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The Rabbit hole to a NOT so Wonderful Wonderland

I can definitely say that I have never seen anything like this production before. Company One’s Production of Shockheaded Peter (that took place at Suffolk University’s  Modern Theatre) has all the excitement, fear, and thrills that would come from a combination of American Horror Story’s Freak Show infused with Grimm fairy tales. In this particular show, the story was based off of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter a children’s story that Hoffmann wrote for his three year old son as a lesson for proper moral instruction.  In the original 1998 production, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of London’s Improbable Theatre teamed up with The Tiger Lillies to create what is now Shockheaded Peter. In this new creation Company One teamed up with Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys to re orchestrate the original music that was in The Tiger Lillies production.

Now on to the show! I went on a pretty busy Sunday and found myself sitting in the very front row. I never sit up front in any show and I was particularly nervous about this one in particular. As soon as the play began the MC tip toes (that what’s I’m going to call it) onto the stage and directly delivers her lines to the entire audience and most definitely the front row. I had no idea of what to expect from this show but I knew that I was going to be in for quite a ride. The show down to the costuming and the set was spot on. It combined this sense of antiquity with a fusion of modern and definitely in your face. It reminded me of what Alice might have seen as she fell down the Rabbit hole. The music by Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys really helped to drive the story. I was shocked by how much I actually enjoyed listening to the music and left the show being more curious about the bands own style of music.

sickert

Now maybe it’s me and maybe I’m getting a lot older sooner than I thought, but the music was far far too loud for me. It was definitely a stylistic choice in the production for the audience to be bombarded with certain notes and words that Sickert sang out (which I recognized was a choice) I just wish I had been sitting farther away. In fact, because it was so loud I found myself trying to distance myself from the story and checking out throughout the production because of it. Maybe that was a possible intention maybe that was my own experience. If I had been sitting farther away from the stage I’m sure I would not have felt as overwhelmed from the performance. In fact, I had conversations with friends who went to see the production and the music was never overbearing to them at all because they sat farther away.

0304_lizavoll-2

The actual story was something I had never imagined I could see on stage before. I felt I had seen movies that encapsulated the sense of this play and it was exciting to see it take place in a theatrical setting. The puppets were incredible! I have never seen puppets in a play before   (I know strange right?) and every time a puppet was brought out I would get so excited and would stare at it the entire time it was on stage. It added to this surreal nature of the story and alongside the music I was so immersed in the grotesque story. I found myself cringing a lot at the images on the wall and the kills of these young kids. I found myself watching and remembering “Oh wow, these are dying children”. I would find myself laughing until I was hit with that reality and the play kept taking on new meanings.


I am always thrilled to watch a Company One production because I love that every time I go see a show there I’m seeing something different. There’s never a throughline in any of their productions other than the make you really think. What an interesting afternoon I had of happily falling down the Rabbit Hole into Not so wonderful Wonderland.

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Internships Abound

A few years ago, a fellow stage manager who was a year above me in school remarked wryly, “When we graduate, we’ll have internships to look forward to.”

I smiled, but thought to myself that that’s a choice some people make, but isn’t the only option. However, lately while perusing job postings on various websites I am very surprised by how common an option it is. The majority of “management” positions posted on Offstagejobs.com are some kind of internship position (otherwise known as apprenticeships or fellowships), either seasonal or full-time. Whereas this used to be an option offered by a few of the major regional theatres across America, it has been a model taken up more and more.

The typical professional internship posting tends to look something like this:

Ideal for recent graduates or “early career professionals.” Work alongside professionals in your field, get hands-on experience, and develop connections that may help you get your foot in the door in the future. We may offer intern lectures and development sessions. Learn how a professional theatre company really works.

Details:

Usually fall through summer, though some are summer only.

Stipend: Between $90 – $150/ week (sometimes more, sometimes less)

Housing may or may not be offered.

