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October 26, 2009 / lotcchicago

Alex and Mary answer some questions

Friend and colleague, Danielle Robinette (Baltimore,Maryland) interviews executive artistic directors Mary Rose O’Connor and R. Alex Kliner about Chicago, the future of theatre and of course, LOTC.

This is Danielle Robinette.

This is Danielle Robinette.

1.) In recent years, Chicago has experienced a Gold Rush of sorts.  People are flocking from all over the country to set up shop and create theatre, and the members of LOTC are no different.  What do you think makes Chicago such a great town to start a theatre company in, and where does Lights Out Theatre Company fit into the grand scheme of things?

MRO’C: Chicago is an amazing town for theatre. The best in the world, I think (I’ve never left the country, so I can’t actually support that statement). But when I think about huge cities like New York and LA, even some of DC, I know of really large theatre companies and very small theatre companies and not a lot about the ones that kind of fall in the middle. Chicago is a lot of middle. There are a lot of productive, successful theatre companies here that are just as focused on creating interesting and provocative theatre as they were at their conception. And as for the artists, the Chicago scene is very tight, resourceful, and communal.  People aren’t afraid to call and ask each other for favors, to borrow things, share spaces, be a part of each other’s processes and I think that really says something. We’re always focused on the work.

It’s not a new idea to start a theatre company in this city with transplants from your former college. That happens a lot here, which is great for us, and also a challenge to be different. Someone once said to me “It’s hard to be unique in this city, everything’s been done already. So all you can do is make the work great,” so that’s what we’re trying to do. And the best thing about Chicago is, people love to go see theatre, and they will.

RAK:What consistently excites me about Chicago, unlike any other city in which I’ve lived or visited, is its permeating spirit of generosity and community. This is true of everybody, from fellow artists to audience members, to our neighbors in the Chicago business community. From the start, LOTC has been the beneficiary of amazing support, in all forms, from the Chicago community. I don’t think this would have been possible in any other city.

As for the migrant artist phenomenon, I think it’s about time Chicago received the widespread recognition it deserves. Frankly, the professional New York theatre model has rendered itself to be unsustainable and irrelevant. The art (of all disciplines) in Chicago is just as strong, if not stronger, yet more accessible. At the risk of corniness, but having spent the last decade doing theatre in the east coast, Chicago feels like a fresh start at the American Dream, in a way. With good ideas and hard work, any artist or arts organization can produce work and build audiences.

2.) As a little fish in a big pond, what is LOTC doing to spark interest in the minds of theatergoers?  In short, how are you getting asses in seats?

MRO’C: LOTC is doing more event-and-project-based events. Laid back atmospheres (plays in bars or people’s apartments), social settings where you can meet people and drink. Shorter runs; we want people to feel like our work is urgent and limited. “You have to see it this weekend, because it’s only playing this weekend.”

A major concern for us as artists and as youngsters has been the lack of enthusiasm to see theatre from our age group/generation, ourselves included. When we started conceptualizing our group, we talked about how we could come up with a lot of excuses to not pay $10 to go see a play, but if the right band/musician came to town we could come up with a lot of ways to pay $100 to see them perform.

Why is theatre so different? For one, events are exciting! We pay $100 to see Prince perform Purple Rain because we may never get the chance to have that experience again. We don’t pay $10 to see The Importance of Being Earnest because it’s not new, we can read it when we want, and “Besides, it’s playing for 6 more weeks, I’ll get to it eventually.”  (Ten weeks go by and we’ve completely forgotten).

This isn’t just the trend among non-artists, and not just in Chicago. Even as theatre artists, we know what our priorities are, and we want to see something different, something special, and something that’s a lot of freakin’ fun. So LOTC will never be the kind of theatre to have a subscription package because frankly, no one buys them anymore. And really, they’re only applicable to companies who are guaranteed to produce regularly and for a long time. We don’t know where we’ll be in three months, so we’re taking on shows one project at a time. And since we’re not glossing over all of our shows with some contrived unifying season theme, we can make each play specific and mix up our marketing tactics to apply to each show. The internet helps in delivering the info, but mostly we’re relying on word of mouth, and of course, obligated friends and colleagues. And if that’s not getting enough attention, we whip out our unofficial mascot, which is a magical unicorn who can eat pizza while doing a keg stand.

