December 31, 2017

2017 wasn’t as big a dumpster fire as 2016, and I think for the most part the majority of the artistic community was ready to dig in and do the work amidst gigantic forces of oppression, as encompassed by a tiny-handed orange Lucifer-in-office. Yet for as much work as we had cut out for us in this, the first year in the Age of the Ice King, the theatre community stood up in solidarity and created some really fantastic art. Chris Jones recently came out with his Top Ten Theatre Shows in Chicago for 2017, which --predictably-- involved a lot of white noise and money, so I’m here to give you my Top Ten Things that Happened in Chicago Theatre in 2017, including shows, moments, and movements; newsworthy changes; and the occasional hashtag. In no particular order:

1.  The Year of the Silence Breakers - If you’re the person in charge in any company, you above all others need to set the example for how to behave and how to treat the folks who work for you, right? Well, if you’re Brian Posen (Stage 773), Michael Halberstam (Writer’s Theatre), or Dan Abbate (Gorilla Tango Theatre), apparently that’s not true. (I feel like these Men all have something in common but I just can’t put my finger on it...) Even after that shit with Profiles went down, you’d think people would have learned. But from inappropriate jokes and comments perpetuating rape culture, to not paying your performers what they’re worth, this is just not the case. With Time Magazine’s Person of the Year publication, 2017 saw the Silence Breakers as the most influential group to effect change on a national and global scale, and in the theatre it was no different: an entire Burlesque Company walked out after months of not getting paid (Gorilla Tango), Brian Posen stepped down after so many women came forward to expose him (gross), and we still haven’t gotten the apology that abuse victim advocates need (Writers Theatre). Some cry, “Witch hunt!” but that’s far from the truth. If you worry that you’re part of the problem, however, you probably are, so the onus is on us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are, and then to work to do better.

2.    The Roustabouts - With graphic text throwing back to the old days of Duck Tales (aawoo-ooo), this new company founded by Tony Santiago, Ike Holter, and Jacob Stanton produced just one show, Holter’s new work Put Your House In Order. The show --which left a lot of audience members pouring out of A Red Orchid’s space dazed and terrified at the possibility of zombies in their midst (and who wouldn’t, checking out the population of Old Town on a late Saturday night?)-- was successful not just because it literally made audiences jump out of their seats, but also because of its marketing scheme: a huge amount of social media hype before tickets even went on sale, a carefully crafted extension plan, and a smart, sexy script that generated a ton of word-of-mouth interest. When those tickets finally dropped, audiences became zombies and ate them up. I for one hope this company continues to produce, and also extends their fandom-eliciting method for ticket sales to more audiences. Perhaps a concert-like approach to selling tickets is the new way to go, or perhaps they’ve just got the magic formula themselves. Either way, I’m here for the sequel.

3.  Finally, some diversity in casting, and also some audiences’ (less than thrilled) responses - OK y’all, it’s 2017. I know we have a racist homophobe in office, but that does not mean we gotta be like him, too. This year in theatre offered a couple of examples of some really amazing casting choices for classic works, and audiences were....confused, to say the least. In First Folio’s production of As You Like It, there was, as a complete shock apparently to many suburban theatregoers, a racially diverse family in the form of a white parent and a black child. Not only that, but audiences ALSO had issues with the cross-gendered casting of Touchstone and subsequent language choices to have the character’s pronouns be female while retaining certain references to maleness. When more than one patron wrote to the company about it, Artistic Director David Rice did not shy away from addressing the subject. In a public statement, Rice wrote, “First Folio is committed to presenting works which, to the best of our ability, reflect the experiences of our entire audience, of our entire community.” Which leads me to two other diversely-cast classics, Picnic at American Theatre Company and Our Town at Redtwist. I’m biased because I was in Our Town, but both shows presented the story with a normalization of diversity, reimagining these stories as if to pontificate, “What if diversity was just the norm? And these stories are about...all of us?” I, for one, am ready for more. I just wonder if our audiences are…

4.  AND THEN YOU GET SOMETHING LIKE THE BOOK OF WILL (at Northlight) - Two steps forward, one step back, I guess? And the ridiculous statement that “we couldn’t find any POC who could handle the language”? My bullshit meter broke. For a more insightful take on the ramifications of this production, see Emma Couling’s incredibly smart write-up of the show, as seen in New City Stage’s review section.

5. The Rise of the Intimacy Choreographer - In the wake of Profiles, Not In Our House, and the #metoo movement, theatre companies are finally recognizing the need for Intimacy Choreographers. I say “finally” because this job isn’t new. Tonia Sina of Intimacy Directors International created this position in the theatre nearly fifteen years ago and has been teaching her Pillars of Intimacy for just as long. Yet now, with both men and women coming forward to reveal histories of sexual harassment and abuse within the theatre, companies have started realizing the need for someone in the room versed in the delicate nature of this material. Intimacy Choreographers who create accountability and encourage safe spaces for actors to explore and establish intimacy between characters, without it being taken advantage of or bleeding into the offstage life, are popping up everywhere. Which, of course, begs a warning to ensure that even the choreographers themselves are highly trained, else we might end up back where we started, causing more trauma than not. For a list of qualified intimacy choreographers, check out www.intimacydirectorsinternational.com

6.  Lizzie and Firebrand Theatre - Seriously, what can women NOT do? The leadership team over at Firebrand Theatre, the newly formed female-focused and feminist musical theatre company, is asking just that, and audiences are answering with a resounding, “Nothing. There is literally nothing women can’t do.” With its first production, Lizzie, extending for the upteenth time, Firebrand Theatre, true to its name, is stirring up trouble and demanding our attention, unapologetically. The combination of smart casting in the form of four powerhouse women, an all-woman rock band to back them up, and the feminist mission of the company as a whole, makes for a killer show, and a kindling of artists on fire for the revolution.

