Archive for May, 2013

Engling Joins Dionysos Lineup

Tuesday, 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

Tuesday, 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.



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?



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

Friday, 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.

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.