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 BUDDY, Caroline 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.
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