Returning to the Stage: “Prothero” at Great Salt Lake Fringe

For a group of self-described “theater kids”, putting away onstage personalities and shutting the door may have been more difficult than most. But as we move closer to “normal”, one of the first returns we’re eager to see is the return to the stage — and not just the return of the classics, but the start of something new and incredible building its way out of the pandemic.

At The Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, held this July and August in Salt Lake City, Utah, the return to the stage is more than just a celebration of live performance. Fringe, as an arts movement, is known for themes and stories on the edges — and this year, the rise of marginalized directors, all-female casts, and feminist narratives is more apparent than ever.

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to throw my own hat in the ring with a woman-produced, woman-directed, and all female/gender nonconforming (GNC) cast. You all know me as the Senior Writer here at Philanthropy Women, but my roots are in theatre — my parents met as employees of a children’s theater owned and operated by my grandmother. You could say I’ve got the stage in my blood.

So when I was approached to write the script for Prothero, I leapt at the opportunity. Loosely based on a Grimm brothers fairy tale, Prothero follows a gifted war medic who builds a reputation on the ability to sense whether a patient will live or die — an ability that forces her to stay aloof and disconnected from the people around her. As the story progresses, Prothero begins to test the limits of this power, risking a wrath she knew not to provoke in order to find meaning with the people in her life.

Our show premieres at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 31st, with performances through August 8th. Any proceeds from the performance not directly used on the show’s production will go to Doctors Without Borders, tying our production to its themes and the values of its producers.

Prothero is a labor of love, created by Esther Pielstick and Olivia Ockey, written by yours truly, directed by Mariah Eames and Mandarin Van Noy, and built in tandem with a unique and talented mix of designers and performers.

Returning to the Stage with New Contexts

Olivia Ockey (left) and Esther Pielstick (right) prepare for the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival premiere of Prothero. (Image Credit: Potato Sorbet Productions)

It’s hard to contextualize what we lost due to the pandemic. Climbing out, we have the wonderful opportunity to focus on getting back the things that we love the most — and for every member of the Prothero production, live theater is at the top of that list.

Co-creators Esther Pielstick and Olivia Ockey built out the idea for Prothero based on this feeling of loss. The 2020 Fringe festival moved online, but as soon as calls for show applications came out for the in-person 2021 edition, Pielstick and Ockey jumped on the opportunity to “scratch the itch”.

“Going into the project, we both just really wanted to tell a good story and explore some interesting characters,” says Ockey, who plays the titular Doctor Prothero. “What I’ve loved about this production is that Esther and I went into it without any preconceived notions about what the message or theme or ‘moral of the story’ was going to be. Because of this, I think ideas that many of us are currently wrestling with in real life came out very naturally.”

The show, at its core, is about death. The theme is timely for many of us, especially in the wake of a pandemic that caused loss and suffering for everyone in the cast and production team. Midway into the production, Pielstick herself lost her cousin to a car accident.

“That forced me to actually confront the themes of the production,” she says. “In the script, a character says, ‘One cannot be impartial if one cares too much’. Death may be impartial, but as humans I feel that we are all partial when it comes to losing a loved one. Those feelings of loss and grief come from a place of knowing and caring about the people we loved. We capture this in the show, and it’s a lovely idea.”

Our first rehearsal — before the cast was even finalized, before we even had a full production team — brought up more than any of us expected. Physical explorations of the confrontation with capital-D Death forced all of us to look in the face this concept that had plagued all of us for the year prior.

“Things quickly turned emotional,” says co-director Mandarin Van Noy. “In response, we engaged in a truly wonderful discussion about loss, love, and the nature of Death. Many of us came to the conclusion that it’s not death that we fear the most, but the reality of being without the people we love.”

Prothero explores this concept through the relationship between Doctor Prothero (Ockey) and Brooks (Pielstick), a young and vivacious stretcher-bearer who encourages the reserved doctor to open up.

“Is it worth building relationships when we’re eventually going to have to say goodbye?” Van Noy asks. “What happens if we avoid connection with others to spare ourselves the pain of loss? It’s these kinds of questions that resonate with me as we explore some of the most confusing realities of humanity.”

On the Fringe of Feminism

We didn’t set out to create a feminist production, but as the pieces came together, we discovered that our female-driven story was a unique venture on the “fringe” of feminism, speaking to many of the ideals we all share.

From left: Cast members Melanie Nielsen, Martha Harris, and Freja Jorgenson practice puppetry for the retelling of “Godmother Death”. (Image Credit: Potato Sorbet Productions)

“The show is definitely female-driven,” says co-director Mariah Eames. “We have an all-female/gender nonconforming (GNC) cast. Some characters present with she/her pronouns and others with he/him. While most war representations in storytelling are male-driven, we’ve found new nuances and emotions in our rehearsal process because of our casting choices. The goal isn’t to make a political or feminist statement, but rather, we’ve discovered insights in the story from our feminist point of view.”

This idea carries through in many of the performances sharing the roster at Great Salt Lake Fringe. For example, Manic Pixie Nightmare, a one-person show from Comet Sweeper Theater, examines the “manic pixie dream girl” stereotype in popular media, deconstructing the archetype to find its often damaging effects. Letters To My Mom, another one-person show, takes a close look at the role of motherhood and absence in the wounds we carry with us as girls, and later adults.

Prothero, meanwhile, focuses on characters on the front lines of an unnamed war — traditionally a male-dominated sphere.

“These were characters that you wouldn’t typically see a woman play, and we knew we would probably never get the opportunity to do so unless we made one,” says Ockey. “It’s been fascinating to explore how a female/GNC cast affects the interpretation of a war story. We’ve noticed moments where a character says a line or does something that is generally more accepted by society when done by a man, and it’s brought up some interesting discussions about why that is.”

“The minute you put an all-woman cast on stage, it means something,” says Van Noy. “Having women step into these roles naturally challenges constructs surrounding what it looks like to be female.”

“I like thinking about this chain of influential women/GNC,” Pielstick adds. “A female professor encourages me to pursue my passion and create a show, we enlist the help of a female writer, lady directors, and some women designers, then we find kick ass female/GNC actors. Next, we all tell a story that’s context and characters were dominated by men and centered it around—you guessed it—women. I feel very honored to be lifted figuratively and literally (you’ll have to see the show to find out) by such strong women/GNC.”

The Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival runs from July 30th to August 8th. Performances of Prothero will be held on July 31st, August 1st, August 5th, August 6th, August 7th, and August 8th. We welcome donations to our production’s GoFundMe. Any proceeds not directly used on production costs will be donated to Doctors Without Borders when the show’s run concludes. Donate to our funding page here, and follow the production on Instagram or on our website here.

We encourage you to check out the rest of the shows at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, donate to their production pages, and do what you can to encourage the return to live theatre!


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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