Redmoon Theatre Artistic Director
Jim Lasko and
Artistic Engineer 'Big'
Art and Mechanics =
Magic for Redmoon Audiences
Redmoon Theatre is unlike any theatre company in Chicago, and stands among a select group of theatres nationally. It's a company of visionary style, jaw-dropping creativity, and childlike imagination tethered by smart storytelling. Their troupe of roving entertainers with costumes, magical sets and puppetry transform the world as we see it. Their annual Winter Pageant attracts theatre-goers, artists, and families with children delighted by the wonder of it all.
Their new production in association with Steppenwolf Theatre, Seagull, inspired by the play of Anton Chekhov continues the Chekhov cycle they kicked off in Humboldt Park last summer with Nina.
Jim Lasko, the artistic director of Redmoon, directed such award-winning productions as Moby Dick, Frankenstein, Hunchback, Nina, to name a few. Jim talked with Redmoon Artistic Engineer David Christopher Krause, affectionately known as 'Big,' to discuss how they created the world of Seagull, a story of chasing fame, artistic satisfaction and the one person you cannot have.
Jim Lasko: We had a talk early on about what your title was going to be because you do so many different things and they don't fit into the general titles of theatre. You came up with Artistic Engineer. How did you come up with that? You are a mechanical engineer
Big: Technically, I am not a mechanical engineer. I never did finish engineering school. I left engineering with one Thermo-dynamics class and about 18 P.E. ( Physical Education ) classes to take. I just wasn't into the P.E. I made it through bowling because they let you smoke, but I never got through the other ones.
JL: I didn't know anyone had to take P.E. in college.
Big: It's a North Carolina thing. In N.C. they have a physical education requirement. I chose to avoid it as much as possible. Also I left engineering because I didn't want to sit at a desk and design gears. I feel like I do everything an engineer would do in the theatre. I am very literally engineering every object that comes through the theatre, so I wanted to be called 'engineer' because I have the background. But I also covet the 'artistic' associate title.
JL: I like contrast, so the contrast of 'artistic' and 'engineer' is so great. When one thinks of an engineer the immediate thought is clinical, scientific, dry thinker. I don't think that's true. Most of the engineers I know, my dad included, are fairly dynamic thinkers. But when you slam artistic up against it, it becomes a different thing.
Big: I've been excited by the dichotomy in general and it was a calculated choice to put those two words together.
JL: You are also a filmmaker. You were new to theatre when you started working with us. What's good about theatre? Why are you still here? [ laughing ]
Big: I'm still here basically because I am not doing what I know as theatre. This job is as close to hanging around my dad's garage as a kid as I can get, playing with the band saw, playing with the welder.
JL: It's the same for me, being in the garage my dad didn't have. Or playing with the tools he wouldn't let me touch. Laughing
Big: Exactly. I get to build my treehouse on this job and that's just as cool as it gets.
JL: And I think that's what people like about Redmoon. People like to see the reckless creativity of some of the things we do. Which isn't to say that we don't have narrative motivation for them, but there is a kind of recklessness to the process we engage in.
Big: What I like is that before we ever think about how we are going to do something, we think about what it is we want to do. Which is the fun part for me. Say you've got an idea for a giant spinning flaming ball ( Halloween 2002. ) I get to think it's got to spin this and that way and the flames have to come out this way. I get to figure out the problem. It's a pretty great sense of accomplishment. This is my artistic engineering. I get to engineer the art.
JL: So tell me about the Nina machine which is used in the last moments of the ( current ) show. It couldn't be a more clear representation of the title of the show itself ( Seagull ) . Tell me how you thought about it and what you knew that I needed.
Big: I knew we needed a flying image and I knew we were working our way towards mechanized objects. So, quite honestly, I got high and thought about mechanisms and wings and came up with a crank-driven set of wings.
JL: I remember at one time we wanted this ( flying ) image to be really beautiful and elegant, and on the other hand, we wanted to go back to this idea of contrast. We wanted ( Nina ) to be working her tail off to make it happen so there was this sense of frenetic activity leading to something graceful and you really got to that.
Big: I do remember the image came off a drawing I made of her tangled up in strings and lines she was using to try to fly with … and it was built off the wings we used for the summer version of the show. It was a natural progression into physical work … and gearing down. The natural progression of frenetic movement through gears is a slowing down of the object.
JL: Are you satisfied ( with the mechanism ) ?
Big: It's going to work. There are some things ….
JL: Are you ever satisfied?
Big: Not quite. There is always a little something. I think that is just the fate of the engineer.