7.  Salonathon - Every Monday night for the past six-and-a-half years, Beauty Bar Chicago has hosted this home for underground, emerging, and genre-defying art (art...art...art…). The brainchildren of this happening, Jane Beachy, Will Von Vogt, Joe Varisco, and Bindu Poroori, have created not just a home, but a church for artists and non-artists alike to worship the Muses. There, the misfits of Chicago share intimate stories, take risks, share magic, and dance as a celebration of the soul. Over the years, Salonathon audiences, who span a beautiful rainbow of diversity, have held space for first-time performers clenching their buttcheeks in excitement, veteran performers of music, dance, and theatre, and even the occasional politician speaking to their constituents about social change. The thing that makes Salonathon so definitive as a Chicago staple is simply its undefinability. If you’ve never gone, go now while you still can: Salonathon will be taking a hiatus in February 2018 for an undetermined amount of time while the organizers recuperate after such a long run, probably the longest running one-night-a-week event in Chicago. Where do we go from here? We’ll figure it out. Together.

8.  Jeffs So White - 2017 also marked the year of the Chicago theatre community speaking out against the longtime, established, supposed-validators of the work: The Jeff Committee. After enough pressure from folks on social media, the Committee finally did a giant survey to see where they could do better, and they discovered... they need more diversity. Also, the sky is blue. But pettiness aside, many theatre companies and artists are less-than-thrilled about a group of old white people judging shows based on their shared experience, and many are also speaking out against the inequality of female and POC nominees. From making nominees pay to attend their own awards ceremony, to highlighting people of color only in terms of how “interesting” they can make the show, the Jeffs have a long way to go before gaining the respect of the younger generation of theatre artists in Chicago.

9.  Young Producers Club - Chicago is THE HOME for “If you want it to be done, might as well do it yourself!” and nothing rings truer than what I’m calling the Young Producers Club. Olivia Lilley of Pop Magic Productions, Kristin Kaza of No Small Plans Productions, and Eva La Feva of Feva Pitch Productions are probably three of the hardest working producers in Chicago, and their productions are must-sees for 2018. Lilley, whose most recent show was In Sarah’s Shadow: The Eleanora Duse Story, favors devised, DIY-style shows in found spaces. Kaza produces Slo-Mo (recently featured at Steppenwolf as auxiliary programming for BLKS), as well as other queer, femme-forward performance events at her Reunion space in Humbolt Park. Feva is, IMHO, the go-to producer of New Burlesque shows in Chicago such as SIP: After Dark at Sip on Southport and Irving Park (which features live jazz from Brooklyn Britches and a slew of professional burlesque dancers), as well as her monthly show Clipper Cabaret at the California Clipper. All three of these fierce femmes need to be supported and encouraged to continue producing work in 2018. #takemymoney

10.  The Fly Honey Show - Now here’s the thing: I’ve never actually SEEN The Fly Honey Show. I know. I KNOW. I should probably walk down Milwaukee Ave naked while people yell SHAME! at me, but chances are if I did, the body-positive message of Fly Honey would get me to the temple of the Den Theatre at the end of my journey. Now in its ninth year, produced by The Inconvenience, FHS is pretty much the best party you want to be invited to. The performers, in exquisitely choreographed dances by Creator/Director Erin Kilmurray, seem to have more fun than the audience. This is the point, according to Missi Davis, Executive Director of The Inconvenience and Producer of Fly Honey. She says, “The Fly Honeys are unapologetic with self-love, and our hope is that it’s contagious.” But beyond the party, FHS’s message of “Every body, no matter what your body,” rings as one of the most authentic celebrations of what Chicago stages have to offer, and some reviewers who like to highlight body diversity in theatre (COUGH COUGH Hedy Weiss COUGH COUGH) might do well to take a page out of this sweet, sweet book. Fly there next year, baby birds; I’ll see you at the party.

So there you have it. My top ten things for 2017. Here’s hoping 2018 ushers in more change for good, more female and POC visibility, and less of the “way it’s always been done” mentality. Happy New Year!

Jaq Seifert (pronouns they/them) is a Chicago-based actor, director, fight and intimacy choreographer, and movement teacher.

Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, they received their MFA from Western Illinois University ('13) and is the first openly trans Certified Teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors ('12). They received their Graduate Certificate in Laban Movement Analysis and Bartenieff Fundamentals from Columbia College Chicago in 2015, and has been working in Commedia dell'Arte with world-renowned maestro Antonio Fava for over ten years. They adjunct at Roosevelt University and Aurora University, pioneered the Audience Designer position at Theater Wit, are an Instructor at Vagabond School of the Arts,  and a teaching artist with Old Town School of Folk Music's Summer Camp Program. They have worked on Broadway and off-Broadway, with Roundabout Theatre Company, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, A Red Orchid, Raven Theatre, First Folio, Oak Park Theatre Festival, Porchlight Music Theatre, Theater Wit, Halcyon Theatre, The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, Cherokee Historical Association, and The Lost Colony, and was nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre Award for Fight Choreography with Stolen Chair Theatre Company. An avid runner, horseback rider, one-time stunt person and sometime juggler, Jaq also works in the wine industry. 

December 30, 2017

1.  The captioning screens explaining their relationship to the audience in Red Theatre's Little Red Cyrano. We need more of this please!  Anything that makes inclusion and adaptive measures into "a feature, not a bug" of a performance fills me with joy, as a disabled performer who constantly has to hear how much trouble accommodation is and how distracting it’s going to be. Little Red Cyrano let the audience know right away, "this is the elephant in the room, we're going to talk about it, we're going to immerse you in it, we put it here because it needs to be here."  We shouldn't have to apologize for inclusion and accessibility, and there are also ways to work it into performances without it being an afterthought.

2.  Pride Arts' SheFest morphing into WeFest. Gender diversity and inclusion is a big hot topic, and instead of drawing a circle to keep people out, Pride Arts drew a circle to let folks in. Cisgender women aren't the only marginalized gender and this showcase expanded its scope to include more folks. And every performance I saw was absolutely unique and outstanding. Well done.

3.  Dion Johnstone as Ira Aldridge in Chicago Shakes' Red Velvet. Gorgeous performance. Gorgeous production, really-- it was my first time seeing a Chicago Shakes show and I was pleased to be able to see one with a black protagonist, and one that dealt with the historical "first" of Aldridge's Othello. But Johnstone completely stole the show and owned every inch of the stage...utterly alive, utterly honest and utterly larger than life all at once.  I was in awe and riveted every second.

