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Holding For A Hero: Valiant Theatre Celebrates History's Movers and Shakers


New Works Festival in ChicagoThe Otherworld playhouse is not a large room, by any stretch of the imagination, but the characters occupying its auditorium for Valiant Theatre's New Works Festival share a global diversity of backstories spanning centuries—supreme court justices, Episcopal ministers, Community Activists, Hollywood actresses, pro athletes and New Testament disciples.

The assembly comprises such distinguished trailblazers as Sandra Day O'Conner, Rudy Lozano, Renée Richards, the Rev. Pauli Murray, Hollywood actress Mary Tyler Moore and even Saint Andrew of Capernaum. The attribute shared by these heroes of the past and present, and precipitating their selection for Valiant Theatre's initial anthology of world premiere plays, is the trait known as Valiance.

What, precisely, does it mean to be "Valiant" though? Most American playgoers recall first encountering the word in secondary school textbooks, either as the title of a one-act play written in 1920, or as Shakespeare's famous quote from Julius Caesar. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as "marked by courage, valor and determination" but Artistic Director Nich Radcliffe sees in it, not merely brave deeds, but a philosophical ideology. The goal of the theater company is, he proclaims, to "investigate and Illuminate the stories of real people whose lives were—yes, marked by courage, by valor and by determination—and by doing so, inspiring individuals to overcome the fear at the root of society's ills that impedes the implementation of effective action capable of curing those ills."

This ethos could be viewed as a return to the classical concept of plays as vehicles for instruction, with the lessons of those in power—typically gods and royalty—serving to illustrate universal precepts in moral and ethical conduct.

The first question in assessing whether a story is appropriate for our purposes is whether it reflects the qualities referenced in the dictionary definition, explains Radcliffe, "but the second question is, 'Why tell this story NOW?' If we conclude that it makes a compelling contribution to our mission, it's then earmarked for development."

Nobody is likely to dispute Sandra Day O'Conner and Pauli Murray's deserving top honors, but if audiences are still puzzled by the eclectic personnel occupying a single ballot, their authors are quick to defend their subjects' worthiness of recognition.

Leah Roth Barsanti cites the strides made by Mary Tyler Moore regarding gender representation, referenced in the play titled A Long Way to Tipperary, while Nick Patricca, author of First Called, models his portrait of Simon Peter's less-famous brother Andrew on the Mystery/Morality plays of the Medieval age. Leanna Keyes expands the boundaries of Valiance even further in Love Serving Love, declaring pioneering male-to-female transgender Renee Richards all the more heroic for shunning notoriety to lead a quiet life.

In an age when the absence of exemplars is widely lamented, and popular fiction extolls the woes of citizens struggling in vain with domestic upheaval, Valiant's goal of, as Radcliffe expresses it, "empowering a diverse group of artists to tell a diverse set of stories [in order to] encourage others to live more valiantly" may itself be viewed as an act of heroism.

Valiant Theatre New Works Festival opens at Otherworld Theater on January 29 and continues in repertory through February 15. Full schedules and information at www.valianttheatre.org or 312-298-9848.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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