Playbill, November 2017 — The first time Jimmy Buffett saw a rehearsal of Escape to Margaritaville, the new musical based on his songs, it was pretty obvious that he was having a good time. “He was smiling and laughing,” recalls Greg Garcia, co-writer of the musical’s book, who was sitting just in front of Buffett. “I kept looking back at him, and he was just loving it. Afterward, I go, ‘That’s the first Jimmy Buffett concert that you’ve ever been to, isn’t it?’ And he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Yeah, man! I see what the fuss is all about!’” …
Playbill, October 2017 — People love to root for the underdog. And who’s more of an underdog than a ragtag kid shouting “Extra!, Extra!” as he sells newspapers on the crowded streets of a big, dirty city? That’s a big part of the appeal of Newsies.
“It is an immigrant story,” says Aaron Thielen, artistic director of the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which is producing the regional premiere of Disney’s Newsies, the stage adaptation of the 1992 Disney film. “You root for those kids because you see yourself—or your grandparents. There was a time when every family that came here had to fight to survive.” …
Playbill, September 2017 — On December 4, 1956, Sam Phillips—the record producer famed as the father of rock ’n’ roll—telephoned the Memphis Press-Scimitar with a hot tip. Acting quickly, the newspaper rushed a reporter and photographer over to Phillips’ little storefront recording studio, Sun Records.
The photo caption in the next day’s paper set the scene: “The only thing predictable about Elvis is that he’s unpredictable. Yesterday, Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins was cutting some new records at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. … Elvis dropped in. So did Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis was already there.” The Press-Scimitar’s reporter remarked, “It was what you might call a barrel-house of fun.” …
Playbill, August 2017 — Plot spoilers aren’t a big worry with Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal. Just about every description of the expressionist drama says it was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, a Queens housewife who murdered her husband and was executed at New York’s Sing Sing. Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater, which is currently reviving the play through September 24, doesn’t bother hiding any of these facts. The theatre’s poster for Machinal shows an electric chair.
So, there isn’t really much suspense about how Machinal ends. It isn’t that kind of true-crime entertainment. “It is more about how she got there than what she did,” says Greenhouse’s artistic director, Jacob Harvey, who is directing the play. …
Playbill, July 2017 — Arts agencies consume a microscopic fraction of the $4 trillion U.S. budget. And yet government funding for the arts is controversial; calls to eliminate it never fully subside. But there was a time when the government did more than just provide grants. For a few years, the government actually had its own theatrical troupes, with Uncle Sam paying actors, directors, and playwrights to put on shows in New York, Chicago, and other cities. …
Playbill, June 2017 — A fence divides two backyards in Native Gardens, a new play at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. A white couple has lived for a long time on one side of the fence. On the other side, a Latino couple has just moved in. When you see that fence, it’s hard not to think of Donald Trump’s wall.
But playwright Karen Zacarias wrote her script a couple of years ago, when few people expected Trump to become president. By the time Native Gardens made its world premiere—in January 2016 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park—Trump was leading polls in the Republican primaries, but he still seemed like a long shot to end up in the White House.
Now that Trump actually is president, will that change the way audiences perceive Zacarias’ comedy, as it receives its second production? Zacarias, an immigrant from Mexico who lives in Washington, D.C., pondered that question as she considered how much to revise Native Gardens for its Chicago run. …
Playbill, December 2016 — As the world marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Chicago had good reason to boast. Even though it’s an ocean and half a continent away from Shakespeare’s home turf in England, the city hosted the largest celebration of the Bard in 2016.
“There’s really nothing that matches Shakespeare 400 Chicago,” says Jill Gage, referring to the year-long series of events that took place at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier and other venues around town. As that festival wraps up in December, Gage has curated an exhibit at the Newberry Library called Creating Shakespeare. Inside two galleries flanking the research library’s entrance, glass cases offer glimpses of rare books—including the Newberry’s very own copy of the First Folio, a massive tome that collected all of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, seven years after his death. Just seeing Shakespeare’s words printed in black ink on that yellowed, centuries-old paper is an eye-opening experience.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine’s Chicago edition in April 2015.
