One of the highlights of my past two summers was participating in Steppenwolf Theater’s unique, new play development program called First Look Repertory of New Work, through its audience-interactive component, First Look 101. First Look 101 provided 101 subscribers, supporters, and audience members with phenomenal multiple opportunities to observe and provide feedback on the three new plays being developed and workshopped as part of First Look Repertory, from table reading to initial rehearsal to technical rehearsal to actual performance. The 101ers could either follow one play from the beginning, or drop into multiple plays at different parts of the development process. Additionally, there were new play readings, a new play symposium, and other assorted activities (last year, I think it numbered 21 different activities throughout the summer) that gave the First Look 101 participants a very privileged immersion into the art and craft of creating new theater. For a theater geek like me, it was pure bliss, a one-of-kind, insightful look into the creative process; maybe sort of akin to feeling like Winona Ryder in a fully-stocked and surveillance-camera-free Nordstroms. In the 2006 First Look, I followed Kate Fodor’s luminous 100 Saints You Should Know from table reading to rehearsals to performance, so I was very delighted to see it’s off-Broadway incarnation last year, which received good reviews. Although Janel Maloney, Jeremy Shamus, Zoe Kazan, and, especially, the great Lois Smith gave wonderfully truthful and riveting performances in New York, I still couldn’t erase the indelible performances that I saw in Chicago of K.K. Dodds, John Hoogenakker, Kelly O’Sullivan, and Mary Ann Thebus, as well as the discussions around the characterization of the mother betweeen Thebus, Fodor, and the Chicago production’s director, BJ Jones, which the First Look 101ers were very lucky to eavesdrop on during rehearsals. In the 2007 First Look, I attended a rehearsal where there were scenes being re-written and new ones added for the marvelous When the Messenger Is Hot, Laura Eason’s adaptation of Elizabeth Crane’s collection of short stories about women coping with family tragedy, romantic mishaps, and late 30s early midlife crises. When the Messenger is Hot, which was my favorite from last year’s group of new plays, ended up off-Broadway too last year at 59E59, with most of the original Chicago cast led by Steppenwolf ensemble member Kate Arrington. I didn’t participate in this year’s First Look 101 due to a hectic late spring/early summer, but I vowed to catch all three of the new plays last weekend. Since all three plays are new works that are still in various levels of development, I won’t be posting detailed critical impressions in deference to the playwrights’ and the program’s creative processes and intentions. As it is with new plays, I think all three would be better served by further work, some more so than others. But I was very impressed by two of them, and hope that they get further productions either in Chicago, New York City, or somewhere else, because they deserve to be enjoyed by a wide audience. I think Pursued by Happiness, written by A Steady Rain (one of my favorite plays of the year) scribe Keith Huff, and directed by ensemble member Tim Hopper, is the one most ready for primetime among the three plays. It is a wonderfully quirky and ultimately poignant piece about single 40something research scientists who discover that late-blooming romance isn’t all sweetness and light. Although it goes into unexpected, but very welcome, directions, the themes and characters are meticulously realized. Jason Wells’ Perfect Mendacity, about leaks of corporate secrets, directed by OBIE winner David Cromer, who I am hopelessly starstruck by, is provocative and intellectually challenging and Sarah Gubbins’ Fair Use, directed by Meredith McDonough, about lawyers defending a novelist accused of plagiarism, has some laugh-out loud lines but I feel it requires a little more development. First Look Repertory runs till August 10 (check out www.steppenwolf.org for days and times of the three plays since they’re in rotation); please support new play development in the city (oh and you can always tell your snotty New York friends you saw THAT play first in Chicago!). Additionally, here is a very nicely-written article article about First Look’s Grand Poobah and Steppenwolf’s Director of New Play Development, and the dramaturg for August: Osage County himself, the brilliant Ed Sobel.
Tags: Steppenwolf Theater