A Twist of Water

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An audience member responds – by Beth Urech

Posted by Erica Weiss on March 7, 2011

On March 6th, I met and spoke with an audience member at A Twist of Water‘s sold-out Sunday matinee. Her name is Beth Urech, and this morning she sent me a lovely response to the play and has given me permission to post it here in full. Thank you so much!

A Twist of Water, Sunday, March 6, 2011

The bare and barren set exudes Chicago before A Twist of Water starts.  A curving wall above a two-tiered platform wraps around one side of the stage evoking the water’s edge at Division Street. A single bare tree branch protrudes high from the side wall signaling winter and despair.  On the other side of the stage, way up high, is a cut-out of our beloved Chicago skyline.  From my second row seat, I cannot see it well, but I know that skyline almost by heart.  It’s my Chicago.

Over the course of the play, John Boesche’s projections make Chicago history come alive.  A lonely first homestead, the crowded riverfront, the city pre and post fire, the Columbian Exposition stating, “Here we are.  Come and see us, you citizens of Paris, London, and New York.  We’re Chicago.”

We’re also the Chicago of Carl Sandburg with broad shoulders and little cat feet.  Carl is quoted by the English teacher (Alex Hugh Brown).

But A Twist of Water is more than a history or English lesson, although the two male characters are high school teachers of, yes, history and English.

A Twist of Water insinuates its way into our hearts and souls by telling a simple story of grief.  You want to know the plot?  Won’t it suffice if I tell you what I told Erica Weiss (Co-creator and director) afterwards in the lobby:  “This play is all that a play is meant to be.”

All right, then.  Dad (Stef Tovar) and teenage daughter (Falashay Pearson) are at odds.  They are grief stricken over the tragic death in a car accident of the other Dad whom Jira loved unconditionally. He was a doctor.  She plans to study medicine.  She grates under the constraint and clumsy surveillance of Dad Number Two. He’s the history teacher.  During the course of the play, he and the much younger English teacher become lovers which galls Jira who seeks out her birth mother. She needs her father’s help; eventually he offers it.  The meeting with 17 year old Jira and her mother now only 33 (Lili-Anne Brown) is heart wrenching and oh, so real.

I wept.  Most people in the audience wept. Is that why we go to the theatre? To shed a tear. No, we go to be transformed. We want to witness a human conflict that tears us from our warm complacency and hurdles us into a cold body of water. Then we want to be rescued and dried off so we can reenter the world knowing that life goes on and lives intertwine like A Twist of Water.
Beth Urech, after years as a speech &  communications consultant based in Switzerland, is segueing back into theatre in Chicago (bethurech.com) and recently established www.101010scholarship.info to support The Beaver Island Lighthouse School.

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Thank you and Congratulations to our Mayor-Elect…

Posted by Erica Weiss on March 1, 2011

On Saturday morning, the front page of The Chicago Tribune featured Chris Jones’ Four-Star review of A Twist of Water. In his write-up, Jones made a point of encouraging our recently elected Mayor to attend.

“Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel and those jockeying to share his power to put down the reports, resumes and briefing books this Saturday night and head, not to party with the Bulls, but over to Belmont Avenue where they might ponder the living soul of the paradoxical town they will soon be leading, and to whose citizens they will need to articulate a vision that goes deeper than parking meters.”

He added:

“Since Parrish’s starting point is as much Abraham Lincoln as Sandburg, they could pick up the governor on the way. They would witness one of Chicago’s greatest assets: artistic self-examination moving from generation to generation. Performed intimately, affordably, to whoever cares to show up.”

That afternoon, Mr Emanuel called the box office and made reservations for the evening performance. You can read the scoop on The Chicago Tribune HERE, and The Wall Street Journal’s pickup of the story HERE.

Our first impulse, after the immediate giddiness in hearing the news of his ticket purchase, was to make sure not to tell the cast. Why put them under added pressure when they’re already delivering such solid shows night after night? Also, it gave me a chance to practice my acting skills – for I am nothing if not a terrible liar, and had to come up with a reason I was so dressed up when I visited backstage. I think it was something like, “I’m giving the curtain speech tonight!” It never hurts to tell the truth when you’re trying to conceal part of it.

