Blog posts page 2

Monday, October 27, 2014

Uniforms as Costumes: Making Military Theatrical

by RTE member and Costume Designer Janice Pytel

Working on the costumes for WOMEN AT WAR has presented some unique challenges. Military uniforms are very specific to branch, to job, to location and occasion. Since we are depicting numerous locations and situations, how do we choose the right look? And, most of the stories from the veterans we interviewed are from several years ago, so the new versions of uniforms recently adopted by the various branches just didn’t seem right.

For the characters in the Army, the decision was easy. We decided to use the Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern, also known as ACUPAT, or Digicam, in the hot weather weight. This pattern of camo was used all over the world for Army combat soldiers. For the one Marine we used the desert MARPAT, a digital camo specific to the Marines. For the Air Force we used the ABU in the distinctive tiger stripe pattern. But what would the women in the Navy wear?

It became a tricky question, and one without clear answers. Naval reservists sometimes deployed with Army units or Marine units, and wore the BDUs of that branch. And so many reservists were being deployed, that there was a lack of consistency. Because we are focusing on the experiences of women who have been deployed to Iraq, we decided to put the Navy characters in the desert MARPAT rather than the Navy’s blue NWU. There is a desert version of the NWU, but I have yet to find any items in that pattern during my searches through the used racks at the local Army/Navy stores.

I’m also hesitant to add insignia, since the characters move through time and the actors are also sometimes representing more than one character. The theatrical nature of the piece demands a kind of flexibility that accurate military uniforms can’t provide.

One thing that is common among all BDUs is that they have a very unisex appearance. Some of the branches only offer one style for both men and women, and the women just have to fit into the men’s sizes. I was able to find some women’s sizes in boots and Marine fatigue pants, but by and large, the uniforms, including boots, are unisex. While they may not be completely accurate by military standards, hopefully our uniforms convey the essence of the females who served in the Middle East.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

A TINY TASTE

Written by Mary Cross, RTE member and WOMEN AT WAR cast member

During the first week of rehearsal for Women at War, director Tara Mallen thought it would be a good idea to give us a tiny taste of what boot camp is like. Enter Steve Misetic. We were shouted at because...well, I had no idea why exactly. We were punished because...well, I had no idea why exactly.

Somehow we survived that hour and a half and somehow we managed to do it without anyone bursting into tears and without anyone quitting the show. As I dragged my battered body home that night I remember thinking, "That was just a tiny taste?!?"

My next thought during that first rehearsal week was, "Wow. My fellow cast members are such a kind, funny, talented group of women!"

Then week two happened. That was the moment when each of us was given the opportunity to take on the role of Drill Sergeant for the first half hour of rehearsal. After that I thought, "Did I say 'KIND'? How many push-ups does she think a bunch of out-of-shape, lazy, undisciplined actors can DO?!?" The answer? We surprised ourselves. Turns out we could do as many as was asked/demanded of us. And, although I didn't understand the WHY on that first day with Steve, now, several weeks into rehearsals, I get it. And, although I would never have imagined myself saying it back then...thank you, Steve.

I am lucky to have been on board with the WOMEN AT WAR project almost from the beginning. The entire journey has been amazing on so many levels. From being introduced and slowly getting to actually know some of the female vets who have contributed their amazing stories, to watching a group of out-of-shape, lazy, undisciplined actors become something more.

It has been a humbling, eye-opening, heartbreaking, and at times ridiculously funny learning process. The discussions we have already had, plus the one-on-one interviews, the rehearsals that have included some of the female vets, and the town halls we have conducted after earlier workshops have all been so incredible. We cannot wait for you all to join us in the next discussion.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Thank You for A Stirring Season

For our second full season in our new theater we went out of our comfort zone and selected a slate of brand new work that focused on intentionally “stirring the pot.” The projects we hoped would instigate vital conversations in and around topics that we - as Chicagoans - are all too familiar with but often avoid talking about. The projects were centered around provocative topics such as the horrifying epidemic of gun violence in Chicago, the changing roles of women in the military, racial tensions in the workplace, and finally, the stultifying effects of a negative self image.

