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Telling stories

Both Paul & Katie touch on the nature of artistic ensembles in their recent blog posts, something I’ve been pondering myself lately. I consider the Lifeline ensemble truly fortunate, since the primary function of the group is to choose and develop the material we produce, not merely just to direct/design/act in it. We aren’t stuck having a season dictated to us by an outside person – we work together to uncover the passion projects we want to work on. We don’t take a “back seat” role in productions we aren’t directing/designing/acting in – we play a vital part in the development process, from early discussion through draft readings, rehearsal runs, and the preview process.

As an ensemble member at Lifeline, I feel a sense of pride and ownership in every show we produce, since my voice and ideas were heard by the production team at every step along the way. This is equally true for shows like The Picture of Dorian Gray (which I pitched to the group and wrote the adaptation for) as for shows like Mariette in Ecstasy or Duck for President, which I “only” experienced as an audience member. And while some seasons go by when I may not be cast in roles I would have liked to play, or when the other commitments of life preclude me from participating as much as I’d like in the development of a show or two, still those shows are as important to me as the ones I personally submitted for the ensemble’s consideration. As is sharing in the growth and development of each of my fellow ensemble artists – and the theatre as an institution.


Sean Sinitski, Nick Vidal & Paul S. Holmquist in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Photo by Lindsay Schlesser.

The Lifeline ensemble exists to tell stories. Sometimes, as a member of the ensemble, I’ll act in those stories. Sometimes I’ll write them. Once in a while, I may even direct them (as with the upcoming Treasure Island – gulp). But most of the time my job is to encourage, question, challenge, support, and nurture my fellow ensemble members as we work together to creatively share the stories that excite us, with the audience that means so much to us.

Robert Kauzlaric

Mariette thoughts

Four months ago, I wrote a blog entry following the first rehearsals for Mariette in Ecstasy, with every intention of handing over new entries on a regular basis to report on our progress, both through the rehearsal process and the run (two very different animals). Obviously that didn’t happen! There are variety of reasons, primarily increased pressure at my day job and a lot less time for anything other than sleep, work, and rehearsal, but also because both the rehearsal process and the run turned out to be unexpectedly very personal. I’ve done a lot of shows, and sometimes one experience is a lot like many others. This one was different, in such that it was more difficult to comment, share, or otherwise dissect. I love reading blogs, but I’ve learned that there’s an element to blogging and reading blogs about experiences that can diminish or pigeonhole those experiences. Mariette was special, and I wanted it to remain special and personal while we were rehearsing and running the show. We closed the run one week ago today, to excellent critical acclaim and box office success, so I’m feeling a lot better about sharing.

Katie McLean and Brenda Barrie in Mariette in Ecstasy
Katie McLean and Brenda Barrie in Mariette in Ecstasy. Photo by Paul Metreyeon

Religion is a sensitive topic, even among friends. In portraying a person of such profound faith that she has dedicated her life to God, I had a great deal of personal exploration to do and many questions to answer. Sometimes a rehearsal hall is as safe a place as a therapist’s office to do that kind of soul-searching, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case. This time, however, it was. And while my personal religious beliefs have not significantly altered because of this process, my understanding and tolerance of others’ beliefs has broadened, and my understanding of faith has deepened and become more meaningful to me. I am not inclined to expand or include specific details of my faith, but I am indebted to this production, and the people I was surrounded by, for fostering the kind of peaceful and reflective atmosphere in which one can open a door long believed closed, have a look around, dust off some shelves, sift through the drawers, and then just sit awhile, mulling things over.

It doesn’t make for the most interesting blog entry but I have to emphasize that everyone involved in this production was at the top of their game, was deeply passionate about their involvement, and gave of themselves above and beyond the call, whenever the opportunity arose.