Now let me be clear, in no way would I critique this model in itself. I think programs like these can be extremely useful, particularly for graduates looking to have structure and a more permanent position as their first endeavor out of school – especially if relocating, it certainly helps to ground yourself in the community first before taking on the uncertainties of freelancing. I know a few stage managers who participated in similar programs at large theatre companies and were absolutely thrilled by their experiences, and in fact are still reaping their benefits today. I have applied for a few professional internships for next fall. In addition, I have previously participated in Summer Stock-style internship that provided housing and a stipend within the range detailed above. I had enough money for gas, groceries, and the occasional adult beverage. I am quite pleased with the overall experience that I had and the benefits it provided me.

However, I do have questions about these programs’ seemingly increased prevalence and the ramifications that may have for my generation of theatre artists. Though the stipend may be enough to cover living expenses, what about paying off the student loans that helped you get your fancy BFA theatre degree from that prestigious university? The one that perhaps you invested in instead of choosing a cheaper schooling option, with the idea that it would help you to better secure your future?

It is also worth noting that these programs are often extremely competitive. That Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is often a baseline requirement for consideration. If you have professional experience outside of the university environment, all the better.

In his article last year on HowlRound, Unpaid Internships, or Getting Your Foot in the Door of the American Theatre, Greg Redlawsk discusses the prevalence of unpaid internships, as well as the huge role these interns play in most theatre companies.

“A sampling of some of the major non-profits suggests that there are at least, on average, 8 to 10 unpaid interns working at any given time in the average mid to large sized non-profit theater. There are over 300 non-profit theaters of varying sizes in New York alone. Even with conservative estimates, there are at least a thousand interns, (probably more) working tens of thousands of unpaid hours for the non-profit sector. … We’ve created a system that’s built on the backs of unpaid young people who just want to be a part of things.”

He goes on to conclude with a statement that resonated with me so much it almost hurt: “At the very least, this should be the baseline: nobody who is putting in forty hours a week or more at a nonprofit institution should go without pay or a living wage.” As an intern, I worked long past 40 hours a week in total service of the theatre, and the idea that it could be a baseline rule that I was paid a living wage for that is wonderful. …However, I was paid something. The two alternatives the author presents are sadly very, very different.

I think the most important thing to remember for those who may be considering an internship after graduation is this: know what’s best for you, right now. A professional internship may be the perfect fit for you, and also be able to work with your budget and financial abilities. You will undoubtedly gain highly valuable experience and make very useful connections, and the internship could lead to a job with the company in the future. All of this is great! But, an internship might also not work for you. Perhaps you can’t afford to just not-lose money. Or maybe your impulse is, I’ve spent the past x number of years at university learning how to do this particular role in the theatre, and right now I just want to jump in and try out some of those skills, outside of an educational environment. This is also great! Just because there are plentiful listings for one type of work does not mean that other opportunities do not exist. Know what you want, and seek it out! And if it doesn’t happen right away, keep trying. There is no need to set limitations on yourself that do not exist.

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Support Your Sisters

Howlround contributor Catherine Treischmann recently wrote an article entitled Playwriting and Parenting: The Boyfriend Plot. Part of a series on Playwrighting and Parenting, this article explores her opportunity to teach playwrighting to her daughters girl scout class and her subsequent discovery that the large majority of the girls’ monologues revolved around, you guessed it – boyfriends. So she asks, what are the stories we are telling girls? What types of characters do they think they can inhabit?

From the moment I learned to read, I was devouring anything I could get my hands on; from the classics like the Babysitter’s Club to adventure stories such as The Golden Compass. This article struck a chord with me because of my passion for both storytelling in young children, and the support of complex female characters.

First let me say, I love a good kissing book. In middle school on long car rides I would entertain my friends with long sweeping tales involving them and their crush du jour (usually ending up with them riding off into the sunset). I love that boyfriend plot is always good for a fun time. So I think to myself, “have I been corrupted by the stories I have been exposed to? Am I trapped in the boyfriend plot without my knowledge?”

Maybe. Or maybe I’m just a sappy romantic. The more I think about the boyfriend plot the more passionate I become about everything under the sun that is not that.

