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Some Questions… for Thirst Playwright Jacob Cox

With Thirst coming right around the corner, (Tickets, anybody?) we thought it’d be nice for you to get a peek inside the minds of some of our creative team. We introduced you to our director, Scott Olson, yesterday. Today it’s our lovely playwright, Jacob Cox’s turn.

Thirst’s subject matter – men trapped in a mine – is really compelling and interesting to watch. What brought you to write about that?
I’ve probably been asked that question by fifty different people now, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that I don’t remember. Maybe I should start telling people that it’s a true story about my own mining experiences in 1940’s West Virginia.  The fact is that I started working on Thirst back in the winter of 2007. That’s last decade.  My mind doesn’t go back that far. It’s possible I saw coverage of the Sago mining disaster (2006) and was curious about the drama unfolding below, but I couldn’t say for sure. I’m drawn to plays that take place in one location, so perhaps that was a subconscious prompt. There aren’t a whole lot of places for those boys to go once the roof comes down.

Tell us a little bit about how you write? What does your process look like? How best do you work?
First off, I am a very goal-oriented individual (read: crazy). I try to find time to write for at least a half-hour every day. If I don’t feel the ambition to write, then I tell myself to just get the 30 minutes in. What normally happens is that I quickly get enveloped in whatever project I’m working on and I end up quitting an hour or two later. Sometimes all the time I have is 30 minutes so that’s all I put in. Some days I don’t get anything written and I sink into a deep and comfortable self-loathing.

I am a very slow writer. I tend to write by hand and then type my pages later. This used to be because of personal preference, but now it’s mainly because I don’t own a laptop and I don’t always like writing from home (I’m the guy sitting in the coffee shop with three reams worth of paper stacked next to him.) With Thirst, before I wrote a word of the script, I wrote a 4-page synopsis of the play to help a). clarify that there was enough of a story there to warrant a full play and b). to help me work out the structure a little bit. I used to create elaborate outlines for every project before I even started on a script, but I’ve found that once I start writing, the stories go in much more interesting directions than what I put in the outline. So now I keep the outline vague – a beginning, a turning point, an end – let’s see where this ride takes us. BTW it often takes you down elaborate dead ends, which is one of the reasons why I am such a slow writer. Many of my second and third drafts are page one re-writes that bear little resemblance to the first draft. Thirst was originally a vaudeville-style musical set in the lost city of Atlantis deep below the sea.

That’s a joke (?).

What’s something you’d like to see more of in the Chicago theater scene? In the worldwide theater scene?
Besides my plays on stage? Uhm … I should probably say more female writers and writers from minority communities. I suppose that would be nice. There are more white guys at a gathering of playwrights than there are at a Tea Party convention. Must be because we’re all just so damned talented.

Oh! This doesn’t really answer your question, but I’m going to change your question to “What would you like to see LESS of on the stage?” My answer to that question is: scenes. I would like to see less scenes in plays. I feel like modern playwrights are constantly jumping from one scene to the next without giving them the time they need to develop. I’m talking scenes that are just a few pages long. I don’t know if that’s because we don’t trust that the audience has an attention span or if it’s because we’re too lazy to take the time and develop a twenty, thirty, or forty page scene. It annoys me. I’m tired of going to see shows that have light transitions every three minutes to denote the passage of time or the change of location. Whew! Good. I got that off my chest. Now that the world knows my opinion on this matter, things can begin to change. That said, I currently have a fifteen-minute one-act up at The Artistic Home that has four scenes in it.

When you write, do you have a particular audience in mind?
Not really. I do try to imagine who might go see the show I’m writing, but I don’t try to direct the play toward that audience in any way. I think I try to write plays that I find interesting and hope other folks will find them interesting too.

If you were trapped in a mine, how would you make sure you survived?
I’d be sure to make good friends with the guy with the most water in his canteen.  Oh! And lay down low. There’s more oxygen down low.

