April 16, 2020 § Leave a comment
Introduction: During these challenging times, I will be sharing a range of ideas, dreams, essays and mostly-true tales stemming from the six decades (so far) of this wonderful career in the theater. I hope you enjoy.
– Joe Keefe
Why We Love Theater
Theater isn’t for slouches. It makes you work. Audience members are active participants in the creation of each play, musical, revue and showcase. The subconscious, human interaction that occurs between a cast and the audience is actual, palpable and absolutely necessary to each individual work of performance. A lovely song, that tender romantic moment, the suspense of a web of lies: these moments become important and real through the choices of actors and audience.
Even before the opening curtain, actors and their characters can “feel” the audience, subconsciously sensing reactions and actions, and audience members emotionally connect to the motives, hopes and faults of the characters in each moment. This interaction is the living exchange that makes performances entirely unique, as distinct as snowflakes. Another word for it is: imagination.
There’s no pause or reset button in a play. There’s no rewind switch in a musical. Dramatic moments rise and soar, comic moments clash, songs swell and echo and evaporate into the darkness. The audience rides these waves of action right along with the characters, connecting to the peaks and valleys that form the rising action of the story. These connections demand a lot of work from both sides – but this is what makes theater what it is: the most human of art forms. Characters make choices – good, bad and otherwise – and there are consequences for those choices. Just like life.
The craftwork of live theater encompasses hundreds, thousands of components that build a new world with each show. Sets, costumes, lighting, sound – these elements are crafted to bring you to the deck of an ocean-going ship, a trek across medieval England, the callbacks for a Broadway musical. Direction is provided so that action is clear and motives come forth. And yet, with all these elements at work, live theater allows each audience to make its own decisions, to root for individual characters, too root for the protagonist (or not) and to take in the sights one wants to see. You decide the direction of the show you’re watching.
If you’ve ever wondered why live theater is so different from movies, TV or digital performances, this is why: in theater, YOU make the choice where your attention goes. You make the personal connection to that character; you decide what to see and how to see it. This action of self-determination in dramatic context is why theater has existed for many millennia. It is why we love what we love: we are allowed, compelled to care. And this is why we’re working hard right now, during these challenging times, to make sure that our Metropolis will be more than ready to welcome you back. There is no substitute for basic, necessary, joyful, powerful human interaction. This most human of all art is our mission, our purpose and it’s why we can’t wait to see you again soon.
April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
Introduction: During these challenging times, I will be sharing a range of ideas, dreams, essays and mostly-true tales stemming from the six decades (so far) of this wonderful career in the theater. I hope you enjoy.
– Joe Keefe
The Artistic Director
Theater is an essential, necessary component of the health of a thriving society. Sharing the experiences of living stories helps us, as individuals, understand the people and world around us. Experiencing dramatic moments in a communal environment, immersed in a group of our peers, brings us together through laughter or suspense; it binds us through rising tension or unexpected laughter; we smile through the song or our eyes well at the romantic breakup. Through theater, we see ourselves and what we hope to be and/or we see others and what we try not to be.
If those ideas form the essence of theater, its mechanism is living, breathing creation. Theater is, at its core, the immediate creation of story – human, hilarious, suspenseful, absurd, frightful and fantastic stories. Stories are as old as mankind; they are the way we learn and how we amuse ourselves. Theater is a living form of story and it “makes real what is not yet real”. So this is the role of the Artistic Director: to make something (great) out of nothing.
While we think of theater as a fun night out, the planning for that night begins many years, decades, even centuries before that dinner and show. Euripides crafted the classic tragedy Medea twenty five hundred years ago (probably after an extended argument with his wife) and the story of betrayal and treachery and the shocking lack of anger management skills still resonates today.
The creation of the show you have tickets for started at least two years prior to the big night. Artistic planning for sets, costumes, direction, casting and related elements takes months, if not years to properly manage. Budgeting and marketing analyses occur even before those necessary components. Selection and placement of a new show within a framework of many productions is hammered out prior to the financial processes. This is the life of an Artistic Director: considering the options, selecting the show, making sure it will sell, finding exceptional talents to build it, finding ways to say yes to those talented people, hovering over each process and then crossing every finger on opening night.
Ultimately, the Artistic Director builds the personality of a theater. In the case of our wonderful Metropolis, the personality traits we seek are energetic, unusual, a bit feisty, authentic, hilariously dramatic or dramatically funny, and entertaining as heck. We work hard to get our shows as close to our audience as possible, physically and emotionally, and that communal intimacy is rewarded time and time again.
I look forward to sharing our next show with you.
