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New director brings Theater of the Absurd to Roosevelt High School

Posted on 28 October 2018 by calvin

In the auditorium at Roosevelt High School, students move deliberately in a tight group across the stage, scripts in hands, rehearsing their lines. Behind them, a trio of musicians creates a palpable tension on guitar, cello, piano, and muted trumpet. In front, on the main floor, the director paces back and forth, following the same time and rhythm. He calls out an occasional note, and actors and musicians respond with subtle alterations. They run through the scene again.

“Oh”! the director shouts to the full group, electrified. “You’re killin’ it!”

It’s the sixth day of rehearsals for the school’s upcoming fall play, and it is evident the cast and crew are jumping right in. Steering the production is Ryan Underbakke (photo right by Jill Boogren), who is bringing his own brand of energy and enthusiasm to his new role as director of Roosevelt’s theater program. And he’s charging right out of the gate with his adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s 20th century absurdist masterpiece, “Le Rhinoceros.”

The play takes place on a sunny afternoon, a day like any other. Things are normal, mundane even, when suddenly everyone begins turning into a rhinoceros. Absurd? Yes. But its themes—individual will, responsibility, logic, absurdity, fascism—resonate as readily today as when the play premiered in 1959.

This production, according to Underbakke, has student-created music, a physically-dynamic cast, and a cinematic style. The aim is to shake things up and deliver a new theater experience for performers and audiences alike.

“I think it’s gonna be… hopefully uncomfortable, exciting and full of rhythms,” said Ryan. “It’s gonna be weird.”

“Weird” is fitting. Underbakke seems to delight in messing with the expectations of theatergoers. His adaptation and direction of the immersive “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” at Children’s Theatre a few years ago, for example, involved asking the audience to choose an action that would determine the ending.

Underbakke brings with him a wealth of experience. He received a B.A. in Theatre Arts from the University of Minnesota (U of M), studied film and television acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles, then earned an M.F.A. from the London International School of Performing Arts. In addition to directing at Children’s Theatre, he has acted and taught in New York, Los Angeles, London, and the Twin Cities.

At Roosevelt, he holds the position vacated by Kristi Johnson (Stepping Stone Theatre), who revived Roosevelt’s theater program after a 15-year absence of theater at the school. Johnson played what Principal Michael Bradley called a “pivotal role” in laying the foundation of the school’s theater program, getting students engaged, launching programs and directing a play and a full-length spring musical in each of her three years.

Photo left: Students rehearse Roosevelt Theater’s upcoming play “Rhinoceros,” adapted by the high school’s new theater director Ryan Underbakke (foreground, in silhouette). Shows are Nov. 15-17. (Photos by Jill Boogren)

Johnson’s departure meant Bradley would need to find a new director who would meet his high standards.

“When we look to hire art teachers, I want people who are serious artists who are serious about teaching,” he said. “Ryan has the professional experience, a deep acting resume. What’s been a real surprise is seeing him engaging the kids.”

By his own telling, Underbakke had serious problems in school. He had problems connecting, and college wasn’t on his radar. He felt he wasn’t good at anything. And though he was “terrified” by acting at first, in the theater he found a place where he was good at something.

“I was such a rebellious little kid. I wanted something important to me,” he said. “Making people feel important is super important. We don’t do it enough.”

His is the classic tale of the one teacher who believed in him encouraging him to apply for a theater scholarship at the U of M, which propelled Underbakke into a career in the dramatic arts.

He had a role in the film “Melody June Cooper: Actress* for Hire” and has been involved locally with Dark and Stormy Productions and Live Action Set. He has taught at St. John’s University, Richmond School of Drama in England, New York Film Academy, St. Paul Conservatory of Performing Arts and MacPhail Center for Music.

Now Underbakke is bringing his experience and rigor to Roosevelt High School.

“The passion level here is so different,” he said, noting how much the artists at Roosevelt want to work. “Theater is fun when you work at it. Structure is fun.”

For “Rhinoceros,” rehearsals span about five weeks with all performers expected to be there daily after school. It’s an ensemble cast, all of whom are on stage the whole time. In Underbakke’s view, they all have to work together, and he invites input. Student musicians are scoring the show.

“Why not empower students, treat them with respect, let them do their thing”? he said.

The choice of play is exciting for Bradley, who sees it as an opportunity for students to dig deeper.

“By being exposed to absurdist theater, being pushed deeper into an active process, I hope to see the program grow and flourish,” he said. “I want kids to discover their passion for the arts at Roosevelt.”

The play will take place at Roosevelt High School (4029 28th Ave. S.) Nov. 15, 16 and 17 (Thur.-Sat.) at 7pm. The show is a little over an hour with no intermission. Baked goods will be available before and after the show. Suggested donation of $5 is requested, but all are welcome to attend.

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