Archive for March, 2011

Ephemera Podcast Series: Darren Callahan Interviews Director Laura Sturm

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Darren Callahan

Laura Sturm












Click here to listen to podcast #3 (it takes a moment to load)

Click here to listen to podcast #2 (it takes a moment to load)

Click here to listen to podcast #1 (it takes a moment to load).

Podcast #3 transcription:

DC: Welcome back everyone to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s podcast featuring conversations with the director of the upcoming production of Ephemera. This is Laura Sturm and she’s a Polarity Ensemble Theatre company member, and she will be talking to us a little today about the story of Ephemera, which is a very unusual play, not only for Chicago theatre but for Polarity Ensemble Theatre. So Laura, why don’t you give us a little background about the play’s story and why it is attractive to Polarity?
LS: Well, about the story, it sounds fairly simple when I explain it. It’s set on a space station and there are these three people on the space station: the commander, two colonels, and then there’s a robot. This robot happens to speak in a Spanish accent and sings Mariachi songs. I don’t want to give too much away, but he has a little crush on the lone female of the space station. These people have been on the space station for such a long time they don’t even recall how long they’ve been, and, you know, a space station is in orbit so it’s going around the earth, and being in space sounds really exciting but I think once you’ve been there for years and years and you’re doing the same thing over and over in a little tiny space ship with only a few other people it starts to get monotonous and it’s just going on and on; and then one day, out of the blue, an alarm goes off, and into their airlock comes a talking monkey who says that he is an ape man – the world’s first ape man that he was one of the original chimps of the NASA space program, and, somehow or other, and we’re not sure why or how – we have some theories, but we’re not sure– he is now, sort of an ape man, who also develops some feelings (laughs) for the lone female, which makes it interesting because there is some love in there as well as some sci-fi high jinks. So between the monkey, who is attracted to Kate (the colonel), and the robot, and then of course, what we find out, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away, is that Kate is carrying on a little affair with one of the other colonels; so, three men, one woman, and then a commander who is doing odd things, that nobody’s really sure what they are. So there’s a lot of silliness; and then these people are nervous, their lives have been the same for years and years and years, then all of a sudden this guys comes in. How did he get there? What is he doing? And when he comes in he brings some scary ideas with him, which I won’t talk about because I want to keep some things a secret, but what he brings in sort of shakes up their lives, in both a difficult way and kind of an exciting way, because it’s been the same, as life is sometimes for all of us down here in the real world.
DC: Yes, I think I see some metaphors at work. (they laugh)
LS: I think so too.
DC: You know, I’m just curious: you mention a monkey man,
LS: Yeah
DC: Or a monkey, ape, chimp (I don’t know the whole “gena-philo-speacies” of all that), but how is that portrayed on stage? Is a person in a monkey costume?
LS: Pretty much. He is an ape-man, (which is not particularly well defined so we have a lot of artistic room there), and lewis, the designer, has come up with a costume for him where we (and then again, this all remains to be seen, what the final costume is, because we’ve got a couple more months before that’s official) but my understanding is that he is going to be in a space suit, as they put the monkeys in the space suits, and so we’ll have some fur, and I’m not entirely sure what the face is going to be. Is he going to be furry? I know Charlie’s been growing his hair out.
DC: (Laughs) Well, Charlie Jordan is the actor you have cast in this role. Well, Charlie’s spectacular, he’s been in many productions around town, he’s got great comedic timing, and also great dramatic chops, but I’m curious: What did you see of him in the audition that said “He is my monkey man.”
LS: You know, the thing about Charlie, just as a human being, and I’ve known him ever since I’ve been in the company, I did Hamlet with Polarity and he was Polonius, is that Charlie is one of the most laid back, open armed [people]: he’s always ready to have a good time, he’s always ready to get to know you, or get to know someone new, and that’s Davie. Davie, the monkey. He comes in, and he has just been randomly ejected into the space station, he doesn’t really understand why he’s there or how he got there, and there are these strangers, but the first thing he does is think: “Wow! This is great! This is very cool!” and starts wandering around, and he’s just an easygoing laid back guy, and that’s Charlie. Plus the comic timing is delightful
DC: I bet.
LS: And Charlie did some really wonderful stuff at auditions. I had sort of mentioned to him before him, because I talked with him, and I said that I was seriously considering him as Davie, and I said “I’m seriously considering you for Davie, I think you’d be really great in it,” and I was like “play with some physicality and stuff” and so he brought some really fun choices to the audition. And when he and Kim, that’s the girl who’s playing Kate, read the final scene, which I’m not gonna tell, it was really quite lovely, and despite the fact that there was no costumes, no set, they were sitting reading with papers in their hands, they gave us all goose-bumps and I was like “Hm! Think I’ve found my Kate and Davie!”
DC: Yeah, I think if you get the chemistry between two actors like that, particularly in an audition, it’s something you should go with.
LS: Absolutely.
DC: So, how many of the cast are ensemble members and how many are non-ensemble members, because I know it’s usually a mix.
LS: Right. Let’s see. In the main cast we’ve got five people: Kate, who is an associate member, Charlie, who is a company member, Bob is not, Manuel is not, and Jonas is not, although Jonas worked with us before on The Rivals. Now our androids, one of them is an associate member, Hillary Holbrook, and Sarah Grant, who’s also serving as a dramaturg for the project, has not worked with Polarity before.
DC: Great, well, tell us a little about the script. It’s a new script, and you talked a little bit about its story. Is it still being revised for it’s world premiere, or is it pretty much locked at this point?
LS: Well, you know, it’s a new script and nothing is ever locked, I would say. Now Bryce lives in LA, but I send him emails every so often and say “Hey! What do you think about this?” and one of the things that I am hoping is that, as we discover things that really aren’t working, or, are working but maybe need a little something, that Bryce and I will be having a dialogue about that. He has seemed to be open to changes and suggestions that we’ve made. I don’t think it’s going to change greatly, in the giant scope, I think moments, maybe lines here and there might change, but because we’ve had some processes where the writer has been at every rehearsal, and sometimes the play changes dramatically, but since he’s not literally sitting in I don’t think that’s necessarily gonna happen. There’s a piece of me that’s like “Well that’s too bad,” and there’s a piece of me that, as the director, is like “Well that’s good,” because this is a very technical show, and we actually have plenty of time for rehearsal which is nice, and I’ve built in some extra time so that if we do wanna make changes that the actors have time to get that and get comfortable with it, so I really don’t know how much it’s going to change. I think some, I don’t think a ton, we’ll see.
DC: All right. Well, we’ll all see when the play opens, it runs from March 22nd to May 1st, it’s produced by Polarity Ensemble Theatre of Chicago, their performance space is 1500 N Bell in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, and if you want more information on tickets or on the play itself, or Laura as well, take a look at their website. It’s, thanks, bye.

