Reaching to the stars

Eric Hoyt

In the small and colorful 52-seat Conservatory theater, a new theatre company has taken the stage. Its premiere explodes with monkeys and cowboys, romantics and cynics, Trotsky and Kafka. But to the cast and crew, the mere concept of performing in Chicago outweighs such spectacles.

A combination of passion, dreams and mild lunacy has allowed the Kansas-born theatre company Ad Astra — founded by a group of theatre graduates from the University of Kansas — to bond together and boldly step into the bright lights of the Chicago theatre scene.

Ad Astra is just one group in a long tradition of hopeful actors, directors and playwrights who have moved to Chicago to start theatre companies. Some companies achieve great success and acclaim — such as Steppenwolf, co-founded by Academy Award nominated actor Gary Sinise.

Northwestern holds its own stake in the successful company pool: Performance Studies Prof. Mary Zimmerman co-founded Lookingglass Theatre Co. in 1988 with students from NU that included “Friends” star David Schwimmer. The play “Metamorphoses,” which won Zimmerman a Tony Award for direction in 2002, was nutrued in venues including Lookkingglass before debuting on Broadway last year.

But success lies in the cards for few fledgling companies. Many more dissolve and disappear. And others are able to find a small, but stable audience and keep performing and collaborating together for years.

Ad Astra’s future is uncertain. But watching them perform on stage and listening to them talk makes three things clear: They are proud of where they’ve come from, they believe in where they are headed, and they are ecstatic just to be performing together and to have gotten as far as they already have.

HUMBLE ROOTS

Ad Astra began informally about four years ago as a means for a group of KU theatre students to gain more experience out of the classroom and have fun.

“Ad Astra began essentially out of the desire to do theatre as much as we could,” said John Luzar who directed, produced and also acts in the plays. “In college we would get together over summer break or winter break, pick out a show, find a space somewhere, put up a few posters and just put on a play when we had free time.”

Creating their own theatre company allowed the group of friends to continue to work together and to maintain artistic control over their work.

When it came time for choosing a name for the company, the group wanted something that would signify where they were from, but that wouldn’t be overly obvious or hoaky.

“We didn’t want to be the Wizards of Oz,” joked Ad Astra member Jared Hamilton.

The group ultimately settled on the name Ad Astra, coined from the Kansas state motto, “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” which translates from Latin as “to the stars through difficulties.”

“Directly, our name is ‘To the Stars,’ which is a neat metaphor,” said co-producer and actor Dave Martin, “not only for these shows, but what we’re trying to do.”

Yet another reference and association appealed to the freshly graduated KU students.

“It’s the name of a beer from Lawrence,” added Ryan Colwell, referring to Ad Astra Ale, a beer brewed by the Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence, Kansas and a popular choice among KU students who are willing to spring for something a little bit classier than Natural Light.

CHICAGO

As graduation drew closer at KU, the group of theatre students began to talk more seriously about pursuing the creation of a theatre company in Chicago.

With more than 200 resident theatre companies and a multitude of small storefront theaters, Chicago has long been a major breeding ground for start-up theatre companies.

Unlike the more mainstream Broadway and film scenes of New York and Los Angeles, Chicago features an atmosphere conducive to — and supportive of — smaller and more intimate theatre companies, Luzar said.

That support can foster growth for the companies, said Communication senior Brad Akin.

“Even the big theatres (in Chicago) are small theatres that got big,” Akin said, referring to companies such as Lookingglass and Steppenwolf .

Akin performs with the Barstow Project, a theatre company formed in the fall of 2001 by Northwestern theatre graduates Fraser Coffeen and Allegra Hollenbeck. Barstow performs at alternative venues such as bars and attempts to give live theatre a rock concert feel. Contemporary audiences have been forced to narrowly think of theatre as a place where they sit down for two hours and shut up, Akin said. In performing short, energetic and original plays, Akin and his group want to engage audiences in new ways.

“We’ve seen great theatre, but rarely have we found it as moving as just a great rock concert,” he said.

One could say, though, that Akin and Barstow have an advantage. After all, Chicago’s proximity has long made it a playground for theatre students at NU. Ad Astra, on the other hand, had to raise money not only for the creation of their group but also to move to the group to the city from Lawrence.