When you work on a successful production, it is usually because everyone involved contributes in the ways I stated above, but it would be remiss not to single out the contribution of our director, Elise Kauzlaric. It wasn’t her first directorial effort, but it was her first MainStage at Lifeline, which I know from experience can be an overwhelming position, especially when you are juggling responsibilities at your day job, your friends and family, and other commitments you’ve made to the community at large. Elise handled everything, from the very first read-through to our closing night party, with her usual grace, aplomb, and elegance. She managed to convey what she was looking for while still welcoming everyone’s input, empowering the actors to develop their own characters while maintaining the overall tone, pace, and style of the piece. I want to mention that Elise’s success in the position came as no surprise to anyone. Her professionalism and talent shine through whether she is coaching dialects, playing the lead in a MainStage musical, or adapting a beloved children’s novel to the stage.

Being a member of the Lifeline ensemble affords one the opportunity to step outside their comfort zone and do things we wouldn’t normally get to do anywhere else. Dorothy Milne asked me to adapt The Mark of Zorro though I had never adapted anything before. The actors in the ensemble aren’t guaranteed roles, shows aren’t chosen because the designers want to create lights or costumes for them, but we are all given the chance to explore new opportunities in an environment where the freedom to fail is balanced by the great cushion of ensemble support through every step of the process. The most exciting part of being in this company is when someone steps up to a new challenge and hits one out of the park.

Katie McLean

An Ensemble Prepares

There has been some discussion in the blogosphere of late on the role of an acting ensemble, lots of debate on that mysterious question of what ensemble members are entitled to expect. From Our perspective, I think we naturally look at each other first as a group of artists we respect, that we want to support, collaborate with, and help to develop each other’s skills.

In early discussions with Frances Limoncelli on Busman’s Honeymoon, she made it clear to me that she wished for the Lifeline ensemble to be as integrated as possible into the production. This presented an exciting opportunity: Peter Greenberg and Jenifer Tyler would naturally resume their roles as Lord Peter and Harriet Vane (now Lady Peter Wimsey!), to the joy of our fans of the Sayer’s series of plays adapted by Frances and presented at Lifeline over the years (Whose Body? in 2002, Strong Poison in 2004, and Gaudy Night in 2006). The remaining cast of characters offered some choice roles to our ensemble of actors and I was determined to find ways to invite them in where I could. I was not able to find a place for everyone interested in the show, but I was able to tap Jim Grote, Rob Kauzlaric and Phil Timberlake for the production.

We’ve been rehearsing for several weeks now and having a team of easy collaborators like us around has been a challenging and productive process. Challenging due to the fact that I am one of the newer kids on the block (I feel like I only just joined the collective, though I’ve been official for two and a half years now), and having a constantly open and collaborative process means continual honest evaluation and discussion of the work – the piece as a whole and the individual experiences/processes of each and every one of the actors. Productive for the same reasons, however. The non-ensemble cast (all people I’ve had the good fortune to work with before) has taken on the collaborative spirit of the rest of us and there is a game and open atmosphere for discussion and problem-solving really being developed. As we prepare to move downstairs from the rehearsal room to the set, we’re in a great place to find our maneuvers in the new geography together. And that collaboration, part of the core spirit of our company, will usher us into getting ready for tech.

Paul S. Holmquist

Our new Managing Director

Allison Cain is Lifeline’s new Managing Director! Yay! We are so happy and fortunate.

You may know Allison because she’s acted in four Lifeline shows (including the current Mariette in Ecstasy — closing April 5, don’t miss it!) as well as acting all over town. She was also Executive Director of the Factory Theater for 7 years and she has 20 years of real-life day-job hard-core business experience under her belt. Not only is she a fabulous actress but she knows her way around a spreadsheet and has a wise eye to the big picture and the looking-forward picture as well. Just the kind of leader we need.

Welcome to Allison!! We are so glad you’ve come to play for our team!

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

News, news, and more news

Ron Hansen was here! Again!


