, but was actually a really dumb idea now that I think about it.
Many years (and many confusing action films) later, I was writing an album’s worth of songs about cryptids (animals rumored to exist, but not proven). I didn’t want to write six songs about Bigfoot and Nessie, so I did some research, and, holy crap the internet has seriously empowered all kinds of crazy cryptid hunters. In the flurry of chupacabras, remnant dinosaurs and mothmen, I stumbled upon the Beast of Gevaudan. As it turns out, many people over the centuries have speculated that the wolf was no ordinary wolf. Some people are still seriously suggesting that it’s a hyena, which still sounds really dumb.
From this, though, I learned the tale of Marie-Jeanne Valet, who was completely left out of the Le Pacte des Loups, despite the fact that there is a badass statue of her in France today (see photo above), and not a single statue for Francois Antoine, who is officially credited with killing the wolf. Antoine’s love and awe for Marie-Jeanne formed the basis of the song I wrote, which contained, among other things, a guitar, an accordion and some badly butchered French. I’ve been waiting for this style of music to come back around again, and I think the time has almost come.
A few years after that, Sandbox was doing its Suitcase series, and I turned the story into a 15-minute piece done with only myself and suitcase of flat puppets. In escaping the constraints of a 3-minute song, I was able to explore some of the broader political contexts around this incident in France’s history (which, to be fair, Le Pacte des Loupes attempted as well through the use of punches, flying kicks and guys who always wear leather). It was fun, but I still felt like there were some greater ideas left on the table.
So earlier this year, when Sandbox’s ball was picked in the Fringe, I had a slew of new things to add to flesh out the entire world of Gevaudan. Along with the cast and director, we’ve found all kinds of funny, sad details that make the whole weird state of affairs in 1764 France seem eerily familiar to today’s world. Somehow, what started off as a quirky story from a bad action film mutated into a great and terrible lesson on what happens when a nation goes off hunting the wrong monsters. It’s beautiful and terrible, and I’m so glad that I had help in bringing it to fuller life.
Sadly, this version still does not feature Native American kung fu, leather-clad punches in the rain or a hyena in bondage gear. Maybe next time.

Derek Lee Miller is Sandbox Theatre’s Artistic Director, and the Co-Project Lead on our Fall 2014 production, Killer Inside. Marie-Jeanne Valet, Who Defeated La Bête du Gevaudan opens Friday, August 1st, 2014. Tickets are on sale now.

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War With the Newts at Park Square in 2015

The 2015 season at St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre – Andy Boss Thrust Stage was announced earlier today, and we’re pleased to tell you that an all new, ensemble-created adaptation of War With the Newts will be our first production as a part of our partnership with Park Square.

WWTN graphic

Details from the press release:
Sandbox Theatre takes the stage first with their all new ensemble-created production War With the Newts, playing May 13-30, 2015. Sandbox brings rich, visual storytelling to this exploration of Karel Capek’s 1936 sociopolitical sci-fi tale of corruption, selfishness and absurdism. Told with Sandbox’s signature stylized design, movement and language, War With the Newts promises a sprawling, sharp-witted commentary on profit-first economies, the dangers of pride and nationalism, and a stern warning of our self-destructive nature. “The Andy Boss Stage is a brand new playground for Sandbox,” says Sandbox Artistic Director, Derek Lee Miller. “We’re looking forward to the challenge of bringing something the Park Square audience has never seen before. War With the Newts is an odd little tale with big ideas for the modern world, it’s a perfect match.”

Producing Partners Logo Banner Low Res

Sandbox’s partnership with Park Square, Theatre Pro Rata and Girl Friday Productions was announced earlier in 2014. Park Square Artistic Director Richard Cook commented on the theatres in residence season: “The programming by this trio of producers is so smart: they’ve each chosen pieces that capitalize on their strengths and pump up their passions,” said Cook. “They’ve also decided to debut on the Boss Stage with works that soar with ambition while still taking advantage of the wrap-around immediacy of the space. And each of their productions can and will stand boldly on its own – adding additional diversity to what one writer described as Park Square’s ‘thundering herd of plays.’ I can’t wait to experience and share their work as a unique series of events.”