Do you have any advice for a playwright getting their piece produced for the first time? What challenges have you come up against in working this play through to a full production?
My advice for a playwright getting their first piece produced is to invest in Alka-Seltzer. Lots of Alka-Seltzer. I come from a visual art background where I always had complete control over the final presentation of my product. This whole collaboration thing is relatively new to me. You need to have a whole lot of trust and a whole lot of faith in your fellow creators. Working with the production team and the actors has been a wonderful eye-opening experience. Scott has adapted the staging in ways I hadn’t thought of and the actors have given me unexpected insight into my very own characters.

The biggest challenge for me in this process is to know when to speak up and when to bite my tongue. For the most part, I’ve been a silent observer in the rehearsal process. Not because I don’t have opinions (check, check, and check), but because the rehearsal room is the director’s realm. It can be hard to gauge when it’s appropriate to speak up. I tend to play it safe. If something is worrying me during the rehearsal, I’ll hold off until the end and talk to Scott. If I’ve forgotten what it was by the time rehearsal is over, then it clearly wasn’t important. Sometimes, over the course of the rehearsal, I find that the actor or director’s “worrisome” choice turned out to be a wonderful discovery.

And sometimes it turns out to be an absolute train wreck and I laugh and laugh and sit back in my chair bathing in the warmth of my self-righteous smugness.

Ah, collaboration.

—-

THIRST runs from January 19th-29th at Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont).  For tickets, call 773-327-5252 or click here and order them online.  See you there!

 

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Some Questions… for Thirst Director Scott Olson

With Thirst coming right around the corner, (Tickets, anybody?) we thought it’d be nice for you to get a peek inside the minds of some of our creative team. First up, our fearless leader, director Scott Olson.

What drew you to want to direct this piece?
I hadn’t finished reading it and already knew I wanted to direct this.  When you get a play as well written as THIRST is, you jump at the chance to work on it in any capacity.  It’s a very gripping play and you want to stick around to find out what happens to these men. The dialogue is terrific and sounds just like people speak; there are poetic sections of it that are just lovely.  Plus, there was a supernatural element in the script that I really wanted to bump up as well.

What do you find is the largest difference between directing a new play and an established piece?
Directing a new play is wonderful because there are no prior expectations that you have with an established piece.  With established pieces, people have certain expectations with them (I know I do) and if you don’t meet those expectations or if you really re-work and re-imagine a piece that is close to someone’s heart, you run the risk of alienating some of the audience.  With a new play, you are exposing it to the audience for the first time.  For me, whether as a director or actor, that’s a lot more fun.  Plus, you get to work with the playwright and help him or her work and define the piece.

What are some challenges you’ve run up against so far?
There are huge technical challenges with this piece which are tricky working with a smaller budget.  Often when we are working on it, I see the film version of this in my mind and then have to adjust it to the stage.

What are you looking forward to seeing on opening night?
The audience coming out of the theatre talking about the play and the show.  I won’t be in the theatre because I never sit and watch the show on opening.  It’s too nerve-wracking.  I’m usually hanging around backstage or in the lobby.

 Anything you think people should know before they see this play?
That it’s okay to laugh in moments you find funny even though the characters on-stage are in a very serious situation.  Sometimes audience members think it’s not okay to laugh during a “dramatic” piece.  I always try to find the lighter moments to balance the serious ones.

How would you cope with being trapped in a mine? What would your first move be?
This is awful to say but I would probably start making jokes because it’s what I tend to do to lighten the mood during serious moments.  I would probably do what one of the characters in the play does– but I can’t say it or it would ruin the play for anyone who’s reading this.

—-

THIRST runs from January 19th-29th at Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont).  For tickets, call 773-327-5252 or click here and order them online.  See you there!


Children and Art

This past Monday night was the second in our Staged Readings Series, this time a play called Consensual Relations by Norman Simon, and directed by me, Liz Siedt. As with, I think, all of the plays in our season, it raises a lot of questions- definitely more than it answers. And the questions posed to the audience of Consensual Relations can push taboos to the forefront in a way that definitely can raise some hackles. They certainly challenged my own opinions and expectations.

