A Conversation with the Collaborators

Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of The House Theatre of Chicago

Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of The House Theatre of Chicago

This new musical version of The Nutcracker was born at The House Theatre of Chicago through collaborators Tommy Rapley (director), Jake Minton (book and lyrics), Phillip Klapperich (book), and Kevin O’Donnell (music).  The four drew initial inspiration from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and Mouse King,” the same story that provided basis for the ballet we all know so well. But this new version sets The Nutcracker amidst a family grieving the loss of their son at war.

Round House Artistic Apprentice Sarah Scafidi rounded up the team for an interview about their creative process:

What was the initial impulse that led you to develop this piece?  Where did you get the idea?

PK: I guess this adaptation started with me. I’d done a couple similar projects with The House adapting Peter Pan and The Wizard of OZ. These were very successful shows for us in our early years, and we were looking to do something similar with another story.  We decided that a Christmas show might be a fun thing to do with the company, and I felt like I could give The Nutcracker the same kind of . . . slightly more grown up, darker treatment, with some real emotional stakes.

TR: Phil has a gift for being able to crack open these oh-so-familiar childhood stories to reveal their deeper, darker inner-workings, and The Nutcracker seemed like it had all the right ingredients for that kind of deconstruction: A little magic, some scary rats, fantastical toys, a mysterious uncle, a plucky protagonist, and lots and lots of preconceived notions about how the story would unfold.  Being able to both play into and push against those expectations made The Nutcracker a perfect piece to imbue with new meaning for our audience.

Why did you choose The Nutcracker as your framing story, and why did you infuse it with the story of a military family grieving the death of a son?

JM: The idea was to adapt the novella on which the ballet is based, but Phil didn’t find a story that resonated with him there. The Nutcracker was written about 85 years before Oz or Pan, and it didn’t have the same sort of brave child heroes. It’s essentially a romance about an enchanted prince and the magic kiss from a beautiful and pure young girl that restores him to his true form. It’s the Frog Prince or Beauty and the Beast set at Christmas. And it just didn’t interest us. So Phil decided to tear it apart and start from scratch.

PK: Unlike Pan or OZ, the source material here was much less helpful in building a narrative framework for a modern retelling. The original Hoffman story is profoundly weird and digressive, and the ballet is even less helpful.  The entire second act of the ballet is built out of the last couple pages of the book. So we needed to do a little more world-building. We basically mined the book for the most valuable stuff: Clara and Fritz, Drosselmeyer, the rodent army and king, the living toys. We wanted Clara to go on an adventure in her home, to discover magic in ordinary things.

TR: Once we hit on the idea of “a story about a family dealing with loss at the holidays,” however, we realized The Nutcracker was a natural fit.  All the symbols at work in [the novella] could be bent and repositioned to create a story that was packed with joy, but also made room for the darker emotions that many people are dealing with at the holidays: grief, fear, anger, guilt, loneliness. Providing a space for people to exorcise those emotions at the holidays quickly became an integral mission of the piece

What would you say is the important theme or through-line of your adaptation? Why did you want to tell this particular story?

TR: We whole-heartedly celebrate the joy of the holiday season, while also making room for the people who may be having a hard time tapping into that joy.  Holidays are festive and glorious times, yes, but almost everyone is missing someone at this time of year. Our play attempts to honor those feelings of loss while encouraging us to cherish the ones nearest to us, and the memories we are able to make with them.

JM: That idea of a time of year that’s supposed to be full of joy and expectation, and what that does to a family that’s full of sadness and despair.

KO: Whether it’s sadness, or anger, or frustration, so many of us, young and old, feel those things over the holidays, and it’s all the more reason to want to – need to – celebrate.

In general, what was the process like working together to create the piece?

TR: A bit of a whirlwind that first year.  We premiered the piece as a part of the “Visiting Company Initiative” at Steppenwolf here in Chicago, and we were woefully behind . . .  I remember feeling like opening that year was akin to bringing a plane into the hangar with one engine on fire and no landing gear.

KO: I’d say this is one of the most collaborative things I’ve ever worked on, which I’m loathe to say, as I think every piece of theater is inherently collaborative.  In the early years, we were all together, all in rehearsals most of the time, so it was very fluid.

