Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay with final show

  
  

Playing to sold out crowds, Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay

  
 

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk

This past Monday night, the Belarus Free Theatre gave its last Chicago performance of Being Harold Pinter to a packed house at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Their world tour will now carry them to Hong Kong and London, a development they hardly anticipated when they first escaped from the Belarus secret police in January to perform in New York City for Under the Radar Festival, sponsored by Public Theatre. As artists on the run, they have one overriding mission—to alert the world to the conditions of torture, unlawful detention and disappearance occurring in “the last dictatorship in Europe” and to continue strong sanctions imposed on Belarus for its mass arrests of Alexander Lukashenko’s political opposition during post-election demonstrations on December 19 last year.

The applause they received upon entering the champagne reception afterwards echoed the standing ovation that crowned up their final performance in Chicago. While undoubtedly deserved, one couldn’t help feeling the inadequacy of what we were offering them–that what they needed most were not cocktails and hors d’oeurvres but a home free from the terrors of state oppression. The star presence of John Mahoney, Ora Jones, Phillip James Brannon, Stephen Louis Grush, and others who joined the actors onstage to read eye-witness accounts of KGB brutality paled before both the cast’s plight and their bold achievement.

Overwhelming our attention were names of the imprisoned and tortured, their images printed up on posterboards and lined in the lobby—Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party; journalists Natalya Radina and Irina Khalip; Andrei Sannikov, Vladimir Nekliaev and Nikolai Statkevich, opposition presidential candidates; Dmitri Bondarenko, European Belarus Movement coordinator; Maya Abramchik and Svetlana Nosova suffering leg and eye injury from being tortured and young Danik, whose parents are still in jail from the December crackdown. “These were the photographs that we made in time for the NYC performance in January,” said BFT director Vladimir Scherban. “Some of the people have been released from jail but are under house arrest now. As for the images of those tortured, these are just those photos that we could get to print.”

With the help of BFT co-founder Natalia Kaladia, I had managed to corner Scherban for an interview:

PL: So, how long will your tour continue from Chicago?

VS: We’ll be in Hong Kong for less than two weeks, then on to London. We’re planning to perform the play in Parliament. We hope so.

PL: So you have UK politicians helping you to set that up?

VS: We have good contacts with British artistic figures. And we hope to return here. We plan to continue our contacts with the Goodman Theatre, with the Public Theatre and the Baryshnikov Theatre in New York.

PL: Have you received enough funding from your performances here for the tour?

VS: (shrugs) We hardly knew we would be here when we arrived in New York. I suppose so—we’d plan on only 4 performances and how spontaneous to perform 14 in Chicago, fully sold out. So, this was very strange but also very pleasant situation that we could do this for Chicago audiences.

PL: How is your application for asylum in the US going?

VS: (shrugs) I really don’t know about asylum. It’s a big question whether that’s going to happen or not. We cannot re-enter our own country. Our members have already received threats or orders to return. We constantly receive threats in the form of our relatives and neighbors being called late at night by the police about our whereabouts. Several members have received invitations from the police to show up for interrogation.

Unfortunately, this [Belarus] government only understands sanctions, straightforward and unwavering sanctions. The last elections, only very harsh sanctions forced the president [Lukashenko] to release the opposition presidential candidates from jails. Discussions do nothing. During discussions, political candidates just become goods to sell America and the EU.

What you have to know about the demonstrations that took place on December 19th is that there was snow on the ground. After the police had stormed the crowd and assaulted the people, the snow was stained with blood. Then at university, students who were absent on the day of the demonstration were ordered to go for a medical check up and if they looked like they had been beaten up from the demonstration, they were expelled from school.

In some ways, it’s easier for us. We don’t fear this anymore. We’ve been beaten up, we’ve been arrested, we’ve lost our places at work—we’ve gotten used to working under pressure.

PL: What would you like people to take away most about your stay here?

VS: Well, a very big idea for everyone to understand is that we mean serious things. We’re not just about going around and telling our story. We are expecting Obama to be very precise about our situation and take a clear position against the Belarus government. This is what people should know: people are being beaten up, thrown in jail, and disappeared. [BFT co-founder] Nikolai [Khalezin] has had 9 friends disappeared in the last 16 years. The people you see on the posters who are in jail? They’re our friends, our audience.

PL: Anything else you’d like to say?

VS: Wish us luck!


UPDATE: Since the posting of this interview, the OSCE  – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – published its report on Belarus’s December presidential election, declaring that the election did not meet the criteria for being free and fair.


