In The Spotlight: Playwright, Aline Lathrop

July 8th, 2015

By Aaron Arbiter, Festival Assistant

Aline Lathrop

Playwright Aline Lathrop

Aline Lathrop is busy these days as playwright in residence at 16th Street Theater.  Her peers know her to be a writer who is always challenging herself, but perhaps a better testament to her success as a playwright is her unflinching desire to not only ask important questions but to reach truths that are sometimes uncomfortable. As Aline puts it, “I think that provides the audience with release, especially when their own fear or shame is voiced.” This of course also means that her play …And Eat It Too ventures into territory that she knows well, balancing work and family. For this profile, Aline offers thoughts on her artistic influences and process as well as a peak at family life in Hyde Park.

AA: Where did you start out in theater?  How did you come to be a writer?

AL: I started as an actress. Actually, I first wanted to be a mime, which I took rather seriously for several years starting around the age of three. I realize now that mime just happened to be my first introduction to live dramatic performance. A few years later when I saw my first play, I wanted to be an actress, and I had the good fortune to work and train at Delaware Theatre Company, which is a LORT D regional theatre, as a child and through high school. By the time I arrived at Northwestern for Theatre, my craving for being under the lights was starting to fade. I took a playwriting class, and discovered the thrill of sitting in the back of a darkened theatre watching actors bring my words to life, and that is where I have remained.

AA: Mime is certainly a unique starting point, what other styles or artists have influenced you?

AL: Chekhov is a big influence for his stories of yearning and striving, and also for his character-driven humor. The first Mamet play I saw taught me how sparse and musical a play can be. My greatest influences are probably not playwrights, however. As a young actor, Michael Shurtleff’s “Audition,” was my bible, and I learned stakes and tactics from him. I think this is why most of my plays are ensemble-based. Georgia O’Keefe was also an early influence. When I was first writing plays, I fell in love with her paintings, and one day reading some biographical material, I came upon a description of a time when she made the decision to paint only in black until the painting demanded color. “I believe it was June before I needed blue,” she said, and I decided that I would write with that same discipline of economy.

AA: What about when you aren’t writing?

AL: I have a second career in new product development and management, which I think has honed my skills in building a story from the ground up. I’m also a mother, which means that I live with people who learn and grow so fast that they put me to shame, and inspire me to be more creative and productive. It also means that I spend a lot of time learning and creating beside them, as I facilitate the pursuit of their passions. I spent a large chunk of today, for instance, helping them troubleshoot the fretboard of a cigar box guitar they are building.

AA: What was the genesis of …And Eat It Too?

AL: I saw a BBC documentary on a jetlagged night in London about mothers who had decided to stay at home with their children, but whose husbands did not respect their choice. Their lives seemed to have turned into a 1950’s stereotype of gender roles that made both the husbands and wives unhappy. It made me think about how the choice to stay at home or go back to work, when one has that choice, is hard to predict, and hard to compromise on, and I wondered what happens in a relationship when a couple has a baby and discovers that their views are not aligned.

AA: Has writing this play changed you in any way?

AL: In most of my plays, I experiment with a theatrical device I haven’t played with before. With …And Eat It Too that device is a lot of overlapping scenes, and characters that share the same space while being in different scenes. I actually wrote the first draft of …And Eat It Too several years ago, so I’ve written more plays since then. This play freed me up to play with space and time in new ways, which I discovered I really enjoy, and I have taken this further in subsequent plays. I have also worked on this play longer, and rewritten it more times, than any other play. I hadn’t worked on it for several years until recently, but working on it again now I have the distance to be a script doctor for my own work. This has been a great learning experience, and it has helped me to create a similar distance for work that I have generated more recently.

AA: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given as a writer or artist?

AL: Write a lot of plays.

2015 marks the eighth time Polarity has produced a Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. The Festival provides a six month development process for the selected playwrights and affords them a series of feedback encounters with a director and dramaturg selected for their experience with new plays, as well as with the play-going public.

This year’s festival includes …And Eat It Too by Aline Lathrop, directed by Hutch Pimentel, Josh Altman, Dramaturg; Leavings by Gail Parrish, directed by Helen Young, Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg; Girl Found by Barbara Lhota, directed by Dan Foss, Sarah Laeuchli, Dramaturg; andThe Charisma of Flying Saucers by Mary Beth Hoerner, directed by Rachel Ramirez, JD Caudill, Dramaturg.

The 2015 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays runs July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $10 per performance or $15 for a full festival pass. Seating is general admission. For tickets and information visit www.petheatre.com or call the box office at 773-404-7336.

In the Spotlight: Playwright, Mary Beth Hoerner

July 6th, 2015

By Aaron Arbiter, Festival Assistant

Playwright Mary Beth Hoerner

Playwright Mary Beth Hoerner

As the youngest of five children, Mary Beth Hoerner knows what it’s like to watch and listen to the people around her. Her powers of observation are perhaps the key to understanding her as a prolific writer of plays, stories, memoirs and more. In The Charisma of Flying Saucers, Mary Beth offers us her take on one of the most widely speculated about questions in existence: are we alone?

New Mexico, 1958 – there are lights in the sky and a mysterious women is found in a field with no memory. For science-fiction fans the scene may feel familiar, but Mary Beth draws from a multitude of influences to tell a story that feels fresh and relevant. Is the truth out there? We encourage you to seek out your own answers. In the meantime, Mary Beth tells us about her experiences as a playwright.

AA: How did you find your path to becoming a playwright?

MBH: In my high school French class, we were required to read Beckett, Moliere, and the absurdists—so that was fun. I was so sure that I was misreading Waiting for Godot, that I cheated and bought a copy in English, and read them side-by-side. I realized that 1) I was not misreading—that was just a very new and weird world I was being exposed to—and 2) part of the problem was that my all-girls, Catholic high school French book did not provide translations for words like erection. In any case, reading the above left a mark. 

In college I majored in English, writing, and political science, but one of my English teachers told the class that it was more likely that one of us would get struck by lightning than one of us would get a play produced. So I really never considered playwriting an option. I think I took every drama-based lit class there was though—some of them twice as the writers covered changed from time to time.

 Flash forward many years to when I went to Columbia for an MFA in writing. I took playwriting classes for fun, won a scholarship to have a play produced, loved the collaborative environment of putting on a play, and here I am.

AA: Would you cite any specific writers who have had an impact on you?

MBH: If Beckett were alive today, I’d be stalking him full-time. I couldn’t begin to list all of the authors I worship, and I don’t think anyone influences me on a conscious level, but I am drawn to the weird, quirky, sometimes dark, and goofy—so apart from any lit that falls into that category, think Cohn Bros., “Portlandia,” etc.

AA: How do you spend your time when you aren’t writing? Do you think this influences your work?

MBH: I do go to the theater a lot so of course this influences my work. In addition to assessing the overall story, which I am the most hungry for, I am always interested in how the playwright gets characters on and off stage, how the exposition is presented, and what the audience responds to. This latter element is a mystery to me as I almost never laugh at what the audience laughs at, and when I laugh the rest of the audience is silent. I think people desperately need and want to laugh—so in this play I employed the familiar setting of 1950s sci-fi that people can relate to but tried to put a spin on it so that it was—God willing—surprising, interesting, and fun. 

I read a fair amount about the brain and am fascinated by how little we still really understand it. I see that influence a lot in this story.

AA: So what was the genesis of this play in particular?

MBH: When I was doing research for my play Atomic Honeymoon, also set in the 1950s, I kept coming across all this UFO stuff, and I thought that would be fun to write about some time. Then when I found out that Carl Jung had written a book on flying saucers I started looking into the topic more seriously.

Many of the characters are either based on real people or are conglomerates of people I read about who were prominent thinkers on UFOs at the time. I wish I could take credit for all of the crazy coming out of Professor Turnbull, but the strangest words coming out of his mouth were said by real people. 

Sheriff, D., and Reverend David are all out of my head. I think the genesis of David though came from an experience I had with a priest. I needed to make an appointment to talk to one, and the time he met me was 10:30 p.m. When I went to see him, he was incredibly ill—red, puffy nose, hoarse throat, drippy eyes—the whole bit, and I thought man, the buck stops with him. It occurred to me that he would have no one to turn to if he had a crisis of faith—no human person.

AA: The Roswell incident has been heavily referenced in popular culture. Why write about it now?

MBH: Charisma takes place actually a decade after the Roswell incident. In addition to what is explained in my previous answers, I do not think we have made much progress in explaining what so many people have seen and continue to see. I wanted to bring in the legitimate voice of Jung so these people might be taken more seriously. It was also fascinating to me to read about some religious visions and to see how similar some sounded to UFO experiences. Drawing comparisons between the two opened up some interesting questions.

