“Rockin’ with Rockwell” gives new meaning to the phrase performance art.
In the show, iconic illustrations by Norman Rockwell come to life on stage thanks to 62 area residents recruited in part for their resemblance to the subjects in Rockwell’s paintings. Meanwhile, actors playing the artist and journalist Edward R. Murrow conduct an interview about Rockwell’s work.
“This is all by your local residents,” said Twila Westermann, the show’s creator. “There are a lot of talented people in Wichita.”
For sure, “Rockwell” is hard to categorize. It’s a play, pantomime, musical and fundraiser all rolled up into one. It will be performed twice Saturday, with proceeds going to the Hereditary Neurological Disease Centre of Wichita.
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Westermann conceived of “Rockwell” as a way to raise money for research and treatment of Huntington Disease, which killed her husband, Ervin, in 1983.
“We were kind of tired of (fundraising) walks and things like that,” she said. “We wanted to do something unique and special.”
The couple had seen a similar production on the West Coast. “My husband loved that so much,” said Westermann, a Nebraska native who now lives in Irving, Texas. In casting around for an artist to spotlight, she said, “I thought Midwest people would like Norman Rockwell the best.”
The show was written by its director, Terri Mead, a friend of Westermann from North Platte, Neb. It’s been performed annually for the last 15 years as a fundraiser for different organizations that treat or research Huntington’s Disease, which is a hereditary, degenerative nerve disorder.
The show’s set features a 7-by-9 foot picture frame in which oversized reproductions of the backgrounds of 17 of Rockwell’s best-known illustrations are placed. Actors take their place in the front of the backgrounds, either before or after acting out short pieces inspired by the original illustrations.
“After the Prom,” “Doctor and the Doll,” “Under the Mistletoe” and “Barbershop Quartet” are some of the paintings portrayed.
“Probably one of my favorites is (Golden Rule) ‘Do Unto Others,’” Westermann said. “It’s a painting with people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. He (Rockwell) thought everyone should get along.”
“After the Prom” is another of her favorites, with young dancers performing steps form the 1950s and ’60s. There’s singing during many of the scenes, and also what Westermann calls a “montage” of music before the show.
Although Murrow did interview Rockwell, their dialogue in the show was written by Mead, based on her research.
Playing Murrow in Wichita is former Sedgwick County Clerk Don Brace, who is married to Westermann’s cousin, Nancy. He got cast over dinner.
“We were looking for an Edward R. Murrow,” Westermann said. “I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I said, ‘Oh my goodness, would you be willing?’”
Brace said he declined, then told her he’d do it “if she couldn’t find anybody. I think she stopped looking at that point.”
Brace eventually agreed, though he says he’s never done any acting, at least on stage.
“I’ve been a politician,” he said. “Does that count?”
Brace, who served as county clerk for eight years, said preparing for “Rockwell” has been interesting. “I’m sure I’ll find it even more challenging the night of the performance. I’m looking forward to it. If I can provide a few smiles for people, that’s fine.”
Playing opposite Murrow as Rockwell is Bucky Walters, who has appeared in numerous local theater productions from “Comedia” at the Wichita Community Theatre to “Laugh Out” at Cabaret Old Town and numerous “Gridiron” shows at the Orpheum.
Walters has learned a little about his character’s working methods and background for the role. Rockwell completed 321 cover paintings for The Saturday Evening Post before moving on to work for Look magazine and others.
“It was always fun, pleasant things when he was with the ‘Saturday Evening Post,’” Walters said. “It wasn’t until he went with Look magazine that he started with the serious ones.”
Walters said he’s enjoying working with his less-experienced co-star Brace.
“He’s doing a terrific job. He seems to be at ease. I’m just hoping I do as well.”