 

           
Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin_thumb[1] Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk - Belarus Free Theatre - Being Harold Pinter_thumb[1]
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich_thumb[2] Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Goodman Theatre_thumb[5]
     
     

Brian Posen interview: Sketchfest and future of Stage 773

     
     
Sketchfest Stage 773 banner Stage 773 renovations
     

 

Brian Posen discusses Sketchfest, Stage 773’s future

By Keith Ecker

Brian Posen thinks big. Just look at his brainchild, the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival: In ten years time, the international sketch comedy festival has grown into the largest event of its kind in the world. In fact, this year’s is the biggest yet, boasting 129 groups and more than 800 artists. That’s a far cry from the 30-plus sketch groups the festival started off with.

But Posen’s visions of grandiosity extend beyond the world of sketch comedy. He’s a lover of all forms of performance art. Whether it’s drama, musical theater, dance, sketch, improv or stand-up, he wants to showcase it. And fortunately he has the power to do just that, thanks to his position as the artistic director of Stage 773 (formerly Lukaba Productions, formerly the Theatre Building). He’s currently planning a heavy-duty renovation of the building, splitting one of the three theaters into a cabaret space and a black box space. Ideally, the complex will become a sanctuary for all performance artists, featuring larger productions on the two main stages and smaller variety acts in the new spaces. It’s Posen’s hope this will create a "cross-pollination," with the end goal being to get theatergoers enthused to see comedy while convincing comedy nerds to see theatre.

I spoke with Posen the day before the launch of this year’s Sketchfest. We discussed the festival, cheap beer and the future of Stage 773.

             
Accidental Company - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Awkward Silence - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Just The Tip - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 The Team - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Man-No-Show -  Chicago Sketchfest 2011

Above: Pictures of some of this year’s 129 sketch comedy groups.


Q: How did Sketchfest start?

Posen: It was in 2001. Sketch comedy had begun to flourish. A bunch of sketch groups started to emerge. I had been in this musical comedy group called The Cupid Players and had just finished directing [sketch group] Stir Friday Night. At the same time, I was given this theater space [the Theatre Building], and I wanted to do something with it. So I asked some sketch groups if they wanted to do a small run. We ended up having a little over 30 groups.

It went well, and I wanted to do it again. So I sent the Cupid Players around the country to other festivals, and we learned how to run our festival. So it was this fluke of an idea that I started to nurture. And by the third year, we had taken over the entire Theatre Building.

Q: How does managing the old Theatre Building, now Stage 773, affect the production of Sketchfest?

Posen: The Theatre Building was really good to us. They bent over backward for us. But now we have the freedom to do certain things that we couldn’t before. We can decorate the space anyway we want it. Before we would have to ask for permission to hang posters in parts of the lobby or had limitations on where we could post signage. Now we don’t have to worry about that. We also don’t have to use Ticketmaster, which means our audience doesn’t have to pay those surcharges. Also, the beer’s cheaper now.

Q: This year’s festival claims 129 sketch groups. How many did you have to turn away?

Posen: About 100 groups. I hate doing that. One thing I’m protective of is that all groups are treated equally. We don’t give awards; we don’t say someone is better than another. Our whole vibe is about building a community.

Q: How do you select what groups get into the festival?

Posen: I have an eight-person committee of performers, directors, producers, a tech designer and someone who is not in the profession. It’s really important to have that outsider. They all watch all the submission videos and rate them from 1 to 100. We have a spreadsheet and input all the numbers. But it’s not just based on that. We also look at the uniqueness of the groups. A couple years ago, there was a group we accepted that didn’t quite have the numbers, but they were all over 50. We rarely get a group that is in that age range. It was an awesome point of view to have here. So if there is something that can help the festival get even more diverse, we will consider that, too.

Q: You mention "points of view." How does that factor into sketch comedy?

Posen: With sketch, the artist who is performing the material is also the writer, so it’s all extremely personal to the artist. There are 129 groups this year, and each is coming from a very specific point of view. We have all Asian groups, all black groups, all lesbian groups. We also have kids groups, some with 11, 12 and 13 year olds. When I watch them, I think, "My God! What an awesome point of view. We as adults have to learn from this because they are blowing us out of the water."

Q: How would you describe the difference between a sketch and a one-act play?

Posen: To me, sketch is a mini one-act that is usually focused on satire. So we are making fun of something. There’s something we need to say to the world, and satire is how we do it.

Q: Since you’re so tuned into the comedy scene, have you noticed any emerging comedy trends?

Posen: The big thing that has changed is how easy it is to make video. People that make comedy have become a lot more technically savvy. As for the content of the comedy, there’s always these phases based on what’s going on in the world. And I think one of the biggest things I see right now is commentaries on just how dumbed down our society has become in the last 10 years.

Q: You’re planning on renovating the Stage 773 space this summer. What’s the impetus for doing this?

