Stage Left Theatre Blog
When in the audience, I like it when plays put demands on me. Questions left unanswered, sudden blackouts, genre switches, the feeling that breaking eye contact with a soliloquizing actor would somehow let them down. When the play’s purpose is worthwhile and its production has responsibly unleashed it upon the world, I would nine times out of ten prefer to feel like my work has just begun when a show is over than feel content and easy.
It’s probably for the best, then, that I’m writing for Stage Left now.
If you are reading this blog post, you are likely quite aware that a play produced by Stage Left is going to give you something to think about. You might even leave our spaces a different person somehow than when you arrived. But LeapFest, now in its final week of its 14th year, is the one opportunity in Stage Left’s season in which you have the power—the responsibility, really—to enable the play you have seen to leave the theater a different play.
I have been staggered by the urgency of this demand. For a playwright to see a live performance of their work and then hear how an audience has experienced it (and later read their comments on the response sheet) is an invaluable step for a playwright in the development of new works. Instead of the work being meant for the audience as in a full production, in this situation the audience is present for the benefit of the play. The role that we play in witnessing the artistic process laid bare, as we sign up for when we buy a ticket to LeapFest, is more challenging than the one we are used to.
It is also a rare privilege. With minimal props and costumes, actors with scripts in their hands, and settings left to our imagination, these plays present their audiences with theatre in its rawest form, and, as an audience member, it’s that much more exciting to see these important, thrilling stories spring forth with promise. There is something extra haunting about the bare-bones evocations in Jo Cattell’s staging of Isaac Gomez’s The Displaced, so much so that, days later, I still find myself thinking back to the show, asking myself what hidden clues I missed. An acquaintance in the audience of Sam Chanse’s The Other Instinct—who tends to prefer the spectacle of musicals to staged dramas—was so affected by the struggles of the characters that he added hours of researching India’s surrogate clinics to an already late weeknight out at Chicago Dramatists. If these are the effects these plays have when still in development, imagine the impact they’ll have once they’re finished!
This is probably why there has been so much silence in the beginnings of the post-show talkbacks that are a part of every performance in LeapFest. The combination of the transporting qualities already present in these plays and the muting nature of the audience seat can make it paralyzingly humbling to be asked to comment on these feelings and impressions so newly left with us. But then the desire to be as helpful as possible kicks in and my worries that I don’t know how to be helpful are buried (mostly) by the desire to engage in the debate that, this time, Stage Left is guiding us through; the opportunity to be a part of the creation of something, even if the playwright’s silent nodding isn’t explicitly telling me how.
This closing week will be the last chance to help mold these plays so they can stir and change the minds of the audiences to come even more effectively before they graduate to whatever theatrical nirvana awaits them. I, for one, will be sitting in the audience nearly every night, intimidated and invigorated by the awesome responsibility and possibilities to come. I hope to see you there.
Margo Chervony is an actor and writer born and bred in the Chicago area. She previously served as a writer and editor for the Metacritic-affiliated PC gaming website OPnoobs and received the Charles E. Clemens Prize for talent and accomplishment in writing from Case Western Reserve University (B.A. theatre arts and English, summa cum laude) in 2009. As an actor, she has worked with Theater Wit, Collaboraction, Hell in a Handbag Productions, Riverside Theatre in the Park, and Cleveland Public Theatre, among many others. www.margochervony.com
We cordially invite you to join Stage Left Theatre as we kick off Season 35 and present the 5th annual Hallie Flanagan Award to Lori Myers and Laura T. Fisher!
Entertainment this year will be a DRAG SHOW featuring performances from a few of Chicago’s fabulous queens, bringing a sense of glam, fierceness, fearlessness and fun to our evening. As always, you can also look forward to enjoying our drinks, food, silent auction and mingling with the Stage Left Theatre ensemble!
Friday, September 30, 7-10pm
at Jackson Junge Gallery, 1389 N. Milwaukee
Stage Left presents the 5th annual Hallie Flanagan Award to:
Lori Myers and Laura T. Fisher, founders of the Not in Our House Chicago Theatre Community
This year, we will honor Laura T. Fisher and Lori Myers for their work fighting harassment, intimidation, discrimination, violence, bullying and unfair or unsafe practices in the Chicago Theatre Community through the creation of the Not in Our House Community and Code of Conduct.
The Hallie Flanagan Award celebrates significant contributions to artwork that illuminates the social and political aspects of the human condition. Hallie Flanagan (1890-1969) was an American theatrical producer and director, playwright, and author. She is best known as director of the Federal Theatre Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Depression.
