A few weeks ago when Wasteland was still in its rehearsal process, TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with Chicago playwright Susan Felder (SF) about her life as an actor, director and now playwright, the experience of working on her first fully produced play, and getting caught in that hole in the ground. Excerpts of this interview appear in TimeLine’s printed Backstory program book; this is the full version.
(PJP) You’ve primarily been an actor and director, so what led you to playwriting?
(SF) The need to express something that you don’t feel is being expressed anywhere else, I guess. The journey from actor to director to playwright seems natural to me. As an actor you’re focused on one character—telling their story. As a director, the story gets bigger. It was pretty natural to go the extra step to, can I shed light on the entire story I know in my head? Can I capture the essence of something that I feel is hidden and needs to be said?
My actor always looks for that. My director always looks for that. And then as a playwright, the whole ball game becomes yours on paper. It’s always been the same for me: If I can show our vulnerabilities to the world so that we understand ourselves, then I’m not alone in those. When you’re dealing with those difficult things in life, you either bore your friends, you get therapy, or you write a play.
I feel like I’m the artillery.
Sometimes it helps to be just a little bit lucky.
This notion obviously isn’t new to me—I am continually aware of my great fortune to have been around the right people at the right time to start TimeLine in 1997, and how that unlikely connection altered countless things.
Timing—and perhaps more important, being open to what pops up around you—can be everything.
How Wasteland ended up on our stage (performances start October 12!) involved its own bit of fortuitous timing—and a willingness to adapt. Playwright Susan Felder sent me the script last winter. That delivery was followed by an impassioned referral from my long-time friend, collaborator and TimeLine Associate Artist William Brown, director of such TimeLine shows as To Master the Art and Not About Nightingales. “You need to hear this play out loud. It will knock you out,” he said.
As luck would have it, a last-minute change for the February edition of our TimePieces play reading series allowed us to slot in Wasteland swiftly, with Bill directing it.
I have known, liked and admired Susan for many years (mostly as an actor and director), and I wanted to be very clear to temper her expectations, noting that our season planning for 2012-13 was pretty much fully set. “I don’t want you to get your hopes up that the reading is a tryout to get your play into next season,” I told her. “Plus, the other shows we’re lining up are all things that we’ve been cultivating and planning for two to four years. Things almost never just pop in this quickly.”
And then we did the reading.
It was a rather informal, only modestly rehearsed, yet totally magical night, led by actors Nate Burger and Steve Haggard. Bill’s prediction turned out to be totally spot on. This play did indeed knock us out. It seemed to knock the entire room out. The packed house was on the edge of its seat, holding its collective breath. As soon as it was over I turned to a fellow Company Member and said, “I can’t ever remember that much tension in this theatre, over 13 years of producing in this space.”
Then and there, our best-laid plans were thrown up in the air.
Late into that night the TimeLine Company Members huddled upstairs in our rehearsal room. Our initial plan had been to finally, formally sign off on what we thought was the full slate of four plays for our 16th season. But this damned Wasteland had crashed the party with an urgency to have a full production. Soon.
A couple of hours later, after much shifting and re-drafting of the season line-up, we had crafted plans to produce Wasteland now, in the midst of a hyper-polarized election cycle.
What struck us that night about Susan’s haunting and powerful play is that, while it’s set in the heat of the Vietnam War, it has as much to say about today as it does about that infamously fractured and politicized era. And that despite its backdrop of seemingly bleak human disconnect, Wasteland is at its core a play about hope. And connection.
Thrown together but in separate cells, two soldiers are faced with the realization that they’re all they’ve got. No matter what obstacles divide them, no matter what literal or ideological barrier exists between them, somehow, some way, a connection must be forged.
The first step should be simple—listening. But most of us seem to get tripped up trying to take that first step, particularly when the person on the opposite side is, in some way, other than ourselves. Why listen when dismissal feels oh so much better? Besides, listening goes against everything we’re fed in today’s social/political arena, where the tendency is just to get louder with your own point of view.
I readily admit that I too have room for improvement. But I am incredibly grateful that last winter TimeLine had the wherewithal to listen to Susan and Bill’s pitch and to adjust on the fly. We made something seemingly impossible possible—rethinking a pretty solid initial plan.
Susan’s gift of Wasteland is a stirring, stunning achievement, especially for a first-time playwright. We can’t wait to share her play with you this season amid a collection of three other plays that all take TimeLine to places, eras and cultures that have previously been foreign to us.
