From Olympus to Neverland
by Julie York Coppens
With rare style, Lookingglassflies in the face of time
All children, except one, grow up, according to Peter Pan creator J.M.Barrie, who ought to know. So do most theatre troupesâat least, the ones that survive infancy.
When Dramatics last dropped in on Chicagoâs Lookingglass Theatre Company, in January 2004 (with an article by Jessica Royer Ocken), the group had reached something like ac omfortable maturity. Seventeen years after a madcap adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, largely improvised by six Northwestern University classmates including David Schwimmer, Lookingglass had achieved international fame with such stage coups as Mary Zimmermanâs The Arabian Nights and Metamorphoses, and was settling into a permanent home onthe Magnificent Mile, in the cityâs historic Water Tower Water Works, a castle of stone and steel where the pipes still hum.
Now, with a budget approaching four million, about a hundred employees (twenty-four full-time), and a big board of corporate types looking over the artistsâ shoulders, Lookingglass has become a bona fide institutionâthough the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf, and a few other giants still dwarf it in some respects. âIt is without question one of the top flight Chicago theatres,â says Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones. But it remains young in the ways that matter. This fall Lookingglass flies to new heights of production size with a fresh adaptation of Peter Pan, by thirty-something director Amanda Dehnert.
âI am addicted to seeing seemingly impossible things happen in the theatre, and the best thing is to engage the imagination of the audience as the last piece of that particular puzzle,â Dehnert says. There will be no hidden wires or other technology taking Peter, Tinkerbell, Wendy and the rest airborne. Viewers will have to participate in the magic of this Pan, though a company of stunt daredevils, genius designers, and rigging experts will do most of the heavy lifting: âItâs rugged, itâs rough, itâs exposed, and itâs all about playing around with gear.â
Firing up the imagination
Acrobatics and other old-school âspecial effectsâ often drive the storytelling at Lookingglass. One memorable 1998 production, The Baron in the Trees, played almost entirely off the ground, with the âleavesâ of old books making up a rebellious boyâs arboreal home. Metamorphoses plunged actors into an enormous pool of water.
âWeâre definitely continuing to push the limits of physicalityâitâs what drew me to them,â says ensemble member Tony Hernandez. An actor/director who grew up inthe circus, Hernandez co-created,with Lookingglass stalwart Heidi Stillman, Hephaestus: A Greek MythologyCircus Tale, marrying a lesser-known myth with a stunning series of physical feats. As Hephaestus, the crippled God of the Forge, Hernandez displays Herculean intensity, agility, and upper-bodystrength, while others, as the immortal ironworkerâs various helpers or enemies, spin like gyroscopes, balance like statuary, contort their bodies, or hurl themselves through space.
Hephaestus, first produced in 2005, is one of several Lookingglass properties (Lookingglass Alice is another) whose frequent remounts and tours help pay for the companyâs chief business of world-premiere stage originals and adaptations. Withâfloatingâ sea nymphs, frolicking gods, and one nine-year-old flipping phenomenon painted silver, the show truly is âa buffet of awesomeness,â as Hernandez puts it. Thatâs a pretty good summation of the Lookingglass m.o.
âThey were the fusion of what you might call a Chicago style of workingâlow budget, ensemble-basedâwith a different style, where how the show looked was important, where storytelling was important, where they were looking at other kinds of literature,â Chris Jones says. He points to Frank Galati and Robert Breen at Northwestern as two key sources of the groupâs epic sensibility and improvisational approach.
âNow, not everything has worked. There were some bombs,â adds Jones,who needs no prompting to remember S/M, a 1996 co-production with Steppenwolf, and one for adults only: âThat was just horrendous.â
But overall, the companyâs record is remarkable. Audiences have responded, in Chicago and around the country as Lookingglass has extended its reach. For current artistic director Andy White, as much as for the Olympian tightrope walkers in Hephaestus, keeping the whole mountain from crashing down is a balancing act.