AA: Science fiction themes are historically underrepresented in theater. What is your perspective on the genre?

MBH: I am not a huge science fiction fan—I think because it is often more about the situation and special effects and less about character and relationships. I think people have shied away from attempting sci-fi on stage because film is a better medium for pulling it off (and even film has had its troubles, esp. in the ‘50s!). Another reason is that it is not taken as seriously as other types of literature so it is especially difficult to take on those themes and not get dismissed as schlock or fluff. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to write a synopsis for this play, not only because it is an ensemble and doesn’t have one hero whose journey is easily summarized, but because so many eyes roll when they hear the term flying saucer. Sci-fi can also become dated quickly as the future keeps catching up with us.

I think all those challenges are why we should be attempting sci-fi on stage. There is only so far you can take the effects. Trust the audience to fill in the gaps, and provide a good story.

AA: I think you’ve addressed this pretty well, but were there any challenges you had that were unique to this project?

MBH: In doing research I came across a ton of very scary material, including believable- sounding contactee experiences and terrifying unexplainable animal massacres on bizarrely large scales. But I want people to run to the theater not run from it so I chose to not go there. 

  • Making Carl Jung’s theories digestible in one- or two-sentence increments was a unique challenge I do not recommend.
  • Tackling serious questions about existence while maintaining an element of fun is a very challenging endeavor. Some people want it to be one or the other—so striking that balance is tricky, and it is something I will always be working on.

AA: What is the best advice you’ve gotten as a writer?

As a beginning writer, the best advice was, “Don’t write something you want your mother to read.” We self-censor so much anyway, this was something I needed to hear early on. For playwriting, one that stands out is, “Tell the story you want to tell, and let the director worry about how to pull it off.” The only problem with that is I ended up co-directing Atomic Honeymoon—so it was left to me after all to figure out how to pull off an atomic test blast on stage.

One of the things I love most about going to a Martin McDonagh play is to see how the director pulls off what he throws at them. Implying there’s a flying saucer in the sky is nothing compared to killing cats on stage.

AA: I’ve been asking this question to each of this year’s playwrights, but do you think it is significant that this is the second year in a row where the Dionysus Cup has featured all female playwrights?

My first class at Chicago Dramatists was a marketing class. We had to prepare a resume as a playwright, and I listed my name as M.B. Hoerner, thinking I had a better chance not being female. Imagine my surprise when I was told theaters want to produce female playwrights. That said, I think in order for the theater to survive and pull in new audiences the best stories have to be told—period.

AA: Is there something that you hope audiences will take away from seeing your play?

MBH: There is no moral or lesson to be learned here, but here are a few of my hopes:

  • That people will think about some of the mysteries presented in the story
  • That they think about how large a role the unseen plays in our lives—and that this will help people to observe, question, wonder, read . . .
  • That people will think about how their weakness might actually be a strength
  • That even when big questions about life are explored all it really comes down to is your relationships—so be present there
  • That the government is very selective about what info it shares. What is it keeping from us now that we deserve to know? Who is making these decisions? What is the agenda of the person providing the statistic?
  • The characters don’t notice what takes place at the end of the play. What in your own life is in plain sight that you do not see?
  • That we still don’t know that much about what else is “out there” than we did in the fifties. The assumption is that religion and science are at odds. I hope the play blurs that distinction. Science and religion share the desire to explain our existence. Both tell imperfect stories, but both can provide (a bit) of solace.

2015 marks the eighth time Polarity has produced a Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. The Festival provides a six month development process for the selected playwrights and affords them a series of feedback encounters with a director and dramaturg selected for their experience with new plays, as well as with the play-going public.

This year’s festival includes …And Eat It Too by Aline Lathrop, directed by Hutch Pimentel, Josh Altman, Dramaturg; Leavings by Gail Parrish, directed by Helen Young, Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg; Girl Found by Barbara Lhota, directed by Dan Foss, Sarah Laeuchli, Dramaturg; andThe Charisma of Flying Saucers by Mary Beth Hoerner, directed by Rachel Ramirez, JD Caudill, Dramaturg.

The 2015 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays runs July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $10 per performance or $15 for a full festival pass. Seating is general admission. For tickets and information visit www.petheatre.com or call the box office at 773-404-7336.

 

In the Spotlight: Gail Parrish

June 30th, 2015

By Aaron Arbiter, Festival Assistant

Playwright Gail Parrish

Playwright Gail Parrish

When states adopted Jim Crow laws decades after the Civil War, many southern black families moved to Chicago and other northern cities to escape violence and to seek a better life in what is now called “The Great Migration.” Over a hundred years later we know that that movement from south to north was not a compete exodus- the bondage of African-Americans and the insidious persecution that followed plays out in ways that affect every American.

Gail Parrish understands these patterns all too well. For over 30 years she worked to tear down the walls that divide us by race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation as she helmed organizations that promote dialogue and offer the potential for positive change.

We are thrilled to bring Gail Parrish’s play, Leavings, to life as part of the Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays (July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center). Leavings is more than a play which addresses the stranglehold of racism- a grip that reaches even those among us who like to think that we “do not see race.” It’s a haunting and ambitious piece spanning generations, tackling politics and family with humor and grace. Gail has given us a play that we are proud to present in this year’s festival and we are excited that she has agreed to share her wisdom:

AA: What started you on the path to being a writer?

GP: Writing has always been the way I express myself most naturally. I started writing plays as an undergraduate at Howard University when I chose playwriting as an academic concentration. Before that, I tried my hand at poetry and wrote some terrible short stories, the worst of which was a murder mystery entitled, “The New Year’s Eve Gun” that I wrote – and illustrated – when I was eight.

AA: What about when you aren’t writing?

GP: I spend most of my leisure time enjoying and sharing time with my family – my husband, Maurice, my children, Ted, Andy, Brandon and Cara, and my grandson, Evan. Theater, music, movies, watching basketball, travelling, discovering and exploring new places are some of my interests. I’m a board member of Coming to the Table, an organization I learned about through the genealogy work I do. CTTT acknowledges, explores and helps people interested in healing wounds from racism. I also practice yoga, but not as faithfully as I did in my younger days. Every aspect of my life, whether dramatic, mundane or anything in between, influences my writing.

AA: Were there any events or people who inspired you to write this play?

GP: I had been working on my family’s genealogy for several years when I made one of my most important and valuable genealogy discoveries – the will of the slave holder of my 3rd great-grandmother, Maria, in which he bequeaths her to his daughter, Sophronia. Sophronia moved from North Carolina to Alabama to live with her married sister and took Maria with her. At fifteen, Maria was impregnated by Sophronia’s brother-in-law, the 37- year-old head of their household, Jake. As I read the numerous glowing accounts of this man’s life that were readily available online– his Civil War service, his civic activities, his work, his wife, their children, his funeral, pictures of him and even the large house he had built, I was left to merely speculate about Maria’s life in that big house as an enslaved, unprotected young Black woman, separated from her family, working as a servant. Leavings is inspired by and dedicated to Maria Kibler, her children, and all my other relatives who endured and thrived despite the years of enslavement and its aftermath.

AA: So, there’s an extra element of reality for you?

GP: Many of the events in the play are based on things my family experienced. Even though they are the stories of my family, most African American families can tell the same stories with varying details. Racial passing, Jim Crow segregation, lack of protection from violence, these were facts of Black life in the north and south. The wounds created by this past are still open and grow larger because racism is still a fact of life. But Leavings is not a play about Black families exclusively. It is a story about all of us because all of us, Black and white, are shaped by a past that continues to exert a huge influence on our lives today. Until we fully and honestly confront this past, these ghosts — how they were born and the patterns, mindsets and actions that keep them alive today – will continue to do damage.

AA: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a writer?

GP: Years ago I was constantly on the verge of quitting writing because I just couldn’t figure out how to balance it with my day-to-day life. I admired Gwendolyn Brooks and knew she was a mother of young children so I decided I’d write to her for advice, even though I was a stranger to her. I laid out my situation – four kids, full-time job, no time to write, how did she do it? To my amazement she wrote back. Her response was only a few words scribbled on paper: “That was my situation, exactly! Good luck!” In those words, brief as they were, Mrs. Brooks told me all I needed to know – that there was no magic formula and the only solution was to dig down deep and just keep writing. So I did.

AA: This is the second year of having four female playwrights as our finalists. Is this significant?

