I don’t think any of us was prepared to talk about what World Theatre Day actually meant to us, or even meant to the rest of the world. Who, in fact, is supposed to celebrate the holiday? Does anyone outside the theatre community even know about it?
I’m sitting here in a coffee shop in Rogers Park, a nice little Ethiopian place right by my apartment that frankly I don’t visit often enough. It’s 2 pm, Sunday March 28, I’m hung over, and I just want some coffee. Why am I hung over? Because I was out all night at the Chopin Theatre to celebrate World Theatre Day. Yes. There is such a cheesy thing as World Theatre Day. Nearly every theatre practicioner in Chicago was in attendance, the beer was cheap (for Chicago), and there was a performance of The Paper Machete, a live weekly magazine, on the set of the House Theatre’s Wilson Wants It All, which had just closed about an hour earlier. So: a million theatre kids crammed into every nook and cranny this space can offer up, everybody’s drinking and socializing and updating their Twitters, and talking about the show they’re doing right now, and there I was, just hoping I wasn’t going to embarrass myself somehow.
I had started the evening by going to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see a touring production of The Shipment, written and directed by Young Jean Lee. (Sidebar: The name of Young Jean Lee’s theatre company is, well, Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company. I can’t make up my mind as to whether that’s fucking cool or fucking conceited.) Though Lee is a Korean American writer, The Shipment is a high energy experimental tirade about black stereotypes and identity. It’s basically 100 minutes of being smacked in the face and feeling guilty about laughing at what you’re laughing at. I’m not going to describe it too much more, because I don’t want to turn this into a review of the play. But as a sometime playwright myself, I’m thinking, Yes, this is it! This is exactly the kind of theatre I want to make, to watch, to love. This is the kind of play I was more or less discouraged from writing in my college playwriting classes, this is the kind of play that is so ambitious in its presentation that one misstep could have sent it plummeting to its horrible demise like a misguided stunt devil, this is the kind of play that can actually change people. Make people look at themselves and how they interact with the rest of the world. And make those people question themselves and the systems they create and in which they partake, willfully or no. And this was all swirling through my head during and after the play, and it was all my friend and I could talk about as he watched me scarf down a burger at McDonald’s after the show, and then once we made our way to the Chopin.
The CTA was being a butthole of course. While waiting at the Chicago Ave. Red Line stop, two trains going in the opposite direction came and went before one going in our direction came. And then of course when we transferred to the Blue Line at Jackson, we had to wait forever. Excuse me, but as much as I hate driving, and theoretically prefer taking public transportation, the CTA can bite me sometimes.
Waiting on the platform with us, and getting on the same train car with us (once it finally came), was a blond girl dressed in a man’s evening suit with a brown leather owl purse over her shoulder. At first I thought she was just some band geek on her way to a party. Then I realized that, if she was going in the same direction as us, she could be on her way to the same place. Because, honestly, who in high school who was a band geek wasn’t also a drama nerd? But when we got out of the subway she hung back, so I couldn’t see if she was going to Chopin. Sure enough, however, we spotted her at the party about twenty minutes later. I could only hope that meant I was not the most awkward person there.
But I wasn’t going to let her take that title easily, though. Oh, no no no. As soon as we got to the Chopin, I ran into a girl I interned with last fall, who happened to be checking IDs and giving people wristbands. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to hug or shake hands, so we ended up deciding on a half-assed, not completely connecting fist bump. I asked, “So what I am I supposed to do?” not knowing the story behind the wristbands yet. And she said, “Oh, I don’t think I need to see your ID”, or something to that effect, again, as I said, as though I knew that’s what they were for. For all I knew, it could’ve been a solidarity thing, like the Livestrong bracelet. The wristbands were yellow too, so yeah. But then I let her get back to binding people in yellow, and I didn’t see her again that night. I hope she doesn’t think I’m weird. Here began a motif: I kept running into people I kinda know; we’d chat for a few minutes at most, but I would always end up awkwardly moving along because I’d rather just be in my comfort zone with the people I was there with. I will save you the agony of reading every detail of the remaining encounters, because really they’re all variations on a theme.
I had never been to the Chopin Theatre before, but had had it described to me once. That description did not do the place justice. It was a lavishly appointed space. You felt like you time-traveled back in time, but instead of landing in a concrete place you ended up in some sort of old-world mashup, like you entered someone’s confused memory of old times rather than the reality. Part 1940s Polish tenement, part Winter Palace during the Empire, perhaps. Oriental patterns run the breadth and width of the floor, leading you down soft stair steps into a salon with a full bar, past elegant table lamps and ornately framed mirrors, and then down more steps into a dimly lit anteroom, its walls lined with old photographs of someone else’s dead relatives. Just beyond this point, another room, darker still, the incessant chatter of crowds and the low hum of the musicians calling out to you.
