Storyworks: Justice in the Embers | Arts Upload


– The Center for
Investigative Reporting doesn”t sound like
something you would see on a show about the arts. – But for the last few years,
this Bay Area-based operation has been exploring new ways to tell the kinds of stories
they excel in. – And Mike McGraw”s reporting
for “The Kansas City Star” about the 1988 explosion
that killed six firefighters caught their attention. – The result is
“Justice in the Embers,” a play written by
Michelle T. Johnson that”s being staged here
at The Living Room. – If you”re wondering
how a journalist”s detailed and methodical work
becomes a living, breathing theatrical piece,
well, this should help. – Cyndy”s almost
a better person to have an extensive
kind of showdown with about Bryan”s guilt…– At first glance, you might
peg these two as old friends
catching up over coffee on
an unusually warm November day.
In reality,
journalist Mike McGraw
and playwright
Michelle T. Johnson
are new acquaintances
working on a tight time line.
They”re diving deeply into
the the tragedy McGraw calls
“Kansas City”s
Kennedy assassination”…
– [over radio]
Pumper 41, please answer.
– Because everyone remembers
where they were
that early morning in 1988when an arson-sparked blastshook all corners
of the metro.
– I started working on
this story actually in 2006,
and in many ways,
I”m still working on it.
560-0902… Why did I dive in
as deep as I did? I can”t help myself.This case haunts me.There are so many clear factsthat have either been ignoredor not followed up onthat I just can”t let it go.– McGraw”s reporting
zeroed in on how
in the absence of eyewitnesses
or DNA evidence
the government”s case
at the 1997 trials
leaned heavily on testimony
from individuals
with something to gain
from the system–
dropped charges,
reduced jail time.
Prompted in part
by his articles,
a federal review of the process
eventually yielded
this 20-page document,so redacted that
almost nothing emerged intact.
– And then they came out
with a short summary of their findings,
which basically said, “”The Star” is all wrong. “No one was coerced
to tell a different story than the truth,”
number one, and number two, “By the way, we did find
two more coconspirators that we believe were involved.”In my way of thinking,
the federal government,
which spent nine years
on this case,
has now said, “Well, we haven”t
completely solved it.”– It”s not surprising
that McGraw”s tenacity–
he won a Pulitzer in 1992–eventually came to the
attention of California”s
Center for Investigative
Reporting.
What is surprising
is the method they suggested
for telling his story today:onstage through a project
called StoryWorks
they”ve developed with
San Francisco”s Tides Theatre.
– We”ve done projects
in StoryWorks that have been controversial before,
many times, um, most recently
a work-related death and injury in the Bakken oil fields
in North Dakota. So, you know, we”re not new
to the idea of controversial elements
of this theater project. The facts of the play
come from Mike”s investigation, but there is an artistic element
to it, which opens it up.– It”s that second part that,
understandably,
makes a stickler for detail
like McGraw
more than a little bit wary.– Because you feel likeyou”re handing
this infant child
off to another person,and, um, I frankly was
fairly nervous about it until I saw the first draft
of what Michelle wrote. – I heard one of the
other guards call you “Puller.” Family name?
– Nickname.– Those words,
some slightly revised already,
are being read aloud
for the first time
by a table full of actors
upstairs here
at The Living Room,
the edgy downtown theater
which has signed on
to help create and stage
“Justice in the Embers.”– One side of the room
every day…– It”s great to hear
the story
fleshed out by real humans who take on trying to embody
the character. – You did see that
the female security guard working that night
admitted under oath that she had burned a car
for insurance money before?– This is a different process,I”d say, than other plays
I”ve written on
because two characters
are fictional
but the bulk of people
in this play are real.
They have a real life
separate from my play.
– The trial lasted…– It”s more of a tango
than I”m used to.
I”m more used to being
the person who
dances on the dance floor
by myself,
and if somebody wants
to join me, they can.
[laughs]
So it”s–it”s a process.– A process thatsoon moves into getting
the final cast in place.
Two actors from that
first reading are staying on,
joined by three new membersand a very short
rehearsal schedule.
