Archive for Thursday, August 17, 2006

Fringe benefits

De Soto native performs in New York theater festival

August 17, 2006

A son of a minister and high school music and drama teacher, Jon Copeland figures he had the perfect upbringing to develop the varied talents he is displaying to New York City audiences this week.

"We were always doing school things or singing in church," the 1984 De Soto High School graduate said. "I guess I never had the stage fright some people had."

The talents the Rev. Richard and Mary Etta Copeland nurtured in their son and were further developed at Kansas and Ottawa universities eventually found a home with the Martin City Melodrama & Vaudeville Company. After a five-year association with the theater company, Copeland became its first and only full-time artistic employee soon after its founder and artistic director Jeanne Beechwood moved the company from Martin City, Mo., to Overland Park's Metcalf South Shopping Center.

"He's phenomenally talented," Beechwood said. "He plays the piano, sings, tap dances, writes scores and lyrics.

"About four years ago, he came to me and said he was looking for full time. That was one of my secret dreams -- that he would be working with me full time."

With Copeland's hiring, Beechwood formed Martin City Jr. to augment the melodrama company and its productions of original melodramas and the "lost" works of such greats as the Marx Brothers and Irving Berlin.

With the founding of the children's company, the two performed original plays Copeland wrote or co-wrote with Beechwood at the company's Overland Park theater or at schools, churches and other venues throughout the metropolitan area.

At about that same time, Beechwood visited New York City while the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival was running. Beechwood watched some of the productions with a sense of familiarity.

"Some of it was good and not so good," she said. "But it was fun and edgy. It was exciting to see so much original material, which is what we do."

Beechwood returned from the trip thinking Martin City ought to submit something for a future festival. Last year, the company submitted Copeland and Beechwood's "Harriet Hopperdoodle's Hair-Brained History Test" for this year's festival and was one of more than 200 works selected for the two-week event.

"This is the show we did last fall," Copeland said. "We started thinking, 'This is a good one. This is the one we ought to enter.'"

In the play, young Harriet (Beechwood) is an uninspired student in Copeland's history class. Warned that she needs to study for an exam, she goes home to cram. Falling asleep while studying, she dreams of meeting and helping Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison and other famous inventors in their moments of triumph.

"She does all kinds of wacky things with various inventors," Copeland said. "She starts to realize history's pretty cool; it's not all dates and figures. She aces the test."

The story is told with music, dance and humor and showcasing its authors' songwriting, choreographic, set designing and writing abilities.

"The theater is a real mom-and-pop operation," Copeland said. "There's only the two of us. We do all sorts of things you wouldn't expect. We sweep the theater, sell the tickets and buy snacks for the concession stand."

Copeland could probably find a market for his talents on the East or West coast, Beechwood said. But like her, he has family connections that keep him in the metropolitan area.

For his part, Copeland said he was pleased with the opportunities he found at Martin City.

"It's kind of rare to have a full-time job that allows me to be creative like this," Copeland said. "A lot of my actor friends have to have day jobs. Their acting doesn't support them."

And now Copeland will get to display his talents in the nation's theater capital.

Copeland compared the fringe festival's selection process to that of a juried art show. Martin City had to send in a videotape of the play, script and sound track. The demands didn't end with word they had been selected as the festival organizers requested information so the play could be promoted and performed in a Manhattan venue.

"The next week (after the selection), they said we had to send them marketing material," he said. "Every week they wanted something.

"I have a full-time job with the theater. It was like having another full-time job."

Fringe might have negative connotations, but it's all about creativity to the festival's organizers. Internet promotional material explains the fringe festival as a 16-day celebration of "the best emerging theatre companies and performing artists in the world."

"I think it means edgy, unique, different from the norm," Beechwood said. "That's what we do in Martin City with our melodramas and children's programs.

"I call it family camp -- we trick it up the family way."

The Martin City production is one of two FringeJR plays to be performed at the Manhattan Children's Theatre. Copeland and Beechwood will perform the play five times starting last Thursday and ending Wednesday. They will also put on a children's workshop Sunday near the famed Washington Square Park.

The venue for the play will be the Manhattan Children's Theatre in the borough's Tribeca neighborhood, which Copeland said was sometimes referred to as "Triburba" because of the many young families who now live there.

Copeland said he anticipated some opening-day jitters for his New York City debut despite having performed the play many times in front of metropolitan-area children. But he said he has been too busy to think about that.

"At this point, I've been too immersed in details," he said. "One of our sets is so big and integral to the show, we said we had to get it up there. I've been immersed in figuring out how to break it down and get it up there, I haven't even thought about that."

Copeland boarded a train Saturday for New York City, packing the large set and other essentials. During the week run, he and Beechwood will have time to see other festival productions, learn from them and take in Broadway productions featuring friends from the Kansas City theater scene.

"It's really exciting going to New York," Copeland said. "I guess anybody involved with theater would be excited about doing something like this in the heart of that world."

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