When the Rainbow Company Youth Theatre presents “Spinning Nevada’s Past” this weekend at the Historic Fifth Street School, audiences will notice in the production something they don’t see in most other plays.
Namely, a Las Vegas-perfect element of chance.
“Spinning Nevada’s Past” is vignettes about some of the historical figures who have made Nevada what it is. However, precisely which vignettes will be presented at any given performance will be determined literally by the spin of a wheel onstage.
Hoping to hear about Mark Twain and his newspapering days in Nevada? Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Want to learn more about Native American author and activist Sarah Winnemucca? Good luck.
It’s a perfect Nevada touch for the production, which is the latest edition of the Nevada history series presented each year by the Rainbow Company.
“This is our 21st year of doing the Nevada series, and each one has been different,” says Kristopher Shepherd, the company’s resident designer. “It’s all very much historical and it’s all based on the history of Nevada.”
“Spinning Nevada’s Past” will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Historic Fifth Street School, 401 S. Fourth St. The production is suitable for ages 7 and older, and tickets are $5 (www.artslasvegas.org or 702-229-3515 or 702-229-6383).
After this weekend’s performances, the play will hit the road to be performed at area schools during the next several months. Previous editions of the Nevada series have been viewed by “an astronomical number of students,” says Brian Kral, co-director of “Spinning Nevada’s Past.”
“So, it’s been very successful,” Kral says, and the Rainbow Company each year has “tried to put sort of a new twist on things.”
Thus, this year’s spinning wheel motif.
“The reason it’s called ‘Spinning Nevada’s Past’ is they’ve actually borrowed an old ‘Wheel of Fortune’ kind of game from the Nevada museum, and it’s going to go on tour,” Kral says. “For each performance, we have members of the audience come up and spin the wheel, and depending on which character it lands on, those are the stories they’ll get to see.”
In presenting stories about Nevada’s history, “we always try to find a hook,” Shepherd says. “For a number of years, it was always music, but the last two years it’s been a game show. That’s always a great hook to get them involved.”
The vignettes that might make up each performance last from a few minutes to 10 or 15 minutes long.
Each audience member’s wheel spin will “identify a character anywhere from the early 1800s all the way up to the 1940s,” Kral says.
“This year, we’ve really expanded the range of history because of the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary” of Nevada, he adds.
Included on this year’s roster of historical figures are such notables as Twain (aka Samuel Clemens, who worked as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise from 1862 to 1864) and Paiute author/activist Winnemucca. But, the list includes some, perhaps, less well-known figures.
For example, Kral says, “we’ve got Florence Murphy, who is the first woman to hold a pilot’s license in Nevada, and she and her husband, with another partner, created Sky Haven airport, which is the North Las Vegas Airport today.”
Actually, Shepherd jokes, “the hardest thing is finding stories that are appropriate, because so much of (Nevada’s history) is built on gambling and loose women.”
But, he says, Nevada’s history is so rich that there always are some new stories, or new twists on old stories, to tell. Take, for example, Murphy and her airport that, Shepherd says, “was supposed to open Dec. 7, 1941.”
“It ended up that didn’t happen because there was a slightly more important thing that happened that day,” he adds. “So we find stories all the time. It’s just fascinating.”
After this weekend’s premiere, the production goes on tour of area schools. Over the next three months or so, “we’ll touch about 20,000 kids,” Shepherd says, adding that educators can take advantage of a study guide offered in conjunction with the play.
The format of this year’s show makes each performance subject literally to the spin of a wheel, which surely will be fun for audiences to watch. And what does it mean for cast members?
“Maddening preparation, because even the actors don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Kral says. “They’ve got to be ready to grab the right costumes and props, and they’ve got a 15-minute scene they have to be able to be ready to perform.”
The show’s quick-on-their-feet cast members — each of whom will play several characters during each performance — are Michael Connelly, Sean Critchfield, Kearsten Kuroishi, Martha Watson and Cory Covell.
“When you work with this format, and you only have five actors, I think one big challenge is trying to figure out who do we have in this scene, who can we use here,” Kral says.
“All five actors are in all eight of the (each performance’s) episodes, playing sometimes multiple characters, sometimes only one. In some cases they have the luxury of playing just one person, but sometimes they have to play five or six people in one scene. I think that’s also part of the fun of it for them.”
In fact, Shepherd says, “really, the best show is backstage.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.