4.  Every single harrowing, horrifying, heartbreaking moment of Welcome to Jesus at American Theatre Company. This theatre outdoes itself with every production. This play was utterly necessary and fearless to produce in the here and now. I was struck by the depth and breadth of social commentary in it, and how people can commodify and dehumanize others while still considering themselves good people with strong moral centers.

5.  The casting of ATC's Picnic, while we're at it. Will Davis has a gift for seeing into the essences of people and marrying them beautifully to parts in ways other people wouldn't think of. I love how ATC took what's traditionally seen as a story about white small-town America and just made it about people, how they saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen by others. This is another example for me, as well, about treating inclusive casting as an opportunity instead of a problem or inconvenience.

6.  Ike Holter's Lottery Day at the Goodman's New Stages play festival. Everyone should be producing Ike's work. I really loved how strong and unique all the characters were (this is the first of Holter's plays I've seen but I understand this brings in characters from other works who exist in the the same storytelling universe) and the themes of chosen family, what counts as "the last straw" for different people, and how it also spoke frankly about the realities of gentrification.

7.  Pass Over at Steppenwolf is another piece so good that I can't distill it down to a moment. Relevant, painful, incredible. The thematic layering of Waiting for Godot over the lives of two young black men thinking and hoping that life will change and afford them some new opportunity or way out of the limbo they're in is brilliant. The performances were electric and there should just be more work like this.

8. Martasia Jones's performance in Eclipse Theatre's Megastasis. It’s not often that I see an actor cast in multiple roles and do a double take upon realizing it’s the same person. Jones plays a mother and, later, her daughter as a young adult, and each performance is full, solid and real and utterly different. I don't know when I last saw someone do that so effectively on stage. I'd love to see more of Jones's work.  

9.  Rasaka Theatre's casting of the outstanding Richard Costes in Vanya (or, That’s Life!), in a role not written for a deaf actor, without the usual hand-wringing about how casting inclusively will 'distract the audience' or 'take away from the story'. People with diverse levels of ability exist in all areas of life, and not all of our stories are about hyperfocusing on what our abilities are or aren't. We are a part of the everyday world...include us in your vision of it.

10.  The short play Exposure by Cynthia Hines, which was a part of Broken Nose Theatre's Bechdel Fest. It's a story we usually see from other perspectives than those centered here, and is raw, compelling and real. When we talk about war and its aftermath, and the lasting effects thereof, those stories typically belong to white men. Seeing this play about a black woman’s life as an army photographer and her return home from that experience was just so refreshing. I think people often forget that we can tell a wide variety of stories about people of all demographics that are informed by (but not necessarily focused on) the non-cis/white/male/straight aspects of their identities. I really hope it gets full-length development.

Terri Lynne Hudson is an actor, improviser and performance artist living and working in Chicago.

She has spina bifida.

December 30, 2017

2017 is coming to a close and I don’t know about you, but I definitely spent a majority of the year getting lost in the variety of stories being told on stages throughout Chicago. Some of the stories provided a nice escape from the harsh realities of the world. Other stories forced us all to take a long, hard look at the current state of our society, and work to challenge it. I’m delighted to share 10 of my favorite shows (or performance moments) from 2017.

10. Blue Man Group - Drummers are KEWL

I had to throw this one on here for the sake of pure, uninhibited joy at the theater. And Goddess knows we all needed a little joy this year. Not a traditional play of course, but this was definitely an experience to remember. It takes some stamina, stage presence and sense of play to pull off this show. Doesn’t hurt if you’re a badass on the drums as well. I didn’t realize that they do audience participation during the show. This made for a very hilarious interaction between myself and my companions as we all made sure to avoid their eyes as they searched the audience for victims…I mean, volunteers! There is a reason why this show has gone on so long and I’m all for it!

9. Venus in Fur (Circle Theater) – Don’t mess with women!

My Instagram post before I saw this show reads “Loud noises, bright flashes and sexual situations. My kind of show!” Well, it was all that and then some. The verbal, psychological and physical exploration between Vanda (Arti Ishak) and Thomas (Zach Livingston) kept me guessing who was going to best the other, moment to moment. This show was sexy, hilarious and a bit naughty. I loved it!

8. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Filament Theater) – Power to the people!!

Anyone who knows me is all too aware of my slight obsession with fight sequences in all forms. When Jyreika Guest (Robin Hood, et al) and Molly Bunder (Sheriff of Nottingham, et al) used the full length of the stage to duke it out over the fate of Nottingham, I may have forgotten that I was not one of the children in the audience. I was so impressed by the physical aspects of the production. The twist on this classic story was pretty cool too! Guest and Bunder definitely put in work and carried this show beautifully.

7. Bright Half Life (About Face Theater) – Love has no timestamp

I so wanted this play to go on longer than it did. I really enjoyed the non-linear way this relationship unfolded. In one scene, Vicky (Rachael Holmes) and Erica (Rebecca Henderson) are broken up but still amicable and the next one shows one of their first meetings. The simplicity of these vignettes highlighted how even the smallest of choices can have a huge impact in the lives of two lovers trying to sustain a long-lasting relationship. Also, anytime there are two STRONG female leads doing their thang on stage, I’m a fan.

6. Punk (The New Colony) – When life on the inside is the lesser of two evils

I need an extra set of hands to count off all the things I loved about this show: the lighting, the set, the verbal sparring, and the gut-wrenching trials of each character are just a few of the elements of this piece that I was in awe of.  This world premiere introduced a subject matter that I didn’t know much about prior to seeing the play. Michael Harris didn’t pull any punches with his exploration of the harsh realities of GBTQ and their individual struggles as inmates of a maximum security prison. Monette McLin (Ms. Olivia), Kyle Encinas (Glenn), Evie Riojas (Sonya), Aaron Sanchez Travis (Daniel Shtivelberg) all gave strong performances. All of the characters of this piece were flawed and fragile in their own way. Throughout, I found myself siding with or rallying against every one of them.

