September 7, 2009

Dylan & the Coffeehouse Tradition

While Under Milk Wood lives inside the Storefront Theater, a whole other world--or rather, series of worlds-- is coming to life in the mezzanine lobby. After sifting through submissions from Chicago, Wales, Ireland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, Minnesota, and Lithuania--to name just some of the sources, we're putting together The Dylan Thomas Coffeehouse Cabaret for its one night of glory on Wednesday September 9.

Along with the winners of the Rev. Eli Jenkins' Five & Country Senses poetry competition (named for a Milk Wood poet and a Thomas poem), the Coffeehouse will bring together local and international works inspired by Thomas.

Since our first Coffeehouse in 2005 (The Acorn Forum, companion to the world premiere of Silva and co-funded by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas), Caffeine has brought together artists from across organizations and disciplines. In 2008 the Antigone Coffeehouse expanded that notion into a mini-performance festival, played to packed houses and made friends around the globe. The Dylan Thomas Coffeehouse Cabaret continues that tradition.

We're pleased as punch to include new music and dance from locals like The Summer is for Fireflies, Robert Steel, Catherine Glynn, and Chicago Opera Vanguard. We're also thrilled to hear the luminous Nick Rudall read from Dylan's "Prologue." And Pat Hofmann (of past Caffeine shows Sailing to Byzantium and Silva) voice Dylan's wife Caitlin (at an AA meeting, no less!), and Artistic Associate Jeremy van Meter portray the Welsh composer Daniel Jones. Other performers include Artistic Associates Carey Burton and Erik Schnitger, Chuck Filipov and Kaitlin Byrd of Under Milk Wood, and Ian Randall of The Cocktail Party, Many Loves, and The Changeling. The theatre pieces, meanwhile, come to us from Jerome Fellow Monica Raymond, David McCall of County Cork Ireland, Richard Ballon of Amherst, Massachusetts, and many others.

Tickets are free, but eventually we'll run out of chairs, so to take advantage of this one-night event, you'll want to reserve a ticket in advance!

August 28, 2009

Welsh Heroes

Welsh Heroes: Original Digital Illustrations by Benjy Davies

Benjy Davies kindly gave us permission to share these images from his Welsh Heroes collection inspired by the results of Culturenet Cymru's "100 Welsh Heroes" online poll. To see the layers used to create the images, and to read more about his process and the heroes themselves, visit the Gallery. For instance, the Dylan Thomas image above includes landscape images and manuscripts, as well as Thomas himself.

Sir Richard Burton, a great admirer of Thomas' work and of course very fine actor, performed Under Milk Wood many times, and brought along Liz Taylor as Rosie Probert.

David Lloyd George served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1916-1922, the only Welshmen to hold the office. He was "widely credited with ending the First World War, and setting up infrastructure and procedures that contributed to winning the Second World War."

Robert Owen, an industrialist and social reformer, fought to improve the “dark, satanic mills”of the Industrial Age, and in his 1816 "A New View of Society," espoused a plan for cooperative villages, which inspired the founding of New Harmony, Indiana, among others.

Phil Campbell has been both guitarist of the heavy metal group Motorhead, and a Minister of Health and Labor Party leader.

For close to twenty years, in the 13th century, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd "ruled a united Wales, and briefly, it appeared that Wales would achieve an independent national status. As history turned, it did not work out that way."

Rowan Williams, despite his outspokenness "against nuclear proliferation, the Iraq war, the over-dependence of the free market as a governing force, and in favor of the ordination of women," and particularly about homosexuality, became the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002.

Sir Anthony Hopkins has directed Under Milk Wood and played First Voice. He once performed in Strindberg's The Dance of Death as Olivier's understudy, and Olivier said “He walked away with the role like a cat with a mouse between its teeth”.

This exhibition was sponsored by the Madog Center for Welsh Studies at the University of Rio Grande in Rio Grande Ohio.

August 19, 2009

Milk Wood Emerges

This Dylan Thomas fellow… we know him mostly for a villanelle he wrote exhorting his father “Do not go gentle into that good night.” We know he’s Welsh, if we think about it, because we likely read in school his Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Entering our sixth season, Caffeine finds ourselves with two poets whom even the scholars call by their first names, as if of friends—one famously pounding whiskey at the White Horse Tavern, one infamously garreted away in her quiet Amherst home—Dylan and Emily, two poets more than half in love with death. (And when you add on the work-in-progress Ode to Akhmatova begun at University of Chicago’s Summer, Inc residency, there’s a third singer of mortality in the mix.) So perhaps the most amazing thing about the work of these poets is the great joy they find in life, and the big-hearted humor in these plays.

This week Thomas’ Under Milk Wood takes shape in the Storefront Theater.

When Thomas was writing the play, the world was still reeling from the bombing of Hiroshima. Some believe the poet gave us his little village of Llareggub to reveal the resilie nce of small daily beauty.

Dedicated to beauty and to the play, our cast and design team make a Llareggub in Chicago.

August 10, 2009

Uplands getting down for Dylan Thomas

The news from Wales--how often does a Chicago theatre company give you that?

