JUST history plays?!
This week we’re taking a trip down memory lane with an extensive interview with five of TimeLine’s founding Company Members, commemorating the 15th Anniversary of the meeting that started TimeLine on April 9, 1997. You can read Part 1 here …
How do we make history not dusty and foreign, but immediate, urgent, sexy and a guide for how we move forward into the future?
So, this mission of doing plays inspired by history. We’ve heard how Nick came up with the idea. Do you remember him first bringing it up to the group, and your reaction?
PJ: Oh, well, this I remember! Nick floated this idea — “What if we focused on history plays?”
… and the idea hung in the air like a bad odor.
Juliet: I think I thought, “Wow, that could get old pretty fast.”
PJ: I believe I was among the first (if not THE first) to rain on Nick’s parade. With furrowed brow and skepticism dripping from my lips, I said “History plays? HISTORY PLAYS?? Really?!?! … like, just history plays?!?!”
This story is now a badge of dishonor I must own. Thankfully, cooler and wiser heads emerged that night and talked me down from my history-phobia ledge, and we ignited a conversation that honestly still rages on today: How do we make history not dusty and foreign, but immediate, urgent, sexy and a guide for how we move forward into the future?
Kevin: I remember talking a lot about my personal interest in plays about actual people, places and events, and my belief that plays about real things are harder to ignore. I find that plays which illustrate an actual decision that someone made versus a hypothetical situation adds a layer of reality that may force an audience to think even harder about the central theme or problem of play.
Pat: It was Nick’s idea, 100%. I remember being intrigued … and skeptical. At the time we were young (not that we’re soooooo old now, but, you know, 15 years ago … eek!). We thought we could do anything and wanted to do it all. The idea of a mission to only do plays rooted in history seemed so terribly limiting, I think we were afraid of all the plays we could not do and the places we could not explore.
Kevin: I do recall us discussing at length our concerns as to how many viable plays about history there are that would also have a relevance to current audiences. I remember working with Brian Voelker (who became a Company Member and TimeLine’s second Managing Director) during our second season and reading tons of plays in an effort to try to hone what the mission is really about.
Pat: The idea of finding a niche and doing one thing really right rather than doing everything just all right made sense and seemed intelligent, but it also seemed artistically compromising and so restrictive to our boundless interests, talents and passions.
What we did not all immediately grasp about this mission, I think, was how it was like a telescope or a microscope. Those don’t seem to exclude so much as they bring things unreachable into focus and add such detail to vague notions. A fuzzy white circle in the sky can become a planet rich with shadows and ridges and craters and lava. And something as tiny as a speck (or even invisible to the naked eye) can suddenly have legs and move and divide and procreate and transform! And the deeper we delved into what this mission meant and how to refine what it was about — this bucket topic of “history” that was our particular mission — the more we found our possibilities broadening and deepening.
PJ: We have always made a distinction that we are not historians or documentarians. We are theatre folk. But we use and embrace history as a wonderful context, inspiration and lens to explore issues that are vital in the here-and-now. And while we always try to honor history, our biggest focus is honoring great theatre.
Pat: I am now constantly amazed by the scope of what this mission encompasses and all the depth to which it allows the company to explore. Within the “confines” of “history” are all human passions, experiences, comedies and dramas. I have favorite plays that TimeLine can never do because of the mission, but I can easily say that TimeLine will never run out of plays to intrigue, fascinate, challenge and delight me!
Did anyone float ideas for an alternate mission?
Nick: There was never another mission idea suggested. It was always about honing the mission of history. How to make history important and relevant.
Kevin: The only other thing I remember is when we began discussing names for the company, Juliet jokingly offered up the name “Jazz Hands Theatre Company” and I’m still laughing about her improvisation skit about what kind of mission that would look like!
PJ: I honestly can’t remember any others. We had this one right outta the gate. No turnin’ back.
It sounds like an amazing first meeting, and the group seems to have coalesced fairly easily around the idea of plays inspired by history as its mission. But starting a theatre company is an enormous undertaking. What flipped the switch for you and made you say, “yes, I want to commit to this”?
PJ: For me, it was the allure of being a part of something bigger than myself. Joining together with others that I respected to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Kevin: I think there were two things that played heavily in my decision to commit to TimeLine. I’d be remiss if I didn’t first mention my artistic relationship with Nick — I think by the time we began discussions about starting a company Nick and I had already worked on a dozen projects both in and outside of school.
