Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Look Inside the Lockers

By Jessica Ervin (Ester in DRY LAND)

In undergrad during my Shakespeare class, we discussed in depth the idea of connecting very specific images with the names of people and places. The end goal of this exercise is that when the proper noun is spoken out loud, the audience will hear and recognize the difference of weight in names, and it will conjure in them a visceral reaction as specific as your own. The difference in “Tybalt” versus “Romeo” and “Mantua” versus “Verona” should be palpable if executed correctly.

Although the language of Dry Land is a stark contrast from Shakespeare’s flowery prose and poetry, as a cast we have collectively mastered this connection of image and noun, particularly when speaking about characters that are never seen onstage. And in the case of twice mentioned Shelly, the entire cast and crew had a fictional field day.

Shelly Loftis (affectionately given a last name by actor Matt Farabee) is mentioned very briefly in the fourth scene in which Ester confronts Amy about a pretty vicious rumor going around school, was perpetuated by none other than Shelly. After this, Amy quickly dismisses Shelly to deflect the subject. It is from this short exchange early on in the rehearsal process that the cast and crew collectively decided that we really hate the lie spreading, unsportsmanlike, redheaded, freckle-faced Shelly.

Despite all of the negative attention Shelly receives, she is highly represented on the show’s set. Shelly has her own locker with her initials and a sign that reminds the swim team to vote “Shell 4 Pres.” We all shudder to think about the state of the already dysfunctional school under the reign of Shelly as head of the student body. I know whom Ester will not be voting for this election season.

The inside of Shelly’s locker is her personal paradise. It is papered with tree branch outlines, fake birds, a dangling glass sculpture, a garden gnome, a book on ferrets, and an introduction to violin, all lit by a fake candle from the Dollar Tree. Director Hallie Gordon likens it more to a serial killer’s shrine. Anti-Shelly profanity also defaces the locker immediately next to hers.

The reach of Shelly doesn’t end on the show’s set. Shelly also has her own Facebook profile where she daily trolls the cast and crew, and sends her hilarious, although often misguided, support with a little help from Charlotte Thomas.

So, why the obsession with Shelly? Why allow her to grow into a fully realized character? Is it just for the sake of specificity in the scene, or is there something more under the surface of our horseplay? Simply put, Shelly is our scapegoat from the all too realistic world of the play. She allows us to laugh on the days when the weight of the subject matter—DIY abortion, bullying, and self-loathing to name a few—feel too close for comfort.

During a photo shoot before rehearsals for the play even began, actress Bryce Gangel posited that the cast and crew of Dry Land would have more fun throughout the process than other productions with less serious content, because it would be the only way to cope. I’m not sure if truer words have ever been spoken. What started as an inside joke quickly turned into a way for us to connect outside of the material and trust each other during the more demanding parts of the process. Shelly has bonded us as a cast and crew and armed us with humor and joy.  

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Take the Ride

By Megan Carney, Director, BODY/COURAGE

“We all have childhood stories we can cook up and tell.”

This week, as we slide into the preview process and prepare to open BODY/COURAGE, I’ve been thinking a lot about when I first met Danielle Pinnock. From the first moment, I believed her. Her masterful performance technique alone compelled me to lean in and learn from the perspectives of her many characters and I trusted her vision for this project.

It was the seed of that early belief and trust that led me each day in rehearsal as we dusted off old family photographs and the memories they held so that Danielle’s own story could be woven in to the play. Sometimes the stories were elusive so we told them back and forth to each other until we found the laughter and the scary parts, then Danielle wrote them down where they got revised, retold, improvised a little and eventually set into the script in all of their slippery aliveness.

Each time I hear this play and experience it’s unfolding, I’m reminded of my own journey with my body, the joys I have found and the liberation I continue to seek.  And I hope our production delivers that for our audiences. Come, settle in, meet these characters, laugh, take the ride, and come upon the surprise of seeing yourself in a new way – yourself revealed in another body - your own secret told through another’s mouth.

I was attracted to Danielle’s particular way of telling stories from the first time I saw her at the Chicago Fringe Fest. I laughed. I cried. I thought, “I want to help this artist find her audience!” Through a funny turn of events, I ended up directing the play in this world premiere at Rivendell and it’s been a gift to add on to the strong foundation built in those early workshops by Thomas Murray and Patrice Foster of Waltzing Mechanics. This show has a serious village, folks. Can’t wait to share it with you.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

5 Questions Answered

By Danielle Pinnock, Writer & Performer, BODY/COURAGE


1. Birth of an idea: What was the moment that you knew you had to tell this story? When did the impulse arise? Where were you in time and space?

I was in my wood paneled dorm room in Birmingham, UK when the idea for Body/Courage came about. I was in grad school at Birmingham School of Acting, and this production started as a Master's dissertation there. I only performed five interviews. I wanted to see more representation of people who looked like me telling stories about body image. As a Caribbean-American plus sized actor, I wanted to also focus on stories not just about weight but on a wider spectrum of body acceptance. 

2. You seem to have a knack for allowing people the space to tell their story. It seems to be a kind of a gift. Where does this come from? 