With just five weeks
till opening night,
everyone listens intently
as Mike McGraw
fills in
more of the backstory
that”s brought them
all together
and, as he knows very well,the pain that
some firefighters still feel
every time it comes up.– When you look into
an innocence case like this,
you”re raising all of these
fascinating issues that theater has dealt with
over the eons. – Violate the
Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual
punishment.– You have a chance
to dramatize all these issues
that are huge issues in life.– I am quite popular…– But to paraphrase the Bard,the play
is not the only thing.
After every StoryWorks
performance,
the lights go on immediately
for an audience talkback
that can run
almost as long as the play.
– And it”s wonderful
because we bring not only community members together
but experts in the field and attorneys and, um,
hopefully someone from Kansas City Fire Department,
you know, so that we really get to talk
about the issues that the play brings up. Let”s start at the top. – What did it do…– No longer bound
to the table
and armed with at least
some simple props,
the show”s theatrical shape
rapidly starts to emerge.
– So often when we”re creating
new work in theater,
it takes years.And what we”re doing was,
we”re saying we”re gonna
make relevant theater
that is responsive
to what”s happening right now
in our society.
– But epic as the story
and the reporting may be,
honing it to a workable hour
has meant finding
one aspect
on which to focus:
Bryan Sheppard”s quest
for a resentencing hearing.
Sheppard was only 17
at the time of the crime,
which he still maintains
he did not commit.
– No matter how you feel
about this explosion
and who”s been convicted,I think it”s a worthy
conversation to talk about how we treat young people and youth
in our prison system. – Hi, Vergie.
– Hello, how are you? – Fine, I want you
to meet Nancy Marcy. – Wow!
Hi.– An opportunity
to meet the person
she”s playing onstage
is a rare one
for this theater veteran.From the beginning,
Mike”s marveled at
how much Nancy sounds like
Bryan Sheppard”s mother.
So today, she”s joined him
at Vergie”s small
Marlborough home
to try and dig even deeper.
– I think I was
imitating Vergie, how I thought
Vergie would say it, instead of how Vergie felt
about that moment and then just doing that. Just a little bit of…I asked her,
“Are you a little ornery?”
“Oh, no, no.”And then pretty soon, I”d say,
“You a spitfire?”
“Well, yeah!”
[laughs]
And you could see
the twinkle in her eye. – [laughs]– She hasn”t given up,
you know?
You didn”t do it!– Lines are being
added and dropped,
facts continually checked,and elements of
sound and lighting design
woven into the drama,most notably
this tribal drumming
by Moses Brings Plenty.Then out of the blue,
something no one saw coming
till at least spring–the Supreme Court rules
that Bryan”s case
and maybe a thousand others
like it across the country
can indeed be reheard.– When I first got the email
from Bryan”s attorney, I didn”t think of the play. I read it, and I wanted
to know more about the decision, and as I started
thinking it through, I thought, “Oh, we”re gonna
have to rewrite the play.” In certain parts,
we have to change the script. – That was just one more
moving part in a series of a lot of moving parts.And that”s where theater
is very much like
law and journalism.The show must go on,no matter how
anything else is going.
– This play was written
like it was on ball bearings,
because they were able
to readjust so quickly when this happened. – Okay, now you need to…– And you don”t get the senseany of it”s out of place.– The rigors
of two dress rehearsals
soon give way to
the thrills of opening night.
And The Living Room
is packed.
This audience will see
a sixth cast member
added in just the last weekto make a pair of monologuesfrom the firefighters”
point of view
stand out more sharply.– [vocalizing]– Everything else, including
the post-show talkback,
goes according to plan,leaving the man
who started it all
with no regrets.– I can”t see any waythere would be regrets
over this.
I know how strongly some of the
firefighter families feel, and I think they regret it,
but I think if they sit through the play
and watch it,they will see something
different than they expect.
– No DNA evidence. I even passed
the lie detector test.– If I didn”t get it before,
we all got it tonight.
I mean, there”s nothing like
having a whole bunch of
family members who are emotional
because we”re bringing their people”s story
to a stage. [indistinct chatter]– It”s fascinating to mewhat putting journalism onstage
can wrought.