Posen: Smaller spaces are a big trend. We want to renovate one of the theaters to create a black box stage and a 70-plus-seat cabaret. These two spaces will be conducive to turnover every two hours. This way the space itself becomes a draw for the audience. So instead of going to the space to see a specific show, they are going to the space to see what shows are playing. We also hope to cross-pollinate the audiences. So the guy leaving the big stage can exit the theater and see the stand-up show in the adjacent space. It’s not easy to get more people to see theater, but we can encourage the people that do see theater to see more things.

Sketchfest Links:

See more Sketchfest Youtube videos HERE

           
           

Individuality – Conversations with Billy Elliot cast

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and Cast

INDIVIDUALITY
Conversations with the Chicago Cast of Billy Elliot the Musical

By Michael L. Harris

From London’s West End to Sydney and Melbourne Australia, on Broadway and now in Chicago, Billy Elliot the Musical is taking the world by storm or perhaps by dance… It is, according to the New York Post, “The best show you will ever see.” And in my opinion they got that one right. After its opening two years ago on Broadway it won an astounding 10 Tony Awards.  At the 63th Annual Tony Award’s Sir Elton John said: “At its heart Billy Elliot is about a child’s emotional struggle for his right to dance and a community’s economic struggle for its right to work.” From beginning to end Billy Elliot the Musical is exhilarating and its message of struggle for individual expression and is never compromised. “The world’s bad enough without making it worse…what we need is in-di-vid-u-al-ity.”

Set in a background of political struggle in the small UK mining community of Durham, Billy Elliot is an adaptation of the award winning film by Stephen Daldry with music by Sir Elton John. Billy Elliot’s Chicago production is the show’s first US touring company.  A second US touring company opens in Durham, NC later in 2010 as does a Seoul, Korea production.  A Toronto opening is scheduled for 2011.

Billy Elliot’s Chicago run began on April 11th of this year.  The Daldry/John team was equally as hands on with this production as they have been with all other world-wide productions of the show. Daldry actually directed the show though a resident director, which ‘keeps the show in very, very good shape” says Cynthia Darlow, who plays grandma. Both Daldry and Sir Elton not only attended the opening night performance, they also donned tutus and joined the cast onstage for the finale!

The Billy Elliot story is so universal and so timely, yet timeless, that it relates on a soul-stirring level to every culture, race and individual. And whether intentional or serendipitous, the casting of an array of multi-cultural boys to play the lead role of Billy Elliot has only enhanced that message.

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with four members of the Chicago cast, and learn first hand from these extraordinary actors who are, night after night, Billy Elliot the Musical – Chicago.

J.P. Viernes as Billy 2 J.P. Viernes (Billy Elliot)

J.P. Viernes is of Philippine decent and makes his home in Half-Moon Bay California, a suburb of San Francisco. “I think my first audition was two years ago, I’ve gone through about five auditions already…they called me back a bunch of times…it was really fun, but it was really long.” J.P. was cast as one of the Chicago Billys. The role of Billy Elliot, the 12 year old lead character whose amazing dance moves and vocals solidify the show’s message is a role so demanding that it requires four young actors and an additional understudy or two to insure its energy charged eight show-a-week demands.

Inspired by his sister to start dancing at the age of seven, J.P. talked about his training for the role. “We started training for the show last November and from November ‘til December we trained in New York and then when 2010 came around came here to Chicago to train. A usual day begins at 10 A.M. …because “we also have to fit in 15-hours a week of school” in addition to the daily dance and gymnastics training. While that may not seem early, their typical day doesn’t end until midnight.  “Doing the show is really fun, but we have to rehearse to build up all the stamina we need for doing the show…” Rather than a distraction J.P. sees school as “kind of a rest just not to be moving around all the time,” though he misses his “friends at home.” The “last time I visited was at Christmas and I was only able to visit for three days.” His mom is with him in Chicago but his dad remains in California.

There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice that goes along with the on-stage glamour. All that work has helped J.P. to better understand the character he plays. “I see Billy as a really creative kid…he really likes to dance…he really wants to dance…and  I think we can all relate to him, (referring to the four boys who play Billy) because we like to dance too and also because he went through a lot of challenges to get where he wants to be. And that also happened with us in trying to get to where Samuel Pergande and J.P. Vierneswe are now and playing Billy Elliot.” The young Billys are on stage dancing and singing throughout most if the 3 hour show, JP’s favorite dance is the finale ”it’s really fun and it’s like just a big celebration.” The choreography while generally consistent from Billy to Billy, is in part individualized to each. Particularly the dance number for “electricity” the song/dance Billy does in describing how it feels when he is dancing.

