Tall Tales in Tiny Places - The Beginning of Things

By the end of our first season, three full productions were presented at the café, and we kept selling out shows while finding our way. We also explored unique ways of staging in the café. Odd play choices and experimenting with space became common themes as we would later learn.

After the Ives/Shepard opening experiment, that summer we turned to the early work of Peter Shaffer. These two one-act plays required set pieces, props, costumes and stage hands. It was still primitive, but we decided if we wanted to be considered “legitimate” we had to add more elements.


Learning how things work

The first act was “The Private Ear” about a reclusive young man (myself) in love with art and classical music, but awkward with people. His friend (Joe Schuman) sets up a date for him with a fine young girl (Lania Dowers) that begins with promise and ends in despair. This piece mixed slapstick humor with some moments of real drama. We worked all over the café, ironing clothes, making meals, dancing. The second act featured “The Public Eye” with Rob Scharlow, Heather Miller and Michael Fisher. Another clever story with some real sharp dialogue and strong acting. The whole evening was a huge leap forward from our earlier efforts, even though it was long at more than two hours. Still, these plays where well-made and well-received.

By the fall, we produced some short works from the theater of the absurd, this time from John Guare, A.R. Gurney and Elliott Hayes. These shows had people scratching their heads.

Gurney’s “The Golden Fleece” was a clever retelling of the Medea myth, only this time we had Betty (Konnie Kay) and Bill (Joe Schuman) as the chorus. They were like an old vaudeville couple, dancing and joking, while Medea’s story happens offstage. It was cute until we learned that Medea just killed her kids. That silenced the crowd. Guare’s “The Loveliest Afternoon of Year” featured a young couple (myself and Katie Mayberry) in a big city park. He sings and serenades her while trying to navigate the dangers of the city and his own private fears. The other short piece by Hayes was about adultery that played like Harold Pinter – so many intense…some would say…deadening…pauses. I recall the frustration of trying to make this program work and getting irritated by the erratic response from the audience. Full houses would stare at us and small groups would laugh outrageously. It was quite strange, and it was because of the odd plays I was picking.

In many ways, starting a theater company was like attending graduate school, where you conducted extensive research by investigating the history and impact of your subject, and then openly tested out your theories. In this case, we were learning how to produce, present, and sell these shows. At least people were paying for our efforts.

We were lucky, because downtown Arlington Heights was fairly quiet back then. This was before the influx of development came in and changed everything. The streets were filled with family owned businesses, like Vail Street Café, Drummer and Thumbs Bookstore, and Regina’s restaurant. The Janus Theatre was new and cheap ($8 a ticket), so people took a chance on us. But they didn’t have to laugh if they didn’t want to, so we learned the hard way.

It quickly became clear that no matter how excited we were about a play or an idea about how to stage that play, the audience was the final measure of its success. This was the beginning of our push/pull relationship between artistic goals and audience satisfaction.

We ended ’99 with money in our pockets. Actors had been paid. The shows were successful. Local media attention was huge and disproportionate to a modest group of our small size. It was going well even though I felt at sea most of the time. And a familiar phrase from the audience after every show was: “What’s next?” Well, it was time for me to direct something. But what?

Tall Tales in Tiny Places - Janus Theatre Turns 20

Janus Theatre turns 20-years old this weekend. Our first production premiered at Vail Street Café in downtown Arlington Heights from Feb. 19-27, 1999.

The production featured Joseph Schuman, Jennifer Plotzke, Tom Selley and myself. It was directed by Terry Domschke and stage managed by Tara Morrison.


Janus Theatre takes first steps

It was a series of one-act plays – two by comic master David Ives and one obscure play by Sam Shepard.

These plays would be our opening production and they did not mesh well at all. If Ives was like pop music then Shepard was like hard punk. It didn’t make any sense.

Still, I went to a local bookstore, saw two anthologies from these playwrights, read a bit, and then picked the plays. It was random, poorly conceived, and in many ways not how you want to start a new company. But Terry didn’t flinch. He was gracious and didn’t try to change my mind. He just embraced the opportunity and knew we were actors in training, developing our abilities, so we worked on this odd production and when it was all done, sold out every performance.

