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Eric Rosen: All Roads Lead to Winesburg, Ohio
by Amy Matheny
2004-06-16

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Director/writer Eric Rosen was born in North Carolina, raised in New York, and educated at Northwestern University. In 1995 he co-founded About Face Theatre, and after nine years the company now stands as one of the most powerful voices for new work in GLBT theatre.

Throughout the years Eric Rosen has guided the company to a place of prestige from early beginnings with Boys in the Band to the creation of the About Face Youth Theatre to the pre-Broadway production of the 2004 Tony Award-winning I Am My Own Wife. Simultaneously, though, he has illuminated the influences of his own life through his adaptations from the Southern roots of Dream Boy to the big-city life of Dancer of the Dance to his latest adaptation of Sherwood Anderson's Midwestern portrait, Winesburg, Ohio: A New Musical.

Eric and I talked the week before the About Face production opened at the Steppenwolf Upstairs theatre. He was in the middle of technical rehearsals, ferociously rewriting scenes in a huddle with his composer and director, while crew moved set pieces on ladders, musicians tuned, actors waltzed around the room, and designers sat in corners planning their next attack. The 'bit by bit, putting it together' tension was palatable. And yet, as soon as we started talking, everything disappeared except for this clear story of About Face and this work that he loves.

Amy Matheny: You have been on a long journey. When were you first introduced to Winesburg, Ohio?

Eric Rosen: Winesburg came to me from Jessica Thebus, the show's director, who at that time was running the Arts Exchange Program at Steppenwolf. She approached me on the steps of the Jane Addams Center, the old home of About Face Theatre, and said, 'You should adapt this. I think we want to do this for Steppenwolf.' And of course at Steppenwolf, I couldn't say no. I even pretended I knew the book when in fact I didn't and saying I knew smart things about sexual repression and Midwestern life. So I went home and feverishly read the book and it didn't click with me initially. It was when I was talking with Andre Pleuss about the book and the operatic impulse and how these characters are all breaking out of their skin with desire, (that we talked) about the idea of making it a musical might be good idea. That was almost four years ago.

AM: Tell us about the story.

ER: Winesburg is a collection of stories, character portraits of people from Sherwood Anderson's childhood from late 19th century America ... . Instead of painting a lyrical portrait, a nostalgic portrait of American life, Anderson's great accomplishment was to go beneath the surface into the really dark heart of the people he remembered from his childhood. The story of Winesburg is a story of a young man learning how to write the stories of his lifetime and how he comes of age to become an artist and how he leaves the town of his youth.

AM: Is it fiction or a memoir?

ER: It is fiction, though in fact if you look at all the names, the town exactly correspond(s) with his hometown of Clyde, Ohio. The pivotal event of George Willard leaving his town after his mother's death, Anderson's own mother died when he was 18, and right after that he left Clyde. So, the biographical details are pretty close to [his] own life.

AM: You have adapted many stories to amazing clarity on stage, from Dream Boy to Dancer from the Dance. What makes a book ripe for an adaptation to stage?

ER: For me there has to be a moment when I am reading the book that I am struck by a certain image so powerfully that I have an idea of how to make it happen onstage. That can be a fragment of a line. It can be an arch of a story. For Winesburg, it was the image of Alice Hindman standing naked in the rain, a woman who is a sort of spinster who is so repressed that one night during a storm she rips off her clothes and runs into the rain. That image to me was so beautiful. That is how I hooked into this story. If there isn't a moment in which I see an image, I don't have an idea how to start. So I will keep reading and reading until an image comes into my mind and then I will write out what the image looks like and characters will start to talk … but it all starts out for me visually.

AM: What image started Dream Boy?

ER: There is a moment when the main character Nathan is (about) to be thrown off a railroad trestle. In the book there is this time dividing where he falls and he doesn't fall. I had this image of showing that in multiple ways explaining the mystery of that play that things are happening simultaneously.