Wasteland gives me a great deal of hope, about so many things. Perhaps most of all, I hope it will get all of us talking. And listening.
The process of putting up a show at TimeLine is always both exhilarating and exhausting. But that may never be more true than when we produce a show away from our home on Wellington Avenue. It’s so exciting to explore a new space and bring our work to expanding audiences. But at the same time, it presents some incredible challenges.
This season, when we mounted 33 Variations at Stage 773, the biggest challenge for production was a tight schedule. We generally take a minimum of one week (and preferably two or three) to get a set constructed and ready for actors. This time, we got the keys to our space on a Monday morning and had to be ready for the actors to take the stage on Wednesday afternoon! Coupled with the fact that this is one of the largest sets we’ve ever constructed, it made for a tiring process—though one that was a lot of fun to experience.
So we thought it might be interesting to share a few photos and give our audience members a chance to see some of the journey that brought 33 Variations together.
It all started with a set model …
… and a light plot.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
We built the set in pieces on TimeLine’s stage so that it could come together as quickly as possible. Construction began the morning after My Kind of Town closed, and 12 days later looked like this, ready to get on the truck to head to Stage 773.
TimeLine’s 16th season is underway!
We are so excited to share this year’s collection of four plays with you—all brand new to Chicago—and to ignite new conversations about how these historical stories resonate with today’s social/political issues.
Three weeks ago, for the second year in a row, we launched our season outside our home on Wellington Avenue, this time at Stage 773 on Belmont. While there’s no place like home, producing at a second venue enables us to continue expanding our audience, and hopefully makes it easier for you to experience our work and to introduce TimeLine to others. We’ve benefited from an astonishing increase of more than 150% in our subscriber base over the last few years. Producing in two venues is a short-term solution for managing that growth while we plan for our long-term facility needs.
As we explore ways for TimeLine to broaden its reach and artistic scope, it is important to stress what is at the heart of all our considerations—fostering the intimacy and innovation that is critical to TimeLine’s work. How we connect with you is at the center of everything we do, regardless of venue, size or address. So, we hope you’ll share your ideas about how we can make your experience better and more enriching in the comments below.
Our venture beyond home with 33 Variations is also a fitting metaphor for the plays we’re exploring during our 2012-13 season, which push us into eras, cultures and genres somewhat foreign to TimeLine. As TimeLine’s Company Members looked to plan season 16, with more than 50 productions behind us, we were eager to find plays that took us to places we hadn’t been before. That same quest for discovery is at the heart of each story, with Americans abroad in search of understanding, fulfillment and a grasp of the unknown.
The journey this season will take us to an underground cell in Vietnam in the world premiere of Wasteland, as two soldiers seek connection in the face of the greatest of differences and obstacles.
We’ll also venture to Japan and back, during both the 1880s and present day, in the Chicago premiere of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, as the invention of the camera unlocks new worlds of intrigue and exploration.
Finally, we’ll go undercover in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the Chicago premiere of the spy thriller Blood and Gifts, exploring power struggles and under-the-table transactions that have shaped the international landscape for decades.
But we’ve started with Moisés Kaufman’s waltz through time in 33 Variations.
In 33 Variations, a modern-day musicologist travels to Germany to better understand her idol, Ludwig van Beethoven. Even with her health crumbling because of a debilitating battle with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), she immerses herself in the Beethoven archives. She is determined to understand why he composed 33 variations on a seemingly trivial piece of music while his own health, finances and state of mind deteriorated.
As he did with some of his other historically inspired plays, such as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, Kaufman conducted copious research, going to the source in search of authenticity and understanding. And then he used that data as a launching pad to craft a play that blends critical analysis with surprising emotional impact.
As Beethoven’s music unfurls throughout the play’s 33 scenes, Kaufman shows us beauty where we often miss it: In the mundane. In the seemingly mediocre. In ourselves. And in those we love and take for granted.
Not unlike the variations themselves, Kaufman’s play sneaks up on you, packing an unexpected emotional punch. It urges us to reexamine that which we overlook, underestimate or undervalue, and reminds us of the fragility of life and death.
I’ve now experienced this play numerous times, first seeing it in 2009 and reading it many times over the last couple of years as we prepared to produce it. But a couple of months ago when I watched this cast’s first run-through in our rehearsal room, I was struck by so many things I’ve seen before, read before, known before, and then forgotten. Not necessarily about the play, but about the tedium of life and work and the toll it takes on being able to stop and pay attention to what is really around you.