(Elise Kauzlaric, Brenda Barrie, Ron Hansen & Christina Calvit)

Author Ron Hansen returned to Lifeline on March 14th to see the finished Mariette in Ecstasy (he’d already come on first preview weekend!) He did a book signing between the 4pm and 8pm shows and a talkback after the latter. We’ve never had such a well-attended talkback — 80+ people stayed for close to an hour and participated in a lively discussion. We found out that Ron’s sister Ginny used to be a Dominican nun and was the source for some of his atmospheric details. We found out which historical stigmatics Ron drew on as inspiration for Mariette. And we had a big ol’ discussion about the everyday questions the story raises about faith, responsibility and community. This sure is a script and production that inspires conversation, big questions and strong opinions! A good time was had by all.

Mariette is rocking the house!

Photo by Paul Metreyeon

Not only did we enjoy rave reviews and we’re selling really well, Lifeline is seeing a lot of new audience members for this show. We are seeing clergy and fans of the book who have never been here before. At the same time, we are gratified by how many of our regular audience members who are not necessarily of a spiritual bent have found the show to be riveting. Outside the theater this past weekend, a Lifeline regular told me: “I didn’t want to come tonight. I had no interest in seeing a show about a bunch of nuns — but I am so glad I did. This is one powerful piece of theater — and relevant to anyone.”

The sign has landed!
Check out our total freakin’ snazziness!

The sign we’ve yearned for lo these many years has arrived! Oh my gosh — is that a MARQUEE? And is that NEON going around the perimeter? Oh yes, it is. It most certainly is. Many thanks to Rene Camargo at DevCorp North for hooking us up with the Business Improvement Plan which paid for half the sign. Thanks to our board, staff and ensemble and ensemble emeritus for kicking in money for the other half. And thanks to Frances for tireless efforts to make this happen. And thanks to our resident genius Alan for his eye-popping design. And thanks also to sign-maker Alex Quinonez who totally rocks.

Brand new education director – and you can see her art while having a cocktail.
Welcome to Lea Pinsky who joined Lifeline as our new education director on March 1st. Aside from her skills as an arts administrator and her background in theater, she’s also a painter and a muralist. Want to see some of Lea’s art work on display? Step on over to the Morseland, go thru the front door, take a right into that cozy nook by the east-most windows and keep an eye out for Wonder Woman. Now you’re looking at the display by Lea and her husband Dustin Harris. As long as you’re there, have a seat, order a cosmo and the best mac and cheese fritters in the world and relax while you soak in the art!

More bragging about our awesome staff
We just received a $400 check from a family in Ohio who came here once to see Zorro back in June. When their cab was late, our staff entertained them. Erica took them on a tour of the building while Bob phoned for another cab and waited outside to flag it down. When these repeated efforts didn’t produce a taxi, Bob drove them back to their hotel downtown. It is not uncommon for our staff to end up taking out-of-towners to other destinations when cabs fail. So this didn’t appear in a report. No one submitted extra hours for his/her efforts. We never would have heard about this incident except for the check and letter that came later. Just one of the ways our staff goes the extra mile(s).

The big shuttle-sharing and expansion pilot project
As you may know (and if you don’t, hear me now!), we can no longer use the Trilogy lot for Lifeline parking. It’s seriously being towed now, so don’t go there! We have a new lot at the NE corner of Morse and Ravenswood (made available to us by our friends at First Commercial Bank and our local SSA). It is further away but easier to find since it’s right on Morse Avenue. We’ve still got our shuttle doing loops back and forth to the (new) lot and a couple weeks ago, we hooked up with near-neighbors and good friends BoHo Theatre and Theo Ubique and the Lifeline van is shuttling to the lot for their shows too. (And did I mention that, like Mariette, their shows have gotten RAVE reviews? Glenwood Avenue Arts District theaters ride again!) Our showtimes between the three theaters are nicely staggered on most nights so the fact that our van only has 7 seats has so far not been a big problem! Oh yeah — and guess what? Shuttle EXPANSION to KidSeries! We are shuttling for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. We’re doing a kids show for the first time and so far it’s gotten a lot of response. We’ll hope these experimental programs work out and we’re able to keep ’em going for next season!