We were stunned and honored to have Mr Emanuel there, and very impressed that Mr Jones sent such a resounding message. The Mayor-Elect showed up in the Theater Wit lobby with two friends, in an untucked shirt, jeans, and a bomber jacket, to many “congratulations!” from folks in the lobby, and some photo requests. There were three shows running at Theater Wit that night – in addition to Twist, Stage Left’s Enemy of the People and Wit’s This were in previews. His presence excited everyone. I do not report the details this way to be sycophantic or fawning (though, let’s be honest – he was President Obama’s right-hand man. I might have been a little fawn-y), but because I believe that his showing up at this Chicago storefront theatre sends a signal that all theatre artists in this city should be looking forward to his term – that we may see in Daley’s successor an Arts Mayor who puts his (fingers crossed) money where his mouth is.

Mayor-Elect Emanuel was a fantastic audience member. He was engaged, responsive, and quite friendly. After curtain call, before we brought up the house lights and opened the doors, I got up onstage (which is not my natural habitat) to acknowledge our special guest. The cast’s reaction, having no idea, was so priceless I wish I could have bottled it. Falashay Pearson, who plays Jira, and is also amongst the world’s most entertaining human beings, actually jumped in the air and made a sound which is probably not reproducible. It was a really wonderful shared experience between artists and audience. A commenter on The Chicago Tribune’s story, Jason R, who was at the show that night, says:

“Absolutely one of the most magical nights of my theater going life in Chicago. The play, probably the best new script to hit this town since August Osage, and Rahm being present in this intimate audience made for live theater experience that was not only enjoyable…but important. It said that the man who is going to run this city feels as though what is being done on that stage is vital. Astounding.”

We should, all of us in the Chicago arts community, be excited by this story. It shows us that he cares, and acknowledges the value of the small theatres as well as the larger institutions. I am very much looking forward to seeing what the Emanuel Era brings for The Windy City.

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The first shock to the system

Posted by Erica Weiss on February 10, 2011

It’s been a while! We’ve been a little busy.

Last night was our final evening in the rehearsal space at Northshore Baptist Church in Andersonville (THANK YOU, NORTHSHORE BAPTISIT CHURCH!). Tonight, we move into our performance space at Theater Wit and onto Stephen H Carmody’s beautiful set. The myriad technical elements, so integral to this show, like lights, and music, and projections, now come into the process. It is no longer our little band of 7 (a four-person cast, our stage manager, our assistant stage manager, our assistant director, and myself). It’s time to expand our family – and how appropriate for this play.

For the past three weeks, we’ve been working with the bare minimum in furniture. Folding chairs, a piano bench that stands in for a teacher’s desk, and an invisible kitchen table. The show has very few props, but we’ve been miming a bottle of orange juice, a bottle of gin, a laptop, etc. The cast has been using their own cell phones, and their own coats. The rehearsal room is barely more than half the width and depth of our actual stage. The set has a long curved platform with stairs and a cut-out wall with a door, and we’ve done all our rehearsals at one level on a dirty (it’s been a little snowy out here in Chicago) floor with tape to indicate the most approximate of approximate playing areas on the ground. Bringing the show to its feet, adding all these new physical elements, is a shock to the system.

The smaller shock, though, the one that makes you understand that this show is really happening and here-we-go… In rehearsal, Rita Vreeland (our amazing stage manager), starts and ends each act with the words: “And, we’re in black-out. And, lights.” But starting this week, the lights will go up and down without a word, bookending the play as a piece of theatre, ready for an audience to experience in the dark. It’s a small thing, but it’s what gives me goosebumps.

It’s been a joy and a challenge so far. Bring on the curveballs and obstacles and opportunities! Bring on the transition! Shock our systems.

Here we go…

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What’s so funny? The First Week of Rehearsal.

Posted by Erica Weiss on January 21, 2011

No matter what the play, no matter how deep or difficult the subject matter… theatre should be fun. And we are having a blast.

Now, A Twist of Water, for all it’s heaviness, actually has plenty of comedy. Caitlin sometimes receives complains that she hasn’t written a comedy, at least not since A View from Tall. I disagree. In a way, all of her plays are comedies. She’s too funny a writer and too funny a person to leave her sense of humor out of a scene for too long. Add that dynamic to the wicked senses of humor that round out the rest of this room, and we wind up with a pretty wonderful balance of good times and hard work. I’m now going to embarrass the cast by both singing their praises and telling you why they crack me up.

