Welcome to the Fearless Indie Theater Universe. Population? Not Just You
Episode One: Chi-Town, USA!
It’s so calm.
I fucking love bodies of water.
Lake fucking Michigan.
At least here I get to be in the city. You grow up out of a city and all you want is to be in a city. Pack yourself in—closer to people, people, people.
—Nikki from Wild
Touching down on the plane at Midway last Tuesday—it all hits me. While I’ve been produced in Chicago before, I realize how different this Chi-town trip is. Two brand new plays, untested premieres—my new dark comedy drama Wild with Kid Brooklyn Productions and new poppy comedy Psychonaut Librarians for The New Colony in the Sketchbook festival—both set in Chicago. Happening in Chicago. At the same time.
Midway ramp to orange line to brown, get off at Rockwell and bless Evan Linder there with coffee!
Who is Evan Linder? Well, he is a theater everyman of awesome. I got to know him simultaneously as an actor and playwright—he has written several plays for his company New Colony that blew me away—FRAT, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche (seriously!)—and I’ve also seen him in James Asmus’s beautiful Hearts Full Of Blood (James and I co-wrote Psychonaut and he also writes for Marvel, where my hubby Fred writes too.)
Evan, after a quick cigarette, borrows a car, and we drive to Wicker Park where Psychonaut is at Sketchbook in this amazing Flat Iron Arts Building on North Milwaukee. And holy shitballs! I run in again to the amazing director Nick Leavens [the claque] from New York City who is in town meeting the amazing playwright Philip Dawkins (The Homosexuals, About Face Theater). To steal a convention we use in the comic book-like style of Psychonaut Librarians (to “pop out” a theatrical moment) I bring you:
PLAYWRIGHT POP OUT:
PHILIP: In terms of indie...we have Off Loop. That means literally it’s not downtown. But downtown is not necessarily where Chicago LIFE happens. A Chicago audience doesn’t give a shit if the actors are “professionals.” They give a shit if the show is good, if it’s full of people they might recognize, if it’s in a fun neighborhood, and if there’s a good bar or restaurant nearby. For THE HOMOSEXUALS—we ended up extending twice and running most of the summer. I worried the title might keep people away, but folks came out for it in droves. Gay, straight, bi, trans, whatever and anyever, all came out to see this show. Audiences braved barricaded streets for summer festivals (a rock band performing right outside the theater for a full weekend, LOUDLY and “energetically”), a massive hail storm so heavy the actors had to scream their lines to be heard, a blown fuse that led to one performance happening in all work lights, intense heat waves, pouring rain, etc. ... A Chicago summer is many things, but predictable is not one of them. But people came. People will go to theater in Chicago.
After lunch at the Bongo Room where Julia Daubert—who plays Nikki in Wild—is working, I hop back on the “L” to hug another Evan—Evan F. Caccioppoli, Artistic Director of Kid Brooklyn Productions, who is directing Wild Kirsten directed Daniel Talbott’s Slipping at Rattlestick and Daniel of course is how Evan C. and I met. Evan C. felt passionately about having a new play to premiere in Chicago, and I’m honored it’s Wild.
DIRECTOR POP OUT!
EVAN F. CACCIOPPOLI!
EVAN C.: Mainly there are storefront spaces here. It is affordable for a small company to produce here and have their work seen. You can find an affordable 25 – 30 seat space and even if you fill half of that, the theater still feels full. Which then goes back to the ability to experiment in your work. Audiences here want to come see what is new and see companies that are just beginning. Chicago audiences are so open and like to be pushed. You have the opportunity to try things that are raw, provocative, and honest. Chicago also gives you chances to try things and fail and then come back and try something different. Chicago is also a very actor friendly town, which I as a director love. I love working with actors that jump into their work head and heart first, that go from their gut. I feel collaboration is very prevalent in the way of working on a play here.
The actors are actually arriving now. Julia Daubert (Bongo apron tossed aside), Jude Hansen, Justin Harner, Evan Linder (still smacking his lips from that French toast, eh?), Michael Manocchio, and Adam Schulmerich!
I watch a run. Good, though work to be done—but they know it! This is one crazy talented bunch. They gather around. Actors hungry and hard on themselves. The amount of being critical in a constructive way strikes me. No egos. Just about the work. A lot to admire in a play that strips its characters bare following the affair of Bobby and Peter and what they inflict on one another after Peter has sex with a woman.
