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: