'Tidy,' part of World Premiere Wisconsin, pits the joy of Marie Kondo against the gloom of climate change
World Premiere Wisconsin has Chicago-based playwright Kristin Idaszak feeling both envious and grateful.
"As a close neighbor of Wisconsin, I have to say, I'm envious, I think this is such an incredible initiative," Idaszak said of the festival, which has stimulated world-premiere theater productions around the Badger State this season.
"My hope … both selfish and altruistic, is that it creates a long-term investment in playwrights and new plays that can really rise and respond to the moment in all sorts of ways," she said.
As its entry in the festival, Milwaukee's Renaissance Theaterworks will stage the world premiere of Idaszak's "Tidy," a one-actor play that Cassandra Bissell will perform March 24-April 16
Idaszak braids climate change, extinction events, Marie Kondo and hard-boiled detective fiction into "Tidy." As Bissell's character tries to fathom several mysteries, she never stops Kondo-ing an enormous scattering of possessions around her.
"This play comes out of a deep place of love for her work," Idaszak said of organizing guru Kondo, author of "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" and star of a related Netflix series. At the same time, Idaszak is aware of how much stuff she's accumulated in several moves around the country. The playwright has pondered why having a lot of stuff makes a person feel safe while reading about "mass extinction events throughout history."
Kondo talks and writes about keeping things that "spark joy"; in a humorous twist, the character in Idaszak's play is married to a scientist named Joy. But they have different perspectives on what is happening to the ecosystem around them. "It’s hard to love someone who thinks in geological time, who knows how little will be left behind," the "Tidy" character says.
"Tidy" will introduce many audience members to the concept of solastalgia, the distress caused by environmental change, especially in the form of making one's own home feel unfamiliar. Idaszak said she first encountered the concept while researching her previous climate-change play, "Three Antarcticas."
"I'm not trying to convince people that climate change is a crisis. I'm operating on the assumption that we all already agree," Idaszak said, though she knows there are some who refuse to believe it. As a storyteller, she hopes to cut through some of large emotions generated by the subject and "give the audience an entry point into the conversation."
Conference hosted by Renaissance stimulated idea of World Premiere Wisconsin
As part of World Premiere Wisconsin, nearly 50 theater groups in Wisconsin, from professional companies to community theaters, are presenting some form of new work from March through June 30. That includes fully staged productions from some of the state's largest pros, such as Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Madison's Forward Theater and Door County's Northern Sky Theater.
Renaissance, the professional Milwaukee theater founded and led by women, played a key role in sparking the idea of the festival, said Forward artistic director Jen Uphoff Gray.
In 2018, Gray and Forward managing director Julie Swenson attended the Statera Conference, an annual gathering of women in theater, which Renaissance was hosting in Milwaukee that year. A panel led by Nan Barnett, who had produced two installments of the D.C. Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, fired up Gray's synapses. She mouthed the words "World Premiere Wisconsin" to Swenson. A few zillion phone and Zoom calls, meetings and emails later, this festival is a reality.
Its organizers believe no other state can boast of a festival of new plays in so many locations and at so many levels. (Take that, Illinois!)
Working on this festival has helped eased Gray's frustration about feeling siloed and having insufficient contact with her professional peers around Wisconsin. The festival also makes it easier — or at least less risky — for theaters to take on the development and creation of new plays.
In Forward's case, those two considerations have dovetailed. Forward commissioned Lauren Gunderson, one of the current stars of American theater, to write "Artemisia." Producing it as part of the festival made it easier both for the Forward board of directors to support the expense, and for Gunderson to trust the necessary resources would be there, Gray noted.
While Gray has a lot of experience with contracts and licenses, she had not actually drawn up a commissioning contract before. But she was able to call up Jeff Frank, artistic director of Milwaukee's First Stage, for help, because he's commissioned many plays.
Gray, who worked in New York on and off Broadway before returning to Madison, also hopes World Premiere Wisconsin will open eyes outside the state to the quality of theater here, "so overlooked by the sort of national theater discourse," she said.
For festival info and a schedule of events, visit worldpremierewisconsin.com.
A festival with room for all kinds of theater
Renaissance is not a rookie in the new-play development game. Since 2013, when not on COVID-19 pandemic hiatus, its Br!nk New Play Festival has provided playwrights with one-week workshops of new plays, with a professional director, stage manager and actors, that include performances that generate valuable feedback. Idaszak's "The Surest Poison" was a Br!nk play in 2018. Renaissance chose her play "out of the slush pile," Idaszak said.
When Idaszak begin looking for a home for "Tidy," she remembered, "it was such a lovely experience working with (Renaissance). … I'm so excited that they were excited about the play," she said.
Idaszak's enthusiasm for World Premiere Wisconsin extends beyond the production of her play. She appreciates it for "cultivating a culture and an audience for new work. … It really feels like a rising tide raises all ships," she said.
She pointed out that this capacious festival has room for both her climate-change drama and for Madison's Capital City Theatre's "Shining in Misery," a musical theater parody mashing up Stephen King novels. "I think we need plays that ask us to really sit with hard things and plays to give us … two hours of respite from hard things. I think we need the whole gamut, and I really think that playwrights can can give us all the things we need."
If you go
Renaissance Theaterworks performs "Tidy" March 24-April 16 at 255 S. Water St. For tickets, visit r-t-w.com or call (414) 278-0765.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marie Kondo sparks 'Tidy,' a new play for World Premiere Wisconsin