Season 33

Stage Left Theatre Blog

Engage! How Playwriting is Like Star Trek

By Beth Kander

Full disclosure: I’m not a Trekkie. I am a nerd, but my primary nerd-niches are the universes of Dr. Who, Joss Whedon, and the X-Men. I do enjoy Star Trek, but I feel I need to make the distinction, out of respect for all the hard-core Trekkies out there (including my mother). I definitely understand the loyalty and passion of this fandom; a few years ago, I was in a book trailer for “Night of the Living Trekkies,” and got some firsthand insight into how much attention must be paid to detail.

Beth Kander in Night of the Living Trekkies

Beth Kander in Night of the Living Trekkies

With that critical clarification covered, and perhaps a bit of credibility established, let me tell you my favorite thing about Star Trek. Without a doubt, what makes Star Trek a creative beacon for me is the very mission of the starship Enterprise:

“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

That core mission actually reminds me a lot of playwriting. While there may be fewer aliens (or not, depending), the process of creating a new work for the stage absolutely demands exploring strange new worlds (or strange corners of the world we live in), seeking out new life and new civilizations (perhaps not in outer space, but from outer limits of one sort or another), and boldly going where no one has gone before (hopefully—or at the very least, boldly getting there in some new way).
And yeah. Sometimes it takes five years.

I was reminded of this parallel recently when I attended the reading of a brand new play. It was the first public reading of Gabriel Jason Dean’s new play Heartland. Gabriel Jason Dean is one of the two 2014-2015 Downstage Left resident playwrights with Stage Left Theatre; I’m the other lucky writer. During the talkback following the “Heartland” performance, this was the first question posed:
What is the moment when you were most engaged in this play?

In another jolt from the Star Trek universe, I immediately heard Patrick Stewart blaring a command in my head: “Engage!” Then, I focused on “Heartland,” and joined in the terrific discussion of Dean’s new play. As I took the train home after the reading, that question kept rattling around in my head.
What is the moment when you were most engaged in this play?

Figuring out when I am most engaged with a play as an audience member is one thing. But when am I most engaged in my own work, as a playwright?

Theater is a universe of its own. Its worlds are defined and strengthened by artistic collaboration. And yet, most plays begin in solitude. We writers scratch out an idea, a first scene, the shadow of a character we hope to fully realize. We begin exploring a strange new world, and trying to go where no one has gone before. But getting there is hard.

We need a crew.

I was nervous, and brand-new to Chicago, when I submitted an early, incomplete draft of my play The Bottle Tree to Stage Left Theatre. It was also critical to the success of my mission that I begin bringing others into the process of developing this script. The beauty of playwriting, unlike almost any other form of writing, is the collaborative call of the larger theater world. When a writer has enough scraps of something, the next step in our process is not to just power through and do this whole thing alone. It’s to find good partners. Partners willing to engage.

Stage Left Theatre has provided me with partners willing to do just that.

The Bottle Tree asks hard questions, and wrestles with complicated social issues around guns and gun violence. I needed a crew that was committed not only to theater, but also to honest storytelling around compelling topics. I am thankful that Stage Left, with their commitment to meaningful and socially-engaged works, saw my script as a fit for them—because they have certainly been a fit for me.

The Downstage Left residency has been a tremendously collaborative experience. The support and focused attention from the Stage Left team, particularly my director and dramaturg, Amy Szerlong and Annaliese McSweeney, made the development process extremely productive. The public reading provided a valuable opportunity for text exploration, actor insights, and great audience feedback.
That, it turns out, is the moment when I am most engaged in one of my own plays: when I am working with actors, directors, artists, and audiences to bring it to fully realized life.

That is how I can boldly go where no one has gone before: by flying the ship with others who are just as committed to exploring those strange new worlds.

That is our mission, as theater people: to be a brave and collaborative crew.

Thanks to the entire Stage Left Theatre team, for letting me fly with you.

