SAIC on the Chicago Fringe
Rhinoceros Theater Festival 2001
Walk by the Lunar Cabaret on North Lincoln on any given weeknight at around 9 p.m. and you will see a group of weary friends enjoying a smoke or a laugh and a well-needed rest. These are the performers, actors, designers, composers and directors (and some of them all of the above simultaneously) working nights and weekends, mostly volunteer, to prepare for one of Chicago's premier festivals of fringe and alternative work - the Rhinoceros Theatre Festival.
"Storefront theater is where a lot of the most innovative and risk-taking work in writing is happening in Chicago," said Beau O'Reilly, one of the co-coordinators of the festival more commonly known as Rhino Fest. Now in its 13th year, Rhino Fest continues to develop a new group of promising playwrights and performers, as well as to support new work from established Chicago storefront theatre companies and independent performers.
Named after the Salvador Dali term "Rhinoceric" (something that is "really big"), Rhino Fest started in 1989 when theatre patrons and companies formed a committee to run a festival showcasing the work of small theatres in Bucktown and Wicker Park. With skyrocketing rents in the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood, many of the independent theatres were forced to close or move from their original locations. However, many of these groups, such as Theatre Ooblek and Prop Thtr, continue to thrive today and still participate in Rhino. Curious Theatre Branch, O'Reilly's company and one of the original participants in Rhino, now coordinates the festival - reviewing and selecting the plays that will be performed as well as hosting many of the shows at their home base, the Lunar Cabaret.
Rhino Fest offers Chicago theatergoers an excellent preview of new work being produced around the city. "Through a course of six weeks you can see just this huge diversity of brand new work by a wide range of writers, some of them pretty well known and some of them not known at all," O'Reilly said.
"To my mind some of the best theater in Chicago is coming from the Curious Theater Company," said Michael Meyers, SAIC professor in the MFA Writing Program, who describes the Rhino festival as an extension of this group's work at the Lunar Cabaret. "If you'd like to get a quick and condensed look at some good theater, this is your chance."
And there is an added allure for students and faculty of the school. At current count, the festival features four faculty members, five graduates, and at least two current students from SAIC as writers, directors and performers. "You get to see your teachers and your peers doing brand new work in a real context," O'Reilly pointed out, "and you get that throughline of 'I want write a piece for the stage and how do I do that?'"
An invitation to produce a play in the Rhino Festival is a tremendous opportunity for new playwrights because they get to show their work alongside Chicago theatre veterans and to work side-by-side with them to create something unique and interesting. Festival coordinators receive proposals from theatre groups, individual playwrights and students from theatre programs throughout the city. In their selection process, Curious members focus on original work, which gets the first priority, as well as performances that fit well into the festival format. "Shows that are too big tend to not get chosen," O'Reilly said. "There are ten different plays a week in our little space. That's a lot of work coming and going and so shows have to able to be moved in and out."
Curious Theatre Branch members also look at the festival as a way of seeking out and cultivating new talent. "We think about our mission as part of the whole theater scene. About three or four years ago we started selecting work that was: 'I'm a playwright, I have a play, but I don't know much about theater.'" When they accept plays that fit in this category, O'Reilly and the other festival coordinators help align them with established directors and performers. For example, Idris Goodwin, an SAIC student whose first play, Braising, was accepted into this year's Rhino Fest, had limited background in theatre production. O'Reilly introduced him to native Chicago director/actor/ designer Stefan Brun, co-founder of the Prop Thtr and long-time participant in Rhino, who will bring Goodwin's words to fruition on the stage and give him a model for how to direct a theatre production.
Another development aspect is simply the fact that they do accept new playwrights. "You get a lot of publicity for it," said John Hannon, a recent SAIC graduate whose play, The Bubonic Homunculus, was accepted for this year's festival and who is directing and producing his own play. "[Curious] provided development support in that they trusted me as a first time director, just in the fact that they offered me a chance."
