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.

Engling Joins Dionysos Lineup

May 21st, 2013
Richard Engling

Richard Engling

Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling joins the 2013 Dionysos Cup playwrights with a bonus reading of his play, Anna in the Afterlife Saturday, May 25th at 2pm. Anna enters the festival not as part of the competition, but as a work Polarity has had in development for a number of years, going through a series of revisions aided by Engling’s long-time collaborator and Polarity co-founder Ann Keen and appearing in the 2011 Dionysos Cup under the title of Absolution.

Anna has gone through enormous changes in the process of development,” Engling reports. “Absolution had a heavy streak of meta-fiction running through it. Now that the play is set entirely in the afterlife, it’s actually more ‘realistic’ than before. It’s been getting the full Polarity treatment. Ann Keen, Susan Padveen, Darren Callahan, Sarah Grant, Richard Shavzin, Beth Wolf, Maggie Speer, all have spent considerable time working on various stages of this script with me, reading and critiquing or directing staged readings, doing an amazing amount of service. Plus there are about 20 actors, many audience members and others who have played roles, weighed in and helped out. I’m very grateful for all the assistance.”

Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

“The journey has been fascinating for me, exploring and imagining the world of the afterlife–and especially imagining what would continue to motivate the souls there in the spirit world. Every time I sit down to another round of revisions, it’s a process of exploration and invention. I have some ideas about what I want to achieve, but how I’m going to do it, what characters are going to say or do–I often have no idea until it hits the page. Like Dipoko says, I’m listening to the voices. And they often surprise me.”

Behind the scenes Polarity has been soliciting development help with two novels, as well, in preparation for launching The Afterlife Trilogy: A Live/Lit Collection next season. This interconnected 3-part project is an ambitious and exciting one, especially for a not-for-profit theater. The works span 40 years of creation and offer a unique, multi-sensory experience when taken as a whole.

  • Whatever Happened to the Doublemint Twins? is the earliest of the works, written by Fern Chertkow in the 1980’s, a few years before her death by suicide in 1988.
  • The character of Anna in Engling’s The American Book of the Dead, conceived in the 1990’s, and his just-completed Anna in the Afterlife were inspired by Fern Chertkow.

Although it is the first of the works to have been written, Whatever Happened to the Doublemint Twins? becomes more revealing when read in the context of the other works. Chertkow used much of herself in characters of the twins, Rosemary and Cynthia, slowly revealing a self-destructiveness that echoes the mystery of her suicide explored in The American Book of the Dead and Anna in the Afterlife.

“This project has a lot of history in it,” Engling admits. “Fern Chertkow and I became close friends in graduate school studying fiction writing. We’d each come from other disciplines: music for Fern and theatre for me. We spent a year in Europe after graduate school and experienced a particularly magical time living as novelists in Paris.

“After her death, I was moved to write a novel that became The American Book of the Dead in the 1990’s. Because we were both fiction writers, I felt only a work of fiction would be a proper tribute to my old friend, so the character Anna does not equal the real person Fern. Many scenes and characters in both the novel and the play are totally invented. In fact, the first version of Absolution, the play, was driven by the character Anna complaining that The American Book of the Dead was not an honest depiction. All that meta-fiction was cut away as the play evolved into Anna in the Afterlife.”

Anna in the Afterlife

Anna in the Afterlife

Polarity has described Engling’s play in this way:

Novelist Matthew Harken finds himself in a world where he’s not quite alive and not quite dead. His dear friends who have died before him take Matthew back into the past to find the truth about their lives and his. Anna in the Afterlife is a play about choices, life, death and life after death.

Meanwhile, The American Book of the Dead is the story of a man who, with the aid of a shaman and a beautiful artist he had loved and lost, cures his terminal cancer and puts to rest the ghost of a friend who committed suicide. While it shares some characters and scenes with the play, Anna in the Afterlife, it is a quite different story.

Fern Chertkow’s Whatever Happened to the Doublemint Twins? is a novel about a pair of identical twins who decide to live separately for the first time. Without each other’s presence and support, they veer into disastrous relationships and self-destructive behavior. The twins could almost be seen as yet another, earlier, version of Anna.