RAK:

LOTC has two distinct priorities:

1. Make good theatre with an eye towards newness and innovation (whether that means fresh source material or production technique or both)

2. FIll our seats with people who have not typically been patrons of the theatre

Clearly, these two priorities work hand-in-hand. By creating theatre that is fresh and new, we attract fresh audiences. Fresh and new audiences inspire us to continue to develop fresh and new theatre. It is a chicken/egg situation, and a thrilling challenge.

LOTC is consistently looking for opportunities to engage communities who have typically felt disenfranchised or put off by the cost or content of traditional theatre. We want to build a new generation of theatre patrons with a much broader image of theatre and free of the typical subscriber model. In short, we want people to feel the same way about  seeing our work as they would going to see their favorite band.

3.) You are both graduates of the illustrious Theatre Arts Program at Towson University.  What aspects of your undergrad career and experiences thereof have shaped the way you run LOTC?  Is there anything you set out to do differently?

MRO’C: Interestingly enough, most of what we’re doing now with LOTC, we seem to have the least amount of experience in, as we never thought we’d actually start a company. I have very little experience in arts management, marketing, development, directing, playwriting, all of which I’ve been eating, sleeping, and breathing for the past year.

I was a design major in college. Scenic and costume, and then halfway through my sophomore year, my good friend, Paul cornered me at a party and asked me to stage manage his student-directed production of Macbeth. Being slightly intoxicated and very excited to know someone respected me enough to work with me, I accepted; I had never stage managed before. But it kicked off my career and eventually led me to Chicago, where I apprenticed for a year at Steppenwolf. (Some people do make good decisions at parties.)

I never could quite find my niche in school; I would get distracted or feel like I could be excelling at something different, and as a result, I did a little bit of everything. And Towson let me. This has helped a lot when you can’t afford a staff or design team. But most importantly, this taught me to be malleable, spontaneous, trust my friends to guide me to my next adventure, and to learn (quickly) as I dive headfirst into the unknown. I don’t think I would have had the confidence, the knowledge, or experience I needed to get here without the support and guidance of our professors. Our teachers are cunning, talented, creative, and really prepared us for anything that could come our way.

RAK: The most profound lesson I took from my experiences at Towson University was that an environment with a sense of play and trust is the best conduit for creativity. Don’t get us wrong, every single member of Lights Out Theatre Company is a professional. However, we do approach our work with a sense of fun.

4.) Your mission statement states you are committed to creating “fresh and provocative theatrical productions”.  In what ways are you going about making this commitment a reality?

MRO’C: LOTC’s been working with new writers, and will continue to do so. This summer we produced two plays that we wrote, as well as three plays by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and Adam Szymkowicz. Adam has a great blog where he interviews new writers, and we’ve been facebook stalking said writers with each new blog post, and then reading their works. We’re trying to find new voices, people who speak to us as a generation, that are smart and accessible. We are obviously attracted to raucous or ironic pieces, but we work as hard as we party. We’re a smart group of people who have a lot to say. And we think we can ask questions and say our ideas without the hiding abstract avant garde pieces or political rants at the audience. People will listen to the smart things you have to say if you can make them laugh and feel comfortable. See also: our Pre-Game Play Series.

RAK: Our commitment to freshness (sounds like a grocery store slogan, doesn’t it?) is reflected in pretty much every aspect of our operations.

On the artistic end, we constantly interact with new and emerging playwrights to procure first-hand looks at their scripts. Mary, Brad (our literary manager), and I are always reading. We discuss opportunities to share the scripts that truly resonate with us to the Chicago community, whether in a fully-mounted theatre production, or for a public reading in our Pre-Game Play Series.