“When [people] see the show, I think they’re really going to like the dancing…and … the story too cuz it’s really emotional, there’s happy parts, sad parts, angry parts … it’s just a really nice show, and … its entertaining, I think that’s the main thing. The different casting brings different styles to each show so it kind of like makes the show different for everybody. So you could like see me one night and it would be way different from Giuseppe’s (another Billy) performance and I think that’s a really cool thing to see … I think more people can relate to it that way.

While he misses swimming in the ocean he loves interacting with the other cast members. He says Granma is “really funny and she’s really nice to all of us Billys and I think she’s a great actor.” On Mondays, his day off, J.P. can be found playing with the other boys in the local park. “We play games and have nerf-gun fights and last Monday they played some football.” 

J.P. says people might be surprised by the fact that he’s 13 “cuz I’m pretty short.” Though amazingly when these talented young men are on stage they look pretty tall, maybe that is only because they are filling pretty big shoes. In fact, most of the cast members are pretty short off-stage. I nearly walked past Gabriel Rush, one of the two Michaels in the Chicago Billy cast, though you certainly couldn’t over look his show-stopping on-stage performance of, “Expressing Yourself.”

 

Armand Schultz and Cesar Corrales Armand Schultz (Jacky Elliot, father)

Armand Schultz, who plays Billy’s father, Jackie Elliot, was trained as a classical actor and is no newcomer to the theatre. He, like the show itself, had runs on both Broadway and the London stage. Our discussion started off with a bang when I asked his take on the shows multi-ethnic casting: “Wow! I don’t even consider the different ethnicities, it doesn’t even affect me… each kid is his own individual, he’s his own person, but because I’m their dad, on any given night I just see four 12 or 13 year old kids who are just basically playing my son. They all have their own different energies but I wouldn’t consider that an ethnicity thing. I don’t even think it was the directors’ intent to do it…they literally went out to find the most talented young men they could find and it didn’t matter who they were… I saw it originally in London and the overall effect of the show affected me more than the kid… I think the most important thing is that you make a link between yourself and the boy…in terms of what part of that kid you see in yourself and that’s why the show is great part… I think that the story is so powerful and that what’s actually happening between the boy and his family and the boy and his life is so powerful that if you didn’t make that ethnic connection with that kid you would still have that same connection.

“What I think is really interesting about the show; the grouping of people, is that the show is not Americanized. It still takes place in a very rural North Country English town … it doesn’t look like America which is another reason why I think people will relate to the story in a different way, because it is a little bit removed from them. It doesn’t..it isn’t really them … I think a lot of times where you see film or you see shows where you go ‘oh that’s my backyard’ you relate to it in one way, but when you see it a little bit removed from it, I think you see a little bit of the universality of what’s actually happening in the story and I think that is a really big plus for the show.”

You’ve done a lot of classical work…how does that fit into this? “I know how to yell eight times a week??” He says a comic aside. “In a classical play you always have to work on the language to make it real…“I don’t know that these characters are larger than life. They’re sort of…of life, in most Shakespeare plays (for example) people are very large, they’re very large thinkers, he writes so incredibly well that their thoughts are huge, the Shakespearean text usually tells a lot about character, I think the action in this play tells more about character than the text. It’s the things that people do or don’t do with regard to their children, or with regard to the people around them that speaks loud…”

Patrick Mulvey, Cynthia Darlow and Miners Cynthia Darlow (Grandma)

Cynthia Darlow, is also a seasoned veteran and was a former cast member of the Broadway production of Billy Elliot before coming to Chicago.  Playing Grandma in a musical is a change from most of her former roles in more legitimate theatre. Cynthia who has two knee replacements several years ago is amazed to find herself in another musical. “I thought my dancing days were over…”

Cynthia had not seen the show until four friends who has seen it came along and said, “There’s a part in that show for you.” So she “bit the bullet” and went to see it. And “I said to my husband
‘Oh my God, I love this show, I have got to do this part, this show means the world to me.” Cynthia confides that she had a similar experience to Billy Elliot when a teacher took a personal interest in her career, driving her to and paying for her college boards.

The role of grandma has been expanded from the original film in which she was a fairly minor character. Here she sings and dances with the best of them … While grandma is now in her declining years and “suffers from a bit of dementia, I think she’s indomitable…she had a tough marriage and an abusive marriage, but she stood up. They were passionate and I think she would do it all over again if she had to.  The song she sings, “We’d Go Dancing” gives us an insight into her life philosophy” which Cynthia paraphrases as:  “if I had all to do over I’d say screw everybody, I’d go dancing and I never would stay sober…she’s a character, I love her.” She’s already told Stephen Daldry she’s “a lifer, I’ll play this part for as long as they’ll have me.”

