Taking Risks

Life in the Theatre, Plays I've Seen

I’ve seen some great theatre in the past two weeks. While the three shows I’ve seen recently are an eclectic mix, they share one thing in common: risk. Luckily, I’d say that in all three cases, the risk was rewarded.

Two weeks ago I saw At Home At the Zoo at City Lit. In a sense, the script is straightforward: Act One, husband and wife talk in their apartment. Act Two, the husband and a stranger meet and talk on a park bench. What ultimately happens, however, is shocking. And the actors gave honest, raw, wonderfully surprising performances, diving in without reserve. It took guts (both for them and for the director who guided them) to attack the script so actively and emotionally, and it also took skill to succeed so wildly. It was a great night at the theatre.

Last week I saw Aston Rep’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Anyone familiar with Martin McDonagh knows that there is risk inherent in that script. The story is crazy, the characters are insane, and the plot twists are ridiculous. But if done right, it really works. Aston Rep went for it and succeeded. The show was fun, funny, well acted, and exciting.

Yesterday I saw Prologue Theatre Company’s Welcome to America, a one-woman show about Christina Riggs, the Arkansas mother who ended up on death row after killing her two children. This show was risky in a different way: a heart wrenching story, an (on paper) unsympathetic character, an uncomfortable gamut of emotions. It took real bravery for Prologue to take on this show, not only to present it to an audience, but also for the cast and crew to live with the show for such a long time. For artists, there is real personal risk involved in a taking on a play like that, knowing that you will have to carry around that story or that character for months. It paid off, though: the actress who played Riggs turned in a moving and skillful performance.

All of these great risky shows have got me asking myself how gutsy I’m prepared to be. I’ve been reading lots of plays lately and wondering whether I am brave enough to do some of them. To put subversive material onstage, or to tackle a really big and difficult show? I want to be brave in the choices I make, but some of those ideas are a little scary. Then again, I suppose it would have to be scary in order to be brave. And ultimately, is a show worth doing if there isn’t at least a little risk involved?

Keeping Busy Between Projects

Life in the Theatre, Plays I've Seen

One of the most important things about being a theatre artist, I think, is what you do when you don’t have a show going on. It’s easy to be an active and engaged member of the theatre community when you are going to rehearsal every night. But what about when you are between projects? How do you still feel creative, motivated, connected?

I’ve often struggled in the past with how to remain engaged and feel “productive” when I don’t have a specific project on my plate. It can be tough to get motivated to do any real work when there isn’t a tangible goal (i.e. a production) at the end of that road. The power of inertia can be strong: objects at rest stay at rest, and suddenly weeks or months can go by with nothing to show for it.

The great thing about inertia, of course, is that it works the opposite way, too. Objects in motion stay in motion. So I’ve been trying lately to be more deliberate about accomplishing specific theatre-related goals — seeing shows, reading plays, staying connected with friends and colleagues — and so far this fall, I’m delighted that my inertia is keeping me in motion. It’s helpful, too, that I do have one project on the far horizon, even though it’s not until next summer. But at least it’s a goalpost to look toward when I need to focus up.

In the past week alone I saw two shows and read five new-to-me scripts, which feels pretty good. And as a quick sidebar, since I’ve been reporting lately on all the shows I’m seeing, here’s the skinny on the shows I saw this past week. First was FAIL/SAFE at Strawdog, a Cold War drama that imagines a scenario in which the U.S. mistakenly sends bomber pilots to Moscow, and then must find a way to deal with the consequences. Strawdog’s intimate Hugen Hall space made the drama feel immediate and modern, despite the Cold War setting. The acting was great, and a few of the actors in particular were especially on fire. Second I saw JEKYLL & HYDE at Idle Muse, a perfectly terrifying show in time for Halloween. The acting was strong, and the design — especially the lighting and use of fog effects — added to the chilling affect of the show. I enjoyed them both!

Anyway, back to inertia between projects. Right now I’m happy with how much I’m keeping busy, and I’m trying to set some specific goals to keep me going. I’m curious about what other people do when they are between projects: do you have a plan that you follow? Is there something specific that you wish you did better? What are your strategies for staying active when you are between shows?


New Works

Plays I've Seen

Recently, I’ve been getting out to see a lot of theatre, and in particular, I’ve seen several new works.  They have all been totally different from each other, but it’s been interesting to consider them all within the category of new work.