I think the more people
that know not only about this case but how the
criminal justice system works and how sometimes it
doesn”t work in a perfect way,the better.– StoryWorks KC,
complete with audience talkback
after every performance,runs through February 20th
here at The Living Room. There”s also
a distinct possibility it”ll be performed in
San Francisco later this spring. – Now, costumes are,
of course, an essential part of theater and the movies,
but as our next story shows, they can also move out
into the real world in a most enjoyable
and beneficial way. – The 501st Legion
is a volunteer organization whose members sew and build
their own “Star Wars” wear to have some fun and help raise
money for charitable causes. – $43 million worldwide
so far, and as producer
Ashley Holcroft shows us, some of that good work
is being done right here in KC.– Charity auctions–they”re usually known
for offering
some fairly lavish lots,like this last November”s
Tiny Tim Holiday Fantasy Gala,
which enticed bidders
with some 200 to choose from,
like a mink coat
valued at over $5,000,
a 45-minute lesson
via Skype
with Russian-born chess champ
Gata Kamsky…
[with Russian accent]
Ladies?
[normal voice]
An autographed bat
by Salvi Perez,
or something described as
a “Private Movie Theater
Experience,”
and for the generous bidders
of the latter, that affair
unfolded on a magical,
albeit frigid, KC night.
[vibrant orchestral music] # #Yes, their bundle
included an appearance from
members of the 501st Legion,
an international league
of film-accurate costumed
“Star Wars” aficionados
that boasts
a robust KC tendril.
– Guys, don”t touch him.
He”s a bad guy. [laughter]– Like for many members,
Bill Holmes”–
or Boba Fett,
as he is garbed on this night–
passion for the franchise
was well in place
before he knew
of the 501st.
– When I started building
my first costume, I wanted to build
the cool Halloween costume. Never dreamed that
I would join the 501st. I didn”t even know
what the 501st was. Then I thought, “Oh, my God,
this is really cool.” There”s a group of people that have the same
interests and that, and that”s how
I got involved. –Although now a high-ranking
member, back then,
he thought he”d “troop,”which is what insiders
call event appearances,
a few times a year.Well, that figure ballooned
to upwards of 80.
But although the 501st Legion
is the largest,
it certainly isn”t
the only game in town.
In fact, there are four
major branches
that make up the
“Star Wars” costuming lexicon,
all of which
have regional bases.
Starting with the oldest,
the 501st Legion…
– Which does primarily
the canon–or movie–video game, novel extension,bad guys from
the “Star Wars” universe.
– The Rebel Legion…– Does the good guys.Two sides of one coin,
kind of.– The Mandalorian Mercs…– Does canon,
which is like Boba Fett, Jango Fett, Mandalorians, as well as, you can create
your own costume based on that culture
in the lines.– Dark Empire…– Custom Sith, the custom
Force-using bad guys. What we do is a twofold thing
with all the groups. We build costumes;
we try to do source-accurate
and movie-quality costumes. What we do
with these costumes is, typically we do
a lot of charity work.– You might be thinking
“build” means “buy,”
but that”s not the case.Although they are expensive,
hundreds of man-hours
go into each costume,
and many of them
start here
in Bill”s basement.
And it”s evenings like these
that are full of
creative solutions
to uncommon problems.
– Normally I don”t do this
in Jedi clothes. This actually–mostly stained
with tea and coffee. The one thing that was
really cool about “Star Wars” was, it was a whole universe,
where things got passed down and transitioned
from time to time. And as a prop maker,
it makes it interesting that we make things
to wear now– a lot of times, you start out
with something new, and you make it old. –War stories…– First time I built this,
I sealed it shut. – Oh, no! – And I was on a stage
with a spotlight on me. And, like, the helmet
was getting soft from the heat
from the light. – Oh, my gosh!A little of this…– Oh, look here!– A dash of that…– And now, Skywalker,
you will die.– And a co-op paradigm…– We share each other”s
abilities and skills. There are things that some of us
do better than others.– But even before the build,these fans have to figure outwho they want to portray.– Picking a costume
is a very– I think
a very personal choice. You have to decide
what you”re comfortable with. Are you comfortable
showing your face? I”m not, because I”m too animated. I sit there, and I”ll be
laughing about something with my Stormtrooper helmet on,
but they can”t see me; I”m very, very serious, or at least I have the
appearance of being serious. So I tend not to pick what
they call “face characters.”– Which brings up
an interesting dynamic
in what many presume to be
a male-dominated genre.