Consensual Relations is basically three stories. To start, the story of Sue, an eighth-grade math teacher somewhere in the American southwest, and Brett, her struggling student with dreams (perhaps his father’s dreams for him) of being a star baseball player. Sue and Brett, button-pushingly, fall in love. Or is it love? Can it be love?

The story of Brett and Sue together sets off the rest of the play, as they try (and fail) to run away to Mexico together. Sue is incarcerated and becomes a subject of  a research study headed up by a clinical psychologist, Cara. Cara and Sue develop a relationship of their own beyond the clinical, and Cara is perhaps convinced that Sue’s love of Brett is real, and she orchestrates a meeting between the two that results in her resignation and Sue’s suicide.

Cara tells her story to a TV show host, whose idea of privacy and decency seems to be a little lax. But the TV show host speaks from what, I think, is often the audience’s perspective of Sue: this woman was a monster who preyed on a child. This wasn’t about love, this was about power. And I don’t think we’re wrong to feel that way. But…

In our discussions, the cast and crew at rehearsal and then with the audience after the reading, we talked about what consent actually means. It’s  a large part of this play- judging from the title alone you’d probably be able to tell that. Our country, to my knowledge, has an age of consent that varies from state to state, but mostly hangs around 16 to 18 years old. Brett, in the play, is 14. Two years separate him from the age of consent. In fact, his character in the play is sexually active with his girlfriend before Sue even enters the picture. Are these two years simply arbitrary? Are people capable of consenting as soon as they become sexually active? Legally, no. But, as one of our cast members mentioned in our discussion, it’s not like there’s a magical switch, that at midnight on your sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth birthday you suddenly become adult.  And yet, what I think I struggle with most about this issue is that these are children, just on the edge of maturity, that we’re talking about. I know, I know, I’m sounding a little pearl-clutchingly panicky- Think of the CHILDREN! And I think it’s a little cliched and naive to talk about preserving the innocence of children, particularly teenagers. But an adult’s role in a child’s maturation is a delicate one. Can it ever be consensual if a fully mature adult has relations with someone who is just coming to maturity?

This reading was unfortunately very timely, as recent news about the alleged sexual abuse of minors by Jerry Sandusky came to light right around the same time we started working on this reading. In Sandusky’s case, if he is found guilty, it’s hard to see how it could possibly be consensual- the abuse he allegedly perpetrated was against young boys who were a part of a charity he had founded, children who were probably dependent upon him for support that they could not get in their homes or communities. And these children were very young.

So for Sue, a fictional math teacher in a fictional play, we are supposed to perhaps find some sympathy. (Another interesting question all on its own- the playwright chose for Sue’s character to be female expressly because he felt that a male character who makes the same choices her character makes would be impossible to have sympathy for. Why does a female who perpetrates an act of sexual abuse seem less offensive, more sympathetic?) But she is a teacher, whose student is dependent upon her to learn and grow into an adult. And this is where the wrong lies, and where it becomes an abuse.

The play also attempts to address whether there is any kind of rehabilitation possible for someone such as Sue. And that’s an important question as well. If we have established that this behavior is wrong, then the purpose of legally punishing her should be to reform and rehabilitate, right? (Although that’s yet another tough discussion we could have- the state of our prisons in America.) How do we reform and rehabilitate a sexual offender? There are some dangerous lines drawn in Consensual Relations between the desires of these offenders and homosexuals- their sexual desires are part of who they are, can’t be helped. But then I think that- and I’m certainly no expert whatsoever- it again comes down to power. There can be true consent in a homosexual relationship, where there probably cannot be in a pedophile relationship (for lack of a better term).

There are no easy answers to the questions Consensual Relations posed. I’ve been thinking about them since the reading ended, and I am still no further to any answers. But what a grand thing for a play to be able to do, to pull up such questions that can sometimes make our stomachs turn in thinking about what we value and what is the difference between wrong and right. It’s a lot to take in, for sure.

Thoughts, friends? I’m sure a discussion on this would be very enlightening.