Richard Engling has been an actor, director, teacher, truck driver, marketing and PR copywriter, novelist, jazz drummer and playwright. With Ann Keen and Irv Gorman, he founded Polarity Ensemble Theatre in 2004 and has served as its artistic director ever since.

Please join us to further shape this exciting new script (and the four plays of the Dionysos Cup) as we bring it closer to production. Anna in the Afterlife is a bonus performance to the Festival and tickets are free, but reservations are recommended. The cast will include Kimberly Logan, Molly Lyons, Meghann Tabor, Richard Engling, Kevin Grubb, Michelle Tibble, Maggie Speer, Martin Michaels, Whitney LaMora and Jared Davis. Directed by Beth Wolf, artistic director of Promethean Theatre Ensemble.

Thursday, May 23rd @ 7:30pm: Witness to an Accident
Friday, May 24th @ 7:30pm: White America
Saturday, May 25th @ 2:00pm: Anna in the Afterlife
Saturday, May 25th @ 7:30pm: Once Upon a Time in Detroit
Sunday, May 26th @ 2:00pm: Miracles in the Fall

Steven Simoncic: Just a Kid from Detroit

May 14th, 2013

Fourth in a series of four profiles of the playwrights of the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.

Playwright Steven Simoncic

Playwright Steven Simoncic

He might call himself “Just a kid from Detroit,” however he’s anything but that. If there was one word to describe Steven Simoncic, we would describe him as cool. In speaking with other artists about Simoncic, they’ve described him as a renaissance man, and as an artist’s artist. He’s a musician, a film-maker, and a playwright, but there is far more to him than that.  We’ve come to view him as a man with an amazing giving  soul and it’s our belief that he is on his way to bringing cool back to the American Theatre. You get the chance to experience just a taste of that coolness with his newest play, Once Upon A Time in Detroit, directed by Jen Poulin at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s  Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.

How long have you been writing plays? / What brought you into the world of playwriting?

My path to playwriting, like many paths in life, has been circuitous and a bit dubious. Growing up in Detroit, I was surrounded by characters and storytellers, the kind of folks that held court on front porches and card tables after the streetlights went off.  The brutal honestly and almost pathological lack of pretension of my home town informed, at an early age, the kind of stories I hoped to tell, and the lens through which I wanted tell them. The themes that consistently rise to the forefront of my obsessions have to do with race, class, culture, socio-economics and survival in the modern American urban village, and my work tends to focus on places where the collars are blue, the houses are brick, and the people don’t get a lot of stage time in the American theatre.

Detroit

Detroit

In terms of the craft, I began as a fiction writer — writing short stories — and ultimately received an MFA fiction. Living in Chicago, an amazing theatre town, I found myself getting more and more interested in writing for the stage. Like a lot of writers in this town, my first “ah ha” moment was when my very first 10 minute piece was accepted into the Saturday Series at Chicago Dramatists Theatre. I will never forget sitting in a water-stained rehearsal room at Dramatists and hearing, for the first time in my life, a trained, dedicated actor and a talented director bringing my words to life.  I was anxious and nauseous and excited and humbled – it was your first kiss, your first beer, your first pack of firecrackers and your first ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl all rolled into one.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Richard PryorThis is the kind of question one would like to answer with some obscure Eastern European playwright from the 15th century whose tragically beautiful work is as brilliant as it is unbeknownst to the unwashed, uninformed masses.  But instead, I’m just going to be honest. Even though I love Miller, Beckett, O’Neill, Lonergan, Shanley, Norris and Letts… the writer who has had the most profound and enduring influence on me and my work is Richard Pryor. Yup. That Richard Pryor. As a kid in Detroit, I remember listening to his Live on the Sunset Strip cassette on a Sanyo Walkman tucked under the covers of my bed. While not technically a playwright, he is the greatest playwright I have even experienced.  In his work, everything is there — race, culture, honesty, integrity, love and lust, absurdity and intelligence, survival and pathos, the dignity and humiliation of the human experience skewered and revered, examined and challenged. His long form narratives always had an arc – a true beginning, middle and end – and he was able to seamlessly hop in and out of fully developed, fully rendered, fully realized characters creating car crash moments of conflict followed by moments of repose, relief and resolution. And the whole time he did this – by himself mind you without a single light cue, actor, director or set piece – he also took the piss out of the power structure, shining a light on the hypocrisy and hegemony of the king and his castle. This was purposeful art… powerful art…  honest and in-the-moment art… wrestling with demons art.  This was high art.  At least to me it was. And I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone do it better since.

