Growth Through Touring and Tension
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of the From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, editor, and producer Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homelands of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee homelands, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded in the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leaves a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging all this, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time, and for each of us to consider our rules and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Welcome, artists. So glad to have you back by now. We’ve entered a new year, and I truly wish you all health and happiness now and always whenever this podcast hits your ears. Today’s conversation, much like the one with UNIVERSES, is over a decade in the making. I first met David Catlin of Lookingglass Theatre Company as he was touring Lookingglass Alice to Actors Theatre of Louisville. This was my first encounter with a Lookingglass show. And let me tell you that I went on to see the show eleven times in Louisville. I saw it from all angles and it was in that moment that I realized that I was absolutely astounded by the virtuosity of the actors, which let me buy into the story that much more. I don’t even remember what David and I talked about that first meeting in Kentucky, but I did remember his generosity to connect and converse with me. Years later, I ended up assisting him on his adaptation of Moby Dick, which was an absolute blast. You’ll hear us talk about these plays and more today as case studies for developing and touring.
It was on a drive home from rehearsal that I believe that David and I actually started the conversation that you’ll hear completed today. Over the years, I’ve had several conversations though, not documented until now, with Lookingglass Theatre Company ensemble members. And one thing that has always gotten to me is how their artistic season is selected by committee, by nearly all the ensembles at a yearly retreat. Several factors go into the decision making process, but they typically all decide together. The shared leadership of the ensemble then becomes a part of a more hierarchical administrative model that the rest of the company follows, including an ensemble member as artistic director. Lots of factors to consider financially and socially, but as you’ll hear all out of a place of love for the work and for one another’s talent. The focus of today’s call is twofold. One, the work of collaborative decision making and two, the touring of their work. What started out as a question about finances and the fruits of touring, inevitably turned into a brief history of the company. David joined me on October fourth 2021 via Zoom from the ancestral lands of the Peoria, Ho-Chunk, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi tribes, now known as Evanston, Illinois. Enjoy.
I have to tell you, our kiddo is four years old now, and—
David Catlin: God—
Jeffrey: —and, and Moby Dick book has gotten a lot of mileage. It keeps getting out, comes out. It comes, goes away, and it comes out it again like “What’s this? What’s this?” And I’m like, well, let me tell you a little more. So pretty soon she’ll have a good, a really great grasp of it.
David: Good, that is good.
Jeffrey: David, thank you so much for being here, and thanks for your time today. I really do appreciate it; it’s been fantastic. And as I was preparing for today, I was remembering how we met on tour. I met you at Lookingglass Alice at Actors Theatre of Louisville, which is probably why my brain went, “Oh, I should ask David about these sorts of questions.” And so the thrust of what I want to ask you about is touring today. And so I guess just without too many preemptive questions. How is it that Lookingglass has found success with some of the tours that it’s put out?
David: Well for Lookingglass, we do a lot of original work created by members of the company. Now, when I say, “originals,” much of it existed in literary form prior to us bringing it to the stage. So the stories were there, but the stories as pieces of theatre were not necessarily there. And so, a lot of the work is original. We’re really interested in making work that incorporates elements of circus in it, some extreme physicality. We’ll use puppets; we’ll use live music. We like to try to draw from every kind of form of performance. The idea that we want to make work that audiences don’t just experience in an auditory way, a lot of places you go to see you’re actually going to hear because the language is so important. And we love, love language, but we also want our audiences to have a kinesthetic experience. We want them to have a visceral experience. We want to immerse them in the story. And sometimes it’s cinematic. Sometimes it’s metaphoric, and we incorporate all kinds of storytelling, like I was saying: circus and music.
And we also like to set up our theatre in non-traditional ways, and that means that sometimes the audiences can be inside the story. The story can be happening all around them. So with that, when we make these original plays, and they have all of this stuff happening, they’re not exactly plays often that other people can easily just take the script from and then go produce themselves. And so, early on, it became important for us to tour productions because otherwise we wouldn’t have a second production. And so, we kind of had to take our actors there because a lot of times the ask of a single actor demanded a multidisciplinary actor.
There's… Mary Zimmerman took Argonautica to Berkeley, and there was Larry DeStasi, who’s this kind of brilliant actor who can do a lot. In the show, he was like a human puppet in a giant centaur costume. At one point, he was puppeting stuff. He was sailing through the rigging; he was doing all this acrobatic stuff. And he was acting, and he was singing. And so he couldn’t go. And so they had to recast it. They couldn’t find a single actor who could do all of the things that he could do. In fact, they had to divide his part amongst three actors.
