Our Maiden Z-Voyage
Artistic Director David Catlin on Lookingglassâ€™ History with Mary Zimmerman
The Argo has hoisted anchor and set sail in Mary Zimmermanâ€™s world-premiere of Argonautika, the story of the first voyage of the world.
Water has played an elemental role in Lookingglassâ€™ first two decades: we performed Alice in Wonderland on the lakefront in our student days at Northwestern; we retreated (many times) to an island off the coast of Maine as we planned our future, created Arabian Nights and watched two of our company members celebrate their wedding at the oceanâ€™s edge; we ventured across the Atlantic to a new world with Christopher Columbus in Larry DiStasiâ€™s fever dream staging of The Third Voyage; and Metamorphoses, set in a pool of water, made a huge splash on Broadway and secured Mary Zimmermanâ€™s role as a prominent voice in American theater. It made perfect sense that we would make our home in a water pumping station. Our theater facility on Michigan Avenue is now in its fourth year at the Water Tower Water Works where pumps distribute 250 million gallons of water each day to Chicago residents.
As Argonautika launches us into the next Lookingglass adventure, we find ourselves looking forward to our 20th season and looking back to where weâ€™ve journeyed. This story of Jason and the Argonauts is not our maiden Mary Z-voyage. We first crossed Poseidonâ€™s realm together in The Odyssey fifteen years ago...
It is the winter of 1991â€”lots of snow and very cold. Mary has not yet won her Tony award. Nor received her PhD. Nor garnered much acclaim outside the borders of Evanston. After seeing a staging of a student production of The Odyssey, we persuaded (i.e. begged) Mary to direct us in the showâ€™s professional premiere.
We rented the old Chicago Filmmakers (now Bailiwick) for an eight-week run of this two-part, four-and-a-half-hour staging of Odysseusâ€™ ten-year journey home from the Trojan War. We had to run performances around Chicago Filmmakersâ€™ screening schedule. You could see Part One on Thursday night, Part Two on Friday, both parts on Saturday afternoon and again, both parts on Sunday early evening. We were dark on Saturday nights (not really a big theatre night, anywayâ€¦). Our advertising budget at the time only allowed for neon-green bumper stickers (still plastered on rusted Lakeview lampposts) and Kinko-ed flyers weâ€™d hand out while performing scenes from the play at Lincoln Park Zoo and Daley Plaza. Our college buddy, Whitney Blakemore (co-founder of the Viaduct Theater) was stage manager, house manager, and also ran the Box Office. She would tuck her head inside the dressing room to give â€śPlaces, pleaseâ€¦â€ť and tell us how many audience members to expect. On a good night sheâ€™d say to our cast of fourteen, â€śThereâ€™s one for each of you!â€ť
I remember one very, very coldâ€”Chicago coldâ€”Sunday night when we performed the two parts back-to-back. We had four people in the audienceâ€”three of whom were friends from college who volunteered to usher and sell concessions in exchange for a free ticket. Whitney sold a single $10 ticket to a man who wandered in to get warm. The feeble heating system made more noise than heat and any hope of comfort wafted into the lofty barrel-beamed ceiling of the converted post office. For four and a half hours, our three friends sat beneath a pile of down and wool jackets, and the unknown man sat with his coat zipped to his chin and his winter cap pulled down over his ears. For four and a half hours, we rolled and leaped and sailed through choreography and gesture, through ancient words, great adventure, and a heart-breaking reunion of a family interrupted by war for two decades. I remember looking out fondly from the stage into the worn orange upholstered house at our dear audience-quartet who kept warm in the glow of one of our worldâ€™s earliest stories.
The Odyssey was classic Mary Zimmermanâ€”an excitingly inventive, metaphoric, and highly theatrical telling of a dusty classic you were supposed to read (and if youâ€™re like me, barely got through) in college. Bamboo poles transformed into oars, spears, a ship-eating whirlpool Charybdis, and the many-toothed monster Scylla. The Sirens wore old satin party gowns thrifted from the basement of the long-gone Georgeâ€™s in Andersonville. Penelopeâ€™s boorish suitors entered black-suited in an intricate movement sequence of purposely mundane gesture and complicated patterns. A giant sheet of fabric swept across the stage to create a stage curtain, a billowing sail, and a projection surface for black-and-white 16mm dreams, memory and underworld prophesy.
To create the grainy world of Hades, we filmed some underwater sequences through the diver-observation window in the pool at Northwestern. (Production Artistic Director Phil Smith and our friends at Grip Design riffed on this idea to create an enormous lobby photo that introduces Water Tower Water Works patrons to our ensemble.) Mary wanted to use film to introduce the braided-maiden Calypso, sipping tea at her islandâ€™s watery edge with her sole companionâ€”her enchained and beloved Odysseus. Mary also wanted a montage of images of Athena standing knee-deep in water, pointing the returning heroes home toward Ithaca, and shots of Odysseus wrestling Poseidon in the briny surf. The pool at NU worked great for the underworld, but we needed a beach and waves. (Did I mention the winter of 1991 was very cold?) Someone volunteered $200, and Schwimmer volunteered his GMC Jimmy, and we drove straight south through the night until we hit the Gulf of Mexico in Panama City, Florida. The $200 had to cover gas, tolls, two $35 hotels rooms (for Mary, 4 actors, the filmmaker and 2 crewâ€”cozy!) and a $7.95 all-you-can-eat crab dinner at one of the honkytonks along the shore. (The $200 did not cover replacing Schwimmerâ€™s cracked windshield after a pre-dawn encounter with a small but damaging cinder made airborne by a drowsy 18-wheeler.)
