April 12, 2012

Theater students engage long-term projects with professional artists like playwright Mickle Maher

On April 26, a group of four College undergraduates and four professional actors will inaugurate the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts’ Theater East with the world premiere production of Mickle Maher’s An Actor Prepares. The production both opens the theater—one of four formal performance spaces in the new center—and signals Theater and Performance Studies Director Heidi Coleman’s ambitious plans to transform the theater program, its role at the University, and its relationship to the professional theater world

An Actor Prepares is the final step in a year-and-a-half long development process coordinated by Coleman to coincide with the Logan Center’s soft opening. In fall 2010, Coleman approached Maher about developing Actor— an adaptation of Constantin Stanislavki’s seminal 1936 book on theatrical realism that she knew Maher had been eager to create—with a group of College students.

Maher has long been a major player in Chicago theater. His There is a Happiness That Morning Is and The Strangerer both enjoyed highly successful Chicago runs, the latter transferring in 2008 to New York’s Barrow Street Theatre. Most recently, his Hunchback Variations—a two-character play in which Mozart and Quasimodo argue over a stage direction in Chekhov— was adapted into an opera that ran at Victory Gardens Theater. The production will move this spring to the 59E59 Theatre in New York.

Over the past several years, Maher has taught several popular undergraduate playwriting classes in the College. Enthusiastic student response to these courses prompted Coleman to approach Maher about a larger project. She proposed a structure wherein he would begin work on Actor in a series of on-campus workshops. Then Maher would spend three quarters developing the play in a College courses, and another quarter and a half staging it for performance at the Logan Center.

Coleman’s goal was largely pedagogical. But her intention was also to commission a viable piece of theater while “engaging students in the process.” Discussing students’ involvement in this new work, Coleman says, “it’s real. There’s no simulation. It matters.

“Working with the Playwright”

Maher took on the project, structuring his fall 2011 class, “Working with the Playwright: Adapting & Directing Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares” as a deep exploration of Stanislavski, combined with a workshop of the developing play. Each week, students read chapters from Stanislavski’s book and shared their insights on the text. Maher, the students, and a weekly guest artist would then discuss the work, both as an intellectual milestone and a practical tool. They would then read new script pages, with the visiting artist working as a collaborator.

During one class, Adrian Danzig, founder of Chicago’s well-regarded 500 Clown, took the stage as Stanislavski, exploring Maher’s text with student actors in the other roles. Maher describes the process as a “highlight” in his long career of workshops: “It was a really great course. We were concentrated for three hours on just the fundamentals.” Asked about the influence that course had on the final play— in which a haunted Stanislavski attempts to recount his book to the audience as other versions of himself interrupt him— Maher explains that he is heavily indebted to the work in the classroom. “I took all the mulch I got from those workshops,” he says, “and made the play.”

After fall quarter, the process moved beyond the classroom. Chicago director Devon DeMayo joined the team and four professional actors were cast alongside four students. For DeMayo, who has taught theater at universities such as Northwestern, the opportunity proved an exciting chance to work with a new type of student.

“Here, there seems to be an interest in thinking about art holistically,” she says. When asked how she as a professional director responds to the skills she sees in Chicago students versus those in purely arts-focused undergraduate programs, she responds that after trying and failing a UChicago student “will totally stand back up and start laughing and be like ‘let’s try again.’ And that is a skill that is really important. And it stands out.”

Creating a lab for artists

After Actor, Coleman has slated a series of similar collaborations for the Logan Center theater spaces. Artists include Seth Bockley (whose February House will open this spring at New York’s Public Theater), Manual Cinema, and The New Colony. Each of these projects, and a series of others currently being planned, will have a similar structure, beginning in the classroom and then moving to the stage.

In conversation, Coleman notes the relative “cloister” of Hyde Park as a real attraction for working artists: Those who might not want to show their burgeoning projects in their own communities can develop it in Hyde Park where they get both the benefits of the university’s resources and its relative outsider status in the arts scene. “The goal of performance work here is not ‘polish.’ It’s not polite.” Coleman says. “We’re really looking at UChicago as a lab.”

Addressing the question of whether this emergent arts programming will fit with the University’s rigor, its academic bent, and its proud commitment to the theoretical, Coleman explains that, “the party line for everyone is interdisciplinary programs in the arts; everyone’s trying to be interdisciplinary. UChicago just is.”

College fourth-year William Bishop has a similar take. Bishop is serving as Assistant Director for DeMayo; he has also worked at theaters across Chicago including Steppenwolf Theatre, Court Theatre, and The Hypocrites, and is currently completing a senior thesis on the intersections of performance and the internet. Asked about the interplay between the new Logan Center and the college’s intellectual atmosphere, Bishop responds, “I think the marriage of those two things is what UChicago is slowly becoming…not losing sight of this intellectual background, but seeing what will happen when we take intellectual rigor and start embodying it.”

By Christopher Shea, AB'10