However, her first reaction when asked to come to Chicago was “No…I’m a happily married woman and I knew it was at least a year’s commitment, but my husband told me I was crazy if I didn’t go in on it.” Plus he promised to come to Chicago twice a month to see her. “It’s actually made the marriage great…it’s been like a honeymoon” she says with a chuckle.

This show is “timeless…it’s a rags to riches story, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a political story…it’s just got everything going for it. The music is beautiful, written by someone who’s very popular.” She is of course referring to Sir Elton John, who not only came to opening night but donned a tutu and joined the rest of the cast in the finale. He also asked that the cast remain on stage following the performance so that he could greet “every one of us personally and he actually kissed me right on the face.” Cynthia grins.

In the “true sense of a musical” Cynthia says while you may not come out humming a song (criticism of some people,) you “don’t come to the theatre to hear the next top-ten single – you come to see the story being told and you only write a song (in a musical) when there is nothing else you can say…you have to sing. And what is being expressed is beyond the ability of mere words to communicate.” I had to confess however that I came out singing.

“When you are in a musical you really have to be like an Olympic athlete. It really does take a lot out of you. I work out every day, I vocalize, I watch my diet, I warm up for at least 15 minutes before the show…this is a show you cannot do unless you are in top condition. You have to be very, very disciplined. It’s a whole different muscle set than you use in a straight play.”

Cynthia believes the most important message of the show is “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.” And her advice to potential audience members is “don’t miss it.”

Miners Association 

Keean Johnson (Michael, Billy’s best friend)

Keean Johnson plays Michael, Billy’s flamboyant friend. The role of Michael in the stage version is also greatly expanded from the film and adds a new dimension to the shows message of individual expression. Keean’s show-stopping performance as Michael is incredible. He was also one of the Broadway cast members to join the Chicago cast. 

Unlike other cast members, Keean was asked to audition for Billy Elliot and originally auditioned for the lead role in the original Broadway cast. When four other boys were chose for that spot he filled the featured role of “Tall Boy” on Broadway for 400 performances without missing a single one. Later he was given the opportunity to move into the role of Michael which he played on Broadway until he was given the option of coming to Chicago to originate the role as part of the first U.S. touring company, an offer he eagerly accepted.

Originally from Colorado, Keean confesses that he loves the city. “I love the noises.” He loves acting and dancing and wants to make a career of it. “Playing Michael is such a challenge but so rewarding.”

What’s great about the show is that “Anyone can be Billy, it doesn’t matter what they look like, it’s their ability to dance and everyone in the show is just amazing.” Keean finds that working with different actors each night keeps the show “fresh.” And while the accent was a challenge, Keean had a bit of a head-start since his real-life father is English.

Keean’s training includes cardio on days when he is on stand-by and a warm up with the Ballet Girls and safety training on nights when he is performing and he takes about 1-12 hours of personal dance instruction a week. As one of only 2 Michaels he is on stand-by or performing every day except Mondays when the theatre is dark.

Even on Mondays he has a variety of dance classes including tap (which is featured in several of the Billy numbers.) But Monday is also the day when all of the 12-13 year Billys and Michaels meet in the park for football and rugby and to just be boys. On any given night after the performance you are also likely to see Keean making his way down the street in the company of family on a skateboard or scooter, and he can’t wait to try out for the upcoming Kid’s Chicago Triathlon that he and his brother plan to enter..

While his character Michael is presented as being gay, Keean believes that Michael is a boy struggling for his own identity and not really knowing for sure if he is (gay). He also believe that Michael is largely the product of the environment in which he has grown up and may not have totally come to grips yet with his own sexual identity. “It’s definitely a challenge…but I love the role.”

“I think the biggest message of the show is to love what you do. Too many people live their lives in other peoples shadow … we all need to learn to “express” our true passion. … no matter what it takes, no matter what it pays, … if you love to do it … that’s the best, … for me it’s theatre, I love it and I want to do it for the rest of my life.” His advice to other kids that want to go into show business is to “keep on training” and keep on trying.

In addition to the talented boys in the show, the cast includes a company of amazing girls who play the ballet students of a washed up dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson, played by Emily Skinner (pictured in photo below). Although her life has become drab and cynical she recognizes and nurtures young Billy’s talent.