A lot of the initial impulse to tour came from wanting to get our work out into the world and kind of stretch beyond Chicago. And we love being in Chicago; it is our home. But we also wanted, wanted to get the work out there. And really the kind of only way to do it initially was by bringing it there. And we were fortunate enough that there’s so much great theatre in Chicago that a lot of the other companies, the regional companies were coming into Chicago to see something at the Goodman or Steppenwolf, or even some of the smaller storefronts or down at Court. And we were able to get them to come and see shows. Lookingglass, on that weekend, we would help pack their weekend. And it was unique and unlike things that were happening in there; they got excited about the idea of bringing our work out there. And mostly early on, it was a lot of Mary Zimmerman’s work that was going out to places like McCarter at Princeton. And in Berkeley she has this fan base that just gets and loves her work deeply and desperately. She toured a lot to Seattle.
But it was a way of sharing what we do that economically opened us up to more national recognition, or wider recognition. So some of the national granting organizations became aware of what we were doing and were able to kind of get behind supporting us. We got more grants from national funding institutions, so that was fantastic. And then one of the things that we did early on is that we created these contracts. We got a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop contracts that allowed us to… when a production went on, and if it was our production—because with a more traditional relationship between a theatre and a playwright, if the play goes on, the theatre may get some money back from future productions—but in this instance, because it was really in many cases, our production that included our actors, our designers, our director, and that we had put all that R&D into it, we developed contracts that allowed us to take a small percentage, not of the playwright’s percentage, but of the weekly gross. And that was a way of helping bring money back to the company.
And also just, anytime you put a play on for the first time, it’s scary, even with all the great people working on it and a title that’s exciting and interesting, it’s hard to make something that people want to come and see and tell their friends about, and that has that. So for us, touring at times was also not just about opening up to other audiences, but it was a way of helping try to bring some money back to the company when it was our production. So that we could develop the next one.
Sometimes touring is also done with co-productions, where we will collaborate with another company. That’s often what would happen with a lot of Mary’s early work where, especially once she had developed a reputation out in places like Berkeley and Seattle Rep, they would put partner beforehand. And that’s a pretty common model that a lot of regional theatres will share a production. The benefits there are that they can share in some of the rehearsal costs, a lot of the costumes. Presumably, it’s the same cast moving from city to city, so the costumes would be the same. Maybe there’s some refurbishing that might have to happen. The set could be pretty similar with some adjustments, and amendments, and theatres could shoulder their own production costs and PR costs for when it’s running. But those kind of getting the show to the stage they could share. And that’s something that we have done sometimes. Sometimes it’s a matter of them bringing in our production and maybe paying that percentage. We called it a derivative production at times, or that was, I think, a word that we associated with it. And we would work with that theatre to make it feel like theirs.
In the case of Lookingglass Alice, which we took to Actors Theatre of Louisville, where we met, that was a production that was born in our little two-hundred-seat black box theatre. And it literally had to grow to fit on onto that stage. The show changed a lot. And that was, I found, really exciting that we could... Because in a way, at least for the work that I’m interested in, the theatre becomes a part of the storytelling. In fact, when our architects design Lookingglass, they created this perimeter scaffolding that the architect referred to as “a machine for theatre.” Our aesthetic is not always, but it’s generally pretty open-handed, where hopefully you have an enough information scenically and costume wise. Where you as an audience where your imagination has to kick in and finish the picture.
And so, it’s not uncommon to come to a show at Lookingglass, and you see the lights and you see the ropes that are moving. Or you might even see actors changing in front of you. And part of the magic of that is that we as an audience then get to, all of a sudden, have that moment where it goes from seeing actors and the theatre, to getting lost inside the story, and seeing all those details, and actively engaging our imaginations. So with that in mind, when we go to other theatres that, so that theatre, the architecture of it is really present, see how that show could expand and contract, depending on what theatre we in.
We took it to the New Victory on 42nd street, and that is a tiny proscenium but with a very, very tall proscenium arch. And so in a way, it was just like Alice in the story where she’s growing and shrinking throughout the story; the show got very tall. And partly too, because we are use elements of circus, we like to bring our storytelling into the vertical space. A lot of times when you go see a play, it’s on the floor, and compositionally, you’re using the floor. And maybe there’s some levels or decks, but we are really interested in using all the space, including the vertical space above the stage for our storytelling space. And just literally, the shrinking and growing helps challenge the story. It helps in that second, third, fourth production, you learn things about it as it stretches, as it comes back, as it gets smaller and gets down to its essence. So the show itself is literally changing as well.
We also, by getting it out into the world, audiences are different from place to place. It’s fun to see how there’s something really interesting about how we can recreate the show or transform it for that particular audience. Can it change a little bit to acknowledge some of the cultural differences that exist between different cities, different regions of the country? And it also can change pretty drastically depending on what else is happening in the world. Things within the course of the story begin to pop even more, or stop making sense. So, it’s this very organic creature, these plays that we work on; they change. And I love that. I think there’s a commitment at Lookingglass to kind of keep it changing.