Press Release for Dylan Thomas' 95th birthday in his hometown of Swansea:

"Dylan Down The Ups is the title of a brand new series of events to celebrate the 95th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas in his home village of Uplands in Swansea on 27th October 2009.

A year ago Anne and Geoff Haden celebrated the opening of the fully restored birthplace of Dylan Thomas at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive with an Edwardian afternoon tea for a hundred people on what would have been the 94th birthday of the most well known man of words of the 20th century.

From that successful event they have moved to team up with residents and traders of the village of Uplands to celebrate his 95th birthday with a series of events planned throughout the day to give the area a party atmosphere despite it being in October.

Says Anne Haden “Swansea is made up of villages and this is Dylan’s – after all it was the place where he lived for over half his life and so much of his work was inspired by the area – this is the least that we can do for him.

“Dylan’s short stories are typically Welsh and full of humour while his poems are deep. The aim is to bring Dylan back to street level through fun, friendliness and accessibility.

“The area still has its Victorian and Edwardian character and what we are aiming to do is make the village the centrepiece of the celebrations with events going on in the street and many of the shops, cafes and the pub.

“People will be able to follow in Dylan’s footsteps and learn about the shops that were in the Uplands in his day when it was a more select shopping area with its own identity

“We want to involve all the community and there will be events for children and adults and because it will be during the October half term should attract a lot of interest from out side Wales.

Geoff Haden says that the plans are in an early stage but confirmed that “There will be a Dylan Look Alike Competition, short story and art competitions and shops will be encouraged to compete in the best dressed window award.

“We are in advanced discussions to premiere in Wales a new play about Dylan – Poem in October – by the writer Robert Forrest written especially for the leading Scottish actor Finlay Welsh.

“The plans have received enthusiastic support from local traders and we hope that this will develop into a week long event by the time that we celebrate the Centenary of Dylan’s birth in 2014.”

Nigel Clatworthy from The Chattery has already given his support to the birthday plans and says “Anne has booked our venue for the poet Peter Thabit Jones and musician Terry Clarke for an evening of Dylan’s work and some new and original material from both performers – it’s something that we are really looking forward to.”

Want to get involved? Telephone 0781 775 3376 or check "

July 18, 2009

Call for poems and performers

Caffeine Theatre seeks short original performance pieces of all kinds (music, dance, theatre, spoken word, poetry, etc.) for the Dylan Thomas Coffeehouse Cabaret, September 9, 2009, at 7pm in the Storefront Theater Mezzanine (in the Loop, at 66 E Randolph). The Coffeehouse Cabaret celebrates the work of Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas. Any and all pieces inspired by Thomas’ life, work, or themes are welcome. Out-of-Chicago artists are encouraged to send a script, music, poem, etc. to be performed/directed by in-town artists. Collaborations with Chicago arts organizations are welcome and encouraged.

Please email a 1-2 page proposal (or, if the written piece already exists, send that) to Artistic Director Jennifer Shook at jen(at) including (with understanding that transformation occurs in process) a description of your proposed piece, how many people you expect to be involved, estimated length, and any required resources. (Consideration will be given to minimal pieces with brief setup and small spatial needs.) Please use “Coffeehouse submission” in the subject heading. If it is not evident how your piece relates to Thomas, please include a brief explanation.

Some rehearsal space will be available on a first-come basis. Casting assistance is also available as required and appropriate.
The Dylan Thomas Coffeehouse Cabaret is produced in association with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and in conjunction with Caffeine’s production of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, running at the Storefront Theater August 21-September 27.

Accepted pieces will be notified by August 12, 2009.

Caffeine also seeks original poetry for Eli Jenkins’ Five and Country Senses poetry competition.
Submissions may include any size or style of poem, as long as it is inspired in some way by Dylan Thomas’ life or work, or in some way speaks in conversation with that life or work. Winners will be posted and podcast on Caffeine’s website, and performed at the Dylan Thomas Coffeehouse Cabaret on September 9. Any new or previously written poem may be submitted (provided it can be republished/ recorded/performed). If it is not evident how your piece relates to Thomas, please include a brief explanation.

TO SUBMIT: Email poem(s) and 3-5 sentence description of relation to Dylan Thomas to Caffeine Theatre Artistic Director Jennifer Shook at jen(at) with “Eli Jenkins” in the subject heading. DEADLINE: August 16, 2009.

March 29, 2009

Happy National Poetry Month

Did you know that April is National Poetry Month?

In Chicago, we wallow in an embarrassment of poetry riches year-round, and April just revs it up.

Caffeine's mission is to mine the poetic tradition to explore social questions. The word "poetry" can be a little daunting to some (as I wrote about in HereThere magazine in 2008). Yet it carries a long tradition of engaging people both in beauty and in ethical thought.

The origins of spoken drama lie in poetry (Aristotle's Poetics, anybody?). Beckett wrote that he wanted to "bring the poetry back to the drama."

Robert Pinsky says in Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry that poetry is a part of the rhythm of our internal lives, our thoughts and our guts, as well as our external lives, our walking, our speaking, our whimpers and whoops. Octavio Paz says “as long as there are people, there will be poetry.” Ruth Padel succinctly explains why art persists: "Art can be a witness – and, in witnessing, it makes other people see themselves and the world with new eyes."

