CONVERSATIONS with Ed Tracy

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LILI-ANNE BROWN - Big Concepts. New Partnerships.

As we wrapped up our delightful conversation with Lili-Anne Brown, she made an open invitation to Tony Kushner to come see her next show. There is no budget to fly him to Chicago, but Brown said she would roll out the red carpet. “If you happen to have a taste for Lou Malnati's and you just really want to come to Chicago, we will buy Lou Malnati's! Whatever size pizza you would like, I will get for you.”

Brown's next show - the 2003 Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori musical, Caroline, or Change - is just one of many exciting big concept projects and new partnerships on her busy schedule. The highly-anticipated Firebrand Theatre Company production, presented in partnership with TimeLine Theatre Company, opens September 22nd at The Den Theater. Directing Kushner’s semi-autobiographical story is a bucket list item for Brown, who is quick to add that there is an open invitation for Tesori to come to Chicago, too!

A Northwestern alum and former artistic director of Bailiwick Chicago, Brown is an accomplished actor, director and educator. At Bailiwick, Brown directed the Jeff Award-winning Dessa Rose, Passing Strange, for which she received a Black Theatre Alliance Award for Best Director of a Musical and a Jeff nomination for Best Director of a Musical, and the world premiere of Princess Mary Demands Your Attention. In Chicago, her credits include See What I Wanna See at Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Rep, Boho Theatre’s Marie Christine, Peter and the Starcatcher at Metropolis Performing Arts, Kokandy’s The Wiz and Xanadu at American Theatre Company. There have been national tours of Jesus Snatched My Edges and Little Shop of Horrors, and other productions at Northwestern, Chicago Children’s Theatre and Timber Lake Playhouse.

In recent months, Brown directed 16th Street Theater’s The Wolf at the End of the Block, Sideshow’s Tilikum at Victory Gardens and American Blues Theater’s BUDDY: The Buddy Holly Story which is currently running through September 15th at Stage 773, and, announced today, the recipient of 2018 Equity Jeff Award nominations for Best Musical Production-Midsize, Ensemble-Musical, Performer in a Principal Role-Musical (Zachary Stevenson), Musical Direction (Michael Mahler) and Director in a Musical for Lili-Anne Brown.

With a big-picture view of the projects she is working on and over two decades of experience in and around Chicago, Brown says it is her nature to be “Matchmaker-Team Leader-Julie, The Cruise Director.” It's a joyful process and she truly enjoys mentoring talent. There are standards of professionalism to follow and she cautions her students that this is serious business. It takes a lot of hard work and everyone needs to take responsibility, show up prepared and ready to play well together. 

There is much more about BUDDYCaroline and the 2019 projects coming up - including The Total Bent at Haven Theatre and Lottery Day at Goodman Theatre - in our fascinating conversation with Lilli-Anne Brown, one of Chicago’s most highly-respected theater professionals. PODCAST

Zach Stevenson as Buddy Holly … “Zach Stevenson is a treasure. … This guy came in and when he left the room, we were all just like, “What! Where's this guy from!?!”  And we look at his resume and we’re like, “Oh, Canada! No wonder.”  He is the nicest, nicest person and just really cares. Buddy Holly is his thing. … He's got it perfected … it sort of just lives in him. That whole era. And that musicianship … it's just his jam. … his spirit. … it's funny, he was showing up to rehearsals in this ‘50s shirt and stuff, and I was like, ‘Okay is he ‘Method’ or what?’ And then I realized like, oh no. That's just his wardrobe. That's just his closet.”

‘BUDDY’ cast … Buddy Holly is a show that is really not built to do on a budget the way that it's written and the way that it's mapped out. You  need  so  many  people to do this show … so many musicians and it's just the way it's tracked. … people aren't necessarily doubling ... you can, but you have to be super-duper smart. So I feel like we've really accomplished something because we're doing it at Stage 773 (in a) storefront-type setting and we had to reduce the cast more than I've ever seen it reduced in any production. I think we did really well ... and that's because of the people. That's because of the talent that we were able to get.”