-Liz


Children of Stone

Last night we had our first staged reading of the season at the awesomely renovated Stage 773, of Jay Koepke’s awesome and challenging new play Pietra, Or The Stone Baby. The performances were fabulous, and the talkback after the show particularly enlightening, maybe a little polarized. The heightened reality and magicality (I’m allowed to make up words here) of the play was for some of our audience members something new and kind of foreign- after all, people in real life don’t actually have Stone Babies, right?

Nope. Wrong.

For those of you who weren’t able to attend the reading, Pietra really gets going when Tate, a British woman married to an agoraphobic man who is secretly not agoraphobic, is informed at the hospital that she has been carrying a calcified fetus inside her for who knows how long. Thanks partially to a particularly callous and crazy doctor, Tate is left mostly on her own to process that information. The doctor asks her insensitive (and possibly Hippocratic oath violating) questions about her child- what she would have named it, if she’s upset about the lost opportunities for t-ball games and graduations. While listening to it, aside from being absolutely horrified at the doctor’s tact (or, nope, sorry, complete and utter lack thereof), I found myself wondering, What if?

After all, this Stone Baby business is a real-and-possible thing. It’s not anywhere near common, but it has happened. In some cases, women can carry these stone children (called “lithopedion,” from the Ancient Greek for “stone” and “child”) for half a century without consequence. Without going too far into the medical fact of it, lithopedia generally occur during an abdominal pregnancy when the fetus dies but is too large to be reabsorbed by the body. So, sort of like an oyster (in an entirely inappropriate metaphor kind of way), the woman’s body calcifies the fetus, basically turning it into a stone in her abdomen. (If you really feel compelled to see what one looks like, check out the wikipedia article for the least terrifying picture of one. And then if you’re not satisfied, do a quick google image search. At least the first two images there are real.)

It’s hard to imagine what that would be like, to discover you’re carrying what is (to put it bluntly) a fossil of what could have been a child, and Pietra explores that in a touching, challenging, and sometimes just hilarious way.

That’s got me thinking, though. There’s a lot of strange things out there that our bodies do, sometimes in an effort to protect ourselves, sometimes because something in there’s just been wired wrong. (And have you heard about this rooster that just decided it needed to become a chicken, and so did?) Not that every medical issue would make a good theatre piece (Bunions the Musical, anybody? Anybody?) but what sort of crazy can-you-believe-human-bodies-do-that things have been on your mind lately? I bet there’s at least an interesting discussion to be had here, if not a play as compelling as Pietra.

-Liz


Meet the Cast of Brief Looks: Elise Freiberg

Next up in our introductory series: Elise Freiberg!

Hey, you look pretty familiar. Where might I have seen you before?

Oh you know, cocooned and hangin’ from the rafters.
Tell me a little about your character in Brief Looks. No spoilers, please!

Well, I play a mute girl, traumatized into silence ( that’s not
spoiling right?). This is pretty funny because I talk more than just
about anyone I know. It’s neat playing a character that can’t say
anything, being a watcher is really different.
What’s different/challenging/exciting about working on a new play
versus an established one/a sketch show/improv/what you usually find
yourself working on?

It’s very cool getting to ask the questions that no one has ever asked
before, because we’re the first ones to ever play these parts. Having
the writer around to answer questions is also not something you
usually get to do and is a huge bonus.
How would you prepare yourself for events like what happens in Brief
Looks? How long do you think you, not your character, would make it in
similar circumstances?

I like to think Id be a trouper if it really cames down to it, but the
thing about disasters is that individual reactions are totally
unpredictable. I’d like to think I’d suck it up and do the best I
could, but maybe I’d crack after 24 hours and develop a totally
different disaster personality. It would be the inevitable and
permanent loss of any hope of  ever eating a Popsicle again that would
really break you. That would be pretty lame cos’ popsicles are pretty
awesome.
Well, you’ve been really friendly, thanks! Anything you’d like to add?

You’re sotof a babe Liz Siedt.

(Oh goodness me! -Liz)


Meet the Cast of Brief Looks: Kaitlin Larson

As we get closer to our opening night for Brief Looks from the Afterglow, we’re going to be introducing you to our very talented cast members, letting them tell you a bit about themselves in their own words. First up is Kaitlin Larson:

Hey, you look pretty familiar. Where might I have seen you before?