Beth’s play The Bottle Tree will appear in LeapFest XII this July. 

Season Announcement Party

Please join Stage Left Theatre for our first ever Season Announcement Party at the beautiful new Paired Wine Company in the heart of Lakeview. Enjoy plenty of their delicious vino, light snacks, and a special tasting of four wines led by one of Paired’s wine experts. You can also enter our raffle to win an exciting Chicago Staycation and other prizes, and, most importantly, be the first to find out what our exciting 34th season has in store!

Monday, April 6 from 7-9:30pm
Paired Wine Company
3325 N Halsted

Tickets are $30. All proceeds will support programming for Season 34. 




Join us for free reading of

by Gabriel Jason Dean
directed by Elly Green

Saturday, March 21 @ 1:00pm
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

currently being work-shopped through one of our Downstage Left Residencies.

Dr. Harold Banks is a renowned professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. When an Afghan refugee named Nazrul suddenly arrives at his doorstep claiming to know his daughter, Greta– a foreign aid worker who was killed in a Taliban attack–the two men spend the next few months as unlikely roommates. Based on true events, Heartland unfolds as an emotional journey through love and loss, an examination of culpability and, ultimately, a meditation on the power of forgiveness. 

Featuring: Owais Ahmed, Don Bender and Rinska Carrasco

We cordially invite you to Paint the Night with Stage Left Theatre at our 33rd annual benefit. Having called Lakeview home since our inception, we are proud to present the 3rd annual Hallie Flanagan Award to Maureen Martino of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce and Heather Way Kitzes of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce for their continued dedication to the Lakeview community and the development of the Belmont Theatre District. This event will be a celebration of our company as well as the Lakeview community. 

Featuring a musical performance by JC Brooks of JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound!

Come for the fun—silent auction, food, vendors from Lakeview stores and great music.  Do not miss this great opportunity to support the arts and a great community as well as get a jump start on your Christmas shopping!

Monday, December 8, 7-10pm
at Roscoe’s, 3356 N. Halsted 

Stage Left presents the 3rd annual Hallie Flanagan Award to:

Maureen Martino of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce &
Heather Way Kitzes of the  Lakeview Chamber of Commerce

for their efforts in the creation of the Belmont Theater District.

Heather Way Kitzes is the the Executive Director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce; a position she has held since 2002. Prior to the Lakeview Chamber, she was the director of administration for a mulit-unit restaurant group based in Lakeview. During that time, she discovered her passion for business and community development. Heather studied Journalism and Art History at the University of Missouri-Columbia.  She sits on  many boards including the Lakeview Pantry, Inter-American Magnate School’s LSC and Serve Illinois: Governor Quinn’s Commission on Volunteerism and Service. Her claim to fame: she is a direct descendant of Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. 

Over the past twelve years, Maureen Martino has held the position of Executive Director for the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce and Special Service Area #8. Prior to her current position, she was employed fourteen years at the Chicago Tribune.Her passion for the arts inspired her to be the founder of the Lakeview East Festival of the Arts. Ms. Martino received her Business Administration from Concordia University . She is an active member of the 44th Ward Community Development Council and served on the City of Chicago’s Community Development and Economics Advisory Council during Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and former Mayor Daley administration. Maureen is currently working on new public art programs and is an active partner in the Belmont Theater District.

The Belmont Theater District is a collaboration between the Lakeview and Lakeview East Chambers of Commerce, SSAs #8 & #27, 14 theaters and 20 other local businesses.  Our mission is to act as an advocate to create, promote and strengthen the diverse artistic offerings of the Lakeview neighborhood to its residents and visitors.

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 and vendor items!