Podcast #2 transcription:

Darren Callahan: Welcome back to another installment of Polarity Ensemble Theatre of Chicago’s Podcast. This is a conversation between myself, Darren Callahan, and Laura Sturm, the director of the upcoming 2011 production of Ephemera, a brand-new work for theatre, world premiere, by Bryce Wissel. It’s a wacky existential comedy set in outer space, and was developed by the theater company in their Dionysos Cup festival of new plays a few years back, and has now made it into their season. So, uh, we’ll go ahead and open up the conversation with Laura and learn a little bit how the preproduction work and production work is progressing and I wanted to talk a little bit about the design, obviously a science fiction piece for theater is a very unusual idea. Not a lot of science fiction theater out there and people are very in-tune with what’s possible in science fiction movies or to some of the things that you’re bringing to the stage that will be a great theatrical experience.

Laura Sturm: Well, a lot of what I’m bringing is not necessarily what I’m bringing, but what our artist in residence, lewis lain, is bringing and it’s funny because I…I also happen to be married to lewis lain, so I see his work quite frequently. It’s all over our apartment. But I hadn’t really thought about him for that sort of thing. He doesn’t do a lot of theater any more. He used to do a lot, but he doesn’t any more, he’s more of a visual artist now. One day he came home and…I came home, and he had made a life-size replica of a sniper rifle. A little larger than life and comic book-like, but really scary. I’m sort of not a violence person, like ‘Wow, that’s terrifying’. That’s a compliment, because that’s amazing. And then I came home a couple of weeks later, and he’d made a suit of armor…of cardboard, because that’s one of the mediums he works with, primarily, and I was like, ‘Wow. Could you maybe think about building me a robot costume?’ And Lewis, in his way, he doesn’t tend to answer things straight on, he says, ‘What if I did this for you? If I designed your set, if I designed your costumes, if I designed your props, if I created an artistic installation with this play?’ And I said, ‘Wow, that would be really cool.’

DC: You know, I’ve been really impressed with lewis’ work and I think what really turned me on to him was he had made one of the laser guns for the play, and I had heard the play’s design concepts would all be in cardboard, and that brings the notion of ‘cheap’, that ‘they’re not going to look realistic’, ‘they’re going to go for farce’, that it would be beyond what maybe a hardcore science fiction fan might enjoy, but I saw one of the lasers sitting on a table and I totally picked it up, thinking it would weigh heavy, like a real thing, and it was all chrome-treated, and looked fantastic, I picked it up and it was cardboard. I was literally amazed by it. So, I think it’s definitely going to be an excellent addition to the production, having his work there. And if anyone wants to check out Lewis’ materials, he has a great website, So if you want to learn more about his art and his materials that would be great. But of course the main way to learn about him, and we want you to, is to come here and see this fantastic set. I’ve seen renderings of it, how is it progressing in build?