JM: It was fun and crazy and stressful and brilliant and a mad dash to the finish line. [At Steppenwolf], we were writing and rewriting scenes up through dress rehearsals and previews. And I was in the play that year as Drosselmeyer and Teddy! I remember one dress rehearsal when I was backstage between scenes working on a rewrite and Phil came to find me… he’d been working on a different rewrite in the theater… to tell me they needed me on stage for a scene. And people were yelling. And I pushed my computer at him and said, “Here! Teddy is a crazy cowboy now! Work on that while I’m gone.” Oh, the actors hated us that year. But it was so fun! It was an all-hands-on-deck creation.

How has the script and production evolved since its premiere in 2007?

PK: In the original production, at Steppenwolf in 2007, Clara’s tasks are focused strictly on finding and destroying the rats that she believes have infested her house. For the first remounting, [in] 2010, I think, we overhauled almost the entire script.  The structure stayed the same, but nearly every line was rewritten. Clara’s tasks now centered around trying to revive the cancelled Christmas party, and she discovers the rats along the way. This was a major change for us that really tied everything together in an elegant way. The script has been pretty much locked since the first remount. Little changes here and there.

KO: There is one song that has had three completely different versions over the years, but we’ve stuck with the current version for three years now.  But it could change next year!  Gosh, I hope not, but the fact is, we have on paper a version we are proud of, but every year we make a few tweaks in Chicago.  So it’s still a living thing for us, which I think is part of the magic of it.

What should I know before I decide to bring my kids to see The Nutcracker?

Every child is different.  We want to help you make the best choice for your family.

If this were a movie, it would be rated G, like the Disney animated films. As in these films, there is the loss of a loved one, and a villain who tries to keep the heroine from reaching her goal. There are also colorful, loveable characters that engage in all sorts of hijinks and adventures before they succeed in winning the day – with music and singing along the way. It features both sad and scary moments along with great fun, joy, and hilarity.

Younger kids who have seen this show at The House Theatre in Chicago (where this adaptation was developed and has been regularly performed) have had a great time, laughing in delight at the silly toys, shouting in defiance at the mean rats, and following along with the deeper themes of the show. They’ve also had sensitive kids who needed to sit on mom’s lap (or leave the theater) during the scarier moments. In most cases, they’ve still raved about the show. The House Theatre has only received a couple reports of bad dreams or sleepless nights. But if the idea of death causes your child significant concern and anxiety (a normal developmental stage that can come at a variety of ages), then now might not be the right time for this show.

Things to know:

  • The play begins with the implied (offstage) death of Clara’s older brother, Fritz, a US Marine. He returns in the form of a magical nutcracker in dress uniform to help save Christmas from villainous rats.
  • Clara’s toys come to life and are hilarious and loveable! They include a robot, a sock monkey, and a baby doll.
  • The Rat King is the much alluded to scary villain the heroes must defeat. He is portrayed by a puppet.
  • The heroes win! However, the Nutcracker pays the price for Clara’s triumph.
  • The show is two hours long with an intermission halfway through.

Matter-of-factly taking the suspense out of the story is a good way to relieve some anticipatory anxiety. We suggest something along the lines of, “I heard that at the end there’s a really big scary puppet, but I don’t think we’ll be too scared.”

One of the reasons for playing pretend, one of the reasons for going to the theater, is to practice the things we are afraid of. Casting our lots alongside imaginary heroes is a great way to practice our own heroism. Going along for the ride as a young girl faces monsters, and as her family faces grief, may cause moments of real fear in us. But the courage we gain by going on the journey is also real.

(Adapted from notes by Jake Minton, Co-Writer, The Nutcracker)

clay_liston_1964aAn Epic Rematch

Why Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston remains the most anticipated, watched and controversial bout in boxing history

By Margot Melcon, Dramaturg

Lewiston, Maine, was not the first place that boxers Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston faced off across a ring. When their first bout took place in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964, Liston was the World Heavyweight Champion. He had learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary while serving time for armed robbery, and his boxing career was managed by a one-time hit man who ran boxing interests for the Mafia.
Cassius Clay was a fast-talking 22-year-old challenger who had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. The signatures of Clay’s style – constant movement and a tendency to keep his hands low and lean away from punches – were viewed as fundamental flaws that would be quickly exploited by an experienced, hard-hitting heavyweight like Liston.

At the opening bell of the Liston-Clay fight in Miami, an angry Liston charged Clay, looking to end the fight quickly and decisively. Clay’s superior speed and movement were immediately evident, as he slipped most of Liston’s lunging punches, making the champion look awkward. After six rounds, Liston refused to leave his corner when the bell sounded, and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout.