Matchmaker|Team Leader|Julie, The Cruise Director … “Sometimes I read a play and  it just plays in my brain … behind my eyes, like a movie and there is something that I see but it's not concrete, like I'm filling in the blanks with specific faces, it's more of just like the concepts. It's big concepts. Although sometimes I do match it, I think in my heart, one of the reasons I am a director is because my nature is ‘Matchmaker| Team Leader|Julie, The Cruise Director. That's just my personality. … putting that team together before we even look at casting and then putting the cast together. … I look at it in a team-based way where it's more about people playing off each other, the chemistry in the room and who's going to work well together. That's what matters to me. And that is also a very joyful process for me. …when the chemistry is just like so off the charts and everyone's enjoying each other … and there's all this mutual respect and great energy … That's the joy.”

Mentoring new talent … “I had a lot of great experience in schools like Roosevelt and Northwestern, working with college kids, which I really, really love. … to help them in their process ... pipeline them in some way. … How can I help them? How can I mentor them?  How can I show them what this life is? Because it really is a life. You have to be ready for a lot of hardship and to really work very, very hard and have many disappointments and learn from those. And so I really loved the non-union work that I was doing and continue to do because that's how I build a better future for the theater in Chicago.

Partnerships … “I have been evangelizing lately about partnerships. So that's my new jam and I'm singing the song all over town: Partnerships. Partnerships. People need partnerships. We need to be doing this. We need to be playing with one another. Companies need to be playing with other companies. We need to be cross-pollinating. And it's good for everybody. It's good for people to be learning and it's good for people to have exposure to each other's networks because I feel like sometimes we get so segregated and so pocketed in all our little niche markets. Like why don't the musical theater people know the straight drama people and how come those people don't know the Shakespeare people? And like, why is that even a thing? Aren't we all just theater people? It's really all the same thing. So, that's my song and I like to sing it to anyone who will listen. I've been actually talking to people a lot about partnerships and I was in conversation with Timeline about some stuff we could potentially do together and I was in conversation with Firebrand about some stuff we could potentially do together … Maybe I can make that happen with these two companies if I just bring it up to them. And they were really enthusiastic about it. What does that mean? How do we put it together? What resources does it make sense for us to share? … and it turned into just such a really productive conversation. I think it's going to be spectacular. I'm just so really glad it happened.”

‘Caroline, or Change’“It's semi-autobiographical of Tony Kushner's boyhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana (in 1963). … Caroline (Rashada Dawan) is a maid in the home of a small Jewish family. This young boy has lost his mother and his father has remarried. The new mom is in the home and he can't really deal with her, so he attaches to Caroline because she is the constant force in his life. She was there when his mom was alive. She was there when there was no mom. She's still there now … Caroline has her own life. She has four kids, one of whom is in Vietnam … her eldest daughter is leaning into change in a way that I don't want to really give away, but she's young, very concerned with civil rights and wants to live her life in a larger way than what she feels her mom has done. There's the step-mom Rose Gellman who is dealing with the change of coming from New York and going to rural Louisiana in a Jewish family. … In the course of the show, Kennedy is assassinated, so there are changes great and small. That's what the show hinges upon … the everyday things that you have to deal with while outside forces seem large and overwhelming … What are the ways in which we deal with change? Can we change? Caroline believes that she cannot change and the show allows room for that discussion. It's also filled with all kinds of magical realism. Like the moon is a character. The washer is a character. The dryer is a character. The radio is three people. There's all of this beautiful, beautiful imagery and super fun, magical realism mixed in. The music is out of this world. It's my favorite show in American musical theater.

‘Lottery Day’ at Goodman … “(In 2019) I'm directing 'Lottery Day' by Ike Holter. … it is the ultimate play in his Chicago cycle of which there are seven plays. … It was very well received at the New Stages Festival last fall … (New Stages) is an entire developmental process over the course of a month that's not just the table read or the rehearsal in the room. It's all of that, plus you put the thing up in a really rudimentary way. It's completely on its feet and completely off book with props and a super basic set that you share with whoever else is doing the plays in the festival. ... After you open, you get to go back into the rehearsal room. So you're running for two weeks in rep with these other things while you're still back in the room working … it's a really productive workshop experience that the Goodman invests and in all of these new plays every year. … we got so much help … so many good notes from the people there and just so much assistance. I'm a storefront girl, so to be someplace work-shopping something and have that many resources was so luxurious and so helpful. And I know Ike felt the same way. We got a lot out of that. And then they selected it for the season, which is so cool.”