5. A Little Bit Not Normal (Victory Gardens) – “Hey, baby girl.”

Arlene Malinowski’s personification of her depression in this one woman show snags one of the awards (cuz there are more than a few winners) for Best Villain. Every time I heard that southern drawl (a signal that Depression was paying Arlene a visit) I wanted to disappear into my seat. There was also a humor about Arlene’s representation that almost made me forget that sometimes the best villains can be charming tricksters. What do you do when that charming trickster is your own mind? It takes a lot of courage to share one’s journey with mental illness with a group of strangers. I applaud Arlene’s bravery and honesty.

4. Breath, Boom (Eclipse Theater) - Taking Care of Business

One of my favorite moments of this show was raw and unapologetically violent. It happened at the top of Act One. Comet (Jennifer Glasse) let her mouth run away from her and took a nasty beating from Angel (Jalyn Greene), Malika (Destini Huston) and Prix (BrittneyLove Smith). This beatdown gave a dark meaning to #GirlPower and showed the ugly reality of how young, inner-city women have to survive. This moment was a strong indication that the play was not going to be light and full of sunshine, which is exactly how I like my drama. Of course, the show as a whole was beautiful and sat with me long after I left the theater. So many ugly truths were explored in this 2.5 hour rollercoaster. But those first few moments?? Whew!

3. Blues for an Alabama Sky (Court Theater) – Hustling and Surviving

This play was filled with so much life! And as we all know, life comes with unequal parts of joy, pain, hope and despair. This production had all of that and everything in between. I cried just as much as l laughed while watching Angel (Toya Turner), Guy (Sean Parris), Sam (James Vincent Meredith), Delia (Celeste M. Cooper) and Leland (Geno Walker) take whatever life threw their way. Even after all of the selfishness, heartbreak and tragic end of many of the relationships (and one of the characters), I was left with a feeling of hope.

2. At the Table (Broken Nose Theater) – The Friends We Keep

A weekend with friends in a cabin in the woods sounds like fun, right? OF COURSE NOT! This is the recipe for a horror film waiting to happen. So it’s no surprise when things start going downhill pretty fast for this group, especially when booze and pot are introduced. One of my favorite parts of the story was when Lauren (Echaka Agba) confronts realities about the group of friends that she has surrounded herself with. It was a confrontation she was having with herself just as much as she was with the other characters on stage. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

1. Pass Over (Steppenwolf) – Everything is NOT O.K.

The entire experience of this show left me breathless, in awe, anxious, enraged, drained, and honestly a little scared. I fell in love with the percussive poetry of Nwandu’s words, which all three artists handled with ease.  The actors made full use of the stage and while said stage was bare (save for that incredibly disturbing picnic), my mind had no problem creating the street which Moses and Kitch wanted so badly to get off of. One moment I will never forget is Mister’s (Hallahan) final speech directly addressed to the audience. His declaration that everything is now ok and that America is great again, after murdering Moses (Hill) left me left me haunted.

There ya have it, folks! 2017 definitely threw many of us for a loop, I’m sure, but there is no doubt that some stellar art was created in Chicago. Here’s hoping that the art in 2018 continues to provide an escape from the terrors of the world, as well as a mirror to reflect them.

Ashley J. Hicks is an actor, writer and singer, currently digging her way out of the sunken place of graduate school applications. She is an ensemble member with Eclipse Theater Company. Recent credits include Gina (Megastasis, Eclipse Theater), Eve (Displayed, The New Colony) and Nadine (The Little Flower of East Orange, Eclipse Theater). Her one-woman show Beautifully Broken is the winner of the 2016 STL Fringe Crush Award, has been performed twice in Chicago and will make it's Kansas City, MO debut in July of 2018. Here's to helping create (and promote)more art that amplifies muted voices in 2018 and beyond.

December 29, 2017

In my Top 10 list, I chose to explore plays and events  that were innovative or extra-inclusive, that contributed to the vision I have for the types of theatre I aim to create, and that exemplify what I believe the future of theatre will be.  This list includes a mix of plays that I worked on directly and plays that I attended.

Top 10 Theatre Moments of 2017:

1.     WeFest at the Pride Arts Center with Center on Halsted

In my second time curating this fest (formerly known as LezFest and SheFest), I realized exactly what I loved about it when a performer approached me afterwards to personally thank me for creating a genuinely “safe space.” WeFest, this time hosted by Malic White and Molly Brennan, is a variety show celebration of queer female, non-binary, and trans+ artists through music, storytelling, poetry, burlesque, and other performance art. I love the energy in that space, where a sold-out house of nearly all queer, mostly young people experience an evening celebrating queerness. Lately I’ve noticed events like these- curated, safe, inclusive spaces where performers can truly celebrate their (often intersectional) identities and perform just about anything that speaks to them in a supportive environment- are becoming more and more popular in Chicago, and are becoming even more necessary.

2.     Climate Change Theatre Action: A Curated Conversation at Global Hive Laboratories

What if we moved toward a kind of theatre that stretched beyond national borders, oceans, and language differences? Denise Yvette Serna started Global Hive Laboratories as a way to “pursue a greater understanding of one another and a radical empathy for those who are different from us.” The company’s first performance art installation, Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA), explored a collection of short plays, films, sound installations, virtual reality, and art curated from artists based all around the world.  The pieces were connected by the throughline of climate change. Founder Denise Yvette Serna says CCTA created “space for the conversations that are vital to our future, promoting active engagement that will improve our communities.”

3.     Hope: Wanted at the (Beat) Theatre Collective

In their inaugural production, the Beat Theatre collective created an original devised play exploring homelessness, utilizing research and interviews conducted by the ensemble. Artistic Director Justin Michael Dietzel says, “This production called to me because I found myself wanting to help those living on the street that needed it but I did not know where to start. I wanted to empower those around me to feel confident in doing anything they could to help, even if it was a smile while they walked by, as I noticed so many homeless were avoided, ignored, or written off as less than human even though each one has their own story that deserves to be heard. We are human. We are here.” Hope Wanted insightfully shows the many ways in which one could suddenly become homeless and the ways in which people experiencing homelessness can become invisible to society. It’s only the second play I cried a bit during. It will be interesting to see what the (Beat) does next.