Wild, just 10 pages last August—and developed by bringing in scenes to share with Evan C. at a little café in Brooklyn—opens in four days. Excited. And terrified. I might be hyperventilating. A bit.
Meanwhile, at the New Colony show, Director Sean Kelly has a very zen-out look on things.
DIRECTOR POP OUT!
SEAN: Joseph Campbell, godfather of comparative mythology, abandoned his doctoral program just before completing his thesis. He was following his bliss and listening to the voice that told him to study what he loved: mythology. He followed that voice to a cabin in the woods where he holed up and read for five years and emerged as JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Godfather of Comparative Mythology. Chicago theater is my cabin in the woods. A city sized cabin. It is my place to learn. It is my growing time. Chicago theater has no real boundaries. It is anything you want it to be. Yes, it is as liberating and as stultifying as that sounds. Because its openness requires real ingenuity. And when those around are pushing their limits, you think, well if HE can do it...Chicago theater gives you freedom to set your own limits and a community to help you push beyond them.
Psychonaut Librarians, created with James Asmus, writing from character workshops we flew out to do with the New Colony actors and Sean Kelly (who created the concept), has already opened and been running. For three years the brilliant Artistic Director Andrew Hobgood and I have been scheming about a project that would be right, and here we are! In the Flat Iron Arts building, Shawn Bowers, Will Cavedo, Caitlin Chuckta, Sarah Gitenstein, Rachel Farmer, Ashleigh Ross, and Gary Tiedemann rock the house—snappily directed with a rock score heightening this episodic comic-book-come-to-life-play about librarians who control fact and fiction by taking drugs until fiction starts to get the better of them. It is just pure joy.
It’s the third piece in a line-up called “The Three,” with two other evocative pieces (How We Do and Last Meal Man) by Chicago theater artists. The whole festival has been created by Collaboration, a great theater, which has a whole team of awesome—the festival led by the fearless Anthony Moseley and Sarah Moeller. Anthony is a consistent presence during the festival—every time I see him it’s a huge bear hug. The man knows how to put projects together, get folks excited—a real connector of theater.
(A REAL LIBRARIAN!)
POP OUT: NANCY WAGNER!
NANCY: Chicago’s strengths lie in its midsize theaters—Goodman, Steppenwolf, Writer’s Theater, Timeline, Court, Shakespeare, Northlight, Apollo. We have come to expect quality dramatic productions, which cut their teeth here and then are transplanted to New York. Also we have smaller theaters which are making a name: New Colony, Side Theater, Victory Gardens, Lifeline…
Will Wild measure up as one of those original dramas born in Chicago? Wild’s opening night. The lights dimmed and it was just ON. This new play was born and born with fire—Evan Caccioppoli directed a cast who really tore it up. Thrilling to see moments landing in a whole new way. I was making my usual tweaks up until previews, and now the whole play is before me—it really comes alive with an audience.
And they are the key! Close your eyes. Indie is universal. There are so many indie theaters out there in every city. And each time you visit, it changes. Three years ago I started working in Chi-town with Side Project (a wonderful theater that also nurtured Evan C.). Adam Webster directed my play Birthday there last summer. I knew of Side Project because they produced Slipping. Oh playwrights! Remember: our work can be heard and seen in so many places. Keep connecting. Keep looking!
The following Tuesday, I wake up back in ye old Brooklyn. My inbox is flooded. Raves for Wild. I can’t think of a more deserving team, and I think of how much I learned about myself and my work in writing this play that really is touching people. It’s changed me. And so has writing the poppy fun of Psychonaut Librarians, which you just may hear about returning in a fuller form next year…Chicago, I may be back sooner than you think!
Crystal Skillman’s play Wild runs in Chicago through July 1. For further info, visit www.kidbrooklynproductions.org. Psychonaut Librarians runs through July 15 in Collaboraction’s Sketchbook festival: more at www.thenewcolony.org! Crystal’s upcoming productions in New York City include Geek, to be directed by Robert Ross Parker for Vampire Cowboys in Spring 2013, and a new piece inspired by Beckett monologues to be directed by Daniel Talbott this fall. Her play Cut was just published by Sam French, and she is teaching playwriting at the Sam French Institute this summer.