DISCORD: Q&A with Jeff Parker
Q&A with Jeff Parker
(Charles Dickens in Discord
How do you approach playing an historical figure?
JP: I read an excellent biography of Charles Dickens called Charles Dickens: A Life. So that gave me a great overview of the man from his humble beginnings to the heights of his fame. I’ve been reading Great Expectations when I can, and our dramaturg Lauren Shouse has provided some terrific background material. Inevitably, though, it’s about play and the story it tells and what happens when you put it in the space.
What is the most fun aspect of playing Charles Dickens?
When I crack up the other actors.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about your character since beginning preparations for this play?
That we’re reminded that our heroes are just as flawed everybody else.
What is your favorite thing about the rehearsal process?
Kimberly Senior, Mark Montgomery and Nathan Hosner.
Discordant & Harmonious Notes
by Scott Carter, Playwright
The writing of this play began, really, in June 1986 as I awoke choking on a Sunday morning. As a lifelong asthmatic, this was not unexpected, but the attack was to be the most severe of my life and I spent nearly a week in the hospital. At that time, I was a struggling standup comic and, like many colleagues, I was either indifferent or hostile to God; Jesus was the ghost who came into my bedroom when I was a child and tried to choke me to death on a nightly basis.
I was released from Bellevue that Saturday afternoon. At the intersection of 26th and First Avenue, I had an epiphany like Saul on the road to Damascus when a thunderbolt knocked him to the ground, scales fell from his eyes and he knew that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior. My metanoia was less-specific and more non-denominational; I went from cynical comic to nonaffiliated deist. I received the unshakable realization of God’s existence and that of grace — for which I thought myself unworthy but grateful. I guess that’s why it’s called grace. I entered into a bliss state — loving all whom I met and forgiving previous transgressions done to me. It lasted about a week. Then it faded and I felt a return to the petty life I’d always led. I didn’t want this to happen. I wanted to make this event into the B.C./A.D. of my existence. But I had no strong religious affiliation to which to turn. My parents were devout believers in whatever Protestant community was closest and nicest.
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Director’s blog on “Butler” rehearsals
We’re off and away with rehearsals for Richard Strand’s fascinating Civil War play Butler. It is a terrific and moving piece of historical fiction and, given the setting, quite surprisingly a deeply funny play.
The early days of rehearsal for any play, but especially one so steeped in history, is filled with an incredible amount of talk. We lean heavily on our dramaturg, Lauren Shouse, to help support the research we’ve each individually done on both the historical figures that inhabit the play as well as context of how the events in the play intersect and are informed by the larger context of the American Civil War.
The Civil War has been so deeply documented and written about that there are more than 50,0000 books and pamphlets about it, at least one book or pamphlet published every day since the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in April of 1861. So the historical research is both daunting and seductive; we are definitely enjoying putting on our amateur historian hats. We are also equally focused in these early days on the playwright Richard Strand’s words.
The goal in the first few days of rehearsal is to create a vast and deep lake of information about the characters and their relationships upon which one might draw inspiration from throughout the rehearsal process that will sustain you through performances. This means naming all the things big and small that we know from the text, sharing what we intuit, testing what we believe or teasing out a mysterious action, phrase or even word.
One of those words that particularly drew our attention today was “sanctuary”. A person asking for “sanctuary” over “refuge” or “protection” or “asylum” has such resonant implications. Days like today where we interrogate the text for clues are some of the most thrilling.
Director’s note on “Mothers and Sons”
I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had the great fortune in my directing career to have worked with plays by some of the greatest classical and contemporary writers – Shakespeare and Shaw, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, Albee, Miller, Christopher Durang, John Logan. But no one’s work has spoken more personally to me than the plays of Terrence McNally. Few playwrights have had as impressive and varied a career as McNally has; he’s created beautiful romantic comedies, stunning character studies, riotous farces, absurdist dramas and a host of libretti for musicals and opera. And I’ve loved all of them. For some reason, McNally’s voice is my voice, or at least the voice that I’d have if I were an outrageously talented playwright; I know and understand and love each of the complex characters that he creates, the situations that he puts them in, and the dialogue – sometimes outrageously funny, often incredibly moving – that comes out of their mouths.