Jeffrey: When you’re co-producing, or if it’s a derivative performance, are there also shows on the home stage back in Chicago while you’re touring as well?
David: Yeah, usually, and that can be challenging. That was challenging in the earlier days because I think we took Arabian Nights to Los Angeles, and that was a show that had a lot of ensemble involvements in it. Suddenly, I think we had two ensemble members left in Chicago to kind of hold down the fort artistically. And sometimes there’s actors who could be perfect for a role in the upcoming season but are involved in that tour, and then they have to make a decision. And from a resource standpoint that can be challenging to figure out. With Lookingglass Alice, we were able to have some moments where we had some multiple casts running, so that when people had to leave to come back to Lookingglass, we could filter new actors into the various roles.
Anthony Fleming III is just one of my favorite actors to work with. He was a really important part of Lookingglass Alice, but he was also in Moby Dick. And so, we got this terrific actor, Adeoye [Mabior Mabogunje] to take his role for a part of a tour. That can be great to have new artists coming in and bringing new energy and ideas. I kind of love that about theatre where you can work on a story and you add new artists into it, and they bring something really, really unique. And the show again, has a moment of transformation, because it changes to kind of acknowledge the unique spirit of the people that are joining it.
Jeffrey: Would the touring production then come back and be performed at Lookingglass, or would you sort of put it back in the box and save it for the next tour?
David: We would often try to do it at Lookingglass, either to kind of launch the tour, or for a landing spot for the tour. The way that Equity would like, they don’t want actors to get paid less as a tour goes on. And because of economies of scale, there are theatres with eight hundred to twelve hundred seats, four hundred seats, five hundred seats that can pay more than the two-hundred-seat Lookingglass. So there have been times where how that works is challenging.
Jeffrey: Was touring a part of your early model, or was it just something that sort of evolved out of a production in particular?
David: It was not part of our early model. And though I will say, we were inspired a lot by companies that did tour. There was this great Jane and Bernie Sahlins, and a group of other wonderful members of the theatre community brought in the International Theater Festival. I think this was in the late eighties, maybe. And they would come every year, and they would bring artists in from around the world. Both artists, but also companies. I just remember being completely inspired by this company, Dog Trope from the Netherlands and I think it was the Gate Theatre’s—and it might be the Abbey Theatre’s—I think it was the Gate Theatre’s Waiting for Godot; it’s spectacular. And so, as young artists were just really taken by these, and inspired by these companies that came in. And actually Chicago Shakes, their Worlds of Stage program has been really, really beautiful and inspiring. And grateful for as an artist, working in the city, I’m grateful for what they do, and being able to see James Thierrée.
How we started, David Schwimmer had five hundred dollars sitting in his bank account from his bar mitzvah, and this is in college, our junior year of college, and he convinced six of us to not audition for any school plays on campus and to participate in this early version of Alice in Wonderland. And we agreed. He was a very persuasive person, brilliant director. He’s kind of funny, but he’s a brilliant director. And he got us to do this. And we rehearsed all fall. We did this kind of deep dive into improvisation and all these Viola Spolin games, and really explored, built an ensemble. We explored the story; we explored the physicality of it. It was this Andre Gregory adaptation that was inspired by Grotowski's Towards a Poor Theatre, where it was just really stripped down. It was very physical. And so we did it on campus. This was after three months of workshopping and improvisations, and then another six weeks of staging it. And we did it, and it was a huge hit because we worked on it for a long time. And like I said, Schwimmer’s brilliant. And the underlying story is exciting.
And then we decided to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So before we were going to come, we toured a show. That experience was incredibly profound. It was there in Edinburgh where, after a pint of Guinness or three, we’re walking below Edinburgh Castle, and we thought, “Let’s start a company.” There was something about working so deeply on a show, and then taking it somewhere to another country. That was a very powerful experience for the twenty, twenty-one-year-olds that we were. And it made us want to keep doing that kind of work. So in a way, the real initial inspiration was born out of kind of a tour of going on this adventure together. It was very important to us that people knew it wasn’t the Disneyfied version of Alice in Wonderland. And so, we made it very clear that this was a grown-up version of Alice in Wonderland to come see.
Well, the Daily Scotsman, in their one-line sentence about Alice in Wonderland that we were to doing was, “Adult version of Alice will play at the Chaplaincy Center.” We literally had these guys showing up in trench coats with no pants on underneath the trench coats. They were expecting to see some midnight version of Alice. And I think we disappointed. Occasionally they would stay and have their minds changed. But it was a really formative experience for us. And in fact, I would say the first fifteen years of Lookingglass’s existence, we didn’t necessarily tour to other cities or countries, but we moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. And there was something that kind of became intentional about that.