GP: Having all female playwrights for the second year is significant because it demonstrates the wealth of new and interesting stories and perspectives that are available for audiences to experience when storytellers whose voices may have previously been unheard are provided space to speak – loudly. By having more women’s voices in the theatre our society benefits by being able to experience a greater variety of styles, rhythms and viewpoints, which enriches us all.

AA: What do you hope that audiences take with them after seeing your play?

GP: I hope that people come to a greater appreciation of how individuals, families and entire communities experience the impact of racism throughout generations, and that the resulting problems will not be resolved simply by the passage of time or some simple solution. I also hope that audiences feel that additional, truthful light has been shed on some difficult aspects of the past and our racial situation. Today, events are presenting us with an opportunity to deal honestly with some of these deep seated issues, if we are willing to embrace the opportunity. The question each of us must answer is whether we will call up the necessary courage and seize that opportunity; or, if individually and collectively we will let the issues continue to fester, to plague us and become part of our legacy to future generations who will continue to pay the price for our inability or unwillingness to act.

2015 marks the eighth time Polarity has produced a Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. The Festival provides a six month development process for the selected playwrights and affords them a series of feedback encounters with a director and dramaturg selected for their experience with new plays, as well as with the play-going public.

This year’s festival includes …And Eat It Too by Aline Lathrop, directed by Hutch Pimentel, Josh Altman, Dramaturg; Leavings by Gail Parrish, directed by Helen Young, Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg; Girl Found by Barbara Lhota, directed by Dan Foss, Sarah Laeuchli, Dramaturg; and The Charisma of Flying Saucers by Mary Beth Hoerner, directed by Rachel Ramirez, JD Caudill, Dramaturg.

The 2015 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays runs July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $10 per performance or $15 for a full festival pass. Seating is general admission. For tickets and information visit www.petheatre.com or call the box office at 773-404-7336.

In the Spotlight: Playwright, Barbara Lhota

June 26th, 2015

By Aaron Arbiter, Festival Assistant

Barbara Lhota

Playwright Barbara Lhota

Born and raised in Detroit shortly after the infamous 12th Street Riots, Barbara Lhota is not afraid to confront issues of identity in her plays. Girl Found is a charged character study about damage and survival set fittingly in present-day Detroit, where past conflicts shine a light on contemporary strife. In her own words, “what people perceive as truth is flexible when what they desire – approval, safety, love – is on the line.”

Girl Found is populated with fierce female characters so it’s not surprising that Barbara is also an Artistic Associate with Babes with Blades Theatre Company. While her plays range in style Barbara manages to balance the dark and often cruel word that her characters inhabit with moments of hope and the possibility for redemption. We are excited to bring Girl Found to life as part of the Dionysos Cup Festival (July 9 – 19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center) and have asked Barbara to share her thoughts on writing, life, and theater:

AA: How did you get your start playwriting?

BL: I was an actor and in speech throughout high school and college. I realized at some point that I was pretty shy when it comes down to it. It was hard for me to risk as an actor. Somehow writing the story felt more natural to my personality and I was more willing to take those risks in the story-telling.

AA: Are there particular storytellers that have influenced you?

BL: Theresa Rebeck, who I went to school with at Brandeis and convinced me that that was the place to apply, was and is a big influence. I’m influenced by documentaries in general and Ira Glass from This American Life. I’m intrigued by true life stories that have rich, vulnerable, flawed characters. Arthur Miller is also a big influence on my work. Arthur Miller wrote eloquently about regular people: lives and conflicted choices with ramifications that resonate from the personal to world tragedy. All My Sons breaks my heart and is a perfectly structured, timeless play. I remember the big tobacco families like R. J. Reynolds repeating the business mantra “cigarettes don’t cause cancer” while watching their family members, faithful smokers, die and I thought, it’s still all so relevant.

AA: When you aren’t writing, how do you spend time?

BL: I watch a lot of documentaries. I see a lot of theater. I also work as a market research manager in a corporate environment. I listen to a ton of podcasts…Invisibilia, Radio Lab, This American Life. Snap Judgment…etc. I think they are heavily influential because they tend to be true life stories and stories about human behavior.

AA: Speaking of true life, why did you choose Detroit as the setting for Girl Found?

BL: I grew up in Detroit. I watched a lot of false hope for the city. I also experienced the slow decay of the buildings and the beauty of hope.

AA: Were there any real events or people who inspired you?

BL: The documentary The Imposter. Frédéric Bourdin was a clever French imposter who pretended to be a missing boy from Texas. Bourdin was nearly 15 years older than the missing boy and did not look a bit like the kid but the family believed him. It’s just fascinating and strange. Anyone he didn’t fool stayed quiet. It reminds me of the old children’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I have always been interested in that story.

AA: Are there specific challenges when writing about real events?

BL: One of the challenges I find with true life stories, particularly when they are strange, is that folks say that couldn’t happen when it did, it does. I love working with true life events because they give you a framework to riff off of.

AA: What were some other challenges unique to this process?

BL: The fact that I have created a character who speaks in monologues to a disembodied voice has some challenges for staging and the actors. It’s particularly suited to this process because I can test how well it works and play with it without the fear of critical opprobrium.

AA: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given as a writer or artist in general?

BL: Follow your own instincts.

AA: This is the second year in a row that the Dionysos Cup features all female playwrights, is this significant?

BL: I think it’s wonderful to be among such talent. I’m glad women playwrights are starting to be recognized more. I feel like our stories can sometimes be less linear and I wonder if that structure has been less familiar in the past. As that structure becomes more familiar and the decision-makers/producers are more mixed gender, I think women’s stories will continue to move center stage.

AA: So what do you hope audiences will take away from the play?

My ultimate goal is to have audiences walk away from the play asking themselves questions: “Why did this family believe this?” “What makes us vulnerable to seeing what we want to see?” “What would make a young woman want to manipulate others when her only gain is purely emotional?” Hopefully their responses are complex and varied.

2015 marks the eighth time Polarity has produced a Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. The Festival provides a six month development process for the selected playwrights and affords them a series of feedback encounters with a director and dramaturg selected for their experience with new plays, as well as with the play-going public.

This year’s festival includes …And Eat It Too by Aline Lathrop, directed by Hutch Pimentel, Josh Altman, Dramaturg; Leavings by Gail Parrish, directed by Helen Young, Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg; Girl Found by Barbara Lhota, directed by Dan Foss, Sarah Laeuchli, Dramaturg; and The Charisma of Flying Saucers by Mary Beth Hoerner, directed by Rachel Ramirez, JD Caudill, Dramaturg.

The 2015 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays runs July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets are $10 per performance or $15 for a full festival pass. Seating is general admission. For tickets and information visit www.petheatre.com or call the box office at 773-404-7336.

The Life of Literature in ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE

May 13th, 2015

By Deborah Blumenthal, Dramaturg

When writing the book that would later inspire him to pen Anna in the Afterlife, Richard Engling always knew that the text he was crafting to honor his friend Fern Chertkow would be a novel, and not a memoir. He and Fern both loved fiction, and the kind of truth that can come through in it, and so in tribute to her, he chose to tap into that shared love – and in true literary style, he did it both in form and content.

Jean Marie Koon plays a role based on real life author Carol Bergé, with Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew.

Jean Marie Koon plays a role based on real life author Carol Bergé, with Sheila Willis and Richard Engling as young writers, Anna and Matthew.

It’s the content part that’s become most alive in Anna in the Afterlife, though. The play is, of course, fiction – a nod back to Engling’s original choice – but unlike the novel, the play unfolds on its feet in front of us. And the love of literature is everywhere; it’s in the characters and in Engling’s text.

We see Anna and Matthew as graduate students in creative writing, sharing and nurturing an understanding of one another born out of and built on a love of fiction. They reference their influences, their loves, writers of whom the other reminds them: Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Jack Kerouac. In their younger years, they relish in living their lives in the footsteps of the greats: Hemingway, Orwell, etc.

Lionel Gentle plays the African poet and novelist Mbella Sonne Dipoko.

Lionel Gentle plays the African poet and novelist Mbella Sonne Dipoko.

But the literary presence in the play extends beyond a set of characters who love books, words, and their craft. It is in the very fabric of the play.

Matthew often contemplates the idea of destiny, and is asked to answer difficult questions about unfinished work, or what he was meant to do – what he could do with the remainder of his life. He also thinks, often, of time he could spend with his daughter.

In a script development meeting several months ago, Richard Engling and I were discussing some of the thematic threads that are woven throughout the play, and the various directions in which he might take them. There was a lot bubbling around about legacy, I remember saying – questions about what an artist leaves behind, and how much that matters, if it ever does. “It’s like the Sunday in the Park With George thing,” I said.