Come for the AWARD, stay for the ALLURE. Thrill to the performances of three of Chicago’s premiere drag queens: Verna C Francis, Wanda Screw, and Anaslaysia. Make sure you bring your dollar bills?
LeapFest XIII continues this weekend with Mrinalini Kamath’s The New Deal, which explores a time in the not-too-distant future where prison corporations and pharmaceutical companies form a dangerous collaboration. Mrinalini is in town from NY this week working on the LeapFest production so we had a chance to ask her a few questions.
SLT: Where did the inspiration for The New Deal come from?
MRINALINI: It came from an unusual place – I grew up reading Agatha Christie novels and thought I would read her autobiography, since I had heard she had led a pretty interesting life. At one point, she’s writing about how she feels about criminals and how people seem to have more sympathy for the criminal than for the crime victim (this would have been in the 60’s or 70’s, when crime laws appear to have been more liberal in England). I think the sentence was at the end of a chapter – almost a throw-away line, where she says: “You might allow your criminal the choice between the cup of hemlock and offering himself for experimental research, for instance.” This is what sparked the medical research bit of the idea.
I can’t remember as clearly exactly what sparked the for-profit prison part of the play, but I think it may have been related to finance. Lots of people tend to invest in mutual funds, especially ones that contain a large number of stocks from the S&P 500 since they’re diversified and safer, not necessarily realizing exactly what they own, and that sometimes, the stocks are in enterprises they might find objectionable, like prison corporations. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) a for-profit prison company, has publicly traded shares, and it struck me, like so many others, that there’s a fundamental problem with a system where investors getting rich depends on how many people are imprisoned. It’s not a system designed for real reform.
To a lesser degree, I also thought about how drug companies are always looking for the next big thing, the next say, Viagra, or wonder drug that’s going to make them a lot of money, and about how when there are recalls of drugs, or even just warnings, saying that taking too much of something can cause some devastating condition, I often wonder how thoroughly the drug was tested, in terms of sample size and diversity. I wonder about how pushy the stakeholders are about getting drugs out of the lab to the public. I also thought about medical experiments and ethics, like the Tuskegee experiment, and how things like that seem more likely to happen to more vulnerable populations, and what population is more vulnerable than people that the general public doesn’t see, like prison inmates?
And looking back, I’m fascinated by how people behaved immediately post-9/11. I remember very few questions being asked at the time by the American media (any serious questioning of public policies seemed to come from the BBC), and some liberties being given up for the sake of safety, or at least a feeling of safety.
SLT: The New Deal considers a possible world where the privatization and corporatization of the US prison system is at its worst. Could you tell us a little about the research you have done into the realities this story is based on?
MRINALINI: Luckily for me and this play, prison privatization has been a fairly hot topic amongst social commentators and writers, so I was able to dig up a lot of articles on it from reliable sources. That was the bulk of my reading, though I did read some articles on medical research testing, and medical ethics, as well. Someone was just telling me that Chris Hayes from MSNBC is supposedly coming out with a book on private prisons soon. The danger for me, with plays that require research, especially reading research, is that you sometimes get so caught up in it – there’s so much to read, it’s so interesting, and you want to be thorough – that you don’t get around to the actual writing of the play. So I eventually got to a point where I just had to stop reading articles.
SLT: What do you want the audience to be thinking about after seeing the performance?
MRINALINI: Hmm. Well, the first thing is that this supposedly futuristic setting isn’t all that futuristic – it’s something that’s at least partly already happening, or it’s something already happening in different parts that haven’t yet been mashed together. Yet. The second thing is to realize that an awful lot can be done in the name of safety, especially when emotions are running high. There are people who definitely take advantage of this, sometimes for power, and sometimes for profit. Lots of policies can get pushed through quickly in the name of safety without too many questions asked, and those that ask the questions are often shouted down or intimidated by popular opinion. Thirdly, we like to believe that politicians respond to the voters, but there are often so many other machinations at play that have to do with money, and that some politicians have obligations that go beyond serving his or her constituency, and indeed, are not necessarily even in the best interests of their constituency. It seems obvious, but sometimes, you have to dig to see the connection. That, I think, is the biggest thing I want people to walk away with: Never assume something is being done in your best interest, always question it, always look beneath the surface.
SLT: This play is one that was first a part of the Downstage Left Residency program earlier this spring and now it has been through the Leapfest process. How have these development stages affected the play?
