Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
My friend Brian asked me to name 15 theatrical experiences that are always going to stick with me, either as a participant or an observer. He also asked that I not take too long to think about it, but I discovered halfway through the writing of this entry that making this request of me was folly. I’m not ranking anything, per se, but there’s so much detail wrapped up in my memories of these productions that it’s taking me incredible restraint not to write small novels on each of them.
I feel incredibly fortunate to know that I’m not going to be mentioning at least twice that number beyond this list.
(When this entry pops up as a Note on Facebook, I’m likely going to be tagging a handful of you asking you to name your own. You are so warned.)
In no particular order:
1) Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (The Neo-Futurists). I’m including here both my first viewing of the show in 1995 and the first time I performed as part of the ensemble in 2004. A show that forced me to examine the walls of the art form by taking a sledgehammer to those walls. It has made me a better writer, performer, director, ensemble player, and administrator–it’s not so much that the show and the company defined me as they showed me the dictionary and then told me to define myself.
2) The Permanent Way (New Leaf Theatre at the Lincoln Park Cultural Center, 2007). My gold standard for ensemble performance–any troupe I work within for the rest of my life is always going to end up compared to my experience working within this diverse and insanely talented group of nine men and women. I accidentally ended up in this show almost solely by virtue of having cultivated a competent Scots dialect that I otherwise would never have been called upon to utilize, which remains to me an object lesson in remembering that anything you know how to do is potentially exactly what you will need.
3) Master Harold…and the Boys (Downers Grove North High School, 1994). This searing three-character Athol Fugard drama, about the day an amicable relationship between a privileged white Afrikaner and his two black South African servants irrevocably broke, was more difficult and harrowing than anything I’d seen a high school theater department tackle before or since. I worked the stage crew for this production, which included a gorgeous prologue of South African poetry and spirituals performed by members of our chamber choir. In every sense of the word, it was transcendent.
4) The Old Neighborhood (Booth Theater, 1997). A mournful David Mamet triptych that was the only production I managed to see on my sole trip to New York City, starring Animal House’s Peter Riegert as ubiquitous Mamet character Bobby Gould and Broadway legend Patti LuPone as his sister Jolly. There are specific parts of this play and this production that stick with me, but nothing quite so much as the experience of seeing anything on Broadway…even a spare drama such as this one.
5) The Weir (Signal Ensemble Theatre at The Chopin Theater, 2007). My first exposure to the work of Conor McPherson, who has taught me as much about the sheer power of simple storytelling as any playwright I’ve read, was through this stellar Signal production. It’s four people telling ghost stories in a bar. That’s what the play is. Four people telling ghost stories in a bar. It was riveting, affecting, funny as hell, immaculately set and performed. It’s the sort of production that reminds you why people started going to the theater in the first place.
6) Assassins (1998). A group on my college campus performed this controversial Sondheim musical in a church sanctuary. It was not my first Sondheim–that would be Sweeney Todd, from a few years earlier–but this was the first of his work to make me understand his mastery as an artist and an observer of society; it is as such my favorite of his canon. The pitch-black thesis about America as a nation so great that anybody can be its President and yet so twisted that anybody else can grow up to assassinate that president is profound enough on its own; to also include such a challenging and memorable group of songs to accompany that thesis is an embarrassment of riches.
7) Slastic (El Tricicle at the Hasty Pudding Theater, 1994). El Tricicle is a Spanish clown trio who I saw long before I knew the breadth and variety to be found in clowning, before I even knew I was watching clown. This hourlong performance, which took aim at professional sports and its marketing, featured only the titular word as text, which was used most often as a brand name for a variety of exciting and ultimately useless athletic products. I was in Cambridge that summer taking classes in the interpretation and performance of Chekhov, but I think for as much as those classes refined skills I’d already explored, Slastic was something that completely altered my perspective on performance altogether.
8) Threads, or Shooting The Moon (Krannert Center Student Association in the Krannert Center Amphitheatre, 1997). I don’t direct very often; it’s not that I can’t so much as I don’t particularly enjoy being in that chair all by myself. I often enjoy the discoveries that take place as a director, but I can often experience them more comfortably as an actor or playwright, so I tend to pursue those avenues instead. This short drama was the first piece I’d ever directed, and for as satisfying as the final product turned out, what I most remember was the evening, working with one theater major and two non-actors who’d auditioned just to try something new, when we improvised a handful of scenes in the lives of the characters and discovered that the male lead and his female friend had a relationship much deeper and more intimate than he had with his own wife.
