A look back at 2008

At our first ensemble meeting of the new year, one of the agenda items was to look back at the 2008 season and talk about how we did – what worked, what didn’t, what lessons to take into the second half of the Celebration Series.

We weren’t sure what to expect as we started the Celebration Series in 2008 – this would the first time in ten years that we had produced a season with more than one playwright, and there was some concern about the “departure” from our mission statement. The idea of celebrating our unique relationship with all of our featured playwrights gave us some pretty spectacular gifts in 2008, though:

Bubba Weiler, CeCe Klinger and Stephen Dale in emCandles to the Sun/em

Bubba Weiler, CeCe Klinger and Stephen Dale in Candles to the Sun

In the spring, we got a truly unique opportunity: to be the first professional theatre company – ever – to produce a play written by a young college student named Tom in the mid-1930s. Candles to the Sun disappeared for over almost years, but Tom became a legend in American theatre. This was the perfect (and unexpected) beginning of our journey through the Celebration Series – the chance to reconnect with our roots by exploring the roots of the playwright who brought us all together.

Cheri Chenoweth and Jon Steinhagen in Plaza Suite

Cheri Chenoweth and Jon Steinhagen in Plaza Suite

In the summer, we dove headlong into silliness with a return to the world of Neil Simon. We had consciously avoided the most well-known comedies when we featured Simon in 2003, and we all had a blast discovering what we had been missing – mugging our way through the three stories in Plaza Suite, each one more absurdly funny than the last (and we will get to take one more swing at them; the Chicago Park District has invited us to remount Plaza Suite as part of their 2009 Theater on the Lake lineup). As in 2003, though, it was Simon’s suprisingly compassionate and tragic characters who stuck with us after the laughs died down.

John Fenner Mays and Nora Fiffer in The Autumn Garden

John Fenner Mays and Nora Fiffer in The Autumn Garden

The fall gave us a chance to make up for a missed opportunity – in 1999, we all fell in love with The Autumn Garden, and we all decided we were simply too young to do justice to the mature stories Hellman mixes together in this complicated script. It’s been an itch waiting to be scratched for almost ten years, and a pleasure to finally get back to it.

Along the way, we also dipped our toes in the immense waters of Jean Cocteau’s career, and spent an afternoon with Lanford Wilson‘s fictional family, the Talleys. We dug up pictures from old seasons, we found the old dramaturgy binders, and mostly we had fun rediscovering why we had so much fun with these writers the first time around.

On Monday, we start a new journey – the second year of the Celebration Series, and a return to our 2006 featured playwright, Rebecca Gilman. We presented Blue Surge as a staged reading in 2006, but decided not to include it in our season. But this one has been itching at us too, and we’ll have the next three months or so to scratch that itch.

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Friday photo rescue

As we go into the final weekend of performances for Candles to the Sun, I wanted to “rescue” one more current photo – in this scene, the miners are trying to convince Bram (Chuck Spencer, seated at center) to join them in the upcoming strike:

Candles to the Sun by Tennessee Williams

Fight Call

I filmed this video a few weeks ago, but I didn’t want to post it then and spoil the surprise for anyone who hadn’t seen the show yet. With only one weekend of performances left, I think it’s safe now to share this look at the actors practicing the choreography of the big fight scene, where Star and Red are attacked by a gang of strikebreakers:

This is part of the preparations the cast goes through before each performance, making sure that the fight will look realistic – and be safe – when it happens in the show.

Ross Travis, who you can see getting in some gratuitous shots at Red at the end of the clip, choreographed the stage combat for Candles to the Sun.

Special significance

I was interviewed yesterday by a student at DePaul University, who is preparing a presentation for an Intro to Theatre class and chose to present the history of Eclipse Theatre Company.

Before the interview, she emailed me a quick list of the questions she wanted to focus on. The first question on that list set the tone for a great conversation:

Does the production of Candles to the Sun have any special significance to the history of Eclipse Theatre Company?

I’ve told this story before, but it’s always a fun one to tell – starting with that production of Confessional in 1999, where six of the current ensemble met for the first time, and that whole 1999 season, when we brought Eclipse back from the ashes (literally!) by spending the year exploring Tennessee Williams. When we started talking about the idea of the Celebration Series, I don’t think we could have imagined a better show to kick it off – not only do we get to return to our roots as a company, but also to Tom Williams’ roots as a writer.

Understudies

All this weekend, Nina O’Keefe will be playing Fern in Candles to the Sun. She’s understudying for Julie Daley, and she’s been working with us since the first rehearsal back in early February. I’ve watched her work with the cast in rehearsals, and I’m excited to see how her presence changes the show this weekend.

I got to watch my own understudy back in the 2006 season – my sister’s wedding fell in the middle of the run of Boy Gets Girl, and I got to watch James Joseph, who did a fantastic job, rehearse my role with the actors I had spent the last two months working with.

It’s a strange feeling as an actor to watch someone else play a role that you feel closely connected to (I watched a dress rehearsal and kept thinking “he’s wearing my clothes!”), but it’s also invigorating for everyone – I got to see an actor bring a different energy and make different choices (some of which, of course, I unashamedly stole when I went back on the following week), James got an opportunity to play a great character, and the rest of the cast got to feel a sense of newness that sometimes fades over a six-week run.

Bald Ridge

Bald Ridge is another location referenced in Candles to the Sun as a place where the boys would shoot squirrels. In my research there were several Bald Ridge locations including a Bald Ridge Reservation in northeast Alabama. I found a Bald Ridge in Jefferson County, Alabama, which is not necessarily close to Clay County or in the Red Mountain region. One of these two locations are likely what Williams had in mind when writing Candles.

But more interestingly, there is a Bald Ridge campsite in Georgia that happens to be on Lake Sidney Lanier, from whom Williams’ received his middle name from. Now I doubt that the campsite was there, at least in its current form, in 1937 when Williams wrote Candles. It quite the coincidence.

Living and Writing: Part II

At an Eclipse post show discussion during the Gilman season I recall an audience member asking a question regarding what the actors did outside of performing in that particular play. Every single actor on stage worked a 9-5 job during the week and moonlighted as actors during their evenings and weekends. The audience member seemed surprised that the actors needed to work these day jobs but in the world of non-profit, store front theater that is Chicago the majority of actors, playwrights and other theater employees work jobs outside of theater to make ends meet. Similarly, though his wasn’t exactly a need to make ends meet, Tennessee Williams worked at his father’s shoe company after failing his first year of college. His passion for writing drove him so hard that he would work all day (often writing at work as well) and then come home at night “tank up” on black coffee and stay up all night as his typewriter writing short stories.  All for the love of the art.