There were allegations of a fix as soon as the fight ended, but a month-long investigation brought no evidence to support the claim. The unexpected ending of the bout took on even more suspicious overtones when it was discovered that the two fighters had a rematch clause in their contract. Many argued that Liston had more to gain financially from losing the first bout and fighting a rematch than he did from winning.
On February 27, 1964, just days after the first Liston-Clay fight, Clay announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam. Clay began going by the name Cassius X until Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad announced that Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali.

State boxing commissions were reluctant to license the controversial rematch, but it was decided that the fight would take place November 16, 1964, in Boston. However, the bout was delayed, rescheduled and moved, until finally it landed on May 25, 1965, in a small city in Maine, located 35 miles north of Portland.

The atmosphere surrounding the second fight was tense, largely due to the repercussions of Ali’s public embrace of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, who had a public falling out with Elijah Muhammad, had been assassinated several months before the fight; the men arrested for his murder were members of the Nation of Islam. Rumors circulated that Ali might be killed by Malcolm’s supporters in retaliation. The FBI took the threats seriously enough to post a guard around Ali. Liston’s camp claimed he had received death threats from the Nation of Islam. Security for the fight was unprecedented.

Due to the remote location and the fear of violence, only 2,434 fans were present in the 4,900-seat arena, a community ice-hockey rink, setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight. Fetch Clay, Make Man begins just days before their epic rematch.

The Making of an Icon

Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali

By Margot Melcon, Dramaturg

StepinFetchit_1929Lincoln Perry was an American comedian and actor who, in the 1920s and 30s, was one of the highest paid actors working in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was the first black actor to become a millionaire, working alongside some of the most famous early motion picture artists. He was a shrewd negotiator, a brilliant strategist, hard working and deliberate. But he was known throughout his life as the iconic and controversial character he created: the lazy, shiftless, mumbling Stepin Fetchit.

Perry was a master at the creation of his image. The outward persona of Stepin Fetchit very little resembled the man, but was crafted so convincingly that the world believed that Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit were one and the same. In the early part of the 20th century, Perry’s options as a performer were limited by where artists of color were able to perform and by America’s perception of black men. He took those perceptions, used them, exaggerated them, exploited them to his advantage and made a career of playing with image in a way, and in a larger and more accessible medium, than any other black actor had before. For this, Perry was vilified, at the time and for years to come, said by many to embody the negative stereotypes of black men. He was accused of being a tool of white oppression, an Uncle Tom, and of holding black culture back by presenting an unflattering and shallow view of an entire population.

Similarly, when Cassius Clay came out as a boxer in the early 1960s, his outspoken bragging and playful way with words – and his insistence that others recognize his physical prowess and good looks – outraged people across the country. He was loud and proud and an intimidating 6’3,” 215-pound young black man who hit people for a living. But Clay was also fiercely charming, extremely hard working, intelligent, devout, loyal and, in his private life, a modest and thoughtful man.

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporationClay came of age during the Civil Rights era, a time of great transition that had many people deeply invested in who would represent black Americans. Emerging from the shadows of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Minister Malcolm X, Cassius Clay infamously became Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali; a spokesperson for many black Americans, he perfectly executed the role he played in the public eye.

“Ali cultivated an image that was the warrior and the politician. It seems to be in juxtaposition to what the image that Stepin Fetchit was doing, but they were both doing something that was very important,” commented director Derrick Sanders to the cast and creative team at the first rehearsal for Fetch Clay, Make Man. “How do you keep that core of yourself as you try to cultivate an image to move people forward, whether it’s through laughter or through fighting?”

Both Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit were cultural icons in a shifting America. They both made choices about who they were, as public figures and as private men. Both had people around them who wanted to shape and form their identities, some with righteous motives and some exploitative. Despite manipulation coming from all sides, each man was able to maintain a sense of self as well as a savvy understanding of how the persona they presented was moving society forward.

FFL - DramaturgyThe Myth of Sam Shepard

By Brent Stansell, Dramaturg

“Leading Man, Playwright, Maverick.”

Thirty years ago, when Newsweek put those words next to Sam Shepard’s chiseled profile on its cover, the magazine mythologized the playwright as “America’s cowboy laureate” and an “American fantasy.”

Ironically, this was exactly the kind of mythologizing Shepard spent his playwriting career attempting to dismantle.

Shepard’s plays deconstruct our American mythologies, exposing the lies and delusions we live under. In over 50 plays, Shepard explores many of the same themes again and again: the promise and failures of the American dream; a vision of the world ruled by men and defined by violence; how the performance of self contains inherent contradictions between familial, individual, gendered and national identities; and the psychology, spirituality, and “emotional territory” of a world disconnected from meaning. He explores these themes within novel dramatic structures, using ironic humor alternating with intense lyricism and
gripping physical action.

