All posts by Lifeline

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

Closing three shows, opening two…

Good Lordypants. Closing three shows at once (Duck for Prez, Dorian Gray, Zorro at TBC) is totally like moving. You know that part of the move where everything you own is in chaos at your feet and you can’t find anything because you started to pack all organized but in the end everything was thrown into boxes you despairingly labeled “miscellaneous?” That’s where we’re at right now.

Meantime, Snowflake Tim and Flight of the Dodo are racing to the finish. Our experiment of running two kids shows over the holidays in tandem is about to launch. As the tech team sprints out of the basement with lumber and hangs lights from the grid, our intrepid production manager, Cortney Hurley, tells me that if any part of this enterprise takes longer than expected, the whole thing comes apart at the seams! It adds a nice thrill to the process.

Snowflake Tim rehearsals are a total ball. Diego Colon stars as Snowflake Tim and has a real gift for the improvisational audience interaction that is central to this play. Diego was a caballero/soldier in Zorro for the past 6 months and was also the alternate Duck in Duck for President. (Yes, that show was so darn popular we had to have two casts to cover the gazillion performances.) The remaining two Snowflake cast members are: Ezekiel Sulkes (who recently starred as “the Dirty Cowboy” in Lifeline’s adaptation of the book by the same name. One of Zeke’s several characters in Snowflake Tim is a Ninja who’s afraid to take a bath. Zeke points out that he is now two-for-two at Lifeline in playing characters who are stinky because they haven’t bathed and expects that our young audiences will remember him as the guy who smells bad. He’s also hilarious. Sarah Beckette is the third and last Snowflake Tim cast member. She is new to Lifeline. I saw her at a general audition a year ago and was totally smitten and have been trying to figure out when we could bring her in ever since. We are thrilled to have bagged her for this show.

So I’m totally jealous that Paul Holmquist apparently knows how to run a digital camera. Or else he has minions to shoot it for him. One way or another, he has a picture of the Flight of the Dodo flying machine with his blog entry. My blog entries want pictures too. I will either be learning to run a digital camera or finding a minion before my next post.

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

Mariette Meet & Greet/Read-Through: An Actor’s Perspective

On Monday, December 1, we had our Meet & Greet for Lifeline’s next Mainstage production, Mariette in Ecstasy, adapted from Ron Hansen’s novel by ensemble member Christina Calvit (A Room With a View, Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd) and directed by ensemble member Elise Kauzlaric, whom you’ve seen on our stage many times and who’s been behind the scenes as a KidSeries adaptor/director and as a dialect coach multiple times as well. For me, it was just four days shy of a year since the beginning of my last rehearsal process as an actor in a production, which was Talking It Over.

I was immediately excited by the design presentations. Alan Donahue is doing the set (he’s done all my favorite Lifeline sets – including The Mark of Zorro, Johnny Tremain, and Around the World in 80 Days), so of course there’s pieces that spin, flip, pivot, etc., and our sound designer Tim Hill told us about how he intends to give our small, 99-seat theatre the “auditory illusion” of a cavernous space – for those who haven’t read Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy takes place in a convent very early in the twentieth century. I don’t want to give away too much because it’s going to be so cool. Besides, I feel unqualified to comment on the design side of things at this point.

I am playing Sister Aimee, the infirmarian of the convent. I am always drawn to Christina’s scripts. They are always deceptively simple on the surface, with a lot of emotional depth underneath. She always mines so much from the novels she adapts, without ever getting bogged down in plot and exposition. I was drawn to this role in particular because of how much seems to be going on beneath the dialogue, and I have been excited about the prospect of getting into the character and digging around to see what I can unearth. I walked into the read-through last night feeling connected to the character while knowing just how much further I can explore in rehearsal, how limitless the possibilities are on Day One – like, I know I don’t get everything yet, but I can’t wait to dig in and see what comes up. And while we were reading, the potential in the room seemed to crystallize. I can’t wait to see the choices everyone makes. I can’t wait to see how everyone’s choices interact with everyone else’s choices. I can’t wait to work with the people I’ve already worked with again and I can’t wait to work with those I’ve never met before. So, I guess, to sum up: I can’t wait!

Katie McLean

To build a flying machine…

WE SPIN
WE TWIRL
WE SAIL
WE SWIRL
WE PLUNGE
WE DROP
ASCEND
AND STOP

Our first rehearsals began officially a week ago and already we’re tackling some of the most challenging aspects of the script.  Working with Rob (ensemble member, Robert Kauzlaric) as adapter on a few projects now I know to expect heightened language and an infectious joy for theatricality.  Also inherent in a “Kauzlaric” is bold physical imagery.  His challenge to the director includes vivid descriptions of the seemingly impossible – from The Island of Dr Moreau “The compound collapses as fire sweeps over it” is a good example.