In our first fifteen years, we were in twenty-two different venues across the city. Part of it was driven because we wanted, again, the theatre itself is part of the storytelling; it provides a certain context to it. So, when Laura Easton was doing a piece called In the Eye of the Beholder, which was about how fear can shape the life of a young woman, she had this image in her head of this long cross with this kind of skeezy guy walking, which was played by Schwimmer, little type casting. This guy is walking towards her and kind of eyeing her. But it was a long cross, and we found this. The Prop Thtr had a place I think it was on North Avenue, that was a long, skinny storefront. And it had this great, deep stage to it that allowed that particular image, that cross us to really be incredibly effective. So we were able to pick a venue that fit the story that we wanted to tell. And so, that context became very important and as well as the kind of ability to travel.
And in fact, I was talking about our theatre and the Pumping Station and what the architects had had created for us. Because we had been in twenty-two different venues, our aesthetic developed on the ability to kind of select a venue that fit the story. And so, we asked them to design a theatre that could be malleable. We have had—I don’t know the number of configurations—but lots of different configurations, and all of them are designed for the audience’s best experience. So for the inaugural productions, Schwimmer directed this adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Race. And it was very important to him that it feel like that the community was as much a part of the story as what was happening on stage.
And so, Dan Ostling designed this set in the round that allowed… at any point, you would see the story, but you would also see members of the city of Chicago in the audience experiencing that story. When Andy White did Orwell’s 1984, he wanted to capture the kind of ever pervasive quality of Big Brother being able to see you no matter where you were. And so, in the rectangular space, we used a long, wide stage and had these video screens of Big Brother’s eye all over. So, it felt like no matter where you looked in your vision, you would see his eye. You couldn’t escape it. It had this very oppressive feel to it.
When Mary Zimmerman did The Secret in the Wings, she had this image of this basement with a little kind of hole in the back corner under the stairs. And so we used an “L” configuration for that. Lookingglass Alice, the mirror is very important, and so we have an alley configuration for that one with some surprises that get us there. But, in a way, I think that set us up to tour. That’s a long-winded way of your question was, “Was touring important at the beginning?” And in a way, it kind of was, but not as in the city to city, but in the community to community. The different theatres that we have been to, the different theatres that we create. It was important that way.
Jeffrey: Yeah. What I’m hearing is that the company doesn’t want to be limited by space, ever. Vertical space, distance, proximity in the city. That’s really fantastic to sort of think about that.
David: Yeah. Thank you. And I think that fits a little bit too, not wanting to be limited by over specificity of prop. Because we do a lot of adaptation, an author of a novel is not limited by space, or physical reality. They can, in the turn of a page, change years; they can change locations, the physics of that on stage. If you were trying to create a set that was exactly right for each scene, each moment in the course of a literary novel, you couldn’t afford it, and it would just be physically impossible. But the human imagination can do it, right? So we can have an eighty-ton whale on stage, because of the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, we can do the impossible. We can do anything, which is limitless.
Jeffrey: Physical theatre seems to be…I forget who told me this, but someone said, “Physical theatre in Europe is just called theatre.”
David: Uh-huh. I love that.
Jeffrey: Right? And Lookingglass certainly doesn’t pigeonhole themselves into being a physical theatre, but the circus elements certainly lifted up to more physical work. I’m wondering, in those early days... But now that you’ve got a reputation for doing literary adaptation: how did you convince donors that, “We’re going to make this sort of bare bones, poor theatre,” and that it was a viable thing to invest in?
David: I think it happened because we were able to fundraise on our own a little bit. When we took that show to Edinburgh, when we took Alice to Edinburgh, the way we did it, we fundraised for it. So, we got the Dean of the School of... The Dean agreed to fund half of it, if we could raise the other half. And this is testament to probably why we’re in Chicago, because the amount of support that we got from the members of the Chicago theatre community was kind of incredible. Wisdom Bridge allowed us to take some of our scenes from Lookingglass Alice, and hired us to do some outreach, so we got money to that way. Joyce Sloane at Second City provided space for us to do a benefit, and we found people to help fund it.
