PerformInk is Chicago's entertainment industry trade publication.
Our “Inside” series takes you behind the scenes of productions through blog posts written by the artists in the trenches. To read past “Inside” pieces, click here.
By Michael Patrick Thornton
It was probably sometime between drunkenly fleeing from the police on rollerblades with a dog chasing me and stealing the canoe from the Boat House to go paddle the Iowa River towards breakfast that my college girlfriend Jenny first told me about David Rabe. This was at The University of Iowa, late ‘90s, in that magical oasis of a city blooming with culture; a mesmerizingly cozy bookstore, a robust storefront Equity theatre, and a gay bar that served nickel (5 cents!!!!!) drafts of beer. It was heaven. I never wanted to leave. I never would have left. Which is why, after only two years, I left.
Jennifer Deiker was more well-read than I, bared a striking resemblance to The X-Files Agent Dana Scully, carried around a book of Anne Sexton poetry, and was the best actress in our class by far, which was maddening since she was a Film major who was only taking the class as a requirement (this would become one of her many lessons: when our ego has no buy-in, our beauty shines). She was way too cool to be dating me, but she nevertheless stopped at my apartment in her faded thin black leather jacket to talk about the film version of Hurlyburly which she had just seen. She insisted I had to see it. And I did. And thus began a silent collaboration with David Rabe. I would eventually, for a final in a Philosophy class, write a paper on the various philosophies exemplified by the characters in Hurlyburly. Years later in Chicago, when we converted a storefront shoe store into The Gift Theatre, we rehearsed Hurlyburly while waiting for our permits to clear. That took longer than we thought. So we just kept rehearsing. And, much like the European theatre companies whose approaches first inspired me to start The Gift, we ended up rehearsing for over a year. That production put The Gift on the map, loudly announcing this new Equity ensemble to Chicago. Then we did Streamers. And then asked David (his email acquired via a mutual friend) to gift us a ten-minute play for our inaugural TEN festival. An epistolary relationship for a while. Then, free-ranging talks on the phone. And now, somehow, fellow ensemble members and friends.
I remember feeling then that his work was mythic; a towering castle built with the gray heavy stones of the unconscious. I still feel this way…
…the roiling inner lives of fractured people… the very real demons of the mind and soul… the constant problem and question of why we do things and repeat pernicious patterns (i.e. “Who’s Driving The Car of Our Life?”) the lingering, lurking specters of war, the terror of communication, blasted innocence, the menace burbling under the patina of Americana and, at the center of it all, a giant, throbbing humanistic heart… this was my experience digging into David’s psycho-physical aesthetic landscapes and, twenty years later, now equipped to make my getaways on a much larger and re-arranged set of wheels, still is.
Where I grew up, you only met people like David on the library shelves. There is an unspoken great divide growing up in neighborhoods that don’t have access to the arts; life seems to say: you belong over here and the intellectuals and artists and exalted ones belong over there. I’d like to use this opportunity not to regale you with behind-the-scenes tidbits from Cosmologies rehearsals but rather to talk directly to the younger artists and theatre companies in Chicago to encourage you to find ways throughout your life in the arts to cross and shrink that divide. Grow your theatres in underserved neighborhoods. Don’t preach to the choir; convert new audiences. And, when it’s right and with respect, reach out to your heroes.
When I dropped out of Iowa and The Gift officially formed in Chicago, I remember picking up hard copies of PerformInk, hungrily circling audition notices with a red marker while sitting in Four Moon Tavern. I remember a crushing sense of loneliness in those days but, also, an attendant surety that things were going to coalesce. Sometimes, people would manifest almost on cue. Sometimes, a single play would literally high-dive from a shelf at Act One bookstore for apparently no other reason than to say “pick me.” And so we did. There has been a sweet, spooky synchronicity running through The Gift since its birth; as I get older and as our budgets increase with the grays in my beard, it becomes vital to remember that spirit of openness and exuberance that made everything feel possible, like riding the wind.
