University Theater students act as part of Steppenwolf troupeBy Jennifer Leovy
What do ancient Chinese fables, mind/body connections and capitalism have in common? They all are components of GS Hum 270, the theater practicum course doubling as an internship at the internationally renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company. As part of the course, 10 Chicago undergraduate students are ensemble members for The Berlin Circle , a main-stage production at Steppenwolf that runs Sunday, Oct. 4, through Sunday, Nov. 15.
The internships came to fruition through the efforts of Curt Columbus, Director of University Theater, and Tina Landau, a nationally acclaimed director. The two directors were supported by Herman Sinaiko, Chair of General Studies in the Humanities, with a program of curriculum enhancements driven by John Boyer, Dean of the College.
Landau, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, has created, adapted and directed numerous theater pieces seen in New York and in such theaters as the American Repertory Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville and La Jolla Playhouse. She has received an Obie for best score for her musical Floyd Collins and seven Drama Desk nominations, including one for best direction.
A conversation with Columbus last spring sparked Landau to include Chicago students in several elements of her production. By the end of May, Landau had held special auditions for students, who performed monologues and sang a pop song from the 1980s. Lucinda Bingham, Elizabeth Birnkrant, Cassandra Bissell, Catherine Cooper, Chl^e Johnston, Walker Lambert, Eddie Shin, Saket Soni, Julian Stetkevych and David Stern were selected for the ensemble. Another student, Susanna Gellert, was enlisted to serve as Landau's assistant director.
In August, Landau held a workshop on campus to familiarize the students with her directing process before rehearsals began at Steppenwolf. "I knew Tina's generous spirit combined with her keen intelligence would make her a great match for working with our students," said Columbus. "She walked in the room and started talking about Nietzsche and Wittgenstein to explain her work. Our students immediately connected with her."
The primary focus of the all-day workshop was to introduce students to Landau's use of the Viewpoints method, an actor-training technique. Developed out of the language of modern dance and honed for the theater by Anne Bogart and Landau, the method serves as a spatial guide for actors. By understanding the vocabulary of the Viewpoints method (spatial relationships, kinesthetic response, architecture and tempo, among others), the students, like the other actors in the company, are able to fully realize Landau's vision of the play's physical and emotional relationships.
"This shared vocabulary gave everyone direct access to the work, so we can all work creatively on what we want instead of getting bogged down in technical details," said intern Lucinda Bingham.
While highly productive, the Viewpoints method is physically demanding because each thought must be expressed with the whole body and not just with words. Performers exercise their imagination through the body as well as the mind. Landau uses this organic process to bring a play to life through the collective impulses of the ensemble. As a result, the members of the ensemble are a primary source of the work itself. Responding to Landau's process, intern Saket Soni observed, "I've learned an ensemble can really bring significant elements to the table rather than merely ornamenting the stage picture."
The students, along with several other actors, also participated in several "Compositions" short, improvised pieces that are thematically related to the play.
For example, their first assignment was to create a three-minute piece of movement that expressed the world of the play. They were instructed to use no text, to freely use the Viewpoints and to incorporate one strong movement and one piece of music from such genres as new-wave and German beer-hall songs. Similar musical compositions have been incorporated into the play.
"From the beginning, we had a sense we were contributing as a group to the process a sense that without us, this couldn't be happening," said intern Cassandra Bissell.
The Chicago students used their hearts, minds and bodies eight hours a day, six days a week last month to complete the rehearsal process. They will perform eight shows a week between Oct. 4 and Nov. 15, Tuesday through Sunday, with two matinees each weekend.
The Berlin Circle was written by Charles L. Mee, who considers himself a collage artist more than a playwright. His first Steppenwolf play, Time to Burn, was directed by Landau and performed during the 1996-97 season.
"I think of these appropriated texts as historical documents as evidence of who and how we are and what we do," said Mee. "And I think of the characters who speak these texts as characters like the rest of us, people through whom the culture speaks, often without the speakers knowing it."
Mee likewise views The Berlin Circle as a working script that Landau has free artistic license to modify. Based on the ancient Chinese fable of the chalk circle, the play is set in turbulent 1989 East Germany after the fall of communism. Out of the chaos of high-speed capitalism and crashing economies emerges a young, single woman caring for an abandoned baby.
"With The Berlin Circle , Chuck has created a wild, colorful universe that's a bit like going to the circus or finding yourself in the middle of a street party where anything can happen," said Landau. "This burst of energy and chaos is a portrait of the historical moment that we're now in, but it's a bit more like an expressionist painting than a photograph. It's a moment in which we acknowledge the failure of communism, question the effects of capitalism and ask, eIs there a third way?' " University students read the original legend of the chalk circle and a modern treatment of the story, The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, as preparation for the dramaturgical element of their internship. Michele Volanksy, Steppenwolf's dramaturg, worked closely with the students on how to research the setting of the play and apply their findings directly to the production.
"The thing about Chicago students is they're just so incredibly smart!" said Volansky. "One of them brought in a Hindu version of the fable I'd never heard of. Some of the students speak German, so they're able to help us with pronunciation, and more significantly, with the context of language references. They bring a fresh, exuberant energy to the rehearsal room."
"In creating this internship, we wanted students to have a substantive educational component complemented by real-world life experience," said Columbus. "Students get to experience theater as an art form, an expressive outlet, but they also learn how a production and their role in it is anchored in theoretical and intellectual exploration."
Intern Susanna Gellert agrees. "At Chicago, we look at everything through philosophy, themes, intellectual ideas; here we discuss what serves the play. It has exposed us to an important, radically different approach," said Gellert. The play opens at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4. See the Chronicle Calendar for more information on page 10.