His adaptation of Flight of the Dodo, a book with probably no more than 100 words in it to begin with, involves over thirty minutes of four flightless birds flying through the sky in a hot air balloon. The above quote from the song “Fol-de-rol-ery & Daring-do” describes a flying contest between our heroes and their rivals, The Geese.  Right, I’ve got 30 or so square feet to stage a flying contest between a hot air balloon full of actors and a flock of geese?

As a director, this gets me really excited – how do I inspire designers and actors to help me solve this physical riddle on Lifeline’s famed postage-stamp-sized arena?  Even better, how do we solve this conundrum with respect for both the script AND the audience?  Directing and acting for children requires, one could argue, a special kind of integrity.  In my experience, an adult audience has a natural patience that meets you half way in creating the suspension of disbelief necessary when creating a representational theatrical answer.  For children, if you don’t believe in the construct, if you don’t commit to it 110%, they will see through your shallow “trick” and get bored – fast.

So I did some thinking on ways to fly without leaving the ground.  I looked at puppetry techniques from kabuki and bunraku traditions.  I watched with great envy the viral YouTube video of “Matrix Ping Pong” and did some thinking about forced perspective changes – different sized puppets? A flying machine that has an organic range of movement?  Can we make the floor the sky and the ceiling the ground?  I brought all these questions and inspirations to my design team. Our first and most important job – design the Dodo.

At our first production meeting I suggested that the basket of the Dodo be soft sided, built like an inverted hoop skirt, the birds standing the middle, holding onto the rim, able to tip the top to and fro to indicate movement and allowing for them to travel “Flintstones – style” from one end of the stage to other.  Scenic designer Chelsea Warren ran with this idea.  With practical assistance from Lifeline’s new technical director Ian Zywica, Chelsea created a structure sturdy enough to hold four actors and move with ease around the stage floor while supporting a five foot diameter red weather balloon and integrating the pliable basket idea I had requested.

I am thrilled with the movement of our Dodo – rehearsals are proving that a tremendous range of possibilities are available to us.

Now… how will I stage the singing Penguin Poo? Hmmm….

Paul Holmquist

Welcome!

Look at us!  We’re getting all bloggy!  Can you even believe it?   Welcome — and thank you for visiting our blog.  As I type, I’m humming along with the Duck for President curtain call reprise that’s floating up from the stage below.   I hear the school buses idling out front and hope we can get this group of kids out before the buses pull up to drop off the next load.  (I’m glad Erica‘s downstairs to traffic cop the whole circus.  She used to be a cheerleader, so she’s able to rally the armies of children and get them to do whatever she wants.)  In the office next door — okay, it’s not next door, we’re basically all piled in a room together — but in her own little corner, our education director, Frances, is huddled with one of our teaching artists strategizing about about classroom activities at a neighborhood elementary school, while Angelo is between us, in his little corner, on the phone about our upcoming benefit.  Just outside the office in the rehearsal room, the strange wrestling sounds I keep hearing have turned out to be our tech director, Ian, who is constructing a giant flying machine.  Yes, it’s true.  There will be a giant flying machine featured in our next kids’ show, The Flight of the Dodo.  That may have been top secret.  But this is the place to get the top secret poop.  Oops.  More secrets.  There’s poop in the show too.

Dang, it’s been a busy fall.  In addition to the gazillion Duck for President performances, The Picture of Dorian Gray was a boffo hit that extended.   Plus we moved last summer’s hit, The Mark of Zorro, to Theatre Building Chicago on Belmont Avenue for a fall run there.  And don’t get me started with the birthday parties and special events and off-school workshop days.   But finally we wind down for a brief spell.   Our next MainStage show, Mariette in Ecstasy, doesn’t open until February.  Dorian closed on Sunday — sold out thru the very last show.  Zorro will close this coming Sunday (after 93 performances) and then we’ll bust it up and drag all the salvageable pieces back to Lifeline. Ah, it will be good to be home under one roof rather than scattered all across town.

So welcome to our blog!  I hope you will visit us often and we will keep you up to date on our backstage antics, dilemmas and general hilarity.  Right now, I have to go to my Snowflake Tim rehearsal.  Oh criminy.  That reminds me.  Flight of the Dodo is NOT our next kids’ show.  It’s Snowflake Tim’s Big Holiday Adventure.  That’s a title we came up with a few years ago when we decided we needed a non-denominational holiday kids show.  And who would think that plan would have worked out?  But Christina took that title written on a cocktail napkin and wrote the play and it is GREAT, cuz she’s a genius.  It’s funny, heartwarming, lots of audience participation.  So we bring it back every couple years over the holidays.   So — Snowflake Tim will open first and then Dodo a week later and then they’ll be in rep.  Yes, in rep.  Back-to-back shows right after each other on our little stage with different sets and different casts and not much time in between…  What the heck.  Who made this schedule?  Does no one proofread the calendar?  What were we thinking? I mean — What a bold new experiment!  And with the team we’ve got over here and the production teams on these shows, I have high hopes we’ll be able to work miracles, as usual.

Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it works out for us . . .

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director