Honestly, I was surprised the café owner didn’t kick us out after the opening night. The first two plays by Ives, “The Sure Thing” and “The Philadelphia” played wonderfully, but when we started “The 4-H Club” by Shepard, the mood in the room began to change. We went from funny people saying witty things to three guys terrorizing the audience, while chasing away invisible mice, and generally trashing the place. It was all very odd, exciting and new.

But what stays with me when I think about that time is how open-minded everyone was – especially Terry. It’s important to remember that he had been directing theater for decades. He had some strong credentials, and his name was associated with these shows, but he didn’t care. He enjoyed working with us on this material. That’s how he was in many ways. His ego was not at the forefront of his personality. He had a great deal of humility, but when it was time to work he could be quite rigorous.

For me, it was a new world of possibilities, and I was seduced by it all – even in a small café theater production. Looking at the article in the Pioneer Press, I cringe, because it reads like youthful exuberance covering up for a lack of experience.

I had an idea to start The Janus Theatre in November ‘98 based on a hunch and some ego that I could do better than what I was seeing around me. Keep in mind, I’d only been doing theater for maybe two years. I was late in the game. I knew nothing when I started. Still, the best thing I did was ask Terry, Joe and Tara to join me. They had been around. They had experience. They had grace. I had a big mouth. And a lot of energy and was eager to learn.

It took some years to mature, but looking back after 85 productions, it has been a journey into an undiscovered country, filled with wonderful people, telling tall tales in tiny places.

It is something I will always be grateful for – those three people saying yes to an idea that didn’t seem sustainable. And yet, here we are, a bit battered, like a band that has lost some members, but still keeps storming the stage making music. Rock on!

Pahl’ Pen

Some Thoughts about ‘Sunday on the Rocks’

by Richard Pahl

Sunday morning. Three women/friends/housemates are home alone while the fourth more judgmental, more controlling roommate is out for a Sunday drive with her longtime beau. One of them has a confession to make and offers up a bottle of Scotch for the occasion.

That is the compelling opening to Janus Theatre's “Sunday On the Rocks” now playing at the Elgin Arts Showcase.

More confessions ensue along with female bonding and girl talk of the most serious kind. The three expound upon a wide range of topics—morality and promiscuity, political boycotts and income disparity, abortion and surrogacy, machismo, therapy, Hitler, mothers, the human connection and the nature of love. It is all extremely personal.

These three thirty-somethings are feeling unfocused and want to get on with their lives. They have been coexisting not so peacefully with the fourth roommate in an extremely affordable residence and are afraid to move out and take on additional financial responsibilities.

Heidi Swarthout as Elly is at a crossroads in her relationship with her longtime boyfriend. Jennifer Reeves-Wilson as Jen seems to feel some ambivalence about a longtime male friend who won't stop calling her. Tiffany Jasinski as Gayle appears to be stuck in the middle between these two and the fourth roommate.

The three of them describe Jessica (Allison Sword) in such detail that the audience feels that they know her long before her entrance at the end of Act I. But she doesn't seem so awful as she was described. Until she does.

This company of powerful actors is every bit as accomplished as you will find on any Chicago stage. These characters truly connect with one another. Their intimate behavior suggests longstanding friendships with good humor and shorthand and rapid fire dialogue. The intimate staging in the round allows the audience to feel as if they are just hanging around the house with these troubled, fascinating personalities. This is dynamic, edgy acting at its finest skilfully fine tuned by Director Tara Morrison. There is never a false note, never an actory moment.

The play culminates in a thrillingly violent, not-to-be-missed sequence. Although “Sunday On the Rocks” was written in the 1990s, it is still astonishingly relevant today with its discussion and illustration of victim blaming. It clearly illustrates the great divide between women in this country. Some go to great lengths to defend men's bad behavior while others believe that violence is never a mistake.

“Sunday on the Rocks” was written by the prolific American playwright Theresa Rebeck. Her current Broadway play is “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” “Downstairs,” starring Tim Daly and Tyne Daly, will have its New York premiere next month. Rebeck may be best known for her television work. She created the NBC show biz drama “Smash” and has written for “NYPD Blue” and many others.