Last fall we celebrated the 125th birthday of beloved American poet William Carlos Williams with his play Many Loves. Williams puts it well:
"It is difficult to get the news from poems,
Yet men die miserably every day
For lack of what is found there."

We began quoting those particular lines during our first "full-run" production, Sailing to Byzantium, in which W. B. Yeats wondered whether poetry could properly serve a world where young men die for their beliefs. In the play, Ezra Pound answered him with youthful enthusiasm. In real life, Auden wrote this in his own memoriam for Yeats:
"For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth."

Isn't that what, ultimately, theatre does as well? Provide a mouth, and a witness? And a way to step into another world, where we reflect back upon our own lives with new perspective and perhaps new vigor?

The Poetry Foundation (kin to the great Poetry Magazine founded in 1912) issued a call a few years ago for more verse theatre, and Caffeine has answered that call repeatedly--currently with The Changeling. Tallgrass Gothic, then, answers another facet of our mission: to connect that time-honored tradition with the contemporary world.

Poetry has teeth. But it will not bite you. Give it a go this April, and see what poetry can do for you.

- Jennifer Shook, Artistic Director

March 23, 2009

World Theatre Day approaches

Five years ago, Caffeine committed to expanding the conversation of poetry and theatre and artistic social engagement. We continue to produce works that juxtapose old and new, legacy and innovation. (Sometimes that leads us far afield, and we're proud to be called "Chicago's most reliable source for oddball gems.") Sometimes that leads us right into the classics, like The Changeling. As we asked with our season of ancient Greek drama, we ask again: what is it about these old plays that compels us to return to them?

This and more questions we bring to the planning for celebration of World Theatre Day, approaching on March 27. On the day, we'll be celebrating with a panel on the enduring legacy of classic English drama (and yes, a performance of The Changeling).

But even now, you can prepare to celebrate by reading the WTD statement by the remarkable Augusto Boal, best known in this country for his book Theatre of the Oppressed.

World Theatre Day - International Message

27th March 2009

Augusto Boal

All human societies are “spectacular” in their daily life and produce “spectacles” at special moments. They are “spectacular” as a form of social organization and produce “spectacles” like the one you have come to see.

Even if one is unaware of it, human relationships are structured in a theatrical way. The use of space, body language, choice of words and voice modulation, the confrontation of ideas and passions, everything that we demonstrate on the stage, we live in our lives. We are theatre!

Weddings and funerals are “spectacles”, but so, also, are daily rituals so familiar that we are not conscious of this. Occasions of pomp and circumstance, but also the morning coffee, the exchanged good-mornings, timid love and storms of passion, a senate session or a diplomatic meeting - all is theatre.

One of the main functions of our art is to make people sensitive to the “spectacles” of daily life in which the actors are their own spectators, performances in which the stage and the stalls coincide. We are all artists. By doing theatre, we learn to see what is obvious but what we usually can’t see because we are only used to looking at it. What is familiar to us becomes unseen: doing theatre throws light on the stage of daily life.

Last September, we were surprised by a theatrical revelation: we, who thought that we were living in a safe world, despite wars, genocide, slaughter and torture which certainly exist, but far from us in remote and wild places. We, who were living in security with our money invested in some respectable bank or in some honest trader’s hands in the stock exchange were told that this money did not exist, that it was virtual, a fictitious invention by some economists who were not fictitious at all and neither reliable nor respectable. Everything was just bad theatre, a dark plot in which a few people won a lot and many people lost all. Some politicians from rich countries held secret meetings in which they found some magic solutions. And we, the victims of their decisions, have remained spectators in the last row of the balcony.

Twenty years ago, I staged Racine’s Phèdre in Rio de Janeiro. The stage setting was poor: cow skins on the ground, bamboos around. Before each presentation, I used to say to my actors: “The fiction we created day by day is over. When you cross those bamboos, none of you will have the right to lie. Theatre is the Hidden Truth”.

When we look beyond appearances, we see oppressors and oppressed people, in all societies, ethnic groups, genders, social classes and casts; we see an unfair and cruel world. We have to create another world because we know it is possible. But it is up to us to build this other world with our hands and by acting on the stage and in our own life.

Participate in the “spectacle” which is about to begin and once you are back home, with your friends act your own plays and look at what you were never able to see: that which is obvious. Theatre is not just an event; it is a way of life!

We are all actors: being a citizen is not living in society, it is changing it.

-Augusto Boal

You can read more about World Theatre Day as well as the 2008 message from Robert LePage at and

March 17, 2009

Bloody bloody plays

One of the things that has stood out in the past two weeks of tech and previews for The Changeling and Tallgrass Gothic is the focus on stage violence. These plays are full of rage, and swords and daggers, and blood.

Leading to such conversations as:
- "Why does the theatre smell like toothpaste?" "Oh, that's the edible blood."
- "Where's the finger box?" "Sorry, I have it out here-I was putting a bloody rag around the finger."
- "Can you cut some grass with your dagger to give her?" "Well, it's not really 'sharp,' see, because if it could cut grass it could cut flesh." "Right."
- "Be careful not to hit your elbows when you fall. Think about how much you need to reach out to tie your shoes."
- "Does it look gross when she gets stabbed?" "It looks sudsy." "I used too much dishsoap."
- "Work on that choke. Go home and pick up jars."
- "His wound is too pink." "I'll try more chocolate syrup."

