Thursday, November 30, 2017

Highlights From BoHo's Talkback With Michael John LaChiusa

On November 17th, BoHo Theatre held a talkback with writer/composer Michael John LaChiusa and our artists following a performance of Marie Christine. Presented here are edited selections from that event.

Moderator: What possessed you to write this show?

Michael John LaChiusa: A series of things. One was working with Graciela Daniele. We were talking about our favorite plays of all time and we both agreed that one of the greatest plays ever written was Medea, the Greek play.

And then a young lady came to audition for me for a show I was writing at the time called Hello Again, and she was amazing, she blew my mind, but I couldn’t cast her in the show because she was too young. She had just graduated from Juliard. Her name was Audra McDonald. But at that moment, I said, “I must write a play for her one day.”

And then my brother sent me a book of myths and legends of old New Orleans, particularly of Marie Laveau. And I was sitting there reading that book and there was one line that said, “Marie Laveau had a daughter who ran away north with a white man.” And the pieces fell into place. And I wrote it.

It all just came together. I thought, I can transpose Medea into latter century New Orleans and really explore something I didn’t know a lot about. Also politically, I got to be a murderer too, theatrically, because there is the trope of the tragic mulatto, which is something that I despise, and I thought maybe with Marie Christine, I could kill the tragic mulatto stereotype. So that’s one of the reasons why I wrote it.

It’s all loaded, why I wrote the show, why it’s never really done-- its dark stuff. But it’s one of my most precious scores because it means so much.

Moderator: With this show, what message did you want people to walk away with in 1999, and is that message different now?

MJLC: I still think it’s the same message-- it’s the same message that Medea had. There are many messages in Medea: what do we do with our passions, do we control our passions, do we let them overrun ourselves, how do we find that balance between them? And also, in our country, we have this open wound [of slavery and racism] and the salt keeps pouring into it.

These are still big problems, obviously, and I put them out there for us to take whatever you want to take from it all, the grief of it all, and whether or not we can solve them. I always feel like Marie Christine is offered so many choices along the way, like Medea is-- you can get out of it this way, you can get out of it that way-- but there is ultimately only one thing she can do in order to move on. Now, I’m not advocating to kill your kids, but I think some part of us has to die in order for us to move forward and sometimes those deaths are very, very hard for us to deal with as a society, as a culture. It’s one of the big things we have to deal with and that’s why we grieve so much and why we have so much struggle with change. If we’re going to change, we have to kill some things off [metaphorically], and it’s going to be very hard but we’ll be different at the end of it all.

Moderator: On behalf of the music director and the cast, I have to ask, why do you write such hard music!?

MJLC: I don’t think it’s that hard. (laughter) I tell you, you'll never go back from this. Once you do this, like, why would I not want to challenge my singers? Why wouldn’t you want to push the limits of where musical theatre can go? Where you can push your actors to places vocally, musically?

(Gesturing to the cast) It’s theirs, they own every single note of the music. (to cast) You own how you sing those notes. Noone else is going to sing them the way you sung them tonight ever, ever, ever. Every night, they’re yours.

Aaron Benham, Music Director: I gotta say, on my end, doing the show, I feel like I’ve accomplished something after every show. It’s really pleasing to me to do this show.

MJLC: And why not? You’re Olympians. I don’t know why we don’t want to always be Olympians. Right? We all want easy things to do, every now and then, and we want to make a ton of money doing it, but why not be Olympians at all times? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be? Challenging ourselves?

Audience Member: I know that you love writing for groups of women, for example with the First Daughter and First Lady Suites and Bernarda Alba, I wonder why you gravitate towards that?

MJLC: One, their ain’t enough roles for women. There are just not enough roles or complicated roles or interesting roles that I see out there for women. So yes, I write shows for women casts because-- I have a very lucky life. I’m happy doing what it is I do. It’s not that I get to do what I want to do, it’s not that. I have to make choices about what I do for other people, (to audience) for you, (to artists) for you, so that’s why I do that.

George Wolf taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life when I worked with him: That if I didn’t write interesting roles for people of color, other genders, races, etc, then these young people would not go to school to learn them or be challenged by them. If I didn’t commit my life to this, then there was no point in writing. It was a great lesson that I learned and one that I am an apostle to.

Moderator: What was your experience watching your work with this group of artists?

MJLC: It’s been so long. Marie Christine is very rarely performed...

The commitment that this company made is remarkable to me. How committed they are to the music, how committee they are to the roles, to each other. And how committed they are to [Lili-Anne Brown’s] vision is profound to see in the theatre. It’s breathtaking to see this sort of magic and mystery happen on the stage. And to see this tonight was deeply, profoundly moving to me in many ways.

A beautiful moment for me tonight was hearing a song that had been cut from the show on Broadway, "The Map of Your Heart." To hear the song tonight was so beautiful and I'm so grateful that you restored it. I felt that it had such beauty with you two singing it. To see some of the little funny things you [Lili-Anne Brown] put back into the show-- I gave her an original script-- so she stuck some things back in that we had cut in the normal course of doing the show. It was wonderful to hear. Thank you.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Director Stephen Schellhardt Ponders "The Odyssey Years"

A few years back, the New York Times published an article about a new life phase for our generation - the decade of exploration that occurs after college and well into our late 20's and early 30's. The writer called it the "Odyssey Years," and it was this phrase that caught my attention.

I left college with an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. I thought I could conquer the world and that life would simply fall into place for me. However, I quickly learned that life doesn't work that way. It comes at you quickly, it often makes no sense, and it demands a focus and determination that is often exhausting. Slowly my priorities began to change. I've lived alone, I've lived at home, and I've lived with others. I've had lots of money, and I've had no money at all. I have had no job and too many jobs. I have mourned relationships lost and celebrated relationships gained. My opinions have been challenged on a daily basis. The world I thought I knew when I graduated is not the world I live in now. These years have been a time of exploration, of opportunity, of loss and of love. The have truly been an odyssey.

