Piven Theatre premieres new play on long-distance, later-in-life love


Source: Leslie Brown

Jenni, played by Laurie Larson, and Jerry, played by Dev Kennedy, learn how to ballroom dance and communicate with each other in person in Piven Theatre’s staging of “Dance for Beginners.”

Rachel Holtzman, Reporter

A dance competition will take center stage in Piven Theatre’s 2017 capstone production, bringing together two older, long-distance lovers.

“Dance for Beginners” will premiere Saturday at the Piven Theatre in Evanston in its first full-scale production, following staged readings at the Chicago Dramatists and Piven.

In the play, Jenni and Jerry are entering the “third act” of their lives and start an online relationship from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. Meeting in person for a dance competition changes their perspective on the relationship and challenges them to connect in person, playwright MT Cozzola (Communication ’90) said.

“We’ve grown up with technology, so we take it for granted,” Cozzola said. “What it’s given us is an illusion of intimacy, of trust. What we really have is the object.”

When people mostly communicate via technology, they forget that their in-person dynamics with friends and lovers might look very different, Cozzola said. This can make it both easy and difficult to develop trust, which is true of Jenni and Jerry, she added.

The idea for Jenni and Jerry’s characters came from a dream, Cozzola said.

“(In the dream it) was this phone conversation where Jerry says, ‘You went away,’ and Jenni says, ‘I was right here,’” she said. “That is the moment that compelled me.”

At Piven, Cozzola joined forces with director Heather Bodie, a frequent collaborator, to transition the play from staged reading to fully-realized drama. Bodie was originally cast as a 30-something Jenni but became the director after Cozzola aged up the characters.

“I have a lot of trust in (Bodie) and a lot of admiration for her process,” Cozzola said. “She really strives for truthfulness and honesty in the work she does with actors.”

Jennifer Green, Piven’s artistic director, called “Dance for Beginners” the perfect capstone play in Piven’s 2016-17 theater season, which has specifically focused on women’s voices in new work.

“We really wanted to find a piece that highlighted an older woman’s journey,” Green said. “This piece stood out for us because it’s a woman in the third act of her life and finding connections in this very new way for her, not only artistically through dance, but … through technology.”

Bodie said she finds Jenni’s character so compelling because she’s neither a “superwoman” archetype nor a meek, passive character. To her, Jenni is well-rounded and complex, and the story is all about her journey to get more out of her life.

On paper, the play is a series of phone conversations between Jenni and Jerry as they get to know each other and learn to dance, but that’s a “deceptively simple” view of it, Bodie said.

“Once we started to dig into it, the actors got turned onto their side by the subtext and what (the characters) are saying without saying it,” Bodie said. “We made sure there is specific, committed intention in every word, every line. There are no throwaways in MT’s plays — that makes for a lot of hard work.”

Jenni and Jerry are on two different continents — North America and Australia — for much of the play, but a minimalist set allows the characters to be on the same stage. Bodie worked with designers to develop scene changes where actors move the scenery deliberately. Through those scene changes, Jenni and Jerry’s worlds separate and then collide neatly, Green said.

“(The staging) is a fun reflection of what I see on the L every day — perfect strangers in close proximity on phones, being in conversation with people they’re emotionally close to … yet ignoring each other completely,” Cozzola said.

Cozzola, who is also a screenwriter, said the magic of this story comes from giving “Dance for Beginners” audience members a feeling of intimacy that would be hard to achieve in film.

“My hope is that (audience members) come away with a greater willingness to try something they haven’t done before, to look and be awkward in the world, in the service of understanding something new about themselves or something else,” she said.

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