The Odysseyâ€™s set budget was as meager as its marketing budget. We bought some carpet padding (we couldnâ€™t afford actual carpeting) to create some semblance of cushioning as we dive-rolled and danced across the concrete floor. Of course, there is a reason you put carpet padding beneath a carpet: aside from the dearth of pattern and color, carpet padding pills when you walk on it. And when you have 14 actors dashing about and throwing themselves down on it, the whole thing pills like a very cheap sweater. It became part of our warm-up each night for the cast to pick at the pills to smooth the floor for that eveningâ€™s performance.
To provide elevation for Zeus we used construction scaffolding. (I canâ€™t tell you where the scaffolding came from. I do remember, I just canâ€™t tell you...) Temple Williams let us use his grandmotherâ€™s crushed velvet heirloom chairs for Zeusâ€™s throne, and Bruce Norris (Pain in the Itch playwright) built an enormous 20 foot blue ladder. The final set piece called for a large rock to live downstage right. Athena occasionally sat on it to watch the story unfold, and Odysseus stood on it to deliver his final speech to the suitors before slaughtering them. But where to find a rock that was big enough to read from the back row and strong enough to bear the weight of actors jumping up and down from it? (Paper-mache was quickly ruled out.) Around the corner from Filmmakers was a gas station/auto repair called Bronco Billyâ€™s. Bronco Billy had the perfect boulder-size rock out in the parkway near the entrance to his garage. We asked if he might be interested in loaning us the rock in exchange for some program advertising. He offered to rent it to us for $400. We obviously couldnâ€™t afford it. When his boulder-size rock disappeared for two months, Bronco Billy must have suspected that it had been taken around the corner to ancient Greece. We gave him an ad in our program and returned the boulder when the run ended.
Iâ€™m glad to say we donâ€™t â€śborrowâ€ť boulders anymore. For Manuscript Found at Saragossa, we had a boulder custom-built and shipped to us by a zoo rock company in California. As it was in that cold winter of 1991, our aesthetic remains simple in design, (if not in construction.) A single scenic gesture suggests many metaphors, evoking a myriad of moods, locations, and thematic associations. I love that we still revel in high-theatricality & invention; that metaphor, movement, and the audienceâ€™s active imagining remain central to our storytelling.
Full Dream Ahead
Next season marks the end of our Lookingglass teens. The ensemble will meet this winter to determine our milestone 2007/2008 Season. Weâ€™ve already begun dreaming about what that twentieth season might beâ€¦restaging some of our beloved and under-seen favorites; or sharing the work of other local and national theatre artists that we know will knock your socks off; or presenting some completely new pieces from the Lookingglass ensembleâ€”one of largest ensembles in the country dedicated to making new work. Whatever we dream up, we want to redefine what your theatrical experience can be.
Even now, as you read this, Lookingglass artists are concocting plots and images, plying pen to paper, furiously striking keyboards, revising drafts, reading new scripts and old novels, wrestling with big ideas and clarity, researching, envisioning and developing material, balancing what to keep and what to let go of, staging ideas and choreographing movement.
In November, the ensemble will convene for a week-long gglassworks retreat. Gglassworks--led by Heidi Stillman, Artistic Director of New Work-- is the program that develops both the plays we make and the artists who make them. At the retreat, weâ€™ll read and discuss nearly a dozen scriptsâ€”stories about anguish and catastrophe, murder and rage, joy and redemption, adventure and transformation, the power of storytelling and what it is like to be alone in the universe.
In December, the ensemble will reconvene to discuss the three to five proposals that feel most ready to take your breath away. Every proposal answers the question, â€śWhy does this story need to be told?â€ť Sometimes the story is political; sometimes it tackles a social issue that needs addressing; sometimes the story is of deep personal import to the artist making the proposal. We ask the artist questions about what the experience for the audience will be like. What is the source of joy for the audience? What compels? Why is it dangerous? Why is it a Lookingglass show? (We are often drawn to stories that no one else has done or could do in the way we can.) Weâ€™ll discuss and debate each of the proposals and put ourselves in your seat: imagining what the audienceâ€™s experience might be. At the end of that December retreat, weâ€™ll hear from each Ensemble member and Artistic Associate what their ideal season is and why. Weâ€™ll take a short recess andâ€”with valuable feedback from senior staff and artistic directors Stillman and Smithâ€”Executive Director Rachel Kraft and I will come up with a slate of shows we formally propose to produce next year. The ensemble will then vote to approve the season.
In January, weâ€™ll confirm all the details (rights, artist availability, scheduling, etc), with a hope to our 20th anniversary season in February.
As we begin to invent the next unwritten Lookingglass chapters, I promise that weâ€™ll continue to tell stories from both all over the world and right here in Chicago. Weâ€™ll make plays with purpose and passion. I promise that weâ€™ll work to make theatre that brings you to the edge of your seat and astonishes you with arresting kinesthetic, visual and aural imageryâ€”arresting not because the images are merely pretty to look at or listen to, but arresting because those images are metaphoric and bear a deeper psychological meaning. I promise that weâ€™ll work to keep story central and your experience paramount. When you come to Lookingglass in the Water Tower Water Worksâ€”your castle on Michigan Avenueâ€”we want you to blow your hair back with an experience that you canâ€™t get anywhere in the waking world.
If you are a Lookingglass subscriber, thank you for supporting Lookingglass' idealism, passion, and risk. We hope you are proud of the effort and the work you helped make. If you are not yet a Lookingglass subscriber, please consider joining those adventurous theatergoers who invest in the cultural vitality of Chicago and celebrate the verve and daring of Lookingglass: theatre without a net.
All our best,