AM: In the past with Dream Boy and Dancer from the Dance, you directed your own adaptations. This time why did you hand those reins over to Jessica Thebus?

ER: It is really just the evolving collaboration. I don't think I could do it with another director. Writing a musical is so hard. There are so many elements I have to control. Having a collaborator like Jessica frees me to not to have to worry about so many other things. It's the first time I have ever let go of a piece to another artist, but I have known Jessica since 1992. We went to graduate school together so she is someone I feel close with and trust so much that I really can let go and focus on the storytelling, the language, and the music.

AM: Do you read music or play music?

ER: I don't! I sing in the shower. All my life I wanted to be a singer.

AM: I didn't know that!

ER: It's true. A really defining moment in my life was when my parents told me that I didn't have a very good voice and I was so upset. They are really nice people, my parents. Seriously. But I have very good musical instincts and I can hear music pretty clearly in particular as it comes out of language. I can look at a phrase and find what the range will be, and I have this great collaborative team of Andre Pleuss and Ben Sussman (the composers) who I have also been working with my whole career. We understand each other's aesthetic so closely that we can correct each other. They can write new lyrics when mine don't work and I can suggest new phrases of music to them.

AM: I know you love poetry. Has this foray into lyricism been fun for you?

ER: In this case I have actually written the lyrics. In the past the work I have done has come from found poems, either Walt Whitman with Whitman or cin salach with Undone. So to be able to take Anderson's prose and try to find its lyrical structure and then work to make whole songs that are really more than or as much my language as Anderson's has been an exciting process.

AM: At this moment in time, let's look at what is going on with About Face Theatre, since you are its co-founder and its artistic director. What amount of pressure do you feel now that the company's work on I Am My Own Wife led that production to Broadway, Pulitzer and Tony victory?

ER: It's the most amazing thing about About Face—that the journey could have happened. If someone had told me nine years ago that a play that we worked on would end up achieving those heights, I never would have believed it. But now it seems like it's just the next evolution of something that has existed since we began and been so dynamically supported by the community and by our artists that it makes sense that we are achieving this more national scope. We have all managed to hold to this really central passion that made us want to start in the beginning and that is fueled by our connection to sexuality and gender identity issues and this huge desire we have for greatness.

AM: How would you describe the company right now in this journey?

ER: I think we have either just broken through or we are just about to break through to a new period of our core artists doing great work both regionally and locally and we are attracting new artists who are becoming the new generation of mixing with local artists and really trying to find the balance between really famous playwrights like Doug Wright and directors like Moises Kaufman and Mary Zimmerman, and amazing local artists like those working in Winesburg or someone like, I don't know, Amy Matheny [laughing] … is a really wonderful balance. My hope is that we will elevate the Chicago artists to a national level and that the national artists will find a home here in Chicago. That would fund us for the next five or six years until the next transformation.

AM: There has been much speculation in the community about About Face having a permanent theatre home. How soon is that a reality, or does the company want a home?

ER: Right now we are waiting to build up some financial ability to have our dream home. Getting a building is really tricky because once you have one, that's it. If it's only 150 seats, then that's it. If you want a 500-seat theatre, you have to wait another ten years. So I have been putting off the decision and because we have so many great opportunities to work on these great stages at Steppenwolf, Goodman, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Victory Gardens (the past two years) that is working really well for us to attract the artists we want, until we can afford the kind of home we really want. That will be a few years down the road, I think.

AM: Where will About Face Theatre be in five years?

ER: I hope that we are still here in the way of being a smallish organization. I don't think we will get more than twice the size we are right now because our taste is so strange and specific and I think that means we will stay kind of small. I think we will be having our work seen around the country. It's my goal [that] we are both Chicago and national [with our] work known in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, Atlanta. Places where there are sizable gay communities that would embrace our work as well. Because what we do is so unique. I would like About Face to be almost like a European company that travels around. I don't think we will ever be very commercial. Our tastes are so specific. But we develop so many new plays and I want them to have long lives and that is the most important thing to me. We put so much money and effort into every play that we do and they should have multiple lives that we are involved with … . My hope is that we can stay strong locally and really branch out to other parts of the country.

