Archive for April, 2015

The Evolution of ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE

Tuesday, 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!

Wednesday, 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.