Augustana Junior Becomes First Student Director at Moline’s Black Box Theatre
The new production at the Black Box Theatre, 1623 5th Ave., Moline, features a quartet of the Quad-Cities’ most talented, experienced actors in a tense, psychological thriller, and it’s helmed by an enthusiastic, dedicated student director. That’s a first for the downtown Moline, 60-
seat space, in its fifth season.
“Murder in Green Meadows” – which opens Thursday night — stars James Driscoll, Jenny Winn, Jonathan Grafft and Lora Adams, directed by Jacqueline Isaacson, a junior theater major at Augustana College (from the Rockford area). She’s majoring in musical theater and women’s/gender and sexuality studies.
Shelley Cooper, an Augie theater professor, recommended she get in touch with Black Box co-owner Lora Adams, who’s directed nearly every show at the small venue since January 2020. (Cooper brought her one-woman show about Maria Callas, “La Divina,” to the Black Box this past spring.)
Isaacson costumed the two-person play “I and You” at Black Box in July, and was stage manager for the massive 34-person musical “Newsies” at Countryside Community Theatre this summer, which concluded performances in early August. That was her first time stage managing at all, and they were in rehearsals for nine weeks.
“It was an incredible challenge, but I absolutely loved every minute of it,” Isaacson said this week. “At the
end of the process, I felt I had grown so much as a creator and artist. I feel the same after this process as well.”
“Newsies” wasn’t her favorite show to begin with, but she was excited by the challenge of its size, scope and complexity.
“I fell in love with it every night,” Isaacson said. “By the end of it, I was cuing and watching it all.”
A stage manager is the right-hand person for a show director – keeping track of attendance, writing down blocking, taking notes in rehearsals, and being in charge of putting together cues for actors, props, lighting and sound. The stage manager makes sure everyone is where they need to be in a show, and then during performances, wears a headset and calls out the many lighting and sound cues for those operators to execute.
With “Newsies,” director Ashley Becher had to be away for a time during Circa’s “Saturday Night Fever,” so Isaacson took on even more responsibility during those rehearsals. “I did a lot of roles as stage manager there, and here it’s more a blended director and stage manager,”
she said of BBT. With just four actors, it’s a lot more manageable than the big musical cast.
“As a director, I was told all of those cues (for “Newsies”), but here as director, I went through with David Miller – our lighting person – and I told him what I wanted tone-wise with the lights, where I wanted the cues,” Isaacson said. “I was creating that, instead of necessarily being given, here are your cues, make sure you get them where they need to go.”
The script will often denote what sound effects (like a ringing phone) happen, but the stage manager is responsible for finding the actual sound, and creating a digital file for it to be used during the show. “It’s all a big collaboration,” she said. “Theater is the biggest group sport ever. It’s people who need to work together, their hardest. It’s as much on the actors as the person in the booth to do a good job, so the performance is successful.”
While “Newsies” was a mammoth production, “Murder in Green Meadows” is harder in a way, “because it’s genuine emotion on stage,”
Isaacson said. “Here, you’re going to see a range – from people crying, yelling and screaming, to seeing murder on stage. That’s what makes theater so exciting. There are so many different options.”
The new play, penned by Douglas Post, originally received six Emmy Award nominations when presented on TV in 1986 with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. The stage premiere was in Southampton, England in 1992, and the American theatrical premiere was at Chicago’s Victory Gardens in 1995.
In the story, Thomas Devereaux (Driscoll), a successful architect and local contractor, and his beautiful wife, Joan (Winn), have just moved
into their dream house in the quiet suburban town of Green Meadows when they are visited by their new neighbors, Carolyn (Adams) and Jeff Symons (Grafft), and a friendship develops quickly between the two couples.
But underneath the cool, middle-American exterior, something is truly rotten, according to the synopsis. A previous sexual relationship between Joan and a teenage lawn-boy is revealed, as is the fact that Thomas learned of the infidelity and may have murdered his wife’s lover.
To make matters worse, an affair has begun to develop between Joan and Jeff Symons. One summer evening, following the Symons departure after a friendly game of cards, Thomas lets Joan know that he is aware of this new deception, and his violent, possessive nature surfaces. He makes two demands of his wife: One, she must stop seeing Jeff. Two, she must kill him.
Reviewers called “Murder in Green Meadows” — “A thoroughly satisfying thriller on all points” (WMAQ-TV); “It spins a web of deception, sex, murder and mind games as two suburban couples discover their darker sides” (Chicago Tribune); “An archly manipulative psycho-thriller…a well-made murder mystery…it holds your attention like a leash” (Windy City Times) and “A screaming hit…a tautly constructed plot…the people are the action” (Portsmouth News).
On picking the show for the season, Adams said, “It’s not that you don’t know who done it, it’s finding out why.”
From costuming to directing
After Isaacson first contacted Adams, Lora told her one of the things she wanted done over the summer was to organize the BBT costumes. “We’ve acquired a lot over these five years,” Adams said, noting Isaacson organized the clothing by gender use, type of clothes, sizes, and
Isaacson saw her first BBT show fall, “Waiting for Godot,” starring Augustana’s Tristan Odenkirk and Peter Alfano.
“I loved the space and I knew Shelley was doing her show here,” she said. “I was looking for opportunities this summer to be in the area, to do anything theater-wise. I went into college believing I was going to be a performer and started working in the costume shop my freshman year, in our J term, and I’ve fallen in love with costuming. I’m just trying on different roles in technical production of theater. I just love it; it makes my heart as happy as performing does.”