Get a jump on your Christmas shopping with great deals on many exciting items available in our silent auction and from in-house vendors. Here are just a few of our favorites:

  • Enjoy a private sailing party for 6-8 people aboard the renowned racing boat Painkiller 4. 
  • Treat yourself and up to 8 guests to an after-hours private party at your local Benefit Cosmetics Boutique. Wine and light appetizers will be served while beauty artists doll you up.
  • Explore the latest vegan beauty products with a three month subscription to Petit Vour’s montly curated box delivered right to your door.
  • Glass Can Dance will offer one of a kind stained and fused glass pieces. 
  • Steve Connell’s Chicago Night Paintings Series honors Chicago in all its after-dark glory. 
  • See a holiday ornament making exhibition from B&L Gallery.
  • 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, bowling, dance lessons, music and more!

Can’t make it?  Enter our 50/50 raffle!

You do not have to be present to win in our 50/50 raffle! Half goes to us and the other half goes to the lucky winner! We have never done this before, so we would be taking a wild guess to say how much the top prize will be, but we are shooting for $500 each (fingers crossed)! Tickets are $5 for 1, $10 for 3, or $21 for 7. Purchase online and we will fill out a ticket for each of your entries and put it in the bowl! We will have your contact info from the order from in case you win! 


The BottleTree

Join us for free reading of

The Bottle Tree  
by Beth Kander
directed by Amy Szerlong
dramaturgy by Annaliese McSweeney

Tuesday, November 18th @ 7:30pm
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

currently being work-shopped through one of our Downstage Left Residencies.

Years after a tragic school shooting, the small town of Maple, Mississippi, is still traumatized– no one more so than Alley, the sister of the shooter.  Young love, old guilt, laughter, and lingering scars all keep the girl, the town, and Alley’s “bottle tree” on the verge of shattering.

Featuring: Melissa Cline, Derek Czaplewski, Danny Dauphin, Joan Merlo, Meredith Montgomery, Melissa Reeves, Abbas Salem

Belarusian Dream Theater

Belarusian Dream Theater aims to increase awareness about contemporary Belarus through culture, storytelling, and theater. Led by Ensemble Free Theater Norway, the Belarusian Dream Theater consists of new works by international playwrights about Belarus to be presented simultaneously by partner – theaters in Europe, the United States, and Australia on 25 March 2014 – Belarusian Freedom Day.

Stage Left will premiere four short plays to represent Chicago in this international theater action supporting freedom of expression in Belarus. We hope you will join us!

“NO ONE GIVES A CLAP,” by Jake Rosenberg (directed by Amy Szerlong).

“ALENA’S BOY,” by Anna J. Rogers (directed by Amy Szerlong).

“UNDER PROTEST,” by David L. Williams (directed by Michael Manocchio).

“SEE HIM?,” by Jacon Juntunen (directed by Kate Leslie).

Running time: about one hour
@ Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont
Tuesday, March 25th @ 7:30pm
Admission is FREE! 

The Comparables

Join us for a free reading of 

The Comparables
by Laura Schellhardt
directed by Devon DeMayo

Monday, November 11th @ 7:30pm
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont 

featuring Lucy Carapetyan, Kimberly Logan and Mary Poole 

currently being work-shopped through one of our Downstage Left Residencies.

Three women vie for power in the cut-throat world of high-end real estate. Bette runs her own female-dominated agency. Monica is her loyal second-in-command. Iris is the savvy new hire. When Bette’s reputation falls under attack, the future of the agency is at stake. Who, if anyone, will survive the ordeal, and to what lengths will they go to ensure success?  A dark comedy that begs the question: for women in the competitive world — is there more than one way to do business?

Behind the Curtain

Our 2013 Benefit!

Before a play ever gets to the stage, actors, designers, directors, dramaturgs, and other artists put in hours of effort creating the look and feel of the show. Have you ever wanted to know how that work gets done? What the steps that lead to a full show look like? What a dramaturg is?

Or do you just want to have a good time with the people who do this work?

Then, come join us Behind the Curtain for drinks, delicious food, a silent auction, and a look at the research, designs, and other parts of the process that creates the shows we put on.

Featuring sneak previews of Stage Left Theatre’s upcoming shows: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Principal Principle.