Corrales, Skinner, Hammond and Ballet Girls

If you are a theater lover you won’t want to miss this amazing show. Chicago is the closest it will get to most of us in the Midwest until it opens in St. Louis late in 2011. And while it shows every sign of a good long life in Chicago you may want to see it early so you can see it again and again. After all, there are four Billys and two Michaels that you’ve just got to see before it ends. In addition to J.P Viernes, the rest of the Billys include Tommy Batchelor (another Broadway transplant), Giuseppe Bausilio and Cesar Corrales. Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush alternate as Michael. Billy Elliot is at the Oriental Theatre. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster

Billy's Under Theatre Lights 

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MICHAEL L HARRIS is a freelance writer and Independent filmmaker. His short-film trilogy “Samuel – A Journey of Discovery” will be showing at film festivals around the country this summer. Michael makes his home in Northern Indiana. Comments and inquiries may be directed to filmmaker1954@aol.com.

All photos courtesy of Joan Marcus

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Arthur Miller Project: an interview with Eclipse Theatre gang

Talking about Arthur M. with the gang at Eclipse

It’s dangerous to getting together with Eclipse Theatre’s crew of artists. They love talking about theatre as much as I do, so the interview format quickly turns into casual and fun conversation that could have gone on and on if we let it. Artistic Director Nat Swift, who directs Eclipse’s current production Resurrection Blues (our review 3.5stars), JP Pierson, who plays Stanley, and Nora Fiffer, who will perform in their summer production After the Fall, easily demonstrate their company’s dramaturgical drive and intelligent grasp of recurring themes in Arthur Miller’s work. They appreciate Resurrection Blues for its focus on media and I appreciate its prophetic power to show us the dire straits we could be heading for—a perspective that make me the “wonderfully cynical” one in the group. Enjoy.

 

 

 


 

Previous Arthur Miller Project interviews:

    
     

Arthur Miller YouTube Project: Crucible interview

A fast-paced, minimalist Crucible emphasizes the currency and timelessness of Arthur Miller

We met up with Chris Maher, director of Infamous Commonwealth Theatre’s latest production of The Crucible, and Craig Thompson who plays the of role of John Proctor. Ian Epstein, whose review marveled that their production’s fast pace “makes the piece a borderline thriller,” conducts the interview at Raven Theatre. The themes of timelessness and timeliness dominate the discussion, together with a genuine love for Miller’s actability.

 

Part 1

 

Part 2

 

Read our review for The Crucible here. (★★★)

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Playwright Arlene Malinowski talks “…Sainthood”

Living the same life as us, but in a different way

 

by Dani Kaslow

A-MalinowskiFor most people, starting one’s career as a Deaf education teacher, obtaining a master’s degree in counseling followed by a doctorate in higher and adult education before ultimately settling into writing and acting would seem like an unusual path. For Arlene Malinowski, writer and performer of the autobiographical solo show Aiming for Sainthood, it was a logical progression. “Everything I’ve done career-wise has fed into  the next thing,” she said in a recent telephone interview. First and foremost, Malinowski sees herself as an educator. “Writing and sharing my story and my family’s story are just educating in a different way.”

Malinowski’s parents are Deaf, with a capital D. In Deaf culture, a “Deaf” person is someone with a hearing loss who is part of the Deaf community and uses American Sign Language. A “deaf” person is someone who has a significant hearing loss, but who is not culturally Deaf. Although she is hearing, Malinowski grew up in the Deaf community, straddling (and often bridging) the worlds of mainstream American culture and Deaf culture.

The role of hearing children in Deaf families often involves taking on adult responsibilities at a young age as the children are called on to interpret the conversations and the cultural differences of the adults around them. Aiming for Sainthood is the second in Malinowski’s trilogy of full-length solo shows about her experiences as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). When asked if she, like many other aiming CODA’s, ever went through a period of rebelling against her role in the family and its responsibilities, Malinowski laughed and said, “it’s all in my first show, What Does the Sun Sound Like. That show is about growing up CODA and coming to the realization of ‘that’s my tribe.’” Although some of her duties were unique, Malinowski thinks she was similar to most other teenagers. “I think every kid goes through some kind of rebellion. Mine manifested itself as ‘do I have to?’ (interpret or whatever), but I think every kid goes through it in some way or other. I got wild, but I wasn’t a bad child.”

Aiming for Sainthood is billed as “a solo play for Deaf and hearing audiences,” and is told in sign language and voice. Director Richard Perez does not know American Sign Language, but Malinowski doesn’t see Perez’s inability to sign as negatively impacting the process. “It is different, in that it is solo work, especially autobiographical solo work, so the [actor-director] relationship is much more collaborative,” said Malinowski. She also praised Perez’s efforts to learn about Deaf culture. “He’s been great trying to learn about Deaf culture. It’s opened a great world for him to start understanding what Deaf culture is. He’s been just great.”

