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Every Hero Needs a Sidekick

An Interview With Alex West as Sancho Panza
By Lizzie DeShaw

Alex West is playing Sancho Panza in City Theatre of Independence’s production of Man of La Mancha. I have asked him to answer some questions about the show and his character.

LIZZIE: Tell me about yourself. What is your background in theatre?

ALEX: Way back in the 1970’s I got my start with music with the Independence Youth Choir. My first musical was ‘Teen!’ at Bridger Junior High. I studied theatre at H.S. Truman High School with Kat Tucker and voice with Millicent Daughtery at Music/Arts Institute. My first love is opera. I studied vocal performance after high school at the UMKC Conservatory of Music. Unfortunately, I found out quickly that I don’t have the temperament to sing professionally. So I moved to the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater to study theatre. After college, I’ve created theatre companies, written murder mysteries, acted, and performed with Full Frontal Comedy improv troupe.

LIZZIE: Who is Sancho Panza?

ALEX: In many ways, Sancho Panza is the ‘everyman’ of Cervantes’ works about Don Quixote. Sancho is the common in everyday life. A person that almost creates the humanitarian center between all the archetypal characters in these stories.
He is a peasant servant in the house of Alonso Quijana. He could be following Quijana (as Don Quixote) for adventure, or to watch after his master as he goes mad, or maybe just to get away from his wife. Possibly it’s a mixture of all three. But what the audience sees is a man who espouses ‘common’ wisdom, excitement for the fantastic, and skepticism for the surreal. He is a moral center that characters like Antonia, Doctor Carrasco, and the innkeeper’s wife can be judged against.

LIZZIE: It’s my understanding that Sancho Panza is a dream role for you. What has it been like getting to fulfill that dream?

ALEX: It has been an absolute treat. It is so rewarding to get to perform a character that really stretches the actor’s abilities and skills. Sancho Panza is the clown of the show. He has some of the most compassionate lines and some of the most difficult music. Sancho gets to sing those elements that just ‘don’t fit’ with other characters. He sings everything from the recitative with ‘The Missive’ to the patter song with ‘a Little Gossip’.
And Sancho is so broadly written that it can be performed by almost anyone that falls in that tenor range, from Mandy Patinkin to James Coco (my favorite!).

LIZZIE: Tell me about your experience with rehearsing Man of La Mancha.

ALEX: It’s a physically demanding show. If it’s not a dance scene, it’s a fight scene. If it’s not a fight scene, it’s a reflective moment between just a few characters. There’s a song, usually being earnestly belted, every few minutes. You have to go from quiet introspection to singing high A’s and B’s within seconds of each other.
I’ve met few directors like David Rogers that really understand how difficult that is and can adequately prepare the cast for those rigors.
On top of that, we truly lucked out in the casting department. This cast is phenomenal. There are so many strong voices and dynamic actors.

LIZZIE: In your opinion, what about Man of La Mancha has made it such a beloved show? What do you hope the audience will take away from the story?

ALEX: The books that Man of La Mancha are based on are some of the most popular and best sold works in history. Some estimates suggest that Miguel de Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is, besides the Bible, the best selling book of all time. It was the first major work written in what we know as ‘modern’ Spanish (also the first major work written in ‘modern’ Spanish to be plagiarized). Most of the 400 first edition printings of the book were sent to the ‘New World’ in 1605. Some even found their way to the Inca Empire. Needless to say, it was hugely popular from the first printing. And it is a satire, poking fun at the nostalgia of the chivalric age in the face of worldwide exploration and conquest, and the barbary that entailed. To say that the political climate between 1965 (when Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh, and Joe Darion wrote the musical) and 1972 (when Peter O’Toole, Sophia Lauren, and James Coco starred in the movie) was similar to the idea of Spanish chivalry in the late 16th and early 17th century would not be a huge stretch. We were in the midst of the Vietnam war, civil strife was rampant, and people were looking anywhere for distraction.
And, honestly, it’s not dissimilar to the times we live in now.

LIZZIE: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Alex. Break a leg on your upcoming performances!