Yours in Great Theater,
November 25, 2019 § Leave a comment
November 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
This year’s A Christmas Carol has some exciting new elements that we are very excited to share with audiences. Projection Designer, Anthony Churchill answered a few questions on what to expect from this new production at Metropolis. Thank you to Metropolis School of the Performing Arts Education Community Engagement Coordinator, Abby Vombrack for gathering and compiling all of this information into a study guide for the hundreds of students who will be coming to see this adaptation in the coming month.
1. When and why are projections used in the show? What is their artistic effect on the story?
We’re using projections to create several special effects in the show. We’re creating several elemental looks with the projections and we’re creating the Ghost of Christmas Future. Part of this story revolves around Scrooge’s decision to change his life and what pushes him to make these changes needs to be really powerful in order to make his decision believable. One of the ways we’re doing this is to use projections to create something really magical, which is unique to our production. The entire show has a lot of magical elements and the projections are one of these elements which help make the show really special.
2. How do create projections to use in the show? What technology is used?
Projections can be created in a number of ways. For this show, we recorded live actors and puppets to create the Ghost of Christmas Future. Once these elements are recorded, we process them through a number of programs to get them ready for the show. Every designer has their own process and a lot of times, it depends on what the show needs. On A Christmas Carol, we’re processing things through three programs for the Ghost. This software lets us fine-tune how things look on the stage and control where the projections go.
3. Are there any other special effects (fog, strobe lights, mist, etc) that you use with the projections?
In a really special show, all the design elements work together. For this show, projections are particularly connected to a special kind of fog machine called a fog screen. The fog screen creates a super-dense wall of fog by chilling the fog too a very low temperature so that it doesn’t spread out too quickly. In conjunction with the projections, the fog screen allows us to project on a surface that actors can walk through, which allows us to create something really magical.
June 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
May 24, 2019 § Leave a comment
Acting is a strange balancing act. As actors, we’re under constant pressure to remember that, though we’re the only ones on stage, we are never the most important person involved in a production. We are merely the messengers of someone else’s story, and we’re always caught trying to balance the necessary act of telling that story honestly as it was meant to be told with the personally fulfilling act of making the characters and the story uniquely ours. In other words, be original, but not too original. It’s a challenge, and it changes from show to show. Depending on your approach to acting, getting cast in a Samuel Beckett play that allows for little to no variation from any former productions could be torture or a great relief.
And then there are shows like this one.
On our first day of rehearsal, I believe it was our director who pointed out this
fascinating note from the authors written in the front of all of our scripts:
“This is a scenario for vaudevillians. There are many details omitted from the script. They are part of any comedian’s bag of tricks: the double take, the mad walk, the sighs, the smirks, the stammerings. All these and more are intended to be supplied by the actor.”
What a fascinating author’s note to receive. In saying, “We know we left stuff out, that’s for you to find on your own”, they pushed a door wide open for us, and now the pressure was on us to go running through it. So we became vaudevillians, and we ran.
This cast and crew may just be the most creative group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. From day one we’ve taken that challenge from the writers head-on. In coming to see “A Funny Thing…”, you’re going to see so many original ideas play out in gloriously hilarious fashion – the double takes, sighs, stammerings, etc. that were mentioned in that author’s note, along with so much more. But for every one gag performed, there were at least five others that were experimented with in rehearsals that you will never see. And I believe that’s exactly why a show like this holds up after over 50 years – with so many blank spaces left in between the lines of this script, no two productions you see will ever be the same. Different jokes will be highlighted, different gags will be used, entire characterizations can vary and rather than subverting the entire show, you just end up with a different kind of humor, a different thing to laugh at.
Stage performers are often considered “players”, and that title has never rung more true than in these last few months. We’ve played and played and played. Just know that every moment that you laugh at is a moment where we had multiple possibilities, and we had to choose just one. Same for any moments where you don’t laugh, or you feel a joke is missed. It’s that kind of show. But I do believe we gave you more of the former than the latter, and we gave just as much to this show as it gave to us. The result is a show that still makes me laugh in the wings, even after having seen it so many times. Sometimes it’s because these incredible actors are just that funny, and sometimes it’s because this show and these jokes are just that good.
Samuel Beckett? Tomorrow. Comedy tonight!
October 29, 2018 § Leave a comment
Stunning, delicate, explosive, intimate, touching, immersive, passionate, funny, lovely – these are the characteristics of live theater and when done well, there is simply no substitute for the immediacy and power of a good old show. As a theater artist somewhere in my sixth decade, I continue to be amazed at theater’s ability to evolve through its primary asset: the actor.