What drew you to the Dionysos Cup Play Festival?

I have a ton of respect for Polarity Ensemble — so a big part of my desire to be a part of Dionysos was to have a meaningful experience with the artists in and around PET.  I also really like the structure of the Festival. The fact that you have time to work the script with a director and a dramaturg over the course of weeks and months is critical and incredibly helpful in the development process. Then to have it go up in a staged reading with some staging and blocking is a really valuable experience. The other huge appeal is getting to know the other playwrights — Chuck, Reggie and Darren are supremely talented writers and just good guys. I think it can be hard for a playwright to find, foster and develop community since it is such a singular pursuit — a festival like Dionysos builds community, and that is not only lovely — it’s necessary.

What inspired you to write this play?

Detroit

Detroit

Growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood in Detroit, I got the sense very early on that neighborhoods that had the capital (political or otherwise) to fight, could keep unpleasant things out of their community. The poorer neighborhoods with less clout and less representation ended up with the power lines, factories, land fills, incinerators, and retention ponds. That is — they literally got dumped on. The result was that people started to get sicker younger and die sooner.

I saw the same thing here in Chicago at Volo Bog in Altgeld Gardens. My wife is a former science teacher who started a charter school to serve the kids of West Garfield Park. As part of the amazing work she did in that community, she took her kids to Volo Bog to do water and air quality tests. The water and air quality was not only alarmingly bad — it was dangerous. It still is dangerous. The cancer rates, asthma incidence, and pulmonary disease run rampant in that area, and it is three zip codes away from the Gold Coast.

But my play isn’t an Erin Brockavich storm-the-castle-and-close-the-plant kind of story. It is about the people in these kinds of communities trying to survive — not just physically — but spiritually and emotionally as well. When I was writing this piece, I was far more interested in the tiny human victories of dignity and resilience than I was in taking on city hall.

What some of the challenges you faced in terms of this script?

There are several characters with several story lines — it was/is challenging to find the right balance of developing each story line while still maintaining the integrity of the protagonist’s journey — navigating that tension between the tangential threads and the core of the story was a challenge. In general, plot is where I tend to struggle, so I guess this piece was not unlike the others in terms of the challenges it presented.

Redemption and second chances seems to be a strong theme within this play, can you talk about that? 

I think the theme of redemption runs deep in the veins of everything I write. In some ways, I think it is perhaps the ultimate dramatic theme. If you believe that the human condition is that of being flawed (and I do), then it follows that at some point there will be mistakes, transgressions and betrayals. But it also follows that there will be a chance for redemption — a glimmer of hope that we can somehow undo, amend, or at least explain and come to terms with the things we have or haven’t done. In some ways I think that is the story of our lives — so it has become the story of my plays.

What are you working on next?

My play Broken Fences debuts in NY in May and here in Chicago at 16th Street Theatre with the fabulous Ann Filmer in September so I am working on getting that script landed and tight for those productions. I also have a commission for a short piece from Step Up Theatre that I am working on. Other than that, I am excited to hop into a new play that may or may not have something to do with bingo and gun ownership.

Read more about the Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. Buy tickets.

Subjective Passion and Social Justice: The Writing of Reginald Edmund

May 3rd, 2013
Richard Engling

Richard Engling

This is the third in a series of four profiles of the playwrights of the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. 2013 will be the sixth Dionysos Cup in our nine year history. We are particularly proud right now because in the past twelve months, three Dionysos Cup plays have gone on to their world premieres in Chicago–and the most recent of these, Bill Jepsen’s Never the Bridesmaid, is nominated for Best New Play in the Jeff Awards. (Cast member Lindsey Pearlman is also nominated for Best Actress). We believe the success of the Festival as a launchpad for new work is due to its intense Chicago roots. We bring local playwrights together with local directors, dramaturgs and actors to provide a full six month development process with talented collaborators. We place no restrictions on what the playwrights write–only that their work excites us and that they are locally based to work in the room with us.
–Richard Engling, Artistic Director

Playwright Reginald Edmund

Playwright Reginald Edmund

“I love to stir the pot. I want to get the audience to ask themselves questions they might not otherwise.” And with that Reginald Edmund (Reggie to his friends) explains his writing’s raison d’être. He is a writer who leans towards questions of social justice and in so doing seeks to “put America on trial.” But his passion is not that of the hell-fire preacher, wielding righteous indignation, but rather is the compassionate voice of Holy Scripture’s wisdom literature, seeking understanding through insight, without excusing or ignoring the problem of evil.

