by Lorie Lewis HamIf you have been a season ticket holder with Reedley’s River City Theatre Company for a few years, you have become very familiar with a recurring character named Fanny Feastyoureyes. This character was created by River City Artistic Director Mark Norwood.
Having been involved in theatre since his youth, Mark has written close to twenty plays, most of those being musicals. He began writing educational children’s theatre shows for Good Company Players (GCP) in Fresno in the mid-eighties. “I had approached Dan Pessano (at Good Company) with the idea of writing original, values-based shows to perform in elementary schools throughout the Valley.”
Mark was then approached by the Madera Medical Society to write and direct shows aimed at high school audiences on topics ranging from teen sexuality, AIDS/HIV to eating disorders. “These shows were great learning experiences and gave me the confidence to write full length musicals.” He wrote Babes In Toyland: Barnaby’s Story and it was produced at GCP’s 2nd Space Theatre in the late eighties.
In 1993, Mark moved to Reedley where he directed shows at Reedley High School for 10 years, during which time he said writing took a back seat in his life. After leaving RHS, he started Reedley’s River City Theatre Company in the Reedley Opera House in 2003 and the opportunity to write and produce original shows surfaced again.
While he has written several original shows for River City, Blossoms Up was the first show in the Fanny series and grew out of a challenge from his wife Denise. “I was teasing Denise for years that I was going to write a musical called Fruit and she said I couldn’t. So, of course, I set about to do just that.” Having grown up in the Valley and worked in agriculture off and on for many years, he was very familiar with the fruit industry.
“I cannot remember exactly when Fanny Feastyoureyes first popped into my head but, the moment she did, I knew that Matt Wiebe must play her and I began to write her character with his voice in mind.” Once Fanny came to be, Mark said that the other characters, Polly Pastyoureyes, Lance Goodacre, Split Pitts and all the others, fell into place. “I am a great lover of names and, when a particularly fun one comes to mind, I jot it down to perhaps use in future projects.”
“Mark came to me years ago and simply asked, ‘would you consider playing the part of a woman?’,” said Matt Wiebe, a regular actor and director with River City. “Without thinking, I said sure and the rest is history.”
So far, there are five titles in the Blossoms Up series. The characters are women who just happen to be played by men. “There is a distinction,” said Mark. “Men dressing like women is a sight gag and over very quickly. Fully developed ladies played by male actors is a time-honored theatrical tradition. It is also funny. Adding the demented dimension of the actors playing their own husbands makes for such an absurd good time and a real challenge.” The switching back and forth leaves the audience trying to figure out how in the world the changes are made so quickly, and the actors love the challenge of playing different characters in the same show.
Matt has enjoyed playing Fanny and said that it is marvelous fun. “Fanny is nicer than Matt although perhaps a little more naïve. Fanny can say things to people that I cannot and I have learned a lot about women by playing one.”
Learning to play Fanny provided some new challenges for Matt. “Hurdle one — mastering pantyhose, hurdle two — high heels, after that, preparing for the role of Fanny is like preparing for any role. I am always surprised by Mark’s ability to put Fanny in the damnedest of situations. Mark is a very gifted writer both story- and song-wise.”
After five shows as Fanny, Matt has many funny stories to share but one that stands out to him involves a young girl who was in the cast of one of the early shows. “Because of my size and deep voice, small young children are sometimes afraid of me. This little girl would never talk to Matt, but as soon as I put on my make-up and became Fanny she would come over to me and talk, talk, talk.”
The best aspect of playing Fanny for Matt is when he gets to interact with the audience. “Having the license to ad-lib from Mark makes them the most fun moments for me. You have to maintain your character, you have to continue the storyline, but you are actually working without a net, so to speak.”
Mark’s ideas usually come to him in the shower or while driving. Every show comes at its own pace, some as quickly as three months, others have taken years to take shape. Due to the size of its stage, Mark said the Opera House is a difficult space to stage a play in, so another advantage to doing an original work is that he can write for the space. “I also enjoy the thrill of creating something from nothing and seeing it ‘blossom’ on stage and come to life.”
For 25 years, Mark has worked with songwriter and musician Darrell Devaurs to create these original shows. “Over the years, we have created a kind of musical shorthand where I attempt to tell him what the music sounds like in my head in terms of style, tempo, etc., and he has the tremendous ability to turn that and my lyrics into inspired songs.”
According to Mark, the original shows get a good critical response and those that attend have a blast, which is something this writer can attest to, having attended my first and definitely not my last Fanny show this spring when I went to see Fanny Buys The Farm. I have never laughed so hard in my life. And Mark doesn’t leave the dressing as a woman to all the others, as he has his own role in the shows as Flossie Feastyoureyes. I look forward to many more Fanny shows in the future; as to how many, Mark said he has no idea.