Of course, as a gay man who came to maturity in the late 60s and 70s, I am especially drawn to the depictions of gay life that McNally has created throughout his career, plays which have essentially captured the evolution of the gay experience for the past half-century. From the liberated hedonism of the 1970s (The Ritz) through the tragedies of the AIDS years (Lips Together, Teeth Apart and The Lisbon Traviata) to the hard-won equality of the past two decades, McNally has been one of the most distinctive, honest and poetic chroniclers of the joys and challenges of gay men in the past fifty years, and has given voice to many of the feelings and ideas that I’ve had, and that many gay men of my generation have had, during an era of incredible change. From that perspective, Mothers and Sons is one of his best works, a terrifically moving (and acidly funny) examination of where we are now, enjoying our new-found freedom to marry and have our own families but acutely aware of the tragedies that forever marked us.
Of course, like those other plays, Mothers and Sons is not simply about what it’s like to be gay in the contemporary world. From the specifics of that experience, McNally draws on themes that affect us all: the difficulties of creating relationships, hetero or homo, in the modern world; the challenges and comforts of family, both biological and created; the wellspring of despair that engulfs us in the face of loss; and the seeming impossibilities of emerging from that wellspring to find solace or hope. These themes are universal, no matter the sexual identification or gender or age of the viewer; and, although McNally seems to be channeling my own family experiences in this play, I’ll wager that many others from vastly different families will find something of their own experience.
I am thrilled to be able to direct this magnificent piece in the intimate setting of Northlight. I’ve had the good fortune to work with many wonderful Chicago companies – including my “home” company, Goodman – but my experiences at Northlight have been among my favorite. Audiences here are smart, experienced and incredibly empathetic – the perfect trifecta for any McNally play, but especially this one. The world of Mothers and Sons is a very specific one indeed, but one that I know our audiences will recognize and respond to.
In short, I am very excited to introduce one of my favorite plays by one of my favorite writers to one of my favorite audiences.
As I said before, I’m a lucky guy.
Steve Scott, Director
Director’s note on “You Can’t Take It With You”
You Can’t Take it With You
is about the family you choose. That’s what makes a play written seventy-nine years ago still feel fresh and funny today. The Sycamores and the people they collect are quirky. To the outside world, they are bizarre, out of place. But under this roof, they are a family. They encourage and support each other without judgement or expectation. This is why the Sycamores feel so modern. For so many of us, the family we choose is just as important as the family we were given.
Recently, NPR reported that You Can’t Take it With You is one of only two plays that has never left the annual list of “Top 10 most produced plays in US high schools” in the past 50 years. This play is how many people discover theater. In part, that is because the themes continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, but it is also because plays just aren’t made like this anymore. It is an unabashedly funny and beautiful and sprawling ensemble piece that four generations can enjoy together. And sadly, there are still too few plays with so many great roles for women. This play is also a classic because you not only want to watch it, you want to be in it.
For an ensemble this large, we were shocked to discover on the first day of rehearsal that none of us had ever worked on a production of You Can’t Take it With You.
To make this play, we are forming our own quirky, not-so-little family. Just like the Sycamores. So, we are creating our Sycamore household brand new together. This requires both hard work and a lot of generosity and love and fun. You Can’t Take it With You
gives some good advice for us through Kolenkhov, who says “Art is only achieved through perspiration.” That is true of all theater, but particularly true of this play since it requires timing, physical agility, generosity, and persistence. Kolenkhov would be pleased by what the play demands of its ensemble. In contrast, Grandpa, the head of the Sycamore clan asks of hard work, “Where does the fun come in?” The mark of any good chosen family is lots of laughter.
So. We laugh. We work. We sweat. Then we laugh again. And hopefully, you will, too.
Devon de Mayo
Continuing the Conversation after “White Guy on the Bus”
As we launch through preview week of White Guy on the Bus, I am reflecting on the play and the amazing response we are encouraging here at Northlight at the conclusion of the performances each night. Our daily talkbacks with audience members are large and engaging. The conversation stimulated by the story is fascinating and intense. White Guy is one of those plays where, regardless of critical reaction, audience reaction is fierce and gratifying.
In the post-show discussions after our first five previews, we have heard how insightful the characters’ observations are, how resonant and blisteringly true the sentiments seem. The snapshot of the schools is clear, and educators in our audience have validated the depiction of teachers and students. Our audience has told us that the non-linear plot is compelling and challenging. Last Sunday evening, an audience member told me he was on the edge of his seat all night. Another told me they saw themselves in the play and how guilty it made them feel.