The first was Witch Slap at Babes with Blades Theatre Company, a broad, slapstick comedy with an all-female cast, focusing on a group of real witches trying to avoid being found out during the Salem witch trials. The show was totally fun, complete with broomstick fights (i.e. quarterstaff fights) and “magic” special effects. I was particularly impressed with the ambition of the script’s requirements to show the witches’ magic onstage. Doors opened and closed by a wave of a hand from across the room; bottles fell off shelves on command, and characters transformed in plain sight. I would venture to say that not many small theatre companies would develop a new script with such technical challenges, but the Babes totally pulled it off. The show was both fun and funny with some great comedic performances, and the special effects just added to the enjoyment. The show ran in September, and I only wish they had been able to carry the run into October, since it seemed like such a great piece of popcorn theatre for Halloween.

The second new play I saw was Miracles in the Fall at Polarity Ensemble Theatre. You couldn’t find a more different show from Witch Slap if you tried. This one, set in late 1960s Detroit, focused on a troubled Catholic family, and particularly on the grown daughter’s life as a nun and her friendship with a priest. The script was lovely, with remarkable depth of emotion and a story that I haven’t seen told before. More than that, the acting across the board in the four-person cast was excellent. And while it was a completely different kind of show from Witch Slap, I was impressed again with the technical elements, from the simple but effective set that transformed from church to churchyard to family home to hospital room; to the family meal onstage that included real food and a climactic moment of ripping the tablecloth (and everything on it) off the table. Polarity has a great track record for developing excellent new works, and this one definitely delivered.

The third new play I’ve seen recently was Antony and Cleopatra: UNDONE with Skyline Stageworks. This one, again, was completely different from the prior two shows, particularly because it was a new adaptation rather than a totally new work. The play is a “free adaptation” of Shakepeare’s play, which heavily edits the text and reduces the show to four actors. This version of the play puts Antony and Cleo’s relationship front and center, condensing the politics to only the bare essentials for the story. Because I am friends with the playwright (who also played Cleopatra), I know that this show was a true labor of love for her that took many years to bring to fruition. While the other two plays that I saw were conceived and created through development processes within the companies that produced them, this one followed a different path; the script existed first, and then the playwright produced the show herself. As someone who has done a lot of “creating my own work” in my own career, I deeply respect her resolve and dedication to bring her vision to life. The end result was a passionate, clearly told version of the Antony and Cleopatra love story, and I’m interested to see what she’ll do with Skyline Stageworks next.

All in all, this recent binge of new work has given me a lot to think about. What is it about a play that will make it last for the ages? Will any of these three new plays have a life beyond their inaugural productions? And if so, what about them determines their longevity (or lack thereof)? Even when a script has merit, that doesn’t always guarantee its place in the theatre canon. So why do some stories get told and re-told, while others disappear?

Interview with Howlround

News & Other Fun Stuff, Show Information

I was recently interviewed for a piece on HowlRound about Shakespeare in the park. The article includes a fantastic review of Midsommer Flight’s Much Ado About Nothing this summer, and also offers an in-depth look at the experience of presenting Shakespeare in the park.

Take a look at Neighborhood Shakespeare in Chicago’s North Side Parks, by Dani Snyder-Young. Happy reading!



Stratford 2014

Life in the Theatre, Plays I've Seen

I’ve gotten a little behind in posting, so I have a bit of catching up to do!

A little over a week ago, my friend Anne and I made our annual trip up to the Stratford Theatre Festival in Canada. This marked our twelfth year making the pilgrimage for great food, shopping, and of course, theatre. We look forward to this trip every year as a wonderful escape from the “real world” and a chance to re-focus our minds on ourselves, our careers, or whatever else in our life needs attention. Fall is the perfect time for it; to me, autumn always feels like a new beginning.

So, we ate amazing meals, shopped more than we should have, talked for hours in the car, and saw some thought-provoking and exciting theatre.

The first night, we saw Antony & Cleopatra, and disappointingly, we saw an understudy for Enobarbus. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem; we’ve seen understudies perform at Stratford before, and usually they turn in wonderful performances. Typically, they know the role and have had put-in rehearsals, and are prepared for the task. Unfortunately, the poor Enobarbus understudy that we saw didn’t seem to know his lines, which was both surprising and disorienting — for us in the audience as well as the other actors. I felt that the whole show missed the mark in its level of urgency and passion, but it’s hard to know whether that was the production itself, or whether it was just an “off” night due poor Enobarbus’ significant line problems. The performance did, however, give me a lot to think about, and made me want to re-visit the Antony & Cleopatra script.

