Kelsey is a Chicago based producer, actor, writer, critic, and mixologist. An alum of Black Box Acting’s ACADEMY Program, Kelsey curates “The Newness,” a monthly salon of new work. They also work closely with Trans Voices Cabaret Chicago as well as Chicago Theatre Access Auditions. Follow them on Insta! @playsandpours, @kelseylooks
Pictured: Julian Serna, Frank Gasparro, and Katherine Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Eclectic Full Contact Theatre.
By Kelsey McGrath
One of my favorite books from my early twenties was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Author Robert M. Persing contemplates ideas of “quality” — its etherealness and its reliance on intuition. It’s such a broad term that can be applied across all mediums. Describing “quality” in broad strokes is easy; applying the definition to individual cases is much more difficult. All the boxes can be checked, but that alone does not determine excellence. A wordless finesse, mindfulness, and knowledge is necessary in any arena to reach a satisfying level of quality.
I preface my thoughts on Eclectic Full Contact Theatre’s DEAR BRUTUS because it is a necessary touchstone when dismantling and critiquing art.
I LOVE Chicago’s storefront theatre community. It’s innovative, experimental, advocacy, grit, and passion. This is an educated community of theatre artists that has been a start for so many to play to larger audiences. We have standards of professionalism and an unspoken expectation of producing quality work. But, like everything, there is a bell curve. The majority of productions are just fine, they get the job done. Few are amazing, few miss the mark completely.
DEAR BRUTUS can be described as “Peter Pan for grown ups.” A group of unsuspecting dinner guests find themselves in the company of the mysterious Lob on Midsummer Week. He suggests they go for a walk in the woods, though there are no woods for miles from the house. Legend says the woods appear on Midsummer Week, and when the guests enter the forest, dreams and desires are answered. They are eventually returned to their former state, but changed by the experience.
This show is a challenge and demands crisp shifts in characters, setting, and storytelling to convey two separate worlds. Because this is not a familiar time and place, grounding the text in the reality of the play is imperative. Eclectic’s DEAR BRUTUS lacks clarity. There is no formal scenic designer, which led to a grandiose set change to render underwhelming and confusing. Actors blaze through their lines, uncertain of what they mean and their intentions, adding to the confusion. A wild show that thrives on big, absurd choices is kept safe and weak with demure design and cardboard players.
This production compels me to ask the questions: What do we consider professional theatre versus community theatre? Both of which are amazing, important, and have their own time, place, and set of expectations. How do we offer and accept critique with candor and grace? What is the position of the critic within these two spaces? How do we hold ourselves accountable for producing quality work that positively contributes to Chicago current cultural canon?
It’s essential to meet our storefronts where they’re at regarding budget, text choices, etc. But our scrappy community is known for making exceptional art on a shoestring. DEAR BRUTUS was not a quality show and hardly a professional theatregoing experience, given Eclectic Full Contact Theatre’s position in the storefront community.
How can we hold ourselves accountable for producing quality work in our professional theatre spaces?