There's an old adage that too many cooks spoil the soup. Others would argue the opposite, especially when it comes to the vital collaboration necessary to create live theater.
An extraordinary amount of collaboration has gone into Collaboraction's world premiere of Gender Breakdown, a devised theater piece drawing from more than 200 artists looking at the lack of gender equity in the Chicago-area theater scene. Gender Breakdown was spearheaded by Dani Bryant and director Erica Vannon, and features an all-female-identified cast and production team.
"For about a year before we started rehearsals in January, we were conducting what we were calling 'off menus' which were pot luck-style gatherings where we invited different individuals to talk about this specific topic of gender parity in Chicago theater," said Kate Hawbaker-Krohn, the production's dramaturg and an acting ensemble member who identifies as gender non-conforming.
"I helped Dani in how to create a safe space, which she was already very good at," Hawbaker-Krohn said. "We had discussions and of course, there were sensitive comments and people had opinions and emotions, so it was a vibrant room."
Questionnaires were also sent out to help gather not only more stories, but quantifiable data to help build the show. Gender Breakdown also piggy-backed on Kay Kron's DePaul University Master Thesis on gender inequities which studied 52 Chicago-area theaters and more than 250 plays in Jeff Award-nominated plays from the 2015-16 season ( Kron opted not to include musicals in her study ). One of the findings mentioned in a Gender Breakdown press release was that only 25 percent of plays had female authors and that only 36 percent were directed by women.
"I think we all know what the data is, but we don't really understand the impact until we attach a personal narrative to it," Hawbaker-Krohn said.
To get the diverse cast together, many writers and performers were invited to audition. Once the cast was selected this past August, the individual actors were able to bring their own personal casting and performing experiences in more content-producing workshops to add to the previously gathered stories. Those not onstage were also included via voice-overs, or on the production side of things.
"I'm a Black woman and I'm a queer woman, but I've never played a queer woman on stage," said actor-poet Mia Vivens, one of Gender Breakdown's ensemble members. "I thought it was really interesting that stories about people who look like me and who live lives like me, those stories aren't being produced or written and there's some sort of gap there."
Vivens was glad that there was a safe creative environment and plenty of respect among all the artists working on Gender Breakdown. So she said there wasn't much competitive jockeying for more stage time. Vivens also sees a larger potential impact from Gender Breakdown.
"[Gender Breakdown's creators] specifically wanted to tell a story about Chicago theater and the Chicago theater community, but I think it really translates into film and TV work as well as other theater cities across the country," Vivens said. "Being really specific about it in the research and in the stories that we're telling helps to make it feel like it's part of a bigger picture."
The official press opening for Collaboraction's Gender Breakdown is 7 p.m. on Wed., Feb. 22, and the show continues through Sunday, March 19 in The Vault at Collaboraction Studios in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $20-$30 and $10-$15 for students; call 312-226-9633 or visit Collaboraction.org .
More queer-friendly collaboration
Collaboraction's Gender Breakdown isn't the only show playing in Chicago featuring a script by multiple contributors. Chicago Slam Works Ensemble Theatre deployed many actor/author/slam poets to create the world-premiere farcical comedy Nevermind, It's Nothing. It's an odd situation of two lesbians throwing a party to commemorate their pending divorce, but also in the mix are stand-alone and related poems on love and breakups.
"In Slam Works when we develop pieces, it's very personalized," said Nevermind head writer Shelley Elaine Geiszler. When she was asked to oversee a comedy for the season, Geiszler made certain to create a very inclusive queer comic situation to reflect the diverse members of Slam Works.
"I would have just been impossible to write this kind of show and not center it in that way—so many of the people who worked on this show identify as queer or lesbian or gay. We wouldn't have been able to create a show any other way," Geiszler said. "I think it makes for a more interesting and inclusive experience and a richer show in general."
Chicago Slam Works Ensemble Theatre's Nevermind, It's Nothing continues through Friday, March 24, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Performance times are 8:15 p.m. Fridays and 2 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets are $15-$25. For more information, call 773-327-5252 or visit ChicagoSlamWorks.com .
In the Feb. 15 issue, Merce Cunningham's name was spelled incorrectly. Also, Ricardo Gutierrez is directing The Wolf at the End of the Block.
Windy City Times regrets the errors.