4.     Chicago Theatre Marathon

The Marathon featured 26.2 hours of new work around the theme “I am indomitable” by local artists, celebrating diverse and intersectional identities of Chicago. Highlights included That Last Light (a short play by Riley Mondragon exploring toxic masculinity in theatre), ABCD (a solo show where Rukmini Girish explored being an Indian immigrant in the United States), and new works by Monty Cole & Alysia Cole, Lily Be, Priya Mohanty, Gaby Labotka, Nancy Garcia Loza, and many others. These types of open spaces where emerging artists can showcase independent DIY work are absolutely necessary right now, and something to celebrate.

5.     Jane by Paula Kamen

In the 1960s, before Roe vs. Wade, women in Chicago knew who to call: Jane, an underground abortion service run by graduate students, emerging political activists, and “hippie housewives,” who helped over 11,000 Chicago women of all backgrounds. This summer, I directed a sold-out staged reading (in partnership with the Chicago Women’s History Council and Shout Your Abortion 773) of Paula Kamen’s play Jane, a docu-drama about the real-life Jane organization. Jane is the ultimate case study of the feminist resistance, and the power of what can be done when women help other women.

6.     The Civility of Albert Cashier at Permoveo Productions w/ Pride Films & Plays

OMG. Albert Cashier is the best musical I’ve seen in a long, long time. It tells the amazing true story of real-life transgender Civil War soldier Albert Cashier, as a memory play. The music told the story beautifully (and I’ve been binge-listening to the soundtrack on Sound Cloud ever since). Dani Shay (Young Albert) is an exhilarating, inspiring powerhouse performer. Katherine Conditt’s performance as Older Albert was chilling and memorable. This is the type of hero’s journey the world needs right now.

7.     Men on Boats at American Theater Company

Also OMG. Will Davis is my directing hero. This show was pure FUN. The cast (particularly Kelli Simpkins and Lauren Sivak) were amazing.

8.     Collaboraction’s Peacebook

This festival actively used theatre to bring peace to Chicago by not only presenting plays by Chicago artists that examined peace and violence, but also then touring the festival to some of Chicago’s most underserved communities.

9.     For the Love Of (or, the Roller Derby Play) at Pride Films & Plays

There’s something awesome about seeing a cast of all-women (including mostly women of color and several queer women) totally rocking the fierce yet elegant sport of roller derby. Additionally, the protagonist (spoiler alert) doesn’t find true happiness and resolution through a romantic relationship, but rather through coming into her own self.

10. At the Table at Broken Nose Theatre

This is probably going to be on everyone’s list, but here I go. For me, this play was particularly impactful because it perfectly captured a feeling I’ve felt all too often, particularly since the 2016 election, that we don’t quite have a name for, that feeling of, “I know exactly why this person I care deeply about has this problematic viewpoint, and I know exactly where they are coming from, but that is also the reason why no amount of me convincing them will make them realize that what they just said was problematic.”

Honorable mentions: Lizzie at Firebrand Theatre, Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre, Wit at The Hypocrites, Native Gardens at Victory Gardens, Picnic at American Theater Company, the whole CORE series at American Theater Company, Little Red Cyrano at the Red Theatre,  In Sarah’s Shadow at Pop Magic Productions, Punk at the New Colony, What of the Night? At Stage Left Theatre & Cor Theatre, Bea Cordelia’s Chasing Blue at Steppenwolf’s 1700 blackbox, The Invisible Scarlet O’Neill at Babes with Blades, All-Female Henry V at Babes with Blades, All-Femme Saint Joan at the Greenhouse Theater, Earthquakes in London at Steep Theatre.

Iris Sowlat is a director whose work focuses on queerness, (dis)ability, feminism, or some intersection thereof. Iris is a Company Member at Pride Films & Plays and an Artistic Associate at Stage Left Theatre. Iris recently directed Narratives of Achromatopsia, a docu-drama about her visual impairment, for the Chicago Fringe Festival. Next up, Iris will direct Joan of Arc by Alexandra Ranieri at RhinoFest.

December 28, 2017

Azar’s Top Ten Theatre Experiences of 2017:

  1. Meet Juan(ito) Doe – Free Street, Created by Free Street Resident Artist Ricardo Gamboa, in collaboration with Ana Velasquez and an ensemble of “brown and down Chi-towners” 

Meet Jaun(ito) Doe was by far the best theatrical experience of 2017 for me. The beating heart of the ensemble and the stories being told of the Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American experience moved me beyond belief. A production created by, for, and with the community. So many moments floored me during the show but the one that gripped me the most was when a character described feeling that life was a test and that they had somehow failed. It instantly brought to light how the personal is always political, because marginalized groups in our society are set up to fail in the system by design. The simplicity and elegance with which this show illuminated so many voices and experiences was magical to witness. Theatricality and storytelling at its very best.

2. Yasmina’s Necklace – Goodman Theatre, 16th Street Theater

My experience seeing Yasmina’s Necklace by Rohina Malik was so unique because of the overwhelming amount of Middle Eastern people in the audience! I rarely see shows at the big houses in town, mainly because of the lack of diversity on stage and in the audience. To see a show where your background and culture are on stage is such a gift. I wish those shows were not so few and far between. Two young girls at the show who knew the playwright and gleefully ran to greet her particularly struck me. They watched the show riveted and I found myself watching them as much as I was watching the show itself. Representation matters so much and that is what this play did for so many, at a time in our country when we desperately need it.

3. East Texas Hot Links – Writers Theatre

I saw East Texas Hot Links on closing day. At the end of the play there is an intense shoot out on stage. An older woman in the front row had a seizure right at the final moments of the play and she was in the front row, so it happened on stage with the actors. Thankfully she was fine after a few minutes and paramedics arrived on the scene quickly. However, later that evening I could not shake the image from my mind. The show had been so real, so flawlessly acted, and so intimate - that this woman was physically overcome by the last explosive moments of the play. I was taken by the power of the theatre and how truly arresting it can be. An experience I will not soon forget.