So, yes-you can make fake blood at home. Should you? Artistic Director Jennifer Shook interviewed Fight Choreographer Jamie Stires to get a little more of the bloody scoop.
Shook: How did you wind up in the business of choreographing violence?

Stires: When I was in college I was Sabina in a production Skin of our Teeth. I had to do a couple of unarmed fights and shoot a gun. It was interesting to see the fight director talk it through like a dance. Years later in grad school I really started training in all the weapon styles and found it to be exhilarating. I love the choreography side because it combines my favorite parts of theatre...directing the scene, the non-verbal dance between two characters...and swords.

Shook: I love that you added an extra "half-punch" to clear up some storytelling when Tin threatens his pal Scotto. Being a director yourself, of course you know some things about telling a story. But tell us a little about your thoughts on physical storytelling?

Stires: I strongly believe that stage violence, good stage violence, must be a part of the story as physical text and not just a moment shoved between verbal text. Shakespeare writes "they fight" in his plays to indicate physical violence. In reality, if this is the first moment the actors have felt moved to violence, we're not telling the right story. Physical movement can be compelling and speak to an audience in a way the verbal may not. It grabs a viewer and allows them to further understand what is happening to a character. The characters could be speaking a foreign language, but their physical dialogue can assist in telling a clear and moving story.

Shook: Fight folks all seem to know each other--what's that community like? Is there a secret handshake? Or headbutt?

Stires: It is one gigantic family. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to work with professionals from all over the country because of stage combat. I feel like I have big brothers, uncles and aunts all over that would have my back should I need them. My dearest friends I met through violence...not sure what that says about me though... As for a handshake...I'll have to suggest that.

Shook: What's the weirdest thing you've had to make happen on stage?

Stires: I choreographed a version of Twelfth Night where the concept was "Wrestle Mania". All the characters were in neon spandex and the fight scene culminated in a cage fight between all on stage. There were sleeper holds, groin kicks, folding chairs to the face, body slams, everything and beyond. Did I mention they were wearing neon spandex...and capes? It was great fun and totally made me laugh every night.

Shook: What's been your greatest challenge in working on the Rep?

Stires: There's a lot of very intimate violence in both of these plays. It becomes a huge challenge to balance where we want to go artistically and maintaining the safety of the actors involved. It's not just about their physical safety either...the mental safety of the actor is just as important, in any moment of violence. There are real emotions rushing through your body and learning to control them and create "non-violent violence" is the key to great stage combat.

Shook: What's been the best part?

Stires: Getting to work with all these fantastic new people. I haven't been in the city for very long, so it's been great to work on both shows together. Meeting twice as many theatre folks at once...I love it.

Shook: What's a project you'd really love to do but haven't yet?

Stires: Oh, so many...where to begin! My thesis project in grad school was directing The Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. I want to finish his family cycle and direct Buried Child and True West. I have also been looking for the perfect opportunity to direct Lysistrata. I mean, women not giving their men sex to make a profound statement about war...what could be better?!
Shook: We should probably say, "don't try this at home"--but what's the best advice you can give those new to the fight biz on fighting safely and impressively?

Stires: Don't think of stage combat as anything other than an acting discipline. The best stage violence I have seen is when the verbal text moves seamlessly into the physical text and back again. It is a part of the scene and therefore a part of the character. As for getting involved, there are classes throughout the city you can take and numerous workshops around the country where you can get exposed to this very unique art form.

March 9, 2009

What is tech? Sometimes, fun.

Amongst those of us who work in theatre, "I'm in tech" is an unquestioned reason to miss birthdays, concerts, fundraisers, etc. Yet perhaps this code bears some explaining for the rest of the world. One of our stage managers came in with a card from her sister that read "Mom says you're in something called tech. I don't know what that means, but she said I shouldn't call you, and I should send presents. Here's a gift card for Dunkin Donuts." Good sister.
"Tech," to begin, stands for "technical rehearsals." It's when the show in process moves from the rehearsal room into the theatre--or for those who rehearse in their theatre, it's when the set shows up--or for those of us who don't have a building at all, it's when we take over our newly rented performance space. When we go from moving from one to another classroom of mats and folding metal chairs to the real thing. That means, of course, that first the real thing has to be moved. And built. And painted. Etc.

As a director said to me once, "tech is like Christmas." You get all the new toys: the lights, the sounds, the clothes, the furniture and painted walls, and floors... in this case, made of dirt. And grass.
Tech can also be a sad time for a director, because you have to spend some time concentrating on the lights and the sounds and the way things move around... and you stop watching the story and the characters. Then suddenly an audience comes in for previews, and if you're lucky you realize that the story was there all along, and that your smart designers have been working with it, not in spite of it.
For a small theatre company, the kind where the artistic director is also the producer and props shopper and all-around gofer, tech is long days of painting and sweeping and (hopefully) reassuring phone calls and drama management and snack-bringing and program proofing and trying very hard to maintain calm.
This past week, teching our two rep shows has been long hours and hard work, but also, amidst it all, rather delightful. It's involved notes like "can we take it again from the belly sniff?" and and "I can't tell that he's holding a finger" "Is the wind scary?" "Is the ghost in his light?" Thanks, Middleton and Marnich. You've given us some twisted plays.