MRINALINI: The first read-through I had with my residency director, Jess McLeod, was incredibly helpful, just because the last time I had a public reading of the play had been the previous October, and I was in the middle of writing a new play at the time (a radio play inspired by the NY Times article “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” for anyone who is interested). The residency helped pull me back into the necessary headspace for working on this play. I also got fresh feedback from the actors and director, who were just being introduced to the piece, which was also very helpful – after you’ve been with a play for a while, it’s really hard to do any work on it by yourself – you not only need to hear it, you need to know how others are hearing it and the thoughts they have. Prepping this play to have it heard on its feet, so to speak, has been a real gift.
The New Deal performs Monday, July 25 @ 7:30pm and Saturday, July 30 @ 2pm
LeapFest XIII continues this weekend with Andrew Kramer’s St. Sebastian, a play about a white couple who buy an old repo house in a historically black neighborhood. We asked Andrew a few questions about the play and its development not only in LeapFest, but in a Downstage Left Residency that past Fall.
SLT: Where did the inspiration for St. Sebastian come from?
ANDREW: All of the major ingredients of the play are based in personal experience but massaged and restructured for narrative purposed. A few years ago my partner bought a very cheap, old house with the goal of flipping it for a profit. Because of our individual schedules and career trajectories, it made the most sense for us to live in the house while we flipped it – which I do not, for the record, ever recommend. But once you settle into a new neighborhood, you start to slowly figure it out, you know? And that’s a pretty interesting experience. So I wanted to write about that. Or maybe you don’t figure it out and that too, is pretty interesting. So I wanted to write about that. I’m also a playwright that gets angry and then writes in an attempt to heal some sort of something; so with our current social and political climate, I found myself angry by a lot and I really needed to leap into this play – with all it’s humor and language and theatrical images – in an attempt to heal.
SLT: One of the central ideas of St. Sebastian is that people tend to see others as the sum of their identities, rather than individuals. Do you think theatre can help audience members see others as individuals?
ANDREW: HA! Here we go. So this is a (great) question and I find myself wrestling with every single time I write a new play and as I begin to scribble very early notes for my newest, I’m thinking about it in a ton of new and different ways. But yes, St. Sebastian explores the complications of identify signifiers and, quite literally, asks how are we supposed to talk about these things? Because frankly: I don’t know. And as a queer writer, often writing about the queer experience, I spin off into a rabbit hole thinking about it for real. There’s one part of me that gets really thrilled when someone in the audience responds to my work and finds something in it that they call “universal”. We hear that word a lot-, right? Like: “It’s not really a gay play it’s a human play.” And I get that and I think it’s cool and exciting. BUT…there’s another part of me that absolutely rejects that; it feels like reduction, like erasure. Because well, no- it’s actually not universal, it’s quite specifically queer. But maybe it’s both, right? Because theatre doesn’t exist inside a vacuum; it’s shared. What’s the point of theatre if not to provide new ideas, new perspectives? So It gets complicated for me. But what I do know is this: theatre has the power to illuminate, to reconcile, to purge, to provoke, to anger, to provide joy, to – as I said above – heal. And we all really need that right now.
SLT: The play has undergone extensive development in a Residency this past fall, and now in LeapFest. How have those processes affected it?
ANDREW: As new play development continues to be a Thing (and it should!), I think Decision-Makers forget something that is really really really really important: no one will ever truly know what a play is, not really, until they see it live and breath – literally – up on it’s feet, in a rehearsal period with actors, a director, and other essential collaborators. And that’s especially true for St. Sebastian in a million different ways. It’s been really great to take the play directly from its Downstage Left Residency and launch right into LeapFest because we’ve been able to keep up the excavation. It’s a play that fills the room so differently when actors are allowed to move, to explore a physical vocabulary of the text. I’ve been LUCKY…director Lauren Shouse and actors Ian Daniel McLaren, Joe Mack, and Patrick Agada are the best allies to have standing with me on the frontlines of this new frontier; so generous and collaborative and talented and insightful and funny and lovely. We’re figuring out a lot. And it’s really exciting to watch
SLT: What do you want the audience to be discussing or thinking about after the play is over?
ANDREW: There’s danger in a single story and all things should be examined in a circle: walk around with your eyes open. Absorb from multiple vantage points. Note what you see and when and what you don’t and why. Honor your feelings. Use your words. Breathe. As Ben says in the play, “this world is never either/or, it’s always and.” I want the audience to see the people and places around them as more complicated than they thought and more beautiful because of it. We have to do a better job of loving each other. And that begins with an attempt at understanding.