Friday, November 15, 2013
7pm – 10pm
at the Jackson Junge Gallery 
1389 N. Milwaukee Ave.              

Buy Tickets


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Also at this event, Stage Left will present the 2nd annual Hallie Flanagan Award to 

Matthew Groch and Kevin Phillippi

Matt joined Stage Left’s board in 2006 , became Treasurer in 2008 and President in 2009 when he brought Kevin in as Treasurer.  What followed was a period of intense transition for Stage Left, including turnover of much of the ensemble, both the Managing and Artistic Directors, and a move from the company’s home of 15 years. Matt and Kevin were instrumental in navigating the transition to our current home as a resident at Theater Wit and in restructuring the company to meet new challenges in this situation.  Their considerable contributions were invaluable to the continued success of Stage Left.  


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. 



Behind the Curtain save the dateHelp us celebrate our 32nd season!

Please join Stage Left Theatre for a fun night of food, drinks, a silent auction, and great company!  Hope you can make it!

When: Friday, November 15, 2013
Where: Jackson Junge Gallery
1389 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
Time: 7:00 pm

RABBIT — The Wet Run

Most of of Rabbit takes place in a bar. And the characters are drinking.  A lot.  Shortly before we moved out of the rehearsal room and into Theater Wit, director Elly Green suggested that the actors try to run the show with real booze instead of water.  Here is what she had to say about it:

Rehearsals and drinking: do the first before the second, as a general rule.

And when it comes to ‘drunk acting’, I’m pretty hard line about it. Don’t. Just don’t.

So when the characters in the play are consuming large amounts of alcohol, how do you help to take this into account in the playing of it? I have told the cast of Rabbit several times during our rehearsal process to trust Raine’s writing. The effects of alcohol consumption are absolutely in the text, both in terms of content and tone. It’s written beautifully to capture the giddiness, belligerence and emotional instability of increasing drunkenness. And I still hold to that. So when I suggested a ‘wet run’ it was more to give them an opportunity to ‘feel’ the play out this way, than for me as a director. However, discoveries were made, and now I’m certainly a convert.

One of the actors afterwards remarked on the ‘volatility’ that actual intoxication induced, and from the outside, I was amazed at how many brave and new decisions were made, and how much freedom the actors seemed to gain. Obviously, we are not talking about a line perfect run, but the messiness and unpredictability was useful. Emboldened with a couple glasses of wine (not to mention the tequila shots) they were playing their actions and the stakes with both intensity and abandon. And the result was dynamic, immediate and often upsetting. As an audience member, I’ve rarely felt so much ‘in the room’ with the characters with the sense that ‘anything might happen’.

I also enjoy crying with laughter. It’s a cheap form of therapy. 

–Elly Green, director of Rabbit

Dennis William Grimes, who plays Richard in Rabbit, offers a perspective from inside of the “wet run”

It isn’t often that you find yourself writing about a specific rehearsal, but then again, one isn’t always trying to drink alcohol at pace with one’s character. When discussing our “wet-run” with people outside of our production I have met both curiosity and derision — couldn’t we just use our imaginations, isn’t it a little childish, dangerous even? Honestly though, I am compelled not to write about an experience of rehearsing a play while becoming inebriated, but rather about finding out what happens when things get messy and unpredictable. What happens when a group of people, who trust each other enough to try an experiment, fight through the giggles, drive through the slip ups, and find something productive in play.

It isn’t always easy to walk into a rehearsal with abandon. Habituation and safety often keep us from trying to follow an impulse or destroy what has come before, because we cling to ideas like “this isn’t right”, “what is the right thing to do?”, “I want to do what feels right for this character, moment, etc.” As people (and I make a gross sweeping generalization here) we like the feeling of safety that comes with certainty. As performing artists we are taught and witness the power of that knife’s edge of uncertainty, where expectations are set up and destroyed, leaving mystery and wonder in the wake.  How we get there while executing the same actions and path every night is a wonder in its own right.  So we throw things at the wall, play around and see what comes out on the other side.