The talkbacks will take place after every performance and are every bit as fascinating as the discussions raised in the play. We hope you will join in with your thoughts and feelings. Feelings are the key here, because we can all too easily “think” or absolve our responsibilities to each other as human beings.
One of the great things about our production is the remarkable heart our actors bring to the roles, and how the audience is drawn to them, empathizing with them while seeing the dark and turbulent choices they make. It’s a remarkable cast and a clear example of the world class talent Chicago has on its stages nightly.
We are so proud of this production and of playwight Bruce Graham’s courage in raising these troubling issues. We know you will be electrified by White Guy’s story just as our preview audiences have been. Join us for the talkbacks. Be part of the conversation. Be part of the solution.
In Memory of Molly Glynn
Dear Northlight Family,
A treasured friend and artist left us today. Molly Glynn, who appeared in Tom Jones, The Odd Couple and Permanent Collection here at Northlight, was killed in a tragic accident during yesterday’s tumultuous storm. Despite such a dramatic event in such a turbulent storm, Molly was a calming, elegant, supportive center in life. Married to Joe Foust, who appeared in Lady here at Northlight, and the mother of Chance and Declan, she exuded grace and warmth; and beyond her beauty was her stunning humanity. A hole in our hearts remains where once Molly radiated her joy and love. I am so privileged to have worked with her as an actor and director.
But more importantly, I am grateful to have known her. And I wanted you to know how privileged you were to have seen this special woman’s work here at Northlight. She gave you the gift of her life for a couple of hours on our stage, and what a gift. It is what we artists do. Remember that when you see our work on the stages of Chicago.
Our gifts are fleeting, but they are given with love.
And they are written on the wind.
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Closing thoughts from the boys of “Lost in Yonkers”
As Lost in Yonkers heads into its final weekend, we asked the two young stars of the production to reflect on their experience and fill us in on what lies ahead.
Alistair Sewell and Sebastian W. Weigman with Ann Whitney
Alistair Sewell (Jay)
Alistair is a student from Madison, WI who was living in Evanston during rehearsals and the run for Lost in Yonkers.
The past two months of this experience have been truly wonderful. Opening night was a fantastic way to kickstart the run. Even though we had a week of previews before officially opening, there was still a buzz before the top of the play. I have never done a show with so many preview performances before opening night, so it was really nice to experiment while receiving feedback from both the audience and the director. Afterward, we celebrated our full house and opening performance at Room & Board, a design home furnishing store (I don’t think I have ever had so many tasteful options when deciding where to sit).
I have not acted in a production with a 43-performance run, and it really gave me a chance to settle into my character of Jay. That’s what I like about theater; learning about one’s character doesn’t stop when rehearsals are finished. The performances are when the actor grows into the character, making little changes and experimenting in front of an audience. In this production, I initially thought that there would be an a-ha! moment when I “completely” understood Jay. However, I found that I just grew to know him better in general throughout the rehearsal process and performance run. I’m still making discoveries about his personality. For me, the sheer number of performances has been a luxury to get to know Jay.
I am most thankful for the support of my mum and dad. None of this would be possible without them. It isn’t often that parents say “Sure, I’ll drive you two-and-a-half hours for a ten-minute audition.” They’re in the arts business, so they understand that this is my passion.
I will miss Chicago and the Northlight staff terribly, but I do look forward to returning home and enjoying summer with friends. In mid-July I am going to Craiova, Romania for a service trip with my church in Madison. We will build relationships with the team there and work with an orphanage that teaches life skills to prepare for employment.
In mid-October I begin rehearsals for From Up Here by Liz Flahive with Forward Theatre in Madison. I play Kenny, a kid who comes from a dysfunctional family and has done something at his school harmful enough to make him even more of an outcast (just hopping from one dysfunctional family to the next).
Afterwards I plan to travel and visit family in either Europe or New Zealand, and for college I would like to apply for a two-year acting conservatory.
I thank the Northlight Theatre staff, the cast and crew, and my parents for this opportunity. I hope I’ll have another chance to work in Chicago.