The second night was significantly better. We saw Colm Feore’s King Lear, and it was, in a word, astonishing. Feore’s performance was both strong and frail; infuriating and heartbreaking. While the night definitely belonged to him, the storytelling was clearer in this production than any other I’ve seen largely thanks to the treatment of the two older sisters. Most productions that I’ve seen paint Goneril and Regan as evil from the start, insincere and conniving in their pronouncement of love for their father, and scheming to their last breaths. However, in this production, I believed their words of love in the first scene; if they were over-exaggerated, it was because they were simply humoring their father, but not with insincerity. Later, I believed Goneril’s genuine astonishment at her father’s behavior, and the behavior of his men, in her home. Later still, in that terribly sad scene in which Regan and Goneril go back and forth, reducing the number of Lear’s train they will welcome into their homes, I actually heard their argument: “What need you five and twenty, or ten or five, / to follow in a house where twice so many / Have a command to tend you?” They can’t understand why he needs his men (who are prone to “epicurism and lust”), when their servants can provide everything he could possibly need.

Further, I also understood strongly that Goneril and Regan were not only acting for themselves, but were beholden to their husbands in an age where women did not hold significant power of their own. Their fealty to their husbands echoed Cordelia’s initial argument: “Why have my sisters husbands if they say / they love you all? Haply, when I shall wed / That lord whose hand my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty.”

Now, none of this is to say that Goneril and Regan were blameless — not in the least. Even as I recognized their point of view, I still felt for Lear, and the women were absolutely complicit in the atrocities that transpired. But allowing them a true character arc, instead of treating them as villainesses from the start, made the story a much more powerful family drama, and ultimately a much sadder tragedy. This production changed how I view the play, which is a rare thing to happen to me with Shakespeare plays.

This trip is one of my favorite traditions, and this was another great year. ‘Til next year, Stratford.

Twelve Hours

Plays I've Seen

On Saturday, I saw The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic, a 12 hour epic marathon of all 32 surviving Greek plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “12 hours of Greek tragedy? Oy vey.”

But truly, it was one of the most astonishing pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, a once-in-a-lifetime theatregoing experience. It was, frankly, overwhelming, which is why it has taken me a few days to sit down and actually write about it. I sort of don’t know where to begin.

The 12 hours flew by, not only because of the brave and beautiful work onstage, but also thanks to The Hypocrites taking such great care of us, with frequent intermissions, multiple meals and snacks provided, and their new comfortable theatre space at The Den.

I came away with so many dorky behind-the-scenes questions too. What on earth could that rehearsal process have been like? Just how many costumes and wigs are there? Do they actually do a full fight call before each performance? Does it take three hours??

But mostly, I was struck by the incredible work of the artists. The brilliant script, masterful direction, stunning design. And, of course, the actors. These amazing actors who run a marathon at full speed, and then do it all over again day after day, week after week. They each play multiple epic roles, transitioning seamlessly and attacking each successive one with more passion than the last. They have seemingly boundless energy and depth of emotion. The show they create is hysterically funny, never missing an opportunity for a laugh; and also deeply wrenching, never flinching from going to the deepest darkest places that Greek tragedy demands. Life is full of joy and pain in equal measure; they are two sides of the same coin.

I don’t know what I expected to take away from the day, but surely I did not go in expecting to be uplifted. Yet, inexplicably, they manage to conclude these sometimes horrific, often heartbreaking stories with an overwhelming sense of joy. Bad things happen, but we can move on. We have that choice. We are each our own Furies, and we alone have the power to overcome them. The world keeps spinning.

Coda. This was especially poignant in light of the sad news in the Chicago theatre community recently. I didn’t know personally any of the six Chicago theatre artists who passed away last week, but the deaths have taken a prominent place in my news feed as friends and colleagues mourn the losses. Even as I extend my deepest sympathies to those directly affected, it is comforting to see the unity with which our community has faced such tragedy. The show was a powerful reminder, a call to arms even: life goes on for the living.

Too much of a good thing?

Life in the Theatre

Yesterday I read this article in my daily You’ve Cott Mail e-newsletter. Rob Weinert-Kendt’s article/speech is about the Los Angeles theatre scene:

“Too often, truth be told, L.A. theatre’s awesome diversity feels like utter incoherence; its creative fertility can feel like rampant self-indulgence; its stunning resilience sometimes looks more like the sheer Sisyphean persistence of folks who feel they’ve got to keep putting on show after show after show or their doors will close because the dues money or the rent will stop coming in. To put it brutally, week in week out, I’ve begun to feel in my gut that there are just too many goddamn plays in Los Angeles. And that rather than creating a vibrant marketplace of theatrical artistry, or offering that many more exciting consumer options for the region’s eager theatregoers, the sheer glut of productions on Los Angeles area stages creates a kind of white noise, a traffic jam through which established theatre companies of quality must navigate to compete for audiences, reviews, editorial attention, grants, and awards. … For too many L.A. theatres, the 99-Seat Plan’s cheap labor and its built-in freedom to fail provide an incentive to keep failing, and when they do succeed, its economics prevent them from building on that success.”