For the unindoctrinated, Sondheim’s beautiful “Children and Art” suggests that those are the two things we are truly capable of leaving behind. Art, like a child – or a child, like art – is a legacy. We love our children, and we put what we love in our art. Matthew’s most pivotal moment, perhaps, in his journey, comes when he thinks about what he wants to leave behind.

Sheila Willis plays Anna, a character inspired by the fiction writer Fern Chertkow.

Sheila Willis plays Anna, a character inspired by the fiction writer Fern Chertkow.

Anna and Matthew were collaborators, too, and there’s a line in the play about the possibility of a book honoring Anna. Should Matthew choose to do this, he will help Anna achieve a legacy she might have wanted, while also creating his own. And, as art so adeptly imitates life, he will do just what Engling has set out to do in writing his works: to find some truth in storytelling — to explore life vis-à-vis fiction.

Don’t miss the production that Around the Town Chicago calls “deeply and refreshingly personal” and “complex, rich, and psychologically sophisticated“.  Anna in the Afterlife runs through May 24 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets may be purchased at the box office, online, or by calling 773-404-7336. Those looking to enhance their theatre-going experience by reading the novels of THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY can purchase the books at the Greenhouse Theater Center, City Lit Books, The Book Cellar, or on Amazon.com.

The Evolution of ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE

April 21st, 2015
Dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal

Dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal

By Deborah Blumenthal

Anna in the Afterlife (launching its world premiere run this week) has had a long life, as it were. Playwright Richard Engling began working on the play in 2010, and it appeared in Polarity’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays in 2011. In the years since the festival, “it’s always been in this process of improvement,” says Engling. There have been table reads, staged readings, and discussions, and he has enlisted feedback throughout the process from actors, director Susan Padveen, who has been on board since 2011, his co-founder Ann Keen, his daughter Zoë (also a writer), and dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal.

Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew.

Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew in rehearsal.

The play has undergone a lot of change in its five years in development, not the least of which is its title: the older version was not called Anna in the Afterlife – it was called Absolution, and did not actually take place in the afterlife, a development that now, according to Engling, “really defines what the production looks like.” Padveen recalls, “I can’t even remember the first form this play took…. It’s been really interesting to see it change in terms of the container for the story: the story has always been the same, but how it was told and what the structure was and what the arc of it was have really changed a lot, and in a really good way, I think.”

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Kevin Grubb as Elliot, Richard Engling as Matthew and Shawna Tucker as Patty.

Anna’s history, however, extends back farther than just the script’s development process. When Engling’s friend and fellow writer Fern Chertkow died in 1988, he wanted to craft a literary tribute to her. The result was his novel, Visions of Anna, which later motivated him to write the play, although the play is much more inspired by than adapted from the novel: “[several years after writing the book], an idea started coming to me to approach that material again, but for the stage… This was not an adaptation of the novel, this was a different way of approaching the same source material.” Padveen agrees: “I never felt that it was adapted from something else. I know that the story was the same, but I really felt that Richard attacked it as a stand-alone piece.” The play, along with Chertkow’s book She Plays in Darkness and Engling’s novel, is now part of The Afterlife Trilogy.

The development process has continued throughout rehearsal, albeit in different ways. Being in the rehearsal room has brought to light new things about the script: Padveen explains that “as it’s gotten up on its feet, a lot of the exposition that was in the text has been less necessary, so some of that has gone away, and the changes being made in the past few weeks have been smaller, says Engling: “We’ve made a lot of little changes, mostly line changes, a lot of little cutting. We dropped one scene and wrote a new one… mostly refinements and trimming and that sort of thing.” Engling has also taken on the unusual task of balancing being both actor and playwright (he plays Matthew), and although it is challenging and demanding, it also “really informs” the writing process: being in all of the scenes gives him an “intimate view,” and “being inside” it all has helped him continue to improve the script.

Bryan Breau as Colin and Ellyn Nugent as Afterlife Anna

Bryan Breau as Colin and Ellyn Nugent as Afterlife Anna

As performances draw closer and the Anna team gets ready to welcome its first audiences, an exciting mystery remains in the process; there are still things to be discovered, and surprises still to come, particularly as the design components come to life. Engling considers himself lucky to have a team of esteemed designers collaborating on the show: “When you write a play and you say, okay, this is in the afterlife, you’re really putting it out there for the designers to come up with something interesting. And I had no idea how it would be affected. I had some inklings of what I thought it might look like… but it’s really an exciting process to have people coming in doing lights and sounds and projections and composing music. It’s like we’ve unleashed this little army.”

Anna in the Afterlife runs April 22-May 24 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets may be purchased at the box office, online, or by calling 773-404-7336. Those looking to enhance their theatre-going experience by reading the novels of THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY can purchase the books at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, City Lit Books, The Book Cellar, or on Amazon.com.

Welcome to the Afterlife!

April 8th, 2015

What is it like to be dead? That’s one of the mysteries explored in the world premiere of Anna in the Afterlife. Written by Richard Engling and directed by Susan Padveen, this play is also part of the ground-breaking AFTERLIFE TRILOGY, which includes Engling’s novel Visions of Anna and Fern Chertkow’s novel, She Plays in Darkness. In the play, novelist Matthew Harken finds himself in an afterlife world where he’s not quite alive and not quite dead. While his body lingers in a coma, Matthew must decide whether or not to return to the living. As he learns to navigate the complicated world of the afterlife, he is joined by friends who have passed on–including his dear friend and fellow novelist, Anna Toyevsky, who took her own life and has split into three separate beings.

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Ellyn Nugent as Afterlife Anna (photos by Jason Epperson)

The afterlife world Engling has created has a great deal in common with the world we enter in our dreams. Just as some people can learn to become “lucid” and navigate their dream world, more experienced inhabitants of the afterlife can navigate the world by focusing their thoughts. They think of a moment or a location, and then are able to access it.

If a person enters the afterlife under certain types of trauma, like Anna with her suicide, they may enter with their memories wiped away and have to rebuild them. Matthew enters the afterlife with this same kind of amnesia and must rebuild his memories.

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Sheila Willis (left) as Anna and Sarah Eddy (right) as Little Anna

The afterlife is a universe with many parts. The lowliest denizens of the afterlife are the ghosts. These traumatized souls remain in the realm of the living, often not actually understanding they are dead and mystified why it is so difficult to get the attention of the living.

The next level of souls have advanced away from the world of the living, but they are stuck in memories from their lives, helplessly repeating variations on the same disasters for centuries.

Richard Engling as Matthew.

Richard Engling as Matthew.

The following level are able to revisit scenes from their lives as well as interact with other souls. They are able to welcome the newly deceased. They can reflect on their experiences and advance to other levels of the afterlife or reincarnate to a new life. The level of a soul’s abilities is dependent on his or her experiences and efforts while alive. The dead characters we meet in Anna in the Afterlife are at this level.

Beyond this level souls are able to interact with the non-human hosts of heaven (angels, gods, etc). A soul would visit these upper levels before returning to earth via reincarnation. Souls can give up their individuality and combine into larger souls, as in this passage from the novel Visions of Anna:

            And then Matthew’s soul did that thing that was so difficult for him and so natural for Natalie: It dropped into silence. What he perceived, he perceived directly, without interpreting into words.

He was in the tunnel now, the tunnel first formed in his forehead by the spot of copal. Then it was the portal in the center of the fire. He was propelled through the narrow space of the tunnel like in a dream of flight: flying like Superman. He saw the long cords of energy once again, the bungee cords of the spirit, stretching beneath him, far down the length of the tunnel, but he did not touch them this time.

Then he was in another space, a larger space, with Natalie flying beside him. Side by side. Then face to face.

He saw those eyes again and understood them more profoundly than he ever had before. He moved in closer, they, each to the other, entering deeply in through the eyes, finding the entry there. The understanding. The memory. Like an irrepressible magnetic attraction. Like a longing to be touched.

And then they were together. Flowing together like twin tributaries moving forward, now conjoined, toward the big river. And as their waters touched, they remembered. My God! How had they ever forgotten this? How had they ever lost this? All their lives alone. Apart. Separated too from all that had come before. The life they’d had. Lives. No! Life was right. Singular. Not plural. For they had been one creature, one consciousness, one whole before. And these pitiful things: This Matthew. This Natalie. They were mere slivers of consciousness, struck off alone for a lifetime.