A Chorus Line, now running at our Metropolis, is a modern staple of musical theater with a history too profound to easily describe. Yet this legendary show, this face on theater’s Mount Rushmore, continues to evolve and refresh with each new iteration as the show both invites and demands the very best from each generation of actors.
Sheila – the lovely yet world-weary vamp – and Val – the steamy self-made woman – are rivals at the audition, each vying for attention both for their talents and their attributes. These are talented professionals, wary of each other, a simmering duel forming one of the many subplots of a very tense day. In many versions of A Chorus Line, this rivalry becomes openly antagonistic, as each dancer tries to upstage the other.
And then theater evolves.
In a closing dress rehearsal, I was honored to experience an entirely new moment of this show. At the end of the audition as Sheila (Kara Schoenhofer) has been dismissed and is walking to collect her bag, she passes Val (Mollyanne Moon). In the past, the look passing between the dancers would have been daggers or icicles. These two brilliant actors evolved the moment, eyes welling with tears as the rivals ache for each other, the rivalry ending for now, the loss each will feel without the other’s presence.
It is a moment of wonder, of newness, of aching loveliness – a moment of pure theater, an evolution that advances the work and the art form. This is just one example of transformative power in this show and there are many more: Diana’s (Jessica Miret) battle for righteousness, Cassies’ (Casiena Raether) quest for acceptance, and Paul’s (Luke Halpern) search for himself and many more – the show overflows with funny, dramatic, touching and exquisite expressions.
Robin Hughes, a Director of colossal talent, provides both guidance and freedom for actors to finds these moments, to discover fresh forms of connections in the context of an established, venerable production. Excellent direction leads to an awakening of possibilities which the actors not only pursue but also thrive within. Theater continues to transform, to advance, to dazzle us with its immediacy.
It is my honor to be a part of this ongoing evolution.
Please contact me with your thoughts and ideas:
Artistic & Executive Director, Metropolis Performing Arts Centre
October 25, 2018 § Leave a comment
I’ve never really considered myself a “good” theatre person. I honestly don’t know many musicals or plays other than the ones I was in or had to read about in school. I knew bits and pieces of musicals here and there and was familiar with certain songs but overall I was pretty clueless.
When I heard about Metropolis doing A Chorus Line, I HAD to be in it because I love to dance. All I knew about A Chorus Line was that it was a dance show and the opening number song. I didn’t know that’s where “Dance Ten Looks Three” or “At The Ballet” or “What I Did For Love” were all in this show. I always feel so behind or out of the loop.
However, one thing I always appreciate about not knowing, is that I get to experience shows for the first time. I didn’t come in knowing the jokes or knowing my character or feeling like I knew all about the show. So I did my research. I watched the documentary, I read the book and I watched the movie and watched whatever clips I could find on YouTube. With this show in particular, it really hit home.
Being an actor is not easy. I felt a lot of connections to Mark because like him, I too felt like I am just breaking into this business. I’m hopeful but still naive in so many ways. Even weeks into our run, I’m still discovering new things about my character and other people’s characters. When you’re on stage for basically the entire show, it’s hard to see the same show twice. Every time we get a chance to go backstage, we’ll always talk about some new thing we did, some funny thing we saw someone else do that we’ll later find out they’ve been doing for weeks or we’ll have a new moment where we just see someone new, connect with them in a different way or at a different time. I think you have to go into this show that way. You can’t go in knowing that you’re going to get cast or that you’re not going to get cast. You can’t go in knowing where the jokes are or exactly how you’re going to react. Every performance has to be fresh and vulnerable which is scary.
Luckily, I have the most amazing and supportive cast. This would be an extremely hard show to do if you didn’t have that safe environment created by the cast and team to be vulnerable, to try new things and to feel safe to fail or cry or mess up choreography. I am so thankful for this show. It’s allowed me to be vulnerable and reminded me just how scary this career is but how brave I am to pursue it. It’s also reminded me every performer is doing their best. We have to be there for each other.
Yes, in a way we’re competition. We’re all competing for the same roles but more importantly, we can walk into this competition together. Every night, when Zach chooses his 4 girls and 4 guys, I am grateful that I am one of the chosen but it never ceases to also give me a pinch of sadness for my other fellow actors who did not make the cut.
A Chorus Line teaches empathy and we all need to be reminded of this in this business and in this life filled with so much hate, negativity, fear and violence. That’s why I do theatre. I do not need to know every lyric to every musical. I just need to know the lessons they teach me. What’s the point of being a “good theatre person” if you’re not a good person and carrying along those lessons out in the real world? Yes, as Cassie says, I need a job. However, our job is more than what we do onstage, but rather what we do offstage that counts.