And at that point it was, “Well, here’s some kids from college who are wanting to do this.” And again, you’ve got Schwimmer, who’s a pretty persuasive person, is helping lead that charge. And we continued to be able to talk about, we had some success there. We started making theatre and we weren’t paying ourselves anything at first, and we were able to do it with props that barely cost anything. And Mary Zimmerman did The Odyssey, and it was some bamboo poles and a giant curtain that swept across and some thrifted ball gowns. And it was stunning. It was incredibly beautiful. I remember going to see it. She did a version of it here at Northwestern. It was four and a half hours; it was two parts. She did it all at once. And I didn’t, hadn’t seen Mary’s work at this point, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, four-and-a-half-hour Greek story, done by students.”
And I was a student too. I think I’d been out for three months, so, I had a big attitude about that. But after four-and-a-half hours, I thought fifteen minutes had gone by. It was so engaging and breathtaking. And as well, of course we know Mary’s a genius. But it was without barely anything. It was all of those props that I mentioned and maybe a couple more. And that was it. It was stunning. And so, we actually got her to do it. How we kind started working with her was we got her to direct us in it. And right around that time, Schwimmer, we did a version of The Jungle, we hired this guy who teaches gymnastics to teach us as a group. We worked with a guy who did some Foyer stuff. And so, that production had elements of circus embedded in it. It was physical. There were points where Larry DeStasi, he was played this loose steer on the killing floor. He was doing these mule kicks, and we grabbed him, tied a rope around his legs, and cinched it, and then he went diving out to try to escape.
He dove out into the audience, right as three or four of us are pulling on the other end of the rope, and just as he’s about to fall into the audience, he’s hoisted up on this rope. And then we move him over to this traveler track that we excavated from a theatre up here in Evanston, the Old Varsity Theatre, and he is then processed like a side of beef. It became this really effective moment, and a lot of what that metaphor, that very on-the-nose metaphor about how the workers were treated in The Jungle and in Chicago and in the early 1900s. Richard Christensen, who was the chief critic at The Tribune, he was so excited about it. He did a piece about both Schwimmer and Dexter Bullard, and there was another director who’s just left my brain, and work that they were doing. And so that the work led to getting some press, which led to people dragging their friends who were working at various funding institutions to come and see it and make grants.
The Mayer and Morris Kaplan Foundation came and saw it, and they called us the next day. They said, “We need to support you. You need to write a grant and we will support you.” It’s a beautiful part of the community in Chicago that members of the funding community, it’s not just for the big theatres. But they go, and they see stuff in little venues. That happens a lot. It happened to Lookingglass, but it happens a lot that people are looking out for each other.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Work begets work, and funding sort of begets funding, in a funny way, too, right? So, and then did that lead to the MacArthur and the Mellon funding and beyond?
David: Yeah. And especially once we got MacArthur, that level of credibility allowed other organizations to take a stronger look at us.
Jeffrey: One of the things I’ve always been so curious about is how Lookingglass has always had that ensemble spirit, but then you sort of have this administratively hierarchical process of artistic director, and managing directors, and Department of Curiosity, and all of your other programming that sort of goes under there. I’m wondering, does it scare some people? Does it scare donors away that an ensemble is going to make the artistic decisions for the year? And then, on the other side, does an ensemble member, are they afraid of that sort of... Or leaning into a hierarchical corporation of sorts?
David: I mean, one of the things that is a little non-traditional at Lookingglass is the ensemble is a big voice in determining the season, and in determining membership. Those are kind of the two big, big responsibilities. And helping guide the vision for the company. So we have an annual season decision retreat where we gather, and we read plays that we’ve been working on and have come forward, and talk about them, debate, and have lots of discourse and try to think about what is the most inspiring season. And it may be something that is where you’ve got three, four shows that are completely different, and feel great that way, or three or four that are tapping into something that needs to happen. I will say, the two top questions in our season decision proposals are, “Why does this story need to be told? And why do you need to tell it?” And so it’s toggling back and forth between the kind of, why does the world need this story right now? And the personal: what specifically about that story is catching you? Because we want the artist to have that. I think the artist needs to be moved by it too. And that passion is something that can be very catching.
But I think, in a lot of traditional companies, you’ve got the artistic director determines what the season is, and maybe in consultation with some other artists. But with us, it is a process where we go around, and every ensemble member says what they feel about it. We had an early moment as a company where, of the eight, two were women and six were men. So it had this kind of loud men. And the company brought on more people and more people, and we got to a point where it still was, the men were taking up space. Surprise, surprise. We had this really important conversation where the women said, “Look, we don’t have an interest in being a part of this company if we have to shout to be heard.” With that, we developed a thing we call roundy-roundy, which, it was just a forum for everybody to be able to express where they were at. And a lot of people do that now, but it was a big deal for us at that moment. I think we would not have survived had we not done that.
