Friday photo rescue

Four Jeff-Nominated performances, from 2008/2009:

Jon Steinhagen in Plaza Suite:

Nora Fiffer in The Autumn Garden:

Nathaniel Swift in Blue Surge:

Laura Coover in Blue Surge:

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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.

Getting Hitched at the Plaza

Notable Weddings and Receptions of the 1960’s at the Plaza Hotel:

Patricia Kennedy and Peter Lawford – April 24, 1954 Wedding (pictured below).

Jean Kennedy and Stephen Smith – 1956 Reception at the Plaza.

Singers Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence – Aug. 12, 1963 in State Suite.

Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower – 1968 Reception (along with 6 other receptions that day).

Theater Thursday

The League of Chicago Theatres is joining us for a Theater Thursday event tonight – in true Plaza style, we’ll have tea service before the show, and a discussion and backstage tour after. Tickets are still available – here’s the details:

Plaza Suite by Neil Simon
Eclipse Theatre Company
At the Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago

Join the cast and crew of Plaza Suite for afternoon tea at the Plaza before the show! Enjoy full tea service, including a selection of premium teas, scones and preserves. After the show, you’ll also be invited to a discussion with the artists and a private backstage tour. One of Neil Simon’s most popular and celebrated comedies, Plaza Suite details the misadventures of three very different couples – all in the same room at the world famous Plaza Hotel.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m.
Show begins at 8:00 p.m.
Tickets: $35
For reservations, call 773-871-3000 and mention “Theater Thursdays.”

Plaza Hotel – Part 2

On November 28, 1966, in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Truman Capote hosted his acclaimed “Black & White Ball” in the Grand Ballroom. He chose the Plaza “because it has the only beautiful ballroom left in New York”. A brilliant setting, a select guest list, a strict dress code, and the novelty of wearing masks (he even had to approve who was brought as an invitees guest). Capote rented Suite 437 that evening. He invited 540 persons, there were 200 press in the lobby and 300 onlookers in the street. Capote had no flowers declaring “the people are the flowers”. The party cost $16,000. New York Times printed the guest list, CBS aired live coverage. Diana Trilling summed it up neatly, “a very complicated moment in this country’s social history.”

Opening Night

Plaza Suite opens tonight – we’ve had a run of great previews, giving us a chance to get used to the timing of the show with an audience laughing, and now we’re ready to do it for real.

This has been a fun trip for me as an actor (that’s me on the right, playing hot-shot Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger, pining for my high school sweetheart Muriel Tate, played by ensemble member Frances Wilkerson) and as a producer. Everybody in the cast is feeling good and having fun, and we’ve got six more weeks to play with this after tonight.

Live blogging the second preview

7:04 – I arrived at the theater about fifteen minutes ago, after an early dinner with some great friends who stopped by Chicago on their way from New York to a new home in San Francisco. They’ll be in the audience tonight, along with hopefully lots more great people.

All of the actors are here now, and we’re just starting to get ready – putting on makeup, checking props, wandering about aimlessly with the energy of a new show in front of an audience.

I’m off to get ready myself – since my character starts off by emerging from the bathroom where he’s just finished shaving, that’s part of my preparation for this show. I’ll go do that, and get into costume, and then I’ll be back.

This is my first time live blogging – I don’t know quite where this will go. If anyone is reading this in real time and has any questions about what really happens backstage during a performance, leave a comment below.

7:34 – Just got the call from the stage manager – the house is now open. I’m freshly shaved and in costume – well, part of my costume, anyway. I don’t actually go on stage until after intermission (around 9:00), so I’ve got some time.

8:01 – I can hear the murmur of the crowd over the monitors (they’re designed to let us hear the show from the dressing room so we know when our cue is coming up, but they’re good for listening to the audience too, although I can’t make out what anyone is saying). The play should be starting any second now – we must be holding for the audience to make their way in from the lobby. I’ll go check.

8:09 – The show just started. CeCe and JP are on stage now, Ted is waiting for his entrance, and the rest of us are in the dressing room, quietly running lines, doing crossword puzzles, and putting the final touches on makeup. I’m getting used to my new John Lennon sunglasses, which I’ll be using on stage for the first time tonight.

8:14 – The Cubs are up 1-0 in the fifth.

8:26 – Going well so far – the first act is getting some good laughs from the audience, and the energy sounds good. I’m still waiting – in full costume now – for my entrance. I’ll go over the script one more time before I go on, checking some of the lines that I’ve struggled to remember in the last few performances. They’re all in my head somewhere, but it always helps me to look over everything a few minutes before walking out onto the stage.

8:49 – It’s amazing how much this show is still funny for us in the dressing room – we’ve seen it almost every day for the last six weeks, and we can only hear the dialogue over the monitors (no video back here in the dressing room), but we still laugh a lot as we’re listening to the actors on stage.

8:58 – Intermission. I need to go get ready to go on.

9:12 – Wally the bellhop here; Nat and Frances have just started the second act, and the belly laughs are rolling into the aisles. The show tonight is moving along wonderfully, a big, lively house. Just listening to the show from the dressing room, is pure pleasure. This troupe of actors have such a grasp on Simon’s language and an awesome ability to improvise on the words; curving, toying, bouncing the words off the walls. The bellhop duties are large and complicated. Dressing and presenting the room to our lovely guests, seeing to their every whim and need, to anticipate those needs and desires before they even know they want them. For instance, for the Visitor from Hollywood, the room is decorated in divine flowers and fully stocked with the very best liquors we provide. This is to make the guest, the famous Hollywood produce Jesse, with the illusion that he is our finest guest we have ever had here at the Plaza. The truth is most of the vodka, scotch and bourbon that I have supplied him with is from the Truman Capote costume party, reused, but presented with the elegance and professionalism that is the standard here at the Plaza.

9:44 – It’s Nat again – Frances and I just finished our act, and I just learned that the bellhop’s name is Wally. Tonight’s run felt great – the audience seemed to be “delighted,” as one of my fellow cast members described it backstage, and Frances and I both felt good when we got backstage. Our energy was good, our timing was on, and we had a lot of fun. And we still get one more crack at it before we open on Sunday. Act three has started now – Jon and Cheri are just beginning their half-hour journey of frantic absurdity as they try to get their daughter to come out of a locked bathroom on her wedding day.

9:53 – Cubs lost 2-1. The Astros picked up back to back doubles off Bobby Howry in the ninth.

10:02 – We share our dressing room / backstage area with Woody Guthrie’s American Song, and their music filters through (not into the theater itself, thankfully). They’re ripping through This Land is Your Land right now, and it sounds like a real hoe-down back here. They close on Sunday – I hope whoever comes into the studio theater next is as much fun.

10:08 – The stage manager is about to call places for the curtain call – time to go get some love.

10:14 – And that’s our show. Have a good night, everyone. Maybe we’ll try this again later in the run.