We also look to performance format as a standard in theatre which can be challenged. For example, with Moosehumps we’ve decided to devise our own chose-your-own adventure adaptation of the iconic children’s books Goosebumps by RL Stein. Although I can’t say with any certainty that a choose-your-own adventure play performed in a bar has never been done, it is certainly not a typical theatre experience done in a typical theatre space. It is a format that excites us as a company.

5.)  Where do you see the Chicago theatre scene, as well as the global theatre scene, heading in the next 10 years?  Where does LOTC fit into this vision?

MRO’C: That is a great question that I don’t really have a clear answer for. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty where to go next. The economy has really put that into perspective. And I think it’s good in a way, because it’s really made people reevaluate what is important to them. What are they willing to spend money on? Why this art? Why here? Why now? As we slowly pull ourselves out of the money crapper, I think the entire artistic scene will undergo a huge transformation, maybe a renaissance. Obama’s doing a lot to help the arts, which rules. And Illinois is a great state to be an artist. So I think Chicago will start the ripple of good change. I don’t know what genres are going to be popular. Hopefully something we’ve never seen before. Revivals are tired. Let’s do something new, something crazy. Where will LOTC be? Hopefully in bar, or maybe like a roller rink. I don’t want us to ever be corporate or big. If I wanted a career where I could be secure and make money, I wouldn’t have done theatre. I do this because it’s my passion and because I can’t do anything else. So as long as I still feel like this in ten years, I think LOTC will be in a really great place.

RAK: This is a question that has been asked of arts organizations for years, and a re-emerging theme in our post-Bush, and economically-receding national climate.

I think theatre will continue to move in many exciting directions where “standards” in genre are widened to encompass any captivating story told live, and in front of people. I think young people will take back the form of theatre, and much like high-school garage bands, we’ll start seeing more theatre groups of eager and enthusiastic young people. Also, I think the newest wave of theatre artists will be much more flexible and multi-disciplined. I hope university theatre programs will widen the expectations of their students and move further away from a one-trick-pony “conservatory” model. The result will be a new generation of well-rounded and passionate theatre artists and practitioners hitting the national theatre scene in all cities and states who have no interest in living the pre-prescribed “dream” in New York. At least, I hope that happens.

For LOTC, I think we will continue to evolve into a position where our work is self-sustaining and our organization, as a business, healthy and prosperous. We will continue to work with new playwrights to create theatrical experiences as unique as the scripts themselves. We will continue to develop the wealth of skills and abilities of our ensemble members and artistic associates to create more company-devised productions. I see LOTC working with live music as a means of story-telling. But who’s to say?

6.)  What works have inspired you to create theatre?

MRO’C: Mates of State is one my favorite bands and one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. My best friend and I went to see them in LA and while I was dancing and singing every lyric at the top of my lungs, she was moved to tears, having never heard their music before, and standing still. Theatre should do that. It’s an event, not a presentation. Performances should evoke as much action from the audience as the actors on stage. People should be out of their seats and completely engaged. How do you do that? We’re still working on it.

RAK: This is a hard one, so I’ll put it this way: I continue to be inspired to create theatre by having very meaningful conversations with audience members after every LOTC production/event. When I see the excitement in an audience member for something that we’ve done, I get high (on life).

Like Mary, I also envy the energy of rock concerts and will likely spend the rest of my career attempting to harvest that raw force and searching for ways to use it in creating theatre.

7.)  You are both transplants of the Baltimore/Washington Metropolitan conglomerate.  What have you found in Chicago that was lacking back home?  What do you miss?  What do you not miss?

MRO’C: Due to geography, Baltimore is laid out in a way where there’s not really a theatre district, it’s kind of spread out, and there’s no real public transportation. You have to drive everywhere. So when you go see a play there, you have to really plan to make it happen. I don’t miss that. Parking is a pain in the ass. In Chicago it feels like there’s a storefront theatre on every other block, so it’s a lot easier to get there.  From home, I miss our friends and seeing them continue to perform in the area. There are a lot of cool new companies getting started up and it’s exciting to know that we’re simultaneously evolving in the same direction, even half-way across the country.

