Monday, April 12, 2010

Using Our Re-Imagination

Guest Blogger:
Jessica Hutchinson,
Artistic Director of New Leaf Theatre

Before New Leaf Theatre was in residence at the Lincoln Park Cultural Center, the Chicago Park District building at 2045 North Lincoln Park West that houses everything from community meetings to classes full of tiny ballerinas, there was no New Leaf Theatre.  Literally.  Many of the companies we love in our lively storefront theatre community were formed based on common experience and common goals, then joined the ranks of our city’s itinerant companies, searching for temporary homes for rehearsal and performance.  Some might say we came at our existence backwards – New Leaf started with the space. 

In 2001, a group of artists – our founders – worked together to create a piece for a one-act festival hosted by the Lincoln Park Cultural Center (LPCC), and was quickly invited to set up shop there, becoming the resident theatre company of that historical building.  Becoming a company beyond the one-act festival hadn’t been the original plan, so over chop suey on Irving Park at the beginning of this decade, those first Leafs decided to jump in with both feet and form an ensemble of artists dedicated to creating opportunities for emerging theatre practitioners like themselves.  They chose the name New Leaf – it seemed appropriate – and we were born.  Since that time, our company has seen big changes in our members and our mission, but the constant over the past nine years has been our home.  Our performance space – our studio – continues to make New Leaf Theatre who we are.  

Setting up camp in an historic building means that our theatre doesn’t look like a typical storefront venue. The court house that became our space boasts a chandelier and sconces, rich oak-paneled walls, and a large portrait of our park’s namesake, Uncle Abe Lincoln, hanging prominently on the north wall over the fireplace.  On the south end is a tiny stage, complete with red velvet curtains.  Add to that the lack of an existing lighting grid and our inability to physically alter the space in any way and it’s clear - this is not your typical black box theatre.

When New Leaf first took up residence, we put everything up on the stage.  Creating jewel-box worlds in that tiny space was limiting; it threw distance between our performers and our audiences, and gave our designers a limited palette with which to create.  That changed in 2005; we realized that the whole room could be our canvas and, with As It Is In Heaven, we pulled our performances down onto the floor.  Suddenly we were able to inhabit the room among our audiences, to build the world of the play in and around them.  Around this time, we also re-articulated our mission and dedicated ourselves to the renewal of our audience and artists.  It was by rediscovering our space, and expanding our perceptions of it, that we began to discover who we are and what we value most.   

What we continue to learn is that the key to remaining agile in the same unalterable space over the course of nine years (and beyond) is to become more flexible ourselves.  The key to our core as a company is found in the re-imagining of our home and ourselves with each new production.  This is how we’ve seen visions of angels, survived multiple horrific train crashes, created the vastness of the whole galaxy and the solitude of a secret underground lair, all without nailing anything to the walls.  Around – and because of – that giant chandelier, we’ve opened Pandora’s box and painted its demons across our ceiling, turned our dome into a hot air balloon sailing across the English countryside, and drifted, ghost-like, through the lives of broken families clinging to their pasts.  

The LPCC has made us more disciplined, more deliberate, and better able to operate within limits, not just of space but also of time; it’s another way our home has defined who we are as a company.  Working in a Park District space shared with our community, there are very specific days and times that we’re able to be in the theatre.  When a rehearsal is scheduled to end at 9pm, that means we’ve just headed out the door at 9pm, not that we’re finishing up that last tricky scene at 9:10pm.  We never rehearse or perform on Sundays, and we don’t stay all night to finish the set.  In fact, the set almost always has to be struck to the stage on Saturday night, and reset on Thursday of the following week. 

But we rehearse where we perform, right there in the LPCC, and are able to bake our productions into those rich oak walls.  When we move into our technical rehearsals, after we’ve rebuilt our lighting grid, hung our speakers, and arranged our scenic pieces, everything we’ve learned about the play over the course of rehearsals seeps back to us.  Our space has muscle memory; it knows us and has started to trust us.  It reminds us of how to do what we do best, and challenges us to use our re-imaginations to stretch and bend it and see it in a new light.

Right now, we’re working on Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, opening on April 15th, and it has been no exception to our rules of re-imagining.  For the first time in our history, we’ve worked out a way to leave more traditional set elements in the space – a suspended door frame, and a working sink, to name just two.  We’ve been negotiating how our world and our space speak to the themes of the play – we can’t (and don’t want to) ignore our immediate surroundings, so how do we bring the audience from the sconces to the stove, from the privilege of plenty to the struggles of the starving?  This show, helmed by company member Kyra Lewandowski, has had us rethinking what we mean by renewal, too.  Can another person follow your formula for rebirth?  What are the limits of renewal?  Does hope always spring eternal, even in the midst of a literal and figurative desert?  

In the middle of a park, adjacent to the zoo’s howling coyotes, in a building rich in history and saturated with memory, New Leaf lets our imagination bounce off the walls, flutter across the windows, encircle the chandelier and float up the fireplace flue.  Our home not only created us, it continues to define us.  With each production we wonder if we’ll be able to see the LPCC – our studio, our home – from a fresh angle, and each time it reveals something new, teaches us about itself, and continues to illuminate who we are by what we’re able to create together. 

Jessica Hutchinson joined New Leaf Theatre in February 2007, and has served as the artistic director of the company since that June.  She’s directed five productions with the company, including last fall’s The Man Who Was Thursday.  She is a freelance director, theatre educator, and proud staff member of the League of Chicago Theatres. 

Image Captions and Credits from top to bottom:
Jessica Hutchinson Photo by Austin Oie

Our Space Transformed for Touch - 2009 Photo by Lindsay Theo
Another Transformtion for Vox Pandora - 2007 Photo by Christopher Ash
In rehearsal for The Dining Room - 2007 Photo by Christopher Ash
Curse of the Starving Class opens April 15, 2010 Photo by Marni Keenan

1 comment:

  1. Totally enjoyed reading this post.I am an independent theatre director in a southern city whose theatrical fare is less than contemporary and lacks works of any substance.

    So I'm attempting to address both issues.

    Hope you are able to keep your postings frequent. Enjoyed it alot.

    Jerelyn Gilstrap