AM: Where will Eric Rosen be in five year?

ER: Oh, I'll still be doing this! [Laughing]

_____

Winesburg, Ohio: A New Musical from About Face Theatre is playing now through July 18 at Steppenwolf Theatre 1650 N. Halsted, Wednesday-Sunday. For tickets call Steppenwolf at (312) 335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org .

Amy Matheny is an artistic associate of About Face Theatre.

Military Lesbian

and Gay Play

Half Life Premieres

The world premiere of a new play about lesbians and gays serving in the Gulf War opens at the American Theater Company Aug. 27, produced by Half Life Productions and Awaken! Performances, companies dedicated to exposing intolerance through humor, wit, and pathos.

Half Life, running Aug. 27-Sept. 18, is based on a novel by Tracy Baim, and adapted for stage by Bev Spangler (artistic director of Awaken! Performances), from the screenplay by Catherine Crouch (Stray Dogs).

Even as the current military conflict rages on, gay and lesbian servicemembers are being separated from active duty. But during the first Gulf War, prior to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' the discharge orders for many gays and lesbians were put on 'hold' while those people were willing to give their lives during the war. Many were then dishonorably discharged upon their return to the U.S.

In Half Life, a career military woman (Jen Hunter) stationed just north of Chicago meets a lesbian reporter (Kate Easten) during the 1991 Gulf War. Each is working on the case of a servicemember (Roberta Mobley) who has been discharged after returning home from the Gulf War with severe burns from a chemical exposure that hit her troop. Other gay members of her unit are also facing discharge, and while Hunter seeks truth from the inside, Eastern works for justice on the outside. This begins a journey that will force both to face career and life choices.

This is a work of fiction, based on facts. It is a love story where a closeted Army spokeswoman has to deal with a journalist who is fighting duplicitous policies in the military. It is more timely than ever, as more than 10,000 servicemembers have been discharged for homosexuality in the past decade, and more continue to be kicked out each day.

Tracy Baim, publisher and managing editor of Windy City Times, has worked in the gay and lesbian press for 20 years. She completed her novel on the Gulf War five years ago, and then worked with filmmaker Catherine Crouch to adapt it into a screenplay, which just held a successful staged reading in Los Angeles.

Bev Spangler is artist director of Awaken! Performances and has written and performed solo works around Chicago, New York and Europe for more more than a decade. Awaken's most recent work was the acclaimed Parallel Lives: Kathy & Mo Show last winter. It was directed by Jenna Newman, who will also direct Half Life.

A portion of every ticket sold will go to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which will also host a benefit night during the run [Sept. 12]. SLDN has estimated that approximately 125,000 lesbian and gay troops are serving in the armed forces, including in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 1993, more than 10,000 servicemembers have been discharged for homosexuality—1,231 in the year 2000 alone. Taxpayers have paid more than $260 million to facilitate this federal policy. Not included are the costs of investigation and/or the loss of countless men and women who resign or choose not to reenlist because of the gay ban. Lesbians have always been disproportionately impacted by the ban—for example, in 2000, lesbians represented 15% of people serving, but were 24% of the homosexual discharge cases. And women of color are the most hurt in proportion to their service numbers.

Half Life Productions and Awaken! Performances at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (at Lincoln); $20, $15 for group rates, and $10 for students and seniors with an ID. PREVIEWS: Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 25-26, 7 p.m.Show runs: Aug. 27-Sept. 18. No shows Sept. 4-5 for Labor Day weekend. Wednesdays-Thursdays 7 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees 3 p.m. (Matinee dates: Aug. 28, 29, Sept. 11, 12, 18)

Tickets: (773) 275-2036 ext. 2 Or see the payment link at www.halflifeplay.com


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