Last fall, Marcus Gardley was supposed to be writing A Wonder in My Soul, a play revolving around a group of Chicago soul singers from the 1960s. It was scheduled to make its world premiere in April at Victory Gardens Theatre. But after writing a first draft, Gardley found himself thinking about a different story, one that was flashing across TV screens, Twitter, and the front pages of newspapers. “I was watching the news a lot,” he says. “I became obsessed with it.”
Gardley was riveted by news stories about Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death set off weeks of protests, and then more erupted when a grand jury failed to charge Wilson with any crime. Across the country, “black lives matter” became a rallying cry for people angry at what they saw as a pattern of police brutality toward African-Americans. Demonstrators filled the streets again when another grand jury decided against indicting a New York City officer in the death of Eric Garner, a black man who’d died after police put him in a chokehold. A video showed Garner saying, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times just before he died.
Gardley, a 37-year-old African-American playwright known for his poetic style, knows what it’s like to face suspicion and the threat of violence from gun-wielding cops. Several years ago, when officials in Berkeley, California, invited him to work on a community project there, police officers stopped him as he was walking down the street one night. “They came out of their cruiser with their guns drawn and had me on the ground,” Gardley recalls. “It was very devastating. They said I fit the description of a serial rapist in the neighborhood.” Gardley ended up getting apologies from Berkeley’s mayor and a police official.
As Gardley watched the turmoil resulting from the recent events in Missouri and New York, his thoughts about these issues began intruding on the play he was writing. “It was disturbing the narrative structure and disturbing the themes,” Gardley says. “I had a major block. I couldn’t continue to write the play.”
Gardley went to Victory Garden’s artistic director, Chay Yew, who was getting ready to direct A Wonder in My Soul. “I know this is crazy,” Gardley recalls saying, “but do you think I should take a stab at writing about what’s going on in the country right now?” It was a bold request. Nine months earlier, Victory Gardens had announced A Wonder in My Soul as part of its season schedule. And now Gardley was talking about writing an entirely different play — and getting it up on the stage in just a few months. How did Yew react? “His eyes got really big,” Gardley remembers. But Gardley says Yew quickly told him, “If that’s what you have to do, you should just go for it. That’s what it means to stand behind a writer.” Yew now says he was just doing what theaters should do. “You follow the artists.”
Victory Gardens announced in late January that A Wonder in My Soul had been scratched from the season schedule. In its place, Yew would direct a new play called An Issue of Blood. A press release explained that Gardley wrote this play “in response to recent events and social injustices.” But An Issue of Blood isn’t directly about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner or the protests they sparked. “I wanted to look at history and get behind why these laws were made, laws that protected certain people but also made other people feel like they weren’t protected at all. And so I started to read everything I could get my hands on about how laws were created in the United States, and what did this country look like before the Constitution.”
Gardley looked at books about the colonial era, including Anthony S. Parent Jr.’s Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740, where he found the true story of the first blacks who were brought to America — as indentured servants, not outright slaves. “What most people don’t know is that there was a large contingent of Irish slaves,” Gardley notes. “They joined forces with the African-Americans and they raised a revolt. They rebelled because the laws were changing.” Black indentured servants, who’d thought they would gain freedom and a piece of land after seven years of service, were told that they were now going to be slaves for the rest of their lives. “There were other laws changing — that you could kill an African-American person without any penalty,” Gardley says.
Those facts inspired Gardley’s script, which he describes as a mix of history, myth and African-American music from the colonial era. He thinks audiences will connect the dots between these events from almost 400 years ago and today’s controversies. “It’s so crystal-clear, it’s shocking,” he says. An Issue of Blood focuses on a free black woman in the colony of Virginia who plans to marry her son to the daughter of a powerful white planter as a symbol of peace between the races. The cast includes six-time Jeff Award winner E. Faye Butler, Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks.
