Court Theatre is revamping its 2020/2021 season again, only this time the changes are a lot more substantial than just shuffling shows and dates.
Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Court has put off all live productions until February 2021, and several previously announced – “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Antigone,” “Fen,” and “Violet” – have been postponed until future seasons. In their place is a newcomer, “Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry, 1912)” plus “Othello” and “Two Trains Running,” which already were part of the lineup.
In even more of a departure from its usual programming, the theater is filling the fall and early winter with a virtual series dubbed “Theatre & Thought” designed to offer insights from University of Chicago faculty about the historical context, thematic relevance, and artistic possibilities of classic works. Each of the four courses consists of four sessions devoted to a single play and focused on a specific topic.
The first online “Theatre & Thought” course (Sept. 8, 15, 22 and 29) looks at The World of August Wilson + The Black Creative Voice. University of Chicago English Prof. Kenneth Warren, an expert on American and African American literature from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century, discusses urbanization and the Black creative voice with respect to playwright Wilson and his American Century Cycle. Joining him are Prof. Adrienne Brown, author of “The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race,” and Court resident artist and leading Wilson interpreter Ron OJ Parson, who is directing “Two Trains Running.” They also examine excerpts of Wilson’s work and their impact on generations of Black artists.
Euripides’ “The Bacchae” + Contemporary Adaptations are the subject of the second course (Oct. 7, 14, 21 and 28). Using Court founding artistic director Nicholas Rudall's translation of the Greek tragedy about the consequences of mixing the personal and political and the importance of listening to the will of the people, classics Prof. Sarah Nooter explores the dramatic elements that make it ripe for adaptation. Director Monty Cole leads a reading of play during one session—highlighting its contemporary resonances.
Next up is Caryl Churchill’s “Fen” + The Dramaturgical Process (Nov. 30, Dec. 2, 7, and 9). As a kind of preview to whenever Court produces it, dramaturg Derek Matson and director Vanessa Stalling talk about how Churchill addresses issues of gender, class, and exploitation with grace, humor, and anger.
Matson also illuminates how dramaturgy is conducted in the theater, while Stalling discusses how it fuels her work as an artist.
The fourth course (Jan. 6, 13, 19 and 26) is devoted to Lorraine Hansberry’s “Les Blancs” + Racial Injustice. Assistant English Prof. Tina Post and Court’s inaugural research fellow Gabrielle Randle-Bent team up to consider the portrayal of racial injustice and black resistance in what is widely considered to be Hansberry's last and perhaps most important work.
Court's most ambitious virtual project is Deep Dive: Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt ” (Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26; Nov. 2, 19 and 26), an in-depth seminar about Stoppard's latest play, a sprawling epic that opens in Austria in 1899 and ends in England in 1955. Various University of Chicago scholars delve into the history and politics of Vienna during that time, the influence of Austrian Jewish intellectuals and artists, and Jewish migration and identity in a work that combines the personal and the philosophical to explore both history and Stoppard’s own Jewish heritage, discovered late in his life.
The dive culminates in an online reading of the play directed by Court Artistic Director Charles Newell.
“I was delighted to get permission for 'Leopoldstadt,’” said Newell, who explained that the “Theatre & Thought” topics were selected for a wide range of reasons, from his decades-long desire to do “Les Blancs” to the fact that the Wilson play was on the schedule. “They all relate to our core mission and enable us to use our unique position to collaborate with University of Chicago faculty.”
Newell said that the live productions were chosen with an eye to what's feasible during the pandemic, and the first two also will be available digitally for those who don't feel comfortable returning to the theater yet. “We can only guess at the future but we thought it would be unlikely that by 2021 we could do full-scale shows the way we wanted to, such as “Gospel at Colonus,” which has 17 cast members, onstage singing, and audience interaction,” he said. “We wanted 'Antigone' to come after 'Gospel' to round out the Greek trilogy, so that was delayed, too.”
Owen McCafferty’s “Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)” has been scheduled as the first live show, Feb. 4-March 7, 2021, because the docudrama relies on verbatim testimonies from close to 100 witnesses of the wreck. Director Stalling plans to use audio technology to “create an expansive soundscape that allows the testimonies of each individual to resonate with audiences through a heightened, visceral experience that pushes the boundaries of design and theatrical performance,” according to the press release. Newell added that it should be as effective for people at home watching/listening on their computer screens as for the small audiences dictated by COVID-19. “We have to think about making theater in a whole different way,” he said.
Shakespeare's “Othello,” adapted and directed by Newell with associate director Randle-Bent, is now slated for the second slot, April 1-May 2. As originally intended, Kelvin Roston, Jr., who led the “Oedipus Rex” ensemble and was to play the king in “Gospel at Colonus,” is expected to star as the title Venetian general undone by jealousy and betrayal in this intimate new take on the tragedy.
Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” initially the first production, is now the last, May 27-June 27. Parson directs the penultimate play in Court’s ongoing commitment to staging all of Wilson’s American Century Cycle, undoubtedly bringing his sense of humor and singular point of view to the picture of the changing Black community in Pittsburgh's Hill District in the 1960s.
At the moment, “Two Trains Running” will be available only to attend in person, but Newell said that could change. “We think we have an optimistic, open plan, but we have to respond to circumstances as they arise.”