Dudley Randall

Dudley Randall

One hears humanists of earlier eras like Walt Whitman or Dudley Randall when listening to Reggie. Like Whitman he contains multitudes, drawing upon a variety of eclectic theater artists. He cites as inspiration August Wilson, Charles Smith, Lydia Diamond, Jose Rivera, Thomas Meloncon, Gregg Henry, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Jeremy Cohen, Russ Tutterow, and Gary Garrison. He calls them “brilliant minds with giving and open hearts towards the craft and towards the world around them.” And his commentary on America echoes that of Randall, who in serio-comic form, explicated the political tensions of his day, with the thesis that a writer must write “what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion.”

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

“Reggie’s plays are personal and spiritual, and also fearless statements about society,” says Russ Tutterow, Artistic Director of Chicago Dramatists Theater, where Reggie is Resident Playwright and where his play Southbridge recently enjoyed its world premiere. He is also a noted teacher at Dramatists where he guides young playwrights through the possibilities of the form.

“I feel I have a duty as an African-American writer to speak on things that aren’t often said, or that people are scared to say. But even more, I see myself as an American artist where I get to wrestle with the ugliness and beauty that is America.”

His latest work, White America, on display in the Polarity Ensemble Theatre 2013 Dionysos Cup is a continuance of his search for the American aesthetic. In White America, it’s Thanksgiving dinner for the illustrious Whites, a political powerhouse family within the Republican Party that proudly traces its roots to the founding of the United States. Dinner turns to a debacle when the son, Justin, brings home his new wife and a secret that could shake the family tree to its core.

“One of the things that drew me to Reggie’s work is how he combines the political with the intensely personal,” says Polarity’s Artistic Director, Richard Engling. “In White America, the political situation is played out in the struggle between a father and a son. Racial strife is played out in the relationship between a husband and a wife and winds out into the relationships with the in-laws. He brings the large questions home into a familiar, intimate setting.”

The motivation for the play was the current state of our country where Reggie “noticed that upon the rise of the supposed Post-Racial America that emerged when President Obama came to office, a strange boil of bitter racism seemed to fester upon the flesh of America. I wanted to explore that. Try to at least get a glimpse of who we are as a country.” Reggie’s goal with this piece is to “show that in some way we are all guilty in some way shape or another of this nation. This house we live in has a weak foundation.”

Reggie’s choice to engage this theme is indication of his courage. His use of a comic form to tell this story is indication of his craftsmanship. “You do three things for the audience and one thing for you. You start with something easy, that’s where the comedy comes in, and then look to challenge yourself, which ultimately will challenge the audience.”

Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

He sought out Polarity Ensemble Theatre and the Dionysos Cupas a way to continue his craftsmanship because he felt, “that the opportunity to work with an exciting company like Polarity was a chance that I couldn’t pass up. Polarity is a great company dedicated to new works, and I want very much to be part of this artistic family.”

Reggie brings a unique voice to the ensemble and one that should raise questions many might not have pondered but will be worth asking, and answering.

Information and tickets for the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.

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Reginald Edmund, is a resident playwright of Chicago Dramatists. He was previously a 2009-2010, 2010-2011 Many Voices Fellow playwright. Originally from Houston, Texas, he served Artistic Director for the Silver House Theatre, as well as the founder and producer for the Silver House Playwrights Festival and the Houston Urban Theatre Series. His play Southbridge was the 2009 National Runner-up for the Lorraine Hansberry and Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, Winner of the 2011 Southern Playwrights’ Competition, and a 2012 Finalist for the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award.

He received his BFA in Theatre-Performance from Texas Southern University, and his MFA in Playwriting at Ohio University under the guidance of Charles Smith.