Not all pieces are single playwrights bringing their work to the stage. At least two of the plays - Free Street's Zeroes and Nomenil's Like Our Parent's Smoking Cornsilk - were written collaboratively by the ensemble cast. In fact, collaboration and cross-pollination of talents is common throughout the Chicago alternative theatre scene.
"For me one of the really interesting things about what's happening in storefronts and fringe theater scene now is that it very freely borrows from different genres," said O'Reilly, who writes, directs and performs in Curious Theatre Branch productions. "It uses elements of performance, ... rock and roll bands, and cabaret ... we've always been really interested in multi-tasking. It's partly an aesthetic interest, because it's interesting, you get to do different things in different shows, but it's also a pragmatic interest because we don't really have money to pay a set designer to come in and design our shows, so some of us have learned to design pretty good sets and to write scores."
The Rhino Fest line-up is a virtual who's who of Chicago fringe theatre. O'Reilly, who is also performing in Shawn Reddy's piece, Bantam Lightweight, has been teaching a playwriting workshop in the School of the Art Institute's MFA Writing Program for the last few years. He started the Curious Theatre Branch with Jenny and Bryn Magnus, who are also co-coordinators and involved with various shows in this year's festival. Curious formed as a spin-off of Maestro Subgum and the Whole, a band that used to play around Chicago, and they produced their first play in Wicker Park in 1988.
Other SAIC faculty members are equally revered in Chicago. "I'm excited to have Michael Meyers and Blair Thomas in the festival," O'Reilly said. "They've both been in the theatre community for a long time."
Meyers' last three performance pieces have been the "Michael K. Meyers" character on stage in monologue with one prop - a hat. The Ragman, Meyer's current piece in the Rhino, deviates from this form. It involves a group of twenty fictional characters played by four performers. According to Meyers, it is "a neighborhood story taking place over a five hour period of time during the summer of 1981. ... Some characters interact by having sex, others do so through violence, but mainly they just pass each other on the sidewalk. What they have in common is the historical moment [John Lennon's assassination], the city [New York] and the weather." Meyers describes the show as "frantic, taking place at a kind of helter-skelter pace." Two of Ragman's performers - Sherri Antonini and Frank Eannarino - are graduates from the MFA Writing Program at SAIC.
Thomas, an SAIC faculty member in the First Year Program, was one of the founders of the Redmoon Theater, and one of the original participants in Rhino Fest. His current show, a short puppet play entitled #36 Buster Keaton and the Buddha, explores the story of one man's spiritual journey on a split-level stage. Thomas designed the puppets and set, and coordinated them with the music and sound by Michael Zerang.
Another SAIC First Year Program faculty member, Wooster group alumnus Michael Stumm, will be appearing in the festival this year in The Baby Show, one of Rhino's special events featuring performers with their babies and talking about the babies in their lives or soon to be in their lives. "I came up with this idea of having a show where all these [performers] could bring their babies to the show and so they could feel included they could do a piece about the baby," O'Reilly said.
Another special event is the Full Moon Vaudeville, which O'Reilly says is "sort of like a variety show except that they are very pro and very good at what they do." Full Moon includes fiction and folk music, kids tap dancing, film and video, including work from SAIC graduate Robin Klein.
With its combination of well-known performers, collaborative theatre companies and first-time playwrights, Rhino offers a decadent feast of ideas and images. I mean, where else can you see dead people, crickets and babies all in one venue? Something this big could only be called "Rhinoceric."
The Bubonic Homunculus
"Let us spend the night in leisure...the
luxury of communion with our fellow man."
Coleridge, Goethe, Alf, Married with Children, Star Trek, H.G. Wells... these are just some of the influences of John Hannon's sometimes absurdist, sometimes sci fi melodrama, post-apocalyptic tale about a doctor who initiates the next stage of evolution when he steps into a vat of diseased putrescence. Destined to wander the now personless planet alone for a millennium, the former doctor, now Homunculus, seeks comfort and explanations in science, ravens and ventriloquism with the nearly deceased.