LS: Well, Lewis has created a model which a lot of set designers talk about, but you never actually see, and the model is amazing. We had it at our first read through where the actors came in for the first time and they were all like, ‘Wow.’ I mean, the whole set is just…one of the things that Lewis is doing is he’s got this concept of greibling which I had never heard of before, but his example was, ‘It’s like the Death Star. You know, if it was just a simple, black, round thing, it wouldn’t be that interesting. But there’s stuff all over it. You know, we don’t see it close up, we know that it probably does something scientific. But, from an artistic perspective, it makes it look science fiction-like. Lewis uses a lot of this in his own work and he’s been exploring that so he thought that this would be a great idea. So there’s stuff–and he could say this more articulately, of course–but greebling all over the set, which makes it very interesting, and it looks like, you know, everything goes somewhere, and a lot of it is going to be done in cardboard, but painted and treated. Is it going to look realistic? No. Is it going to look cool and stylized? Yes. And then the other thing that we found, you know, he had sorta produced like a little poster. Not the official poster, but something…an image for us to send out in one of our mailings, and he sent it to me, and he said, ‘What do you think about this?’. And I said, ‘I think that’s really cool, Lewis. But you do this thing in your artwork that I really love, and it’s this texturing, which is kind of like the greebling.’ And he just puts these just interlocking shapes, like triangles and stuff, and it just pops. His work…

DC: Gives it some dimension…

LS: Exactly! And I said, ‘Could we put that on the poster?‘Because I would like to see that all over the design…’ And he was like, ‘Really? I can do that?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah. I want this to be. I want us to look at this and look at your paintings and absolutely know that it’s the same person. And so, he’s really put his stamp on that, and the model is just really stunningly amazing.

DC: Well I realize one of the things you’re going for is some sort of immersive experience. Like, they’ll be pretty quickly when they enter the performance space. They’ll be pretty immersed in Lewis’ science fiction mind. Without blowing anything, because obviously you want it to be a surprise, is there anything that you’d want to tell us about that would be enticing to people.

LS: Well, I think what you said about it being an immersive experience. When you walk into the lobby, there’ll be ambiance around. We’re actually going to have two actors playing androids, who will be meeting and greeting, and escorting people into the spaceship Ephemera, where they will be watching the play. So it’s like the audience will be actually, literally participating in the adventures. And the actors frequently do talk to the audience, and so we just thought that that was a natural extension. So we’re doing everything that we can to just really…as soon as you walk in that door just feeling like you’re in another place. The lighting and the sound is all going to contribute to that and we’ve been working very intensely with our composer/sound designer, Elliot Taggart, and our lighting designer, Julie Giampaolo, and I’m sure I’m pronouncing her name wrong and I apologize for that, because I only call her Julie.

DC: That’s alright

LS: But she has been working with Lewis to sort of extend that idea of those patterns, to the lighting design, that there’s going to be ambient spaceship sound. Just all sorts of really cool things. Not to mention the talking monkey, and the robot who speaks with a Spanish accent and sings Mariachi songs. I find that very intriguing.

DC: Great. Well, you know, we’ll close…I wanted to talk a little bit about the design. We are in another podcast about the story itself and the events of the play. We’ll get back to that monkey. So feel free to join us for one of the other podcasts coming soon. And, again, this has been Darren Callahan talking with director of Ephemera, Laura Sturm. Polarity Ensemble Theatre is presenting Bryce Wissel’s Ephemera March 22nd to May 1st, 2011. So, continue to check the Polarity Ensemble Theatre website for more details coming soon. So, thank you very much. Talk to you later.

(Music Plays)          

Podcast #1 transcription:

Darren Callahan: Welcome to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s Podcast featuring Laura Sturm the director of the upcoming production of Ephemera. Ephemera runs March 22nd to May 1st at their space 1500 N Bell in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. So this is a great chance to learn a little bit about the play and the production as it progresses and, uh, talk to Laura, its director.

(Classical Music Plays)

Darren Callahan: So, Laura, why don’t you tell me a little bit about what brought you to the production of Ephemera and what attracted you to the material.

Laura Sturm: Well, I’ll tell you, actually, the first time I encountered Ephemera was for The Dionysos Cup. I believe it was the 2008 Dionysos Cup and, um, I was one of the directors for that and there were four plays that we had picked and each of us was trying to decide which one we would direct and Ephemera was one of them and when I read it I could just envision it in my head. All of the lights and the bells and whistles and people running around like crazy. People and I said ‘I want to direct this!’ And, uh, so did everybody else. And So I kindly said ‘Well, I also like this other piece…so I’ll step back’ and I directed another piece. Um, but that’s how I became interested in it and it sorta was in the back of my head ever since and then when we decided to choose it as one of our season pieces I was like, ‘Ooh. Yeah, yeah. Now’s my chance…

Darren Callahan: Yes

Laura Sturm: …hopefully

Darren Callahan: You got a second opportunity…

Laura Sturm: I did

Darren Callahan: …to, uh, throw your hat in the ring.