But that has led to us, on big, important decisions to have that conversation where we ask everyone in the room to have an opinion. And we want to hear it. There can be some tension because that group of people may not have as a thorough, an understanding as the administrative leaders have. So, there is some hierarchy there. So that the staff knows who they have to ask questions of who they’re responsible to. So, there’s a clarity there. Every once in a while, there could be some tension between, “This is what we want to do,” and, “This is what we can afford to do.” Usually what happens is, there is hopefully time to figure that out. Because we don’t want the season to tank the company, we try to be thoughtful about it. So that, also early on, when we got a large grant at the time, meant we could have paid ourselves as artists a little bit more, we instead made a decision to hire an administrative director, to keep the books and to invest in that part of the company. And it’s interesting, because in that moment, we could have invested in the artists, but we wanted the longevity of the company. We wanted to put that as the main focus in that moment. I think that’s another reason that we’re still around is that we will, from time to time, make those decisions that are about the bigger company.
Jeffrey: You have a board of directors, right?
Jeffrey: And your board of director trusts in that ensemble process?
David: Yes, but it’s not always easy for them to understand how... Part of that is us. There’s a level of education because they’re often coming from for-profit sector, or they’re corporations. But if they’re on the board, they’re volunteering their time. And they’re often bringing their friends to see the shows as ambassadors for the company. They’re often making financial gifts to the company to help support. They’re literally supporting in almost every way they can, but it is a deep investment to be a board member at Lookingglass. So, it’s important that they like the work, right? And usually if they like the work, and get it, and believe in it, they are willing to listen and to support it in the way that we do it. And it’s actually good, sometimes if they challenge us.
The whole idea of Lookingglass Alice kind of came from our board president. He and Laura Easton, who was the artistic director, so I don’t want to short drift Laura in that too. But they said, “What if we did something that we could do again? Wouldn’t that be great? The Goodman has Christmas Carol, what if there was something that we didn’t have to always reinvent the wheel?” Now it’s tricky because making theatre, it’s not the best way to make money, right? I mean, with something doing it for the first time, but for whatever reason. And Laura was like, “We should return to these Alice stories that were so important to the forming of the company. We’ve developed all these circus skills since then. We are at that age where we’re having kids, so there’s something even more meaningful at that point maybe about telling that story. Or, at least we’re going to be able to look at it through a different lens.”
When we first did Lookingglass Alice, I wasn’t thinking like, “Oh, we’re going to be able to do it every year.” That was, I think what Todd Leland, our then chair was thinking would be good, and people liked it. And so, we were able to extend it and they liked it enough that theatres who were in town seeing other shows at the Goodman, saw it and said, “Bring it to Philadelphia.” “Bring it to New York.” “Bring it to Louisville.” “Bring it to Princeton, New Jersey.” And we were able to bring it back to Lookingglass. And it became that idea that Todd had envisioned. Jackie Russell, too, who was the executive director, was also pushing for that, to make something that we could bring back. In the early days we had the worst kind of financial model. We would close plays that were selling out, because we had to get the next show up and we didn’t bring them back. We were kind of entrenched in that kind of mentality.
And we had board members like Todd, who were like, “Well, wait a minute. What if you make these things, some of them are just, people would love to keep coming to see them. Why not take advantage of that?” So, that relationship with the board can actually, there’s a tension there, but when I say tension, that sounds negative. I mean, the positive tension of pushing each other and challenging each other is great. And we’ve had some really spectacular board members who've done that and have helped the company grow, not just because they were able to contribute for financial resources, but because they helped us see ourselves differently, which was beautiful.
One of the most valuable things for a show is a second production. You just learn so much on that first production, and artwork is often ambitious and we just make it to the finish line sometimes. Shows can change drastically during previews. We’ve got more preview and tech time that a lot of theatre companies have, and that’s another sort of nontraditional thing that we do. And it’s expensive. Part of those longer tech sometimes stems from the fact that if you’re doing circus, there’s things you need to do every day. And if you don’t, it’s unsafe for the performance. So you got to do it every day, which takes a chunk out of tech time. We often will break for…and you can’t do it at night, like at the end of the day when everybody’s exhausted. So we often break for dinner early and do a circus call for forty minutes, and that eats tech time. And then we changed things.
Moby Dick, when we first did it, it was during the second week of previews where the end of it, kind of exciting end, really came to life. And it was this really collaborative dinner that we had at Epic Burger. And we started brainstorming about what that ending could be. We knew what we had for the first week of previews was a placeholder, and we had some ideas. But we had this incredibly fertile conversation after having been in a room together, collaborating about what that moments of seeing the whale could be. And we had some stuff in there that we just didn’t need. And so that went away, and we created the ending, which was pretty darn exciting. It was a highly collaborative moment. We got back into the space, and we just started making it and almost kind of devising it as we were going. And it was thrilling, but that’s kind of a roller coaster ride. And it could’ve not worked.
