Thursday, February 26, 2009


I'm beat, y'all. Tonight is the seventh performance of Handcuffs in eight days and those of you who've seen it can understand just how daunting of a task that is. Those who haven't will after you make your reservations (right now!) and attend one of the last five performances. I've seen a few things, some good (Hairy Ape, Five Days In March), some bad (How I Became An Interesting Person) and some in between (Desire Under The Elms), but nothing has sat me down and made me its bitch -- at least not to the point that I've felt the need to pull myself from my weariness to write about it. I've got stuff coming up as well -- Rouw Siert Electra (Mourning Becomes Electra), Stupid Kids, and Xanadu (yes, Xanadu) this weekend -- but we start rehearsals for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie on Monday, so I will also be living in that horrifying two show overlap for a week, and barring any earth shattering (which may well happen in that lineup), I may not be back to write about those next week, either.

I'm around, y'all know how to reach me; and if you don't it's Do that. I've got a lot of real world things going on right now; I'd love to have some real world interaction with all of your pretty faces as well.


While I am here, though, a quick Handcuffs mid-mortem. I am astounded, literally astounded at the word of mouth response this show has received. I have stories of people overhearing strangers on the street discussing the show, audience members going home and immediately updating their Facebook status imploring others to see the show (that's the exact wording one person used), strangers who had heard the buzz jumping into conversations I've been having about the show, and repeatedly hearing friends tell me the vast number of otherwise unrelated people who had brought Handcuffs up in conversation. As I mentioned previously, we got one traditional review (which, to be fair, has also been a big help... we've been a TO:C critic's pick for three weeks running) and some good blog press, but this show more than any other I've been involved in is showing me just what good word of mouth looks like and can do.

I'm immensely proud of what we have onstage, but I've also been immensely proud of other shows in Chicago that haven't created this kind of street buzz, and in trying to analyze that I've come to some realizations about the relatively few (as few as two or three) group headings that you can lump successful theatre into: of course, there's the big name stuff (BiC, GoodShakesenWolf) that sells on reputation alone, but among the small guys, there seems to be a strong division of work between traditional and non-traditional.

I don't want to shoehorn this into a classicism vs. experimental argument, because that's not what I mean by traditional at all; rather an idea of embracing what theatre (classic or experimental) looks like vs. embracing what theatre has not looked like yet. And I play both games -- Signal is a prime example of the former. Companies like Signal, Raven, Strawdog, Eclipse, etc. provide theatre that is as theatre does. And the recipe for success in that formula is pure craft. The ideas are infallible, so the X factor in the equation becomes the talent and the execution. And when all cylinders fire, the success is most visible in critical response. Traditional tickets sell through traditional outlets. Certainly word of mouth is an influence, but it takes the form of laundry lists of show responses. You share the good word on a traditional show in coversations that take the form of "Oh, have you seen anything good lately? I hear that X and Y are solid, maybe I should check those out." Then again, traditional tickets sell to traditional audiences, and for traditional audiences, theatre is an evening out. This sort of discourse is how you discover which show would be best to spend your designated Saturday evening theatre trip at. Success in this model is acheived through pure good effing theatre.

The other end of the spectrum, call it theatre is as theatre doesn't, is an idea-based model. The forefront goal isn't technical flawlessness, because any idea interesting enough to embody the sort of response desired has very few if any kindred ideas close enough to provide any sort of precedent as to what flawless looks like. And that's really part of the point as well as the appeal. Non-traditional work excites a crowd because it does things in an unfamiliar manner while treating that manner as an old friend. And this is the type of work that breeds on word of mouth. It's less effective for traditional critics, not because the critics are lacking, but because the best of this work has no benchmark to line it up to. On the other hand, street conversations don't fall prey to that limitation. Something exciting happens, and we want to share it, no matter how large our inability to express the experience in words. And, if we can't express it in words, that in itself is a valid selling point that critics can rarely, if ever, tap. Anytime someone banks on something new and it rolls into a large success (As Told By The Vivian Girls, the process of both the Hypocrites and the Neo-Futurists becoming the established forces they are today), it comes from a growing murmer in the streets, not a declaration from the trusted sources.

As an artist, I see and enjoy the value of both. I have no desire to note this as a division between two warring fronts, merely two different approaches, both a delight to create. Variety is the spice of life. But as an audience member, it's that murmer that gets my little heart a-beating. And the idea that we are that murmer for a growing number of Chicagoans puts a great big smile on my face. So hey, there are five left... come and see that murmer for yourself.


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