“Sunday On the Rocks” is the third installment in Janus Theatre's ambitious repertory, Underplayed: The Margo Jones Theater Project. It will continue through November 3, 2018 at the Elgin Arts Showcase.

Pahl's Pen

Thoughts about Janus Theatre’s Circle Mirror Transformation

By Richard Pahl

As the lights come up, five actors are revealed in various states of repose on the stage floor. They begin to randomly call out numbers in sequence. When two of them speak simultaneously, they have to start over again.

That is the low key opening to a play about play. “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a unique comedy about four acting students who would normally never have met and their fearless leader. They opt to take a six-week drama class which sends them down unexpected paths. Initially uncomfortable and awkward, the classmates undertake a series of theatre games designed to teach them about movement and action, motivation and intention, awareness and attentiveness, listening and remembering, language and silence.  These exercises often go hilariously wrong.

Group storytelling, word association, good old-fashioned tag. As they get to know one another, the action builds and intensifies. As they loosen up and start to have fun, so does the audience. As they navigate the forced intimacy of their acting class, the audience witnesses their breakthroughs, embarrassed admissions and brief moments of real connection.

Each student directs the others in acting out a scene from his or her childhood. Each tells a story about a memorable experience; later a different student repeats the story as he/she remembers it. In the most telling exercise each takes on the persona of another classmate and shares everything they know about him/her. In the end these unexpected friendships greatly impact their lives. They experience hurt and healing, jealousy and generosity. “Circle Mirror Transformation” provides an enthralling evening at the theatre.

Experienced directors will tell you that 95% of directing is casting.  Here Director Marge Uhlarik-Boller demonstrates her genius for casting. Each of the players is believable and identifiable—Annie Slivinski as the encouraging teacher, Paul Anderson as a father whose daughter isn't speaking to him, Julie Bayer as a New York actor recently relocated to this small town in Vermont, Justin Schaller as a newly divorced and socially inept carpenter, and Abby Anderson as a shy high school student eager to do some “real acting.” Each undergoes a vivid transformation during the course of the play.  Uhlarik-Boller gives shape to a play full of silence and miscommunication and provides her audience with a clear emotional journey.

 Annie Baker's “Circle Mirror Transformation” was developed at the Sundance Institute and the New York Theatre Workshop and premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2008. It received an Obie Award for Best New American Play and a Drama Desk nomination for Best New American Play. The award-winning playwright  subsequently received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “The Flick.” “Circle Mirror Transformation” is the second installment in Janus Theatre Company's ambitious Margo Jones Theater Project and continues through November 4.

Richard Pahl is an actor, director, and writer, who has worked in professional, community, and college theater for close to 40 years. He has traveled the country plying his trade at various regional theaters. He was the creator of both Playwrights' Advocate and Page To Stage - incubators for new play production, where local and regional plays were commissioned and simply staged in front of live audiences, providing critical feedback for the playwrights. Pahl also served proudly on the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission from 2007-2014. 

Pahl's Pen

Thoughts about Janus Theatre’s ‘Night, Mother
By Richard Pahl

'Night, Mother won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. It is a tour de force drama for two accomplished actresses. Kathy Bates appeared in the original Broadway production; Anne Bancroft and Sissy Spacek starred in the film version. Marsha Norman's play is a masterful example of how well written drama can effectively explore a particular subject and characters and their motivations and excite an audience's strongest emotions. Every serious theatregoer should experience this play at least once.

Janus Theatre provides an opportunity to do just that with this production which is running through October 27 at the Elgin Art Showcase as part of Underplayed: The Margo Jones Theater Project. This month-long theatrical event offers three plays written and directed by women presented in rotating repertory using the theater-in-the-round techniques practiced by innovative stage director Margo Jones. The other plays in the series are Circle Mirror Transformation written by Annie Baker and directed by Marge Uhlarik-Boller, and Sunday on the Rocks by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Tara Morrison.

 'Night, Mother opens on a typical Saturday night in the modest Cates home. Grown daughter Jessie is completing her detailed checklist of household chores and preparing to do her widowed mother's nails. During the course of the play, their routine is disrupted by circumstances which force the two to be painfully honest with one another. One of them feels a great peace and resolve after agonizing over and reaching a major decision; the other is desperate to come up with something to say or do that will change that course.