St Sebastian performs Saturday, July 23rd at 2pm and Sunday, July 31 at 7pm at Theater Wit.
LeapFest XIII continues this week with Shayne Kennedy’s play Handled, which tells the story of a mother who goes to unusual lengths to help her daughter while she is in residential care to treat an emotional disorder. We asked Shayne a few questions about the play and her relationship with the Twitter-verse.
SLT: Where did the inspiration for Handled come from?
SHAYNE: I have three children, now ages 21, 19 and 17. They were each allowed to join Facebook on the day they finished 8th grade—this was when Facebook was the cutting edge of social media, and felt like somewhat scary terrain. One of my kids had a bit of a tough go socially, and I actually had the thought, “If I could just take over that Facebook account for a month or so, I could turn that ship right around,” followed by the thought, “Step off the ledge, Mama. Don’t jump into the abyss.” That was the moment it became a potential play. I can look out my window right now and point to the spot where the play was conceived—that’s how strongly the idea hit me. It kind of rested in my head for a long time, rolling around and attaching itself to other ideas, things I had made up, or stories I have heard. I described the premise to a dear, smart friend over dinner one night and she had a very strong reaction, mirroring the feeling I first had. That’s when I sat down to write it.
SLT: Handled looks at the intricacies of creating online profiles and personalities. Could you tell us a bit about your own engagement with the Twitter-verse and whether or not your perspective or usage has changed while working on this project?
SHAYNE: I love Twitter. I’m a frequent reader, and a semi-frequent tweeter (@_withawhy). The best thing it does for me is make me laugh, sometimes really hard. The worst thing it does for me is make me sick to my stomach with how horrible people can be. Is that a fair trade off? I don’t know. I laugh more than I cry.
I do moderate my own tweets, knowing how many of my kids’ friends I am connected with on Twitter. I launched a second, anonymous account, to make my dirtier jokes, cross the line a little bit, but honestly, it was too much to maintain and I didn’t care enough. So I tailor my jokes and try to stay on the right-ish side of the line. Recently I walked into a room and one of my daughter’s friends shouted, “You said ‘sexual intercourse,’ on twitter!” so maybe I’m not doing that great of a job. I stand by that particular joke, though. It was not about sex, it was about inter-library loans, and it was funny.
I don’t think my Twitter usage has changed because of the writing of this play, but I did occasionally use it as a resource. For example, when trying to build the short transitions between scenes, I would view the accounts of my daughter’s girlfriends, looking in a very general way, for innocuous topics to touch on, formats to tweet in, things like that. I didn’t steal any tweets—I’d just read 20-30 and then imagine what the next one might be. (Thanks, ladies!)
SLT: What are some of the challenges with writing about technology when it is changing and evolving as quickly as it does these days? Was it challenging to write about the use of technology from the perspective of a teenager?
SHAYNE: The challenge of keeping up with an evolving Twitter was one of the most enjoyable things about writing this play. I’m someone who looks up etymologies of words. Twitter lets you watch language develop in nearly real time, which I find fascinating. My kids are rather used to, and rather good at, defining things for me: “What is swole? Squack? Smol?” (There is no reason those all begin with s-consonant blends—or maybe there is—now I have to find out if most created slang begins with s-consonant blends. This is my rabbit-hole life.) The play was combed-through about a week before the cast first met so I could pepper in the Twitter words that are currently in vogue. I imagine that process will happen again anytime the play is produced, until Twitter falls out of fashion and the play becomes a period piece.
I didn’t find it terribly challenging to write about the use of technology from the perspective of a teenager. I have quite a few teenage friends—my daughter is a theater kid and I have directed and served other functions on production staffs for some of her shows. I like teenagers. I think they’re funny, creative, unguarded, and smart. I dig being around them. They know things I don’t know. Now, to maybe step a little bit into Melanie-like territory—Twitter is a great way to observe people in their chosen habitat. I didn’t need to park myself in my daughter’s room and ask her friends, “How do you guys feel about depression?!?” I could just open Twitter and find out what lots of teenage girls have to say about it.
SLT: How has the LeapFest process changed the play?
SHAYNE: I’ll start off by saying that Stage Left, as an entity, is the reason this play has a beginning middle and end. After that aforementioned dinner conversation, I wrote seven pages and sent it to Stage Left for consideration for residency. Those seven pages made it to the final round, and were not chosen, but I had a good discussion with [Stage Left Artistic Director] Vance in which he said, “Keep writing it. We’re interested.” So I did. I believe, all-in-all, Stage Left turned me down three times, but always with a “We like where it’s headed. Keep going. Finish it. Send us the next draft.” As a writer, that’s all I need—one person I respect to say that he or she is on board. The fifth time was the charm, and here we are.