And my hope for you reading this is that you, too, find yourself a group of artists willing to run alongside you into the mouths of dragons. We use the word ‘fearless’ a lot in Chicago. Let me (re)assure you: there is no such thing. True courage is facing the thing that’s scary and engaging with it nevertheless. As artists, the absence of fear in the face of something scary isn’t courage: it’s recklessness. It’s pure ego. It’s prominence, not significance. It’s dangerous and worthless. (For more on this, check out Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.) My hope is that you learn to convert fear into fuel, that you make art where the question of the art—not you, its maker—is the north star. My hope is you never lose your sense of galvanizing awe and holy terror when entering the theatre. What we do is sacred. Stories are Trojan horses, wheeled into the public space of a theatre where noble people sit in the dark willing to dream with us in real time. Never forget how goddamned precious that is. We are participating in one of the oldest ways to address the biggest questions that have bedeviled us since we first gazed upwards at the stars and simultaneously felt small and large, disposable and infinite:
Where Did We Come From? Is There A God? How Shall We Conduct Ourselves? Do We Have A Soul? These are the questions which power the engine of Cosmologies.
Our departed ensemble member Sheldon Patinkin used to speak of Chekhov’s plays as “comedies… until they are not.” In many ways, that approximates Cosmologies.
This play—like so much of the work we do at The Gift—feels Impossible. Slippery. Colossal. Relentless. Hysterical and heartbreaking. Familiar and strange. The cast of Gift ensemble (our first all-ensemble production in a while) humbles me with their courage, and our brilliant designers intuitively know what the play needs. There are days I leave rehearsal feeling like the dumbest bastard on Earth and other days that are so exhilarating it feels like the entire room and everyone in it are floating an inch and a half off the ground. Like at any minute, a parade could break out, festooning confetti into the streets. Admittedly, it can sometimes still be daunting discussing dramaturgy with David (who won the Tony Award before I was born) and remembering facts like that doesn’t help at all. So I try not to.
When David and I started collaborating a few years ago on Good For Otto, I promised myself that I would treat him as I would any other playwright; with care and respect and gratitude, certainly, but also extending whatever dramaturgical/aesthetical questions arose during the process without apology. Servile deference doesn’t do anyone any favors when making art. David and I have a fantastic working relationship. Incredibly, beyond that, we have a great friendship. His craftsmanship and work ethic are stunning. His plays—in some ways reminiscent of the art of fellow Gift ensemble member Will Eno—work by steady, incremental accumulation. They burrow deep into the mind with a dramaturgy all their own. Many of us in rehearsal have shared that since working on Cosmologies, our dreams have been pronouncedly more deep and vivid. I wake up exhausted but eager to get back to the theatre.
These are the projects you should seek; the ones that you look at it and go I have no idea how the fuck we can do this. Seek the art and collaborators who demand everything from you. Wrestle with the angels, cast out the demons, light a loving candle and save a seat for the ghosts. Because they’re showing up, whether you invite them or not.
In short: Chase The Impossible.
I remember the feeling of the asphalt buzzing my feet which were strapped snugly into black Rollerblades as I sped down that hill in 1998. The wind was at my back and the dog was yapping wildly, closing ranks. A block away from the insane dog were the cops, in hot pursuit after I bolted away from them in the pizzeria with the empty pitcher of beer spinning sideways on my table after they asked for my I.D. I remember laughing uproariously at the absurdity of the situation as I flew down the hill, laughing so hard that my laughter became the perilous thing that might cause me to wipe out. I hit a speed so fast that it felt like perfect freedom or certain death was a breath away. I was pursued by man and beast, a great big moon above seemingly cheering me on as I raced homewards, and inside that mad chaos was a quiet, timeless peace.
That feeling is exactly what it feels like to be in the room with The Gift and exactly what it feels like to collaborate with our fellow ensemble member David Rabe.
Thank you, Jenny, for coming to my apartment that night in Iowa.
Michael Patrick Thornton is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of The Gift, where previous directing credits include: world premiere of Gift ensemble member David Rabe’s Good For Otto; world premiere of Claire Kiechel’s Pilgrims (co-directed with Jessica Thebus), War of the Worlds (75th Anniversary Production), the Chicago Premiere of ensemble member Will Eno’s Oh, The Humanity (and other exclamations), Prairie View, Night & Her Stars, Stop/Kiss, Santa’s Great American Depression Holiday Show! America, White People, Three Sisters, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Hurlyburly (Joseph Jefferson Award: Actor In Leading Role), A Young Man In Pieces, Language Of Angels, County Fair and Orestes 2.0. Elsewhere: Of Mice and Men (Steppenwolf), the world premieres of Sean Graney’s IS N UR B1UDS7REEM… and Mark Harvey Levine’s LA 8AM (Collaboraction) and Picasso At The Lapin Agile (Noble Fool). Michael was a very grateful assistant director on Steppenwolf’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning August: Osage County.
Thornton is the director of David Rabe’s Cosmologies, playing through December 9 at The Gift Theatre.