When Shepard started his prolific career in the 1960s (with his first production opening before he even turned 20), his early work quickly exploded in the off-off Broadway theater movement at places like Caffé Cino, La Mama, the Open Theatre, the American Place Theatre, and Theatre Genesis. As a California native, he also had an artistic home at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco (where Fool for Love was originally produced). The breadth and exploratory scope of his early work were astonishing. He wrote short, nonrealistic pieces with wild plot twists and inconclusive endings, resisting traditional dramatic structures. His early plays were filled with surreal images and dream worlds, metaphors, music, and the modern myths of rock ‘n roll, movie stars, and the American West. Arguably, more than any other American playwright, Sam Shepard brought postmodernism to the theater in the 1960s and contributed to the idea emerging that meaning is subjective, interpretive, and unstable. For Shepard, any search for objective truth is pointless, the reliability of narrative is always in question, and the imaginary always has more power than reality.

Most critics agree that Shepard made his greatest contribution to American drama when he wrote his “family trilogy” including Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979), and True West (1980). Shepard was inspired to focus more on his characters, moving away from his experimental phase, arguably resulting in his most substantive and impactful work. His characters are often victims and victimizers attempting to fill the emptiness, abandonment, disconnectedness, and loss in their lives with a hunger for drugs and sex, violence, and love. He explained his shift in focus by saying, “It suddenly occurred to me that I was maybe avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate which is the family. And I avoided it for quite a while because, to me, there was a danger, and I was a little afraid of it.” Throughout these plays, the family is the source of tremendous pain and Shepard finds danger in its destructive nature (including incest and infanticide) and in its perpetuation of cycles of violence and suffering (much like Greek tragedy).

In writing Fool for Love (1983), Shepard attempted to write a romantic confrontation between a man and a woman for the first time, telling the story from the perspective of the female character. Some critics believe Fool for Love and Shepard’s next play A Lie of the Mind (1985), which explored similar themes, extended his exalted “family trilogy” into a “family quintet.” After writing about an endless cycle of male violence in True West, Shepard said that his move to female characters was an attempt to explore a way out for men because he was “beginning to realize that the female-side knows so much more than the male side. About childbirth. About death. About where it’s at.”

But perhaps more than any other Shepard play, Fool for Love attempts to deconstruct the myth of Sam Shepard, the man.

Fool for Love was written while he was experiencing tumultuous changes in his personal life, starting a romance with actress Jessica Lange while separating from his wife O-lan. At the same time, Shepard was also working on his relationship with his alcoholic father, having recently visited him in New Mexico. But part of Shepard’s mystique is that he never speaks about his personal life directly. His plays are often “departures” from real life, inspired by his own autobiography, but never directly linked (although Shepard has admitted that the conversation about Barbara Mandrell in the play and the story about the cow field are almost pulled verbatim from conversations with his father). Shepard has said about the autobiographical elements of Fool for Love: “I never intended the play to be a documentary of my personal life. It’s always a mixture. But you can’t get away from certain personal elements that you use as hooks in a certain way. The further I get away from those personal things the more in the dark I am.”

Shepard’s plays are never “documentary” because the line between reality and fantasy is always intentionally blurred. Scholar Sherrill Grace notes about Shepard’s plays: “However straightforward they may seem at first, however careful Shepard may be about realistic details or with characters who seem very familiar, sooner or later an audience is forced to abandon the comfortable realm of logic, clarity, predictability and familiarity for an illogical realm of intense emotion, violent unpredictability and complex symbolic, inner states.” Shepard’s realism is not the cozy realism of families quibbling over the dinner table; Shepard’s worlds evoke the violent, lustful, dangerous realities of Edward Albee, the meticulously defined and otherworldly creations of Samuel Beckett, and the tragicomic threat of Harold Pinter.

With such tremendous work to his name, no wonder Newsweek would feature Sam Shepard on its cover. As a man always transforming his life—a wanderer traveling from California to New York, escaping to live in England, then moving to a ranch in Santa Fe; as an artist always finding new ways to express himself—drifting from playwriting, to music, to acting, to directing, and then to screenwriting; as a playwright placing his own life struggles within the larger frame of the American experience; with 11 Obie awards, an Academy Award nomination, endless accolades, and a Pulitzer Prize to his name, it is no wonder why Newsweek would so easily cement Sam Shepard’s mythic reputation as a great American “leading man, playwright, maverick.”