Man of La Mancha runs June 3-5 and June 10-12 at the Roger T. Sermon Center Powerhouse Theatre. Tickets can be purchased in advance by following this link

The Impossible Dream

This is my quest to follow that star… no matter how hopeless…no matter how far… – Lyrics from “The Impossible Dream”

“The Impossible Dream” is the most popular and recognizable song from Man of La Mancha. The song is at first sung by the character of Don Quixote in response to Aldonza’s question about what Quixote means by “following the quest.” The song is reprised three times. In the song, Don Quixote explains why he did all he did and what the purpose of his quest was:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable for
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right, without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause
And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

The story of Don Quixote has held up over time because I think we can all relate in some way to his quest. Aren’t we all dreaming of achieving our goals? It sounds cliche to say “nothing is impossible if you just believe,” but isn’t it true? We are all capable of great things. No matter our circumstances in life, we each have something to contribute to make the world a better place.

What is your unreachable star? Who is your unbeatable foe? Are you willing to go to places beyond your comfort and slay the obstacles in your way? Allow the epic story of Don Quixote be your inspiration. Even if you are “covered with scars,” you can still strive with your last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star. You are capable of achieving the impossible dream.

Our production’s Don Quixote/ Miguel de Cervantes will be played by Richard Gills. Listen to the 1972 film version of the song “The Impossible Dream” here: Man of La Mancha (1972) – The Impossible Dream Scene (6/9) | Movieclips

Setting the Stage: A Glimpse Into the Set Design for The Miracle Worker

A stage setting is not a background; it’s an environment. __Robert Edmond Jones

For actors, a set is like a new world. A place to step into and truly exist as their character. For audiences, sets give them a peek into the universe in which the story takes place.

The Miracle Worker takes place in four different locations: The Keller home, the Perkins Institution for the Blind, a train station, and The Keller’s garden house. Creating a space for all these different settings can present a unique challenge for the director and set designers.

I sat down with the director of The Miracle Worker, Nancy Eppert, to discuss her inspiration and vision for the play’s set design.

LIZZIE: How would you describe the concept of this set design?

NANCY: I have witnessed several productions of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson and I wanted to hold true to the author’s intentions and give the story the best underpinning possible. Therefore, I have taken my cues from the description in the forward of the script,

The convention of the staging is one of cutting through time and place, and its essential qualities are fluidity and spatial counterpoint. To this end, the less set there is the better. The stage should therefore be free, airy, episodic, unencumbered by walls. Apart from certain practical items such as the pump, a window to climb out of, doors to be locked—locales should be only skeletal suggestions, and movement from one to another should be accomplishable by little more than the lights.

LIZZIE: Where did you draw your inspiration from?

NANCY: One of the productions mentioned above was presented during the AACT Worldfest in Venice Florida. several years ago. It was a production by a theatre company from Russia. The stunning simplicity, monochromatic costuming, and skeletal set helped to create a highly emotional interaction between actors and audience, the storytelling was superb. The emotion behind the words (in Russian) and interactions of the actors was at the forefront and impactful.

LIZZIE: What aspect of the set excites you the most?

NANCY: The actors literally must image their surroundings, creating each particle of the stage through their individual thoughts. The absence of walls is freeing and opens them to all sorts of decision-making for each scene. I love working with actors that take risks and move beyond the literal. As the audience witnesses the bare essence of the construction, they too become engaged in that experience. And quite frankly, having the pump actually pumping water on stage is very exciting to me!

LIZZIE: What challenges have you faced with the design and construction of this set?

NANCY: The Powerhouse Theatre does not have a fly house nor an open trussed substructure, therefore using those areas to support suspended items are nonexistent. The builders had to create support elements to accomplish this task and keep many construction and support aspects present before the audience. The theatre is not spacious; however, it is sufficient. The harmony of lumber, light and sound create the “miracle” of The Miracle Worker.

Set designs have the power to transport us to places we’ve never been, to take us back to the days of the past. Travel back with us to 1880’s Tuscumbia, Alabama, April 1-3 and April 8-10. Tickets for The Miracle Worker are available here.

A big thank you to Nancy Eppert and the technical crew of The Miracle Worker for all their hard work!

Man of La Mancha

“I know who I am and who I may be, if I choose” – from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

City Theatre of Independence is currently in the midst of rehearsals for Man of La Mancha. This will be the final production of the 2021-2022 season. The musical will run June 3rd-5th and June 10th-12th at the Roger T. Sermon Center.

