Stage Left Theatre Blog
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.
Kristiana Colón’s play good friday is now appearing in LeapFest XII. The play tells the story of a shooting that takes place on a college campus. We asked Kristiana some questions about the play and its unusual path to LeapFest.
SLT: Where did the inspiration for good friday come from?
KRISTIANA: good friday is a reimagining of my 2009 play the darkest pit which takes place in a college classroom as a school shooting is unfolding. The initial constraint of the play was to write something that could be performed by all college students with an all-female cast, and I was interested in jarring audience expectations of the realm of woman-centric storytelling. I explore how all-female spaces are unique in situations of crisis and extreme violence.
SLT: the darkest pit was produced in Chicago in 2009. Tell as a little about that experience.
KRISTIANA: the darkest pit was my Master’s thesis project at SAIC under the mentorship of Beau O’Reilly and I was fortunate to have Stefan Brün, artistic director of Prop Thtr, on my crit panel. Stefan was immediately enthusiastic about the play and offered to produce it at Prop the following fall. This was an amazing opportunity to look forward to right out of grad school and I was incredibly grateful to have my first production with Stefan at Prop. I was first introduced to the theatre while developing the early work of Idris Goodwin, my mentor and poetry slam coach who first encouraged me to tread into playwriting.
SLT: What made you want to revisit it and go back into the development process? How have you and society changed since 2009? What effect has this had on the play?
KRISTIANA: Since producing the darkest pit, I’ve written a number of other plays that have had many in-depth development processes and workshops, and as my writing has matured, I appreciate that writing is rewriting. Because such an early draft of the darkest pit went into production, I was excited about putting it through the paces with a process like LeapFest. The play also mines the role of technology and social media in amplifying or deconstructing acts of violence; how blogging, independent media, and Twitter shape social justice issues has exponentially evolved since 2009, and I wanted revisit the world of the darkest pit with an eye toward updating that element for 2015.
SLT: What do you want the audience to be thinking about, and asking themselves, after seeing the performance?
KRISTIANA: LeapFest has paired me with a stellar artistic team and the resources to overhaul the darkest pit. While the action of the play is largely the same, it’s about 95% new text and from that the new title good friday emerged. Like all my work, good friday aims to challenge audiences to have critical dialogues about systems of oppression and provoke radical visions for change.
good friday performs Saturday 7/18 @ 2pm and Friday, 7/24 @ 7:30pm.
NY based playwright Jeff Tabnick is in Chicago this week working on Love in the Time of Bumblehive, which is now appearing in LeapFest XII. Bumblehive is about a comedy a jealous husband who abuses his position at the NSA to spy on his wife.
SLT: Where did the inspiration for Love In The Time Of Bumblehive come from?
JEFF: Ah the spring of 2013. I remember it well. The Snowden revelations, the Boston Marathon bombing—a good time to not be from planet Earth. On the one hand we learned that the NSA was collecting all of our metadata. And at the same time this terrible thing happened in Boston that no amount of spying helped anyone anticipate. In the chasm between these two events, this play popped out.
SLT: A lot of stories about government surveillance and privacy issues take the form of dark dramas or paranoid thrillers, but Bumblehive is a wacky comedy about dysfunctional relationships. Why did you choose that form, and how do you think it affects the story you’re telling and the issues you’re discussing?
JEFF: This is a play about the NSA. The NSA has this hugely expensive domestic surveillance program that hasn’t shown any results. That’s comical. And this is also a play about how we construct our own identities and present these identities to the world. Again, pretty funny stuff. And finally it’s a play about how being watched by the government affects our behavior, if it affects our behavior at all. Isn’t it amusing that we share so much about ourselves online and with companies when we shop online, but the moment the government is watching us, we’re all up in arms? So I guess this was always going to be a comedy. There are plenty of subjects worthy of tragedy in this world. I think identity plays should always be comedies. Hell, even Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is funny.
SLT: What do you want audiences to be thinking about when they leave the show? What questions should they be asking?
JEFF: Whether the threat of being watched impedes how they behave. Does the threat of being spied on make people act more conservatively? Does it make people less likely to explore the darker realms of themselves? And whether this is even a problem. I’d also like them to consider the possibility that they want to be watched. That they like being watched. That it’s part of the human condition to be watched.
I think a lot of people who will come to this play already agree that the NSA has trampled on civil liberties. I’d like them to leave this play thinking that we (the American public) might be seriously implicated in these transgressions.