We engaged several familiar faces from Rivendell but also broadened our artistic circle immeasurably – collaborating with several new actors, designers and directors. The productions and workshops were all incredibly well received and beautifully executed; we extended our reach into new audiences, we also actually extended our performances and saw a dramatic increase in our total box-office…all great reasons to celebrate.

Yet as I reflect back, the thing that I am most energized by is the actual dialogue these projects inspired. A vivid moment that has stayed with me all year…a retired Colonel, during the panel discussion at the UIC workshop production of Women At War, reached over and put her hand on the arm of an enlisted Navy veteran and assured her that her daughter would one day forgive her for being absent and be so proud of her mom’s service. She shared that she too had carried tremendous guilt about leaving her kids but eventually her children grew to not only understand but to be truly grateful for their mom’s service. I remember thinking, “Well, if nothing else comes of this season, this single moment was worth it.” But then it happened again during a talk-back at Rasheeda Speaking when an elegant lady from the South side turned in her seat to address the row of audience members behind her and so, so eloquently explained what it was like to walk into a room and know that the first thing everyone noted about you was the color of your skin. And then once again during Eat Your Heart Out when a teenage boy stood up and spoke aloud a truth that had been buzzing in all of our brains: “Why do we always care so much about what other people think of us?”

These discussions were not only just what we were hoping for – they unlocked each of these plays for me personally in such a profound way. They reminded me of the incredible power that theater can wield and renewed my hope that by engaging with our audiences – even if on a tiny scale in our intimate fifty seat theater – we can do our part in making our communities stronger and healthier.

Some things are just hard to talk about and I am so grateful to each of you that got down and dirty with us in stirring that pot. I can’t wait to continue the conversation next fall when we launch our twentieth anniversary season!

Have a fantastic summer.

Warmly,
Tara
 

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Friday, May 16, 2014

A LITTLE MONSTER

- By Regina Garcia, RTE member and EAT YOUR HEART OUT Scenic Designer

Designing or just organizing space to support a story is a great adventure. Difficult, frustrating, a thrilling adventure at that; certainly not easy, not to mention that the process changes every time. But I do love addressing the challenges and variables of each story that comes my way, and finding potential solutions to movement and composition in the venue I’m working in.

It is a pleasure to reconnect with Courtney Baron’s work and address some of the challenges that her story has to offer. This piece is a little monster! Scenes are short and we have to move quickly from location to location. Understanding each of them individually (scenes and locations) and how the characters would move inside them is key as part of the process. The individual scenes in this play are also loaded with character information, and as the play builds structurally, scenes move faster and we have characters and spaces overlapping. Transitions become more fluid and they indeed pack a punch!

The Rivendell venue is intimate, so the production team was careful in selecting the essential objects and furnishings that would tell the story and punctuate it within their allocated footprint in the theater. Are you tired already? It’s tricky stuff--very much a little puzzle. Try designing multiple shows at a time! But I digress.

The design process has also been a great opportunity to revisit David Hockney’s work, including his collages and scenic designs for opera, which are still not of interest to me now that I’m older. Did I say that out loud?

Initial images of interest from his portfolio came from Hallie Gordon, our director, who brought in one of his early works called “Invented Man Revealing Still Life” (1975) to our initial meeting. Its composition, a study of space and figure, clearly delineates a foreground, middle and background. This was actually a great way in into a potential landscape and our collaboration.

The idea of being selective in our use of scenery and furnishings was determined early on from this image, not to mention the curtain & rod above that seems to cap the painting’s composition. After several models (rough whites) and conversations about availability of resources and storytelling, we decided that we would play with the fragments of the individual rooms.

These, with their considerably smaller footprint, would be capped above and the parameters set through the articulation of its corners and other frames: windows and doors. Witnessing private moments through these frames was of interest, especially for the more heartbreaking moments with Evie, the young lady in our play, as well as dividing the audience into two groups so that each side had a different point of view.