My younger brother and I went through a period of excessively reading adventure/ spy novels targeted toward male teen audiences. Almost every novel, time and time again featured what we have come to call “the classic trio.” The classic trio is an adventure story trope. 1) Leading Man, a little offbeat but charming and courageous who somehow ends up on this journey with 2) the Girl, usually smart, always attractive, ready to help Leading Man save the day along with 3) the best friend, goofy and geeky, along for the ride and some comic relief. The personalities shift around but it always stands, two guys and a girl, the male being the focus. I quickly grew tired of the classic trio and wanted to see, more than just a woman at the helm, but a girl surrounded by other woman.

The female friends I’ve made throughout my life have impacted me at my core. These woman make up my past, my present and give me hope and courage to take on the future. It’s this passionate female friendship and support that stories could use a heck of a lot more of. There often feels in adventure stories that the heroine, in order to combat whatever trials are thrown at her needs to push away her friends. I hope to see more stories that tells us quite the opposite: to succeed is to have our friends by our side.

Young girls face so much battery from the media that enforces competition and comparison. From an early age the stories that are important are the ones that will counteract this competition as they get older. We should be making sure girls know that the support they can give to each other is one of the most beautiful aspects of being a woman. That together women can do amazing things.

These stories are out there. Absolutely. However they are not necessarily what we are reading in school. But they should be. And with a generation of women geared in to making sure the young girl is supported and encouraged to be as big and she can, I believe they will be.

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Visual Stroytelling

Something that has started to interest me more and more is the way that theatre makers create the visual landscape of the play. How do we read a script and then from that, develop the visual world of the play, drawing on scenery, lights, costumes, and more? The visual world of the play has its roots in the script, but each production augments that script with use of technical elements. A well crafted visual landscape doesn’t just tell the story of the play, but it shapes that story (or else we’d be doing everything a a little black box staged reading). In some plays the visual landscape that designers create is just as crucial to the performance as the script.

I recently saw SpeakEasy‘s New England premiere of Big Fish. According to playwright John August, this particular production was supposed to strip the show down, letting “the audience in on a more intimate version” (Program note). The idea was to take out a lot of the spectacular technical elements so that the show would service the core of the play: a love story between a young man and his father. According to Andrew Lippa (Music & Lyrics), this version “tell[s] the audience from the beginning, ‘We’re not going to show you much. We’re just going to tell you a lot of stuff and let you fill in the blanks,’ it engages their imagination.” And of course, imagination is an integral part of Big Fish. Edward (the father) is constantly telling imaginative stories to his son; it gets to the point where we cannot tell what happened and what did not happen–which is the source of his son’s frustration. In many ways, this play is just as much about imaginative storytelling as it is about a father and son coming to terms with each other.

Big Fish production photo

That is exactly what made me so interested in seeing the play. How was this production going to create a visual landscape that was simultaneously stripped down and incredibly imaginative? How were they going to create a visual landscape that served the story in terms of plot, theme, and symbol? Unfortunately, I can tell you in one word: projections. Granted, I love projections. They are an incredible tool that theaters large and small have been able to really learn about and put to good use within the last decade or so. Unfortunately, projections seemed to be their only tool. As the play went on, it became increasingly clear that the projections were a crutch rather than a storytelling tool. And more often than not, the projections did a disservice to the story. There were a couple of ways this happened. First, projections were used for every scene. So even when the story focused on Will (the character who is most grounded in fact and truth) at home, the projections would be of the home. Not only could we have figured out the location by the bedroom set on stage, but it also would have been thematically relevant to cut the projections around Will.  The point is that he doesn’t project his thoughts or feelings. He is highly logical and literal. Will wouldn’t like the projections because they wouldn’t seem real to him. The fact that the projections existed in the more mundane scenes posed problems for the more fantastical scenes.  By the time we’d gotten to Edward’s imaginative stories, the projections were old hat. Sure the projections around Edward were a little more colorful, but as a storytelling technique, they were no longer interesting. The stories that should have seemed fantastical were brought down by the now seemingly mundane projections. The projections plateaued the story. Had the creative team been more selective about what parts of the story needed projections, they would have been more effective.

