Archive for June, 2010

G Riley Mills Discusses Experience of Dionysos Cup

Friday, June 25th, 2010

by G Riley Mills

G Riley Mills and Turk Miller in rehearsal

G Riley Mills and actor Turk Miller in rehearsal

Creating and developing a new work is never an easy task for a playwright but it is hardly any easier for a theatre or producer. It can be risky business and it takes a special commitment on the part of a producer or artistic director to take a chance on a play that has no brand name or built-in audience.

Which is why the work that Polarity Ensemble Theatre does with its Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays is so extraordinary.

I had the great fortune of having my newest play, Deaths and Devils, selected as one of the four scripts chosen for the 2010 Dionysos Cup. To me, new plays are like lonely little orphans in the world, wandering through the wilderness looking for someone to take them in and give them a home. In Polarity and the Dionysos Cup, I found just the warm safe place I was looking for.

I first came across the inspiration for Deaths and Devils a few years back when I read a blurb in a magazine about John R. Brinkley, a curious and colorful character from the 1920s who made $12 million during the Great Depression by claiming he could cure impotent men by replacing their testicles with the healthy glands of the goat! Of course, being drawn to history and historical figures, I was immediately intrigued and began reading every book and article I could find about Brinkley. What I discovered was amazing. Not only had Brinkley been a wildly successful doctor in his lifetime, he was also a politician, a filmmaker and a pioneer of early radio (as well as a serial killer, of sorts)! I immersed myself in the world of John R. Brinkley, researching and sketching out the bones of what would eventually become Deaths and Devils.

Every playwright’s process is a little bit different. For me, I start writing the scenes that come to me first (the low hanging fruit, as it were). This meant, in the case of Deaths and Devils, that I began with the final courtroom confrontation between Brinkley and his nemesis. After about a year or writing and rewriting, I had finally completed the first draft of the script. Now (as any playwright knows) the most painful and difficult part of being a playwright really comes after the play is finished. There you are (at last!) with this exciting new work. But where do you go now? What do you do with it?

The sad truth is that few theater companies have the resources available to dedicate to the staging and development of completely new works. Also, new plays don’t generally come in neat little packages like the crisp, new scripts ordered from Samuel French. By their very nature, new plays are flawed, ugly little beasts—often overwritten, with characters that are underdeveloped and scenes that drag on too long or are simply extraneous. Of course, these are negative aspects to some, but for me, these are the attributes that make a new play so beautiful. New works need to be developed, read out loud and given the opportunity to be rewritten. It is this essential refining process (just like with diamonds) that makes a new play sparkle.

I have been fortunate enough over the years to have had plays commissioned and produced by such theaters as Lookingglass, Prop, Timeline, Emerald City and Chicago Children’s Theatre, among others. Each development process is a little bit different. With the Dionysos Cup, we had only four rehearsals before presenting the play to a paying audience at Polarity. Not a lot of time. Plus Death and Devils is a big show, with a large cast, that sweeps through time, much the same as a movie like The Aviator or There Will Be Blood. So the pressure was on from the start.

Fortunately, in Darren Callahan and Polarity, I had some very ambitious partners.

As anyone who has attended any previous Dionysos Cups knows, these are not run-of-the-mill play readings with actors sitting around a table. These are ambitious staged readings with lighting cues, sound cues, costumes and props. Darren Callahan—our brilliant and talented director—was a machine, pushing not only the cast, but also me as a playwright to go further in these four rehearsals then I had probably ever gone in any other new play development process. What was also exciting and inspiring, was that Polarity (specifically Richard, Ann and Laura) allowed us to do the work we needed to do while supporting us every step of the way. Add a scene? Go for it! Cut a character? Why not!

The process of the Dionysos Cup allowed me to continue to refine the script even between the first public reading and the second one. After each reading, there was a brief talkback. Though painful in some instances, talkbacks are essential in the process of new play development. To be able to hear firsthand what audience members took away from the story and characters (that for so long have been living only inside of your head) is invaluable. Audience feedback can be very eye opening and can provide a playwright with entirely new ways of thinking about a scene or character that might never have dawned on them before.