LeapFest has been intense. During the rehearsals leading up to our first reading, I was rewriting daily. No huge changes—some cuts, some clarifications, some finessing. The feedback after our first reading brought to my attention some logistical issues that needed addressing. I hope I have dealt with them effectively. As we rehearsed, I realized that some of the scene-to-scene transitions would be impossible in production (e.g., PENNY leaves/PENNY enters three days later). The Leapfest process allowed me to write and test out different transition sections that I think will serve the piece (and the actors) in any eventual productions. The ending you see is actually the third ending that was written. The first didn’t seem conclusive enough. The second was good, but not particularly hopeful. The third, which you will see, strikes what I hope is the right note of possibility for the future.
I’ve been gifted with a remarkable group of women who have brought these characters to life and taught me things about them that I hadn’t known before. Their voices and their work have moved this play along its path much further than I could have, sitting at my desk.
Handled performs Tuesday, July 19th @ 7:30pm, Sunday, July 24th @ 7pm at Theater Wit.
LeapFest XIII starts this week with Aline Lathrop’s play …And Eat It Too, which tells the story of two young scientists who make opposite choices when they become mothers. We pulled Aline away from rehearsals for a few quick questions.
SLT: Where did the inspiration for …And Eat It Too come from?
ALINE: I was jet-lagged in London on a business trip before I had kids, and watched the BBC all night. I saw a documentary about women who had opted out of their careers to raise their children, and found themselves in disorienting 1950’s marriages. Not long after that, a friend had a similar experience. Then when I became a mother, I discovered that my own feelings about where I wanted to be were so strong that there was really no room for compromise. Happily, my feelings coincided with my husband’s, although we didn’t know it would be so. I started thinking about how opposing desires with regard to “full-time” parenting (quotations because all parents are parents always) vs. career could break a marriage, and the challenge of keeping that marriage in tact would be an interesting journey. I wanted to explore that journey for two mothers who make opposite choices and whose husbands have opposite wishes.
SLT: This is a play you have been developing, on and off, for a few years. How has society changed since you started writing it, and has that changed the play?
ALINE: I started working on this play at Stage Left more years ago than I would like to admit, and I’m really happy to be back here now workshopping what I feel is the production-ready iteration in process. I think it’s taken longer than any other play because it was too personal for me at the time that I wrote the first draft.
So for society changing, we have the iPhone now. Otherwise, not much. It’s a tragedy that most women today (of those who have the luxury of choice) are forced to choose between family and career. Because, in this country, we have to make this choice when our children are impossibly young (usually six weeks). Because we do not have access to subsidized quality daycare, we are mostly forced to make an all-or-nothing choice. If we return to a 40+-hour work week, we will never get back those sweet intimate moments lost with our babies. But since childbearing years coincide so neatly with career-building years, should we opt out of our careers for a time, the professional momentum lost may never be recovered. Since I started writing this play, we have not joined most of the rest of the developed world in offering true maternity leave, or subsidized daycare. Healthcare is in a better place, though, and that is not insignificant. The increasing importance of entrepreneurship in our economy has has the potential to free parents to live and work on their own terms.
SLT: How has LeapFest affected the play?
ALINE: Leapfest is an amazing luxury for a playwright because we have the opportunity to rewrite as much as we need to while also seeing the play with staging and design elements. In this play of short, overlapping scenes, staging is really important in understanding the story. This process has helped me better understand and refine the way that all the scenes feed into each other. The rehearsal process has helped me reshape the play, which is to say I took it apart and put it back together again. Audience feedback at the first public reading helped me focus, and I hope find a solution for, an underdeveloped relationship that has been bothering since the beginning. And we still have two performances left, so those adventure and the revisions they may inspire still lie ahead.
SLT: What questions do you want the audience to be left with after the play is over?
ALINE: Very little for me is black and white. I see mostly gray, so I hope the audience will be thrust into my gray space with all the questions that live there. For example:
What would I do? Or how did the choices I made affect my life, my relationships, and the way I see myself?Have I judged mothers for their choices? Or have I judged myself? Was it fair?
Since the characters in this play are relatively privileged, how do their struggles inform the challenges of parents with significantly fewer options?
How can we do better for all parents and babies?