The final clash I saw between storytelling and projections was in the scale of the spectacle. For example, in the song “Daffodils” Edward finds Sandra and gives her a bouquet of daffodils, her favorite flower. It is an incredibly sweet idea. But the sweetness of the initial action soon gets swallowed by an attempt at spectacle. The ensemble comes out, each holding their own bouquet and then the projections start showing these spinning daffodils. All of a sudden, I started laughing and I couldn’t contain myself. It was a mockery of a display of love. I’m guessing that this moment should have been breath-taking. If a spectacle is big enough, you hold your breath, not able to believe that someone could create something so huge and wonderful and beautiful. If a moment is small enough, the reality of the situation could likewise take your breath away. You could be touched by the display of a single daffodil flower. Yet, when you try to straddle the line, it is just funny. The cheese factor hits and it is all over. It is neither real nor wonderful; it is simply an ensemble holding flowers and a projectionist who did not dare to move away from the literal act of giving a flower. Perhaps the literalness of the entire thing was funny. In the song “This River Between Us,” where Edward and Will reflect on there fundamental differences (by using a river as a metaphor), the creative team created a river on stage with light and projection. Though this moment should have been meaningful, the river on stage made it trite. It became more about the B level metaphor than it was about the actual relationship. The lights and projections became gimmicks, not storytelling tools. The visual landscape may have projected the words of the songs, but it did not reflect the tone of the story on stage.

I think there is an important lesson to be learned here. Big Fish isn’t hopeless–far from it. The story is a great one, and I think it could translate well on stage with a different imagining. It is important that this is a young musical. It hasn’t been set in stone. Lippa added new music for this production–the play is still growing, so it is not fair to label it as a complete and mediocre musical. Parts of it certainly are flawed, but fortunately they have the next few productions to work those out of the play. The second important lesson is one about storytelling and the tools at our disposal. Just because something like projection is a cool new toy, does not mean that it is the best tool with which to tell a story. A play that its so steeped in imagination should use ever tool in its wheelhouse to keep its audiences engaged. This play does not need to be large scale, but it does need to tell its story with tools that are going to spark the audience’s own imagination. Projected images of the metaphor on stage might not serve this story, but another storytelling technique could, which is why Big Fish could still be a compelling story.

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A Spectrum of Experience: The Amish Project

Resilience. Compassion. Love. Confusion. Hatred. Despair. Empathy. The realities of these words live within us all, often simultaneously. This is the human condition. How can one both fully hate and love? How do we find compassion in the midst of despair? And how do we walk through life with heads held high in the midst of these visceral feelings? These questions live fully in The Amish Project, a play based on the 2006 Nickel Mines shooting of five young girls in an Amish schoolhouse. Written by Jessica Dickey, this play was originally performed by the playwright, a one-woman show. In a new production of The Amish Project at New Repertory Theatre, Elaine Vaan Hogue directed actress Danielle Kellermann in this moving piece of theatre. Through both its form and content, The Amish Project reminds us that the human body is a container full of every range of emotion and experience, lightness and darkness, and we must individually construct our own paths through life carrying these things.

Photo from New Rep website

Photo from New Rep website

In The Amish Project, one woman embodies a myriad of drastically different, fully human characters—a joyous little Amish girl, a sympathetic and lively teenager, mourning community members, the conflicted wife of the shooter, and the tormented shooter himself. The story is told through many eyes, expressing a wide range of emotion and experience. Danielle Kellermann became each one of these people, moving seamlessly from one person to the next, telling their stories with vulnerability and truth. The play begins on a light note—a little girl excitedly addressing the audience—then jumps around between sorrow and elation, in and out of despair, confusion, laughter, and tears. The actress fills her body and voice with these emotions, each character with their own unique physicality and vocal quality, each fully human.

In training as actors, we learn to access every part of ourselves, discovering the empathy necessary to truthfully allow another character to live in and through us. The dualistic nature of this exists in the challenge of allowing yourself to be fully present and simultaneously lose yourself to the character. A play like The Amish Project multiplies this challenge tenfold. Yet, the fact that one woman is capable of this, and that she does it with such specificity and honesty, demonstrates the overwhelming capacity the human body has to, with the right amount of empathy, relate to any experience. And, the fact that not only the original creator of this play can perform it with emotional truth is a testament both to the human body and the power of the craft of acting.

