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  • Angela Allyn

Experimentation and Disruption at Red Orchid

It’s pretty much a given at this point that the pandemic changed so much about so many areas of living. Theatre, the art form where we explore human life, has been no exception. To stay afloat over the months of being unable to have live performances, many artists pivoted into virtual presentations. And now as we come back to bodies in the room performance where we are all in a space together, not only the artists have changed: audiences are also different. What do we do with that knowledge? What kinds of art does this new world make and require? It was acknowledging these questions and bravely opening up to the realm of What If that Red Orchid Theatre, one of Chicago’s longest running storefront ensembles, swapped out a second play for this season and created an incubator project. Ensemble members could propose an inquiry and projects were given time and support and live presentations. Shade Murray created Reawakening Desire, a devised re-imagining of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in their home space on Wells, and Dado created Act Five, an experiment with actors and musicians that asks what happened after Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard ended, in Facility Theatre’s space on California Ave.

As Dado noted in a post “performance” discussion, the normal theatrical process– which she feels is tired- is to find a script, get the rights to it and then direct it, but here both lead artists have deconstructed this process. For Murray, he set himself a task of shaking up the gender binary and asking what is romance? He noted he wanted to move forward back” into live” by taking bold swings and larger risks. For Dado, the question was could you find a play with a different kind of process? And what happens when musicians are part of the creation? Neither work was meant to be a “finished” project. Both were experiments, fraught with risks (would this be worth watching?) Both creators dug deep into complex questions and then brought brave actors, and in Dado’s case musicians,

into the room to engage in the investigation. Murray’s piece had a single iteration on a Sunday afternoon, Dado’s installation with an evolving script by Katherine Swan and a rotating group of musicians had 5 versions, each session gathering data that might be incorporated into the next time.

I attended one of the Act Five evenings and it was thrilling. It strongly reminded me of what I imagined the performance art Happenings that occurred in New York in the 1950’s and 60’s would have been like. This evening included champagne toasts, quantities of vodka and a table filled with olives and pickles which audience members were encouraged to sample, bringing us into Lovey’s former estate and giving us a sensory immersion into the information.

Both artists noted that the pandemic changed their directorial/devising theatrical process and it opened up opportunities to work with people that time, space and distance may have prevented in the past. While, industry wide, zoom rehearsals get mixed reviews, it does allow for an efficient process and may have given a heightened energy to when all were together in a room at last. Live has become precious, different, not taken for granted. Dado noted that doing table work online can be liberating because you are not countering the exhaustion from getting there. Murray spoke of “homework” time and how really good work can happen at home. He is very appreciative of a hybrid work model for theater.

What the Incubator Project did was allow artists to deep dive into the kind of creative research we may have lost outside of the rare “experimental” programs in art schools and marginalized collectives. It took the art form to a new place and allowed for the possibility of utter failure, except the audience, so generous and craving to be included in the experience, goes away with a beautiful sensation. Audiences were given a golden chance to look deep into process and become part of it at the point where it's not clear where all this is going. And that's really like life right now: we are all in process, not sure where we are going.

It is my fondest hope that the infrastructure to support this kind of creative inquiry, this excavation of new models and new art can be created. We need a kind of fecund environment to grow the art we need for this new normal. A shout out to the board and funders of Red Orchid who created this greenhouse. I can’t wait to see what grows out of this project, I pray we see more projects like this.

The Incubator Project presented Act Five on Feb. 15, Feb. 22, March 1, March 8, March 9

at Facility Theatre, 1138 N California Ave and Reawakening Desire on Sunday March 5 at Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells in Chicago.

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