I know I am not alone in these experiences. BoHo's upcoming cabaret The Odyssey Years on July 25th will explore and illustrate that while also highlighting the enormous talents of our BoHo family. I hope to see you there.

Stephen Schellhardt is BoHo's Artistic Associate, and most recently won acclaim for directing BoHo's production of Urinetown. He is the director for The Odyssey Years cabaret.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Finding Unsuspecting Influences in "Three Days of Rain"

Director Derek Van Barham, on what inspired him about Three Days of Rain.

What first struck me about Three Days of Rain was the richness of the script. We were able to hit the ground running with stellar material, and could spend the whole process really investigating the text. We had time to take risks, try things, fail, and fine tune. Greenberg did us a great service by giving us this deserted apartment in Act One. We are given a sort of blank canvas on which to paint these complex relationships. By contrast, Act Two is a fully realized portrait that we get to deconstruct. We draw something, and then rip it apart.

Each time that I watch our production, I notice different themes and patterns, recurrences in dialogue and gesture. The dynamic between our respective trios is so mercurial. I am still not sure I could say who the protagonist of our story is (though I think I know which character is the key to each act). What a treat to see three talented Chicago actors try to understand their parents only to then (literally) become them. Another Greenberg gift.

The word 'moment' is used throughout the script, and it is a word that has stayed with me. Moments are created and can easily be altered by time and space. For example, my memory of an intimate conversation can be vastly different than that of the other person. The distance between Act One and Act Two is like spilling water on a photo, or exposing a newspaper clipping to sunlight.

Three Days of Rain is about how the most unsuspecting present can have the biggest impact on the future, how the things we barely notice can shape who we are. It’s about the butterfly effect, the ripples of every decision we make.

One of our design inspirations was the Hiroshima Shadow, the negative space outlines created by the World War II nuclear attack. Outlines of bicycles, ladders, and even people were left on surfaces. Even though the objects and people were gone, their impressions were burned onto the walls. In our show, the room is a character, covered in shadows.

Three Days of Rain tells a story of people who were here and all of the moments they created together. It’s about connecting to the past, if for no other reason than the uncertainty of the future. It resonates in a time where we create our own families, and are constantly taking stock of how we will spend each moment. It is about how we will be remembered. And being remembered, however inaccurately, doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Derek Van Barham,
Director of BoHo's Three Days of Rain

Friday, March 3, 2017

Why Is Urinetown The Perfect Play For Now?

I first saw Urinetown in 2001, shortly after it opened on Broadway and not too long after September 11th. I was in New York City for a weekend with some college friends and I had been told that if there was one show to see on Broadway at that time, it was Urinetown. The title seemed strange but it intrigued me. On the surface, it came across as extremely comical and absurd – hey, we all needed that right after 9/11, right? We yearned for laughter and a little irreverence. Yet underneath that, the musical was dark, grim and poignant. It made a bold statement about our political system – which was on everyone’s mind then, even if we all were tired of talking and hearing about it. Sound familiar?

It succeeded in making me laugh until my belly hurt and yet its underlying message stayed with me for weeks afterward. While it posed some serious questions about society and the future of our world, it also managed to hilariously pay homage to the American musical comedy and to musical theatre form and structure altogether. The book was stellar and the production numbers were energetic, gigantic and fun. It was everything you wanted a musical to be, and more, and at the time it was like no other show I had ever seen before. It became one of my favorite musicals, and yet I never dreamed that I would be lucky enough to direct a production of it almost 16 years later.

When BoHo was searching for a musical for its 2017 season, Urinetown came up as a possible option and I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. I was reluctant at first to direct the show because I knew how difficult it was going to be to pull off this enormous musical-- and pull it off well. But I knew that, just like in 2001, now is the perfect moment for this story to be told. And there is no other company that I would rather tell it with than BoHo.

Urinetown resonates with what is happening with the state of our country and our world at this very moment, just like it did sixteen years ago. Not only because it touches on hefty themes like political corruption, corporate greed, environmental and economic catastrophe, the battle over basic human rights, mistrust and fear of law enforcement, class warfare and over-population-- but also because at the heart of the show lies a revolution. The concept of unexpected, unlikely voices finding strength and rising-up is central to this story. That is what excited me about telling it and why it is so important for it to be told at this exact point in time. It asks one of the bravest and most important moral questions imaginable: Are you willing to do what is right, even if your accomplishments never add up to anything tangible? In a postmodern, cynical world, it’s a question that demands to be asked and considered.

Stephen Schellhardt,
Director of BoHo's Urinetown

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Purely Fiction World of Urinetown

"He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news.”
-Bertold Brecht

Imagine a world where people must pay to carry out one of the most basic human functions. A world where times are so bad that big business ideology is the law, and the top 1% is the only percent that could possibly prevail. A world where fear is the guiding force of politics and socio-economic status. A completely, utterly, wholly fictional world like this is difficult to imagine, I know (no, really!) ... but such is the world of Urinetown.

Not only does the show challenge us to imagine this theatrical world, but it also asks us to re-examine the form of musical theatre. It is a show that breaks all the typical conventions… Not only breaks, but laughs at! A show that makes you chuckle while you cringe. Daniel Marcus, who played Officer Barrel when it opened in New York, called it “a love letter to the American musical in the form of a grenade.”

Why produce this hilarious, satirical, completely fictional, catchy and clever account of a mythical place called Urinetown, you ask?

I don’t know. I enjoyed the music.

-Peter Marston Sullivan,
BoHo Theatre Artistic Director