Sebastian W. Weigman and Alistair Sewell
Sebastian W. Weigman (Arty)
I’ve learned a lot in the past few weeks. Namely, that we can squeeze the hearts of our audience, tear them in two, while somehow simultaneously setting them up to laugh the hardest they have in a while. I’ve also learned how the audience reaction ultimately shapes the show. Generally speaking, we’ve encountered two polar types of audiences, the first of which being the louder and more vocal audience that just wants to laugh. These audiences are great for energy, but then there’s the other side of things when we get an audience that is purely interested in the dramatic aspects of the play. The house, when quiet, can at first seem a bit discouraging to an actor. But it feeds a very different energy! Another factor is the routine of the show. Mentally, during the run of the previews, I had to set aside some time for preparation. But as I became acclimated to the show, I realized that my character of Arty is easier to access than in the beginning. I was excited to experience the different audience reactions throughout the run. Because after all, the most important aspect of all of this to me, is the reception and comprehension of the play from those on the outside looking in.
This entire experience has been pretty incredible to say the least. Needless to say, the family doesn’t just stop on-stage. Everyone is constantly looking out for one another, and working together to foster a great artistic environment. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast to work alongside of for my first encounter with a Neil Simon text. I dedicated this year to my acting career. I “took the year off” and did my junior year of school online. Next year though, I’m planning on going back to my hometown of Oconomowoc, finishing out school, attending senior prom, and graduating with my class. It’s always been important to me to finish out with the kids I grew up with. Moving on out of high school, I will Major in English with a business-psych minor, and hope to be able to continue on a career path that involves some form of writing. Less realistically but more specifically, television-writing is where I really would like to find myself as a writer. And God knows that we’re in dire need of some decent television right now. Especially from an aspiring writer’s perspective, working the Neil Simon text has been a learning experience. This play has the potential to make you laugh and cry five minutes later, to pull you by your heart-strings and keep you emotionally invested in each and every character. I’m entirely glad that I’ve been able to have this wonderful opportunity and it’s a bit sad and surreal to let the whole thing go. But as I’ve been taught, I’ll inhale the experience, take in the good, exhale the leftovers, and move forward.
Thoughts from the cast of “Lost in Yonkers”
We asked the young actors who play brothers Jay and Arty in Lost in Yonkers to share their thoughts on the experience at various stages of the production. Here is what they wrote while still in rehearsals:
Alistair Sewell (Jay)
Alistair is a student from Madison, WI who is living in Evanston during rehearsals and the run for Lost in Yonkers.
So far, living in Chicago and working with Northlight Theatre has only been an enjoyable experience.
In Madison, I completed all required high school credits in mid-March, thus ending my senior year of high school. It feels strange to be acting without the blessed company of homework. I enjoy living in Evanston and familiarizing myself with a few local favorites, including Brothers K Coffeehouse just below our apartment, the Chicago-Main Newsstand, an incredible fossil collection found in the basement of a fascinating rock shop, and frequent walks through the neighborhood down to the lake.
Working with the company at Northlight has been a joy to say the least. Director Devon de Mayo, Assistant Director Heather Townsend, and Dialect Coach Eva Breneman deliver notes with a positive attitude and sustain a lighthearted atmosphere throughout all rehearsals (beginning the day with our game of “Duct Ball” is partly responsible for this).
The wonderful staff and acting alongside a great cast has made the rehearsal process fly by. I look forward to the next week of runs and performing in front of an audience.
Sebastian W. Weigman (Arty)
The rehearsal process has been extremely invigorating. Devon has been an amazing comrade in my intense and personal journey passing through Yonkers. She constantly caters to an inviting rehearsal environment, covering all bases, leaving little to question. She really invokes a wonderful experience on-stage (and off for that matter). She establishes a seamless connection with her actors, as if we all run on some same wavelength. It helps the process as well to have an all-star cast. The entire company has a great dynamic. I have learned so much from each and every one of my fellow actors throughout the rehearsal process and I am thrilled to pick up even more as we head into the run. God knows that this play is an absolute [bless Neil Simon's heart] mathematical and chronological nightmare in places. But we’ve really honed in on the writing and the intention with Lost In Yonkers. I’ve never found myself feeling the lack for something with all of the incredible resources we’ve been given. The best way to describe my experience rehearsing in this wonderful space would be: efficient, consistent, and quite simply, fun.
John Mahoney interview with Hollywood 360
Chapatti cast member John Mahoney sat down with Hollywood 360 recently to talk about the play as well as share fun anecdotes about his fear of playwrights, losing his British accent, and starting his acting career at 37.
Hear all that and more in this clip.