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'Out of the Fire' monologue festival inspired by banned books

'Out of the Fire' monologue festival inspired by banned books

“Catcher in the Rye.” “Lolita.” “Brave New World.” “Hop on Pop.”

They’re all books made famous by their artistry, as well as their controversy. At times banned, these classics gave rise to Forward Theater Company’s latest project: “Out of the Fire: The Banned Books Monologues,” running Feb. 26 to March 1 in Promenade Hall at Overture Center.

Thirteen local actors, directed by 13 Madison-area directors, will bring to life 13 original scripts written for the festival.

The pieces range from “On Toronto” by James DeVita, directed by Tyler Marchant and starring Michael Herold, to “The Shameshifter” by Doug Reed, directed by Enda Breadon and featuring actor Donavon Armbruster.

Forward’s biennial monologue festivals, said artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, provide “a fascinating format for an evening of theater, where you set some sort of overarching theme, and let a bunch of different playwrights have at it.”

“This is our third monologue festival, and all three times we’ve had around 100 people submit monologues,” she said. “We jury those down. We take the names off (the scripts) and have lots of people read and rank them, and keep sifting through them until we get a really fun, balanced program of about a dozen pieces — this year 13 pieces.

“There’s just so many people involved. It’s such a celebration of the Madison theater community,” she said. “We have 13 different directors, 13 different actors, and 13 different playwrights,” six of them from Madison and Spring Green.

The theme for this year’s monologue festival came from Tracy Herold, the former head of the Sun Prairie Public Library and now director of the Dane County Library Service.

Herold had seen Forward’s two previous monologue festivals — based on themes of love and food — and brought some of those works and their actors to perform at area libraries as part of the humanities program called “Beyond the Page.”

Herold “said, ‘You know what would be a really great theme for monologues? Banned books,’” Gray said. “We all thought that was a really exciting topic for writers, and we just ran with it.”

The monologue festival includes “[redacted],” by Madison playwright Mike Lawler. Lawler, who is also production manager for Children’s Theater of Madison and co-artistic director of Theatre LILA, decided to take a less conventional approach to his monologue, creating almost a second — and invisible — character, he said.

The character giving the monologue, played by actor Peter Hunt, “is a guy whose father was a minister and who worked a lot to challenge or get books banned from school that he thought shouldn’t be in school curriculum,” Lawler said. But while the character is talking, something else is going on.

I also wanted to play with the idea of what it means to censor,” Lawler said. “So the piece is also very much about censorship, and the person who is giving the monologue is actively being censored during the monologue.”

Monologues have their own particular challenges for an actor, said Jess Schuknecht, an actor who has spent much of the past 15 years doing improv comedy, including one-man improv shows.

In Forward’s monologue festival, he plays the part of a children’s librarian in the piece titled “Singed,” by Austin, Texas, playwright Alison O’Reilly Poage.

“One of the threads of the piece is that children are more durable than parents think they are,” said Schuknecht, the father of two young daughters.

“We’re very concerned about protecting our children from everything, and sometimes that leads to wanting to ban books or protect our children from things that really, in the grand scheme of things, are not that horrible.”

The biggest difference between being part of a cast and doing a monologue is “that you’re only playing off of yourself,” Schuknecht said.

“When you’ve got another person or two on stage, you’ve got their reactions. Things change from night to night, show to show, and you go off of that. Here, it’s just me.

“Regardless of whether it’s theater or it’s improv, I think what draws me to all those things is that I just love storytelling. In my mind, (a monologue is) almost less a theater piece than storytelling.”

For director Maureen Janson, the art of the monologue is making an impact on an audience in just a few minutes.

For “Out of the Fire,” Janson is directing “The Power,” a monologue by Madison playwright Erica Berman, performed by 12-year-old Alice Wenzlow of Baraboo.

“It’s a fun little surprising piece,” Janson said.

In fact, thinking about the banned book that inspired the monologue — the adolescent classic “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume — brought back Janson’s own memories of trying to get a copy in her youth.

“Everybody was reading it and talking about it,” she recalled. “I put myself on a waiting list to get it at the library, and it took months to get it.”

By contrast, there’s little wait when it comes to a monologue on stage.

“There isn’t time to really sink into (the story). I’m really relying on the text, because the text has terrific shape to it,” she said. “The hope is that you put everybody on a mini-trip, just transport them into this story.”

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