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

Cheers for Mariette

Let me just give a shout out right now to the Lifeline house and box office team because ALL the bosses were out of town this past weekend and we did not get a single text. As per usual, Susan, Tonia and Deirdre had it all under control. I even got Deirdre roped into the starching and ironing of the gazillion wimples, veils and other items/words I don’t know that comprise nun habits. LOTS of starching and ironing for this show. Brani says they must look “crisp.” No such thing as a rumpled nun.

Mariette in Ecstasy opened last week to rave reviews and we are all doing happy dances over here. Chris Jones called Christina one of America’s best adapters of novels into drama. Does that rock? I am repeating that tidbit here because it embarrassed Christina so much the first time. Everyone’s talking about Elise‘s brilliant staging and the stunning technical elements (go Alan, Brani, Sarah, Tim and R&D!). And seriously, let’s face it, the acting is sublime. Hedy says Brenda is “transfixing” and “charismatic” and that everyone else is played with “exquisite individuality.” So totally true.

We are super-excited because author Ron Hansen will be coming to Lifeline March 14th and doing a book-signing between the 4pm and 8pm shows and a talkback after the latter. The evening show is already sold out because his fans are banging down the door. If you want to meet Ron, the 4pm still has tickets left and you’ll still get to intersect with him.

Speaking of meeting Ron: Elise, Christina and the cast got to meet him much earlier. Ron was in Chicago for a conference during our first preview weekend and he terrified the Lifeline team by turning up here with friends to see the show. As non-theater-folk, I don’t know that they understood the wide eyed horror that met their arrival at the box office, nor why the audience was being asked to fill out comment cards. But happily the show was already in great shape, he and his friends seemed to totally enjoy it and he’ll get to see the final product soon!

In other Lifeline news, Rob and Elise are in Charlotte, NC this weekend seeing The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Rob’s adaptation of the book by Jon Scieszka was a mongo hit at Lifeline and is now being produced all around the country. We’re very excited for him!

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

Pain

As we’re working on Mariette in Ecstasy, a play which examines the lives of nuns at the turn of the century in upstate New York, I find myself struggling with one of the key ideas of the text.

Why would anyone actively seek pain?

Mariette Baptiste, a young postulant, loves Christ with a passionate, teenage devotion. She longs to understand Him completely, to enter into His world totally. For her, this means understanding His great love for mankind…and His suffering And how can she understand it completely except by taking on his pain physically?

In our world, we pretty much do anything possible to avoid pain. We want to feel good and strong and healthy. We laud the modern medical miracles that alleviate pain. We have psychoanalysis to ease our psychic pain. So the idea of seeking pain as a desirable thing is a bizarre concept.

But the idea of finding some deeper life meaning by pursuing pain is one that would be accepted quite readily by the just post-Victorian nuns in Mariette in Ecstasy. It’s a common idea in Christian mysticism. St. Theresa spoke of feeling a flaming arrow that came from God that filled her with a “delightful pain.” St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, talks of a “dark night of the soul” a place of unimaginable psychological torment…but a place through which the soul must necessarily pass before being truly united with God. The Catholic mystic Sister Maria Maddalena de Pazzi sometimes wore a tight crown of thorns; other times she firmly strapped a girdle to her body so that its sharp nails dug into her flesh. She walked barefoot in winter, burned her skin with hot candle wax and resisted the desire to eat and sleep.

These mortifications are also familiar to us…as comedy routines from Monty Python and on Saturday Night Live. They are so strange as to be ridiculous.

But the truth is that a belief in the transformative power of sacred pain isn’t confined to Catholicism. We see it in offshoots of almost every world religion, from Buddhism to Islam to Native American religions. “When pain transgresses the limits,” the Muslim mystic Mizra Asadullah Ghalib is quoted as saying, “it becomes medicine.”

So, how can a modern audience deal with all this in Mariette? Should we be expected to feel sympathy with this longing? Or just regard it as pathological?

This play doesn’t tell you to think one way or the other, I hope. The ideas should be yours. But this is what I’ve been thinking about…what happens to a society when it takes the opposite route? When it avoids pain at all cost? When the pursuit of comfort becomes all consuming? Can change happen without pain? Can growth? If we could move beyond our fear of pain, would we be able to accomplish more and experience more? Do we need to embrace it to conquer it? And find something better beyond it?