4. You on the Moors Now – The Hypocrites, Theatre on the Lake

Having missed the show the first time around, I got lucky enough to catch it in the remount at Theatre on the Lake. It is not the type of show I would ever want to direct, lots of people and props and whimsical elements. Anyone who knows my style of directing, knows that the darker the play the better. Yet I was taken with this play and the revolutionary casting choices. I was so refreshed to see a cast full of people of color in roles not traditionally cast that way. It made the story dynamic and relevant to 2017. It had me in tears by the end and I felt like I was reading Pride and Prejudice for first time again. Only this time I could imagine someone like me in the world of Jane Austin, not just another Becky. 

5. American Hwangap – A-Squared Theatre in co-production with Halcyon Theatre

I had such fun seeing this play. As a first generation daughter of immigrants, it’s always wonderful to see a play about kids growing up between two cultures. The production used the space in such innovative ways. I called my parents as soon as I left the theatre. I haven’t laughed so much at a play in a long time. It was my first experience with A-Squared and I was inspired by their mission to bring Asian American stories to the stage. 

6. Evening at the Talk House – A Red Orchid Theatre

Being a long time Wallace Shawn enthusiast, I was dying to see this play! Having worked with Wally at The New Group in NYC I am very partial to his work and his politics. The script blew me away and I reveled in watching a majority white privileged audience squirm in their seats. I found Sadieh Rafai’s performance particularly riveting. She perfectly grasped the desperation and overwhelming fear that plagued her character. I was on the edge of my seat watching her sink into the terrifying world of Wally’s play. A world that feels only a few inches away from the horrors we currently face in our world today.

7. Blues for an Alabama Sky – Court Theatre

I am probably a bit bias because one of the leads in this play I know quite well. Sean James William Parris was in my graduate class at DePaul. His work always inspired me because it is given without hesitation, with extreme vulnerability, and is always in the moment. During this play I found Sean to be so himself and yet nothing like himself. When speaking to my acting students I always tell them they must find themselves in their characters first in order to then transcend into the given circumstances of the play. Sean transformed for me in this production. He was both familiar and of another world. His fellow actors, particularly Toya Turner, also floored me with their vulnerability and command of the space. I was so invested in the lives of each character because of the superb acting all around. 

8. truth and reconciliation – Sideshow Theatre Company

As I big fan of debbie tucker green it was a pleasure to see her work being done in Chicago! The sheer amount of characters on stage for this show is astounding. Particularly impressive was Travis Delgado’s poignant performance; especially considering the amount of time his back was to the audience. I wrote that before finding this awesome image to support my memory of the show. Actors who can tell a story with their whole being activated and captivating, always floor me.

9. Ideation – Jackalope Theatre Company

Although this was not one of my favorite shows of the year, I must say it landed on the list because my partner (John Shaw), who I drag to all these shows as a non-theatre person, absolutely LOVED it. I asked him to tell me what about it struck him so much and he said, “I liked how it attempts to shine a light on the connection between big business and human suffering. We can see in that culture how easy it could be to consider very large numbers of human lives as just entries in a cost/benefit spreadsheet. It's like a corporate horror escape room.”

10.     dirty butterfly – The Blind Owl in co-production with Halcyon Theatre, Theatre on the Lake

I was hesitant to put a show I worked on, on my list. However I must give credit to my incredible cast and crew for their remount of the U.S. premiere of dirty butterfly by debbie tucker green. It is a highly abstract piece with many emotional and physical demands. I was terrified at the idea of three weeks rehearsal with two new cast members of a three-person cast. The actors came to first rehearsal off-book and the amount of work that got done in our first week of rehearsal was incredible. The chemistry between the actors was instant and I saw all three of them enter into the process without any restraint. At the end of the rehearsal on our fourth day, one of the actors had an emotional breakthrough. The actor allowed themselves to cry and be comforted by their fellow cast mates. My already deep admiration for actors swelled in that moment. As I witnessed the extreme courage it takes to do this work, I was reminded why I chose a life in the theatre. I told my father once, “If I’m not doing this, I’m not doing anything.”

Azar Kazemi is the founding artistic director at The Blind Owl, a socially-charged theatre where the political and personal collide. She most recently directed the U.S. premiere of debbie tucker green’s dirty butterfly in co-production with Halcyon Theatre. Some of Azar’s Chicago directing credits include: the mid-west premiere of Jack’s Precious Moment by Samuel D. Hunter, Crave by Sarah Kane, and The Coming World by Christopher Shinn. She is a graduate of DePaul University’s MFA Directing program and currently teaches at DePaul as an adjunct professor of theatre arts. Her classes include: Race and Ethnicity on the American Stage, Gender and Sexuality on Stage, and World of the Theatre. Azar has worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Victory Gardens, Silk Road Rising, American Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. In New York City Azar worked at The New Group where she assistant directed three Off-Broadway productions, two under the direction of her mentor Ethan Hawke.

December 27, 2017

As the 2017 Chicago Theatre season comes to a close, what a lovely year it was for talent and stories across the board. Particularly for artists of color and the diversity that is inherent in our great city. Here is a top 10 list, in no particular order, of my favorite shows, moments, and performances from this past season:

10. Lizzie: The Musical

Firebrand’s production of LIZZIE: The Musical.  This stunning debut by the feminist theatre company, which boasts a rare but incredibly powerful all-woman-led, produced, and designed show. A whirlwind that is filled with fiercely charged energy all the way through by a tight, grounded, deft ensemble of actors. Liz Childester’s climatic Act 1 finale of Lizzie killing her parents was a theatrical moment that audiences will surely remember for a while.

 9. A Swell in the Ground

The Gift Theatre’s production of the new Janine Nabers play centering on Olivia as she deals with love, loss, and adulting. The story often played as a great, intimate TV dramedy, filled with plot twists, romance, and heartbreaking humanity. Sydney Charles’s deftly-anchored performance as Olivia, a modern-day Chekhovian Nina, left audiences contemplating, hoping, and deep in our emotions. Chika Ike’s production gave us a fine example of what a promising and exciting director she is.

