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Election Day dramaturgy

November 4, 2014
Ballot Receipt 2014

From the author’s personal collection of ballot receipts

I come from a family that votes. I remember being a child in the voting booth with my mother and asking her if it was okay because it was supposed to be private. I have voted absentee, and in boring midterm elections. I research the metropolitan water reclamation district candidates and the retention of judges. I like to vote shortly after the polls open, trading nods with the other early voters. I save my ballot receipts. In spite of this optimistic participation in the American democratic process, I am still deeply ambivalent about elections, campaigns, advertising, and the efficacy of government.

I don’t think I am alone in this electoral malaise. In fact The New York Times ran a video piece this week about people who were not voting in the midterm election.

Originally, I planned that this post would be a dramaturgical analysis of campaign advertisement narratives in advance of the Apple Family Plays (which are both set on election nights). However, there is not much of interest to analyze in the structure of campaign ads. It doesn’t matter which political party—they use the same advertising script and even the same visual language.

Every political ad is a variation on this structure:

Sinister music followed by an unappealing photograph of candidate X (this is generally black and white and the candidate either looks angry or is mid evil-laugh).

How well do you really know candidate X?

From the author's personal collection of ballot receipts

From the author’s personal collection of ballot receipts

Candidate X says she/he is for (insert hot button topic) but voted lock step with (insert hated political figure from the other party, including unflattering black and white photograph) on X number of votes (include fine print which may or may not be a vetted news source).

Can we really trust Candidate X?

Happy color family photo or video of candidate Y looking approachable and not too wealthy, possibly shaking hands with a group of old/diverse/disabled/patriotic people.

Candidate Y has pledged to do Y (a promise that the candidate cannot guarantee without the collaboration of other members of the political body), Candidate Y stood up against (hated opposing political figure) and voted to do Y (more small print which may or may not be a vetted news source.)

Can we afford X more years of Candidate X and (re-insert name of hated polarizing political figure)?

Quiet fast-talking description of which PAC with a vaguely patriotic political sounding name paid lots of money for this hackneyed piece of political theater.

I am afraid there is not much to analyze in this clichéd script. We know it. It is why we hit the mute button. It doesn’t tell us anything about either candidate. Most of us feel like the aunt quoted in Danny Casolaro Died For You: “Oh they’re all crooks.” Perhaps this is because they use the same script.

The playwright Arthur Miller, in his book On Acting and the Art of Politics, looks at political theater for what it is—theater. He points out our need for authenticity and makes a persuasive argument that what most Americans are voting for is the most believable candidate. However, under this political performance, there is a nagging concern that we might not really know what we are getting. The performance may just be a performance.

Actors Jamie Vann (from left), Philip Earl Johnson, Kyle Hatley, Mark Richard, Demetrios Troy and Dennis William Grimes portray a mysterious array of characters all caught up in a web of alleged government corruption in "Danny Casolaro Died For You."

Actors Jamie Vann (from left), Philip Earl Johnson, Kyle Hatley, Mark Richard, Demetrios Troy and Dennis William Grimes portray characters all caught up in a web of alleged government corruption in “Danny Casolaro Died For You.”

At a lecture by the brilliant scholar Lauren Berlant that I attended on Monday night she quoted the poem “Elliptical” by Harryette Mullen. It starts out as follows:

“They just can’t seem to … They should try harder to … They ought to be more … We all wish they weren’t so … They never … They always … Sometimes they … Once in a while they … However it is obvious that they … Their overall tendency has been … The consequences of which have been …”

And it continues that way.

As a pre-election poem it struck me that this is the problem with our political process. We think we know what the other group has to say and we cut them off or we quit listening because we think we know the end of the statement.  It reminded me of how actor David Parkes was talking about the difficulty of memorizing for the Apple Family plays because the family speaks in ellipses and non sequiturs, they interrupt and pick up old conversations midstream.

In the midst of a political season of not listening and making assumptions, and in the fears and malaise of a Danny Casolaro world in which it seems that some people are more equal than others, that government may be as culpable as corporations, and that none of them care about the middle class—these family conversations, these attempts to pick up the threads of understanding, whether it is political or in our own families, seem more pertinent than ever.