To raise that money, the group put on a series of fund raising shows that featured some of the same one-acts they are performing now in Chicago.

“We did our first show in Lawrence as a practice run,” said Megan Schemmel, a member of the group. “It raised a little bit of money to get us to do shows in Kansas City about a week or two weeks later. That’s where we [found] more friends, more friends of families…”

“Rich people our parents know,” member Dave Martin interjected.

“…to find the core money to be able to put on an actual production here, and get the space and the rights and a little bit of buffer,” said Schemmel.

The gritty financial and practical burdens of starting a theatre company came as new territory for Luzar, Martin and Schemmel, who serve as Ad Astra’s team of producers.

“The challenge is, no one tells you what to do,” said Luzar, who said he learns new things about the business side of theatre every day.

ASSEMBLING AN

ENSEMBLE

Of the fifteen Ad Astra members now performing in Chicago, ten are original members of the group from KU. Another, Sean Michael Henry, is a long-time friend of John Luzar and a senior in the English department at the University of Chicago.

The other four cast members –including Kathleen Christy, Speech ’02 — are interns at Steppenwolf. Luzar met Christy at Steppenwolf, where he has interned since the fall while also serving as a director and producer of Ad Astra. Three other Steppenwolf interns — Heidi Hewitt, Erin Johnson and Ray Kurt — auditioned and were cast in Ad Astra’s shows.

Hewitt said an obvious parallel existed in her mind between Steppenwolf and Ad Astra. According to Hewitt, Steppenwolf began with a group of guys from Illinois State University — similar to the group from KU.

“They started out in Highland Park performing in a church basement,” Christy said. The company, founded in 1975 by Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise, grew to its present award-winning stature.

“They would do very low scale productions and charge money during intermission so people could see the second half of the show,” Christy said. “And now look at where they are today.”

“That’s what drew me to Steppenwolf — seeing the caliber of the productions and the acting and knowing that it started from such humble beginning,” she said.

Start-up theatre is not, however, as easy as it might sound.

Curt Columbus, artistic associate at Steppenwolf, attributed the company’s success to a combination of factors but mostly to luck and to being “in the right place at the right time.” He was quick to point out that the Steppenwolf’s current stance as one of the premiere artistic institutions in Chicago was like “winning the lottery,” when considering just how many talented theatre companies are working and have worked in the city.

Even theatrical talent and training from Northwestern is often not enough, said Christy, who thinks th
at the business and financial sides of theatre should be stressed more in college.

“People go out and they want to be actors and it is really like starting your own business,” Christy said.

Even a class in marketing individual talents might have helped, she said.

“Musical theatre students have the audition class,” she said. “But [for] acting students, it’s kind of like, ‘Here is your drive, your intention, and your motivation — now go out there!’ But you can go out there in the real world with all your intentions for a character, and nobody gives a shit, because you have to sell yourself with head shots and with interviews and auditions.”

TO THE STARS

Ad Astra’s decision to make their Chicago premiere with “All in the Timing” by David Ives and “Welcome to the Moon” by John Patrick Shanley was unusual for two reasons. One, they had the added pressure of polishing not one, but two shows that could be done in repertory. And two, both “All in the Timing” and “Welcome to the Moon” are really collections of short, one-act plays. All counted, Ad Astra’s premiere consists of eleven plays.

The decision to do two sets of short plays arose from the company’s desire to be democratic and to showcase each individual’s talents.

“We wanted to give everybody the opportunity to perform and a good way to do that was with one-acts,” said Colwell. “Unless you do a play with a very large cast, you’re not going to give everybody the opportunity to show their talent to the community and have a voice on stage.”

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the stuff we did in Kansas before we were officially Ad Astra is kind of that ensemble dynamic,” said Luzar. “[There are] no clear leads and everybody getting reasonably equal stage time.” The witty, ironic and fast-paced short plays of David Ives form a sharp contrast with the highly romantic, dreamy and meditative plays of John Patrick Shanley. When seen together, they display the company’s range and ability to skillfully perform both comedy and drama.

Although “All in the Timing” allowed the company to excercise their comedic muscles, they connected with “Welcome to the Moon” on a much deeper and personal level.

“It’s really about following your dreams,” said Kathleen Christy, who said Shanley’s plays connect and speak to the real life struggles of the young theatre company.