I remember one of the actors coming up to Phil Smith during that second week after the Thursday preview, we were opening a couple days later and she said to Phil, she said, “This show, it’s pretty good. Isn’t it?” And Phil's like, “Yeah, it’s pretty good.” She said, “When did that happen?” I just thought that was funny. She’s right; it happened. It happened, but it could have not happened. It’s this kind of unique process that we have. Part of what it is, is you are in space with your collaborators and you’re really getting to collaborate. Often theatre, the designers are all off in their separate shops and spaces making stuff. And then, it comes together in this really intense period of time, and that’s it. But what we’re able to do is extend that period a little bit, so that we are really, truly collaborating and creating things in the moment. Yes, we’ve thought about how we thought it would be. And those ideas are usually pretty good. But sometimes if we can get to that high level of collaboration, the ideas that start flowing from lighting designer, to sound designer, to composer, to Sylvia doing choreography, to Isaac with the rigging, it just gets to a place that no single one of us could have gotten it to.
Jeffrey: Is there a lesson in there for the way other theatres make their work or theatres that are more hierarchical? Or is the drive to be so efficient with time and with resources too difficult a machine to stop?
David: Well, it’s a great question. I mean, I think artistically, I would say it does feel like a big, unwieldy machine to stop, but Lookingglass has done it. Theatres that we work with have made more space for us than they would normally afford sometimes their own productions. And just thinking about, We See You White American Theatre, that’s making us stop, and think about how we’re doing things. Companies are changing. Now, part of the trick, it’s that balance of economics, right? But, one of the many important things in that document are more humane, or more reasonable tech hours, and not driving people to exhaustion. The processes that we’re involved in already demand more tech hours or more time but spread out over a couple weeks, so there’s a little bit of attention there to be figured out. How do we maintain keeping the quality of that collaboration and make sure that we’re taking care of people in a way that that document is asking us to? It’s a challenge. But I think there is likely some creative solution, and it may be persuading funders that that is, that it’s worth it.
Our regional model for theatre, and our sort of traditional model for theatre is what we do. And that’s different than what companies in Europe do. There are other models out there that we can learn from. I do think we’ve been in this model, and it’s hard to get out of it. But I will say as a company that was created by artists and whose vision is still run by the artists, we’re able to advocate for processes that make the art better, for the art we are wanting to make.
Jeffrey: The makeup of your ensemble is changing too, right? You've started adding more ensemble members, is that correct?
David: We tend to do it a lot slower than other companies. To be an ensemble member, we’ve equated it with… it’s like, you’re getting married to somebody. Because not that you have to marry somebody for life, but that’s the presumption going in that it’s till death do you part. And I think we treat it that way. And so, we want to bring artists into the ensemble who inspire us, who add to the mission and aesthetic of the company, and we want it to be driven by that kind of organic respect. But that said, we want a company that is reflective of the community we serve, and there’s more work to be done that way. We want those connections to be authentic, born out of that deep, artistic connection. And it makes us better when different voices in the company that are challenging us and pushing us, and so it’s not just about finding people who have the same aesthetic or agree with us. It’s about finding artists who will love stories, and love telling them and who add to it.
Who do you want to be in a room making something with? It can be energy. It can be a particular level of genius that they bring in when they’re in that room and you’re making something. It’s making that experience for everyone, better. Being inspired by people is kind of part of it too. Being around people who make you see the world in a new way, who make you excited about doing the work. This has to do with more with casting, but often I’m drawn to working with people who have that, “Let's try it,” mindset. It’s a version of, “Yes, and,” I suppose, but that’s part of what I personally seek in, in the collaborators and ensemble members.
Jeffrey: What are you creatively curious about right now? Is there any project or idea that you're interested in pursuing?
David: There are a couple. I got to work with some students last quarter, back in the spring, this devised version of The Decameron, which, you know The Decameron.
David: So, it happens during a plague in the 1348, 1350, something like that, and ten people leave the city. They just go for two weeks or ten days of storytelling, it turned out to be. But they each take a day, and they kind of recreate a world where they’re queens and kings and in this sort of fantasy world that they create. And to pass the time, on the first day that one of the characters says, “Let’s tell stories. Everybody tells a story.” So on the first day, they get ten stories, and then they pass the crown to the next person. And the next person says, “Well, I like that. We’re going to tell stories, but it’s going to be about foolish people.” And then over the next ten days, they tell one hundred stories total. It was actually my wife; Kerry had this idea. She said, “Lookingglass, you have a lot of people who are playwrights and actors, or directors and actors, or actors and designers, or designers and playwrights, and wouldn’t it be kind of cool to have each of you take a turn telling a story, but you would act in the other people’s stories.” So as a class, we did that. The students just turned in some incredible stuff.