JL: That is the fate of the human being. What is something that came close that you built for us?
Big: The closest thing was Salao: The Worst Kind of Unlucky ( last year's adaptation of Old Man and the Sea ) . The trusts, the hoist system … it was beautiful. It did the work it needed to do. It all came together. But more fun for me were the go-carts that I built for the first show I did for you ( Puppetropolis 2001 ) because they were funny and weird. They were go-carts converted into baby carriages with performers dressed as babies inside them with 12-ft. tall puppets chasing them.
JL: That is the great thing about our summer work because it is unbounded.
Big: Anytime you take the space constraints off what we're building then it is much easier to go wild.
JL: When we did Nina ( the show ) this summer in Humboldt Park it was fantastic because we got entrances ( from actors ) from three blocks away. You could see Arkadina coming in this golf cart you had converted from blocks away. You actually see things better in the world when you are in the world. When you isolate them in the theatre space, I think the audience gives them more attention but ... maybe because we use so many found objects in what we do, the audience doesn't have a context for them. They don't quite see the magic of them. Or maybe it's because there's an expectation, 'Oh, We're in the theatre!' We expect magic.
Big: There is something inherently false about being in a theatre setting. I think this is why I chose film instead of theatre for my degree. In theatre you are in a box and you know everything you are going to get is fake. Trees aren't real trees. Houses are just flat, this kind of obvious artifice. In film you are on location. These things are real. And this is what I like about our summer work. You are seeing a real go-cart with wheels on it with a puppet pushing it around.
JL: This is the same thing I try to bring into the theatre with varying degrees of success, that sense of the real. Nina's machine is a real object. We could put up a shadow or projection of a woman with wings flying away or just allude to her flying away. But to see her actually cranking the wings and seeing them opening and going up and down, this is a real object. But people don't always know it is real. There is an expectation that maybe it is not. One of the things we have been working with the acting style is to have the actors really acknowledge the objects themselves, the reality of them. Such as, this is a wooden box and it has hinges on the side and the door creaks when it opens. And something might go wrong with it, but don't fake it. Deal with it.
Big: That must be difficult for you as a director. As a builder we are supplying objects as fast as we can for you to rehearse with, but all the way through the rehearsal process you have to pretend to be dealing with real objects. How do you deal with that?
JL: Well, the first thing you do is yell at your Artistic Engineer to get you things faster. [ Laughing ] And the second thing you do is demand that every object is taken as a real thing. If somebody falls down, don't pretend it didn't happen. They fell down and that's interesting.
Big: Tuesday night in rehearsal a tree fell over and Dorn ( in the play ) came up with the knocking-over-scenery line, and it was beautiful and funny and it covered the mistake and you moved on.
JL: You've got to get past the point that you even think of it as a mistake. It's actually an opportunity. It's exactly what we want to happen. It's why we give ( the character ) of Masha a 12-ft. train on her dress cause it's going to hit things and drag on somebody's feet and it's going to get twisted and she's going to fall down at some point. It's inevitable and that's what Masha is about.
Big: It must have been nice to be in Humboldt Park this summer.
JL: Whenever I'm outdoors I am really excited about it but I can't wait to get the control of being indoors in a theatre. And then when I am indoors I can't stand how tight and controlled it is and I can't wait to get outdoors. So we move back and forth constantly.
Big: I think either of us would get bored in one setting.
JL: When you make something and hand it off to an actor, is that frustrating or exciting since it will start having a different life?
Big: It is exciting. I can project onto it the action I think it is going to have, but then you hand it to an actor and you see it does 10 more things than you expected. It's also a little scary. We're making these things up as we go. There's never been a bicycle with a swinging opening box hanging off of it ( as in Nina this summer ) . So you don't know quite how it's going to react. This is part of why I give the safety speech at the beginning of shows. This stuff can kill ya.
JL: When we work with new people you see their jaws slowly dropping and everyone else is like, oh, the safety speech.
Big: The safety speech is designed to scare and then you can let them relax with the objects.
JL: Some of the things you make are dangerous. For All Hallows ( last year ) there was the 12-15 feet in diameter flaming fireball.
Big: Yeah. I didn't know where to research that. You have to grit your teeth and trust that you have done it the right way. Test it 50 times and assume that it's right.
JL: Danger makes the audience aware that this is a live moment of real danger as opposed to fake danger and that's fun!
Big: And far more engaging.
Redmoon Theatre's Seagull runs thru April 20 at the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Don't miss it! Tickets are available at the Steppenwolf box office by calling ( 312 ) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org . Tickets are $18-28; benefit performance March 30.