– It”s almost–
nobody thinks it”s a girl. So…
girls, though, are very happy when they find out that
I”m a girl. If I talk to them and
my microphone system picks up, they realize, “You”re a girl!
Oh, my gosh!”– All this effort
is ultimately for one thing:
to bring a little joy
into the lives of people,
regardless of age,
who are facing challenges,
like the “Force Academy”at the Arnold Palmer Children”s
Hospital in Florida…
– One of the fellows
in there, he was, like,
a 17-year-old kid; he was going through
dialysis and everything, and then we came in,
and he just lit up. The guy was all excited;
you know, it”s like, “You just–you just saved me.
I”ve been so bored.” And then he just started
talking about the new movie.– Or locally,
when a little girl they met
at Children”s Mercy
wanted to be a Stormtrooper.
– We came up with–
and I”m not even sure how– child-size
Stormtrooper armor. And we were working on it
late at night. The next day was the opening
of Planet Comicon,and she got to lead the parade
with one of our members.
And to make a friend
out of it,
she was just
right in my heart. I love her.The charity aspect,
it”s probably the best way
that I”ve ever found
to use my skills and my talentsto actually benefit
somebody else.
– There are countless stories
of the troop
going above and beyond
for those in need.
But sometimes the Siths
just want to have fun,
and an event like this salute
to John Williams
at the Kauffman Center
is just the thing,
complete with swordplay
and a big finale.
[orchestral fanfare swells] [applause]– Everyone lives
a very mundane life.
No matter how much they make, what professions they”re from, they live
a very ritualized life.We all do.And this brings
a little bit of magic
into people”s lives. We”re normal people
that go to jobs, but we also spend time working with people
in our communities. The rewards are from smiles
and making a difference.# #[DJ Shadow”s “Midnight
in a Perfect World” playing]
– The Living Room Theatre
started its life as an automotive showroom
back in the early 1900s. These days, the elevators
can take you between the different
performance levels. Altogether, there are
three of them here. – In fact, they even stage plays
where the audience trails the cast
around the building. – Provocative drama that
pushes boundaries is the mantra, with lots of comfy couches
to enjoy it from. – Well, here on “Arts Upload,”
we explore things right down the street
and all around the country. – In fact, these
next two stories both revolve around public art
and mass transit in one way or another. – One”s in Boston,
where an old roadway came down and new things
have sprung up. The other one
is in New York City and takes root
in the subway. – With Kansas City”s
new streetcar line getting ready to roll,
we thought these might get you thinking.[gentle acoustic music]# #– My name is Cat Del Buono, and I am a video artist.The video installation
is called “Next Stop Wynwood,”
which is actually based
on another project that I had
started a few years back called
“Riders on the 4.”
If you went into the
gallery space, you would have seen the two monitors,
which had actual subway riders,um, just sitting there,
and what I had done
was their video portrait.And in the background
of the two video monitors,
you would see a projection
of a platform of the subway
to kind of put you in the
environment of being there,
in the subway, experiencing
what the rest of us commuters
would experience,
if you were on the subway.
The way I had started was,
I approached these people
and asked them,
“May I do your video portrait?”
And to my surprise,
most of them said, “Okay.”
So I just filmed them
sitting there,
so you don”t see them
talking or anything.
But then after, I said,
“Now can you tell me
something that you like
about yourself?”
– Everything.
I”m an artist.
I”m a writer.
I got my own CDs.
– So I took that audioand put it underneath
the image
of them just sitting there.So you have your video portrait
with the sound of
the actual person
talking about themselves.