8. Heather Chrisler in Machinal

Heather Chrisler’s central performance in this reimagined production was simply not to be missed. We took the extraordinary emotional journey with her and felt every wave. The quietly brewing resentment at the men and even her mother --and the metronome of rebellion ticking underneath an incredibly specific performance featuring a full range of emotions-- can only be called an old-fashioned tour-de-force. Every note was pitch-perfect.

 7. Fun Home

This Victory Gardens Chicago premiere of the Gary Griffin-directed musical was everything fans of this piece wanted: the coming-of-age story, the facing one's own truth and humanity, coping, understanding, despair, hope. Alison Bechdel's story sang from the stages and moved us all well beyond the 90 minute running time.

 6. J. Nicole Brooks in Lottery Day

J. Nicole’s performance as Mallory was, for me, one of the best performances of the season. The latest installment in playwright Ike Holter’s Chicago anthology took place in Mallory’s back yard. Secrets were revealed, a scavenger hunt ensued, and reckonings were had. Mallory’s final moment of panic attack/breakdown, staged beautifully by Lili-Anne Brown, was a moment audiences can never forget.



 

 5. In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

Timeline Theatre Company’s revival of the Sarah Ruhl play, following a reading in association with the Chicago Inclusion Project, boasted a dynamically diverse cast that fired on all cylinders. The entire production was top notch, featuring a hilariously bold and tight ensemble of actors, gorgeous costumes, and a stunning birdcage set that gave audiences a sense of beautiful entrapment. Mechelle Moe directed a production that will live in the hearts of many as the definitive version of this great play.

 4. Objects in the Mirror

Charles Smith’s play is based on the true story of Shedrick Yarkpai, a Liberian refugee escaping his war-torn home to make a life with his uncle in Australia. The themes of coming of age, accepting one’s history and finding one's own identity no matter where you live, resonated strongly in this production. Daniel Kyri’s performance as Shedrick --a nuanced, deftly-delivered take on the central role-- grounded the production in what was ultimately a lovely night at the theatre.

 3. The Crucible

The Jonathan Berry-directed TYA Steppenwolf production boasted yet another awesomely diverse cast filled with young, talented actors shining and making the Arthur Miller classic live anew. A special standout in the show was Michael Patrick Thornton as Judge Hawthorne, bringing his own personal brand of terrifying, truth-seeking justice at any cost. The danger, frustration, and interrogation techniques employed by his performance left audiences reeling. Thornton was at peak acting power, and it was a thrill to behold.

 2. The Wiz

Kokandy’s Lili-Anne Brown-directed production, starring Sydney Charles. Brown’s production had a new, inventive concept and provided an awesome, true-to-Chicago, reimagining of the black classic. Breon Arzell’s choreography transported us to Oz and back in fluid, organic, exquisite work. The entire ensemble of actors kept the energy, laughs, songs, and kicks high! Wonderful performances throughout from Steven Perkins, Chuckie Benson, Gilbert Thomas Domally, Anna Dauzvardis, Nicole Michelle Haskins, and Angela Alise. But the show surely belonged to Sydney Charles, whose star-making turn as Dorothy is the stuff of little black kids’ dreams for years to come. The 11 o’clock number “Home” soared the audience to such heights, we were left floating down Belmont for hours afterwards.

 1. Pass Over

Rarely has a play so quickly sparked such fierce controversy, dialogue, and debate-- becoming a national theatre conversation, garnering disrespect from multiple critics, and still emerging as one of the hottest plays to hit Chicago in a long time. Antoinette Nwandu’s reimagining of Waiting for Godot --as black men on a street corner, trying to survive and Pass Over to the promise land-- was simply a show that had to be seen to be understood. Once seen, it might have taken hours to fully digest the whole of the work. Indicting white Americans and corrupt police officers alike, the sickening climax of the play left audiences weeping and silent as they exited the theatre. That, to me, makes it one of the most exciting theatrical events of the year!

Honorable Mentions:

Tiffany Renee Johnson as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan; The Toilet directed by Ian Martin at Director’s Haven; We’re Gonna Die at Haven Theatre Company; Sandra Delgado’s La Havana Madrid.

Shows I wish I’d seen and/or haven’t seen yet:

An Octoroon

Significant Other

BLKS

Red Velvet

Wardell Julius Clark hails from Fairfield, Alabama.Chicago Directing Credits include Insurrection: Holding History (Stage Left Theatre) Jan. 2018, Surely Goodness and Mercy (Redtwist Theatre) Feb. 2018 Associate Director for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Court Theatre) - Spring 2018, The One Minute Play Festival, Shola's Game (Black Lives, Black Words Chicago 2), Assistant Director for The Scottsboro Boys (Porchlight Music Theatre); Satchmo At The Waldorf and Gem Of The Ocean (Court Theatre). Chicago Acting Credits include Silent Sky (First Folio Theatre); Apartment 3a (Windy City Playhouse); Gem Of The Ocean (Court Theatre); A Raisin In The Sun (TimeLine Theatre); The Whipping Man (Northlight Theatre); We Are Proud To Present... and The Gospel According To James (Victory Gardens Theatre); Invisible Man (Court Theatre); The Beats (16th Street Theater); Ghosts Of Atwood (MPAACT), for which he received the Black Theater Alliance Denzel Washington Award for Most Promising Actor; and Topdog/Underdog (American Theater Company/Congo Square Theater). Regional credits include Othello, Macbeth, The Learned Ladies (Theater at Monmouth); The Whipping Man (Cardinal Stage); Cymbeline (Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival); Fences (Carver Theatre). TV/Film: Shameless, Chicago Fire Seasons 1 and 4, Transformers: Dark the Moon. He holds a BFA in Acting from The Theatre School, at DePaul University. He has studied at Lincoln Center in NYC with directors, actors, and visual artists in a summer intensive at the Artist Development Lab. Wardell is the Casting and Producing Associate with TimeLine Theatre Company, where he is also an Associate Artist, and serves as a teaching artist in the Living History Program, as well as a teaching artist for Victory Gardens Theatre. He is also an Associate Artist with the Black Lives, Black Words theatre collective.