It isn’t only her director who has earned Malinowski’s respect in this area. “I am humbled by hearing people who have stepped across their comfort line to communicate [with Deaf individuals]. I am grateful for every hearing person who has tried to sign, or gesture, or write a note, because I know it’s hard. I know it is. I am awed by their ability to be kind and to make contact.”

Malinowski challenges audiences to learn about Deaf culture while they’re being entertained. Though a Deaf family is beyond the experience of most audience members, she has been surprised to find how many people could relate to her story. She has been approached by several people whose first exposure to Deaf culture was through her work who say, “that’s my story!”

Malinowski has found that the struggles of children of first generation immigrants can especially reflect similar experiences she went through. Linguistic and cultural differences within a single family are themes common to immigrant and Deaf/hearing families. Malinowski can relate to the need to find an identity within a culture that some immigrants feel. “My first show is primarily about finding identity, in my case as a CODA.”

Malinowski said initially people were shocked that “my family life is so normal,” but she was pleasantly surprised to find how quickly audiences seemed to understand that. “Aside from the flashing lights for the doorbell and the waving of the hands,” family life in Malinowski’s house growing up was “like anybody else’s.”

The universality of human experience, while the details may differ, seems to be part of Malinowski’s larger message. “I would want people to know that everyone does have a story, but we have stopped listening to each other. Hopefully, through my work, people will start listening to each other. In the Deaf community, because storytelling is such a high art, their stories are passed from hand to hand to hand and the Deaf community embraces that storytelling. Deaf culture has done that right. They’ve passed their culture and their history from hand to hand. Really, in the end, we all live the same lives, just in many different ways.”

Malinowski has acting credits in theater, television, and film. In addition to the trilogy of which Aiming for Sainthood is a part, Malinowski has written and starred in three solo one-act plays which she has performed in multiple venues. For now, Chronic, the third show in Malinowski’s trilogy, is in the conceptual stages. She continues to educate, and not only through her solo shows. Malinowski has taught at colleges throughout the country and currently teaches solo intensives in her studio in addition to teaching at Chicago Dramatists, where she is Resident Playwright.

Theatergoers will have the opportunity to see Aiming for Sainthood this weekend at Millennium Park as part of the In the Works series. Aiming for Sainthood will be produced later this season at Victory Gardens Theater’s new Studio Theater in Chicago.


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Aiming For Sainthood

A Solo Play For Deaf And Hearing Audiences Written/performed by Arlene Malinowski
Directed by Associate AD Richard Perez

About the Play

When her Deaf mother gets cancer, a middle-aged daughter moves back into her childhood room with two questions: “Where is God?” and “Who took my Springsteen poster?”

The hearing daughter of devout Deaf parents must navigate through the cross-cultural maze of the medical world, the Deaf world, and the world beyond. This story is about parents and children, Deaf and hearing, love and forgiveness, faith and tolerance, and finding yourself amid the clash of cultures we call America.

Through this autobiographical, one-woman play, Ms. Malinowski shares her heritage. It is told through both sign language and voice, using both Deaf and hearing storytelling techniques. It challenges audiences to share a world beyond their experiences: the culture of Deafness – a community of people defined not by their disability but by their shared language, perspective and values – a community which believes, “We aren’t broke – so don’t try to fix us.”

REGULAR PERFORMANCES:

Thursday, March 25, Friday, March 26 and Saturday, March 27. All shows at 7:30pm.

TICKET PRICES: All Tickets are $10
To purchase tickets, call 312.742.TIXS (8497) or buy online here of at http://millenniumpark.org/

NOTE: With the In the Works series, audiences have a chance to sit on the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, experiencing works in development by local theater artists or companies. The series is supported by a grant from Boeing Charitable Trust.

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An interview with Andrea McArdle – an orphan no longer

Andrea McArdle  – On the road since 1977

Interview by Novelist Amy Shearn

Andrea McArdleAt the Wilmette Theatre, Sunday May 16th at 2:30pm, Chicago residents (and beyond) will have an opportunity that would make me – if I was still seven-years old – shriek with joy.  No, it’s not a pet unicorn or a canopy bed: it’s a performance by the talented show business veteran Andrea McArdle, who created the role of Annie in the Broadway musical Annie in 1977.

AS: Okay, I’m sorry, you’re probably tired of talking about “Annie”…

AM: (laughing) I’ve made my peace with it.  During the whole thing I was not that fun to deal with.  It’s just so different when you’re in it.

AS: I was obsessed with “Annie” as a kid.

AM: I always meet gay guys who are like, “The red album! The red album!” [The original Broadway cast recording]

"The Red Album"

AS: Exactly.  I read that you were pulled from the chorus of orphans to play Annie on Broadway.

