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Annual ‘Raw Stages’ event shows theater in the making

Raw Stages
Photo by Scott Pakudaitus
Playful composer and pianist Gary Rue created the music and lyrics for “Invasion of the Colored People,” by playwright Ellen Lewis.

The last show I wrote for St. Paul’s History Theatre went into rehearsals without an ending.

There were problems with the middle, too. But “The Gangster Musical” had a pretty fair first act — or, at least, there were some decent scenes in the first act, as I recall.

Fortunately, it was a musical and I was only in charge of the book, not the music or lyrics. Things pulled together about a week before opening night, but we still didn’t have an ending. When I asked the director, Ron Peluso, if he had any ideas about it, he replied, “Well, it’s a musical, so it has to end with a big production number.”

We turned and gazed at the composer, Drew Jansen, and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking, “It’s all on you, pal.” Drew came through, pro that he is, and the show turned out to have a pretty good run in 2000.

A different story today
Things don’t work quite that way these days at History Theatre — and, no, it’s not because I haven’t tried to write a show for them lately.

The reason is “Raw Stages,” an event started about five years ago that involves public staged readings of shows in the incubation process.

“It has taken some of the high-wire act out of the equation,” said Peluso, artistic director for the theater that recently staged its 100th original production in a lifespan of nearly 30 years.

There’s nothing particularly original about staged readings, which come in different forms. For instance, the script readings at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis generally involve actors sitting and reading aloud, sometimes with scripts on music stands. By contrast, the “Fresh Ink” series presented annually at Illusion Theater tends to be closer to full productions, with sets and costumes.

History Theatre’s “Raw Stages” falls between those two extremes. Actors in rehearsal clothes carry scripts, and scenes often are blocked on the stage. But the scripts aren’t necessarily complete.

“If it’s a musical, there may be a moment where we say, ‘A song will go here,’ ” Peluso said. “But for the most part, none of the playwrights or composers have heard their words or songs out loud. So it’s an opportunity to try it on and to get feedback from everybody, including the audience. If we don’t like it, we can say, please rewrite it.”

A unique thing about “Raw Stages” is that nearly two-thirds of the scripts presented in the series eventual get fully staged History Theatre productions. Others get staged by other theaters. Few fall by the wayside — and there’s a reason for that.

“We essentially commission writers to do the first step, so we’d like to follow through on the financial commitment as well as the investment in the writer,” Peluso said. “We like to see all the plays find a home.”

Four scripts are up for inspection in this year’s “Raw Stages” series, which starts Thursday. Here’s the lineup:

“The Ghost of Summit Avenue”: A haunted mansion on Summit Avenue serves as a backdrop for tales out of local history. The script is by Deborah Stein, a Jerome Foundation Fellowship recipient at the Playwrights’ Center. Thursday, Jan. 10, 7:30 p.m.

“20 Days to Find a Wife”: Laurie Flannigan, who wrote the book and lyrics for the theater’s recent hit, “Hormel Girls,” returns with a play based on a true story about a 19th century Wisconsin lighthouse keeper who needed a wife to keep his job. The composer is Marya Hart, recipient of two Minnesota Music Awards. Friday, Jan. 11, 7:30 p.m.

“Tyrone and Ralph”: Prolific and widely produced playwright/screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher has written a play about the turbulent relationship between Tyrone Guthrie and Minneapolis theater architect Ralph Rapson when the first Guthrie Theater was being erected on Vineland Place. Ironically, the building where History Theatre performs also was designed by Rapson. Saturday, Jan. 12, 7:30 p.m.

“Invasion of the Colored People”: Playwright Ellen Lewis wrote a satirical play several years ago about her father, Woody Lewis, the first African-American nuclear physicist hired by Honeywell in the 1950s. Efforts to live in St. Louis Park proved … challenging. A veteran of a previous “Raw Stages” reading, the play has been transformed into a musical with lyrics and music by local composer Gary Rue. Sunday, Jan. 13, 2 p.m.

The History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St. in St. Paul, is charging $10 for admission to each show or $25 for a pass to see all of them. Order online or by calling 651-292-4323.

Who knows? You might be able to brag about seeing a play before it became everybody’s must-see.

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