The great British music hall comedian Max Wall used to say at the end of every performance: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. You have been half.” Which means that the quality of theater in Chicago depends not only on the vision and talent and sweat of the theatre artists involved, but also -- equally -- on the quality of our participation as audience members.
So this week on the Talk Theatre in Chicago interview podcast, we’re shifting our focus to the other side of the footlights, from the artists to the audience. How do we, as theatre-goers, find the kind of work we respond to? How can we learn more about the work we are seeing? What attitudes should we bring into the theatre with us? And how can we keep the conversation going after the house lights come up?
One way is to take advantage of the extraordinary resources many theaters are offering to theatre-goers who take the trouble to search them out. For instance:
On the Steppenwolf home page is an “explore” link for each of the current shows. Click through that link for the critically acclaimed Diary of Anne Frank -- to take one example -- and find a video clip from the production, a video interview with the director and one of the cast members, and a link to the video diary of the young star, Claire Elizabeth Saxe.
Taking a more low-tech approach, TimeLine Theater has long featured elaborate and informative lobby panels, packed with information about the playwright, the historical period in which the play is set, and issues and themes raised by the production. The panels for the company’s current production, Widower’s Houses -- created by Gabe Greene, who is one of our guests on this week’s podcast -- are now also available on the TimeLine website, so they’re accessible before you go to the show or days later when you find you’re still turning the performance over in your mind.
You can also view a 16-page study guide compiled by Greene that includes a biography of playwright George Bernard Shaw, a discussion of the Victorian slums that figure in the play, and a parallel discussion of Chicago’s own struggle to house its poor.
Remy Bumppo is another Chicago company that works hard at nurturing a dialog with its audience members outside the performance space. In addition to their existing post-show discussions, salons and the lecture series entitled Between the Lines, the company has now added ThinkTank -- a program of talks and performances focusing on a single theme. According to Associate Artistic Director Shawn Douglass, the program evolved out of the company’s discovery that audiences are more interested in talking about issues raised by the play than about the artistic process underlying the production. While Remy Bumppo’s 2006-2007 season is over, the company recently announced that next season’s ThinkTank series will explore the tension between national security and personal freedoms.
There’s plenty left at Writers’ Theatre this season, though, including nine programs in the From Page to Stage series that address Writers’ current production of Othello. Two of these programs involve our other podcast guest this week, who is Richard Pettengill, an Assistant Professor of English and Theater at Lake Forest College and formerly dramaturg and director of education at both Court and Goodman Theatres. Pettengill will discuss Shakespeare’s approach to racism and evil with Writers’ Theatre Artistic Director Michael Halberstam and Susan Phillips, Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University, on June 14th at the Highland Park Public Library. And then on June 28th at the Lake Bluff Public Library, Pettengill will interview the designers of Othello about the process of designing the world of the play.
This vibrant theatre community we’re part of offers myriad opportunities like these to expand our horizons. That exploration is part of our job as audience members. We’re not just consumers, we’re participants. The more carefully we learn to listen, the more we know, the more we’re able to open ourselves up and give ourselves over to the performance, the more great theater there will be in Chicago!
Anne Nicholson Weber
Theatre in Chicago contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw Jack and the Beanstalk at the Goodman Children’s Theatre and has loved theatre every since. She is the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age, which includes interviews with Tony Kushner, Julie Taymor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Martha Lavey and Sir Peter Hall, among many others, and her work has been published in American Theatre Magazine and other national publications