Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.
Pictured: Katherine Lamb, Artistic Director of Dandelion Theatre.
Consider the dandelion.
There’s the daffy, yellowy, flowery stage, that sprouts up in fields or from cracks in the curbside, and that children hold beneath their chin to see if they like butter (if the color reflects onto your skin, you do.) Then there’s the bunch-of-bewildered-wispy-stalks-huddled-together-stage, that you pick, then make a wish, and hold it in front of your face, and you blow as hard as you can to eject all the stalks, and if you get them all in one breath, your wish comes true at an unspecified time.
Pretty useful magic. Yet, I’d also always heard that dandelions were cheap tricksters—weeds disguised as flowers wreaking havoc.
After reading around online, however, I learned that the dandelion is a “beneficial weed.” While it is a wildflower, it has companion planting benefits for some gardeners. The dandelion is an energetic plant—untamed, expansive, sunny, resilient, alternately helpful and mischievous.
It would seem the dandelion is the perfect emblem for two-year-old Dandelion Theatre. I immediately bought into the symbolism. Artistic director Katherine Lamb, thinking more practically than me, chose “Dandelion Theatre” because it wasn’t prescriptive and it sounded cool. But the company (a little more poetically) sprouted out of the familiar desire to put up a good show.
“The first show was October 2014,” Lamb says, seated across from me at Moody’s Pub. “It was me saying, ‘I want to put up a show!’ I knew I was going to be both producing and directing it, so I felt something in my wheelhouse was going to be a good first choice. I decided I was going to direct Body Awareness by Annie Baker. I just really liked [her] stuff, and I thought I had a lot in common with that show—in that I grew up in a university town, my parents are both professors. I just really related to the content.”
The company truly seemed to sprout, shooting up quickly once Lamb committed to her idea. “I think from the time I decided to do [Body Awareness] to the time I put it up was around three months,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any production staff, I didn’t have any designers involved. I was just asking a few people here and there to help me—man auditions, and stuff like that. I got together the set and all the props—and I just did everything. And since I decided to do it kind of last minute, it was in a gallery—the Tom Robinson Gallery. It’s on North Avenue, pretty close to Western. This really cool guy, Tom Robinson (I met with him once), and he was like, ‘Sure, you can rent my gallery!’ He let me leave the set in there; we just had to move it once for a class he taught. It was very DIY at that point. It was crazy. I was exhausted by the end of it, but it was very satisfying.”
The way Katherine Lamb tells that story suggests to me Dandelion Theatre’s mode of operation, which is a little different from what I’d heard before. Often it seems companies make theatre to attract a community, an audience. Lamb was (and is) making theatre to attract a company.
For example, during Body Awareness, Lamb meets Morgan Crouch, “who came on as a kind of assistant director” (and is currently in the cast of FISH EYE.) She was helping Lamb run technical elements, and the two brainstormed about what Dandelion could do next. “I basically thought, ‘I need to get to know people in Chicago who want to direct, who want to write,” Lamb explains. “I moved here in 2010, [but] my background is film, I did film production at NYU. Then after college, I decided to switch to theater, and my focus prior to starting Dandelion had been acting. So, I hadn’t really been directing in the city, and I didn’t know a lot of people who might want to direct for Dandelion. So my idea…was a way to get to know people.”
This idea was Dandelion’s second project, a new short play festival called THE COAT CHECK, in the early summer of 2015. There were nine plays. Twenty-five or more actors and other theatremakers were recruited. Lamb continues: “So with THE COAT CHECK it was like ‘Oh, we’ll get a ton of people involved, and we’ll all get to know each other and it’ll be awesome. Which is basically what happened.”
That success lead Dandelion to do a second new work festival this past spring, THE HOT DOG STAND (which featured ten plays and thirty-one actors.) Lamb curated both festivals from open submissions. The only prompt stipulation was “this one character who had to appear in everyone’s script.” For THE COAT CHECK, it was an attendant; for THE HOT DOG STAND, a hot dog vendor. “We just received the submissions…and I just tried to have a balance of stuff. There’s comedy, there’s drama, there’s reality, there’s a monster, you know? I do also look at the gender of the playwright if I know it—stuff like that to balance in different ways. And once we have a shortlist of directors, I just assign a director to a play. We’re like, ‘Would you come on board to direct this?’”