Tony Kushner and Lou Malnati's ... "Please come. We will roll out the red carpet. We will probably not pay for anything because we are broke. But if you happen to have a taste for Lou Malnati's and you just really want to come to Chicago, we will buy Lou Malnati's ... whatever size pizza you would like, I will get for you."

Comments have been edited for content and clarity.

PHOTO CREDIT
Lili-Anne Brown, The Wiz, Dessa Rose & BUDDY: The Buddy Holly Story|Michael Brosilow
Caroline, or Change|Rob Riddle/Ghost Light Headshots
Tilikum|Jonathan L. Green
Rashada Dawan|Zoe McKenzie Photography

MORE INFORMATION
Caroline, or Change The Den Theater Previews begin September 22nd
Firebrand Theatre
TimeLine Theatre Company
Sideshow Theatre

BUDDY: The Buddy Holly Story  Stage 773 through September 15th
Amercian Blues Theater

COMING UP
The Total Bent Haven Theatre
Lottery Day Goodman Theatre

PODCAST available on Apple Podcasts, Libsyn and Stitcher
ARCHIVE DE USURIS BLOG EMAIL WEBSITE SUBSCRIBE

KIMBERLY SENIOR - Support Group for Men

With the “L” train rumbling by the Goodman Theatre and the rehearsal and summer program space overflowing with activity, it is a bit of a challenge to find a quiet, out-of-the-way location to have a conversation with Kimberly Senior, the extraordinarily gifted and much-in-demand director who is putting the final touches on the world premiere of Ellen Fairey’s Support Group for Men now in previews. Once we were safely tucked away in a corner of the actor's lounge, what came next was a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about new play development, working with her long-time friend on the show and creating a collaborative atmosphere with top-tier actors and creative teams.

The cast of Support Group for Men includes Keith Kupferer, Ryan Kitley, Anthony Irons and Tommy Rivera-Vega whose characters are trying to sort out their lives. The comedy which began as a collaboration between Fairey and Senior in 2015, was presented as part of the New Stages development series at Goodman a year later. In keeping with a decision to remain current, the world premiere is set at a pivot point in 2017 between the Trump inauguration and the beginning of the #METOO movement. “It’s very much about how the world is changing faster than they’re able to keep up with it,” says Senior. And with support group names like Floating Squirrel, Running Buffalo, Sleeping Hawk and Silver Eagle, it sounds like it will be a rip-roaring Thursday night in Wrigleyville.

Kimberly Senior’s busy schedule includes the recent highly-acclaimed production of Buried Child at Writers Theatre, where she serves as resident director and an impressive roster of stage productions in Chicago at Goodman, Writers, Northlight, Steppenwolf, Next, Strawdog, Redtwist and in top regional theaters across the country. One of those new projects was Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced which originated in Chicago, moved on to Broadway and then several regional performances that were directed by Senior. Her work has been recognized by Columbia College for excellence in teaching, by TCG with the prestigious Alan Schneider Award and as a recipient of a Special Non-Equity Jeff Award for her Chicago career achievements as a trailblazer, champion and role model for emerging artists. She is most proud of her two kids and biggest fans, Noah and Delaney.

When asked what’s on the bucket list, it was not surprising that Kimberly Senior wants to go back to her roots and direct a musical – “… almost any musical.” She says, “Just sign me up!” Senior also would like to continue her foray into television, following the recent HBO debut of Chris Gethard's: Career Suicide which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.  

And then it all came back around to the other bucket she has been filling her entire career as a storyteller – plays that haven’t been written yet – and what it is at the center of a new project that clicks the creative spark for one of professional theater’s most sought-after directors. PODCAST

Finding the right project… “I've read many things that I think are wonderful, but that on some gut level is like metabolically, not maybe right for me. And so there is a click that happens. … I'm looking for work that is asking a question that it's trying to solve … actively wrestling with something that maybe I am also wrestling with. I'm less interested in doing things that I feel like I know everything about. So it's often the plays that I read that are most challenging and really mind-boggling and making me uncomfortable that I'm excited to dive in and collaborate with people on attempting to solve whatever is deep buried inside. There's like a little howl at the center of the play that I want to be able to unleash and then further share and solve that with the audience.”

