‘Bring Back the Sunshine’ an emotional send-off

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UAA Professor Fran Lautenberger shows off one of the handmade puppets to be featured in the upcoming performance of “Bring back the Sunshine.’” Photo by Krystal Garrison

Scraps of fabric and fur are strewn about in a haphazard war zone. Plaster faces and half-finished heads are resting on work tables, and whimsical garments are adorning mannequins. It’s not a Tim Burton workshop you’re invading, it’s the UAA costume shop; the heart of Professor Fran Lautenberger’s kingdom for the past 26 years.

Her reach extends far past the costume shop however, and this jack-of-all-trades has had her hand in every aspect of theater at one time or another. Now, after two and a half decades of devoted service to UAA, she’s cashing in her last paycheck and retiring.

But not before putting on one final show.

“Bring Back the Sunshine” is an original musical, written by both Lautenberger and former UAA student, Jonathan Minton (with original music written by Professor Mari Hahn), that involves both a traditional cast and puppet characters. The story revolves around a girl, Elena, who has to rescue her husband from an evil general with the help of friends she meets along the way. In true fairytale fashion, many of these new friends are animals, and puppets.

“Bring Back the Sunshine” is more than a final collaborative work for Lautenberger, who is also serving as the show’s director. The play is several years in the making, some better than others.

A collection of handmade puppets lying around the UAA costume shop. A variety of original puppets will be featured in the upcoming performance of “Bring Back the Sunshine.”

“I started it three or four years ago as a lark, as a joke; it was going to make fun of everybody I worked with,” she said. “It was going to be a metaphor for my husband and I, you know, being in Alaska. Tra-la-la, and I came up with this thing, and it was all funny; it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. Then, two years ago, my husband passed away, and it was suddenly not funny anymore. I didn’t want to finish it.”

Her students objected to this plan. “The kids were like, “No,” and especially Becca, who’s playing Rosie the Raven, she said, “No, don’t…don’t let go.””

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Minton, who graduated from the Theatre program last spring, was asked by Lautenberger in his final semester to help her finish the play to fulfill his final two practicum credits. Lautenberger admired his work, and thought he would be perfect to help her finish the work.

For Minton, it was a humbling request.

“It was a big thing for me,” he said. “Not just as a graduating artist, but as an artist in general, to have somebody whose opinion you respect and trust come to you and offer you something that really is a very personal project, and trust you with it; it’s an invaluable experience.”

UAA Theater major and Costume Shop Assistant, Scott Heverling, shows off one of the handmade puppets featured in the upcoming performance of “Bring Back the Sunshine.”

He isn’t the only person honored to be a part of Lautenberger’s final show. Theatre junior and costume shop assistant Scott Heverling is very excited to be involved.

“It’s been so hard, since we all love Fran here at the university. And Fran’s actually the first professor at the university to take me under their wing,” he said. “A friendship has sparked, a mentorship, and it’s been really great.”

The assistant director and former theatre student, Nathan Huey, was also pleased to be back on campus for the month long production.

“This is my fifth consecutive show,” he said. “No one matches me in “Fran” shows.” There was no mistaking the pride in his voice and smile.

Lautenberger, who will be retiring to a house in Cape Cod at the end of May, is looking forward to the time to herself. That doesn’t mean she won’t miss her work at UAA, however.

“I’m going to miss the students; I love the kids. They’re frustrating, they’re annoying, but when you see somebody like Nathan…the last few shows I’ve done with him, it’s like, “You’re amazing,” and it’s so much fun to see kids like that,” she said.

Her students, including Huey, wish her nothing but the best.

“I think she should be very proud of her work here, and of this thing, this sort of culmination of a very personal journey. She should be very proud of turning that into art, and something beautiful and meaningful.”

 “Bring Back the Sunshine” is showing in the Harper Studio in the Fine Arts Building until Sunday, April 22. Showings are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets can be purchased at the UAA Box Office for $15 on Fridays and Saturdays and $10 on Sundays. Students with a valid ID receive the discounted rate of $10 for Fridays and Saturdays and $7 on Sundays.