Adams (a longtime actress and director in the area who works for WQPT) has told Isaacson that she’s not going to be around forever and she needs to think of sustaining BBT long into the future.
“If younger people are interested and they want someone to mentor them, and learn about how you actually run a theater – financially, artistically – then I am very happy to pass that information along and help you on your journey,” Adams said. “When I started, I was only an
actor and discovered I had some skills in other areas. Trying to help people understand the joys and pitfalls of trying to keep a theater open, particularly during a pandemic.”
“My whole thing is, I want you to learn it, because I do not want – if I decide to step away, I don’t want the doors to close,” she said. “The whole idea here, from the very beginning, has been open to workshops of new pieces…to be an open space for folks who want to learn. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in having this space – there are a lot of folks who want to do it, who come in and not really understanding what it’s going to take.”
“It’s a boatload of work – it’s a lot of nights sitting at your computer. It’s a lot of nights listening to music,” Adams said about the myriad details needed to put together a full production, including props, set pieces and sound effects.”
Isaacson said she loves this educational experience, outside of college and outside of being on stage. Her Augie acting credits include “Pirates of Penzance,” “She Kills Monsters,” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” and she’s done acting in the Chicago area.
“I love performing, but at the end of the day, somebody has to do the lights; somebody has to do the set,” she said. “It doesn’t just happen. I’ve always been somebody who loves hard work. I love to be motivated. I chose Augustana because it was an academically difficult school. Acting is difficult in a lot of ways, but this is difficult – in a lot of work you wouldn’t think is theater related.”
“She has a very good, calming way of being a director,” Adams said of her current young boss. “A lot of directors can be autocratic, but that’s not her style. Jacqueline is still learning her style; this is really the first thing she’s directed. But stage management and directing are so close.”
“I spent the summer learning from Lora and Ashley – two of the most amazing, powerhouse women I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Isaacson said. “I want to have the careers that both of them have. They’re gold, the people I look up to.”
“She’s very organized, which is hugely important,” Adams said of her protégé. “What I find is interesting is, she’s young but she’s not afraid to tell people, ‘Shut up, go do your stuff, get ready and that sort of stuff. You have to be able to do that.”
“The hardest thing now, to be perfectly honest, is holding auditions and having people come in and audition,” she said. “It’s been horrific to try and find the casts I would really like to have. That really surprises me.”
Persisting through a pandemic
In July 2020, during the unprecedented, scary time of Covid-19, it seemed apropos that the first indoor live theater in the Quad-Cities since the first shutdown was the spooky ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.” It was directed by Adams, July 16-19, with two actors wearing face
shields. BBT has consistently staged very small, straight plays since (including radio style plays), and its first musical in over two years (the last being August 2019’s “Assassins”) will be “Company” in October (Isaacson also will among that cast).
Last year, Adams was floored to get a handwritten note from patrons who wanted to thank her for keeping the BBT going. “Though we can’t come, because of Covid, we wanted to know that we appreciated you,” she said, quoting the note, which included a $3,000 check. “I literally fell to my knees and started sobbing, because that got me through the next couple months. You just never know who is going to think of you that way, and it’s very much like Shelley telling Jacqueline to give Lora a call.
“I had no idea Jacqueline would come into my life that way,” Adams said. “For anyone to say, I’m going to do something for you is like a minor miracle. Then as I was watching her go through the process with
‘Newsies,’ I think she can handle directing and I’m gonna be right here.”
Isaacson made some major changes in scene-change music from the original “Murder in Green Meadows” script. “I was listening to it and it just didn’t fit my vision of what was happening on stage,” she said. “It didn’t fit the energy, the vibe, the mood.”
Every rehearsal, the new director said she learns something new from her veteran actors.
“I truly believe what I do on the technical side strengthens what I do on stage, and what I do on stage strengthens what I do on the stage,” Isaacson said. “There are so many long monologues in this show that the characters absolutely nail, and that’s because of the rhythm, tone and emotion they are doing a rollercoaster with. Doing genuine, human dialogue is hard.”
“The timing is beautiful when they get it right,” she said. “I’m excited for them, proud of them. They’re proud of themselves. I leave knowing that A) I helped create that, and B) that’s what that should look like on stage. When I’m an actor, that’s what I want. I learn something new every day.”
In the script, the set calls for a great room with a kitchen, and the BBT set is very warm (earth-toned), upscale, homey, and with no kitchen
visible. Adams borrowed some nice pieces from her own home and bought a sofa. One painting (at left) was done by Q-C theater veteran Sara Wegener and a big artwork in the middle is from Pier One. “I wanted pieces that didn’t look like we got them from Goodwill,” Adams said of the set. “When you’ve got to do a room that looks like someone has spent some money in it, that was the idea.”
Set design was done by Adams with construction by her husband, veteran set builder Michael Kopriva. Isaacson said the tone of the unsettling story is like the films “American Psycho” and “American Beauty,” with the time period around the year 2000.
“You’re going to come in and be on the edge of your seat,” she said.
The actors have been vaccinated and will not wear face masks. Audience members who are vaccinated do not have to (though are encouraged to), and those unvaccinated must wear a mask, Adams said. “It would be lovely if we had full capacity, but the truth of the matter is, people are a little nervous about coming in, so we’re not looking at huge audiences, regardless. I wish it was the case, but people are definitely being a little cautious.”
The show will run Aug. 19 to Aug. 28, and Thursday night tickets are $13, all other performances $16. Performances are all at 7:30 p.m., except Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information, visit theblackboxtheatre.com.