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City Lit Executive Artistic Director Brian Pastor talks theater, comics, queerness
by Andrew Davis
2024-03-26

This article shared 17257 times since Tue Mar 26, 2024
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City Lit Theater has announced its programming for the 2024-25 season—which will be the company's 44th. It will also be the first season to be programmed under the leadership of Brian Pastor (they/them), who will assume the position of executive artistic director on July 1.

Recently, Pastor talked with Windy City Times about the theater's upcoming season as well as their own journeys with City Lit, comic books and queerness.

NOTE: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Windy City Times: You actually have quite the history with City Lit. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Brian Pastor: Certainly. I spent just over 10 years on staff at City Lit, the last nine of which I was managing director. Then I left for other opportunities, and then, a few years ago, [Producer/Artistic Director] Terry [McCabe] invited me back to be resident director. I've spent three or four years there directing shows and finding ways to be involved, because it's always felt like home for me. And when this opportunity [to be executive artistic director] arose, it seemed like a perfect fit.

WCT: I'm sure you weighed the pros and cons before saying yes. What were those pros and cons?

BP: Well, we know that working in the nonprofit arena is not the most lucrative of fields. [Smiles] But I can tell you that the board did a really nice job of making it apparent that it valued me and my experience.

I love City Lit's mission. I always felt that the things I want to express as an artist could be done under that umbrella. Once I knew that the business side of it was fine, it was really what I wanted to do.

WCT: Did you have a hand in determining which productions would run in the upcoming season?

BP: I did. Now the first show of the season [The House of Ideas] was already selected and that will be Terry's final show before he retires. It's also the final show in a trilogy of shows that Terry has produced about the history of comic books. And it's also a love of mine: I still read comics from time to time, and I think [the show] fits with my aesthetic. But the rest of the shows [Seven Guitars, Glassheart and R.U.R.] were ones that I selected, and Terry was kind enough to give me some space to do it on my own.

WCT: You mentioned comics. Do you go to [comic conventions]?

BP: Yeah. I've made my way to a couple Cons [Comic Con, now known as Fan Expo] over the years. In fact, City Lit was at the Con two years ago to promote the first show in the trilogy. Maybe there'll be more opportunities for City Lit to participate in future [events].

WCT: And The House of Ideas is about Marvel, correct?

BP: Yes. It's primarily about the relationship between its two biggest creative forces in its early years: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It looks at their business and personal relationships. As the company grew, it became harder for them to agree on how to proceed. It's an interesting case study of a growing business.

WCT: And the productions you chose are quite different from each other.

BP: These shows represent a wide range of storytelling that I feel really embrace the breadth of City Lit's mission. Also, I felt they represented a wide swath of my interests.

I'm from Pittsburgh and August Wilson [who wrote Seven Guitars] has always been an important playwright to me. I'm very grateful that we were able to get the rights to do the local storefront premiere of this play, and it's the 30th anniversary of this play. It's so powerful. Manny Buckley, who's a friend of mine and a really terrific artist, is an ensemble member of American Blues Theater and expressed interest in directing August Wilson for us. I'm really excited about that.

Glassheart is a play by Chicago playwright Reina Hardy, who has a long history with City Lit as well, and who is a co-founder of the Viola Project education program [a Shakespeare performance workshop for girls]. She has had success around the country but hasn't really had a major Chicago production. This will be the Chicago premiere of a play that's a reimagining of the classic Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.

And in the spring, we'll be doing R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which is a play from 1920. It was a ton of relevance to what we see going on today with the rise of AI. I've always been a big science-fiction fan; a lot of the short plays that I've written about have dealt with robots or AI. [R.U.R.] is written by Karel Capek but it's adapted by Bo List, who adapted Frankenstein for City Lit about 10 or 12 years ago. It's sort of a homecoming for many of us this season.

WCT: You have been an actor. Would you ever consider returning to acting?

BP: It's funny that you ask that because there's potentially an opportunity to act in an upcoming show—and I'm seriously considering it. And I think that this job is an opportunity for me to bring all my artistic skills to bear. If that can be acting, directing, producing or writing, then I'll be able to bring them to the City Lit stage at some point.

WCT: Is there an actor you would love to direct? It doesn't have to be someone who's famous, of course.

BP: That's a terrific question. Chicago has had a tremendous amount of talent come through it over the years. I've always admired actors who can completely transform and become whatever they need to be on stage. I had the privilege of directing actors like Cameron Feagin, for example, who I think has played male and female roles as well as real and imagined ones. Someone else who I admire a lot is Manny Buckley, who we just talked about. Manny acted with City Lit early on in their career and has done tremendous work. I would love to direct Manny at some point.

WCT: You mentioned that City Lit is a storefront theater. Tell me about what the storefront theater world is like and how it differs from the world of larger companies.

BP: A storefront theater is a place for all different kinds of theater but it's also a place where you can bring forth the traditional along with the avant-garde. There's an opportunity for exploration that, I think, larger companies are sometimes more hesitant to embrace. A storefront, because it's so nimble, has the ability to try new things and tell lots of new stories with new voices. That's an important pipeline that the larger companies are doing—but the system doesn't work without the small theaters as well. Storefront theaters are also great proving grounds for young actors and writers, and they provide awesome chances to explore the breadth and depth of the kinds of works that might find their way to a larger stage.

And anyone who thinks that storefront theater isn't professional theater hasn't seen enough storefront theater. The work there can be invigorating and the theaters are full of tremendous talent. I'm really grateful to be part of it.

WCT: For you, what is it like to be part of the queer community in today's America?

BP: That's a great question. Being a queer person in America today is quite a contradiction. It's liberating in many ways, but it's also incredibly frustrating.

When we see what's happening around the country with trans and non-binary folk—the death of [Oklahoma teen] Nex Benedict hit me and the community very, very hard. And all of these laws and attempts to create laws that restrict our rights—it's not even about our rights; it's about the ability to be ourselves. That's all we're asking; we want to be ourselves, freely and openly. That shouldn't be too much to ask.

I feel very privileged to be in a place like Chicago, that is welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community. I also feel very deeply for those fellow queer folk who don't have that privilege—where it's more difficult to be themselves.

I'll tell you a story. I was doing a show called Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Our production was gender-blind; in fact, a woman played Oscar Wilde and much of the cast was queer. We talked a lot about gender and sexual identity while creating this story. A young person from Indiana came to see our show—and they were so incredibly moved by the experience that they came up to me and told me what it meant to see folks like themself on stage. It's very difficult for someone like themself to be in a place like they were. I had never had an experience like that—where I've been told that my work meant something so personal to an individual and that it inspired that person to be brave. I can't imagine the level of bravery that it takes some young people to be authentically themselves today.

I'm doing my best to be a pillar of light for them and for the whole community. As we move forward here, we'll see more queer stories. Everything I do as an artist, I do through that [queer] lens. It's part of who I am so it's going to be part of the work I produce.

For more about City Lit Theater, visit www.citylit.org/ .


This article shared 17257 times since Tue Mar 26, 2024
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