This isn’t the first time Victory Gardens has responded to the “black lives matter” protests. In December, two weeks after the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case, the theater hosted a one-night event called We Must Breathe, featuring poems and short plays inspired by the news, including one by Gardley. After the performance, audience members talked about the issues. And then, many of them marched out into the streets of Lincoln Park to protest. “People were looking for something to do that was productive, and to talk about how we feel,” says Victory Gardens’ associate artistic producer, Joanie Schultz, who directed We Must Breathe. “It was really beautiful to be in that space, in that sort of community that we created for that night. It was actually one of the most profound and powerful moments of my theatrical life so far.”
Gardley, a native of Oakland who has also spent time on the East Coast, senses a different kind of racial tension in Chicago, where he has lived since he became a member of the Victory Garden playwrights ensemble two years ago. “Chicago is extremely segregated,” he says. “I feel like when I go into certain businesses on the North Side, there’s always a glance that is a little chilling. I don’t really get that anywhere else. Once I talk — and once they get to know what I want and that kind of thing — I think it goes away. But I sense it, and it’s not just me. Other artists I talk to feel the same way.”
Last year, Victory Gardens bused in several groups of young people from the South Side to attend performances of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, Gardley’s play about two Chicago mothers whose lives are shattered by a homicide. “For a lot of them, this was the first play they ever saw,” Gardley says. “They had a really great time and had a lot of questions about how to make a play. And so we decided to start a very small theater company with them, to teach them the very basics of theater-making in Englewood.”
Schultz, who has been watching as Gardley and Yew bounce ideas off each other for An Issue of Blood, is thrilled to see Victory Gardens taking such swift action on current events. Theaters often get locked into the schedules they announce to subscribers far ahead of time. But it’s actually possible to write a script, design a show, rehearse it and get it into the stage fairly quickly, she says. “It takes much longer to make a movie,” Schultz says. “Live theater has an opportunity that other mediums don’t necessarily have. We should be a place for people to come talk about and think about what is going on in their world right now.”
As the “black lives matter” protests made headlines, Gardley felt curious about the thoughts of an uncle and a cousin who work as police officers in California. But, he says, “I can’t even have a discussion with them. That blue wall of silence and that brotherhood is so intense.” Gardley hopes his play can spark the dialogue that needs to happen. “That’s how you move forward: conversation. That’s why I do theater.”
Photo at top: Playwright Marcus Gardley with Victor Garden’s artistic director, Chay Yew, at a reading of An Issue of Blood. Photo by Michael Courier.
Originally published in Playbill magazine in June 2012.
Theater and comedy in Chicago wouldn’t be what they are without Viola Spolin. She may not be quite as famous as others who left their marks on the city’s theater scene — such as playwright David Mamet or performer John Malkovich — but as an innovator who devised a set of games that allow actors to improvise and project profoundly truthful performances, she has had a lasting effect on the way actors and comedians play.
Spolin encouraged actors to stop thinking of themselves as individual performers and forced them to pay more attention to the people around them. The result was ensemble theater, which emphasized the way a whole group acts and interacts, instead of putting the spotlight on one or two stars. In the 1970s, Spolin acolyte Sheldon Patinkin passed on her lessons to a fledgling company called Steppenwolf Theatre. “I spent a year with them, teaching them the games and helping them to build up an ensemble,” Patinkin says. “Basically, Chicago theater is ensemble-oriented, and I think it has a lot to do with Second City and with Steppenwolf.”
Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, used those games as the foundation for The Second City’s sketches. Eventually, Second City changed the way comedy is performed on stages and screens everywhere, spawning TV shows such as Saturday Night Live, plus countless films and improv troupes. “Her influence is everywhere,” says Patinkin, an early member of Second City who’s still directing today — and still using Spolin’s techniques.
