No guts, no glory: Paper Lantern Theatre Company revels in pushing the boundaries

by Keith Barber

Kimberly Akimbo, Paper Lantern Theatre COmpany’s third production this year, playing this week at Wake Forest’s Ring Theater, benefits from direction by Amy da Luz (center). (photo by Keith T. Barber.)

Amy da Luz interrupted Tim Austin’s monologue from the stage play Kimberly Akimbo to offer a suggestion. Da Luz, the play’s director, then asked assistant director Miranda Lowder to step on the stage of the Ring Theater on the campus of Wake Forest University, and sit directly in front of Austin during a stage rehearsal on May 21.

In the scene, Austin’s character, Buddy, is recording a message to his daughter, Kimberly, on a tape recorder. Da Luz instructed Austin and Lowder, who stood in for Kimberly, to hold hands.

“Really find her,” Da Luz instructed Austin. “Find the reason you need to do this and take it from the top.”

Austin then performed the scene while looking directly in Lowder’s eyes. Then, da Luz and Lowder returned to their seats in the audience and da Luz directed Austin to perform the scene again with the same feeling.

“That’s where it needs to go, so bravo for taking it there,” da Luz said after Austin’s interpretation.

Kimberly Akimbo represents the Paper Lantern Theatre Company’s third production in the past year. Da Luz is one of seven founding members of the theatre troupe. Beth Ritson, Miranda Lowder, Star Lee, Miriam Davie, Sheila Duell and Sarah Barnhardt also embarked upon this adventure one year ago with the group’s first production of Dead Man’s Cellphone by playwright Sarah Ruhl.

“We thought it was risky,” she said. “[Ruhl’s] style is very theatrical. In the middle of the play, actors break out into a cellphone dance.

A lot of people walked out of the theater saying they had never seen anything like that. That was our goal — to push people to grow.”

Last fall, Paper Lantern earned the distinction of being only one of two theatre companies in the state to stage a dramatic reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Paper Lantern joined more than 150 theatre companies around the nation and the globe on Oct. 12 to mark the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was robbed, tied to a split-rail fence, tortured and left to die.

“Was that risky?” da Luz asked rhetorically. “Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat — we wouldn’t even think twice.”

Star Lee said she enjoys pushing the boundaries of local theatre, and the idea of artists creating their own work.

Lee will play the role of Debra in Kimberly Akimbo, which opens June 10 at Theatre Alliance in Winston-Salem and runs through June 20. The story of a 16-year-old girl with a rare disease that causes her to age 4-1/2 times faster than normal people, Kimberly Akimbo was penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.

The play fits perfectly with Paper Lantern’s mission to tell stories that push people to grow through creation, collaboration and risk, said da Luz.

“You can’t grow without taking risk,” she said. “You either grow stagnant or go backwards. We’re not interested in doing either one of those as a company or as artists.”

Da Luz said the impetus behind Paper Lantern was a simple desire to work more frequently and give other local artists the opportunity to do the same.

“It’s not anything really revolutionary,” she said. When da Luz first proposed the idea, Lowder said she jumped at the chance to work with local artists. With relatively no overhead or financial concerns, Paper Lantern can produce controversial work, Lowder explained. Dead Man’s Cellphone enjoyed sold-out performances, however, which reveals the desire of theatergoers for more non-traditional plays, da Luz said.

Paper Lantern’s future success will rely heavily on the health of its group dynamic. Based on the experiences of the past year, the future looks very bright, Lowder said.

“We’ve never had any conflicts with our group — it’s such a variety of people,” she said. “There are people of all ages from all different backgrounds and we all have a common bond — producing quality theater. That’s helped us to be a unit. We’re like a family.”