Post Card: Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Originally posted in Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 19, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

1249721546_290146af98_zSo I recently took a week away from my Open Books internship desk for my annual trip with my partner Ernie to Stratford, Ontario, Canada for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Ernie has been going since he was in-utero. My first time, however, was during our first summer together in 2002.

Arriving at Niagara-On-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival for the first leg of this first trip together, it was time to get our former Theatre (and English) major nerds ON.  The highlight at Shaw was an amazing see-through set production of Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story, a play in which I had a brief comic relief character role at the top of Act 2 as a freshman in high school. In 2003, we dove into Stratford exclusively and with almost a vengeance.  Starting in 2004, we’ve “double-dated” with Ernie’s parents.  Stratford has become our equivalent to other families’ lake houses.

Over these ten summers of Stratford, I’ve seen a lot of plays with amazing actors and production values. While not every production has been five star, a less than stellar Stratford production is still pretty good quality.  Stratford has given me the opportunity to see plays and authors I’d read and/or learned about in college but never had the chance to see, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, John Webster’s The Dutchess of Malfi, Sartre’s No Exit; plays I’ve seen before and love Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes; plays I’ll never see again for either their randomness or for my opinion of them…. These ten years have been a valuable continuation of my theatre and literary education, one that we hope to pass on to nieces, nephews, and any other little ones that may enter our lives.

I’ve learned a lot in this continuing education: aesthetics, tolerance, emotional reactions, a sense of history.  I’ve learned that I have a strong reaction against Shakespearean male chauvinistic protagonists (King Cymbeline anyone?) and that even Will has a clunker or two in there (Henry VIII, while containing brilliant moments, is just not a very good play in my humble opinion.)  I’ve learned that I can’t stand “crying girl” characters who are supposed to be funny, and that I just don’t like Hello, Dolly! (I blame the “Thornton Wilder Effect” for that one).

I’ve also reconnected with the beautiful power of theatre, what makes it all worth it.  Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending left us emotionally raw, and made a star (in my eyes) of Stratford diva Seana McKenna.  The final moment in last year’s Peter Pan had us sobbing into our playbills.  Our second row view of the Ascot Ladies’ appearance in My Fair Lady still makes me gasp.  Shakespeare & Fletcher’s more random The Two Noble Kinsmen is pretty awesome (especially the scenes with the jailer’s daughter!).  AND the lighting for the 39 lashes scene in this season’s Jesus Christ Superstar (looking to stop in Chicago before a Broadway run!) is what live theatre can be all about.

Me & Ernie this year outside the Studio Theater.

I have also realized that I appreciate some things more than I like them, and have debated with myself whether or not that’s enough.  AND I’ve held on to my preference for seeing over reading plays.  Which maybe I shouldn’t admit here, even if reading plays is still enjoyable and crucial, and you should totally stop by the theatre sections of both the online and brick-and-mortar Open Books store!  Growing up, Ernie’s parents said he could see anything as long as he read it first—a good combo that has  probably made him the only fourth grader ever to do a book report on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.

For a comprehensive list of all the plays we’ve had the opportunity to see together in our ten years (so far) of Stratford, go HEREIf you plan a trip, be sure to have coffee at our favorite haunt Balzac’s (as in French writer Honoré de), have dinner at Down the Street and Pazzo, and for your book shopping addictions go to Fanfare BooksThe Book Vault, and the Book Stage. If you’re not so much into making the eight hour drive (from Chicago) and dealing with border crossing, Chicago of course has a vibrant theatre scene. From Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier to suburban Writer’s Theatre to historically-minded Timeline Theatre.  To get the kids in our lives interested in theatre early so that all these institutions can carry on, Emerald City Theatre gives you plenty of read-then-see opportunities (full disclosure: Ernie is the current Artistic Director)!  Then maybe they won’t be so afraid of Shakespeare and may ask you “Hey, what’s this Stratford thing all about…?”

NewTown Writers Presents: Solo Homo 7!