“I mean for twenty-somethings, that’s a particularly profound thing — to figure out your place in the world and how to make the world a better place without selling out,” she said.

EAR OF CORN

You won’t see any grand marquee in bright lights towering over the Cornservatory, an intimate and off beat store-front theater in Chicago. The modestly painted white sign of an ear of corn is all there is to catch the eye and lead patrons in to the quirky and colorful interior, where a small table serves as a combination ticket booth, refreshment stand and program distribution post. Take a good look at the young woman behind the table selling tickets — she’ll be on stage in thirty minutes.

The true seating capacity is 52, but the Cornservatory lacks the traditional velvet-cushioned or hard, wooden seats found fastened to many the auditorium floors. Seating consists completely of loose chairs, which allows more seating to be added when the house is full. The chairs are an assortment of styles and colors — none of which look any younger than the average Northwestern undergraduate. Get there early and you can lounge throughout the show in a deep cushioned, brown leather chair. Arrive too late and you’ll probably have to settle for a stiff metal folding chair.

There is no curtain to mask the small, elevated stage. Nor are there flats to cover the blue-painted back wall. The set features little more than a desk, a chalkboard, stools, and a few other small props and pieces that can be carried or rolled quickly offstage in the dark. The figures scrambling to prepare the stage are more than recognizable, and it is clear that every actor in Ad Astra has an additional, unwritten role — run crew. The performers-turned-stagehands scurry about to the tunes of swelling electronic music that provides the audience distraction and muffles the noise of what could be a clunky scene change.

MONSTER MUSIC

Filling in the gaps between Ad Astra’s acts is the electronic music of member Daemon Hatfield, who writes, performs and records music under the name Monster-Zero. After graduating from KU with a degree in theatre and music and moving to Chicago to pursue a career as a musician, Hatfield began composing original music for his former KU classmates in Ad Astra.

Luzar called the decision to utilize Hatfield’s music a “no brainer.”

“When you’ve got a resource like Daemon, who is from KU, and he’s in Chicago with you, you have to use him,” he said.

All music heard throughout Ad Astra’s two shows is played live by Hatfield through synthesizers, drum machines and samplers on his laptop computer. The only exceptions are very fast scene changes, when a CD of Hatfield’s recorded music is substituted.

Hatfield’s music is prominently featured at the start of each show and at key points in the one-acts in addition to the scene changes.

“It really fuels the transitions,” Martin said. “The music not only brings the last scene to a close, but sets the mood for the next scene before it begins.”

“It adds to the whole spectacle of theatre,” Colwell said. “Theatre is not just actors on stage — it’s the costumes and the set and the lighting and the music. All those things combine to make a quality show.”

PER ASPERA

When the shows close at the Conservatory on Feb. 9, the cast may strike the minimal set for their last time.

Ad Astra faces a future with few funds and less certainty. Martin said he hopes the members of Ad Astra will continue to collaborate and that the company will grow and mature. But under the circumstances, it’s likely the members will look for individual opportunities for paid work.

“We’re up here to thrive on our own and as a company — they’re two separate entities that co-exist,” Martin said.

Whatever the group’s fate, its members are happy with how far they have already come.

“There were two or three dozen points when the easiest thing to do would have just been to walk away from it,” Luzar said. “It would have been the easier road for everyone who is in the show to just say ‘screw it, I’m going to get a job, do some auditions, and be a cog in someone else’s machine.'”

“We built it out of nothing,” he said. “And that’s something I think we’re all pretty proud of.”

The odds of sticking it out aren’t in Ad Astra’s favor. Steppenwolf’s Columbus estimated that roughly one out of 20 theatre companies in Chicago continue to work together after a period of two to five years.

Ad Astra will give it a shot. The group plans to launch another two-play series in the fall. One of the plays could be an original work, “The Fourth Wall,” written by company member Jared Hamilton and developed in the KU playwrighting program.

Staging “The Fourth Wall” could be a symbolic step toward survival in the Chicago theatre world.

The play “explores some of the general tenets of theatre,”Hamilton said. Its title refers to the imaginary barrier in theatre that separates the actors from the audience.

But the plot, much like Ad Astra’s core dream, is simple. It follows a character in a play who wakes up, discovers the audience, and realizes he is acting. nyou