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(left to right) Darci Nalepa and Kenny Mihlfried in The Gift Theatre’s Midwest premiere of David Rabe’s COSMOLOGIES, directed by Artistic Director Michael Patrick Thornton. Photo by Claire Demos.
By Darci Nalepa
Day one of Cosmologies rehearsal: Michael Patrick Thornton, our director, refers to our set design model as “Kansas” and “Oz.” The first scene takes place in a realistic hotel room and the remainder of the play takes place in… space? The physicalization of time? Limbo? Oz was fitting. The transition in between the two locations, a swirling tornado of distorted sounds, wind blowing, furniture being flipped right side up and sideways to reveal a new purpose. If we could have had a cow spinning by us during our transition, I think we would have. I am going to stay on this Wizard of Oz metaphor to tell you about my experience working on David Rabe’s Cosmologies.
In The Wizard of Oz, each character is on a quest. One for a heart, one for some brains, one for courage. And of course one was looking for Home. The ingredients that make up the recipe for this particular production also mirror all of my experiences at The Gift.
A long time ago, I auditioned for The Gift Theatre’s production of Wit. I was still living in the suburbs at the time of the audition and when I took the Kennedy in to Jefferson Park it was unknown territory. I parked my car, walked into the covered alcove off of Milwaukee Ave and into the lobby that is like a funhouse waiting room – very high ceilings, very little width and five doors that I would learn much later led to the box office, the backstage, another upstairs dressing area the theatre, and of course the door that led me in would lead me back out onto Milwaukee and Lawrence (the vortex where all Chicago’s first responders take route and the CTA bus idles for eternity). This soundscape is loud, brash and unapologetic. I associate these sounds now with love as they remind me of waiting to go on stage for various plays in the lobby of The Gift. These sounds contrast the quiet, nuanced and ever-honest work of my ensemble mates and the guest artists that have collaborated on our stage.
When I went for my first audition at The Gift, I peered up at framed posters of productions past. In awe of the breadth of work they had completed. I did not book Wit, but this audition was just the beginning of my journey with The Gift. A few years later, Sheldon Patinkin and Michael Patrick Thornton were my Improv Teachers at The School at Steppenwolf. They were also leaders at The Gift Theatre. I was terrified of this class, these men, failing, looking stupid, my career, my potential. I was scared of it all. And that’s where the heart comes in.
In my time with Sheldon and Mike, I learned the values of Ensemble. Of knowing that as a whole, we were only as good as the weakest member of our Ensemble and that this person would change from moment to moment. I learned it was better to be an asshole than a chicken shit. I learned that your work is not for you, but to be given up as an offering to others who came before you or those who may be in desperate need of it. And finally, I learned there is only love. There is only heart. For whatever circumstances you may be living under as an actor, the root of it comes from love. Even characters who seem to be adversaries or antagonists, they are in search for love. And aren’t we all? Art coming from the heart is one of my most valued artistic lessons and one I have had the honor of practicing through various productions at The Gift.
My first show as a proud Gift Ensemble member was Good For Otto by David Rabe. Enter the brains part of this post. Mr. Rabe is a brilliant, brilliant man. His writing reflective and insightful. Funny and strange. Watching him and Michael team up for GFO as well as Cosmologies has been a masterclass in how two minds can meld, collaborate, learn from the other and gain strength from the other’s curiosity. The brains of our designers for this show and how amazing it has been to see them utilize our tiny home with their genius and make it work from them, working smartly and sufficiently. The brains of my cast-mates navigating the enormity of David’s writing with clever choices, digging at home and in the rehearsal room, volleying in the moment off of one another with ease and wonder.
We come now to courage. I think that goes for all of us. In this Industry. The playwrights, even David in his career now. The directors like Michael choosing to take risks and let his artistic family stretch muscles for themselves and with each other over a safe bet. The artists on stage and off who work one, two, maybe three side jobs in order to tell stories on their weekend nights to people they’ll never meet. And to go out every audition, rehearsal and performance to try something. Having courage to stay open, to keep aiming for connection to fail more times that we will succeed.
Cosmologies is hard. Going into rehearsal felt like I was staring at a beast that could eat me in one gulp. Now that we are open and after lots of pondering, playing and even now light bulbs illuminating during moments in the show, I feel like it is a beast I can walk alongside. It’s not going to cause me harm nor will I try to tame it. This is the first show at The Gift that has been all Ensemble members. My artistic family. I value them so much. I value their hearts and their brains and their constant courage. I’ve been in the classroom with some of them, the softball field with some of them, at weddings and funerals with some of them. I believe in them and the Gift. It is where I found a Home in Chicago.
Our family keeps growing. Recently, David Rabe became an Ensemble member. On the night of our final preview, Michael and David spoke with us about entering the run of the show. Mike encouraged us to remember “there were no limitations for us in the conventional sense.” David chimed in that he was glad to be an Ensemble member at The Gift Theatre. I looked around the room and thought, “Man. Me too.”