I am extremely grateful to have been a part of the 2010 Dionysos Cup New Play Festival. Death and Devils took enormous strides forward because of its inclusion—becoming a tighter, richer, and more exciting play in the process. There are few theatres in Chicago that display the level of commitment that Polarity does to the development of new works (especially new works not written by a company’s ensemble member). For that reason, we should celebrate by raising a glass to both Polarity and, more specifically, the Dionysos Cup itself. Without the support of incubators such as these, where would the great new plays of tomorrow come from?

–G. Riley Mills
June 2010

Keith Anwar Wins Dionysos Cup

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

by Richard Engling

Richard Engling, Artistic Director

Richard Engling, Artistic Director

I am pleased to announce that Keith Anwar has won the Dionysos Cup for his script, Kabulitis, a truly touching, human drama with great characters, innovative story-telling and wonderful dialogue. The award will be presented at our June 19 Benefit and Season Preview. Congratulations to Keith and to Kabulitis director Laura Sturm, dramaturg Ann Keen, and a stellar cast including Susan Monts-Bologna, Brent Barnes, Ashley Moret, Rachael Proulx, Kamal Hans, Tesh Malhotra, Glenn Stanton, Adam El-Sharkawi and Zach Overstreet. Together they put on a staged reading that had the emotional impact of a fully-staged play. And thanks to the insightful audiences who gave Keith such great feedback after the performances to assist him with future revisions. Your input is invaluable.

This year’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays was our best yet, featuring wonderfully staged readings with terrific casts and attracting our largest audiences for the festival ever. All four scripts were fascinating works for the theatre, and each received an extensive development cycle beginning in February. The playwrights are in the last stage of that now as they prepare their final revisions to submit for consideration in our 2011-2012 season.

Keith Anwar, Playwright

Keith Anwar, Playwright

Playwright Keith Anwar: No sooner had the Dionysos plays been announced than I received a note of encouragement from David Alex, a well-known Chicago playwright who had been through the 2008 Dionysos Cup, telling me it had been “a great experience”: “The company members are great; you and your play will profit from the process.” Was he ever right!

In the critique process with director Laura Sturm and dramaturg Ann Keen, and in a table reading about six weeks into the program, I tried to concentrate on the most fundamental of the criticisms. At times the revisions were severe–I think I might have frightened my collaborators that I was setting out to write an entirely new play. At one point Laura was casting for a main character that I had decided to do away with! But remarkably, despite major cuts, additions and alterations, Kabulitis remained true to the vision that had nourished the script from the very start.

In its current form, in fact, Kabulitis is very much the play I’ve been trying to write for four years. And for that I am deeply indebted to the Polarity Ensemble Theatre and their terrific program of new play development.

I submitted my play last fall to the Dionysos Cup without high expectations. Despite many drafts and several table readings, the script was still in rough shape. Its strengths were a compelling back story, which managed to be historical and topical at the same time, and the unforgettable character of Mildred, a fighter to the end. Attached to these elements were a number of half-sketched characters, confusing plot lines and a load of expository dialogue. In selecting Kabulitis for development in the Dionysos Cup, the Polarity Ensemble was able to recognize the inner power of this story and insist on a script that would give it its due credit.

Ann Keen, Dramaturg

Ann Keen, Dramaturg

Dramaturg (and Managing Director) Ann Keen: When I read Keith’s script, I immediately wanted to be dramaturg. The script was already so powerful when I first read it – but there were times it read like a novel. On my first meeting Keith, I wanted to know where he had gained his inspiration. I wanted to understand his process to this point. He simply replied “the inspiration is real life.” The story was based on true facts and stories of his parents and their journey. It is true that sometimes Real Life is better than fiction, but sometimes life does not give us the “best highlights strung together in 2 hours.” So the next steps seemed clear.

Once we started working on it, we wanted to make sure that we preserved the story but occasionally heightened the drama. The script took on a whole new journey. Not just the story of Afghanistan, but treatment of the elderly–painful decisions that we sometimes have to make for our parents, the sad truth of Alzheimer’s, and so many others. Keith approached this story as a testimony to the lives of his parents and their journey. Through the Dionysos Cup process, I think we all realized that the testimony is now much more far-reaching. Keith was so open to the process, and for me, as his dramaturg, it was a pleasure to watch him take our input into the world he created (with the help of his parents) and creatively forge new paths.

Please join us as we present the 2010 Dionysos Cup (hand-crafted by Polarity patron and blown-glass artist James Hobart) at our June 19th Benefit.