We're all looking forward to sharing them with you out there, in audience-land.

Jennifer Shook,
Caffeine Theatre Artistic Director

March 3, 2009

Video teaser for the Rep

Ready for a teaser of the two actors crossing between parallel roles in Caffeine's spring repertory?

You can get a taste of the two plays right now or anytime you like in our preview trailer:

February 19, 2009

Double Espresso: The Artistic Associates

Double Espresso:

Artistic associate Jeremy van Meter appears in both of Caffeine’s spring shows, which run in repertory beginning 14 March 2009. Artistic associate Donald Gecewicz interviews, and is interviewed by, van Meter.

The Body of the Actor

Donald Gecewicz: Your first role for Caffeine Theatre was as Philoctetes in The Cure at Troy. You spent much of the play sprawled across the stage, crippled by a snake-bitten foot. I might call your performance “physical.” But does saying that an actor’s performance is “physical” truly mean anything? After all, acting is action done with a physical body.

Jeremy van Meter: Every role that I take on is physical in nature yet there are roles that require more "physicality" than others. As an actor, if I am cutting off or in any way making less important what is taking place in the body then I am doing a huge disservice to my character. The body is the instrument of the actor and the only thing about acting that the audience truly "sees." They are not party to what is going on in my head only so far as that translates into the body. "I just love watching you move on-stage" is one of the greatest compliments I have received as an actor.

DG: Some writers have compared Philoctetes to artists. Philoctetes must learn to turn his wound into power, and artists have wounds that they must learn to rise above. Did creating Philoctetes spur you to think about actors and playwrights and their “wounds”?

Artistic Associate David Dastmalchian, center, was
Neoptolemus to van Meter's Philoctetes. Dastmalchian has
recently been on the big screen in The Dark Knight
and small screen in several Wendy's commercials.

JvM: Philoctetes allowed his wound to feed a deep sense of anger and resentment. Those emotions are incredibly unhealthy, and he clearly was not able to rise above those feelings. I have not allowed every rejection that has come my way over the course of my career to "wound" me. Of course those things are painful, but I have never allowed them to settle into feeding a sense of something that I must rise above. Maybe that is atypical to the norm. In the past, whenever something that I was hoping for fell through, my father would always say "Well, suppose something better is about to come along." More often than not, the man was correct.

The Body of the Playwright

JvM: Speaking of actors and playwrights, recently, a script of yours entitled Chassano was given a staged reading by Caffeine Theatre. Why is it helpful to hear the words that you have written spoken aloud by actors prior to a rewrite?

DG: Well, the play works too perfectly in the playwright’s head. All of those voices have to leave the playwright’s body for the actors’ bodies. Chassano is about the body, too, about what Chassano himself wants to do with his body. What actors do goes beyond reflecting the play to the playwright. It starts the first of the great conversations in the theatre, between playwright and actors. This conversation can eventually lead to the main conversation, between playwright and audience—except that the playwright never speaks directly to the audience. The actors converse for the playwright. The first readings of a play by actors overload the playwright’s circuits. The actors keep the playwright honest. All of the little mistakes suddenly loom large, and the big mistakes overwhelm. And then comes rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

JvM: Thinking about the time before rewrite, how do ideas come to you as a writer?

DG: Plays show themselves. They start as an apparition. Playwrights hear voices. Don’t tell anyone. But ask any writer, particularly poets and playwrights, about what happens in the shower. Yes, the shower. Somehow it lets voices and images loose, and then characters present themselves and start to move in a visualized space. It may be the touch of water against skin, first thing in the morning, or just relaxation in the warmth.

Soda Bread and Murderous Thoughts

DG: Your second role for Caffeine Theatre was as Manus in Translations. Translations is about witnessing the wiping out of an ancient but living culture that has gone from being the majority to being a beleaguered minority. Not exactly the experience of the dominant culture of the United States. How did you prepare for the role?

JvM: I recall trying to locate first-person accounts of the emotions certain people in Ireland encountered as the "colonization" effort was taking place. This was a proud people that were being forced to rename their country and homeland. To translate that into the portrayal of Manus, I did plenty of "acting as if" I were in that position--from the two perspectives of this occurring in my homeland and then someone taking away someone I love quite dearly in the process.

DG: Is there something murderous about Manus, who seems so mild, who worries about his father’s soda bread even as he, Manus, is leaving the village?

JvM: I would not say that there is something murderous about Manus but I will say that he is a man of mystery and that what is taking place in his home is maddening to him. Someone else watching the play may have the opinion that, of course, he is a killer. I enjoy playing men who force the viewers to make their own final impression when they walk out of the theatre. I am satisfied and have done my job properly when an audience is engaged in conversation based on my character and my performance of that character. One person might see him as capable of that murder while another might simply see it as escape from a situation he can no longer tolerate. Manus is, as you say, a mild man who wants his life to turn out in a certain way with the woman he loves. His exit from the village and the action of the play occurs when he realizes that this life is not possible. Given circumstances beyond his control, who knows what the mild-mannered person is capable of.