And the reason why
I chose the question–
I wanted to have the same
question for everybody,
“Tell me something you like
about yourself”–
was, at the time,
I was, like, watching reruns
of “Nip/Tuck,” and I don”t know
if you ever watched it, but the guys always asked, “Tell me something
you don”t like about yourself.” And I wanted to do
the opposite, ”cause I never liked
that question.And to keep
some sort of conformity there,
I wanted everybody
to have the same question.
That was the question
I posed for them.
– I think I”m pretty, uh,
charming, uh, smart,
um, hard worker.– When you”re sitting
on the subway and you start
looking at people,
you start, you know,
guessing who they might be,or you might see
something that”s attractive
to you in some way,
whether it”s a physicality
or something unique
or something.
And that”s how
I chose my person;
there was something about them
that attracted me.
It ended up being,
you know, all different
colors, ages, types,
because that”s what you get
on a New York City subway.And that”s what I love about
New York, is the diversity.
So that”s how the project
ended up being as well.
# #– It”s a dream, really. The response
has been overwhelming.– This is artist
Janet Echelman,
beneath the sculpture
she”s spent
more than two years
creating.
Spanning 600 feet
at its longest stretch
and roughly half an acre,it soars and breathes above
the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
For 50 years,
an elevated highway
ran like a gash
right through downtown Boston,
the Central Artery,severing one part of the city
from the rest.
But when the Big Dig
brought it down,
the Greenway sprang up,and a land of opportunity
was born.
– I started lookingat each of the buildings
along the Greenway.
My first idea was–
I used to, as a kid, with a piece of string,
play this cat”s cradle, where you”d link the twine
together,and I–my thought was that
when the Big Dig
allowed for the highway
to be removed,
there was this volume
of airspace,
and I just wanted to, like,
make a cat”s cradle across it.
This was the middle
of Boston Harbor.The city cut down
three mountains
to fill in this water
to make this land,
and those three mountains are these open spaces
inside my sculpture.– After it was assembledover ten hours
early one Sunday morning,
Echelman titled the sculpture“As If It Were Already Here.”Suddenly the piece,with its 100 miles of ropelinked by more than
1/2 million knots,
became part of the city”s
own fabric.
– For me, it”s personally
rewarding to see it shared,
to see people excited,taking photos
and sharing them.
The whole creative inspiration
of others
is something
I hadn”t expected.– But for the Greenway,
it”s all according to plan.
– We”ve been kind of
calling it internally our coming-out piece
for our public art.– Last fall,
the Greenway named Lucas Cowan
its first and only curator
of public art.
Lucas, what”s the role
of public art in a very open space
like this? – Oh, I think there”s
multiple roles. Um, I think
one of the biggest roles is actually to change
the perceptions of the city
in which we all live in.– Art has been a slow brewon the mile-and-a-half-long
Greenway.
Its most vibrant presencehas been
the Dewey Square mural,
which changes annually.The Greenway is developing
a five-year public art plan,
but Cowan says that includes
no permanent pieces.
– It”s not so much based around
the museum concept of hanging a painting
on a wall. It”s how you and the public
interact. Public art is meant
to be touched. It”s meant to be felt.
It”s meant to be experienced.– Cowan”s pedigree
includes eight years
with Millennium Park
in Chicago–
arguably
one of the shiniest cities
for public art
in the country
with works
that are now landmarks
in their own right.– I would say,
give us a couple years. Give us ten years,
and I think we can somewhat
get there.– With the
Echelman sculpture,
it”s now off
to a thunderous start,
even if the floating
is fleeting.
The piece comes down
in October.
– It”s like
the cherry blossoms.
They are more beautiful
because we know
they”re only here
for a moment.
– Well, let”s see,
video and visual art… – Mm-hmm. – Music, theater,
dance, even Darth Vader–
a little bit of everything this week on “Arts Upload.” – But our time here
at The Living Room is now officially up. – We”ll be back next week
with stories about painter/illustrator
Nina Gordon and much more. – Till then,
I”m Maris Aylward. – And I”m Randy Mason.
Thanks for watching. [“Star Wars Theme” playing] [vibrant orchestral music] # #announcer: Production funding
for “Arts Upload”
has been provided
in part by:

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