UI Theatre Department closes season with original show, ‘Ascend’

Grant Wood Fellow Margarita Blush has directed a devised theatrical piece entitled ‘Ascend’ to close the spring 2021 season for the University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department.

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Grace Smith

Cast members rehearse while curtains drape over the stage during a dress rehearsal of “Ascend,” in the Mabie Theatre at the Theatre Building on March 31, 2021. “Ascend”, directed by Margarita Blush and written/created by the cast and creative team, explores the growth of individuals, especially after the pandemic. There will be a virtual performance of “Ascend” on April 28, 2021.

Tatiana Plowman, Arts Reporter


Before the curtains close for the University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department’s spring 2021 season, a unique show will take the stage — a completely student-written, original production called Ascend, which was penned by the 9-member cast and directed by Grant Wood Fellow Margarita Blush.

The UI’s Grant Wood Fellows program has drawn an abundance of artists to the institution since its inception in 2011. The fellowship recruits three artists each year: a painter, a printmaker, and a performance artist who focuses on either dance, music, or theater.

Blush, an internationally acclaimed puppeteer and theater producer, hails from Bulgaria, where she began her theater training and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in puppeteer performance and directing. Since then, she’s studied in England, Japan, and the U.S.

This won’t be Blush’s first original show. In a previous interview with The Daily Iowan, the performer spoke about the first show she wrote, Unfolding, which she toured in Bulgaria, Turkey, and in the U.S. She described the show as a contemporary fairy tale that follows a woman’s journey to empowerment.

After working on Unfolding, Blush said she wanted to continue working on original ideas. As part of the Grant Wood Fellow program, she’s worked on another production with full support from the UI Theatre Department.

“Being [a Grant Wood Fellow] has allowed for me to spread my wings and put my ideas on their feet,” Blush said. “I am very grateful and excited for others to see this production.”

On top of teaching limited courses at the UI, Blush brings her point of view and performance experience to the UI Theatre Department. For Ascend, she aided a nine-person cast in creating an entirely original show for the final main stage of the season.

Previously, Blush frequently adapted folktales from different parts of the world into stage shows for her puppetry. Some of her notable adaptations include the Bulgarian tale Zlatka, The Girl Made Out of Gold, and The Crane Wife, a Japanese story.

The style of the puppets depended on the culture of the folk tale she was retelling, Blush told the DI in an earlier interview. She typically uses two-dimensional paper figures and three-dimensional handcrafted puppets.

“My work used to be more linear, when I adapted folk tales… now I have an appetite for more poetic shows,” Blush said. “My artistic voice has matured in my ‘phase two’ works.”

The play will be performed with a limited audience at UI’s Mabie Theater. The first performance will be livestreamed on the department’s YouTube Channel April 21 at 8 p.m. The livestream can also be accessed through its website. Ascend will then be available on the department’s YouTube channel to watch at any time from April 24 to May 15.

Working on an original play through “devised theater” is Blush’s newest experience. The theater form, also known as “collective creation,” relies on ensemble members to collaborate with one another to create theater. During the process, the play’s central message has been rooted in a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

The play carries many themes of self-renewal through nature. Blush’s cast wanted to explore the concept of the beauty of the world and create a more poetic interpretation. Along with the written word and dances, they also use branches and bamboo sticks in the production.

“It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, because we have created an original show from scratch,” Blush said. “After the crazy pandemic year that we have all been through, we wanted to refocus on our roots and connection to nature and growing from the storm.”

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For cast member Kolton Stremler, a freshman, Ascend is his first production in this style. Stremler previously performed in Losing Faith at the UI during the fall 2020 semester. Ascend marks one of the first times he has been able to work with a director from outside of Iowa, he said.

“Margarita is full of ideas and always super enthusiastic with everything we do,” Stremler said. “She is the perfect selection for this type of show as she is constantly helping us go in directions we never thought we could.”

Sophomore cast member Emily Parr said that, up until this show, she had only performed in traditional plays. She knew after her callback that if she had the opportunity to participate in Blush’s production, it would be unlike any one she has ever done before. Within the callbacks, the actors were asked to embody nature and showcase untraditional movement forms.

“Working with Margarita through this whole process has been an absolute blessing and she has allowed for us to explore new ways of performance,” Parr said.

The production is extremely movement-based, featuring dancing, puppetry, and singing. Parr said the cast had to be vulnerable at all times. As someone fairly new to theater movement and dance, she said she had to push herself to work outside her comfort zone.

Stage manager and graduate student Spencer Clouse has kept the show organized since rehearsals began in late February. The cast rehearses six days a week for three hours. Without a set script and cues to work with, the stage manager said the process posed a unique challenge.

The show also must operate around the CDC and UI-recommended COVID-19 guidelines. All of the show’s blocking allows for six feet of distance between each actor. Crew members are given designated spaces to sit when they aren’t actively working on stage. Members of the cast and crew were also tested weekly for COVID-19 and urged to constantly sanitize their hands and areas around them, Clouse said.

“Safety is always my number one priority, and Iowa’s theatre department has done a fantastic job of helping us navigate the ropes of COVID-19,” Clouse said. “With my job, I have to really pay attention to all of the operations of the production, and I am lucky to have the school aid with that process.”

Scenic designer and second-year MFA design student Christian Santiago, alongside his design team, worked diligently to bring the nature world of the production to life. The journey from ideas to reality was not limited to the creation of the play’s written material. The elaborate set design also blossomed into something extraordinary, Santiago said.

“As the show continued evolving, my art designs continued evolving,” Santiago said. “I wanted to really accentuate the nature themes through earthy colors and using natural fabrics and materials versus plastics and metals.”

Ascend will be the second and final mainstage of the UI Theatre Arts Department’s spring season.

“With all of my pieces I’ve had tremendously positive reactions and ‘I don’t get it’ reactions from all over,” Blush said. “That’s the role of art, to challenge people’s perception of things.”

The time, dates, and location of “Ascend” reflect the latest information provided to The Daily Iowan and are susceptible to change because of the pandemic.

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