I may look familiar to any college student who has spent their drunk Thursday nights at Studio Be on Sheffield. I perform improv there every Thursday at 10:30pm with Columbia’s Droppin’ $cience. That’s how people might know me.

Tell me a little about your character in Brief Looks. No spoilers, please!

Well, I play Marlene who is the mother of Stephen and Teresa. She’s just you know, trying to keep her family safe and not die. She also looks out for everyone in the cabin, she’s everybody’s mom.

Kaitlin, Swimming with the Fishes

What’s different/challenging/exciting about working on a new play versus an established one/a sketch show/improv/what you usually find yourself working on?

Remembering the new re-writes, and also having the playwright there to directly answer any questions about the script is damn cool.

How would you prepare yourself for events like what happens in Brief Looks? How long do you think you, not your character, would make it in similar circumstances?

I’m not preparing. I already know if something like this happens during my lifetime, I’m for sure in the first wave of people to go. I’ve accepted that.

Well, you’ve been really friendly, thanks! Anything you’d like to add?

POOP-BURGER

Thanks Kaitlin! 

See Brief Looks from the Afterglow

JUNE 30- JULY 2, 2011 @ 7:30 PM

At Gorilla Tango Theater

Buy Tickets!


Blogeville

Here is a post from Artistic Director Jack Bourgeois about our upcoming 2 evenings of Vaudeville at Stage 773 as part of their 14@773 festival!
WHY VAUDEVILLE?
Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time around me knows I have a penchant for times long past. I love movies from the 1940s, songs from the 1920s and cardigan sweaters from anytime…ever. (I mean, they’re just spectacular.) Theatre, for me has always been a means of attaching myself to those lost eras, by putting myself in them in the only way possible.
SO WHY NOT JUST DO A PERIOD PIECE?
Well, I’m getting to that…As important as truth in theatre is and as essential it is to hold a mirror up to nature, there is something to be said for classic entertainment. People don’t always want to see reality presented to them, they encounter it everyday and let’s face it…it can really suck sometimes. It becomes the job of an entertainer (not necessarily the actor, but the ENTERTAINER) to present a slightly alternate reality. A world that follows all the same rules, only people are wittier, sharper and more emotionally attached to every word said. This is what makes us entertained and takes us away from our moments of all-too-real reality.
OKAY, SO…
Before film, before television, before musical theatre even was the world’s first form of strict entertainment. Leave the dramas alone, forget the tragedies, let’s focus on something that we can relax while watching. Vaudeville was entertainment. It still is. It is the source of how comedy and theatre has evolved in this country. Abbot and Costello, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin all started off in Vaudeville and they paved the way for American comedy as we know it. One of my favorite actors, James Cagney once attributed everything he ever learned to spending time backstage on the Vaudeville circuit. It truly is the heart of American entertainment and it’s a shame it’s been lost in time.
SO, TELL ME ABOUT YOUR SHOW
What I set out to do with Brian Posen (CBD Board President and Artistic Director of Stage773) and Danni Parpan (Production Manager) was to create an authentic turn-of-the-century Vaudevillian piece of classic entertainment by using authentic songs, sketches and acts. And looking at our list of performers, I’d say we’ve done a pretty good job. We have a contortionist, a magician, an opera singer, dancers, comedians and what I believe is possibly the funniest thing ever written, “Who’s on First” as made famous by Abbot and Costello. Are all of these acts connected in one way? Not really. Does it matter? Not a lick. It’s an evening during which people will be entertained and leave wondering why Vaudeville ever left.
WELL, YOU’VE SOLD ME…MAKE YOUR PITCH NOW
On June 17 and 24 at 8pm, hide all your stress and worries from yourself and others and enjoy a night of entertainment you’ll never forget. Stage773. 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago IL. Ten bucks.
Jack Bourgeois
Artistic Director
Cold Basement Dramatics
For Tickets visit stage773.com or call 773 327 5252