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THEATER Standing Ovations with Bailiwick's David Zak
by David R. Guarino
2003-06-25

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Bailiwick Repertory's resident guru David Zak gets candid about his on-going success, his experiences directing Robert Schrock's Naked Boys Singing!, his current projects and plans for the future

The continuing success of the Chicago production of Robert Schrock's Naked Boys Singing! is in large part due to the directing talents of one of Chicago's finest technicians: Bailiwick's Artistic Director in Residence, David Zak.

A native of Lisle, Ill., Zak has been the guiding force behind Bailiwick Repertory Theater's success since its founding in 1982. A graduate of Benet Academy in Lisle, Zak later taught there as Drama Director from 1977-'79. David graduated from MacMurray College in 1977, and then made a precipitous move to Chicago in the spring of 1977.

The youngest of five children, Zak's earliest recollections include performing with a family singing group known as 'The Zak Family Singers.' Though Zak freely admits to having some proclivities towards acting, most of the acting work he was involved in was done 'as a way to get people to know me to hire me as a director.' To that end, Zak acted with Chicago's Court Theater ensemble in their earlier days at the old Playwrights Center. He was also involved with the now-defunct Commons Theater and the Absolute Theater.

As a high-profile member of the theatrical community, Zak has received many distinguished awards from his peers. He has received MacMurray College's Distinguished Career Alumni Award, the Torch Award from the Human Rights Campaign, and a special award for diversity from the Jeff Committee.

Speaking of the Joseph Jefferson Awards, Zak has received Jeff Awards, Citations and/or nominations For Direction of the following productions: Incorruptible (which featured Scott Lowell from Showtime's Queer as Folk), The Hiroshima Project, the Count of Monte Christo, Pope Joan, Light in the Heart of the Dragon, Son of Fire, and Animal Farm. David's production of David Cerda's Poseidon: An Upside Down Musical, A Hell In A Handbag Production, will open at the Fringe Festival in New York this August. David recently workshopped the new musical Dr. Sex, which was inspired by the life of Alfred C. Kinsey. Written by Sally Deering and Larry Bortniker, Dr. Sex was workshopped at the ASCAP Workshop in Los Angeles at Disney Studios. The musical is slated to open Sept. 10 of this year at Bailiwick.

David's recent works include Del Shores' controversial play Southern Baptist Sissues, Hamlet Dreams starring Robert Schleifer and Candace Hart, and Robert Schrock's Naked Boys singing!, now in its second triumphant year at Bailiwick Theater.

Zak has also received Joseph Jefferson citations for Best New Work for Wuthering Heights (with Jeff Casazza) and for The hiroshima Project (which he shares with Anne V. Mc Gravie, Dwight Okita and Nicholas A. Patricca). After Dark Awards for Direction have also been received by Zak for his work in Sissies, Equus and In the Deep Heart's Core.

Zak's upcoming projects include Bailiwick's annual tradition: Julie Shannon and John Reeger's The Chrestmas Schooner. Also coming up is a production of Stephen King's thriller Misery for Pywacket Theater in October, and a production of the Golem for Chicago Jewish Theater in January.

One of David's fondest memories was the wonderful celebration at Ann Sather's Restaurant that he and his partner, Christopher Kirbabas shared as part of their ceremony six years ago.

DAVID GUARINO: How was it for you growing up the youngest of five?

DAVID ZAK: (smiling) It was fine. We had a singing group called The Zak Family Singers… . Yes, it's a little known fact. You'll be the first to reveal it in the press. But I was always surrounded by theater. My father was an entertainer, still tells a million jokes and does a lot of singing so that was sort of his vision of getting us all out singing Von Trapp songs with matching red velvet vests …

DG: OH, NO!

DZ: Actually it was quite entertaining.

DG: So your father was an entertainer. What did he do along those lines?

DZ: Just community theater stuff. For his real work he built locomotives but he was always somebody singing in church and he was always in plays and musicals and he still is.

DG: So is that where you get your affinity for the theater?

DZ: I think (it was) probably between him and my oldest sister, who was a music major. So I think that she probably had a more specific influence (on me) because she moved to New York when I was in grade school. We weren't really that close, she was 12 years older than I was, so I didn't really spend that much time with her. She went to college when I was in first grade, so we weren't really 'hanging out,' but when she moved to New York she kept very much in touch with me. She always would send me the Sunday section of The New York Times, the Arts Section, always made sure that I was going to see plays. So somehow she knew. So she (was the one in the family) who moved it out of the community theater level and into something that's bigger than that.

DG: What is the genesis of the play, Naked Boys Singing?

DZ: There is a theater in California called The Celebration Theater, which is very similar to Bailiwick. A few years ago Robert Schrock, who is the creator of Naked Boys Singing! found himself at wit's end. The theater was struggling financially like all arts organizations tend to do. He had already decided that gay men tend to like two things: showtunes and naked boys. So he thought, 'Why don't I put the two together?' So he spent about three or four months talking to everyone he knew who wrote songs, and got some really great material from around the country. Then Schrock spent a couple of months weaving it all together, and the play opened at the Celebration Theater maybe five years ago. The play really helped keep that theater alive. Bob Schrock eventually left Celebration and the show ran for about a year in Los Angeles; he left the company basically to babysit Naked Boys Singing! around the world. So that's his job; directing companies of Naked Boys Singing! He's a really interesting guy, and I think he's happy with the result. Bob is working on a screenplay of Naked Boys Singing! and I think they hope to make a movie version of it sometime in the next two years or so.