"It's all pretty probable. It's possible stuff. So that's kind of scary about it," Hannon said, referring to the possibility of an apocalyptic virus initiating the next step of evolution. Over the last year of writing the play, Hannon has been researching and ruminating about such scientific discoveries as the circadian clock and genetic coding within cells. "About six months ago they said they had mapped the genetic history of cells, that 98.8 percent is the genetic history of life ... and I was thinking what if what is in that history creates the next evolutionary step. Isn't it likely that that gene causes the progress as well as [containing] the history?"
In The Bubonic Homunculus, Hannon explores the apparent dichotomy between evolution and creation, focusing on the co-dependence of the two rather than their opposition. "We kind of forgot something about our existence, or what we should be doing, what's important to our lives and it takes the purging of what we are and the creation of something new to remedy that. So it's apocalyptic, yes, but I think it's optimistic at the same time."
The play features the music of Alex Nahas and his band, Laughing Stock, from San Francisco. Nahas read the script and selected a sample of his music to correspond with the play. Hannon then worked with DJ Chris Widman to remix the instrumental pieces with other sound effects for the final production.
Homunculus is Hannon's first major play as a director. "Most of my background in theatre specifically started mostly after going to the [The School of the] Art Institute and meeting Beau (O'Reilly)," Hannon said. He started out helping at the Lunar Cabaret with whatever needed to be done. In 2000, he was the assistant director for Bryn Magnus's play, Losers Alias. Later that year, he wrote and directed a small play called Sitcom about a group of people in a waiting room. Although he had this experience directing and had directed several short films in his undergraduate work at Boston University, Homunculus is on a much bigger scale.
"I've gained a certain amount of confidence in what my abilities are," Hannon said. "I built the sets and I did the production design... and so I'm doing a lot of it and just realizing that I can. I feel like if I have the resources I can do it."
The Bubonic Homunculus stars Julian Stetkevych, Stacy Sargent, Tim Ballard, Rick Uecker, Samantha Kozloff, and Jesse Weinberg. Assistant director is SAIC student Danielle Dutton. It plays Wednesdays September 12, 19, 26 and October 3 at 7 p.m. at the Lunar Cabaret
"How does one tell a story? No, bits and pieces are the story and what you walk away with is what you walk away with. Even when assembled, it's still a puzzle."
Somewhat disillusioned with film and art making in general, Shawn Reddy discovered playwriting randomly when he signed up for Beau O'Reilly's playwriting workshop at the school. "Theatre and playwriting allowed me for the first time [to do something] that was do-able. It fulfilled a lot of requirements I had for myself as an artist."
A year and a half later, Reddy is now one of the newest members of the Curious Theater Branch and directing his second play. This is a big deal, because the Curious members have been together for so long. "When somebody new comes in, we're really careful about that because we need to trust them and they need to trust us," explained O'Reilly. "It's like a family."
Reddy, who graduated from SAIC in 2000 with an MFA in Film, wanted to write something that explored the notion of story, in his words, "sewing up bits and pieces of stories that make up a life." His first play, Influenza and the Misapplication of Cold Cream, produced by Curious Theatre Branch in February 2000, was built upon the sounds of words and their play off each other. "Influenza was sparse," Reddy said. "I was finding tone to language that could be composed as music. This one is a story."
Bantam Lightweight, Curious Theatre Branch's official entry in Rhino Fest, is a play about two old friends in the process of planning a reunion for their old group. Through that process, they ask each other a series of questions, working toward a better understanding of life and their relationship. Through the interplay between the two characters, Reddy explores such cloudy topics as the nature and purpose of stories and fables, umbrellas and the stink ant and the spore. "It's a throwback to vaudeville and variety shows of the forties and fifties, not a straight narrative so much as a showcase of ideas and interlinked stories," Reddy explained. "I like the audience to have to actively participate and make associations between stories."
Reddy found something in theatre that he was not able to find in film. "What I find enjoyable about theatre is the offerings it provides," said Reddy. "It juxtaposes insular writing with the collaborative effort it takes to direct and stage a piece. It's an all-encompassing experience." Although he has written two plays, Reddy does not consider himself a writer or even an artist, which he explains in the following context, "Theatre is bigger than just the confines of labeling myself as an artist that's doing theatre."