Man of La Mancha is a 1965 musical play by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion. It was inspired by the epic 17th-century novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The original 1965 Broadway musical won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The show is described as a “play within a play.” Cervantes, a character in the musical, plays the role of Don Quixote from a prison cell after being arrested by the Spanish Inquisition. With the help of his manservant and the other prisoners, Cervantes acts out the epic tale of Don Quixote.

City Theatre of Independence’s production of Man of La Mancha features the talents of:

Miguel de Cervantes/ Don Quixote/ Alonso Quijana – Richard Gill
Cervantes’ Manservant/ Sancho Panza – Alex West
Aldonza/ Dulcinea – Briana Marxen-McCollom
Atonia – Madeleine Rodriguez
Padre – Andres Mendoza
Dr. Sanson Carrasco (The Knight of Mirrors) – Drew Jones
Governor/ Innkeeper – Jerry Tracy
Housekeeper – Stephanie Flanagan
Barber – Nicholas Crawford
Captain of the Inquisition/ Gypsy Singer/ Muleteer/ Male Understudy – Robin Caroll-Dolci
Gypsy Dancer/ Ensemble/ Female Understudy – Jada Wilson

Tickets can be purchased in advance at:
Miracle Worker

Kate Keller: A Mother’s Love

A mother’s love is the fuel that enables a normal human being to do the impossible. –Marion C. Garretty
By Lizzie DeShaw

It is often said that motherhood is the hardest job in the world. A mother is an educator, a nurse, a chauffeur, a personal chef, a cheerleader, a maid, etcetera, etcetera.  Being the mother of a child with disabilities is a whole other game. I have thought often of what challenges Kate Keller must have faced raising Helen; a young girl who was both blind and deaf. My heart breaks for Kate Keller at the beginning of the play, The Miracle Worker, when Kate discovers that Helen cannot see or hear her.

One of my favorite character traits of Kate is that she fiercely advocates for Helen’s education. Kate knows her daughter’s mind is a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. Throughout the play, we hear Kate’s dialogue insisting that Helen is capable of learning.

Kate is Annie Sullivan’s strongest ally within the Keller home. She promises to help Annie in her efforts to educate Helen and even takes the initiative to learn sign language to communicate with her daughter.

There is a line of dialogue in the play spoken by Captain Keller that goes, We don’t just keep our children safe. They keep us safe. Kate, as a mother, obviously wants what is best for Helen, but she feels inadequate at times. She goes through many challenges as a mother in the story. I admire her quiet strength.

An interesting fact about our specific production of The Miracle Worker is that our cast consists of four mothers who are acting alongside their children in the show.

Those cast members are:

  • Heidi Keith (Crone), mother of Abby Keith (Helen Keller)
  • Gretchen Copeland (Kate Keller), mother of Madeline Copeland (Martha)
  • Kelly Stoll (Crone), mother of Heidi Stoll (Blind Child)
  • Lizzie DeShaw (Viney/Crone), mother of Jacob DeShaw (Percy/ Boy’s Voice) and Mason Newberry (Blind Child)

I asked each of the mothers to tell me about what it has been like working with their child onstage:

Working on ‘The Miracle Worker with my daughter, Madeline, has been a dream come true! Theatre has been a lifelong passion of mine and having a child that shares that passion is amazing. She has been singing and dancing for years, but this was her first non-musical. Watching her blossom in this new way was so cool. She has learned so much from all the amazing people on this show that will continue to serve her in her theatre career for years to come.  We both feel so blessed to have had this amazing opportunity! – Gretchen Copeland

Doing the show together has been so much fun! I choke up every single night watching her. She is such a fierce, strong girl. We’ve had so much bonding time, and made non-stop, priceless memories. – Heidi Keith

I have two children who participate in theatre and every time I see them perform, I always need a tissue for my tears of pride and joy!  This is my first time performing with my daughter, Heidi, and I am so proud of her hard work and growth as an actress.  This experience makes me look forward to working with her again. – Kelly Stoll

Having been involved in theatre for most of my life, it has been a joy and privilege watching my boys discover their own love for the craft. – Lizzie DeShaw

The Miracle Worker runs for three more performances: April 8th and 9th at 7:30pm and April 10th at 2pm. The Sunday matinee on April 10th will be interpreted in American Sign Language (ASL).

Local actor, Shane St. James, talks about his experience choreographing the fight scenes in The Miracle Worker

One of the things that makes The Miracle Worker so engaging to watch is the fight scene between Annie and Helen at the breakfast table. I have asked the production’s fight coordinator about his experience choreographing this scene.