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Hello Friends!  You should come see my latest show.  I am co-producing it with the wonderful Josef Steiff, as well as performing a “new” piece, Is Jimmy Stackpool Singing Too? I say “new” because it’s something I’ve been working on for a while now, on and off.  Like writers do.  I hope you like it.  Here’s all the official info:

Solo Homo 7: NewTown Writers (newtownwriters.org), Chicago’s oldest GLBT writer’s group, presents the 7th installment of its hit solo performance series, Solo Homo.  Mon-Wed June 22-24, 2009 at 7:30.  Join us in Strawdog Theatre Company’s Hugen Hall at 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.  Tickets may be purchased at the door or online at strawdogtheatre.com.  Please, no phone calls to the Strawdog box office.  $12 or 2 for $20 on Tues-Wed; $6 or 2 for $10 for Monday’s “Preview.”

This year’s line up of storytellers includes Cookie Crumbles, Byron Flitsch, Sara Kerastas, Deb Lewis, Timothy Rey, Mike Rogers, Lisa Scott, Josef Steiff, and Michael Van Kerckhove.

And there will be a cash bar too!  Can’t beat that, yo. 🙂

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Here’s a shot of me reading at this past weekend’s Printer’s Row Lit Fest.  NewTown Writers had a slot in the Arts & Poetry tent.  I read a pieced called Out of the Collective Blur. The events in the story took place in the spring of 2000.  I’ve revisited the story a handful of times over the years.  Still looking for a home for the story.  Interestingly, it’s about the homeless in general, and more specifically about a homeless woman I would often see in the Grand Avenue Red Line station.  It will find a place.  Even if I post it here on this site. 🙂

And here’s another photo.  Cos the Chicago Tribune banner makes me look more important, right? 😛  My photomate is Jill, NTW’s current president.  She’s cool.

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All right, off to do more show stuff….

NewTown Writers News

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Here is the Official press release (written by myself and sent out to the world, or at least the group’s mailing list and our Facebook group):

NewTown Writers announces the appointment of Michael Van Kerckhove as the new Artistic Director of the performance wing. Michael returns to Chicago after he and his partner, Ernie Nolan, spent three years working with Indiana University at South Bend. His affiliation with the group dates back to the inaugural edition of Working Stiffs in 2002.

Michael and long time member, Robert Klein Engler, have found a new home for their performance endeavors. After a number of years at the Bailiwick, stops at Live Bait and Chemically Imbalanced, the 2009 season will be presented in Strawdog Theatre Company’s Hugen Hall cabaret space located at 3829 North Broadway.

Plans are in the works for the 7th edition of Solo Homo in June and an evening of short plays in October. Stay tuned for details…

Pretty cool, huh?  In my reintegration into the city, dubbed “Operation Chicago Re-boot,” I became a board member of the group last fall and an “official” member of the performance wing.  Even though I’ve been involved with the group and have been published in both publication arms, I really do feel this sense of official-ness.  I haven’t been involved as much with the literary wing, though that could change now that I’m back, depending on Life and Everything Else.  Either way, the group has my support.

There was a noble effort to regroup and re-focus the theatre wing this past December.  The Holidays and New Year unraveled that a bit.  I was asked to step into the AD position and approved by the rest of the board.  Yay approval! 🙂  When recently asked my goals as AD, I basically replied “Focus and Process.”  Solo Homo will have some familiar faces, a few new ones, and will get back to its roots of writing & performance–that magical blend of the literary and theatre worlds I love so much.  How we get there should bring out the Best in all of us.  I like that.

Now, I just have to figure out what I’m going to do for my own piece in the show.  You know, the writing part.  I have a couple pieces I’d love to do, but they may be a little long.  So maybe this will be a good way to impose a deadline upon myself for new material.  The other pieces will definitely be incorporated into my full length solo show that maybe I’ve mentioned around here a few times.  It has a yet to be determined unleashing date, for sure.  But Battles With Boys will arrive….

NewTown Writers continues its bi-weekly workshops, and as in the past should have a table at the Printers Row Book Fair, also coming up in June.  Will definitely let you all know about that!

Happy Writing and Happy Spring.  It’s wonderful to be back! 🙂