 

December 26, 2017

#10 The Last Fight of Macedonio Guerra: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Red Theater Company

 Photo by M. Freer Photography

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz

Directed by Jeremy Aluma

Fight Choreography by Kyle Encinas

If you know me, you know I am a complete sucker for plays about Puerto Ricans or being Puerto Rican: it’s an instant connection for me.  After reading about a white actor unapologetically playing Usnavi in In the Heights at Porchlight last year (I wasn’t going to pay money to see that story whitewashed), I had been itching for a play about a fight for Latinx representation. A play that encapsulated that frustration and had some badass, cathartic fighting choreographed excellently, and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity answered that call.  The moment that hit me hardest is when Macedonio Guerra aka “Mace” played by Alejandro Tey is literally fighting for his life’s passion: to tell a good story.  That certainly resonates with all of us as theatre makers, but especially with those of us who have had to participate in offensive/racist productions just to have our cultures, stories, and work featured, no matter what the compromise means (West Side Story, the aforementioned production of In the Heights, anytime we’ve walked into our audition and performed our best only to be asked “can you make it spicier?”).  After all of this bullshit of being reduced to racist stereotypes to do the work that he loves, Macedonio fights the producer EKO, he fights the hero Chad Deity, he fights other heels and refs, and he fights his friend. And this fight feels different than all of the other WWE-style matches we have watched him play.  The techniques are similar but the consequences are real.  At the end of it everyone is breathing hard and Macedonio finally allows his voice to be heard by those with power.  And he wins.  EKO invites him to tell his one perfect story, to “do that on television.” Macedonio does, and in the end his perfect story is him, a Puerto Rican dressed as himself (arguably the best fighter in THE), losing significantly to the American capitalist-groomed champion, Chad Deity.

#9 Selecting a Story to Keep at Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back presented by Pivot Arts

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back by Tanya Palmer

Conceived by Julieanne Ehre

Directed by Devon de Mayo

Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back was a site-specific, audience-participant production that gave each audience member the experiences of anxiety, confusion, and hope that have been and will be experienced by refugees seeking asylum in America. This piece was devised from interviews with refugees and immigrants and research into the process of coming to the US out of a home in turmoil.  

At the very end of the experience, the audience finally regroups into a calm, open, and warmly darkened space.  There are three small, low alters.  At the center alter, audience members leave a promise, pledge, or secret behind in an art installation of sand.  At the side alters there are a vases that contain cards with people’s faces on them and on the back is their personal story of trauma, bravery, and/or refuge.  The audience is asked to take a person’s story and promise to recognize it.  Promise to keep it safe.  This charge of responsibility to others is especially important now, and was an especially moving moment of theatre: to hear a story and to promise to keep it.

#8 Sign Language in Vanya, or That’s Life! by Rasaka Theatre Company

Photo by Scott Dray

Vanya (or That’s Life) by Lavina Jadhwani

Directed by Kaiser Ahmed

Vanya (or That’s Life) is a beautiful adaptation by Lavina Jadhwani of Uncle Vanya.  I admit, I haven’t read a lot of Chekov because many of the productions I’ve seen have ignored Chekov’s poetry, but that’s a story for another day.  This play was vital, poetic, musical, and found joy even in the pain because that is how life is.  What I was especially struck by in this production was that Richard Costes, a deaf actor, was cast as Astrov, and instead of ignoring his disability his culture was integrated into the production.  Every once in awhile, American Sign Language was utilized by Astrov to highlight poetry, repetition, and relationship throughout the play and it wasn’t treated as some sort of theatrical gimmick, but just as a part of how this Astrov interacts with the world.  It was reminiscent to me of someone speaking Spanglish.  Another instance that struck me that amplified the storytelling and recognized the diversity of this casting is that if Costes as Astrov was looking away, his focus needed to be called back by contact or waving.  I feel that this highlighted that Astrov doesn’t notice much if it isn’t right in front of him by utilizing the way the actor interacts with the world.  I thought that the bilingual nature of this Astrov was well-utilized and showed yet again that you don’t have to cast disabled actors solely for disabled roles to have a rich representation onstage.  

#7 “Let’s go:” Waiting for Godot at Tympanic Theatre Company

Photo from Tympanic Theatre Company

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Aaron Mays

Tympanic Theatre Company aimed to make an all Latinx-cast Waiting for Godot post-threat of a Trump presidency… but we all know by now how the election turned out.  As such, instead of a dystopian future where walls were built, this Godot felt like a true possibility, and onstage those bricks are in the process of being laid.  A wall to keep others out, and a cage that keeps Gogo (Felipe Carrasco) and Didi (Christopher Acevedo) here.  

Godot has been critiqued and examined to death, but in this production and its parallels to the perils of moving forward to a better place (with the possibility of being sent back to a dangerous home) or going back to said home (instead of achieving the better life migrants hope for), the ending conviction of “Let’s go.” while remaining unmoving in the same spot had new gravity and meaning.  It’s paralyzing in theme and arresting to the audience.  

Unfortunately, this was Tympanic’s final production, but it’s been with me all year.


#6 The #MeToo Reaping: Abusive Leadership Begins to Meet its End.

After the Reader article on the abuses perpetrated by Profiles and its leadership, the Chicago theatre community has been hyper-vigilant to end abusive practices here. This was kindled again by the #MeToo movement on social media, wherein victims would share stories of sexual assault and tagged it #MeToo in solidarity.  We believe victims and we fight until change is made… You are not alone.


Here are some that were exposed this year:

  • Brian Posen resigns from Stage 773 amid sexual assault allegations. He issued a non-apology and his sister still remains on the board (Stage 773 is funded in part by the Posen Family Foundation).

  • Michael Halberstam also has sexual assault allegations made against him. After an internal investigation during which he was still directing a play for Writers’ Theatre, he remains as the Artistic Director and a member of the board and has agreed to compliance training.

  • Norman G Kaplan and Darkwood Drama LLC have disappeared from Facebook after word got out that he kissed actors, had actors kiss each other, and referred to a femme actor’s anatomy by a degrading and offensive term all during an audition for King Lear.

I write about this year because I think it is so incredibly important that we continue to evaluate the leadership in our community and the type of environment we all cultivate and nurture.  What do we allow, for whom, and why?


We always have work to do.  We must remain vigilant in our belief and protection of victim