Many composers and playwrights would be aghast to see their songs or scripts rearranged willy-nilly by an artsy director who feels that he or she knows better than the show's original authors.
Lyricist Amanda Green experienced this exact situation earlier this year when she attended the Texas premiere of her 2013 Broadway musical adaptation of the film documentary Hands on a Hardbody at TUTS Underground in Houston. When interviewed by playbill.com, Green said that director Bruce Lumpkin "basically used the show as puzzle pieces to rearrange" without any permission from her or her musical collaborators of playwright Doug Wright or composer Trey Anastasio of Phish fame.
Understandably, the licensing company for the musical, Samuel French, shut down the production. But about shows written so directors can tinker and rearrange things to their heart's content?
That became part of a challenge put to composer and playwright Jon Steinhagen when he entered the 2013 Clubbed Thumb Biennial Commission. The inspiration for the playwriting competition was the multi-character structure of Robert Altman's epic 1975 film Nashville, and Clubbed Thumb suggested a set of playwriting parameters as jumping off points.
"They explained that they weren't looking for a cast of thousands or a two-and-a-half-hour opus or dissection of country music, but they were looking at the way that Altman's movies move from the ridiculous to the heartbreaking," Steinhagen said, adding that some of the parameters suggested having no one dominant racial or cultural group and that all the characters be affected by such things as temperature, ill-equipped light sources or the theatrical equivalent of an Altman-style tracking shot.
"Being who I am, I wanted to work all of that in my play, so that was how the idea was generated and by trying to figure out how to do that, I said that I would like to try to write a play that has no assigned dialogue," Steinhagen said.
The result was the drama Devil's Day Off, which is set in a major city suffering from a record-breaking heatwave just as the power goes out for 12 hours. Although Steinhagen wasn't named as the ultimate winner of the competition, Devil's Day Off was named as one of three finalists with a $1,000 prize. The play is now making its world premiere at Chicago's Signal Ensemble Theatre where Steinhagen has been an ensemble member since 2009.
"It's written out like a script, but there are no character names. I also wanted to leave out stage action, description, setting, so really when you look at the script you are getting scenes that have a title," said Steinhagen, giving a director and his or her production team free reign to re-order scenes and cast the ensemble with as many or as few actors as they wish.
At Signal, director Ronan Marra opted to put together a diverse cast of 13 for Devil's Day Off, who then had to help decide where scenes were taking place and to develop the characters' backgrounds and motivations. Since the play is so open to interpretation, that allowed LGBTQ characters to be included in the mix.
"There are universal fears and worries, which are not so much about a particular sexual orientation or identity," Steinhagen said. "We have all sorts of relationships. We have platonic, we have homosexuals, some are siblingswe have all sorts, but that's what I wanted to do with the initial script which was to say that there is universality here. A scene between two women could also be performed by two men or a man and a womanwho knows?"
Steinhagen said that director Marra tried to follow the original order of scenes in his script, but that he ended up shuffling things about in order to make things flow better for this particular Signal production. And that's just the way it should be with Devil's Day Off.
"Depending upon how many people you have, your design, all this kind of stuff, you could have it running two places in the same night and not see the same show twice," Steinhagen said.
Devil's Day Off continues its world premiere run through Nov. 22 at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with 3 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Tickets are $23 and $15 for students and seniors. Call 773-698-7389 or visit signalensemble.com .
A sad loss
Out actor and director Matthew Gunnels, 40, passed away on Friday, Oct. 17.
Gunnels frequently directed productions for Porchlight Music Theatre and Emerald City Theatre Company, but LGBTQ audience might best remember his work on campy pop cultural spoof shows for Hell in a Handbag Productions, like Pussy on the House ( a gender-bending take off of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ) which was produced in 2011the same year that he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
"You meet a lot of different kinds of people in theater," said friend and past collaborator Steve Hickson via a Facebook posting. "Among the rarest type is someone talented, hard-working, reliable AND a pleasure to work with. Matthew Gunnels was one of those people."