Shakespeare once wrote (in As You Like It), “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players …”
This is a metaphor Janet Schlapkohl has taken literally in her newest autobiographical play, Coming of Age in Chore Boots. The writer, an actor, a director, and a University of Iowa playwriting M.F.A, has adapted stories from her early life to the stage, with Schlapkohl playing the starring role — as well as every other character.
“It’s a memoir of a Midwestern girlhood,” she said. “It’s a performing autobiography, but it’s certainly as much if not more about the people that I’ve known than a solo about myself and about a time period in Iowa’s history.”
The world première of Coming of Age in Chore Boots occurred last weekend at Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St., to sold-out crowds and standing ovations. Performances will continue today, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and at 2 p.m. Dec. 8. Tickets for the one-woman show, directed by Tim Budd, range from $15 for youth and students to $30 for adults.
“It’s just a feel-good show,” Budd said. “[Schlapkohl] has injected humor into a lot of situations other people might find daunting. You get to see her track from a second-grader to a full-fledged woman by the end.”
This isn’t the first time Riverside has featured Schlapkohl’s work; it has presented many of her monologues in its Walking the Wire series to wide acclaim. Riverside’s resident artist/production manager and cofounder Ron Clark said the theater has a nearly 30-year history producing solo plays as well.
“It takes us back to the traditional form of theater, which is one person telling a story,” he said. “Everyone goes away with that sense of, ‘I know this story,’ ‘My family went through times like this,’ or ‘I have a crazy aunt like that’ — it’s a unifier.”
This quality is something Schlapkohl said she hoped audience members would take away from her piece, whether they were alive during the time period of the show — the 1960s through early ’80s — or can identify with the “Midwestern humor,” history, and lifestyles depicted onstage.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Will we cry, will we empathize, or will we laugh at the play?’ I said, ‘I hope all three, in that order,’ ” Schlapkohl said. “These are things people remember or are still experiencing.”
Coming of Age in Chore Boots follows Schlapkohl’s Midwestern upbringing, where she came to grips with family and femininity at a time and place when social roles were strictly defined. Unfolding alongside scenes from Schlapkohl’s life are the major political events of the time, including the Vietnam War and the resurgence of the women’s rights movement.
Schlapkohl pays particular attention to the Farm Crisis in the 1980s, a time of major agricultural recession and nearly Depression-level poverty in Iowa. It changed the landscape of Iowa farming forever and occurred just as Schlapkohl and her husband were attempting to start farming.
“As she’s talking about the benefits of living in a rural place, she sees the joys of that life crashing down around her,” Clark said. “The thing that is so special about this script is it combines the personal and the political almost seamlessly.”
The story is one he said would lose power if it came from any other voice but Schlapkohl’s.
“It’s so rooted in her point-of-view and strong sense of self and humor that is hers,” he said. “She doesn’t need other actors.”
But this responsibility proved challenging for Schlapkohl, who has to embody a series of characters from her life, including her father, grandfather, second-grade teacher, and herself at various ages.
“Each character has a different voice, a different body position,” she said. “They sound different and act different. There is one scene with four characters at the same time, and that’s the trickiest.”
Budd helped Schlapkohl develop the personalities, making sure viewers will pick up on the nuances of each character and recognize them throughout the play, whether they be a slouch, stance, or vocal tone.
“The challenge of a solo piece is engaging the audience,” Budd said. “At the very beginning, you have to establish a rapport with the audience. They’re your scene partner.”
Along with Schlapkohl’s performance, Riverside Art Director and cofounder Jody Hovland said a little theatrical magic goes a long way in helping the audience differentiate among roles. While music from the three decades in which the play takes place show the progression of time, the stage pieces — including rustic fences, buckets, hay bales, and, of course, chore boots — establish the Iowa farm setting.
“All of these design elements — sound, lights, costumes — are like additional characters in the play,” Hovland said. “They help tell the story, and with a solo show in particular, they are the actor’s best friends.”
Budd said he solidified a friendship while working with Schlapkohl. He has had a respect for Schlapkohl’s storytelling ability; he directed another solo play of hers in 1996, and he hopes audiences have a similarly warm response to her creative effort.
“I want them to appreciate the work she put into the show and appreciate their own family,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll leave and think, ‘Maybe I’ll call my mother, brother, or sister and wish them happy holidays’ or encourage them to talk to family members about their reminiscences.”
And even though Schlapkohl said she gets nervous laying her life out on the stage, she hopes to inspire others with her story, just as real-life stories inspire her.
“I like stories, especially ones that have a focus on people and relationships, and that includes my own,” she said. “When you look at stories from all places and regions, you can write, and write, and write.”