Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
January 29 thru March 5
Before my starring turn in "I Am My Own Wife" had ended, I was offered a job with of the largest and most reputable theatres in America. The story: yet another play examining a persecuted minority in Nazi Germany, Polish Jews trapped in the infamous Krakow ghetto (think, Schindler's List).
But this was not to be another role in the spotlight, but rather the exact opposite. Understudying two supporting roles. Lots of special challenges, long hours, and hard work without any prospect of a single performance. I'll confess, it has been an adjustment. To go from a show where my face was postered all over Chicago to toiling anonymously in the dark, quiet backstage passages -- requiring a long ride on two buses and a CTA train just to get there, and during the coldest, harshest time of year -- hasn't been always easy.
For the sake of friends and readers who aren't "in the business" this may seem like poor judgement. And yes, it wasn't a slam-dunk obvious choice for me. I'd just turned 60, received good to excellent reviews for a leading role, and am just as ambitious as the next performer to make every job a step up the career ladder. And on the whole, this has been just that ... even though it may seem a few steps backwards. Primarily, its work. Getting out there, attending shows and rehearsals, learning lines, practicing your craft. Secondarily, its exposure to new artists. Esteemed director/founder of Chicago Shakespeare Barbara Gaines. Some of the best stage actors in America: Fran Guinan, Sean Fortunato, and an ensemble with credits all across America. The actress I'm understudying has been on Broadway multiple times. We learn much of our craft by exposure to our equals and superiors -- you can always learn something from theatre persons of a certain calibre. And these folks are now part of my network, potential links to future work opportunities.
Oh, one other compelling reason to take this job: both roles I understudy are cisgender women. Last year my acting roles, though wonderful, were both transgender. Which was great, but my ultimate ambition is to play all females. Thus far, that's only happened in my understudy work and a few sit-down play readings. So every chance I get to show someone I can perform "regular" women, the closer I get to my goal.
And one upside I hadn't anticipated was just how wonderful Chicago Shakespeare has been to us. Ensuring excellent, comfortable facilities. Rehearsing us thoroughly, on the theatre stage and with full light cues, taking time to answer most of our needs. Others can be taken up during "shadowing", an opportunity to hang in the green room and theatre wings, following the actor(s) we understudy to observe firsthand their preparation, entrances and costume changes, and to ask focused questions about the tiniest details. After all, the principals were rehearsing this for four weeks -- they know a lot!
And these resources are especially helpful for my characters in "Book of Joseph", which are largely reciting letters. Looking straight out to the audience rather than other characters. Moving about the stage in dance-like choreographic patterns, motivated more by the need to make certain stage pictures than to achieve a character's objective in a realistic way. Think "Under Milk Wood". This style of presentation looks terrific to an audience, but makes the process of memorizing words and movements much more difficult for performers. There often isn't a realistic context to anchor them to.
Those of you who are acting in plays through February, you will have to excuse me. I can't see your shows because I have to remain reachable by telephone -- on call -- until 9 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday evening, plus Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. I also have to be within a 30 minute taxi ride of Navy Pier. Ready to go on stage and act with precision, which also means no cocktails!
I must also add this: an unforeseen perk of this assignment has proven to be the play itself. Its a wonderful evening in the theatre. We've had rave reviews, packed houses, with people reacting to the powerful, meaningful story in such spontaneous ways ... just as our own government dallies with Fascism, and endangers the rights of Jews and other minorities right here in America. It is a privilege to be even a tiny part of "The Book of Joseph" and I highly recommend coming to see it, even if I'm not onstage!