Playwright Norman expertly illustrates their love, regrets, secrets, guilt, and disappointments, and creates a heightened reality that inexorably draws the audience into the argument. While it understandably took a few minutes for the actors to find their rhythm on opening night, once they did the many revelations and discussions and surprises led up to a powerful emotional climax which the audience will not soon forget.

This production features Leah Soderstrom, a recent graduate of Illinois State University, as Jessie in her debut performance with Janus. Maureen Morley as Thelma is also making her first appearance with Janus; she has been performing in Chicagoland for 35 years and earned a Jeff Award for her performance in “Of Grapes and Nuts.” Director Lori Holm, who has regularly acted on Janus stages, was a founding member of Troupe Strozzi and served as its director for three years.

 Kudos to Janus Theatre and company for their complete commitment in presenting this too seldom seen masterpiece of dramatic literature.

Richard Pahl is an actor, director, and writer, who has worked in professional, community, and college theater for close to 40 years. He has traveled the country plying his trade at various regional theaters. He was the creator of both Playwrights' Advocate and Page To Stage - incubators for new play production, where local and regional plays were commissioned and simply staged in front of live audiences, providing critical feedback for the playwrights. Pahl also served proudly on the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission from 2007-2014. 

A Weekend of Rough Magic

By Sean Hargadon

For some years now, I have been intrigued by the idea of bootleg, unrehearsed, cue script Shakespeare. There are different names for it, and you will find a small selection of groups across the country practicing some variation of it. Our version of this practice stems from the Patrick Tucker, Demitra Papadinis, Bill Kincaid line. Each practitioner has further developed and elaborated on the idea and concepts of cue script performance.

The cast of the Tempest Unrehearsed. Front row from left is Lori Holm, Jennifer Reeves-Wilson and Amber Cartwright. Back row from left is Paula Smiech, Annalise Palatine, Julie Bayer, Heidi Swarthout and Allison Sword. Tintype photo courtesy of Doug Hanson.

The cast of the Tempest Unrehearsed. Front row from left is Lori Holm, Jennifer Reeves-Wilson and Amber Cartwright. Back row from left is Paula Smiech, Annalise Palatine, Julie Bayer, Heidi Swarthout and Allison Sword. Tintype photo courtesy of Doug Hanson.

One thing that struck me about our recent weekend with the Tempest was how pliable the play was regarding different actor interpretations. Since this production was not directed in the usual way, the actors were making choices in the moment. And while an actor could possibly attempt to play a character arc throughout the performance, they still had to be open immediately to what was happening around and right in front of them. There are no tracks to follow, the play is not blocked in advance, character work is done in isolation away from other actors, so it leaves a lot open inside the arena of the playing space, the audience, and the actors.

I have witnessed the Tempest performed in ways that promotes a certain tone of seriousness to the proceedings. Prospero is usually a sage-like figure, full of wisdom, stature, anger and the like. His daughter comes off as demure and pure. And in most cases, the majority of the comedy rests with the clowns played by Trinculo and Stephano.

But in our unrehearsed production this idea was turned on its head. Throughout much of the play, there was a tremendous amount of amusing exchanges taking place between the actors and the audience, since one of the rules in this style is to keep talking to the audience as much as possible. Along with this comes a fluidity of movement where actors are countering and crossing much like a basketball team as each player keeps working for the good shot. In this case, actors are creating a physical rhythm with each other through the language, while still trying to connect and engage the audience. This isn’t park and bark Shakespeare.

Some moments that stick out in my mind came in the opening scenes when Prospero has to go into a lengthy exposition about past events. He is bringing his daughter up to speed and repeatedly gets frustrated because he thinks she is not paying attention. Instead of this scene strictly happening between two actors, the audience surrounding the action became active participants as Prospero began questioning them to see if they were listening as well. Add to this the support of Ariel asking audience members to ‘hail’ Prospero in the beginning of the scene, it becomes clear this reading of the play will be somewhat different. Later, in a scene between Miranda and Ferdinand; a love scene that is often played very proper and sweet, Miranda quickly falls for this shipwrecked prince and has no problems showing it verbally and physically. Watching this was quite shocking at first, as one actor pursued another, but after checking the script, the language did support the acting choices.