If one could name a protagonist in this play, perhaps it would be the wife of the shooter. She is sympathetic as she struggles to come to terms with the grief of her husband’s suicide, confusion and revulsion about his crime, and the community of Amish who surprisingly extend their forgiveness and condolences. In one of her monologues, she talks about her deceased husband, saying that he was not different than any other person; we all have darkness within us, and he simply could no longer keep it at bay. This sentiment, though pessimistic, is not altogether false. It is true that we are animals: primal, irrational, greedy, and capable of hurting others. Yet nature has blessed (and cursed) the human species with intelligence, a conscience, and empathy. We exist in a constant state of dualism, caught between the light and dark sides of ourselves. This very thing is the beauty of theatre—putting it all out there, not to judge, but to recognize.

Danielle Kellermann in The Amish Project

Danielle Kellermann in The Amish Project

As this one character grapples with these wrenching emotions, so too must the actress embodying them. The form and content of The Amish Project are in conversation; as a one-woman show, the weight of all these characters falls into one body, and that one body must feel empathy for each person it portrays. Dealing with such a heavy subject reveals complicated and mixed emotions related to grief, noting moments of contrasting emotions co-existing in one body. Perhaps the play aims to communicate that if the Amish can offer compassion in such a time of loss, surely we all share these infinite capabilities of our own emotional life to find strength and resilience even in the darkest of times. From despair springs a message of hope and a testament to humanity. Human beings are beautifully and incomprehensibly full of emotional possibility, and The Amish Project is a perfect tool to acknowledge, and pay homage to that fact.

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Spectacle-Based Drama

Callings at Ko Festival 2014

Callings at Ko Festival 2014

Jay Ruby, founder of The Carpetbag Brigade, recently wrote a blog post on HowlRound as the first part of a series were he will address the “basic tenants of spectacle-based drama” through the lens of his theatre company. This first blog of the series lays out the basics: What differentiates spectacle from drama? How do the two function together? These are questions I find myself asking as I delve deeper into my newfound love for aerial dance and circus arts, and the desire to eventually incorporate these practices into my work as a theatre artist.

So, what even is spectacle-based drama?  According to Ruby, spectacle based drama increases the visibility of the human body, while simultaneously putting it at perceivable risk.  It is often a crossroads where multiple forms meet: a combination of circus, dance, theatre, or pyrotechnical theatre and aerial dance for example.  With these combinations comes a heightened theatricality where the body is the focus.

Jay’s company, The Carpetbag Brigade, is a physical theatre company who specializes in outdoor, cite specific, spectacle based drama, cross-cultural exchange, and most famously, for doing it all on stilts. Prior to Carpetbag, Jay was an actor who did not value stilt walking as an effective form, and thought of it as a cheap trick, merely spectacle. However, his opinions on the matter drastically changed after seeing a dynamic and theatrical acrobatic stilt performance by David Clarkson of Australia’s Stalker Theatre perform at a festival The Carpetbag Brigade was hosting in Prescott, AZ. From then on, acrobatic stilts became the primary focus and training method for his company, and they have since become globally known for it.

Last summer, I was lucky enough to witness a performance of Carpetbag Brigade’s Callings at the Ko Festival in Amherst, MA. In his blog post, Ruby says, “Our understanding of spectacle-based drama was discovered through the practice of creating a theatrical environment where none existed before.” When I saw Callings, it was a clear summer day, and I sat in the audience, outside on the ground, not knowing exactly what to expect.  There was a large concrete area in front of us, surrounded by grass, as the stage.  Suddenly, looming figures emerged from behind a nearby building and began approaching the empty area before us.  With the appearance of the first performer on stilts moving with purpose, a theatrical environment was created.  While watching, I was simultaneously hypnotized by the beautiful and impressive acrobatics, and physical storytelling done by the performers.  This was like nothing I had seen before, and I loved it.

Spectacle may serve merely as entertainment on its own, but paired with drama and filled with intention, can significantly enhance a theatrical experience.

“Spectacle serves to open.  Drama exists to reveal.”

If Ruby’s right that spectacle-based drama, “brings us closer to eternal questions and our subconscious desire to know their answers,” then that’s the type of theatre I’m interested in.