Weinert-Kendt is referring to L.A.’s 99-Seat Plan specifically, which provides for small theatres to hire Equity actors for extremely little pay. In this regard, it’s hard to compare the situation to any other city, since the 99-Seat Plan is unique to L.A.

However, I read his speech and felt a little pang of recognition. There’s something relatable to the question of whether there is too much theatre being produced in the Chicago theatre scene. With over 200 theatre companies in Chicago, even great shows can get drowned out in the “white noise” of Chicago theatre. Similarly, because of the very low financial cost of many productions (the “freedom to fail”), and the even lower potential financial gain, “failure” can lose its power to weed out the unworthy shows/companies, while “success” for most people never actually facilitates a living wage in theatre. (Of course, who decides which shows or companies would be truly “worthy” or “unworthy” is an obviously fraught question.)

My friend Brendan (@rantmo on Twitter) argues that the speech is not applicable to Chicago at all, since the theatre scenes in each city are so different from one another. He makes a reasonable point. He further argues that so much of the work created in Chicago is so good that it would be difficult to justify cutting back the amount of theatre in this town; thus, it’s hard to say that there is “too much” theatre in Chicago. I agree with him on this point, too; I think that the quality of a majority of the theatre in Chicago is exceptional. Of course, that only makes it more disheartening when great plays draw tiny audiences, begging the question again whether there is simply too much of it.

The speech presents a somewhat cynical view of the L.A. theatre scene, and I hate to project that onto my own community. There is so much that I love about creating theatre in Chicago, not least of which is, in fact, the sheer amount of theatre in this town — because it engenders a strong community of artists and a wealth of creative opportunities. I also love that Chicago is friendly to artists who seek to create their own work, something from which I have certainly benefitted.

Ultimately, I’m more intrigued by the question than by posing a definitive answer. If anything, I’m part of the “problem” since I myself have no intention to stop creating theatre anytime soon, and I wouldn’t want my friends to stop, either. But since Weinert-Kendt’s post definitely made me think, I’m sharing it here. Chicago theatre folks, how do you respond to it?

Much Ado About Photos

Show Information

Well, another show for the books.  Much Ado About Nothing closed yesterday to a fantastically warm and enthusiastic audience. I am so thankful for another great summer!

Click the photo below to check out a gallery of great production photos taken by Tom McGrath.

"I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest."

“I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.”

Naps, Glorious Naps

Life in the Theatre

Naps, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Not my naps, although I love a good afternoon catnap as much as the next girl. No, I’m talking about when my baby naps. It is a truly, TRULY glorious thing to tiptoe out of her room in the middle of the day, with her blissfully sucking her fingers and dreaming about toys or boobs or whatever else she dreams about in the crib behind me.

Little Miss R was born on Halloween, 2013, so she is now nine and a half months old. The focus of this blog is about living and working in the theatre, not about adventures in parenting; but the truth is that those two worlds significantly intersect in my life right now. R has accompanied me to production meetings, technical rehearsals, and Shakespeare in the park performances. She has played patiently with her toys while I typed away on the computer, and sometimes not-so-patiently, too. We make it work.

Since she was born, she has had a tenacious aversion to naps. What can I say, she’s stubborn like her mother. Many days only yielded one twenty minute nap; the days she took even one real, full-length nap were days of celebration, and anomalies at that. Like happening upon a unicorn, or a nap-leaf-clover. So it is with not a little exuberance that I can say we seem to be hitting our stride in the nap department, finally. Two naps per day! On a schedule! Usually 90 minutes apiece!

But what does this have to do with theatre? In my case, a lot.

There will always be too much work and not enough time, and as stubborn as I am, I’ve been pushing through and getting the work done — at least the most critical work. But inserting an additional two or three hours back into my day is going to make a HUGE difference, both to how I approach those most critical items, and to my ability to tackle everything else. I can finally catch up on reading that stack of plays (many of them meaty Shakespeare scripts) awaiting my attention. I can better focus my critical and creative thinking skills on preparing future directing projects. I can more effectively update websites, manage social media campaigns, and do the multitude of other non-creative tasks that support my theatre work.

Of course, R woke up while I was writing this post and has been playing on the floor (pretty patiently, I might add) while I wrap things up. Right now I have to go stop her from eating my shoes.

Until her next nap, my friends.