2011 Awards Season
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BroadwayWorld Chicago Salutes Lookingglass Theatre Ensemble Part One

Regional Tony Award do not happen over night. In the case of Chicago-based Lookingglass Ensemble Company, it's taken 23 years. Their hard work and dedication to honing their craft comes to fruition on June 11 when the company accepts the 2011 Regional Theatre Tony Award.

The group takes their name from one of the signature works by Lewis Carrol, Through the Lookingglass and What Alice Found There.

 In 1988, eight Northwestern students –David Catlin, Thom Cox, David Schwimmer, Lawrence DiStasi, David Kersner, Eva Barr, Joy Gregory, and Andrew White-- first went down the rabbit hole on an amazing theatrical journey that continues to this day.   

That's when they presented their adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s beloved Through The Lookingglass and What Alice Found There. The show premiered in the Great Room of Jones Residential College on the campus of Northwestern University. “Through the Lookingglass” was a different adaptation than the one by ensemble member David Caitlin, but it shared many of the traits of the current “Lookingglass Alice” production.

“It had a smaller cast than our current ‘Alice,’” says Andrew White, Lookingglass’ current artistic director and one of the eight original founding members of the ensemble. “One actress played Alice and the other five actors played all the other characters.”

The original cast of "Through the Lookingglass" included, from the left, Davey Catlin, Larry DiStasi, Joy Gregory, Jennifer Estlin (nee Cohen), Andy White and Alan Goldwasser.

The six performers took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was well received. It was then that the group began to look beyond the campus of Northwestern University.

“It felt like we had captured magic in a bottle,” White says. “We knew we wanted to all continue together in some form and that was the start of our series discussion on forming an ensemble.”

The group officially incorporated as a not-for-profit theater group on February 13, 1988. Keeping the fledgling company together was no easy task. When discussion for a first season began in earnest, White and other members had already graduated and moved elsewhere.

“I was living in Los Angeles doing TV work when we found our first space,” he recalls. “It was located at 13th and Wabash in what is now known as the South Loop. We called it ‘Edge of the Lookingglass’ and it was combination of an art gallery, nightclub and performing arts space.”  

The orginal ensemble clockwise are Eva Barr (on ladder), Andrew S. White, David Schwimmer, Joy Gregory, David Kersnar, David Caitlin, Larry DiStasi and Thom Cox. Photo courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The company took an egalitarian approach to planning their first season with each ensemble member voting on a slate possible productions suggested by other ensemble members.

In 1989 they presented one new work (“Of One Blood,” written and directed by White), a producton of “Treatment” and “The Odyssey” adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman. The latter show brought the company the first four of many Jeff Citations for original music, choreography, ensemble and direction.  

Over the next couple of years and productions, the ensemble would begin to hone their unique take on storytelling in the theater.

 

“Every single production has some striking visual element at its core whether it be ‘The Jungle’ which had actors called upon to look like sides of meat or the thrilling sleighride scene most recently in ‘Ethan Frome,’ Whites says. “And our shows are ensemble in nature with each actor called on to keep an eye on the story and –thanks to the occasional physical daring risk—each other as well. The end result is akin to watching a team sport and when we do it right, it is a thrill to watch.”

Shows like “Hephaestus” and, more recently, “Peter Pan,” have featured circus arts that have also become a signature of the company. Shows that can feature moves that appease the child in all of us also contain some grown up messages, though.

“Our current adaptation of ‘Alice’ by David Caitlin was incredibly moving because it was written after he had children and it’s thus from a parent’s perspective,” White says. “It’s a very different show than the ‘Alice’ we put on when we were college kids.

One of the most often talked about productions from a visual standpoint was the 1998-1999 production of “Metamorphoses”(above). It was extended seven times and is the ensemble’s reigning box office champ. By that time, the company, which had moved from one rentable theater space to another, began to toy with the idea of finding a permanent home.

They got their chance when the city’s director of cultural affairs, Lois Weisberg, began soliciting performance arts companies for bids on turning a space in the Michigan Avenue Water Tower Water Works.

“David [Schwimmer] used his ‘Friends’ fame to open a lot of doors for us at that time,” White says. “Without question, his celebrity power gave us access to Mayor [Richard M.] Daley and then, after we won the bid, to the capitol campaign to raise the $6.8 million we needed to renovate the space.”

The city of Chicago and the state of Illinois each granted $1.5 million and the ensemble spent the next year or so raising the remaining $3.8 million.

Along the way, White says Daley remained a fierce advocate of the project.

“Mayor Daley’s commitment was unparalleled and he backed up that commitment with resources,” White says. “And it goes beyond Lookingglass, of course. Daley realized that the arts were something that could make Chicago an international city and it cannot be overstated the influence he has had in that respect.”

Throughout the whole capitol campaign and construction, ensemble members were in constant contact with each other.

The current Lookingglass Theatre Company ensemble, left. 

“We were meeting every two weeks or every month as needed,” White says. “Once we knew a permanent space was an option and gave it green light, we met more often deciding on everything from how much backstage space –very tiny to ensure that most of what we do happens on stage —to which chairs were the most comfortable for an audience.”

And it all happened relatively fast, White says.

“To have a home was thrilling.. The architect was already in our circle and part of our board. He designed the Steppenwolf space. He was able to accomplish the design a very flexible blackbox stage that would be able to change depending on the story we need to tell.”

The company made their debut in the new space in the summer of 2003 with an adaptation of Stud Terkel’s Race that was directed by Schwimmer and well received.

The ensemble now totals 22 actors. The company also has 15 artistic associates including Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi (the co-artistic director of Evanston-based The Actors Gymnasium) that the company utilizes as needed.

The production slate for each season is still voted on by members of the ensemble. The entire ensemble meets over the course of a week usually in the late fall to decide on the next season. There has been some notable tweaks in the process, though.

“We used to just vote ideas in, now we also vote to devote resources to ideas so we can flesh them out and get them ready to be voted in,” he says.

The company’s current production, “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison"  is a case in point. The company has been working on it for five years to get it to the point where they feel it is ready to be shared with an audience.

“It’s only an accomplished work if it satisfies the audience,” White says. “Without the audience, you don’t stand a chance of building your own brand, much less contribute to making Chicago a world class theater destination.”

Next: Five notable people who made Lookingglass what it is today.

 



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