Mariette is a play that makes me think about those questions…and others. Hope it will do the same for you.

Christina Calvit

Peter Brown was here!

Peter Brown Signing 1

Flight of the Dodo author-illustrator Peter Brown was our celebrity guest at Lifeline on January 18th.

Author visits are thrilling and most of us Lifeliners were just bouncing gleefully — but the adapter and the director are generally a smidge Anxious as they wonder about author response to “what we’ve done to his book.”  Pretty big changes are required to put a book on stage.  You have to do a lot of writing when you’re turning a picture book with just a few sentences into an hour-long musical. You want to think you’ve expanded in a way that builds on the author’s vision instead of — y’know — shattering it. So Rob and Paul were looking a little green about the gills.

Peter watched the 1pm show and chortled and guffawed throughout. Our spies even reported some knee-slapping. After the show Peter was pulled in several directions by autograph seekers who missed the earlier book-signing. We sold out of books — we were mobbed.

If you don’t know Peter’s work, treat yourself with a visit to his website. And if you haven’t seen Flight of the Dodo, I hope you’ll come visit us. We’ve got themes of teamwork and appreciating each other’s differences. We’ve got a flying machine and a terrifying storm. We’ve got Toy‘s psychedelic, danceable score. And we’ve got bird poop jokes. What’s not to love?

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

Thank you, Donald

I lost a special friend (or perhaps a quirky uncle) with the passing of Donald Westlake yesterday. I wish I were speaking of a literal friendship. It would have been a wonderful takeaway from my experience in adapting his novel Trust Me on This for our stage in 2003. But the truth is we met only once, when he visited our production. He was the perfect author in attendance—embracing, gracious, funny—I cherish the meeting but it did not lead to further correspondence or meetings of the minds. It was the exclamation mark on a satisfying piece of stage work. No, the friendship was of the nature we all have with a favorite author—we welcome them to our homes with each new book, setting expectations on this new visit and savoring it until it comes to all too soon end. I will continue to cherish his comic fiction, his ability to make me laugh out loud, alone in the privacy of my home–a vary rare accomplishment. And to relish in his knack for the masterful turn of a phrase and his joy of playing with language leaping from the pages of his books. I shed some tears today for this friend who has brought me so much laughter. Luckily, I have one more new visit with his forthcoming novel Get Real. And the constant opportunity to revisit with him by pulling an old favorite off my bookshelf—something not always as easy to do when an actual friend or relative passes. And when I revisit it will be with smiles and laughs. Thank you, if I may presume, Donald.

Alan Donahue

Donald Westlake

Sad news today.  Comic crime novelist, Donald Westlake, is dead at 75.  He wrote about a gazillion novels and numerous screenplays and is considered one of the best mystery writers of our time.  Many of us at Lifeline got to meet Mr. Westlake and his wife Abby Adams in 2003 when they came to see Lifeline’s production of Trust Me On This.   It was resident scenic designer Alan Donahue‘s first time in the role of adapter and he was nervous (as our playwrights always are when the author comes to see the play).   Mr. Westlake was charming and generous, cheerfully signing the stacks of dog-eared paperbacks that some of his devotees turned up with along with the new books at our book signing, doing a cocktail reception before the show and a talkback with the audience after.  I remember us all flopping out of our seats in laughter as this brilliant and hilarious man took questions.  He confided that he’d been plenty nervous before the performance in case it was a stinker, but happily he was enthusiastic about the show.  A very warm and accessible famous person, he responded quickly and personally to emails from the various of us involved with the project and even suggested other books of his that might make good plays for us.  I’m so glad we got to do the one we did and I’m sad that if we do another he won’t be here to see it.   We were lucky and honored to get to know this fascinating man even a little bit.  Prolific as ever, he has a new book coming out in April and had plans for others in the works.  We and all of his many other fans will miss him dearly.

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director