Bothering the Audience

DG: It has been a characteristic of Caffeine’s productions to play very close to the audience. How does working close to audience members affect your acting (besides having to make sure that you don’t bonk someone on the head)?

JvM: Much of the stage work that I have been involved with in Chicago has been nose to nose with the audience and I must admit that I love it. There is power in the sensation that the audience cannot get away or fade into the darkness. The style of play that Caffeine is famous for sets up perfectly for that mindset. I suppose then the effect this has on my acting is that it forces a deeper honesty and purity. It places the performance on the anvil because the audience is witness to the minutiae that the audience in the larger theatre is not privy to. One can almost play the same way that one would for the camera which, in my opinion, jacks up the intensity on-stage. I am looking forward to living in De Flores (The Changeling) and Filene (Tallgrass Gothic) within those confines.

DG: As a playwright (and audience member), I think of the audience as the gold standard, the final test. How do you read an audience, react to an audience?

JvM: One of my teachers at the University of Iowa held firm to the advice that as an actor you have to disregard the audience. Those are not his exact words in that I am deleting the expletive involved. This was always a point of contention with me because I disagree wholeheartedly. Of course, my main responsibility is telling the story of the play and living honestly as the character along with my cast-mates but the audience is one of the main reasons that my passion lies on stage. The audience is the other living, breathing character in the world of the live theatre, and taking care of them is one of my jobs as well. Reading an audience is never simple and the trap that many actors fall into is that of making assumptions about an audience. A quiet, non-responsive audience is tagged as being bored or a "bad house" when in fact they may be enjoying the hell out of the play and are simply quiet and non-responsive. Each audience is different and made up of people with different sensibilities and the great thing about that realization is that the play changes with that. One audience can react one way that makes the play different from the night before when the audience reacted in a completely different way. Box of chocolates...

The Challenge of Rep

DG: Caffeine will run Tallgrass Gothic and The Changeling in repertory as its offerings this spring. This is a first for Caffeine. You are one of two actors who will appear in both plays. How do the plays relate to each other? How do they harmonize?

JvM: Thankfully, I am far enough along in my career to have had the chance to perform a rep schedule, and thankfully, I do enjoy the challenge. These plays are a bold move for Caffeine and I applaud Jennifer Shook's willingness to take leap of faith with this project. The way the plays relate to one another is in the main story line which, for the sake of our audience, I will not spoil. There is a subplot in The Changeling that is not shared in Gothic. In my opinion, the plays harmonize and play against each other at the same time. A plot line is shared, but character motives do not necessarily match up in both. For instance, what motivates De Flores is not what motivates Filene. The objective is the same for both but the reasons why they are seeking that objective are not. I am also humbled by the challenge and opportunity to create two quite similar yet different characters.

DG: How do you prepare to play two roles in two plays that will be running at the same time? How do you keep their mannerisms and characteristics separate? Do you have to split your mind, in a way?

JvM: The language certainly is of assistance in ensuring that these characters are not carbon copies of one another. The difference in motive between them is another. I am simply attempting to achieve absolute clarity in those differences. In terms of splitting these personalities, that is what is most vital to me as an actor. For example, love as a motivating force to carry something out is much different from lust as the force to do the same thing. As a matter of fact, I am now at the point in my creation of these men that I am looking for mannerisms and characteristics that they might share. They have differences and similarities.

DG: Tallgrass Gothic and The Changeling both have aspects of the grotesque in them. For instance, in both, your character is deformed. Back to “physical” acting, what does the twisted body mean—the grotesque, the deformed, the scarred, those aspects that unnerve us?

Artistic Associate Erik Schnitger (shown here as Xothous in Ion, right)
will play Tin in Tallgrass Gothic.

JvM: In terms of the "deformity" of both men, I am more interested in exploring what that scarring has done to both of them internally. Of course, we are able to see what happened to them or what the scarring is physically, but the juice of that for me as the actor is delving into what the resulting mindset and psyche are because of that scar. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a grotesque and ridiculed figure yet quite gentle in nature and pure of heart. As I said earlier, one man will rise above the scar and another will be consumed by it. In the creation of the men that I am portraying, I am centered now on what the scar turned them into that they might not have been without it. I think that to be the unnerving part of the deformed. The mind is a part of the deformity.

DG: Both plays also have comic characters and comic scenes. How do you deal with the conjoined comedic and violent sides, and the deliberate shifts from one to the other, all of which are integral to the way that each playwright wants to tell a story?

JvM: All three of these playwrights have succeeded in creating well-rounded characters. Too much of one thing in a character is quite dull. There are layers to each of them, and because of that, the intelligence and wit are in place as well. Speaking from my own character's perspective, there is a confidence and a cockiness in both that add to the sense of humor that both clearly have. I also think that comedy is used to serve as the glass through which some truly horrible things occur.

Artistic Associate Dan Smith, dramaturg for both Rep plays, recently became a 3-time Jeopardy! champion.

But Who’s in Charge There?

DG: Tallgrass Gothic has an overtly religious side that The Changeling does not share. What do you make of playwright Marnich’s evocation of religion?