But why? Why did they do this phenomenally lonely thing, without one another? And without the rest? For they sensed now, occupying this single reunited consciousness, that there were more of them than these two pitiful shards, this Matthew and this Natalie. They were not two halves of a whole, but two fragments of some larger being that even together, with their two consciousnesses conjoined, they could not remember, could not fathom, but could only sense in profound and devastated longing, like some forgotten dream of ecstasy, lurking hauntingly just beyond the limits of recall.

Oh, how they clung together in this reunion of soul, weeping in joy and overwhelming nostalgia: this creature that they were together, one thing and still yet two! For they sensed now the necessity of what they did as these lonely shards of soul on earth. They sensed what was still beyond their understanding, even together. They sensed the size of the mind of which they were just a part: Their lives were part of the conversation of this larger being, part of its exploration, part of its intellectual life. They were part of the dinner it was cooking, or eating. Part of the book it was reading. Or writing. Part of the growth of its mind. For the personalities they became and lived and then reunited were the ongoing soul of it. This Matthew and this Natalie bathed in the profound appreciation of each other, of themself together, a pair and a single thing simultaneously, and of the larger soul they would swim into together again one day. How had they survived being apart all this time? The waste of it!

And the necessity of it, too, they recognized. They were living the conversation. The brilliant conversation, filled with beauty as it was. The pain, too, was beauty. And what joy it would be to rejoin the whole and to see the fabric in its entirety, and to talk again to the other large beings—for this too they sensed: Just as they were part of some larger soul, there were other larger souls of which they were not a part, but whom they loved. And what joy it would be to rejoin in the conversation with these . . . these what? These gods?

They continued flying, face to face, Matthew and Natalie, joined in one mind, and then for a moment they exploded into light. Into an immense ecstasy. The tunnel had taken them inside the bright white core of their larger self, with all around them the separate but conjoined souls of the whole, like hundreds of telepathic baby spiders inside the egg. Oh, the love of this thing they were! This thing that was the magnetic field that held them all together and made them one integrated personality! The most wondrous love! Like a gigantic sustaining all-encompassing orgasm. They were the electric-firing cells of this one large brain, separate yet connected, one mind and a host of parts, joyful, joyful paradox!

Anna in the Afterlife runs April 22-May 24 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets may be purchased at the box office, online, or by calling 773-404-7336. Those looking to enhance their theatre-going experience by reading the novels of THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY can purchase the books at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, City Lit Books, The Book Cellar, or on Amazon.com.

Reviews Are In For MIRACLES IN THE FALL!

September 10th, 2014

by Richard Engling

We had a great opening weekend for MIRACLES IN THE FALL. What fun to see all of you who joined us for the celebration! And now the first reviews are rolling in. There will be more to come, but here are highlights from the first reviews and photos from the production. If you haven’t seen the show yet, please join us soon!

"there are able performances all around." -Time Out Chicago

“there are able performances all around.”
-Time Out Chicago


Chuck O’Connor’s new drama about a torn Catholic family struggling to make amends takes a page from the familiar Eugene O’Neill playbook of dysfunction and disillusionment around the dinner table. You’ve got your hardened Irish blue-collar father, long given up on forgiving his late wife for an unnamed sin; your prodigal son, fallen from grace and trying to turn back the clock and win dad’s acceptance; and most aptly, a liquor cabinet full of whiskey to drown a generation’s worth of sorrows and secrets before setting them all aflame.

–Time Out Chicago

"By the time we get to the titular fall, O'Connor's real statement comes to light, and it's a moving one. " -Time Out Chicago

“By the time we get to the titular fall, O’Connor’s real statement comes to light, and it’s a moving one. ” -Time Out Chicago


O’Connor’s story of alcoholism, self-destruction and self-preservation, faith and family secrets, all set against the backdrop of a world turning itself upside down, is familiar. Nonetheless, the characters are compelling, and the world being what it is, it’s a story that certainly bears telling and retelling.

O’Connor developed the work in 2013 as part of PET’s festival of new plays. The setting is Detroit in 1968, a year out from the city’s Twelfth Street Riots, and for the Connelly family, a year out from the death of a mother and wife who commanded a complicated, painful blend of love, hate, respect and contempt from her husband, Jimmy, and her children, Clare and Charlie.

Clare, who entered the convent — at her mother’s insistence — at age thirteen, struggles with her own embrace of post-Vatican II, social justice-focused theology and the attraction of submission to a simpler call to obedience and duty. As she grapples with anger at her father’s alcoholism and his attacks on both aspects of her faith, her estranged brother returns home, post-Vietnam, looking for reconciliation with their father.

"Laura Berner Taylor (Clare) and Rian Jairell (Father Lentine) open the play with a particularly well-executed scene " -Edge Chicago

“Laura Berner Taylor (Clare) and Rian Jairell (Father Lentine) open the play with a particularly well-executed scene “
-Edge Chicago

Clare’s life is further complicated by the departure of the authoritarian Monsignor who hands down penance and “charges” her with caring for her father, and his replacement by Father Lentine, a young priest whose uncertainties about faith and duty and meaning run parallel to her own.

Both the intimate setting of the Connellys’ living room and the backdrop of a still-smoldering Detroit, cautiously rallying around the “miracle” of the American League Champion Detroit Tigers, remain painfully resonant, as Ferguson, Missouri, fades from national attention and rare positive press for Chicago’s South Side in the wake of Jackie Robinson West’s ascension to Little League World Series glory gives way, once again to crime statistics….

It is to the playwright’s credit and the company’s that the work is likely to stand up to time and repeat viewings.

"All four actors are talented and the performances are very good overall" -Edge Chicago

“All four actors are talented and the performances are very good overall”
-Edge Chicago

Charles C. Palia, Jr.’s scenic design is excellent for the space and for the piece. With almost no set redressing, the action moves from living room to classroom to a prayer sanctuary nestled in the corner of a graveyard. In conjunction with Benjamin L. White’s lighting and Aaron Stephenson’s sound design, the spatial logic of scenes is always clear, maintaining the important distinction between private and public life as well as that between individual conscience and societal responsibility.

–EDGE Chicago

The story focuses on the eldest daughter of the family, Clare Connelly. Clare is a nun, but not in the sweet Sally Field style, but rather more like an angry, lost character that could have escaped right out of Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Laura Berner Taylor throws herself entirely into bringing Clare to life. She completely commands every scene she’s in and gives a powerhouse performance…The more we learn about Clare and the more Berner Taylor has to draw on the more riveting she becomes.

"Wellisch really sinks his teeth...played to perfection" -Chicago Stage Standard

“Wellisch really sinks his teeth…played to perfection” -Chicago Stage Standard

[Fred A.] Wellicsh really sinks his teeth into playing his character’s alcoholism and Parkinson’s, both difficult tasks for sure…his outbursts are theatrical and played to perfection….

Rian Jairell (Fr. Lentine) and Mickey O’Sullivan (Charlie Connely) both bring as much to their roles as possible early in the proceedings and truly shine later as their characters become more developed….

Charles C. Palia’s set worked nicely in a small space considering the number of locations that were needed…Benjamin L. White’s lighting design and Jessica Smith’s Costumes and Props were spot on and added to the feel of the piece and the period.

–Chicago Stage Standard

It’s hard to imagine a richer setting for an American problem play than the home of a working-class Irish-American family in Detroit in the autumn of 1968—all those complicated Irish-Catholic personal problems (alcoholism, sexual repression, hair-trigger tempers, free-floating anger) and heady issues of the day (race riots, Vatican II, Vietnam, intergenerational strife, not to mention the 1968 World Series) almost literally at the doorstep….

–Chicago Reader

"The angst and noise that’s generated in the first act is performed with fearless commitment and energy by the cast under Richard Shavzin’s direction" -Chicago Theatre Beat

“The angst and noise that’s generated in the first act is performed with fearless commitment and energy by the cast under Richard Shavzin’s direction” -Chicago Theatre Beat


O’Connor has a good ear for dialogue, though, and Aaron Stephenson’s sound design incorporating audio of Tigers’ broadcasts and jingles provides a sense of period authenticity. There’s something appealing about a play that brings the traditions of Irish family drama to a Midwestern setting and an era many in the audience will remember.

–Chicago Theatre Beat

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The Road to a World Premiere

September 1st, 2014

by Rachel Ramirez

The Polarity team eagerly awaits the opening of the world premiere of Miracles in the Fall (Saturday, 9/6/14). For playwright Chuck O’Connor, Miracles in the Fall has been a labor of love for the past four years.

The play began as a writing project in a class with Chicago Dramatists, and has grown, with the influence of a variety of theater artists, to become the World Premiere ready to launch September 6.