I saw THE HOT DOG STAND. It’s how I first learned about Dandelion Theatre. I found it so thrilling for one major reason: it truly felt like a community of people rose up to make it happen. They produced it on the Den Theatre’s third floor; the audience and performers were tightly packed. The plays covered a wide range of subjects. The cast was diverse, in terms of age, race, sexuality, and, most interestingly, ability. I mean this positively: it seemed that Dandelion had given some people one of their first opportunities to perform. And the audience was really supportive. I had never seen a play like that. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Before interviewing Katherine Lamb, I would’ve guessed THE HOT DOG STAND was the culmination of Dandelion’s community-building mission. She pointed instead to THE MAKE READY, an evening of short readings they put on every other month in a bar.
“I think of THE MAKE READY as the backbone of Dandelion, because it’s that much more frequent engagement with the Chicago theater community and, because it’s so open, it means anyone can walk in and participate. It’s a very natural progression from that to a short play festival, because the actors and playwrights [who attend] hear about [the short play festival]. I think a lot of people know Dandelion because of THE MAKE READY.”
She explains that THE MAKE READY celebrated its two-year anniversary this past Tuesday. “It’s still susceptible to low attendance at times. Sometimes we need more readers, other times it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, we don’t have enough parts for everybody.’ Like too many people came. It kind of fluctuates like that. Initially, it was hard to consistently get the word out. Which was frustrating, because, like, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be here.”
Nowadays, THE MAKE READY is more evenly attended. “There weren’t growing pains, necessarily,” Lamb says. “It just took a while to establish itself. I definitely felt it at the year mark. But we have new people coming all the time. It’s not like there’s a ‘MAKE READY crowd.’”
Lamb sees THE MAKE READY as Dandelion’s bread and butter. She paints a picture of a mix between an open-mic, an Enlightenment salon, and a reunion: “a setting where people who don’t often get to hang out or talk or whatever come together. And it’s a way for us to support those people. It counteracts the feeling that actors are a dime a dozen—‘we can replace you with somebody else.’ With THE MAKE READY, it’s like, please come. Please come read stuff! I think it’s a positive, loose, community atmosphere. People always sit down with people they don’t know, and they end up talking and looking like friends like they’ve known each other for years, that kind of stuff. I do feel like it’s the way we access the greater Chicago community.”
And beyond the short play festivals and THE MAKE READY, Dandelion’s second RESERVOIR STAGED READING will take place November 14th. Lamb directed the first one; a new director will helm the second. She considers this a new “growth of [their] engagement with new work.” While they have established avenues to access new shorter-form work, these readings are ways to find full-length plays that could be “a good fit for Dandelion.”
After an hour, we pay our tabs. Lamb heads to The Frontier for FISH EYE call. I dally for ninety-minutes, then go to see the show. FISH EYE, by Lucas Kavner, which closed October 16th, features Katherine alongside Morgan Crouch, Cory Hardin, and Stephen Rowland. Bec Willet directed it. She, along with her cast and design team, have crafted a subtle, sensitive play. In one sense, the play treads familiar territory: two twentysomething artists fall in love and then fall apart, but the story is told out of sequence. Nevertheless, Kavner’s script zooms in, asking the question: “How hard do you have to work to be content with your art? With love?” In those quiet ninety minutes, I felt seen. Welcomed.
Afterward, folks milled about. Friends chatted. Katherine Lamb introduced me to Bec Willet. Easy interaction. The whole room felt steady, at rest.
Walking home, I reflect on my whole evening with Dandelion. I think Lamb’s words describe my thoughts well: “I think we as artists are made to feel like there are very few resources. There’s only so many parts. There’s only so much time. And there’s very little money. Something I’ve thought about recently is: endeavoring to be more aware and supportive of other companies out there. Because if you build the audience in Chicago, everyone’s going to benefit.”
The quest for community, the hand extended in welcome, the mission to make room—the belief that artists should proliferate—all these characterize the spirit of Dandelion Theatre. I predict they will continue to widen and brighten the Chicago theater community as they expand outward and dig deeper, just like their namesake flower.