If not for anti-smoking laws, you’d be choking on the haze by now.
I stuffed my coat and scarf underneath and behind the overfull coat rack. I grabbed a beer at the bar. I tweeted something with the #wtd10 hashtag just so I could see it on the big monitor displaying the Twitter feed. I stuck close to my friends, resisting the urge to introduce myself to every random actor I recognized from a show. There was the creepy tall guy from The Castle. The regal bald one from Minna. The short pixie girl from Oklahomo for the Holidays. Sometimes I stared, and when we made eye contact I quickly looked away.
At least for the middle part of the party, I traded the low lit basement for the better lit, even oppresively bright, by comparison, theatre space upstairs, where Chris Piatt, former Theatre editor for TimeOut Chicago, performed The Paper Machete, which is a weekly live magazine show. I had never seen it, but I gather that it’s simply nothing more than one person reading an essay on stage for two hours, not disimilar to a live show of This American Life, with music cues and all. Piatt delivered an essay about Chicago’s inferiority complex, otherwise known as the “Second City Complex,” and how it relates to the Chicago theatrical community and in particular the House Theatre, from whose stage Piatt was speaking, and because of whose work he could no longer remain an impartial critic. A charismatic speaker, Piatt is a tall, lanky, bald, glasses-wearing, pierced in both ears, intense dude, who had somehow managed to turn all those archetypal baby-eating and blood-drinking critic cliches into qualities you could almost call utterly charming. He gave a passionate, plucky, humorous lecture, and indeed it was probably the most appropriate topic he could have picked. Because, though it was World Theatre Day, what better way to celebrate it than to acknowledge your particular place in that world, the good, the bad, the past, present and future of that place?
Here’s what’s ironic about all this. I was pretty hopped up on Piatt’s words, ingested each one of them like a granule of coke powder, fully believing in the magic and mythology of the Chicago theatre scene. This was the city I had chosen, after all, to begin my career. But I realize, too, that I had come to the World Theatre Day After-Party directly from a play that originated in New York, the seat of Broadway, the “communications capital of the world,” the home of the New Yorker magazine, which in 1950 took it upon itself to dub Chicago, yes, the “Second City.” Couldn’t it have been more appropriate for me to have seen Wilson Wants It All last night instead? Maybe. Of course, that would have required me to know what Piatt was going to talk about. But I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty that, after seven months living in Chicago, the most empowering and transformational of my many theatre experiences here was, well, a touring production from New York. I’m gonna chew on that one for a while.
After a few more beers, we ended up getting a ride to Irving Park, where we’d walk down to the Sheridan Red Line to get home. As we waited under the heat lamps on the platform, our breaths wafting and mingling between us, my friends and I could only manage to talk about little things like who we thought was trying to get laid that night, what this other person’s problem was, and other trivialities. I don’t think any of us was prepared to talk about what World Theatre Day actually meant to us, or even meant to the rest of the world. Who, in fact, is supposed to celebrate the holiday? Does anyone outside the theatre community even know about it? None of these questions came to mind for us. We just knew that it was late, we were cold, and we were very far from home. It reminds me of an old playwriting rule. If you ever feel the impulse to write about a truly devastating or transformational moment in your life, resist it. It will be shit. Wait at least five years, when you have some distance from it. Only then will you understand what it all meant.
But let me return to the present moment. Last night I got pretty drunk at a theatre party. I was out very late. I am now hungover. I just want some coffee. Here at the Royal Coffee, at the table next to me, a couple of slightly older gentlemen are sitting and talking about . . . well, Uncle Vanya. The Philadelphia Story. Noel Coward. Oscar Wilde. And on and on and on. One of them seems to be a theatre director, either a Loyola professor or someone who works with one of the million companies up here in Rogers Park or Evanston. The guy he’s talking to is a little older, and I think he’s an actor, because the director is talking to him about how he’s going to make sure to find a place for the guy in his next show. They’re sitting over their coffees, talking about perhaps the most middle-of-the-road, deadest, stuffiest, dead-white-guy-est theatre imaginable. And all I can think, through this haze of a Sunday afternoon, is–I’m so glad I didn’t see you guys at the party last night.