A Trumbull update

October 31, 2014

UPDATE: The community meeting originally scheduled on Thursday, November 13 has been postponed. The meeting will now take place on Monday, November 24 at 6 pm at Trumbull School. For further details, please visit our website …

As we shared on this blog a few weeks ago, TimeLine is working with Howard Weiner of Chicago Development Partners, LLC (CDP) on a proposal for a mixed-use project that preserves the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School building in the Andersonville neighborhood through an innovative combination of arts and residential components—including a new home for TimeLine Theatre. CDP’s proposal for the building is one of several submitted to Alderman Patrick O’Connor for public review and input. The next step in the process is a community-wide meeting organized by the alderman to discuss the future of the building, scheduled for Thursday, November 13 at 6 pm at Trumbull School, 5200 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago. Residents of Chicago’s 40th Ward and other interested parties are invited to attend this meeting to hear more about all the current proposals. For further information and to review the current status of the process, click here. Thanks as always for your support of TimeLine! We’ll continue to share news about our future as it unfolds.

Odd things occurring

October 29, 2014

Politically, I’ve never been one for vast conspiracy explanations of events. Yet, since attaching myself to the production of Danny Casolaro Died for You, which calls public attention to some of the most unsavory unresolved loose ends of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, odd things have been occurring that I just can’t shake off.

On street corners, in coffee shops, on trains and buses, I see the same seemingly disinterested stranger turning up, over and over again. Coincidence?

I decided to turn the tables on whoever is following and watching me. To expose this agency or rogue operative to the world, thus rendering him useless to his spy masters.

Look at this character:

The author snapped photos of this unsuspecting man on a recent bus trip.

The author snapped photos of this unsuspecting man on a recent bus trip.

He tries to blend in, dressing like any arty student-intellectual type one sees around Lakeview, buried in a book or journal. And yet the seeming self-absorption is clearly studied, practiced. At first glance he could be any pale poseur on the #8 bus, but look a bit longer and it’s clear he’s on edge. His antennae are up. He’s not reading at all, but attuned completely to his surroundings.

I appeal to friends of TimeLine to help us identify this man. Have you seen him hanging around? Has he been asking questions? Whoever he really is, something about this set-up is clearly … not kosher.

Mark Richard is an Associate Artist of TimeLine Theatre and portrays Michael Riconosciuto in our production of Danny Casolaro Died For You. His paranoia is all his own.

What do you really want to know?

October 2, 2014

Welcome to the second play in TimeLine Theatre’s 18th season—the Chicago premiere and second-ever production of Danny Casolaro Died For You.

Playwright Dominic Orlando approaches this story from a very personal perspective. He was a cousin of the real Danny Casolaro, who was found dead with his wrists slashed in a hotel bathtub in 1991, eliciting a swirl of controversy and argument over the official medical ruling of suicide.

Several books have been written about Danny and the scandals he was investigating.

Several books have been written about Danny and the scandals he was investigating.

Danny’s notoriety as a freelance journalist stemmed from a sprawling scandal he was investigating at the time of his death—a story he called “The Octopus” due to its numerous tentacles. It’s a fitting name not only for his reporting, but also for his cousin Dominic’s script. (It should be noted that Dominic is not the cousin portrayed in the play.)

When TimeLine’s Company Members first read this fascinating, breathtaking and intricate play, we all found ourselves immediately jumping online to read more about Danny and what he had been investigating. From there, it was impossible not to dig further, getting sucked into page after page showing how deep this international cabal may have led.

It starts with a software manufacturer accusing the Justice Department of stealing its work, extends to key figures tied to allegations about the “October Surprise” of the 1980 presidential election, connects to the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), and even links to Iran-Contra. Danny’s Octopus is far-reaching and mind spinning in its movie-like intrigue. And it’s now encapsulated in an equally complex piece of theater.