The work with Polarity over the last 15 months, between the play’s acceptance in the 2013 Dionysos Cup and into the pre-production and rehearsal process has helped clarify the story’s context and deepen its themes.

Much of this work has come from a mutual respect with Richard Engling, Artistic Director, Polarity Ensemble, who, as a fellow writer, has helped encourage and challenge Chuck’s writing, so the work could meet its potential. The shaping of the script has continued with the influence of Director, Richard Shavzin. “It’s been an exciting process,” Engling said. “Chuck has written entirely new scenes. We’ve seen almost daily line changes in rehearsals. A really good script becomes so much better.”

Miracles Dream Team: Stage Manager Jamie Crothers, Playwright Chuck O'Connor, Director Richard Shavzin

Miracles Dream Team: Stage Manager Jamie Crothers, Playwright Chuck O’Connor, Director Richard Shavzin

Collaboration with a dedicated and visionary director is essential for a world premiere. When asked about his collaboration with Director Richard Shavzin, O’Connor had many wonderful things to say: “[Richard] has been a selfless leader in the theatrical unions and has lobbied Congress in support of the arts. He is a mensch who seems to put his community above himself. He is a talented director but his personal character is probably more beneficial to me than his technical expertise. Knowing him has inspired me to be a more generous collaborator and I hope to follow his lead in becoming a servant-leader to our theater profession.”

Shavzin and O’Connor share a similar history as actors and have worked very hard to ensure that the talented cast of Laura Bern Taylor, Riann Jarrel, Mickey O’Sullivan and Fred Wellisch have a sound basis for making creative choices. “As the play moved into the Greenhouse for the final rehearsals, it has been a revelation,” Engling said. “We saw the actors thundering the climatic scene. Electric. And you think: ‘Yes, bring on the audience!'”

Fred A. Wellisch and Mickey O'Sullivan

Fred A. Wellisch and Mickey O’Sullivan

O’Connor began to fully focus on Miracles in Will Dunne’s class at Chicago Dramatists from 2010-2012, though the idea for the story had occurred to him several years prior. He then joined the Chicago Dramatists Network, taking advantage of their Script Lab program and worked closely with Resident Playwright Margaret Lewis, who offered an in-depth, dramaturgical analysis of the script. Both Dunne and Lewis were instrumental in helping O’Connor find his voice as a writer. Says O’Connor, “The process of writing Miracles in the Fall gave me permission to call myself a writer. I had written many plays, poems and stories that had been produced or published over my life, but always felt like someone playing at writing, not writing. The intensive work of writing Miracles, taking constructive criticism, and applying the technical wisdom I was receiving, gave me a personal craft. My work on Miracles made me a writer.”

After much work on the script, O’Connor began submitting the play. It was well received and was offered Actor’s Equity staged readings with The Performance Network Theater in Ann Arbor and The Williamston Theater in Metro Lansing.

A turning point for O’Connor and the script occurred when Miracles in the Fall was then submitted to Polarity Ensemble Theatre, where it was accepted into the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays, and was awarded that year’s prize.

This began the process that O’Connor and the play have enjoyed over the balance of the last year-plus.

Benjamin L. White

Lighting designer Benjamin L. White at technical rehearsal

Polarity has been an ideal environment to expand his writing because at the company’s heart is the spirit of collaboration. Collaboration is key for O’Connor.

This spirit is most powerfully evident in O’Connor’s personal life where his greatest inspiration comes from his family—particularly his wife. “She also happens to be my best friend and is a talented artist. She has a depth of knowledge in philosophy, history and theology. We often wrestle with what it means to be a good person. This question has become even more important since we have started growing our family. I’ve found that becoming a father has afforded me a second childhood where I guide both my kids towards self-knowledge, and by doing that I get to know myself better.”

Miracles in the Fall has been dependent on the insights and generosity of many smart and insightful people. There is one more addition to this process of collaboration to be added – the audience, which will bring even more life to the story O’Connor, with the support of a multitude of friends, has envisioned.

Miracles in the Fall runs at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago 60614 from September 3 through October 5, 2014. To learn more about the show, visit our Miracles in the Fall page.

2014-15 Season Brings New Plays and New Novels!

April 27th, 2014

by Richard Engling

Richard Engling

Artistic Director Richard Engling

Next season is number eleven for Polarity, and it’s going to be huge. We are producing two new plays. We are publishing two novels!! And we are presenting our annual DIONYSOS CUP FESTIVAL OF NEW PLAYS. All performances will be presented at our new home in the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.

First up will be MIRACLES IN THE FALL by Chuck O’Connor, playing September 4 through October 5, 2014. I am very excited to announce this because I admire this play so much. Chuck’s script operates like a work by Eugene O’Neill. The deep betrayals of the past twist the lives of the Connelly family, nearly destroying the next generation. It’s a fascinating story. I’m doubly pleased because MIRACLES IN THE FALL was developed in our 2013 DIONYSOS CUP FESTIVAL OF NEW PLAYS. It will be directed by one of my personal heroes, Richard Shavzin, director of our award-winning 2013 production of Bill Jepsen’s comedy, NEVER THE BRIDESMAID. Richard is a spectacular director for new plays, and I look forward to watching the evolution of the partnership he and playwright Chuck have already begun.

Playwright Chuck O'Connor

Playwright Chuck O’Connor

Next up is THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY offering three views of a single character in two novels and a play. The character of Anna in my novel VISIONS OF ANNA and my play ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE are both based on my dear friend, the late novelist Fern Chertkow.

Fern committed suicide in the late 1980s. Deeply affected by her death, I wrote the novel VISIONS OF ANNA in the 1990s. The protagonist of Fern’s novel, SHE PLAYS IN DARKNESS (written by Fern in the early 1980s) also exhibits a lot of Fern’s personality, including a self-destructiveness that seems disturbingly prophetic. In 2010 I conceived of the third work, ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE (originally titled ABSOLUTION) which has gone through an in-depth development process with Polarity since first appearing in the 2011 DIONYSOS CUP.

The total effect of reading both novels and seeing the play will create an experience larger than the sum of its parts. Each of these works illuminates the others. I am convinced that no other theater company in America is offering an intertwining of prose fiction and drama like this. And I am delighted that Polarity Ensemble Theatre Books is bringing Fern’s richly poetic and fascinating novel to the world. The advance readers and our editors have loved this book.

On October 7, 2014 Polarity Ensemble Theatre Books will release VISIONS OF ANNA and SHE PLAYS IN DARKNESS. The TRILOGY culminates with the world premiere of ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE, April 23 to May 24, 2015, directed by Susan Padveen. This will be the third time Susan directs for us. She directed our acclaimed production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT as well as the delightfully controversial production of Darren Callahan’s THE WHITE AIRPLANE.

Anna in the Afterlife

Anna in the Afterlife

In ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE, novelist Matthew Harken finds himself in an afterlife world where he’s not quite alive and not quite dead. While his body is being worked on by surgeons, Matthew must decide whether or not to return to the living. He discovers his dear friend and fellow novelist Anna Toyevsky has split into three separate beings. Is that a result of her suicide?

In addition to a book release event on October 7, 2014, Polarity will present a number of readings throughout October and November at bookstores, libraries and book groups. We plan to bring our flare as a theatrical organization to the launching of these two novels in a way that a typical publisher would be unable to provide.

The season ends with the 2015 DIONYSOS CUP FESTIVAL OF NEW PLAYS in July. Our annual festival features one of the most intensive new play development processes in the nation. Once accepted, a play goes through a six-month course of development that includes detailed critiques, an early public staged reading and two later public workshop performances. Each is followed by audience/actor/director/playwright discussions. After the final workshop performance, playwrights are given a two-month period for further revisions before submitting the final scripts back to Polarity for consideration for a full production.

And please save the date of July 20, 2014! Our annual gala fundraiser will return to the summer, as in days of yore. Join us at the Greenhouse on July 20th at 7:30. Mark your calendar today, and support the company that’s bringing you work that is totally Chicago, from the page to the stage.

We hope you will join us for all the excitement!

My very best,

Richard Engling

New Plays, New People, New Initiatives!

March 27th, 2014

by Richard Engling

Artistic Director Richard Engling

One of the great things about moving into the Greenhouse Theater Center this year is that the leadership there is really enthusiastic about new play development. When I made arrangements for our residency, Greenhouse Executive Director Jason Epperson offered to help sponsor our annual Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. With his and Managing Director Benjamin Brownson’s help we are previewing the festival scripts early this year with free informal readings in the Greenhouse Trellis Series in April. The full workshop performances of the scripts will take place July 10-20.