Watching the decline of a loved one’s health is the ultimate wake-up call and equalizer, reminding us of our own mortality and the pettiness that gets in the way of truly embracing what is most dear to us—the beauty that exists around us. That beauty is the heart of 33 Variations.
We’re delighted to take you on Moisés Kaufman’s journey, partnering with the International Beethoven Project (founded by pianist George Lepauw), under the always inspiring direction of my trusty colleague Nick Bowling, with a dynamic cast led by Janet Ulrich Brooks and Terry Hamilton.
Beyond 33 Variations, we hope you’ll join us for the entire extended exploration of 2012-13. I look forward to discussing all the places we will venture, and I thank you for being such a huge part of pushing TimeLine to new places.
As my third season working for TimeLine’s Living History Education Program comes to a close, the school year for the Chicago Public School students we work with has also finished up. Our last student matinee and post-show discussion has come and gone, the final written response has been turned in, and the last student scene has been performed. Yet, this is by no means the end of Living History: The education program is growing beautifully, and it is exciting to think about next season − and the seasons to come.
I’ve learned a lot from these students, though I have had conversations with only a few of them.
In the recently ended school year, our program had the honor of working with 452 students at four different Chicago Public Schools. I’ve been thrilled to be a part of this important work. I’ve learned a lot from these students, though I have had conversations with only a few of them. One of my duties at TimeLine has been to assess the work the students have done with teaching artists in their classrooms. I have done this partially by studying the words students put down on paper. At the end of each TimeLine residency, students write survey responses to reflect on the work they have done, as well as to assist us in improving our program. Pouring over these written words has inspired me, made me laugh, and caused me to pause to think.
We were so thrilled to welcome a nearly full house — about 200 people — to the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theatre last night for a wide-ranging conversation between journalist/playwright John Conroy and the Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio’s Rick Kogan, about John’s life, career and the genesis of his first play My Kind of Town.
Rick led John through recollections of his early life and career; the path that led him to journalism and specifically investigative journalism; his work at the Chicago Reader; the moment when he first became aware of the possibility of torture by Chicago police and the in-depth reporting of that story for more than 20 years; and what sparked his decision to write a play on the topic, its development through Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Reportory of New Work and two years of work leading to the May 10, 2012 world premiere at TimeLine Theatre.
For those who were unable to attend the event, you can listen to the entire conversation right here! Below are several audio clips from the night, broken into sections.
If you were there or if you listen online, we’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments section below …
The close of TimeLine’s 15th Anniversary season is fast approaching and the end of our fiscal year on June 30 is days away.
This season seemed to fly by. It was our busiest yet with 107 additional performances, more than 800 new subscribers and 10,000 additional seats to fill; opening A Walk In The Woods and The Pitmen Painters within 19 days of each other; and producing the world premiere of John Conroy’s My Kind of Town.
It is hard to pick one thing I am most proud of from this extraordinary season, but My Kind of Town is in the top 5. Having lived in the world of new plays and new play development at Victory Gardens Theater for 15 years before coming to TimeLine four and a half years ago, it is always exciting when we do a new play. I feel like a kid at Christmas during tech and watching the first performance. I know something awesome and amazing is going to happen.
The work the Company and John Conroy did on My Kind Of Town in the last two years and the work that continued with the cast in rehearsals was exceptional and inspiring.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the Company Members, Associate Artists, staff and Board Members past and present for getting all of us to this milestone year and for continuing to inspire and challenge me daily. It takes a lot of people to make TimeLine run the way it does, and the dedication of the staff can never be underestimated.
One of the hallmarks of TimeLine’s operation that caught my attention a little over 5 years ago when I first met PJ was that at the time the company had operated each year in the black. I’m proud to say that this amazing accomplishment has continued.
Today, as we come to the end of this fiscal year, we are very close to making “budget in the black” a reality for the 15th straight year. To help us, several of TimeLine’s long-time supporters have issued a challenge. If we can raise $10,000 in the next 6 days, they will match those gifts with a $10,000 gift.
Your support over the years has made TimeLine a place we can all be exceptionally proud of and a place I’m honored to work. I hope you will take a moment to consider a fiscal-year-end gift to continue the legacy.