RAK: The Chicago culture truly understands that art begets more art. It is a city where artists and arts organizations approach their colleagues without a sense of rivalry or competition, but rather with openness and a willingness to help. There’s a sense here that we’re all in this together; this is a refreshing change from the arts climate back east.

I will always have a profound love of Baltimore. Like Chicago, Baltimore is teeming with creative and passionate young people who, in many ways, are on the cutting edge of innovation in visual art, performing arts, and especially music. Unlike Chicago, however, Baltimore has very few theatre companies and arts organizations in general. Baltimore is an under-saturated market, so it’s easier to gain the media’s attention when something new is being done there (something LOTC is still working hard to gain). The work of new Baltimore companies like the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS- http://baltimorerockopera.org), makes me so excited for the future of the theatre arts in Baltimore.

8.)  We all know that running a theatre company is a fulltime job, but let’s face it; you gotta take some time for yourselves.  What are things you do to unwind after a long day of Artistic Director-ing?

MRO’C: Lately? Karaoke, and Mad Men. I just got into the series and I’m addicted. I’m currently borrowing Alex’s box set EDITORIAL NOTE, THE BOX SET IS BOBBY’S!, actually. We’re connected at the hip. I’ve also taken up jig saw puzzles again. But on a day-to-day basis, I like going to coffee shops and scoping out cute boys. Few people know this, but it seems like everyone is attractive in Chicago.

RAK: Like Mary, I’m ridiculously obsessed with Mad Men. While running a theatre company truly IS a full-time job, I have also made a full-time job out of trying to obtain a full-time job. (If anybody knows of any leads on development/fundraising openings anywhere in the non-profit world, shoot me an email!)

I drink a lot of coffee.

9.)  If you had your way, and money was no object, what would be the next thing we’d be seeing from LOTC?

MRO’C: The grand opening of our very own space, equipped with bar, and possibly Jimmy Johns franchise. In terms of shows, I think Alex and I agree that we want to do a staged production of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

RAK: Definitely a huge warehouse space equipped with a fantastic lobby (with a coffee shop!) that is open even on days where there is no show scheduled, so that people can use our space to build their own sense of community. As for the performance space itself, it would need to have an epic lighting capabilities for when I use it to live out my rock-star fantasies.

Executive Artistic Directors Mary Rose O'Connor and R. Alex Kliner

Executive Artistic Directors Mary Rose O'Connor and R. Alex Kliner running the day-to-day operations of LOTC

10.) Certain theatre magazines like to pigeonhole the younger demographic of theatergoers into one category.  If this were true, the only plays we would be seeing would be about Miley Cyrus, text messaging, and Facebook comments.  What makes you excited in theatre?  What do you hope to find when you see a play?

MRO’C: I think older generations simply cannot relate to our relationship with technology and as a result sees our “obsession” with the internet as all-consuming. But it’s not; on the contrary, we crave making human connections and having live experiences.

It’s hard to articulate what I like. I just know when I see it. But what I dislike about theatre is when it tries to become something that it’s not. When it tries to recreate an already-popular film, or when it throws a cluster of concepts and themes into a pile and calls it a play. I love spectacle or minimalism. When theatre falls somewhere in the middle it looks like everyone’s trying too hard.  What I want to see, no matter where I go is a STORY.  I actually get infuriated by synopses that begin with “This play explores/asks/seeks/investigates/explains.” No one wants to pay to go see people do research; I pay to see a finished product.

Plays are stories. Stories are about a character getting from point A to point B because they have to, and all of the things that they have to overcome to get there. When plays lose the story, they lose the audience. That’s why people my age get grouped in this little category of ADD, unsympathetic, self-involved people. Well, it’s because people stopped telling us stories. People are obsessed with facebook because there’s always a story to read. Cut the fat, and get down to what theatre is about, and I will be there with bells and whistles on.

RAK: Amen.

11.) What are you wearing?

MRO’C: Danielle, what aren’t I wearing? It’s Chicago. The layers are having a coming out party.

RAK: SURPRISE! Black hoodie & jeans. I’m dazzling.

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