This led me to think about how much cultural baggage is associated with Shakespeare in performance nowadays. What is common practice, what is the right way to do it, and can you veer off in other directions? Well, the answer is you can attempt many different things and the play can support it. But you have to be willing to break free of years and years of interpretation. That’s not an easy task and the director inside me kept questioning what I was seeing.

This style of playing tends to open up the play in ways that feels more fun, a bit loose, and less precious. But the genius in this approach comes when you’ve reached Act 5 and most of the play has gone on with a fairly light touch and you’re wondering to yourself: “Where is this going?” and “What’s so special about this play?” That’s when Shakespeare brings all the resolutions together in a few short pages and Prospero’s performance begins to morph into something quite magical. The act of forgiving your brother for his crimes; the decision to let your daughter marry her love; the gratitude you feel toward Ariel and pain in letting her go; and the forgiveness you apply to the beast that is Caliban – all this comes on like a rising tide that threatens to overtake the play in a wave of dignified yet painful, but still joyous emotion. It’s a conjuring of sorts (something that actors can do) that doesn’t require fancy lighting or a clever soundtrack, save maybe for a percussion instrument and a singing bowl.

It all ends with Prospero turning to the audience and then setting his sights on one person in the audience, a young man, who has been watching in agreement at this intimate spectacle. Prospero delivers the lines of his famous final speech and with a gesture of two hands coming together he almost simultaneously forms an embrace and clap as he asks the audience to set him free. And they do. The applause comes and the story ends.

That’s when I realize I’ve just gone 15 rounds watching a Shakespeare play where he danced and weaved and boxed his way into my heart and mind, before knocking me on my ass with a sharp uppercut. It was totally unexpected and worth the wait. And it wasn’t precious or pretentious or planned. Now, that is some rough magic.

Pahl's Pen

Thoughts About Janus Theatre’s ‘ART’
By Richard Pahl

A pioneer of site-specific theatre in the northwest Chicago suburbs, Janus Theatre Company's newest production, Art by Yasmina Reza, is staged in the sparkling, contemporary Seigle Gallery at Elgin Artspace Lofts. The playing area consists of a rug, a bench, three chairs and an easel, surrounded by four walls of colorful framed art, courtesy of Yellow House Artists. It is a glorious setting!

This comedic and dramatic play explores the 15-year friendship between three grown, cultured men as seen through the prism of their love for art. Sean Hargadon plays Marc, a hardline classicist; Justin Schaller portrays the tightly wound Serge with a taste for the contemporary; Michael Wagman is open-minded, highly stressed Yvan who is frequently caught in the middle.

In a series of vignettes, we get to know these three friends who are unafraid to say terrible things to and about one another. They are constantly examining and dissecting their interactions and their favorite subject, art. They share confidences, seek approval, admit disappointments, and play rough.  Realizations and decisions are made. The shifting alliances are unexpected and thrilling!

Janus Theatre has scheduled this play and its entire 19th season with an eye to promoting community discussion about what constitutes art. This production with its sometimes sly, sometimes explosive dialogue touches upon one's understanding of art and culture, artistic taste, divergent opinions about art, the monetary value of art, the fashionableness of trendy artists, art's surprise value, snobbery, and the happiness or prestige that owning art provides.

As is usual for Janus Theatre, this intimate performance features characters speaking directly to audience members and sometimes invading their personal space. It is by no means participatory; nevertheless the audience is effectively, willingly drawn into the discussion and ideas of the play.

Kudos to Co-Directors Sean Hargadon and Tara Morrison and the entire production staff for their clean, focused work on this stimulating production. If you have any passion for art or theatre or friendship, you should see this thrilling production. Go early, take some friends, grab a beverage, admire the artwork, enjoy the bumpy ride, and then take some time to talk about art and friendship!

Richard Pahl is an actor, director, and writer, who has worked in professional, community, and college theater for close to 40 years. He has traveled the country plying his trade at various regional theaters. He was the creator of both Playwrights' Advocate and Page To Stage - incubators for new play production, where local and regional plays were commissioned and simply staged in front of live audiences, providing critical feedback for the playwrights. Pahl also served proudly on the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission from 2007-2014.