What’s howling in Support Group for Men … “Well, what's howling at the center of Support Group for Men is the sense of loneliness and invisibility that we can often feel both in a world that's consumed with technology as people who are aging in a world that is rapidly changing from day to day, whether it is based on our current government or based on how so many social norms are changing. We're so divided in so many ways now in this fractured world. We are often feeling not seen by what is happening around us. And so Support Group For Men is attempting to wrestle with those feelings of invisibility."

It’s a comedy … “It's definitely a comedy and it's so much of a comedy … sometimes the way we deal with things that make us sad is by laughing. The experience of watching the play with the few audiences we've had so far and the deep belly laughs that are going on. It really opens you up to experience what is tender and poignant about the play in a way that you wouldn't if it was more of a drama. … It is very much about how the world is changing faster than they're able to keep up with it. … There are actually two young guys on the stage and they are also both wrestling with things … this is where we move into a conversation about masculinity and, we hear this phrase all the time now: ‘toxic masculinity’ and there is a real problem to solve in this world. We keep sort of blaming the way we are raising men, but we're not necessarily doing anything about it. This play is giving space for men to feel vulnerable, for men to talk about their feelings, for men to express their fears and concerns and to essentially abolish phrases like ‘Man Up’ which don’t seem to be helpful for anyone.”

Working with Ellen Fairey … “Ellen and I date back to the mid-90s knowing one another. This is actually the first time we are working together as a writer and director, but we've been friends for a very long time … so much of our friendship has been very centered on our love of Chicago and the zeitgeist that surrounds this fabulous town. In 2015, Ellen and I went out to the Ojai Playwrights Conference in gorgeous Ojai, California. We had a two-week workshop of the play. … thinking back to the summer of 2015, we were in a very different place then we are now in the summer of 2018. So, a lot of changes were made before we brought it to New Stages at the Goodman in 2016. And that process was fantastic because here we had four weeks of rehearsal and two weeks of performances and we really got the opportunity to dig deep into the characters who became much more richly evolved and complex. We were able to unearth their backstories and how they are connected. We were able to really make specific what it is that they are afraid of. We also were able to understand how their fears were being solved or taken care of and what does it really mean to support someone. … Moving to the production we have now, we've decided to set the play in 2017, six months after Donald Trump's inauguration and right before the #MeToo movement. So, it's in a very specific place and time and that's definitely affected a lot of the changes that we've worked on. We also have changed a couple of the characters pretty intensely and a lot based on who the actors are that are playing them. Ellen has an amazing ability to collaborate not only with me as her director but also with the actors. She really likes to hear their voices and she very much writes to them.”

Floating Squirrel and the rest of the Support Group … “(Keith Kupferer) is so fantastic and I’m just sitting here laughing thinking about his tremendous performance. Keith is a really big guy … thinking of him as a floating squirrel is just an automatically hilarious thing. … These are their support group names. They are an idealized version of oneself in many ways. And so the idea of being something that moves swiftly and lightly and maybe sees himself as someone kind of tiny is this idealized notion of who he could possibly be. Anthony Irons is playing Dell who is also known as Running Buffalo … who feels maybe a little held down in life and there's an unbridled, boundless joy to his idealized version of himself. Ryan Kitley is Sleeping Hawk who in his idealized version has a tremendous center of himself, a grandeur and an ability to see everything. Tommy Rivera-Vega plays Kev and his character's name is Silver Eagle … there is something that is shiny and American and slick about him. The newest member of the support group, played by Jeff Kurzy (Alex), is Falling Fox … ‘foxes have red hair’ … and he also has fallen down in the play.”