9) Ka (Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand, 2006). Dana and I chose to see this of the 70-odd Cirque Du Soleil productions playing in Las Vegas while we were there on our honeymoon, in part because we’re also both martial arts fans and Ka was built around such Asian influences. More plot-heavy than what I’m told is usual for a Cirque production–and that plot not always comprehensible–we were nonetheless completely enthralled with the gravity-defying aesthetics, in which every set piece seemed suspended over an empty void, and from which the colorful, dynamic characters would emerge and be thrown back into with unpredictable and alarming speed.
10) How Gertrude Stormed The Philosopher’s Club (Fury Theater at the side project, 2003). My, oh my. The scrappiest, most DIY-labor-of-nothing-but-love production of which I’ve ever been a part. Five people producing a little-known one-act play about pretentious faux philosophers, homicidal waiters, and a softball playing housewife capable of transforming the men around her into lovesick beasts…at 11:00 at night…in a space the size of a shoebox…in a part of the city most people would not venture into after dark. We had a total audience for the entire run of perhaps ten people and we still attacked that play as if all of these circumstances were different.
11) You Can Find Your Own Way Out (Armory Free Theatre, 1999). Not my first written or produced play–that would be 1997’s A Greater Gravity–but the first time I was in a position to announce myself as an actual playwright. This show, comprised of six short, peripherally interlocking plays I’d written after my above noted trip to New York City, was the first Big Project of my Adult Career. Of the collection, I’d only consider two or three to be worthy of ever being produced again, but that’s not really the point, here. The first airplane only flew for a few seconds, but it was still the first airplane.
12) Leviticus 18 (The Hypocrites at Angel Island Theater, 2002). The Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Festival, Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s annual three-day smorgasbord of theatrical entertainment, is delightful in part because it is a mixed bag of the astounding and the amateurish, of young companies destined for greater things and those destined to fall apart after the summer. The 2002 festival, at which I was also first introduced to the work of New Leaf Theatre and of Signal’s artistic director/resident playwright Ronan Marra, included this side-splitting short piece by The Hypocrites, then themselves a few years from becoming known as one of Chicago’s most reliable and interesting storefront companies. As the title suggests, this was merely an interpretation from a passage in the Book of Leviticus (the program listed the author as “God”); however, the passage being interpreted was from a badly translated version of the German text, and was delivered by a chorus of farcical German nuns–one of whom was a man in drag, and the rest of whom were too coquettish to be taken seriously as true brides of Christ. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen onstage, ever.
13) Equus (Armory Free Theatre, 1998) I’ve had maybe a half-dozen formal acting teachers in my life; with all respect to the other five, Ginny Sims was the best of them and if I were a better human being I wouldn’t have allowed the connection we used to have to lapse and decay. This production, in which she was magnetic in a supporting role as Dysart’s best friend, was the first time I’d experienced a play of such stark abstraction and psychosexual intensity. I normally abhor the use of the word “brave” to describe a performance, but I’m hard-pressed to use a better word to describe every participant.
14) In The Deep Heart’s Core (Bailiwick Theatre, 1994). There are two things most particularly memorable to me about this show, which was a sort of revue built around setting the poems of William Butler Yeats to music. The first is that it was one of my first theater experiences in the city of Chicago outside of a class field trip (those of which I most remember two Shakespeare productions, one a badly conceived Scottish Play and the other a well-done Measure for Measure–a play I rather dislike). The second is how much I remember being impressed by the tall, lanky fiddler leading the ensemble, so much so that his was the only name I could remember months after seeing the show: Andrew Bird.
15) Contraption (The Neo-Futurists, 2008). To date, and by design, the most personal full-length play I’ve ever written; by the end of the development I’d come to understand intimately the fierce madness of the inventors who I’d chosen as subjects of the piece, I’d come closer to wrecking my marriage than I ever want to go again, and I’d experienced the singularly ecstatic joy that is one’s creation going exactly right. Up until this point this was more or less how I wrote anything–with a sense of impending disaster–and I think I needed to let it all out of my system in one bit of ball lightning in order to stop destroying myself every time I wanted to make something. I don’t like resting on my laurels, but this is the one I’m most likely, at this point, to go back to in my mind just to think, “I did that.”