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An International Renaissance

January 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Sometimes I think New York is poisoning the water for the theater industries in the rest of the country. In this review of the Hypocrites’ recent NYC debut of The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, Village Voice critic John Beer opens up with a smarmy potshot at Chicago:

In a Chicago landscape of actors’ showpieces and unapologetic realism, Sean Graney and his company, the Hypocrites, stand out because of their cool conceptualism.

Boy, that got my goat this week. Not the well-deserved praise of Sean and the Hypocrites… Um, “Landscape of showpieces and realism?” In a city that bred RedMoon, Lookingglass, Mary Zimmerman, Greasy Joan & Co., … Does he even know that Mamet left town? Why even bother classifying this city except to weaken it? There’s too much going on here to really even define real trends. It’s either a melting pot, or you’re not telling the whole story.

It’s this kind of willfully ignorant attitude about Chicago Theater that wafts here and there through the NYC theater buzz that makes me think that Chicago theater, for its own health and self-worth, needs to open back up a big international theater festival, and skip the whole “export to NYC” phase that we’re enjoying the fruits of these days. Never mind that America could use a stronger dialogue with the international community in general, I think Chicago’s Theater community doesn’t make enough big plans like that, so our reach doesn’t always exceed our grasp, and we end up reaching for New York or LA instead of the stuff that could really challenge us as artists. I think that a big international spectacle, like the Olympics or the annual international film festival, or the Third Coast Festival, could be a lightning rod to reengage our local audience with the theater treasures we have in town, and provide fuel to enable both the Chicago and all domestic theater communities create more vibrant art.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be working at my current gig as a sound operator for the Goodman’s Owen Theater (did I disclose that yet? Well here you go. Yes.) when the Latino festival brought Marta Carrasco and her company to town from Catalonia for a performance of her latest work, GaGa, and the final performance ever of Aiguardent.
Lian Sifuentes’ Fashionably Late for the Relationship
I should add, thanks mostly to a few key friendships and classes in my college years (especially with my pal Lian Amaris Sifuentes, who recently made a big splash in NYC with her Fashionably Late for the Relationship piece in the midst of Union Square) I am a die-hard fan of really personal performance art, so Marta Carrasco is totally my bag.

Marta’s performance was only half of the story of the cross-cultural exchange happening in the room, of course. Most of the companies coming in from across the world also brought a full support staff, including a technical director, and my charge, the sound engineer from the company, Santi Miquel. I cannot begin to tell you how fulfilling it was as a theater professional and an artist to have a conversation with someone using primarily our common language – Sound. Santi didn’t have much English, and I don’t have a lick of Catalan to my name. Our conversations – quick conversations, that were required to set up the show that was about to perform – were mostly bits and pieces of English, French, and lots and lots of equipment jargon. We spoke in decibels, in mixing board, in minidiscs, and in cues. We spoke the common language of theater operation. In between techs, we google earthed our hometowns, and explored the places we had seen – Santi’s house was particularly memorable, a little shack on the steep side of a mountain overlooking most of Catalonia. The whole festival was a blast.

It’s not often that theater technicians can safely achieve that wonderful childlike state of discovery that feeds wonderful and thriving art. But everything about those two shows stuck with me closer and more intensely because I was both in my element and out of my comfort zone. It was calculated risk-taking and the payoff was a fullness of experience for both the audience and the artists creating the work. You know. Theater.

Aiguardent, especially, was one of those shows that just haunts you forever. In a solo work exploring the past of her alcoholism, Marta begins the play seated next to a table with a jar of water facing her. As she stares at the jar for minutes on end, you slowly begin to sense of rotation… and you realize that Marta is dancing, seated, rotating slowly with the table and her chair on casters. Her eyes never leave the jar. The effect is almost cinematic – as she dances, her circles (while seated! at the table!) grow larger and larger, and the audience experience is that of a winding camera shot, rotating around this central figure, immobile and staring into her drink. That image – of dancing in solitude, in loneliness, and the simple theatrical technique that achieved that effect, was something I had never seen before on the stage, and was overwhelmed to have witnessed it.

And it was just ballet on casters!

At the time, we were preparing at New Leaf to take on another calculated risk – we had just secured the rights to the first U.S. production of a David Hare play, The Permanent Way. We were a tiny theater, so this was a huge coup, but if you’ve ever read or seen the play, it’s more understandable why a U.S. production hadn’t been attempted – it’s a series monologues, weighty, horrifyingly in-depth analysis of the seemingly British-centric problem of a deadly series of British Rail crashes brought on by unusually disastrous bureaucratic bungling. To us, the play resonated heavily with our CTA woes here in Chicago, and also as an intelligent exploration of how things like the Iraq war can happen without the proper oversight, but that didn’t change the fact that the show was going to be a hard one to convince an American audience to sit through – Two and a half hours of monologues, descriptions of experiences by Bankers, Union Leaders, Lawyers, Judges, and Counselors.

And then, I remembered Marta’s dancing. I mentioned the effect to our director, Brandon Ray, and he began to see a theatrical staging angle to the play that hadn’t occurred to us before… Bureaucrats on chairs, dancing their way through the descriptions of the crashes caused by their own bungling… Stock market hacks reliving – literally dancing through – the events that they helped bring about from within their offices and their cups of tea. Brandon had a staging breakthrough and expanded this concept thanks to some massive exposure to international theater and techniques outside of our own comfort zones.