The first play to be featured in the Dionysos/Trellis readings will be OCTAGON by Kristiana Rae Colón. The free reading will take place at 7pm, Tuesday, April 1 at the Greenhouse (2257 N Lincoln, Chicago). The reading will feature Erynn Mackenzie, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Jerod Haynes, Eric Lynch, Rashaad Hall, Ayinde Cartman, Zarinah Ali and Caren Blackmore.

Playwright Kristiana Rae Colon

Playwright Kristiana Rae Colón

Set amidst the backdrop of a last-minute poetry slam, eight young poets traverse stages and the tightropes of their braided desires. With three minutes to sway the judges, they must decide which is more important, the points or the poetry, the privilege of free speech and expression, or the celebrity that comes along. OCTAGON rips open the clichés of the open mic, asking the cost of making a spectacle of ripping open our wounds.

All four plays will be read at 7pm on Tuesday evenings at the Greenhouse, free of charge, with an informal discussion over drinks after the reading. All readings are free. April 15: THE PEOPLE OF CHICAGO by Helen Valenta; Jen Poulin, Director; Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg. April 22: OUTSIDE/INSIDE by Jenny Seidelman; Helen Young, Director; Neal Shaw, Dramaturg. April 29: THE RUNNING MATE by Skye Robinson Hillis; Richard Shavzin, Director; Jesse Roth, Dramaturg. Sarah Grant is the Festival Producer. The full Dionysos Cup Festival workshop performances of the scripts will take place July 10-20.

Rachel Ramirez Takes Managing Director Role

Managing Director Rachel Ramirez

Managing Director Rachel Ramirez

I am delighted to announce that Rachel Ramirez has moved up from her role as my assistant to Managing Director of Polarity. Rachel is a bright and resourceful woman who has taken on the task of growing the company successfully into its residency at the Greenhouse. Rachel moved to Chicago after receiving her B.A. in Theatre from St. Ambrose University. She worked with Polarity as the Dramaturg for Macbeth. As a director and stage manager, she has worked with 20% Theatre Company, Threecat Productions, Lincoln Square Theatre, Phoenix Theatre Company, Three Brothers Theatre, and Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse. Her favorite past productions include bash: latterday plays, Quake, and Rabbit Hole.

Douglas Tonks Becomes Publishing Manager

Publishing Manager Douglas Tonks

Publishing Manager Douglas Tonks

I am equally pleased to announce that Douglas Tonks has joined Polarity as Publishing Manager as we are making a serious expansion to our publishing program and releasing two original novels next season. Douglas is a writer and book editor. He is the author of three books, Teaching AIDS, TV’s Most Wanted, and All-American Trivia: Where History Happened, and editor of dozens of others. His other writing extends to plays and screenplays. He holds both an M.A. and a B.A. in History and is also a member of the board of Stockyards Theatre Project.

Our 2014-2015 Season

It’s amazingly ambitious, including two world premiere plays by Chicago-area playwrights and two original novels! I’ve got a couple details to be nailed down, contracts to be signed, and next time we send out one of these newsletters to you, all the details shall unfold! In the meantime…

Save the Date! July 20, 2014!

Our annual gala fundraiser will return to the summer, as in days of yore. We’ll be in the Greenhouse. It’ll start at 7:30pm, Sunday, July 20. Put it on your calender today and support the company that’s bringing you work that is totally Chicago, from the page to the stage.

Bargain Tix for “Solid” Macbeth for Those Who Brave the Snow

February 6th, 2014

Jovan King as Macbeth

Jovan King as Macbeth

The critics rave about Macbeth’s “strong cast across the board.” Brave the weather this weekend (2/6-2/9), and we’ll reward you! Use the promotional code “snow” and get half price tickets online or call 773-404-7336! See Macbeth live Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday for $10, less than you’d pay for a movie! Here’s what the first reviewers have said:

Lana Smithner as Lady Macbeth

Lana Smithner as Lady Macbeth


“…a strong cast across the board…the performances are solid. There’s a single thread of ruthlessness coiling through Jovan King’s performance as Macbeth from the moment he enters. King builds patiently on this and maintains believability and a thin shred of sympathy…Lana Smithner’s Lady Macbeth is the sexpot, then the manipulative shrew, then the madwoman… Smithner acts the hell out of each incarnation…Engling casts the Amazonian Paige Fodor as Banquo, and Emily Nichelson does double duty as Fleance and one of the witches. Fodor plays especially well opposite King in the all-important first scene where Banquo’s readiness to hear the witches’ prophecy acts as an important moral barometer, and her performance is good throughout….Elsewhere in the cast, Krysal Mosley and Kasey O’Brien, together with Nichelson, are strong in all aspects of their performances as the witches. Arthur Moss is good as Duncan…Jeff Harris (MacDuff) and Brandon Johnson (Malcolm) play admirably opposite one another in their scene…As the porter, Kevin Grubb’s performance is very broad indeed. It’s an entertaining performance…Thinking back on the whole performance, there are so many individual moments of passion and imagination and intelligence that are well done…”
—Christine Malcom, EDGE Chicago

Krystal Moseley, Emily Nichelson and Kasey O’Brien as the Witches; Paige Fodor as Banquo.

Krystal Moseley, Emily Nichelson and Kasey O’Brien as the Witches; Paige Fodor as Banquo.

“In Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s staging of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, the witchy Weird Sisters—wearing animal headdresses and writhing on the periphery in nearly every scene—seem to be the masterminds behind the titular thane’s bloody rise to and fall from power. The insistent drum beats of live percussionists ratchet up the tension and contribute to the ritualistic atmosphere.”
—Zac Thompson, Chicago Reader

And if you join us Saturday night, we’ll be doing a talk-back with the cast after the show. Click here for more information on the show. Macbeth plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. Free parking in the lot one block north on Lincoln on the west side of the street.

The Choreography of Vaulting Ambition

January 27th, 2014

by Chuck O’Connor

Macbeth Fight Training

Zack Meyer trains Brandon Johnson and Jovan King in fights for Polarity’s Macbeth. Click image to see video.

“Macbeth is a cautionary tale. It warns the audience about the snowball effect of vaulting ambition. This is a timeless subject. Whether you’re in a power race for a kingdom or bending the stock market, the push for ‘more’ will result in consequences.” So says Zack Meyer, Fight Director for Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s Macbeth, opening this Saturday, February 1 at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Live percussion, ritual dance and unusual weaponry are some of the element that make this production so exciting. Zack Meyer is one of the talented design specialists behind the scenes.

Macbeth fight training

Fight training part two. Click image to see video of fight further in rehearsal process.

Meyer’s interpretation of the classic tragedy is defined in a specific plan that will make the tragedy immediate. “My vision for the choreography is to showcase characters through very primitive weapons. Knives and sticks make fighting and killing way more intimate and visceral since everything needs to be up close to the other character. I want the audience to be asking themselves if one murder is more justifiable than another. Where does the moral line get drawn? Was one murder a tragedy and one a necessity? Is there a difference between hitting someone with a stick and stabbing with a knife? There is no heroic slaying of a monster in our show. You see fear in Macbeth as you see in Lady Macduff. You see rage and murderous intent in Macduff as you see in the Murderers. At the end of the day, is one ‘better’ than the other?”

Meyer’s marriage of the philosophical with the physical has aided past PET productions where he worked as the Fight Director for Tom Jones and Adrift in 2012. He has been pursuing his theatrical passion since childhood. Meyer grew up in the suburb of Aurora, IL where theatre always seemed to have some sort of involvement in his life. He performed in the community and at his high school. When he was 17, he played Borachio in Much Ado About Nothing. He was given a very nice cavalry saber for his costume. It was like giving candy to a baby. He never wanted to put it down.

Meyer attended Western Illinois University and received a BA in Theatre. Along with having a fantastic track for studying performance, WIU also has an enormous Stage Combat program and armory where Zack was able to work with and study under multiple Certified Teachers from the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD) and Dueling Arts International (DAI). After college, he sought training at the International Stunt School in Washington and from other teachers in the Chicago area.

Those who have never yet seen an accessible, exciting production of Shakespeare will be delighted with this fast-paced Macbeth, infused with Meyer’s choreography. “My inspirations usually come from wrestling,” says Meyer, “One of my artistic heroes is Jackie Chan. The man is a machine, a gifted athlete but above all, he is an amazing actor when he fights. I respect the speed and amazing technique of performers like Ray Park, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen but Jackie Chan can create a wonderful story within his fights while doing jaw-dropping stunts. At the end of the day, I’d prefer that the character was a human and not a really fast robot.”