Also as a part of the first resident season, Theatre Pro Rata will bring The Illusion, by Tony Kushner (June 10-28, 2015), and Girl Friday will produce Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (July 9-26, 2015).

Ticket information:
Tickets will go on sale at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 31st. Tickets may be purchased in person at the Park Square Box Office at 20 West 7th Place in St. Paul, over the phone at (651) 291-7005, and online at parksquaretheatre.org. Tickets may be purchased for all three productions as a package or as single show tickets. Single tickets are $25 each with discounts available for students, seniors, groups and Fringe button holders. The package of three shows is available for $69 ($23 per show).

All of us at Sandbox are excited and honored to be working with Park Square, Pro Rata and Girl Friday, and we’re looking forward to showing our stuff next year in St. Paul.

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Playtime

pinocchio2

Recently, Sandbox’s Ryan Hill directed a middle school show at the Oakland School for the Arts. Here are his thoughts on his first time directing with kids.

You know those gameshows where some desperate dude tries to get shocked out of a phobia by submitting himself to something torturous like locking a cage of tarantulas on his head? I just did that. Except replace ‘tarantulas’ with ‘middle schoolers’ and ‘box’ with ‘teen-body-odor-soaked-rehearsal-room.’

The rest is the same. All those eyes… all those awkward limbs… all those unpredictable thought patterns…

For nine weeks I worked with 40-some kids on a children’s show. My first time directing children and a wee bit terrifying. But like any good children’s story, we all ended up learning something. They hopefully learned something about working as an ensemble, being self-sufficient problem solvers and maybe something about proper public hygiene.

I learned how to not swear quite as much. I learned a lot about impulse control – or lack thereof – and I learned how infuriating teenage eye-rolling can be. But I also clearly noticed something about the nature of growing as an artist.

The kids were all over the spectrum of pinocchio3physical, mental and emotional development, but one thing was clear – the most socially ‘mature’ kids were the least willing to play.

Not such a surprise in itself. One of the hardest jobs we have working with adult professionals is getting them to open up, contribute and trust the process. In essence, to play. But it was a little surprising to see that by 13 or 14, the kids were already tuning out of playing. The work they created was forced, clichéd and literal. They already had a very adult obsession with focusing on limitations rather than exploring solutions. It was surprising how often I had to say, “Are you asking me to explain the logic of a children’s story?”

“Why won’t you little shits just play?”

Here’s pinoccio1what I’ve realized: we’ve equated the process of playing (outward-focused, free exploration) with the product of play (games and ‘screwing around’). Children play, adults work. That confusion of process with product devalues curiosity and the joy of discovery and instills a fear of failure and criticism. It contributes to a cultural undervaluing of creativity and makes for very boring artists.

But this transcends theater or art. Playfulness is essential to any human endeavor. Play is exercise for the muscle of curiosity. And curiosity keeps us engaged in life. Stay playful and you’ll be resourceful, you’ll be agile, you’ll be aware, you’ll be present. Playfulness defends against boredom and inoculates against self-importance. It’s a moving platform that forces us to keep perspective on the dips and curves of success and failure.

When you hold on to your sense of play, you don’t need to choose between false dichotomies. Playful people are alert and patient at the same time. Playful people are both resilient and malleable. Playful people thrive in ambiguity and revel in repetition. Playful people rise out of a crowd and delight in blending in.

How do we retain a sense of play? How do we get kids to accept all results as valid without sacrificing a strong vision? I’m not real sure. But it can’t hurt to model it for them. So next time you find yourself surrounded by teenagers, please don’t try to act like an adult. Work on showing them being grown up doesn’t mean squashing your instinct to play. Let them see what amazing things can happen when you’re accessible, willing to fail and not precommitted to a result.

Show them that playfulness fuels courage and confidence. Show them playfulness grants us vision to see around obstacles. Show them that with a playful attitude, you’ll never pass up sticking our head in a box of spiders.

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