Developing projects at Goodman Theatre … “...there's a wonderful sense of being in the nest here, of being held, of being seen and acknowledged for the work that I'm doing and really the work - also, the play, but also the work - and that's a wonderful thing. It's so necessary for the future of American theater. I've now been doing this for a while, but I've had several shows where I've gotten to take more than one stab at it, more than one pass. And some of these decisions have in theaters over the past 30 years of the American regional theater, like rehearsal schedules growing shorter and the time to really live with a thing has not been really attended to. And I know a lot of that is financial and we could have a whole other podcast about that. But what's wonderful about the process here at the Goodman is that Ellen and I, obviously from our time before the Goodman, but even thinking about New Stages, we had a full eight months up until New Stages to work together on it. Then we had the New Stages experience. Then between New Stages and now we've been back here for readings, for conversations, for continued work on the script. So, we have immersed ourselves in this. We have been able to really bring something to audiences that is textured and nuanced … even though today we're about to go put in a couple of new lines, they are earned changes that really make sense and are responsive to the process that we've had, which has been so deep and so rich.  … every play needs something different and the Goodman really acknowledges that.”

The Bucket List … “I really want to direct a musical - whoever is listening!  My background was as a musical theater performer and it's so much of what has made me a human being in so many ways. I love the idea of all of those moving parts. I'm a huge collaborator nerd and would love to even get more people in the room to work with. I love sharing that. So, like really almost any musical. You just sign me up. I'll do it! That's definitely on my bucket list. I'm also interested in my foray into television. I directed an HBO special last year called Chris Gethard's: Career Suicide and that was a piece that started in development with Chris … we actually did do it on the stage and then eventually made it for television. And I'm really excited about what the lens provides, the director's role and having a little bit more control over what it is you see as an audience member. … and because so much of the work I'm doing is new work, it's plays that haven't been written yet."

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
PHOTOS|Liz Lauren


GOODMAN THEATRE
presents the
WORLD PREMIERE
ELLEN FAIREY's
SUPPORT GROUP FOR MEN
DIRECTED BY KIMBERLY SENIOR

through July 29th
TICKETS
BOX OFFICE: 312.443.3800.

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher
ARCHIVE DE USURIS BLOG EMAIL WEBSITE SUBSCRIBE

LEAH MORROW & JACKSON EVANS - Back on Avenue Q

There are some familiar furry friends in the Mercury Theater these days. And on June 21st, the three-time Tony Award-winning musical AVENUE Q opens a return engagement of the hit production that played for seven months at the Mercury in 2014.

Returning cast members include Leah Morrow and Jackson Evans in the roles of Kate Monster and Princeton who live in a neighborhood inhabited by puppets and humans, all facing real life situations. The terrific Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx score with book by Jeff Whitty is an adult-themed musical journey about love, relationships, sex, respect for others and finding your purpose in life. 

Apparently, you can get away with a lot of things when you have a puppet in your hand, or at least that’s what we found out when the conversation turned to an earlier promotional appearance on WGN when pretty much everything went off the rails. You will have to listen to our conversation to find out exactly what happened and all of the other charming moments we had with the talented duo whose friendship began when their puppet personas fell in love on Avenue Q. PODCAST

Back on Avenue Q… Jackson: “We can come back to it with four years of life experience, and yet, Princeton and Kate are in the exact same place. … Our amazing puppet coach, Rick Lyon, who was in the original cast, was telling us that literally Princeton and Kate have done nothing else. We as actors have done other shows. We have learned things. We have gone through breakups. Some of us have delivered children – a/k/a Leah - but Princeton and Kate literally have done nothing else. These adorable puppets just live only in this play. … it's been so great to come back … he’s been waiting for me and it's so delightful to be back and singing these songs. … Bobby Lopez, since then, has become an EGOT (recipient of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards) … Frozen, Book of Mormon (Leah: “Finding Nemo”) … and yet we still get to sing some of his best songs that he wrote so long ago, so tuneful and great and funny and important. Leah: “Our first day of rehearsal, when we were singing through and reading through the show, it struck me more emotionally than I expected it to because it was like coming back to a really dear friend. And when Jackson started singing “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” I welled up with tears because it was so wonderful to be back in that world, to hear my wonderful friend do this lovely thing and say these words. Sing these notes. It just felt like getting back into an old tee shirt … we were really a family and it was also an experience that a lot of us had never really had before. This was a commercial run at this theater in Chicago …and we were together for seven months with rehearsal and our run. … it just fills you with such lovely nostalgia and encouragement.”