Thank you for the lovely compliment! My Grandma would tell me when I was younger, that I had a face that would make people tell their business. I never knew what that meant as a kid. In my early 20s people would come up to me at random and share their stories with me—on the bus, in the frozen food section at the grocery store, in line at the bank! The world we live in now ALWAYS has to be connected to something: online, text, email, etc. People are spending so much time connecting to these THINGS that we are rarely spending the time to connect with each other. So when I interview people for this show, I give them my full attention, we meet in a comfortable environment, and I give them the space to tell me what is on their minds. 

3. All these stories are rich, powerful and moving. What does it feel like to receive a story?

You have to erase all judgements when receiving a story. Once judgement arises it clouds the ability to become open. I have had some tough interviews that aren't featured in the world premiere, but which have changed me as an artist. You have to be a blank slate in these interviews and just receive the information and give everyone the chance to let their story shine.  

4. Of all the stories, was there one in particular that really caught you off guard or surprised you?

There is a section of the show dealing with race & body image. Last month, I did interviews with former KKK and skinhead members. The thing that surprised me with both of these interviews is these two men, who never met each other, began and left these hate groups for the same reason. They live in two different states and have never met each other. When interviewing the former member of the Klan he went into detail of the hate crimes he carried out. At the end of the interview, he apologized to me; even though he has been out of this organization for over 30 years, he still is making amends to people of color. 

5. With this new version of BODY/COURAGE, you've added in your own personal narrative. What has that experience been like? 

It has been scary and exciting. It has taken me five years to gather the courage to add my own story to this play.  It was so easy to hide in behind the mask and stories of others on stage for so long. This is the first time the mask is coming off, and it such a healing moment for myself as an artist. 

Danielle Pinnock
Writer & Performer, BODY/COURAGE

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Season 2016: The Body Politic

By Artistic Director Tara Mallen

2016 brings with it the presidential election. As we designed our season this absolutely remained in the forefront of our minds. This election–this is the mainstage show for all Americans this year and that had to inform our selection. It seems to me that the American media long ago came to the conclusion that issues and substance are an audience 'turn-off'. Candidates are chosen based on their media personality rather than what they are actually saying. Everyone is talking about this generalized list of “important” issues–without actually saying anything meaningful at all. The right wing is slowly waging war on women’s rights yet our politicians are only offering simplistic platitudes without anyone addressing how we can actually affect change for the betterment of all.

In a direct response to this, we landed on three courageous plays that explore women who actually do take action to get what they need. They differ wildly in their political agendas–from the oh, so subtle to the overt–and I am beyond certain they will instigate imperative conversations about body image as reflected through American media about equality, about inclusion, and most of all, about self-determination as it is written across these women’s bodies.

Each of these projects will be helmed by female directors who play  key roles as part of Rivendell’s ensemble. Two have been integral members for many years and have been instrumental in shaping our mission and our programming: Megan Carney (The Walls; American Wee-Pie; Women At War), and Rachel Walshe (These Shining Lives and past Director of New Plays at Rivendell). Our newest ensemble member, Hallie Gordon (Eat Your Heart Out) brings with her 14 years of experience as Artistic and Educational Director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Her deep understanding of collaboration combined with her penchant for landing on projects that can be seen as both controversial and challenging brings a fresh and vital perspective to our company.

Lastly, this season we are launching our very first outreach program focused on getting the voices of girls ages 8-12 girls into the mix: Strong Girls Make Stuff at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble will begin in late January of 2016. Working in partnership with Stomp and Shout Chicago, the  “Strong Girls” will work for five weeks building an original mini-piece of theatre in conversation with Danielle Pinnock's Body/Courage. This workshop will be an affordable, high-quality arts enrichment program lead by professionals in the industry and will culminate in a showing for parents and friends.

Though this might sound grandiose, my personal hope is that through these productions and programs as we navigate this important election year, Rivendell can serve as–even in a small way–a catalyst. And that through inspired dialogues we can encourage our patrons–instead of offering lip service–to actually take action toward making our communities…and our country…better for all. 

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rehearsals: Look, we are breathing

By Mark Ulrich, Assistant Director

An open mind. A positive outlook. A thorough knowledge of your character's backstory. A willingness to learn new ideas and change preconceived notions and opinions. An ability to try anything and everything. And a willingness to fail. Yes, indeed. These are all essential things for the actor to bring with them to the rehearsal room.

But I'm here to tell you, there is something far more important for an artist to equip themselves with each and every day. Snacks. Good snacks. Snacks to eat alone.

And snacks to share. Snacks are a time-tested and indispensable tool in any serious artist's arsenal, and God help you if you pack them and then forget them on your kitchen counter when you leave your house. Don't. Don’t. Don't show up to rehearsal without snacks.

We agreed, as an ensemble at Rivendell, to produce Laura Jacqmin's, Look, we are breathing after reading it as a group a long time ago. Almost two years ago, was it? I can't remember. But I do remember that we loved it. It was great. It was already great, Laura. But damn. This playwright just keeps bringing it with the rewrites. It's amazing to watch it transform. To watch Laura go at it fearlessly with a machete and duct tape and many different colored pages.

