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A Peek at Chicago Through the 'Lookingglass'

Darcy Rose Coussens interviews her acting teacher, David Catlin of the Lookingglass Theatre Company. logo

David Catlin (used with permission of David Catlin)

Before heading out for spring break, I got to learn more about my acting teacher here at Northwestern University, David Catlin. Also a founding member of Lookingglass Theatre Company, which won the 2011 Regional Theatre Tony Award, he gave me some insight into Chicago's theater community:

DARCY ROSE COUSSENS: I know you went to Northwestern, and of course you now teach at Northwestern. What happened in between?

DAVID CATLIN: A group of students in my acting sequence at Northwestern went on to be the core of Lookingglass Theatre Company. About 25 years ago we opened Alice in Wonderland, this version of Andre Gregory's that was very physical and ensemble-oriented. Shortly after graduating, we formally started the company. Since then we've made tons of new work plays.

DRC: What sets Lookingglass apart from other theaters?

DC: I think it's the combination of the things we like to do. We like to make new work. That doesn't mean every once in a while we won't find a classic that we just have to tell. But we like to make new work, often derived from a literary source, and that really springs out of our days at Northwestern. The fact that it's an ensemble adds to its uniqueness. And then there's a strong visual and physical component that we're interested in. Sometimes we incorporate circus in that kind of physical realm. There are some other great companies out there doing literary adaptation and physical theater, incorporating some of the elements that Lookingglass uses. I just think our particular combination, our little recipe, makes us somewhat unique.

DRC: What challenges have you faced from this approach?

DC: New work means that we need more previews. There is work being done on the play from the moment of its conception up until the very last preview. In the middle of previews we have some rehearsals where great changes happen to the play; big chunks are taken out or added in. And the fact that it's very physical is challenging because the demands of the show might mean that the set, for instance, has to be much more durable. People are going to be swinging from it, banging on it, being flown from the rafters. Not just the way that it looks but the way that it behaves needs a greater durability. And because we're interested in literary works, which often weren't made to be turned into plays, there's something often impossible about that. There might be an elephant chase or Humpty-Dumpty falls off of a giant wall. These things are exciting to us, we like things that feel impossible.

DRC: Why did you guys start Lookingglass in Chicago instead of another city?

DC: There was something just great about Chicago at the time - the architecture was great, the people were great. In hindsight, I think it's one of the best places in the country to start a theater company. The big population is important. A high percentage enjoy seeing theater, and theoretically a group will like the kind of theater you make. The former mayor Richard Daley was really interested in shedding the sort of Al Capone/gangster image that Chicago had. He and his wife Maggie Daley felt that a strong cultural life in a city would make it vibrant and interesting, filled with creative new ideas. So you had strong support from the city, which converted to strong corporate support too. There's also a good public transit system and no competing film industry, for the most part.

All of those little elements make it possible for actors to create plays, find a little storefront nook to open a show, or get supported by Steppenwolf. There are enough big theaters here that draw people from other parts of the country in, and while they're here they'll go see this kind of hot little interesting show in the basement of the Schoeppen Theater. Then that ends up getting taken to New York.

And personally, I love the Chicago work ethic. It's a very hard-working city and there's a lot of interest in having real relationships. Chicago's numerous theaters form a very supportive and collaborative community. That may stem a little bit from the ensemble work that came out of Second City and Steppenwolf and that companies like Lookingglass try to espouse and continue. The environment is not super competitive. We exchange ideas and support each other. I don't think that's common everywhere. And that's a really lovely community to be a part of.


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