Actors Jamie Vann (from left), Philip Earl Johnson, Kyle Hatley, Mark Richard, Demetrios Troy and Dennis William Grimes portray a mysterious array of characters all caught up in a web of alleged government corruption in "Danny Casolaro Died For You."

Actors Jamie Vann (from left), Philip Earl Johnson, Kyle Hatley, Mark Richard, Demetrios Troy and Dennis William Grimes portray a mysterious array of characters caught up in a web of alleged government corruption in “Danny Casolaro Died For You.”

With scandals this entangled, it’s understandable to be overwhelmed by the quest for truth. Many might give up the hunt—either out of confusion, or perhaps, because ultimately it’s more palatable to be ignorant of the grotesque details. In our age of Edward Snowden exposés, rampant government corruption, and abysmal politician approval ratings, I sense a mounting fatigue and an inclination to groan and concede that we can’t take any more. We just don’t want to know.

It’s that very concession that is at the heart of Danny’s investigation and Dominic’s play, posing timely questions for us all. What do you want to know? How much? And what lengths will you go to uncover the facts?

To arm you with resources, you’ll find greater context within the pages of our Backstory, available when you attend the show or in advance at our website. In addition, the theater itself has been designed as a maze of information to encourage your curiosity and lead you through a web of alleged players and facts related to Danny’s Octopus. It bears noting that no one was ever convicted or even charged with a crime as a result of his investigation.

We encourage you to dig in! As always, the aim at TimeLine is to pique your curiosity, hopefully giving you much to discuss and investigate after the play has ended.

We look forward to what conversations unfold.

Our all-new 18th season

August 28, 2014
PJ Powers

PJ Powers

Welcome to TimeLine’s 18th season! We’re thrilled to share a new collection of plays with you—all new to Chicago.

Tonight we open the Chicago premiere of Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s beloved novel My Name is Asher Lev. And once again we’re performing 
at Stage 773, outside our home on Wellington Avenue 
so that we can expand our audience, making it easier for you to experience our work and introduce TimeLine to others.

It also allows us to do two shows at once! A few blocks away on Wellington this fall, you’ll be able to see Dominic Orlando’s Danny Casolaro Died for You (September 23 – December 21). Then later this winter we have the theatrical 
event of two of Richard Nelson’s acclaimed Apple Family Plays (performed separately on alternating nights), followed in the spring by Michele Lowe’s Inana

But first, My Name is Asher Lev.

While a work of fiction, the story is rooted in Potok’s personal experiences and the history and culture of Hasidism in Brooklyn after World War II. We follow the journey of young Asher’s artistic evolution, torn between his religious upbringing and his aspiration to be a painter. The play unquestionably examines the intersection of faith and artistry. But it’s also about the struggles we face to find our life’s calling, especially when that pursuit clashes with our family, culture or heritage.

Whether your own bold venture includes questioning your faith, sexuality, political ideology, family trade, or the community in which you were raised—you’ll find a kindred spirit in Asher as he courageously forges his own path.

Although Asher’s paintings play an enormous role in the story, the script specifically asks that his work remain in your imagination, to empower you to envision 
Asher’s artistic style for yourself. (For those who wish to dig deeper, an internet search will lead you to the art of Chaim Potok, himself a painter who created images similar to some mentioned in the play.)

Potok—an artist in many
 respects and fields—fashioned a distinguished career as a novelist during the later 20th Century with work that often grappled with young Orthodox Jewish characters trying to assimilate into modern America. More recently his writing has transformed eloquently to the stage thanks to playwright Aaron Posner, who also adapted the much-lauded The Chosen.

We enthusiastically welcome back one of our favorite collaborators, Kimberly Senior, just before she makes her Broadway debut directing the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced by Ayad Akthar. When I first mentioned My Name is Asher Lev to her, I knew immediately that we’d found the perfect match. She exclaimed over the phone her deep love for the novel, noting that the pages of her paperback are marked with tears from first reading it years ago.

Kimberly and her team of designers have created a canvas on stage that can be as transformative as that of Asher’s, complemented by three musicians fusing Andrew Hansen’s compositions into this moving story.