…And Eat It Too performs Saturday, July 16th @ 2pm, Wednesday, July 20th @ 7:30pm at Theater Wit.
Join us for free reading of
by Andrew Kramer
directed by Lauren Shouse
Monday, January 18th @ 7:30pm
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
currently being work-shopped through one of our Downstage Left Residencies.
Ben and Gideon are a white couple who have purchased a repo house in a historically black neighborhood with the hopes of renovating it into their new home. When Ben hires Rueben, a young black boy in the neighborhood, to do the yard work, Gideon becomes alarmed by the racial, sexual, and social implications that accompany this seemingly simple action. Exploring gentrification from a uniquely queer perspective, St. Sebastian asks questions about the ways we confront race, privilege, white guilt, and domestic paranoia in our volatile contemporary America.
Featuring: Patrick Agada, David Besky, Ian McLaren*
*Stage Left Ensemble member
Meridith Freidman’s play The Firestorm was developed in part at Stage Left through a Downstage Left Playwright Residency and also in our 2014 installment of LeapFest. We are currently presenting it as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. The Firestorm runs through November 29th.
SLT: What was the inspiration for this play?
MF: There were various points of inspiration for The Firestorm that came to me at different stages of the process. I think one of the first articles I read that planted the seed for this idea was about interracial marriages in politics. Despite the fact that interracial marriage is on the rise, it’s still a rarity on the campaign trail. There are only a few high profile politicians with spouses of a different race. I read commentary about Obama’s campaign (in 2008) and speculation over whether he would have won if he were married to a spouse of a different race. Shortly after I started writing the play, De Blasio ran for Mayor of New York (where I live), and there was a lot of media coverage surrounding his family, particularly his interracial marriage. I conducted about three months of interviews with political advisors, men and women in interracial relationships, and women who shared aspects of Gaby’s background and/or experiences (Gaby is the female lead in the play). Our conversations covered a range of topics including the role of a spouse in campaigning, how to recover following a scandal, the kind of racism (both overt and covert) that is encountered when navigating mostly white institutions, and the complexities that interracial couples face (both from the public and each other). The people I spoke with were incredibly generous and forthcoming about their very personal experiences, and those conversations laid the groundwork for the story and characters I ultimately created.
SLT: Would you characterize this play as a comedy or tragedy or something else – and why?
MF: I suppose “something else.” I love comedy that arises at seemingly inappropriate moments. I like plays that elicit intensely different emotional responses in close succession. I think of “dramedy” as a TV word, but I suppose that suits The Firestorm–a drama with comedic elements. It drops Gaby and Patrick (the couple at the center of the title’s firestorm) in a situation that pushes them both to act from the most instinctual part of their psyches. I think when you strip away niceties and civility, what lies underneath can be very ugly but also surprisingly beautiful. I hope The Firestorm vacillates between both extremes.
SLT: In nearly all versions of the script, it is kept somewhat ambiguous whether Patrick and Gaby stay together after the play ends. Have you ever had a clear idea for what happens to their relationship after the events of the play? Has that idea changed as the play has gone through revisions?
MF: It’s definitely changed as the play has gone through revisions, mainly because I started to really root for their relationship. When I started writing the play I was sure they would split up at the end–and that definitely influenced where they started from at the beginning of the play. I think in early drafts it was pretty clear they were doomed from the start. As a result, their journey as a couple wasn’t particularly remarkable–you sensed it wouldn’t work and then it didn’t work. It became a stronger journey (for me to write, and I think audiences to watch) when I stopped approaching their relationship with cynicism. The challenges Gaby and Patrick encounter in the play become more complex and interesting when you believe in their relationship and their love for each other. I’m not sure what happens to their marriage after the play–I do enjoy hearing audiences debate it. Some people view the ending as hopeful; others view it as a goodbye. I suppose I fall on the side of hopeful.
SLT: This is the second leg of a NNPN Rolling World Premiere. How does that affect your process? What did you learn about the play in Dallas? What are you still learning?