Featuring Beau O'Reilly and Ned O'Reilly and music by Jenny Magnus, Bantam Lightweight plays Saturdays September 1, 15, 22, 29, October 6 at 7 p.m., Saturday September 8 at 8 p.m. and Sunday September 2 at 3 p.m. at the Lunar Cabaret.
"I tolerate you. I tolerate you because you can cook."
This is my first real piece of writing. The first thing I've written that I would like to put in my portfolio," says Idris Goodwin, author of the new play, Braising, which will be showing in the Rhino festival. Using Sam Shephard's True West as a loose inspiration, Goodwin created two characters, Veronica and Larry, bank robbers locked into an abrasively flip-flop relationship in a small one-bedroom apartment after a bank robbery gone awry lands Veronica in a wheelchair.
"I wanted to write something that was just two people who stay in the same sort of space and who mention other characters who never appear on stage...the audience feels the change throughout the play," Goodwin said.
Actors Alexandra Blatt and John Putman read the first act of Braising in February 2001 at the school's 1926 Gallery. Because the same actors have inhabited these roles through the development of the play, Goodwin had the opportunity to learn a lot from them while he was writing it. "They brought the characters to life and informed me," said Goodwin, who was surprised by some of the developments in the characters as they went along. "Someone you thought was an asshole turns out to be pretty sympathetic and the other way around."
In addition to independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Goodwin also cites musical influences. "I'm unable to elucidate why hip-hop plays a really big part in everything I write," he said. In addition to his writing work at the school, Goodwin performs locally in an alternative hip-hop group, Farm Crew. "It's really just a hobby. I'm not cool enough to be a musician," Goodwin said. Although there is no actual music in Braising, the hip-hop influence is apparent in the rhythm, humor and attitude of the language, particularly that of Veronica's character.
Goodwin is a second year student in the MFA Writing Program. Braising is his first play, though he wrote and directed a number of short films at Columbia College, where he received his undergraduate degree in film. "Beau challenged me to write a play," Goodwin said. "He liked my writing style and believed in me." Coming from the school of do-it-yourself digital-video filmmaking, Goodwin felt constrained by the technical aspects of film. "It holds you back from being crazy with dialog. It has to be visual. Theatre's great. It doesn't cost a lot of money, so you can experiment, work with your friends and have a project without taking out a second mortgage."
Braising plays Tuesdays September 4, 11, 18, 25, October 2 at 7 p.m. at the Lunar Cabaret, presented as part of a double feature with The Green Cricket, written by Nicole Kupper.
Listings for other shows mentioned in the article:
#36 Buster Keaton and the Buddha,
Blair Thomas and Michael Zerang
Sept. 21-22, 9 p.m.
Written and performed by Michael Meyers, music written and performed by Eddie Carlson and Frank Navin
Sept. 2, 9, 16, 23, 30 7 p.m.
The Baby Show,
Sept. 8, 2 p.m., Oct. 7, 7 p.m.
Full Moon Vaudeville,
fund-raiser for the Rhino, Oct. 6, 9 p.m.
Like Our Parents Smoking Cornsilk: A LIVE CARTOON
(Nomenil Theater Company - new to Rhino this year)
From the press release: "Watch an ultra long-haired lesbian go from side show freak to rodeo star to super-heroine"
Aug. 31, Sept. 7, 14, 28 and Oct. 5, 9 p.m.; Oct. 6 7 p.m.
(Free Street Theater) directed by Ron Bieganski, created and written by ensemble cast with direction and arrangement by Ron Bieganski and Bryn Magnus. Beau says: "The best show I saw last year."
Sept. 22 & 29, 7 p.m.
...and 12 more shows, featuring work from independent playwrights, Theatre Oobleck and Great Beast Theatre.
2827 North Lincoln Avenue
Free Street Theatre,
1419 W. Blackhawk
For reservations or more information, call 773.327.6666 or 773.327.0205 or email Jemlunar@enteract.com
All shows $10 or "pay what you can."
Photography by Emily Evans