âItâs more of a coordinating position; itâs certainly not a decision-making position,â White says of his job heading up the Lookingglass ensemble. âWeâre coming up to the hard part now,â he addsâselecting shows for next season by company vote, just like in the early daysââso youâre in a room with a lot of strong-willed, strong-minded, really, really smart people, and youâre trying to get to some kind of consensus.â
Focused on emotion
Recent theatre grads are always launching new companies in Chicago, White says; most flame out before their fifth season. Did White, Schwimmer, and their cohorts have any idea, back in 1988, where Lookingglass would be in 2010?
âI donât think any of us [could] dream that far ahead,â White says with a laugh.
âIf you can get over that [four-year] hump, get your administrative house in orderâthat continues to be something we struggle with here, honestly. Our budget is close to becoming stabilized,â he adds, after seasons of sometimes sharp growth, âbut itâs still not where it needs to be in terms of being able to produce three to four full productions a year, including several world premieres, while we cultivate the next season of shows; and being able to pay our artists what we really should be paying them to do what they doâŠ Thereâs still a gap.â
Thatâs not what Lookingglass audiences see, lining up at the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of Awesomeness. White chalks up much of the companyâssuccess to Chicago itself, home to âthe most amazing, generous, broad-minded audiences in the world,â he says.No doubt the fortune some ensemble members have enjoyed elsewhere, beginning with Schwimmerâs stint on NBCâs Friends, has enriched Lookingglass as well. But basically, the company has succeeded the same way Alice does: by remembering who she is.
âTheyâve stayed very true to a collective aesthetic. Theyâre still taking risks,â Jones says. âAnd theyâve always been very focused on emotion. Theyâve always been about touching their audience more than anything. Thereâs a bleeding heart at the center of their work.â
The most spectacular moments in Lookingglass productionsâlike Hernandezâs plummeting entrance from the rafters, representing Hephaestusâs mythic fall to Earthâare more about the heart than the eye. Hephaestus is falling because his mother, Hera, conceived him in spite and then decided the baby was too ugly to keep around. But the guy picks himself up, becomes a fine craftsman, gets back at Mom, and then wins the love o fAphrodite as a bonus. Itâs a powerful tale of rejection and hard-won triumph, which we can relate to as adults even if, as Hernandez says of himself, we had loving parents. And we soar vicariously with every stunt.
âOlder people come out teary eyed,âHernandez says, surveying the lobby crowd after a performance of Hephaestus in May. âThey say, âThank you for making me feel like a kid again.â When you see their joy, thatâs like our gasoline. Thatâs our fuel.â
With this, her first Lookingglass gig, Dehnert intends to inspire that same joy, in her own way, with Peter Pan.
âI donât know that people realize both how beautiful and sad the story is, how quickly it turns from funny to frightening and then back again. And Iâm not sure we always remember that the infinite capacity we have to dream and play isnât just something we completely leave behind when we grow up,â Dehnhert says.
âJ.M. Barrie wrote once that we have a tiny hair tying us to the person that we were at all the ages of our life,â the director adds. âI truly do hope this story (Pan) helps us all remember the exciting and terrifying time we had when we were children.â
While remounting Hephaestus for a special engagement at the Goodman Theatre earlier this year, Tony Hernandez kept a blog on the showâs many challenges. Here he writes about the climactic seven person pyramid, representing the seven gods of Mount Olympus,whose tandem tightrope walk(at right) had audiences literally holding their breath:
âI am trying to push the limits of human achievement, and storytelling. This is neither digital, nor CGI. There are no lines or magnets; itâs pure balance, trust and teamworkâŠWe have been training for about six to seven hours a day, six days a week. The balancing poles weigh about fifty pounds each, so it takes a lot of conditioning just to be able to hold the pole properly with your wrists curled for the six minutes it takes to complete the pyramid. The wire is also steel and only five-eighths of an inch in diameter, so it takes a while to get your feet comfortable walking on it, with the weight pushing down on you. The bottoms of our shoes are only fine leather, so it is quite uncomfortable at first. Then of course thereâs the balance, which takes months and months of just walking laps, back and forth, learning to properly sway your pole to keep yourself centered. Once the pyramid starts to be put together, everything has to be precise. Everyoneâs foot placement has to be just right, and everyone has to kind of lean into one another, to keep pressure, or else you get pulled apart, or pushed over.
âI find it incredible what the human body and brain can achieve when we get off of our butts and push ourselves to our own limits.â