Lizzie: First off, tell me a little about yourself.

Shane: Thanks for asking and speaking with me, Lizzie. I am a Leo so I LOVE talking about myself, but I’ll try to keep it brief. I am “from” Louisville, Kentucky, but spent the majority of my formative years in Manhattan, New York (Go Yankees), and my early years Houston, Texas. I spent some time in the Marines in California and Iraq, and I moved to Kansas City in spring of 2016. I joined CTI in June of 2021 as a member, as well as an At-Large Board member. 

Lizzie: What challenges have you faced while staging the breakfast fight scene between Annie and Helen?

Shane: I must admit, it hasn’t been as challenging as one might expect for a first time “Stage Combat Choreographer”. Of course, my main goal is to present the action on stage in the safest way possible, while also in the most believable way possible. The most amazing fact to me to reveal is that there actually is not a lot of “illusion” in this scene—the slaps you see are real, the grabs and tumbles are very real. These actors are giving their all each time we run through the 6 minute sequence, and you will be able to tell that by how hard they are breathing when the lights come up on the next scene.

Lizzie: What has been your favorite part about working with Lynnae (Annie Sullivan) and Abigail (Helen Keller)?

Shane: Both actors are an absolute delight to work with. I have always been a genuine fan of Lynnae’s remarkable talent and ability to encapsulate every character she takes on, and this show is no different; and Abby, oh my gosh, she absolutely blows my mind in the best way! She picks up direction so well and easily transitions it to the scene she’s working; absolutely phenomenal to be able to do that at such a young age. I could not have asked for a better team of “leads” to work with. Impeccable casting from our director, Nancy Eppert.

Lizzie: What are tips you have for actors’ safety during a stage combat scene?

Shane: The first, and most important tip, is to BE HONEST. It sounds weird, but I’ll quickly explain: Be honest with yourself, with your scene partner, and with your Combat Choreographer. If something you’re being asked to do makes you uncomfortable, speak out; if a direction you’re being given makes you nervous to perform it, say something; and if you’re being asked to do an action and it doesn’t feel 100% safe to you, don’t be afraid to tell your choreographer that you don’t want to do it. Our biggest desire for this skill is safety for all involved, and not just physical safety, but mental and emotional safety, as well. You should always feel that theatre is a safe space, and this is even more important when you’re asked to portray physical aggression to a castmate on stage. At the root of it all, never forget we are all on the same team, and we are all family with a goal of providing the best show possible, but not at the expense of our respective health and safety. So always be honest……and on the way, have a lot of fun too.

Fight scenes are always fun to watch, but so many safety precautions must be taken to keep the actors safe. Our actors rehearse their fight scenes several times a week and they always wear protective gear to prevent injury.

We cannot wait to present this story to you.

The Miracle Worker runs April 1st, 2nd, 3rd and April 8th, 9th 10th at the Roger T. Sermon Center Powerhouse Theatre.

Click here to purchase tickets at a drastically reduced price.

or call us at (816) 370-5664

Award winning play The Miracle Worker to be staged in Independence

The Miracle Worker, written by William Gibson, tells the impactful story of how Helen Keller learned to communicate. The original teleplay was published in 1956 and was later adapted for stage in 1957. The play was based on Helen Keller’s autobiography titled “The Story of My Life.” The Miracle Worker premiered at the Playhouse Theatre on October 19, 1959.

Since the play’s debut on stage there have been three film adaptations. The 1962 Academy Award winning film starred Anne Bancroft (as Annie Sullivan) and Patty Duke (as Helen Keller). An interesting twist is the televised 1979 Emmy award winning film starring Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan and Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. The latest adaptation in the 2000 made for television-film starred Alison Elliot as Annie Sullivan and Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Helen Keller.

Since its publication, this play has been produced by theatre companies all over the country and loved by generations of theatre goers. We are so delighted to be telling this story on our stage. The City Theatre of Independence production of The Miracle Worker features the talents of Lynnae Anderson as Annie Sullivan, and Abigail Kieth as Helen Keller, along with a cast of talented local performers.

The Miracle Worker will run Friday through Sunday the weeks of April 1 and April 8. Tickets at our new low rate are available for purchase here.

We hope this story will inspire you in the way it has inspired us. Watch this moving clip of the 1962 film adaption of
The Miracle Worker.