October 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
On my thirteenth birthday (it might’ve been my fourteenth) my girlfriend at the time bought me “B’Way: The American Musical” CD; a compilation of songs from monumental musicals starting with the theme from Oklahoma! spanning to what was then the very new and revolutionary “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. It was jam packed with classics including Ethel Merman’s brassy rendition of “Anything Goes”, “Don’t For Me Argentina”, “Memory”, and “Good Morning Baltimore”. It was every adolescent-theatre-nerd’s dream. That night, I popped the CD into my navy blue walkman, slipped on my old school headphones, and listened to the entire album. Track 16 was one of the strangest songs I had ever heard; people talking over each other, speaking dance moves in broken patterns over dreamlike music. I turned over the CD case to find the name of the song. It was, you guessed it, “One” from the original cast recording of A Chorus Line.
Flash forward a few years and chubby teenage Brian is power walking to the back of the music section at Border’s (remember that place?) to buy the The New Cast Recording of A Chorus Line which had just re-opened on Broadway. Flash forward another year (and hundreds of car rides with Mom driving while I was scream singing Maggie’s crescendo in “At The Ballet”), and I’m sitting at the Schoenfield Theatre in New York with my high school choir mates, about to watch what had become one of my absolute favorite musicals.
I think the most beautiful thing about A Chorus Line is that you can relate to essentially every single character even if you aren’t a dancer. And, believe me, I am certainly not a dancer. Regardless, it is so easy to get swept into the stories and realize the beauty and complication that is simply growing up and being alive.
Flash forward to today, and I have the beautiful privilege of being a part of this production, along with the even greater privilege of playing Zach. It is magical watching these beautiful stories unfold night after night; re-living those car rides with my mom, singing “Nothing” in the hallways at school with friends, and those nights when I fell asleep listening to “What I Did For Love”.
Thank you to Robin for this role, to Mom for letting me to the soundtrack repeatedly, and to YOU for supporting Metropolis PAC production of A Chorus Line!
September 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
Chicago has earned a worldwide reputation as the training ground for future comedy stars. While Chicago is renowned as the birthplace of improvisational comedy and has been the training ground for everyone from Bill Murray to Tina Fey and too many more stars to count, it has also been noted as a blast furnace for the stand-up comedy industry. Some of the greatest minds of solo/duo comedy started in tiny clubs dotted across the Chicago area landscape: Bob Newhart, Shelly Berman, Nichols and May, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and many more artists. History shows that the great Joe E. Lewis virtually invented stand-up comedy in 1930s Chicago.
Comics in the 50s, 60s and 70s performed in nightclubs, on the billboard with singers, musical acts, dancers and novelty acts, as stand-up comedy clubs didn’t exist in that era. In fact, my first professional comedy gigs – as one/third of the comedy trio ridiculously titled Joe Mackburn – were at 1970s coffeehouse/nightclubs like Amazing Grace, The Spot, and Mr. Kelly’s.
In the mid-late 70s, comedy clubs started to pop up: The Comedy Cottage, Chicago Comedy Showcase and the grandfather of them all: Zanies. It was mid-frigid-Chicago-winter and I forget the year but Zanies had been open for about 3 weeks. I chattered through a 9 degrees below zero Thursday night to reach Zanies, my goal to pick up tips (steal) from some of the hot new standups.
The night was transformational, a revelation. The late, great Jim Fay opened with his chaotic audience-interactive set and then John Caponera came on for a short 15 and then. Then. Uncle Lar, Larry Reeb took the stage. Uncle Lar ripped through a comedy set which is nearly beyond description: part vaudeville comic, part incisive hilarity, part what-the-h-was-that? Every moment seemed to build funnier than the last. There are 3 times in my extensive career that I laughed so hard I thought I might pass out: Bob Hope in his late-prime, George Carlin in his mid-prime and Uncle Lar who is always primed.
It was a transformational night as Uncle Lar bridged the span between classic comedy delivery and outrageous new material. He teetered across a tightrope of one sharp punchline to the next bizarre setup.
Forty years later, Uncle Lar is even funnier than back in those pioneering days of comedy. I saw him in the spring of this year and again, I nearly passed out from the laughing lack of oxygen. If you’re in need of a jolt of comedy this mid-fall, do not miss the opportunity to see a Chicago Comedy Classic. Uncle Lar will make you glad you made the trip.
Joe Keefe email@example.com