In 2009 he founded the Unit Collective and in 2010 he was named Winner of The Southern Writers Competition and recognized by TCG as a 2011 Young Leader of Color. His plays, The Ordained Smile of Sadie May Jenkins, Southbridge, Juneteenth Street, and The Redemption of Allah Black, all part of his nine-play series The City of the Bayou Collection, were developed at esteemed theaters including Ensemble Theatre of Houston, Silver House Theatre, Penumbra Theatre, the Playwrights’ Center, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Moving Arts, Karamu House, Pangea World Theater, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Texas State University Black and Latino Theatre Conference, the Last Frontier Theater Conference, and the Kennedy Center. Most recently he traveled to Colombia to serve as the guest speaker at the Intercolegiado de Teatro de Buenaventura. He is currently Founder and Artistic Director of New Voices/ Barebones Theatre, a company dedicated to playwrights and their works as well as emphasizing the development of an ethnically and culturally diverse community of artists for the Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago area and an associate artist for Chicago’s Pegasus Players Theatre.

Information and tickets for the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.

The Rewrite’s The Thing – A Conversation with Chuck O’Connor

April 16th, 2013

Second in a series of four profiles of the playwrights of the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.

Playwright Chuck O'Connor

Playwright Chuck O’Connor

Hey kid! How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, says the old jokester. It may sound like vaudeville, but it stings like truth.

A musician practices and practices and then plays for the public. Writing is the same – only instead of musical scales, the writer practices on story, dialog, character, and plot. The piece changes over time: characters appear, characters vanish, conversations start long and then become short, plot points are reordered, the story is moved from New York to New Prussia – like a doing complex puzzle until the picture is clear.

Is it every really done, though? Ray Bradbury once famously said he can’t read any of his classic books because he wants to start changing things. It’s part of any writer’s process.

In many forms, the process is kept within the writer – held privately over varying amounts of time. Occasionally, a novelist or poet will emerge early and share the work with a few confidants. Playwriting, however, takes iteration to a high extreme.

Writing is rewriting

Writing is rewriting

Actors, directors, dramaturges, and the playwright’s natural instincts shape a work, sometimes over years or decades until the locked production script is on stage. There are examples of plays premiering, having a successful run, then being rewritten before a remount. (Big Fish, for example, having its own dry run in Chicago in spring 2013, will, hopefully, be nothing like the show Broadway audiences will endure… I mean enjoy.)

So when playwright Chuck O’Connor is asked what draft his new play Miracles in the Fall is numbered, he answers, “Somewhere in the hundreds.”

Take note! Anyone who thinks they can just have an idea for a play, knock it out, stick it in an envelope, send it off to a theatre, have it produced, and have it be a hit will either be considered a genius savant or incredibly naïve.

“I started the play in February 2009 and began to share scenes in my writer’s group right away,” tells O’Connor. “I wrote it when I was a member of Will Dunne’s scene-shop class at Chicago Dramatists, so the first version of the play was developed one scene at a time over the course of six months.” The first feedback O’Connor received on a completed draft was in the autumn of 2009, when Dunne gave O’Connor page-by-page feedback. Simultaneously, Margaret Lewis, another playwright in residence at Chicago Dramatists, gave a thorough critique of the play. “I then did rewrites, making changes through my next scene-shop class and another analysis by Margaret Lewis. That took another eighteen months.” After a table reading in May 2012, yet another round of revisions commenced until, at last, O’Connor had the confidence to submit to the Dionysos Cup.

2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

Miracles in the Fall was selected as one of four finalists from a bevy of Chicago plays submitted to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s annual festival of new works, The Dionysos Cup. This respected fest, now in its seventh year, is a unique opportunity for playwrights to develop their scripts to the highest potential, working alongside directors and casts specifically chosen to represent their world. The fest culminates in two exclusive performances of each of the four plays, where the playwright gets an audience reaction without the pressures of opening night.

“When I was part of another festival last summer that was similar to Polarity’s, I met a great set of writers and actors who recommended the Dionysos Cup. I started following Polarity on Facebook and, when they announced they were accepting scripts, I felt Miracles in the Fall was ready to send.”

Ready was an understatement; the play zoomed through the rounds of judging to earn a well-deserved place as one of four plays to be featured in the event.