Laura Sturm: Right

Darren Callahan: You know, I’m curious. You’ve directed several productions for Polarity and also starred in a few of them because you’re also a very talented actor and I was curious…none of those were comedies and this is obviously a very funny romp and what attracted you to doing a comedy for Polarity?

Laura Sturm: Well, actually, I’m going to correct you slightly because The Rivals really was funny…

Darren Callahan: That’s true

Laura Sturm: …even though it was long and maybe it didn’t feel like a comedy at some points, looking back. It’s funny: I, as an actor, I’m…people look at me and think, ‘I want to see that girl cry’. I don’t know why. They want to see me sad. So, as an actor, I tend to not end up in comedies. My strength is drama. I’m not just generically funny like some people, I think. However, as a director, I think I’m more…I’m drawn to comedy. I like the specificity of comedy, I’m…one of the classes that I teach is ‘The Period Style’ class and part of that is combining the honesty of truthful acting, which you have in both drama and comedy, with the specificity that’s necessary for a comedy. It’s not that it’s not necessary for a drama, but without it, comedy just bombs. And so because I’ve been studying that and teaching it, it’s just something that I see very clearly and am interested in finding the best way to get that mix of truthfullness and specificity and it’s a real acting challenge, I find, for a lot of people. Some people have it naturally, some people you can…you can give it to as a director and then they learn but so that’s kind of what I’m attracted to. And I also like a piece where the audience is like ‘Oh…we had fun’. ‘Streetcar’ people were moved by, which was awesome, but it maybe wasn’t the most fun…

Darren Callahan: (Laughs) It wasn’t like it was soul-destroying, but it was a drama with a hard edge.

Laura Sturm: Absolutely

DC: But, you know, again, back to ‘The Rivals’, that…that was funny. And, again, my apologies…

LS: It’s alright

DC: That was funny…but it was long, but, uh, ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ is very long and it works.

LS: See? There you go.

DC: I was curious, directing comedy, just like with a drama, you run it and run it until you find what is the best version of that scene, that blocking and that moment. With comedy…when comic timing…and I was curious, as you were rehearsing the script with people, are they shaking it up? Is it funny every time? Are you trying to find the funniest version of the reading of a scene? How do you kind of narrow it down for the ‘best of’ for the joke?

LS: Well, I think you start at the beginning and you block it in the way you think it’s going to be the most funny, which frequently turns out to be wrong, because actors always find more than what I can envision in my head, which is why casting is very helpful. Casting funny people is key, actually. Then you…once you get the basic ‘enter here, cross here’ blah, blah, blah, then you sort of let the actors play. Good actors will find funny stuff. And then, as a director, I edit the funny stuff. ‘Okay, that’s funny, too many times is not funny. So cut this, cut this…’ and I try to simplify it so that it’s repeatable, but they can still stay in the moment and be…and be honest. And that does, once you get the blocking down and they come back and they’re off book and you run it and just…kind of like sculpting: you just whittle, and whittle, and whittle until you have…what you have. Except for, unlike sculpting, like ‘once you get it, it’s done’, a play is never done. Like I come back and see a play, and I’m like, ‘I don’t remember that. It’s a fun thing that they’ve added but they’ve added something’. But that happens, and that’s part of the joy of life–theatre, actually. But sometimes as a director it’s hard, because you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s new. I’m not sure how I feel about that…’ But You know, you have to let go.

DC: Yeah, yeah. A few weeks into the run it’d be interesting to see what’s morphed or changed in the actor’s performances

LS: Oh, and I suspect that things will, knowing…

DC: But you’re going in with an audience

LS: Yes, yeah. And that’s also the cool thing, is that you discover new things with an audience and, as a director, that’s great, and it’s exciting, but, eventually, the actors are on their own. You no longer have anything to say about it, even though, you know, sometimes you’re like, ‘Okay, guys…’. Every now and then, I’ll give a little note afterwards just to make sure everything stays clean.

DC: Exactly

LS: Mhmm

DC: Well, we’re going to take a break from this Podcast, we’re going to come back with another edition of it, so let me just remind everybody that the play is called Ephemera. It’s a brand new, original work for theatre, developed as part of the Dionysos Cup for Polarity Ensemble Theatre. The run is March 22nd, 2011 to May 1st. There’s more information on the Polarity Ensemble Theatre website which is and it’s at 1500 N Bell Chicago in Wicker Park. So we’ll be back. Listen to more podcasts from us featuring more conversations with me and Laura about the production.