The set is ultimately the visual articulation of a house, and the idea of home and community has always been intriguing to me. But that is definitely another post. The characters in Eat Your Heart Out make up one mini-community of folks that have yet to discover their role in each other’s lives. Come take a look!

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Being in the Room

By Ebony Joy, RASHEEDA SPEAKING Asst. Director/Understudy

There’s this saying that I love: “If you ever find that you're the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” In other words, surround yourself with greatness. If you want to be excellent at something, get around the people who do that something with excellence. This was the first of many appealing aspects that drew me to Rasheeda Speaking. The collective experience in the room was irresistible. I mean, who’s kidding who? I got to watch Sandy Shinner, Joel Drake Johnson, and some of Chicago’s finest actors including (clears throat) Ora Jones...create every day?! There was no question.

I wanted to be in that room!

One of the many beautiful aspects of theatre is that it’s fundamentally a collaborative art form. It exists and lives only through collective efforts. There is, of course the collaborative exchange that happens with each audience, but there’s an innate intimacy, a trust, a union that forms between the artists involved in the production. There’s a unique synergy created by the group that will never be recreated. Good or bad, this is why productions often feel like a big family. So for me, the opportunity to share space and be in the room with these artists--to be part of that creative family--was an opportunity I wasn’t going to let pass me by.

Working alongside these artists, I knew that the experience would be a master class of sorts. There was a cumulative total of somewhere near 150 years of service in Chicago theatre. I’d been a fan of everyone involved in the project for many years. It was undeniable that I’d gain a wealth of knowledge from simply watching these great artists do what they do. So, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of this terrific production!

I can honestly say what I’ve gained from the experience has humbled as well as motivated me on many levels. The professionalism and craftsmanship in that room enriched me in profound ways; I was witness to concepts and paths that illuminated and inspired me to become a stronger, braver and more prepared artist.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

FULL DISCLOSURE

By playwright Joel Drake Johnson

Photo of Joel Drake Johnson by Joe Mazza at BraveLuxFull disclosure: I am a 64 year old white gay man writing about a middle aged black woman. Originally the play was going to be about a 64 year old white gay man and his negative encounter with a middle aged black woman who would figure only peripherally in the story. Then I read a New York Times interview with Viola Davis who was performing in a Broadway production of August Wilson’s Fences and was experiencing great joy in doing so because she said it was rare for a play (or movie or TV show) to focus on the story of a black woman. I took this as my cue, cut the 64 year old white gay man and put at the center of the play a middle aged black woman whose name is Jaclyn.

Part of my inspiration for the character of Jaclyn came from the stories of two women who, each in their own way, are casebook studies of what happens to many black women in a workplace dominated by white people. One of these women found the atmosphere of her workplace so noxious that she filled her desk space with fans to ward off poisonous vibes from her computer and crystals that would soak up the dirty air and bring her peace. She also had the habit of asking her boss such questions as “Do you think white people and black people should socialize?” The other woman had worked hard all her life to own a beautiful bungalow on the south side of Chicago, but felt that the Latino family who moved next door ruined the neighborhood and the value of her home. This negative feeling concerning Latinos even crossed over into her working relationships.

Ebony Joy, assistant director and understudy for Ora Jones, found a lot of research that supports the idea that black women in the work place are often marginalized, treated differently than their white counterparts, and even asked to dress and talk in ways that match their white colleagues. This suppression affects these women in ways both physical and mental--and is--in many ways--what Rasheeda Speaking is about, a theme that also includes Jaclyn’s journey to unleash herself from the subtle prejudice and paranoia that have suppressed her abilities and therefore, her work life.

Luckily, I’ve been joined on this journey with a wealth of talented theatre artists who, despite the possible controversy of the play, did not blink an eye. And trust me when I say I needed the help. The idea of the play frightened me, took me places I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, and made me say things about people I wasn’t sure I should say. But under the leadership of one of the great directors of the Chicago stage, one of the best ensembles I’ve worked with, and the dynamic work of a fabulous design and technical team, I made it to the other side. And hopefully, Jaclyn did, too.

Photo of Joel Drake Johnson by Joe Mazza with BraveLux.

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