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Choose: Joy

I haven’t stopped recommending this play since I saw it on Sunday. I completely loved George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum at the Huntington Theatre Company. The production was beautiful, the cast immensely, immensely talented, and the script is just so – SMART.

The Huntington in particular has a reputation for producing work by African-American playwrights. Not only are they one of the few theatres in the country that has produced the entire August Wilson Pittsburgh/Century Cycle, but they also have strong relationships with Boston playwrights Lydia Diamond and Kirsten Greenidge and have produced both writers’ works. The company also has ties to organizations in Boston such as the Museum of African American History, a representative from which spoke at a Colored Museum post-show discussion.

The first visual that greets audiences at the Boston University Theatre is an all-white soundstage-esque box set, with a giant wooden shipping crate in the center with “U.S.A.” printed on it. Nothing about this particularly struck me. After a few minutes, however, I realized that there was a small beam of light pointed at an object in the middle of the stage – a pair of shackles. I literally gasped – the first of many for me that afternoon.

This image sets up a huge part of what The Colored Museum aims to be – in your face! irreverent! but still reverent, in some ways. The play references literally some of the darkest parts of African-American history – from slavery and the Middle Passage to minstrel shows – while presenting bold, often outrageous characters, and inviting you to laugh.

One of the most compelling episodes of the play was absolutely fascinating because of the way it presents and also criticizes the works that have become the “canon” of African-American theatre.  In this scene, a “well-worn woman” sits on her “well-worn couch” in her shabby apartment. Her dress and couch literally blend into the wallpaper of the room behind her. Images of A Raisin in the Sun (also recently staged at the Huntington) come to mind.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson, Source: Wbur.org

Photo by T. Charles Erickson, Source: Wbur.org

This woman’s son is the classic angry young black man. He is frustrated by his struggle with the “man” and his inability to get ahead. His physical posture and blocking onstage immediately reminded me of videos I’ve seen of the Broadway productions of Fences with Denzel Washington or James Earl Jones – very astutely captured by director Billy Porter. A man from the Academy presents him with an Oscar for his performance. Next onstage comes his wife, who is interested in accessing her African roots – I immediately thought of Beneatha Younger in Raisin once she begins her relationship with George Murchison. This character’s wailing and dancing earns her the Oscar from the man from the Academy.  As each member of the family enters the room and performs his or her expression of “blackness,” each receives the Academy Award. These characters present tropes that have come to be celebrated as authentic and praiseworthy expressions of the African-American experience. But the play asks, what about characters and experiences who don’t fit within these models? Are they doomed to be ignored, as the same three or four canonized “black plays” are programmed across the country?

The Colored Museum answers its own question by including several figures who have distinctly unique expressions of their identities that are not often seen onstage. When the play premiered in 1986, the character of Miss Roj – a black drag queen – completely shocked audiences. Another vignette includes pop sensation LaLa, who found audiences were much more welcoming to her in France than in America, and upon returning to the states has to deal with some complex personal history.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson; Source: The Huntington News

Photo by T. Charles Erickson; Source: The Huntington News

Many scenes in the play are extremely dark. From men and women pictured in shackles on the airplane-style Middle Passage, to a minstrel figure crossing the stage banging a drum, to a ghost-soldier in Vietnam who executed his fellow soldiers one-by-one so they wouldn’t return home and torture themselves and their loved ones due to the horrors they had seen, many of the play’s moments are depressingly very real. There are also many moments that produced fits of laughter. Ending the play is tricky. The Colored Museum certainly does not want a neat bow to cover up its unpleasant bits. The playwright could have left audiences in a dark, unsettled place, urging them to think seriously about what they saw and to live in those unpleasant moments even longer. However, the playwright chose to end the piece in a fierce monologue and a joyous piece of music. It’s a celebration – the character says, yes, my history is complicated and often unpleasant, but I own who I am now, and my culture is actually richer because of it.

As she says, I’m dancing to the music of the madness in me. … And whereas I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain, I can’t live without it. My power is in my madness, and my colored contradictions.” George C. Wolfe chose to end with celebration, joy, and dance. It was an absolutely invigorating finish to a complicated, wonderful play.

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