I hope you will join us at Stage 773, and I look forward to our conversations throughout 2014-15.

News about a potential new home

August 26, 2014

As we’ve shared over the past few years, TimeLine has been outgrowing our home at 615 W. Wellington Avenue. For the past four seasons, we have performed one play each year at an alternate venue to accommodate rapidly growing audiences (our 18th season opener My Name is Asher Lev opens at Stage 773 this week!).

In our 2014-2017 Strategic Plan, our Board of Directors, Company and Staff committed to a goal of obtaining a new facility that can support more robust production and educational programming—while retaining the intimacy and flexibility we love about our current space that has been integral to our work and connection with our audience.

Recently, TimeLine was approached by an admirer and fan of our company, Howard Weiner of Chicago Development Partners, LLC (CDP). Mr. Weiner sees TimeLine as an ideal partner for his vision of a mixed-use project that preserves the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School building in the Andersonville neighborhood through an innovative combination of arts and residential components.

The opportunity to help bring new life to a historic building aligns with our mission of presenting stories inspired by history that connect to today’s social and political issues. We are working with Mr. Weiner and CDP as they take the leadership role in pursuing the project.

CDP’s proposal for Trumbull School is one of several submitted to Alderman Patrick O’Connor for public review and input over the next several weeks. For further information and to see the several proposals submitted to Alderman O’Connor, click here.

The selection process will not be completed for several months. In the meantime, our Board of Directors, Staff and Company will continue the due diligence of examining all elements of securing a future home for TimeLine, including finances, timeframe, and engagement with the community. We are happy to continue to make our home at the Wellington Avenue Church building at 615 W. Wellington Avenue.

Everyone at TimeLine is so grateful for the steadfast support of the countless donors, subscribers, audience members, artists and friends who have been a part of our journey these past 17 seasons. We’ll continue to share plans for the future as they unfold.

His name is Alex Weisman

August 23, 2014
TimeLine Associate Artist Alex Weisman.

TimeLine Associate Artist Alex Weisman.

During rehearsals for My Name is Asher Lev, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) spoke with actor and TimeLine Associate Artist Alex Weisman (AW) about his experience portraying the title character.

(PJP) How familiar were you with Chaim Potok’s novel before auditioning for the show?

(AW) I wasn’t! I had heard of the play before I knew it was based on a novel. I remember reading about the New York production, but not being familiar with the book. The Chosen, I knew.

(PJP) What has the book meant to you in your preparation and process to play Asher?

(AW) The book hasn’t left my side in two months. I once had a teacher who told me that the best thing an actor can do to learn about character study is to read a novel in first-person narrative. It’s the medium that allows us the most insight into a character’s motivation, intention, and (literally) inner thoughts.  So to have this resource available to me for Asher Lev was essential, it was like an appendage of inspiration.

Before even touching the play, I read the book. Aaron Posner’s adaptation is extremely successful, but in order to create a concise evening, pieces of the story had to be left out. Fortunately, we have all of that in the novel, so relationships can be deeper, stakes can be higher, and the circumstances can be clearer when working on this character.

(PJP) How are you similar or dissimilar from Asher?

(AW) Well, just looking at the basics, Asher is a Hasidic visual artist, and I’m a VERY reformed Jewish actor. My faith and my art have, until this process, seemed to never overlap. In The History Boys I played a Jew, but that served dramaturgically to make my character Posner more of an outsider. Here, Asher’s faith plants him firmly in his community.

Ultimately, I think the play is about identity and questioning our identity, and I’ve certainly done that in my life.

Trying to figure out who we are, or as Asher says, “Who I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to become.” As an actor, there is that moment where someone says to you, “If you can do anything else, you should do that other thing, because this business is hard.” That’s what the character Jacob Kahn, and even Anna Schaeffer, do for Asher in the play. I thought of that question a lot when I was applying for college and deciding whether or not to study theater. There was a moment when I said, “This is who I am. I am an actor.” Asher has to answer the same question.

Keep reading …


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