JvM: In preparing Gothic, Jen had us as a cast watch a brilliant documentary entitled Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Faith and religion in the Deep South made up the thread throughout the film. One of the quotes from one of the true life "characters" in the documentary is that church and religion allows one to "forget what they have done during the week." That is exactly what I make of religion in Gothic. From the character's viewpoint, when I am in church I can pretend that I have chosen heaven rather than hell.

DG: More on choice. In both plays, it sure seems to me that the women run things, and the men sort of bounce off the walls. Am I on the right track? How do you perceive the power relations between men and women in the two plays?

JvM: I would say that the women have the ideas of what needs to happen and the men make those ideas so. The power relationship then is that the women are not in control and the men are. Or in the case of my story-line, the woman is in control of the idea to take action but is in no way in control of how the action is carried out. She loses further control when the idea and the action begin to unravel around her. In that situation, the man again shows up with the action plan.

DG: Would that make De Flores of The Changeling evil, or is he just asked to be evil? Given the opportunity… and a weapon.

JvM: De Flores is not evil, and he is not asked to be evil. That would make him one-sided and acting for the sake of evil's sake alone. The action that he takes and his capacity to carry out evil tasks comes from a place of genuine emotion and adoration for a member of the opposite sex. De Flores is truly in need of something that will prove that love and service. That something happens to turn out to be evil in nature. The act is evil, but the man is honest. He is not evil, much in the same way that Iago of Othello cannot be branded with that name either. Intense love, lust, greed, jealousy and the quest for revenge can make the saintliest person lose grasp.

JvM: Think about it this way: Do you like every character that you have written or not?

DG: I do like them. And my reasons relate to what you just said about De Flores. You can’t think of a character as repulsive. The playwright has to have a basic sympathy, a minimal compassion, for even the most deformed character.

DG: Then is De Flores mad? There are many questions of madness in that play. Who is mad in The Changeling?

JvM: I think the title role of the play refers to Beatrice. I also believe that being a party to what is carried out in the play sends her over the edge in a sense. This woman is not, at the end of the play, the same woman who entered in act 1, scene 1. Other figures in the play may act out madness, but in the final stages there is only one figure who loses grasp on reality.

Turn Off the TV, and Take a Dose of Caffeine

JvM: You see quite a bit of live theatre here in Chicago. What propels you to the theatre?

DG: Theatre is intimate, private but public, accessible. What other artform still engages all of the senses? I agree with Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director, that theatre is life itself, not a mirror. Real emotion, from real people.

Associate Dana Black, left, as Carla
in Like the Moon Behind the Clouds,
a world premiere by Gecewicz.

Playwright-Actor Talk (Don’t Tell the Director)

JvM: Just why are playwrights important?

DG: My Italian friends tell me that we English-speakers are lucky because Shakespeare shaped our language. Dante’s style is much more highly structured, and the Divine Comedy is almost too perfect. Shakespeare breathed life into our language, and we still benefit from his achievement. Also, playwrights have discerned certain problems, and again, Shakespeare guides us. He describes the necessary decline of religious belief, the anxiety of life without various certainties, the horrors of war, the staleness of ambition, the endlessness of desire, and the use of love potions. Poetry is a kind of prophecy, and, for that reason, hard to come to terms with. Novels are observations, always a step removed. Yet the stage is life itself—where we go to have a sentimental education. The stakes are highest when our emotional makeup is being created.

JvM: Your play Like the Moon Behind the Clouds was produced by Caffeine early in 2008. Did you begin writing that play knowing that Caffeine was the venue or was that discovered later in the writing process?

DG: Nothing was certain at first, of course. Jennifer Shook and I had met collaborating on a workshop and staged reading of my play, Chassano. She was interested in scripts that fit Caffeine’s mission to depict the almost-prophetic language of poetry with the urgency of theatre. I was working on the translation of Carla Vasio’s prose memoir of her time in Japan. I started on the prose some ten years ago. I showed Jen excerpts of the prose, and she suggested that we continue. I started on the play about four years ago. I had a table reading early on at Chicago Dramatists. Never discount the influence of Chicago Dramatists on the development of plays here in Chicago. Then Jen led a workshop and staged reading. At a certain point, we agreed that we had something that could move toward production. It was a dance, in a way. It had to be a dance.

Keeping a Theatre Alive and Lively

DG: We are both artistic associates of Caffeine. What does that august title, “artistic associate,” mean?

JvM: It means having an artistic home. It means that if it was my desire not to work on stage anywhere else, I could make that choice and still find fulfillment as an actor. It means creating theatre with a group of people that I truly enjoy being around and who make me a better actor because I am their company. When I first came to Chicago, I always thought that becoming an associate with a company meant that I had arrived. Whether or not that is the case, I am certainly proud to have found a home with Caffeine Theatre.

DG: Yet Caffeine isn’t a repertory theatre or an ensemble, even though the artistic associates are part of the continuing life of the theatre. What does that mean—working on the continuing collaboration that Caffeine Theatre is?

JvM: There is a sense that the work Caffeine Theatre puts out there strengthens theatre in Chicago and in America. Specific to the mission of Caffeine there is also a sense that we are strengthening the poetic community as well. There is value in both and matching the two means that each will continue to play a vital role in both the small and large theatrical/artistic worlds.