Flax seed crackers and wheels of brie. Crescents of melon. Fresh berries and clusters of grapes. Sliced meats. Jumbo shrimp on ice. Smoked trout, and sturgeon roe. Braised duck. Spicy garlic beef. These are all perfectly reasonable rehearsal room snacks, and all of them should be encouraged.

And you know, there's this little theatre across town. They call themselves The Steppenwolf. Megan Shuchman, our illustrious and brilliant director on this project, is kind enough to lend them her talents in the hours in which she's not guiding us toward the finish line. Well, I hope they appreciate her over there. Because I think she might be bionic. Obviously, she has to be on mega-doses of folic acid, vitamin B-12, gingko biloba, omega 3 fatty acids, and acetyl-L-carnitine. How else to explain her tireless aspect and razor sharp mental acuity? I dunno. She's incredible.

And the cast of Look, we are breathing? (Or, as I like to call it, Look, we are on a five minute break, where are the snacks?) Well. OK. Most of the cast are all on this damned Paleo diet, which really and truly creates some complications at the snack table. I mean, bagels? If the cavemen didn't eat and couldn't digest a delicious fresh bagel and schmear, let us keep in mind—he lived in a damn cave. Is that how and where you want to live? And if in fact he invented the wheel, how could he then sneer so readily at such a lovely wheel-shaped baked good?

Anyhow, the cast of Look, we are breathing is brilliant. Lily Mojekwu. Need I say more? I needn't, but I will. The woman is tearing it up. She's playing a teacher who makes you wish you had been at that school for a variety of reasons. Tara Mallen. Where does she get her energy? What drug is she on? Raising a family (and yes, her husband Keith is being raised), putting together the Rivendell Salons, running nearly every aspect of the theatre, and rehearsing this show? It's superhuman. And then there's the fabulously talented twenty-something youngsters who are doing gorgeous work. Let me introduce you, if you haven't already met them.

Brendan Meyer plays Mike, our troubled young man in the show. This play is brand new. A world premiere. It's never been done. And yet, I swear he has done it before. Somehow he knows the cuts and rewrites as soon as we get them. I've never seen him with a page of the script in his hand. Ever. It's freakish.

And Brenann Stacker plays the quirky Caylee. Brenann asked me the other day, during a break at the snack table, "So, why are you here?" I said, "Me? I'm a Rivendell Ensemble member." She replied, "Yeah, why?" And I said, "Uh, well, even though it's a women's theatre company, they don't exclude men." Brenann answered, "No, I don't mean, 'Why a man,' I mean, what are you doing here? Aside from eating snacks, what do you actually do?"

Look, we are breathing.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Speak Up and Listen

By Tara Mallen, Artistic Director

"I kept thinking if I could just keep my mouth shut and do what they tell me, I'll be fine, but I wasn't really good at that."

This is a quote from an interview with one of the amazingly generous female veterans who offered her story for our WOMEN AT WAR project. It was one of the very first stories we collected. Throughout this four-year journey in creating this project, that particular quote has remained wildly resonant for me both personally and artistically.

The truth is, I am not someone who is good at keeping her mouth shut either. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have found myself in situations where while I know shutting up is the best option at hand, and I hear my voice braying those very words sure to make some difficult situation…much, much worse. I think this is innately why I was drawn to theater in the first place.

Like the female who told us that story, it is even more difficult to stay quiet when you know something’s awry, that someone is suffering, and that something really needs to be addressed. But there is a huge contradiction afoot here. A key to being successful within the American military is absolutely connected to following orders, obeying commands, and keeping your mouth shut.

As a matter of fact, a key to being successful in the business world is based on the self-same principle. For the most part, the women who serve in the American military have been good soldiers, good airmen, and good seamen. They have remained silent. My hope is that this project has allowed some of these women to finally have a voice, to no longer be invisible, and for the women who choose to serve in the American military, to begin to carve out a niche within the collective conscious.

This project has proved to be somewhat of a life-changing experience for me. I have taken so much from the personal stories these women have chosen to share. It helped me understand the value in committing your life to something bigger than yourself. I learned not to underestimate the power that a group of committed people can wield. It helped me begin to view our veterans as the assets they truly are as opposed to just a problem within our culture that needs to be dealt with. And it has taught me a tremendous amount about the simple yet often profound gift we can all offer simply by bearing witness.

What an honor to have had a chance to be part this vital conversation about how we can collectively recognize and honor these women warriors. Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

I am deeply grateful to the myriads of people who helped us find the courage to stay this often-challenging course (I mean, what theater company in their right minds produces a play about war during the holiday season?!)  I am so thankful to my collaborator Megan Carney, who showed me how to listen. Most of all, I am so indebted to those women who opted not to keep their mouths shut this time around and told us their stories.

While this run has closed, the WOMEN AT WAR journey is nowhere near over. We are now in the process of gearing up for the next phase— touring the production to extend the reach and further this important dialogue. I hope you will stay connected. I hope you might even feel inspired every now again to go ahead, don’t bite your tongue, open your mouth and speak your mind. I mean, after all, we won’t change the world if we can't at least talk about what needs to change, right?


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