Nick once described our process of working together as director and designer as “symbiotic,” whereby the lines of directing and scenography became blurred or, better yet, overlapping. I have always greatly enjoyed sitting in rehearsal with Nick and talking about the “world” of a play that we are working on. I hadn’t really understood that concept until I got to grad school, and working with Nick really helped open that up for me. In fact, I enjoyed working with Nick so much we had to start sneaking around to avoid my teachers discovering how many plays I was working on!
Second, the types of plays we were talking about producing all had something to say about who we are as human beings. Now, one could argue that all plays have social commentary, but the plays we began looking at seem to be more pointed in their commentary without being didactic.
This mission was unique, and we hoped that it would distinguish the organization. IT would be the star, not us.
PJ: Chicago already was and still is an unbelievable theatre community, with or without TimeLine. But we aimed to add to the scene, be a new strong voice in furthering the scene. And we would do so by always putting our mission first in any decision we made. This mission was unique, and we hoped that it would distinguish the organization. IT would be the star, not us.
Pat: I don’t remember one answer why with a capital “W,” but one thing I remember was thinking Chicago had a number of companies at the time with very talented artistic members, renowned for their actors and/or directors particularly, working in hole-in-the-wall theatres with tiny budgets and doing great work!
We wanted to join their ranks, of course, but we were not a company of actors only, or actors and directors. The original six were three actors, a director, a designer and a playwright/dramaturg. I remember us really wanting to combine our talents to create a company with a high level of quality across all areas — even with a tiny budget in a hole-in-the-wall theatre.
In addition, we wanted to create a supportive, professional working atmosphere for participants and audience (you know, the dream workplace in which everyone could thrive). I realized that our collective vision was for the whole package (rather than just our own talents or careers), and I realized everyone was ready and willing to commit their energies not only to their own passions but to taking on a business/staff role in making the dream work and be sustainable. I think that is what flipped the switch for me and made me trust 1) that my individual goals were in good hands; 2) that together we had the talents to add something to our already incredibly rich theatrical landscape; and 3) that we had enough selfless commitment to the company and to each other to make our vision a functional reality.
Juliet: We always talk a lot about how we prepared for our first production and the foundation we built as a company, but ultimately we are theatre people and we love doing theatre. So, I don’t think it was until we had our first show up and running, and the rush was there of realizing that we worked and played really well together that I thought … I think I want to keep doing this.
Why do you think you all came together as a team so well? What values did you share? What made it work?
PJ: It’s funny because the six of us weren’t really best buds in school when we met. A couple of us were good friends but it wasn’t in any way the typical group of friends who know that they always want to be together, work together and build something together. We were kind of a motley crew. But we did all share a common work ethic, a relentless pursuit of quality, a willingness to put the organization ahead of our personal careers, and a belief that a group of diverse skill sets (directing, designing, dramaturgy, acting) could merge to form something special.
Kevin: Again, I think being in school together and success with Two Planks made it easy for those of us who worked on that show to come together to help start TimeLine. We already had the bug for success and making something out of nothing — we literally scavenged to create the sets, costumes and lights for Killing Game, including a 3’ x 4’ x 7’ tall bread rack we, um, borrowed from a grocery store nearby (returning it after the run of the show was terrifying)!
Those first few years of TimeLine were no different in terms of the way folks pulled together and just pitched in. Now that I reflect on it, I think very early on we developed a collective reputation and sense of who we were becoming and we all worked to make sure we protected that for the benefit of everyone involved.
Juliet: We were kind of like an arranged marriage! We had been brought together by Nick, and we had to learn how to communicate with each other, how to weather challenges together, how to keep re-imagining what we could be. I think the core value we all had was a fierce work ethic and a sense of accountability. If you made a mistake, you had to (and still have to) face up to it and learn from it. I don’t want to discount the importance of a sense of humor either … if we couldn’t have laughed together through all of this, I don’t think we’d be here today.
Nick: We had a common language and backgrounds, but we all had very different perspectives. We respected each other and loved each other like a family, so we worked like a family. We didn’t mind stepping on each other’s toes because we knew this wasn’t a fly by night thing. We were in for the long haul.
PART 3 of our interview with TimeLine’s Founding Company Members — about getting down to the actual hard work of starting a theatre company — published on April 11, 2012. Subscribe to Behind the ‘Line (see links at upper right) so you won’t miss a thing!