All this adds up to what should be a great night out. “I’ve been having a ball with working on this show. I’ve been given a generous amount of time to work with the actors who are always moving forward in their progress with each rehearsal.”

Come on out and see the vaulting ambition of the Bard’s classic tragedy. You will enjoy visceral experience of fight-night and an intelligent meditation on the evil of greed. The combination promises to add up to an exciting theater experience.

Previews for Macbeth are January 30 and 31 at 8 p.m.; opening night is Saturday, February 1 at 8 p.m. The show runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through Sunday, March 2.

Tickets $20 for general admission; $15 for seniors; $10 for students with valid I.D. Tickets are available by calling 773-404-7336 or online at the Greenhouse Theater Center.

The Curse on MACBETH

January 15th, 2014

by Rachel Ramirez

PHOTO:What, us worry?

What, us worry?

There is a reason that you will frequently hear William Shakespeare’s Macbeth referred to as “The Scottish Play.” One of the most popular theatrical superstitions states that this Shakespearean tragedy can bring about bad luck—even by simply stating the name of the title character. These claims are not entirely unfounded as many well-known actors (including Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston) have all suffered some disaster either during or just after a production. While not all theatre artists and audience members agree that there is truth in this curse, there is always a respect for those that believe in that superstition. Even those believe any theatrical misfortunes to be mere coincidence will refer to the main characters indirectly as The Scottish King and Lady M.

PHOTO:Did Shakespeare steal from scary witches?

Did Shakespeare steal from scary witches?

The superstition surrounding Macbeth is a twofold. Firstly, according to theatrical superstition, speaking the name Macbeth aloud in a theater will invariably bring disaster upon the production. The second is that the entire production, as a whole, is cursed. There are some opinions as to the origin of this curse. If legends are to be believed, Shakespeare stole witches chants from an actual coven to be used in the play and, as retribution, the witches cursed the play, condemning it for all eternity.

Fear of the Macbeth curse is alive and thriving even today. One of the more recent productions of this play was Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth, which ran on Broadway in the spring of 2013. Its star announced his dismissal of any superstition, stating, “I am going to say Macbeth everywhere, even in the theatre. None of this Scottish Play stuff for me.” However, the show’s producers had other ideas and placed signs about the Ethel Barrymore Theater, asking patrons to refrain from mentioning the title while within the venue. That being said, despite Alan Cummings’ flouting of the curse, he appears to be doing just fine today.

Those who follow theatrical superstition are not completely unarmed against this curse. There are certain cleansing rituals said to ward off the evil spirits brought on by speaking the name aloud. The rituals include turning three times, swearing, spitting over one’s left shoulder, or reciting a line from a different Shakespeare play (such as “If we shadows have offended” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The offender may also be asked to leave the theater and not be able to reenter until he is invited to do so.

Of course, there are certainly rational explanations for the troubles that frequently seem to haunt productions. Although Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, it is also one of the most violent. There are many fight scenes throughout the play. Most of those scenes take place at night or in dim lighting, thus increasing the chances for accidents.

PHOTO:In a production like MACBETH, accidents can happen.

In a production like MACBETH, accidents can happen.

Another arguably accurate cause of the Macbeth curse is self-fulfilling prophecy. Misfortunes plague nearly every single production that is put on a stage—that is just the nature of show business. Live theatre is unpredictable and accidents happen. But when a cast and crew are watching carefully for any signs of misfortune, any and all mishaps are sure to be remembered. And so the curse lives on from generation to generation, essentially feeding upon itself.

PHOTO:Lady Macbeth speaks some powerful incantations

Lady Macbeth speaks some powerful incantations.

When we questioned Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling, who is directing the production, he said: “I don’t believe saying the name Macbeth anywhere does anything. I do believe, however, that there can be power in prayers and incantations, and the script has some dangerous ones. Probably most dangerous of all is the speech in which Lady Macbeth calls down the demons upon herself.”

Come you spirits,
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood,
Stop up the access, and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and hit. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever, in your sightless substances,
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, Hold, hold.

Perhaps an actual Macbeth curse can never be proven, but we have now reached the point where it is so ingrained in our theatrical culture that the myth will never entirely be dispelled. What we can be certain of is that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing tragedies with compelling characters, surrounded by supernatural elements—and the idea of a curse is merely another layer to that mystery and intrigue.

Please join Polarity Ensemble Theatre for William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, running January 30-March 2 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. (Free parking one block north). Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at petheatre.com or by calling 773-404-7336. Or click here for more information on the show. And to read about our new residency at the Greenhouse Theater Center, click here. Macbeth as part of Chicago Theatre Week, February 13 – 16.

Pictured above: Jovan King and Lana Smithner; Emily Nichelson, Krystal Mosley and Kate Smith; Emily Nichelson and Jovan King; Lana Smithner. Photos by Richard Engling

Awards and Ambitions from Chicago’s Source for New Work

June 19th, 2013
Playwright Chuck O’Connor

Dionysos Cup Winner Chuck O’Connor

Polarity Ensemble Theatre continues to have a swirl of new work activity as we head into summer. We are delighted to announce the winner of this year’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays: Chuck O’Connor’s Miracles in the Fall. The workshop reading was directed by Josh Sobel. The dramaturg was Michael Manocchio. The cast featured Robyn Coffin, Nick Freed, Craig Cunningham and Fred Wellisch.

This year’s festival had a tremendously strong slate of plays. The Dionysos Cup Festival is Polarity’s signature play development process that includes a full six month cycle of script development for Chicago-area playwrights. To date, we have hosted six Dionysos Cup Festivals. Seven Dionysos Cup scripts have gone on to full productions. Thanks also to Stage Manager Walker Jones, Business Manager Sam Stelmack and Artistic Director Richard Engling.

We Win a Jeff Award!

Jeff Award Winner Lindsey Pearlman

Jeff Award Winner Lindsey Pearlman

And speaking of Dionysos Cup plays, we were elated when Lindsey Pearlman won the Jeff Award for “Actress in a Principal Role in a Play” for playing Maria in the Dionysos-Cup-developed world premiere of Bill Jepsen’s Never the Bridesmaid. Bill was also nominated for Best New Work. It was well-deserved recognition for a play that was a huge hit with our audience. Never the Bridesmaid was the best-selling play in Polarity’s nine year history.

Jeff nominee Bill Jepsen and producer Richard Engling

Playwright/nominee Bill Jepsen and producer Richard Engling at the Jeff Awards

The entire cast of seven gave stand-out performances, with Nick Lake, Catherine Hermes, Brian Plocharczyk, Kristin Danko, Steve Pringle and Daria Harper rounding out the cast. But what perhaps makes us even more proud is the development of the script over the six month process in the 2011 Dionysos Cup, aided by director Mary Ellen O’Hara with dramaturg (and Polarity company member) Kim Boler, followed by another six months of development aided by production director Richard Shavzin. When we talked with audience members about their favorite parts of the show, many of those were new material Bill had written while working with Polarity in the festival and especially in the lead up to the production. The team of Richard Shavzin and Bill Jepsen was amazing.

Movie Magic

Desperate DollsAnd in further new work news, Polarity company member Darren Callahan is writing, directing and producing a new movie based on a play that had some development at Polarity, and you can get in on the action. Set in Hollywood in 1968, Desperate Dolls is the story of three beautiful women caught in a mystery of murder, ghosts, and hypnosis. The film will star Alyssa Thordarson, Stephanie Leigh Rose, Emily Bennett, G. Riley Mills, and Stephen Spencer. Produced by Darren Callahan and Stephanie Leigh Rose with John Klein, the film is a production from a new company, Doll Films, and has a preliminary budget under $100,000. Also contributing are production designer Ashley Ann Woods (a frequent designer with Polarity), cinematographer J. Van Auken, and editor Mike Molenda. Principal photography is a fourteen-day production in August 2013, filmed on location in Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California.

Desperate DollsWith Desperate Dolls, Darren Callahan (BBC, SyFy Channel, NPR, others) intends to deliver to his growing cult of horror fans a film that is frightening, original, and stylish. Having written several thriller novels and released nearly 50 recordings on various punk, pop, and ambient labels, Callahan’s impact on horror has had a remarkable six-year run, starting with 2007’s Horror Academy, the critically acclaimed Chicago stage production. He is also featured in the popular film companion book Horror 101. With a regular column on horror in San Francisco’s Omni(bucket) Magazine, and his Roger Corman-style film, Children of the Invisible Man, Callahan continues to create thought-provoking and entertaining work within the genre.