DG: Playing devil's advocate here—you know a play like this usually generates not only interest but also controversy. How do you respond to the criticism that it is exploitative and that's it's designed just to sell tickets?

DZ: I guess I respond to that by having the same reaction that I have when I look at the back of any of the gay papers or The Advocate. Or when I walk into the gay bookstores … the bottom line is sex is the engine that drives a lot of the financial wheels in the community. So I do think there are a lot of people who feel that naked boy plays are not as admirable or artistic as other things. But I also think (that) there's a huge part of the community that celebrates and embraces the freedom of saying, 'We don't have to behave by everybody else's standards.' This is something that the gay community has done for decades; from the very beginning of gay theater there have always been pieces which are fun and celebratory and presented without embarrassment. And I think that's something that we've enjoyed over the years. I think many people are somewhat repressed … you're coming from small towns in Iowa, Kentucky, you don't get a chance to see a play that's as celebrational as this. (It's) just perfectly frank and honest and open, and I think that's what people respond to in this play. I think that the productions of NBS around the country that have walked the fine line of being dirty or being too explicitly sexual; I think those productions have not lasted. I think that this (the Chicago) production is the second longest running in the country because of that innocence and that fun that the actors have and their total comfort level with being out there and celebrating their physical assets with an audience. That makes the audience relax and it lets people really enjoy the play on a different level than (they would) a traditional play.

DG: And the longest running version of this play is running where, David?

DZ: In New York. Right. So basically the California cast moved to New York, the producers in New York bought that production, brought it to New York City and it's been there for quite a while. (It's been there) over three years, I think. That's where I first saw the show; I had heard about it from the beginning because there's a really strong Internet community of gay theaters and gay artists and people who work in the theater. ... The Celebration Theater only has about 48 seats, I think, so they were always packed. Chicago men love to travel so part of the way I hear about plays is through people who are our (Bailiwick's) subscribers who feel like they have an ownership in Bailiwick, walking in the door and saying, 'Here's a play that I just saw in St. Louis, (or San Francisco) that would be great for you.' When the New York production opened, the rights in Chicago were bought out by JAM Theatricals, which is one of the bigger theater presenters. So we were trying to get the rights to it. We spent some time working with JAM Theatricals to see if it would work out to be a financially lucrative project for them. And then when their rights expired, we were thrilled!

DG: How many composers are involved?

DZ: I think that there are 19 composers who were selected in the end, and in the time that NBS has been running here I have met just about all of them. And they've all come in to see the show in various configurations, and they've really had a blast.

DG: Many straight women come to see Naked Boys Singing! How do you feel about this phenomenon, David? Do you think it is a good idea for us to be 'reaching out' to the straight community via a venue like this?

DZ: My friend Dennis De Young (founder of the rock band STYX), said there is a 'penis deficiency' in the world; that was his phrase. You can see boobs everywhere, on TV and Showtime, etc., but you can't see a penis …

DG: Unless you've got one at home!

DZ: Yes! I think it's a good thing (that straight women come to see NBS). I have a feeling that a lot of women don't know that the show's really got gay content when they book in. So the surprise factor works in everybody's favor. I think they just want to have a good time. We play a lot of times to just bachelorettes and divorce parties. That's an interesting combination! (laughs) I think the themes of the play, because there are serious moments in the play … the themes about love and connections … those things transcend the giddiness that those audiences have at the beginning. So unlike gay men who have probably seen far too many penises, women audiences just seem to have that uninhibited joy … I also think that there's a lot more tolerance out there now, with the advent of TV shows like Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk, Will and Grace. So I don't think the shock factor for those women coming in from, say Palatine, is as strong as it would have been a few years ago.

DG: Have you gotten hate mail?

DZ: We have never really had hate mail; with Southern Baptist Sissies we got all this hate mail. You know, the Bible and gay boys, Adam and Steve, that sort of thing. So I guess it's OK to be naked and having fun. So I think Naked Boys Singing! as a production moves our issues forward. For instance, the ballet scene in NBS. They cut that scene from the New York production. I know that when I was a gay teenager growing up in Lisle, that's the sort of stuff I was looking for. Just to get those images of something that's so physical, so sensual, not sexual, just sensual at the end of this evening where you're laughing and having a great time and you've seen some serious things … and you get to that moment that's just pure physical beauty …

DG: You're ready for it!

DZ: (David nods) You're ready for it! And there's the payoff of going, 'Oh, wow!' That's something that you're not going to see in any other show. And that's why I think people have supported Naked Boys Singing! over the long time it's been playing. It's as fun yet as innocent an evening you can have with a bunch of naked guys…

DG: For those who would otherwise pass on this production, could you share with us some things about Naked Boys Singing! that are not readily apparent?

DZ: I think underneath the surface of the stuff that's fun and entertaining and lighthearted, we've managed to maintain a couple of elements of the show that really give it a lot of weight and seriousness. So, for some of the other productions (of NBS) around the country, the ballads which deal with serious issues have been cut or minimized. What's lovely in our production is that you've got a great sense of the total picture of the gay community. I think that Naked Boys Singing! has scenes that are grounded in a reality that's deeper (and more meaningful) than just the fun aspect. I think the other thing is the amount of physicality that's in the show. The dancing is really great. Andy Delo, our choreographer, really pushed the limits on what we could do on that set. There is both some really funny and some really beautiful movement. You don't often see that in theater, not combined in the way that we have done it. The songs are really great and the sequence makes the show really unique.

Naked Boys Singing! is on open run at Bailiwick Theater, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays @ 8, Saturdays @ 9. Call (773) 883-1090. For groups call (312) 943-5056

E-mail: david.ronald@earthlink.net


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