SLT: How has the LeapFest process affected the play?
JEFF: I couldn’t ask for a more talented and dedicated director, assistant director and cast. LeapFest gave us all the time to explore the play beat by beat. A lot of the work in the first half was about how much set-up is necessary. The play is absurd, but there needs to be an underpinning of logic. And yet spending too much time explaining that logic tends to bog the play down. There’s a balance we’re striving for. And in the second half, we really investigated how absurd the events of the play could get. We reach a level of absurdity that I hadn’t anticipated—and love.
LeapFest XII starts in less than one week with Evan Linder’s play Byhalia, Mississippi, which tells the story of Jim and Laurel, a Southern couple faced with the biggest challenge of their lives when Laurel gives birth to a black baby boy, the result of an affair the previous year. We pulled him away from rewrites for a few quick questions
SLT: What was the inspiration for Byhalia, Mississippi?
EVAN: The first reading of Byhalia (BYE HALE YUH… don’t be scared of it. You can do it.) occurred before marriage equality had taken effect in Illinois. I was writing this play to see if I even believed in this right that so many of us were fighting for. I did not understand why marriage was important to the generation least interested in actually getting married than any other in our country’s history. If “traditional marriage” was being exposed as just a political buzzword, was the concept of a “successful marriage” a fallacy as well? And even if there was such a thing, I knew the “successful marriage” I wanted to write would be as messy, complicated and unconventional as possible.
I also knew as a Southerner that my red-state play was on the horizon. I was raised in Collierville, TN just ten miles north of Byhalia, and one thing stuck out to me as a ten-year old who constantly owed his allowance to the library for overdue plays: portrayals of Southerners are often pretty appalling in the world of theater. It seemed that playwrights always found it easier to condescend rather than to tell the truth. I didn’t understand as I read as many plays as I could get my hands on who these people were supposed to be. And then of course, you get a little older and discover Beth Henley and things seem like they will be okay for awhile. But even (especially?) today, I felt there was a need for a play about the people who loved me first, written by someone who loved them back even if we only agree on two things: love each other and tell the truth. I wanted to create a play that could actually spark a conversation rather than preach to the secular humanist choir.
SLT: An excellent segue to our next question. Our mission is to raise debate on social and political issues. Tell us how your play fits that mission. What is the conversation Byhalia sparks?
EVAN: Byhalia explores how to create a world in which we see those around us as someone else’s child first before we see them as an “other”. The problem with creating that world is that no one wants to deal with any past mistakes in order to move forward. If all we want to do is love each other and tell the truth, what will it take for us to actually roll up our sleeves and start telling that truth? What can we forgive and what is unforgivable? To frame those questions in a setting as racially divided as where I grew up has been the challenge of Byhalia, both for me and the audiences who have heard it along the way to Leapfest.
SLT: How has the LeapFest process been helpful?
I was so excited for Leapfest as a way to see my finished play up on its feet for the first time. Finished play. I was finished. It was a finished play. (You know where this is going…)
I wasn’t finished at all. Stage Left put me in a room with a team who forced me to keep going, dig deeper and to write them something better. So the Leapfest process has been invaluable and also, for someone who was looking forward to the new season of True Detective and has not seen any of it, it has been extremely annoying. Leapfest: Invaluable and Annoying. I’ll make the t-shirts.
SLT: Don’t worry. We hear this season of TD is disappointing. What is next for you?
EVAN: I have several plays that are in some sort of developmental phase right now and am getting away for a week in July to the SWARM residency in Michigan to write some more. I’m also leading the second session of The New Colony’s Writers Room which begins this month as well. The Writers Room gets ten playwrights in a room and focuses on different tools to use when you have access to other writers while you write. It allows them to hear each other’s work and make personal connections to the stories being brought to the table.
I’m also loving everything about producing our newest world premiere at The New Colony that opens July 30th at The Den. It is called Stanley in the Name of Love and is a dance pop musical set in the world of gay porn that is written by Mr. Margaret Svetlove and directed by Sean Kelly who may or may not also be Mr. Margaret Svetlove.
Byhalia, Mississippi plays Monday, 7/13 @ 7:30pm; Saturday 7/25 @ 2pm; Wednesday, 7/29 @ 7:30pm
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
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.
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 B.A.in 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!
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 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!