A little before we moved out of the rehearsal hall and before we moved into tech, our director opened up to us an opportunity to drink as our characters do in the play, both as something fun to do in creating our company history, and as a way to see what things might come out of such an experiment. What came out of this experiment has still left me wondering. This was not a rehearsal where everyone was dropped in, we had plenty of times where the laughter of watching one or more of our partners lose it, ground the progress of the play to a halt, but there were powerful moments where impulses were followed and things touched more personally than they might have otherwise.

This is not advocacy for using chemicals to unlock one’s artistry, but if you can be on both sides — being in the event and attempting to see it for what it is — something telling about the messy and ugly emerges. Our cast is a group of very nice people.  We are kind and, as Elly likes to point out, happily “round the edges”, because naturally being cruel, or ugly, or downright mean, is something that we are encouraged not to do in our society and art form. This run gave us a little license to go to the sharper places, the messier places of  “I’m not going to be where you expect me to be”, and “I can’t and won’t react-the way you expect me to react,” because I am not thinking about it in those seconds beforehand. I’m making it up and mostly failing, but with smiles and laughter of all of the people around us. We became emphatic and uncaring, focused and distracted, listened with great intention and broken out of the play, but mostly lost in the fun of playing with each other. Most of what came out is unusable, but some of it was gold, that shifted our story and storytelling to a place at which it might not have arrived.

We all have the ability to play with this abandon without the booze and often do.  That night, we became adults with childlike eyes again, giving ourselves permission to always play the carefree and seek out that which is messy and unknown. Choosing to be “wet” allowed us to all fall down, fail, find the surprise, the wonder, seeing the joy and pain it could bring to us to be ugly and let it all hang out.

–Dennis William Grimes, Richard in Rabbit


Sometimes It’s Nice to Be Wrong

I was thrilled when I got a mid-winter phone call from Vance Smith, letting my know that my play, Agreed Upon Fictions, had been selected to be part of Stage Left’s 2012 LeapFest. Prior to its submission, the play had sat untouched for about a year—it was, at 109 pages, finished, but what to do with it?

The play’s director, Megan, asked me, at our first meeting, what elements would be most important to me as we prepared for the workshop. “It’s really pretty much finished,” I told her. “I anticipate rewording some things, cutting or adding a line or two, little things. But I’m happy with it. The most important thing to me will be to have actors who are extremely comfortable with the words. It’s very close to finished,” I reiterated. She let me think I was right.

My first inkling that I was wrong came over the course of our two-day audition process. Actors came in who had prepared—they knew what they were reading. As the hours passed, one scene in particular got worse and worse—not the performances, the pages. As I listened to them over and over, performed by people who had spent time trying to connect the emotional dots, it became quite clear that the connections weren’t there. I hadn’t built the road I thought I had, and it took me multiple hearings to recognize it. Returning home after auditions were over, I emailed Megan: Make no copies. Print nothing. I have to fix that scene.

Thus began the three-month process of questioning, wondering, listening, and trusting. Rehearsal revealed to me how much can be cut when one is blessed with focused, thoughtful actors and a dedicated director. Turns out you don’t need to say something twice for the audience to pick it up. You might not even need to say it once.

Megan is fiercely intelligent and very intuitive, and she has a sweet-faced way of letting you think your work is done, all the while plotting a way to get you to see that it’s not. Our working draft was 109 pages and the play now stands at 94. Here’s the thing: We added two scenes. Factoring in the roughly 6 new pages of writing, I cut 21 pages. The play is tighter, more intense and more gripping than I ever could have made it on my own. Stage Left loves writers, and they work to surround us with actors and staff who will serve the pages. I thought up a story, and I wrote it down. Megan, Katie, Laura, Ed, Lindsey, Malcolm, Howard, Kyle and I got together and made a play.

-Shayne Kennedy, author of Agreed Upon Fictions, which was part of LeapFest 9

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