Open to surprises when passing the hat … Jackson: “We did a performance the last time when someone snuck an engagement ring into the hat and we stopped the play. I said, “Oh my gosh, an engagement ring. Whose could this be?” And the lovely couple came on stage and got engaged in the middle of our play. It was really beautiful. It was hard to get back to the play after they left… it sounds so cliche that it's different every night, but it truly is because it's so specific that the audience informs our performance so much with what they put in the hat. Feel free to bring weird things. It's an insider tip for those of you listening to this podcast. We're open to surprises.” Leah: Somebody once put in their paycheck. And they were like, “I need that back!” Jackson: and a wallet. A full wallet. Leah: And I'm like, “Did you really think you were going to get it back? Jackson: They really trust those puppets. Puppets are really easy to trust.”

Like Cirque du Soleil for the Mind… Leah: “We had two different coaches. For our first production, we had a puppet coach named Kevin Noonchester who was a part of the Las Vegas production after the show left New York in its original Broadway run and went to Las Vegas and he was part of that production where he learned from Rick Lyon, one of the original cast members who created the original Broadway puppets and he came in and coached with us. Our puppets for this production were designed and made by Russ Walko who worked at the Jim Henson creative shop. … the style of puppetry is akin to what you would see on 'Sesame Street' or say 'The Muppet Show', a la Jim Henson… think of it as is like supertitles at the opera or subtitles in a foreign film that at first you're like, 'Okay, how do I plug this all in?' It's like Cirque du Soleil for the mind. Jackson: Put that on a poster. Leah: AVENUE Q: Cirque du Soleil for the Mind! … As the event goes on, I'm inferring all the things that I need to at this moment and this puppet doesn't have eyelids, but, I'm seeing everything they're communicating because they're in sync with the puppeteer and you begin to kind of develop this understanding of the physical language and it just kind of goes together in your mind. Cirque du Soleil!” … Jackson: “There are some amazing human characters who you get to see an interesting relationship that is between human and puppet and how much deference they give to the puppet as if the puppeteer was not there. And it's as if the puppeteer is really only there for the audience. … to pick up some emotional cues that can't quite be delivered through a face that can't frown.”

A Fine Fine Line … Leah: “…there's this moment in the lives of Kate and Princeton on Avenue Q where things are not easy. Things are uncomfortable. Things are crunchy, just like in life. And she is left realizing that her heart has maybe just been broken and she is trying to figure out how to pick up those pieces. Kate is not the unrequited love ingénue type. So when she has her romantic hopes dashed, she is crushed, but she resolves to let that moment be something that propels her forward. And she really is struggling … in this emotional place when Princeton asks her before they break up to be his date for a wedding and she says “I always go to weddings alone. I don't know what I’d do if I went … (Jackson: ‘with a boyfriend?’) and you realize she's never had this experience. And it's one of those moments where you're like, “Oh my gosh! Things are really starting to get good. I never thought they would get so good, but things are really starting to get good!” And then, in the next scene, it's taken away from her and instead of falling into a puddle, which she does, she's also vowing to fight her way out of it. It's a really beautiful and vulnerable moment.”

Remembering Matthew Gunnels … Leah: “One big change, our assistant director, Matthew Gunnels, passed away the week before we closed in 2014. For those of us who were here before, his legacy with the show is still with us. That is a change, certainly. In light of the current political and social climate, this show does talk about and speaks to those things. And so yes, those notes kind of come out a little differently now and that is a change. …Jackson: “We're not rewriting the musical because you don't need to in order to make it feel like it's now. When they first did it, they thought they were going to call it ‘Avenue Q: A Show for "20 Somethings" and they realized very quickly that it's for “all” somethings. The concepts were universal then and they're universal now but they are in a different lens. … Some of the things that used to be really funny because they felt outdated are now not as outdated as we had hoped. And so now it's just an interesting sort of different lens to see it through.”

Comments have been edited for clarity and length.

PHOTOS|Brett A. Beiner

Mercury Theater Chicago
presents
AVENUE Q

June 21st through September 9th
3745 N Southport Avenue

WEBSITE
BOX OFFICE: 773 325-1700.

Special thanks to Regus Chicago, the market leader for office space, for their support of our program.

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