Spolin’s 1963 book, Improvisation for the Theatre — the essential guide for actors and comedians learning the art of improv — is the all-time bestseller for Northwestern University Press. As Rob Reiner says in a blurb, “Her book is the bible.” Spolin, who died in 1994 at the age of 88, has been called the “High Priestess of Improvisation.” The funny thing is, she didn’t set out to change the worlds of comedy and theater. In the beginning, she was more of a social worker than an acting guru. Her goal was helping children.
Spolin, who was born in Chicago in 1906, believed she could use games to teach children to become more creative, more in touch with their own intuition. She picked up these ideas in the 1920s, when she studied with Neva Boyd who had founded the Recreational Training School at Hull House. Boyd taught her how to use games, storytelling, folk dance and dramatics to help people achieve “self-discovery.”
In 1925, Spolin asked herself, “What is the reason that a timid child can be brought around by play when all else fails?” The answer, she asserted, was that even shy children could be lured into a “group acting as a unit.” Spolin put her ideas into practice in the late 1930s, working for the Works Progress Administration, which President Franklin Roosevelt had launched to create jobs and pull America out of the Great Depression. Her task was leading children in theater games at Chicago schools and parks.
In a memo, Spolin explained that children would learn more by participating in creative activities than they would from hearing “a lot of rambling philosophies and pet theories.” She wouldn’t let kids act their favorite scenes from The Lone Ranger because that “was more imitative than creative.” Instead, she had them play charades, or games such as “This Reminds Me,” in which she handed them objects and asked them to tell stories about what these things reminded them of. Some of the children she worked with had attended plays, and they imitated the stiff, formal style of the actors they’d seen. Spolin thought these children were in “desperate need” of some games to help them break free of old-fashioned acting styles.
In June 1940, she presented a public performance of a show created by her students. “During our many months of improvisation, the children have developed an amazingly good sense of staging and dramatic structure,” she observed. “Many in the audience found it difficult to believe that these plays were the result of the children’s efforts.”
It may not have seemed all that important at the time — just a bunch of kids putting on a show — but Spolin was laying the groundwork for decades of theatrical advances in Chicago. Paul Sills played his mother’s games with adult acting ensembles at the Compass Theater in 1955 and when he launched Second City in 1959. His mother helped out, leading workshops. “Everybody realized fairly quickly that when people play the games together, they form an ensemble,” says Patinkin, who worked with both Compass and Second City. (Spolin’s students also included Joyce Piven, co-founder of Evanston’s influential Piven Theatre Workshop).
Patinkin says Spolin’s teachingstyle was indirect. “She didn’t want to talk about what had just happened,” he explains. “She just wanted you to do it again or move on to a different game. Paul was the same way. It wasn’t about discussing it or intellectualizing. It was about doing it.”
Spolin’s book includes instructions for dozens of games. In one simple exercise, actors pretend they’re watching sports. In a game called “contact,” actors must find a logical reason for making physical contact with another player whenever they say a line. Another game involves speaking gibberish. As Spolin explained, gibberish helps the actors stop worrying about “the multitude of technical details surrounding the initial plunge into rehearsal.” It frees them up to move more spontaneously. In other words, as Patinkin recalls Spolin saying, “Get out of your head and into the space.”
In 1965, Spolin and Sills left Second City to start the Game Theater, creating shows in which the audience would participate in actors’ games. The Game Theater lasted only a few months, but Spolin and Sills carried on with similar endeavors, including more stage shows and theater training workshops. Sills adapted fairy tales for a show called Story Theater, which debuted in Chicago and ended up on Broadway. Spolin spent the last decades of her life in Los Angeles, where she continued to teach, including workshops with the cast of the CBS sitcom Rhoda.
In a 1987 interview now posted on YouTube, Spolin looked back on her career and said she should have been a physicist. But she didn’t seem to be thinking about atoms so much as she was musing on the physicality of theater. “Playing is a total physical act,” she said. “And through the physical, hopefully we reach the spiritual. In other words, you stir up that which you have — shake it up, explode it.”