They start in a really kind of funny place, but as they go on, they’re able to start dealing with death and loss. And the stories are never about the plague, but they’re about human experience. And in the end, the final day, it’s all about patience and forgiveness. There’s some stories that are beautiful. There’s some that are weird. There’s some that are some that are just so bawdy and overly sexual that it presented a lot of interesting challenges as we were working with the students to figure out how to have distance from that and still being able to represent it. And that’s something I’m interested in, the developing something like that, that maybe Lookingglass would that I would pitch to them.
Jeffrey: David, anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t covered in this hour and a half or so?
David: I don’t think so. Thank you.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Thank you. I’m really proud to have had this conversation with you today, and continue conversation with you. And your friendship, it really means a lot. So I just wanted to say that out loud, and put that on the air on record. So—
David: Right back at you Jeff.
Jeffrey: But thanks for everything. And yeah, we’ll talk to you again soon.
Jeffrey: There were so many parallels to previous episodes in this conversation. In particular, it reminded me of my conversation with Quinn Bauriedel of Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia, who talked about how, when they tour a show, it’s built around the abilities of the actor on tour with the show. Meaning, if someone who was showcasing a particular talent was no longer on the show, they had to adjust it with the new talent that was coming in. So for example, if the first talent was someone who was exceptional at playing trombone. And they were no longer able to tour, but instead they had someone who was able to do close-up magic. They’d have to sub out that trombone moment for the close-up magic moment. So, it would create a totally different show, or create a new idea that demonstrated that virtuosity necessary for that moment. He also mentioned how they learned something from each tour of the show, as they iterate work for a new space, for a new audience. If you want to give Season One, Episode Twelve a listen, go ahead. I think you’ll see the parallels too.
Something I’ve taken away from this and the UNIVERSES and Alison Carey conversation, which was Episode Four of this season, is how you need to be in a place where people can find your work. Lookingglass would fill producers’ weekends, and OSF has artistic directors coming in all the time. Where can you be next to a magnet that draws folks in, who will see your work? And then, those regionals that pick you up, and pull you away from where you are, how do they showcase that? How can they demonstrate you in the best possible light? I’m thinking specifically about rural ensembles, such as Double Edge in Asheville, Massachusetts, and how they make their work. The way David describes that their funding be got. Other funding reminds me of Rachel Dickstein’s note in Season Two, Episode Three, about how you have to talk your play into existence. In all of this, you have to really convince, convey, and contribute. Convince donors, convey ideas, and contribute to the space that you’re in.
And okay, here’s the last parallel that I’ll make between episodes of From the Ground Up. I noticed how, when Lookingglass finally had disposable funds, they put it towards a position that was administrative, rather than pay the artists. Just like how Julia Rhoads in Season One, Episode Fourteen created a role which enabled her to continue making the art rather than get bogged down with the day-to-day details. Finally, I can say that I truly appreciate how open David was about his board and that the tension between them allowed them to grow, which is exactly how we know that we are growing. The challenge is the growth, y’all. Financials pushing up against artistic ideas, that’s how we hope to adapt and learn better models. In fact, I think it’s where we are right now in a lot of ways.
Face the challenges y’all. Maybe that can be our collective new year’s resolution, hmm? Okay. That’s all for now. Know that this doesn’t have to be where the conversation ends. I encourage you all to find From the Ground Up on Facebook or Twitter, to get some additional knowledge about our artists, and their projects and more stuff that I reference. Or you can jump onto our HowlRound page and add something to the commons. Thanks for listening, artists. And now your sound check lightning round.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite salutation?
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite exclamation?
David: Yes! Or nice!
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite transportation?
David: Paddleboard or sunfish. It’s a little tiny, two-seater sailboat.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?
David: Any kind. As long as it doesn’t have mint. I like mint in toothpaste, but not so much in ice cream.
Jeffrey: Wow. If I’d known that earlier, it would have changed our relationship. What would you be doing if not theatre?
David: I would’ve liked to have been a photographer for National Geographic.
Jeffrey: And what's the opposite of Lookingglass Theatre Company?
David: Probably—that’s a good one—anybody who’s doing The Odd Couple? I don't know. Well, I was going to say, I thought, “Oh, maybe radio play,” but I actually love radio plays. And it demands the imagination in the way that we want our audiences to use their imagination. So radio play isn’t the opposite.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Odd Couple’s got every prop on stage. That makes sense.
David: Maybe it’s like some television realism or something like that.
Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. The audio bed was created by Kiran Vedula. You can find him on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and flutesatdawn.org. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search, “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts,” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.