The Permanent WayI’m pleased to report that yesterday The Permanent Way was mentioned as the #2 “Fringe” Show of 2007 by Nina Metz of the Chicago Tribune. It remains to this day one of the most important and special productions that I’ve worked on, and I don’t think the show would have been nearly as effective without the reappropriation of staging craft that was courtesy of Marta Carrasco. Someone could potentially argue that we “stole” the staging from Marta – as Parabasis warns in this article on the evolving Intellectual Property law precedence – but the loss would have been a new, different, original, and entirely separate work of art. We were inspired by Marta. We adapted it and used the technique for our own purposes – but not the exact movements or even the spirit of those movements. All artists do this, all the time. The sources are myriad, and both conscious and subconsious. And individual personalities, bodies and brain have a lot to do with the creatively mutated results – since most of our cast didn’t have dance training, we couldn’t approach Marta’s ballet-esque precision and grace if we had tried. At the end of the day, I became a better artist when I was exposed to her performance – a performance that I understood entirely outside of Marta’s context for her own work. It was just something that I saw and responded emotionally to in a way that I can’t with plays that I understand on that intellectual level, or with plays that are content to be confined in my preexisting context of experience.

As I’ve been saying in the last few posts – we have a lot to gain through real cross-pollination – with the New York theater community as well, if we’re open to it. I know that I’m embroiled in conflict-of-interest based on my employment and my past experiences there, but I’m excited as an individual artist by projects like the just-announced Goodman theater Eugene O’Neill Festival, which as Chris Jones glosses over will include “O’Neill productions from Chicago theater companies as well as from international theater groups invited to Chicago.” That’s the kind of thing that gets my blood pumping, and gets our own audience to question their own context of experience, which currently convinces many of them that they aren’t theatergoers.

It’s a big world out there. It won’t always come to us, we have to go out there and live with it. Like it or not, we are living in an empire. This is off topic, perhaps, but it another thing that gave me ulcers today was hearing of the tribute-like backbending that the Cambodian trade minister is enduring to keep American-encouraged fair labor laws while the attached American Trade Pacts are expiring, and that the first I hear of it is not from politics but from the great storytellers at This American Life. If you don’t like our relationship with the rest of the world, then maybe it’s time to travel outside of Rome for a while. Bring a friend, and in some places you may need to be leery of the water.

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6 Comments to “An International Renaissance”


  1. well said, nick. I am so interested in the process of idea sharing and/or collaboration in the development of new or little seen works. I have a class next quarter about music and evolutionary thought….memetics and whatnot. facinating stuff.

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  2. Ditto, ditto, ditto. It’s such a gift to be inspired by artists like Marta. That performance that inspired Permanent Way was remarkable and I feel really priviledged that I got to see it. Remember before copyright laws when everything was cross-pollinated and free game as inspiration? Yeah, there was a lot of out-right “stealing” too, but still.

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  3. Beautifully put, and I absolutely agree!
    The Goodman’s connections and the Edinburgh Fringe aside, are there any theaters in Chicago, especially storefronts, that have any kind of national or international “sister theater”?

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  4. I was told by Tim Lynch (I think) that there used to be a Chicago International Theater Festival about 10 – 15 years ago. I’ve been trying to find remnants of it on the internet, but it’s been tricky.

    I want to say that Chicago Shakespeare has had some more international connections, though no formal arrangements like a sister theater. They brought “Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise ” in from South Africa this year (with my old Stage Management Prof Catherine Bloch on the tour, which was fun).

    With Jesse and Faela Weaver moving back to Ireland, The Side Project now has a sister project over on the Emerald Isle. This years’ “On My Parents’ Hundredth Wedding Anniversary” will be part of that collaboration, and “Slipping” will be in performance over in Dublin Gay Theater Festival.

    That’s what I know about. I’d love to know if anyone else knows more!

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  5. Found a little bit more info thanks to the excellent Chicago Theater History Database, which I’ve been meaning to mention for several weeks now.

    The International Theatre Festival of Chicago ran from 1986 – 1994, and was led by Jane Nicholls Sahlins (wife of Bernie Sahlins who founded Second City) and who may still be around town, and helped among other things present Michael Fosberg’s Incognito at the Mercury in 2001. So he knows her for sure!

    Company Archives are located at the Harold Washington Library:

    Chicago Theater Collection, Special Collections & Preservation Division, Harold Washington Library Center. Biannual festival held in Chicago 6 times from 1986-1996. Founded by Jane Nicholls Sahlins to introduce Chicago artists and audiences to the work of some of the greatest theater companies from around the world. Collection consists primarily of programs and promotional material.

    When they were around, they had a few of the same artists now featured in the Latino Theater Festival at the Goodman.

    Looking at the board members of the festival, the biggest hurdle to such a festival became crystal clear – Immigration law and work visas for international artists. I know this is a huge challenge even for a theater with clout like the Goodman to pull off these days, and the previous festival was not a small operation.

    Probably the best extant picture that I could find on the web of how the festival worked is in an example of a favorite New Leaf book, Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts.

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  6. I think that with things coming up like th O’Neill festival and the push for the Olympics in 2016, Chicago is about to be poised to become an international destination for theatre. Wouldn’t that be delightful? What can we do to find the tipping point and make that a reality? Does it start with simple individual connections? Or would that be something that’s too good to be true?

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