AM: I was the toughest orphan.  The only reason they never considered me for Annie was that I wasn’t a redhead. I was on the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow” and I was contracted with long brown hair.  Then they realized not to look for what’s outside — you could dye hair or wear a wig, not that my mother would have let me dye my hair — but to look for the soul of the character, and I got the role.

AS: What was it like to be cast as Annie? 

AM: The show wasn’t a hit then. To me, I treated it the same way I treated the school play — I didn’t really see the difference between that and Broadway.  I had no idea what a Tony award was. When I was nominated for one I was like, “Oh, cool.”  It was just another gig.

I have great parents.  I was always the daughter before  a commodity.   I was a gymnast before theatre and it was just like that — being part of a team.  Afterwards, it became a hit.  When it hit we knew we were the toast of the town.  It could have been terrible, but like I said, I had great parents.

AS: What was it like being a child star?

AM: I’m lucky that it wasn’t television, which uses you up and spits you out.  You know, sometimes I’m still waiting for my “Norma Rae” role and think it just hasn’t happened yet.  (laughs.)   After “Annie,” I had offers to go on sitcoms but they were all terrible and luckily we knew better.  It would have had a horrible outcome, just trashed my reputation.  They didn’t know what do with kids when I was hot.

Today they have the Disney channel, I would have had my own show, a whole franchise.  But then, American Broadway was dying — it was the beginning of the British Invasion and all major producers were on their last legs.  There were really no projects around, so we just didn’t get to ride the momentum.  That’s why it’s nice to also be a singer.  It was hard to cast me — I looked like an eight-year-old boy until I was eighteen and then suddenly grew up one summer — so no one knew what to do with me.

AS: You appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and performed with Liberace. What was that like?

Liberace (photo from liberace.org)

AM: It was amazing. I wasn’t phased. I did the Carson show three times. I played Judy Garland in the movie Rainbow on NBC and Liberace saw it. I was in school writing a paper on JFK and got a call to go to Las Vegas. Liberace gave me my sweet 16 party, which was wrong on so many levels, but great.

AS: What do you think of contemporary child stars?

AM: Ugh, so many of them are puppets for sick parents.  It’s so different from getting into business because a child has talent. I feel horrible for them; I would never want to grouped into the child star group.

AS: Do you ever get tired of being Annie?

AM: Well, sometimes I think the Annie thing has held me back.  If I had arrived on scene at 18 or 19 it would been better — you can’t be an adolescent girl in mary janes and a red dress forever.  But I wouldn’t change a thing.

AS: What were some of your favorite roles?

AM: I got to play Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.”  I was 37, and I was surprised they were calling me.  I thought they were calling me for Mrs. Potts and I was like, Mmm, I don’t know if I’m ready to play a teapot.  But I loved playing Belle.  My daughter was 12, and it was great to be in something she was so in to.  I think that’s the best Disney story, too.  It’s not just for kids.  It has universal appeal.

I loved played Sally Bowles — it’s really fun to play a bad girl.

AS: Many Ageless North Shore readers are redefining or reevaluating their lives and careers at midlife.  How have you managed to maintain such an active career in a field notoriously interested in youth?

Andrea at New York’s Metropolitan Room. (photo by Richard Termine )

AM: Well, you know, I’m in a period of crossroads.  I’ve been mature enough to play mothers for almost a quarter of a century.  This business owes us nothing.  Who wants to wait two years to sing two great songs in a show?  That’s why cabaret is so incredibly appealing. No one wants to see, you know, a “seasoned” 17-year-old sing cabaret.  It took me years to feel comfortable  with cabaret; it’s easier to sing for 6000 people than for 60.  You have to deal with the people and their energy…but once you face it, it’s liberating.

Now I have so many great stories and I can chat with the audience.  It’s a live version of what a book would be, but it’s all off the top my head.  I’ve had a lot of funny experiences! Who else performs for the queen at 13? I mean, Catherine Zeta Jones was my Molly in London.  No one could pronounce her name — we called her Zeetie.  It’s just interesting to see where everybody ends up.

My story is a success story — theater is what I love. I was lucky.  Now you have to go and do tv just to get the roles you want.  Since Broadway went corporate it’s just such a machine.  It changed everything.  It’s all marketing.  I mean, when you see reality tv show stars getting roles…it’s tough.  But in theater,you do it for the love of it.  And I love what I do.

For tickets to an “Evening of Song, ANDREA MCARDLE with Doug Peck on the piano”, Sunday, May 16th at 2:30pm click here.

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Amy Shearn is the author of  How Far Is the Ocean from Here. Her work has appeared in Jane, West Branch, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a baby and a dog. Visit her online at amyshearn.com.

NOTE: This interview is re-posted, with permission, from Ageless Northshore: http://ageless-northshore.com.