JvM: How do you serve the Caffeine Theatre company of artists by being an artistic associate as a playwright rather than as an actor?

DG: At times, I am there as a naïve audience member, someone not as attuned to the creation of a performance. That way, Caffeine can call me in at various points in the process of rehearsals as a different set of eyes, a different mindset. I also read scripts that have been submitted and give advice about their quality. Because part of the mission of Caffeine is to bring highly charged poetic language to the stage, a playwright, who is supposed to know something about highly charged language, can come in handy. I also try to look decorative at fundraisers.

Courtney Knysch, our casting associate and Rep co-producer,
studied travel writing in Morocco, and has been interning
with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. We're happy to share our expertise with them.

Starving Artists in America

DG: Speaking of funding, it is fairly obvious to me that theatres in Chicago are better at planning their work and at managing money than the boys and girls on Wall Street. What have we learned about the economy and the role of theatres in the life of the city from being parts of Caffeine?

JvM: We, all of us, in the artistic community understand about the operation of our talent within a shoestring budget. Greed and a devil-may-care attitude regarding money will not get the job done in the storefront-theatre world. Therein lies the quality and the skill at creation and development. All ideas are valid because, more often than not, there are several ways to go about creation.

JvM: To continue my thought as a question, though, are there truly “new ideas” out there to be written about, or do you feel that the modern playwright is rehashing old ideas?

DG: I think that our society is now thoroughly saturated by melodrama. Melodrama is the norm for emotions. So we see Rod Blagojevich, various scandals among the clergy, Senator Larry Craig in the bathroom, tawdry John Edwards and the baby, the woman with the octuplets, grown men with teddy bears, business executives who can’t make decisions, lots of novels that read like ho-hum screenplays, and poetry that reads like prose with line breaks. Any time a playwright can write lines that liberate through laughter, jolt us into a strong emotion, or shatter conventional wisdom, the playwright has done something new. We want to cut through the fog of melodrama and self-absorption to unleash something not discerned before.

DG: You also recently appeared in a play by The Plagiarists that included a crab marionette. Caffeine artistic director Jennifer Shook and I worked with marionettes last year. Puppets have their own life—and that is how we learn to deal with them. Yet the crab in your show had much attitude. How was it for you to share a production with a marionette from the crustacean world?

JvM: It was pure hell. That crab had a bad attitude, was a huge diva, and smelled of month-old tuna.

JvM: Crab marionettes notwithstanding, what do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment over the course of your career?

DG: That I actually have a career as a writer. So many people get discouraged or are ignored. They lose heart, which is understandable. After Like the Moon Behind the Clouds closed, I was at the Coffee Studio here in Edgewater, adding some rewrites to the script. A woman at the communal table asked me what I was doing. I explained how playwrights rewrite even after the show closes, how I had had a show at the Chicago Cultural Center. She said to me that it must have been a dream come true. Almost immediately, I had a revelation, as if she were a messenger in a folk tale, that of course she was right, that my career has been like a dream come true, and that by committing to do the work, I somehow looked like a success to an outsider observing me in my element, looking at my dyer’s hand, stained by photocopies and ink and experience.

February 11, 2009

Designing punk tornado

Our design team has quite a job on their hands. Of the two plays in our spring rep, one is a 17th century Jacobean tragedy, and one is its 20th century American counterpart.

For director Rachel Walshe, The Changeling tells a story of conflict between generations, of control and rebellion. So, quickly, design inspiration turned to the punk movement.

For me, fleshing out the world of Tallgrass Gothic has lead me from its setting in the Great Plains out to Southern Gothic (Flannery O'Connor and Jean Toomer), to rural ghost stories, to Appalachian religion, to fantastic American Roots music, to unusual prairie habits. While none of these explorations may be visible to the audience, they feed our thinking as we create this world together.

Meanwhile, the physical space of the theatre has to speak to and transform into both plays. We began with church-plus-barn:

and then came here:

Something, though, still lingers just beyond reach....

January 25, 2009

A menagerie of people in one room

Any "first read" at the start of rehearsals for any play is exhilarating, and often overwhelming. When you have TWO plays beginning at the same time, it's a bit like waltzing with a two-headed monster.

Our decision to simultaneously mount two plays with two directors, one design team, and two casts--with the exception of the two actors who head both casts--is creating a lovely two-headed creature.

Last weekend we heard each cast read their play together out-loud for the first time.

Then, from the designers, a glimpse into the alchemy that makes theatre more than just reading out-loud.

The rotating repertory of The Changeling and Tallgrass Gothic is underway!

January 4, 2009

Rotating Repertory of The Changeling & Tallgrass Gothic

Amanda Powell and Caffeine Artistic Associate Jeremy van Meter
head both casts, showcasing two very different takes
on an encounter fraught with dark desire.

The Changeling

by Thomas Middleton & William Rowley

Directed by Rachel Walshe

Tallgrass Gothic

by Melanie Marnich

Directed by Jennifer Shook

March 14-April 12, 2009

(Previews March 12 & 13)

at The West Stage in the Raven Theatre Complex

6157 N Clark (at Granville)