MF: I kind of feel like you don’t really know how (and if) a play works until you see it in production. You can definitely learn a lot from readings and workshops, but until all of the elements come together (set, costumes, light, staging) you really don’t know what you are working with–readings can cover up a lot of bumps, particularly when it comes to pacing and transitions. Kitchen Dog Theatre in Dallas assembled a whip-smart artistic team and created a production that truly served the play. I was able to see exactly what I had written, which allowed me to see (and hear) what I hadn’t written. So much of a play lives inside your head when you are writing it…sometimes you don’t realize what hasn’t made it onto the page and is still up in your head. I realized there were quite a few places in the play I needed to dig into–dig deeper. Find the next layer of honesty. That’s what I’ve been focused on with this next production at Stage Left. Once again, I’m surrounded by a group of terrific artists who are interested and invested in finding the truth in each moment. Before we started rehearsals at Stage Left, I spent about two months working closely with Drew and Jordan (the director and dramaturg of The Firestorm at Stage Left) on revising the script. A lot of our work was aimed at continuing to flesh out each character, and deepen the complexity of their motivations. In rehearsal, my re-writes have been focused on strengthening how we get from moment to moment. My goal, as a playwright, is always for my hand to disappear; for the play to move seamlessly without it feeling like the playwright is manipulating the story (through unmotivated character turns or jarring transitions). Actors are great barometers of emotional honesty, and will be the first to tell you if they don’t believe what they are saying. My favorite part of working with actors is that I feel like I get to meet my characters. They become autonomous. I can suddenly talk to them and ask them questions–I’m no longer in exclusive control of their emotional life and motivations.
SLT: How has the experience of creating this play altered your view of the world?
MF: I believe that theatre is the practice of empathy. The act of attempting to step into someone else’s circumstance and understand his or her story. You can’t ever truly step into an experience you haven’t lived, but I think the act of trying (if it’s an honest effort that involves sincere inquiry) is a worthy endeavor. While researching this play, and throughout the three-year development process with many different casts and artists, it became clear to me that, as a white woman, I can’t participate in an open and frank conversation about race without acknowledging, understanding, and owning up to my own ignorance and privilege. So much of my role throughout this process has been one of observer and listener. I’ve realized that in order to truly be receptive to another viewpoint, you have to be willing to surrender your defenses. You have to be willing to stand corrected, to learn, and grow. While I realized this in the context of conversations about race, it’s extended to other areas of my life. My lifelong goal is to rid myself of ego (yep, I’m that girl who makes New Year’s resolutions that are delusional and unobtainable).
We cordially invite you to join Stage Left Theatre as we kick off Season 34 and present the 4th annual Hallie Flanagan Award to David Schmitz!
Stage Left is very excited to celebrate 33 years of art that sparks debate, and we are so honored to celebrate these achievements with our community at this year’s benefit! Emcee Greg Werstler will take guests though an evening of live music, appetizers, drinks and laughter as you try your luck to win fabulous raffle prizes. Make sure to bring your pocketbook, because this year’s auction is overflowing with a spectacular selection from local supporters.
Monday, September 21, 7-10pm
at Lillsteet Loft, 4437 N Ravenswood Ave
Stage Left presents the 4th annual Hallie Flanagan Award to:
David Schmitz , Managing Director of Steppenwolf Theatre, Emertius ensemble member of Stage Left Theatre
for his years of dedicated service to the Chicago Theatre community.
David Schmitz is the Managing Director of Steppenwolf Theatre, where he has worked for nearly 10 years. Prior to working at Steppenwolf, Schmitz was the General Manager at Lookingglass Theatre Company, and Associate Artistic Director of Stage Left Theatre. Currently, he serves as Vice President of the Board for The House Theatre of Chicago, is a former board member for 500 Clown and the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, and the founder of the Chicago Community Golf Scramble. Schmitz has provided invaluable strategic planning, business practices, finance and hiring consulting for numerous Chicago organizations, including The House Theatre of Chicago, The Hypocrites and Stage Left Theatre, among others.
The Hallie Flanagan Award celebrates significant contributions to artwork that illuminates the social and political aspects of the human condition. Hallie Flanagan (1890-1969) was an American theatrical producer and director, playwright, and author. She is best known as director of the Federal Theatre Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Depression.
Adventurous auction items!
Get a jump on your Christmas shopping, invest in your business, find the perfect gift for newly weds, or splurge for yourself with great deals on many exciting items in our silent auction. Here are just a few of our favorites:
- Savor the seas with a private sailing party for 6-8 people aboard the renowned racing boat Painkiller 4
- Enjoy a day of fun and team-building skills for up to 20 people in your organization with the professionals at ComedySportz!
- Surrender your clutter to 2-hours of customized organization from Arranging Order, either at home or in your office!
- Host an elegant wine and cheese reception for up to 30 people at Jennifer Norback Fine Art gallery downtown.
- 8 hours of personally-tailored landscaping design to be drawn up and rendered to scale
- Experience the thrill of freefall skydiving and and the serenity of parachute flight with a tandem jump from Skydive Milwaukee.