Assumption Grotto Parish, 1968

Assumption Grotto Parish, 1968

The story in Miracles in the Fall concerns Clare Connelly, a Dominican Sister in 1968 Detroit. As the caretaker of her alcoholic father and the keeper of her dead mother’s virtue, she is challenged by the indignity of her infirmed father, the confidence of a maverick priest’s intimacy, and the self-crippling family secret revealed upon the return of her prodigal brother. It’s not an easy story and not a typical one, either.

“I’m very surprised I am in the final four,” O’Connor admits. “The writing talent in Chicago is strong. There are a lot of smart people here and the Dionysos Cup is a respected institution. Richard Engling, Polarity’s Artistic Director, has done a great job of making Polarity an attractive place for writers to develop meaningful work. The other writers in the finals have a dedication to their writing that goes back a lot longer than me. I feel honored to be in their company.”

The peer networking is a part of the festival and is invaluable for playwrights. Bringing four directors, four dramaturges, four playwrights, and approximately 40 actors into each other’s world, even for a short time, makes for a creative and social stew that can be very satisfying. The chance of industry people seeing and responding to new work has risk, but also offers a great opportunity to be seen and to learn.

The Detroit Tigers 1968 championship work as a metaphor for survival against improbable odds

Detroit Tigers 1968 championship is a metaphor for survival against the odds.

O’Connor enters this fray with some well-deserved confidence in his play. “Miracles in the Fall has had a lot of support from a variety of talented people. It received a staged reading with The Williamston Theater in Michigan this past October and was selected as part of The Performance Network’s Fireside Festival in Ann Arbor, where it received another reading. I worked with a talented director, John Manfreddi of Etico Productions, in polishing the script further before and after those readings. People I admire for their sensitivity and intelligence have been complimentary of the script. That continues with my partners for the Polarity event: director Josh Sobel and dramaturg Michael Manocchio.”

Working and re-working Miracles in the Fall for nearly three years and facing the potential for more rewrites after the festival, one might suspect that O’Connor is weary of his story. “I didn’t intend for it to be all this work,” he laughs, “but I’ve learned I like rewriting.”

After making Miracles in the Fall all it can be, O’Connor does have plans for other works and fully expects this same cycle to continue. “I’ve been writing another full-length play following the same process. The working title is Madness in a Fine-Tuned Universe. It investigates mental illness as a way of questioning how purpose is created out of incomplete or untrustworthy information. The script has been accepted as a participant in The Fine Print Theater’s 2013 Citizen’s Playwright’s Festival and will get development with selected scenes getting workshop readings in June here in Chicago.”

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Chuck O’Connor is a Network Playwright with Chicago Dramatists Theater. Recent credits include: High Hard Ones (Playwright) – Official Selection Festival of One-Act Plays – Chicago Dramatists, Route 66, 2012 Heideman Award Finalist – National Ten-Minute Play Festival – Actor’s Theater of Louisville; Date of Admission (Playwright) Official Selection Fireside Festival of New Plays – Performance Network Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Miracles in the Fall (Playwright) Official Selection Sceneshop Showcase – Chicago Dramatists Theater; Miscarriage is Murder (Playwright) Official Selection The Fine Print Theater 2012 Citizen’s Playwright’s Festival; The Vanishing Point (Screenwriter) – Official Festival Selection “Dances with Films” Mann’s Chinese Theatre Hollywood, California; HowlRound Theater Commons at Emerson College/Arena Stage (Essayist). He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from Michigan State University and a Master’s Degree from Loyola University-Chicago.

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The Dionysos Cup performances are at 1500 N. Bell Street in Wicker Park. Full festival passes are $10. Individual performance tickets are $5. Showtimes are Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Seating is general admission. Click here to purchase tickets online or call the box office at 800-838-3006.

The Schedule:
Thursday, May 16th @ 7:30pm: Once Upon a Time in Detroit
Friday, May 17th @ 7:30pm: Miracles in the Fall
Saturday, May 18th @ 7:30pm: Witness to an Accident
Sunday, May 19th @ 2:00pm: White America

Thursday, May 23rd @ 7:30pm: Witness to an Accident
Friday, May 24th @ 7:30pm: White America
Saturday, May 25th @ 7:30pm: Once Upon a Time in Detroit
Sunday, May 26th @ 2:00pm: Miracles in the Fall