'The Maderati' provides director perfect opportunity

Ask Jeanne Tiehen why she returned to graduate school, and she doesn’t talk about herself.

“I love teaching because it really reminds me why I love theater,” says the second-year doctoral student. “Seeing undergraduate actors grow has always been rewarding for me.”

Tiehen gets another chance with “The Maderati,” which opens tonight in the Inge Theatre on the KU campus. The 1987 Richard Greenberg comedy follows the misadventures of a group of Manhattan artists whose world turns upside down when a friend checks into a mental hospital. Through a series of misunderstandings, they come to believe she’s dead.

“It’s Greenberg’s response to a lot of his friends in the arts,” Tiehen says. “(The 1983 film) ‘The Big Chill’ is definitely a component of it. The natural self-absorption of these characters is enhanced by their being artists. They engage in a lot more self-reflection.”

Tiehen saw a lot of potential in the play for the undergraduate actors she enjoys helping to develop their skills.

“I saw the blurb when I was looking for a show to direct,” she says, “and when I read there were nine roles, I thought that was a fantastic opportunity for young actors.”

“The Maderati” is a screwball comedy, and that is exactly the sort of challenge Tiehen was looking for.

“Each character has a lot of opportunity for undergraduate actors to hone their craft, and the humor is so offbeat and absurd, they really have to work at it.

“The biggest challenge for all of us was to keep that commitment of character but still remember that this is not real. It’s a comedy, and these people aren’t like real people.”

So how does one guide young actors to find that delicate balance between over-the-top comedy and depth of character?

“I just told them to trust the work we’ve done,” Tiehen says. “They don’t have to push it. And this cast has been terrific. They have a lot of comedic instincts, and they offered a lot of their own suggestions, many of which were right on.”

Tiehen has worked very hard to keep everybody on the same page, which can be challenging, given the zaniness of the characters and story.

“I go into each rehearsal and say, ‘OK, this is our goal for tonight,’ and then give them an objective. It’s worked really well.”

The cast seems to agree. Topeka Senior Sara Kennedy enthuses it’s the most fun she’s had working on a show.

“The highlight of my day is everyone coming together and discovering more about this ridiculous production,” she says.

Tiehen hopes to keep creating those kinds of opportunities.

“I want to do something in academic theater,” she says. “Ideally, I’d love to end up at a university.”

At least for the moment, she seems to be in the perfect place.

“The Maderati” opens Dec. 6 and plays Dec. 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, Dec. 8, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.kutheatre.com or by calling the box office at 785-864-3982.

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