Plus a wide assortment of theater tickets, culinary experiences, gaming and more!
From a fall DSL Residency to LeapFest XII, The Bottle Tree has had an exciting season of development at Stage Left. We talked to playwright Beth Kander her about the process and about her recent relocation to Chicago from Mississippi.
SLT: Where did the inspiration for The Bottle Tree come from?
Beth: The Bottle Tree brings together several ideas that had been haunting me for some time. I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story that was as much about society as about a single struggling protagonist. I have many friends and family members who are proud gun owners, and I decided awhile back that I wanted to write a play about gun violence in America that didn’t flat-out demonize gun owners. I wanted to write something instead that could appeal to a wider audience, while raising really hard questions. Finally, it has always made me angry that long after a school shooting, I almost always remembered the names of the gunman or gunmen, but not the victims.
The Bottle Tree is my attempt to address all of that… hopefully while also creating characters people love, and making audiences laugh a lot more than they would have guessed. (There are a lot of funny moments in this play, I promise! And it’s 100% okay to laugh at them! It’s part of the goal of the show, even if marketing “a play about school shootings that’ll make you laugh out loud” is kind of tricky…)
SLT: The issue of mass shootings is one that has generated a lot of discussion and a lot of art in recent years. How does The Bottle Tree engage with these themes in a way that audiences may not have seen before?
Beth: I think there are a few things that make this exploration of mass shootings unique. First, it was really important to me that this play be about a shooting—but not about the shooter. The scenes all take place around the tragedy, but not during it; we see the ripple effects years after the incident, and a few foreshadowing past-scenes about what led up to it, but no glory is given to the act itself. Second, this play has an atmospheric context, through the old-South character of maternal, protective Myrna and the messages she passes on to the younger generations. It’s about a universal issue – school shootings are certainly not a uniquely “Southern problem – but it’s a very specific setting. Lastly, this is very much a story about people, not just an issue. The people in this story are positioned in the midst of a hotbed political issue, but at its heart, it’s still a coming-of-age and awkwardness-of-adolescence story, a family story; the relatable, sympathetic “smaller stakes” are as critical as the big ones throughout the play.
SLT: You recently moved to Chicago from Mississippi, and still divide your time between here and there. Do Chicago audiences have a lot of misconceptions about the south? What do you think audiences should know that they don’t?
Beth: It’s funny—I often remark that half the people I hang out with in Chicago are ex-pat Southerners. (True story.) That is, of course, a very self-selected subset of Southerners: those who choose to leave. In some ways, Chicago and the Deep South are worlds apart. There is more of a sense of regional identity, of place and family and rootedness in the South than in Chicago—or just about any metropolitan center full of transplants, I’d bet. There is also a much stronger sense of the past. But there are also parallels between here and there. Big issues like race and gun control are more surfaced in the South but certainly not foreign in Chicago.
I think one misconception that Chicago audiences might have is that there is a lack of self-awareness down South. Whether they want to change the perceptions Northerners have of the South, or whether they have no interest in doing so, Southerners are very aware of how the rest of the nation sees them, talk about them, and depicts them. And there’s a protectiveness, even among those of us who lived as blue dots floating in the red sea. The South itself is like family: if you have a sister who drives you up the wall, YOU can call her crazy but if anyone else does they’re gonna get an earful. I feel the same way about Mississippi. I constantly complain about the politics and proverbial foot-shooting in the state, but if you’ve never lived there, you best tread carefully before trashing my sister.
SLT: The play went through extensive workshopping as part of the Downstage Left Playwright Residency last fall, and now has gone through the LeapFest process. How have those processes affected you and the play?
Beth: I submitted The Bottle Tree draft #1 along with my Downstage Left application almost a year and a half ago. I’m now on draft #13. Characters have come and gone. Risks have been taken, some resulting in great moments and some resulting in the next round of big ol’ re-writes (did I mention draft THIRTEEN?!). The residency and this festival process have both been exhilarating, exhausting, and absolute gifts. I’m grateful to the entire Stage Left team, especially dramaturg Annaliese McSweeney and director Amy Szerlong, who stuck with this script through the residency and then through Leapfest. This past year has made this play a much stronger piece, and one I’m thrilled to be sharing with Leapfest audiences. Of course, I’m sure the workshop performances will lead to at least a few more rewrites. But I’m going to stop confessing to them after Draft #14. Fifteen, tops.
The final LeapFest performance of The Bottle Tree is Tuesday, July 28th at 7:30pm.