Lili-Anne Brown, or Lil (who plays Tia), is a sassy-pants. She is so damn smart and always has a brilliant insight to share. She’s really only in one scene in the play (oh man, but what a scene), but she brings her piercing intelligence and wit to the room whenever she’s with us.

Alex Hugh Brown (playing the role of Liam), aside from being ridiculously cute (seriously, you could sell tickets to your face, Alex), has an incredible method of verbalizing his acting thought process when he hits a line or a moment that needs work. Out of nowhere, he’ll start saying the same line over and over again, with different inflection, talking to himself, trying to figure out the best way to say it, and it’s kind of like watching Rain Man. I admire the hell out of it, actually, and it really works for him, but the first time, it came so completely out of nowhere and went on for so long that I wound up crumpled on the floor, convulsing with laughter, tears streaming down my face, gasping for air. And for the record, he kept going. And going. And going. We all witnessed something magical that night.

Stef Tovar (our illustrious Artistic Director, playing the role of Noah) is fully and hilariously inappropriate. So am I… and really, so is everyone else, so we do encourage him. His recent valiant attempts to understand youth culture and speak the language of the street are reminiscent not so much of Marky Mark and more of Michael Steele. Stef is by no means old or out of touch… but it is pretty fun to make him feel that way. And last night, when we were discussing Lauryn Hill, and he said “who’s that?” it was open season.

When we first met Falashay Pearson (playing the role of Jira), Caitlin and I struggled to find the best way to describe her. We settled upon: “If Christopher Walken and a black Unicorn had a baby.” But Falashay is so adorable and lovely that no one believed me when I described how weird and funny she is, and at first, no one could understand why I started giggling every time she opened her mouth to speak. But now they all understand, especially after seeing her impression of a man she calls “Houndog,” a karaoke regular who sings Elvis songs while wriggling his hips nonstop and barely opening his lips to get the words out of his mouth.

I’m writing this and thinking to myself, “maybe you just had to be there.” To be honest, that’s one of the things that makes rehearsal processes so wonderful and precious – the only people who will really be able to understand what it was like are the people who were in the room. In that way, it’s not unlike theatre itself. The experience of live theatre can never be replicated. Every performance, with a different audience, will be a different show, and those moments are shared only by the artists and the patrons in the room, together, on a shared journey for 2 hours or so.

We’re getting into heavy stuff with this show, but that doesn’t mean we should be crushed by the weight. You don’t have to punish people in order to move them. As long as we are able to laugh together and slowly, organically, become a show-family, we will find the balance between light and dark, and when you come to see this group onstage, we hope you will feel that balance, too.

We miss you, Caitlin. Even though you’re in Los Angeles, you’re in the room with us in spirit.

Onward! We have so much still to do.

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An ordinary family.

Posted by Erica Weiss on December 18, 2010

Let me start by saying this: The Twist of Water blog is about a play, not politics. But whenever we tell stories about the human experience that try to get at a deeper truth, we may find ourselves entwined with politics. And some days remind us of this fact more than others.

Today we woke up to the news that the United States Senate would pass a bill to repeal the law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That’s a pretty good day. And ultimately, what’s it about? It’s about acknowledging that gay Americans are part of the fabric of American life, and always have been, fighting and dying for their country, and should be able to live openly, not concealing their families or partners for fear of losing their jobs. That’s it. Pretty ordinary stuff.

One of the driving ideas behind A Twist of Water was to portray a so-called non-traditional family (gay parents, adopted child) as an ordinary family like any other. They face some unique challenges, as the play clearly demonstrates, such as, until recently when President Obama signed a bill into law, not being able to visit one’s partner in the hospital to say goodbye as they passed away. That’s not a political moment, it’s a family moment, a human moment – but one that is made irreparably worse by political forces.

It has been pretty thoroughly documented that knowing a gay man or woman personally is the greatest antidote to homophobia. We have to see each other as people, in all our utter ordinariness, to accept each other for who we are and whom we love. The theatre can, at its best, show us human truths and reflect our hopes and fears back to us. A Twist of Water will introduce the audience to a widowed, gay, Caucasian father named Noah, raising an adopted African-American daughter named Jira. An ordinary family. End of story.

I look forward to creating and facilitating great discussion with this show. Please watch this video and consider making a pledge of support in order to make the telling of this story possible.

Thanks for reading.


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Why here?

Posted by Erica Weiss on December 11, 2010

I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. My family on both sides is from New York City. Chicago is my hometown.

Outside my comfy cozy northside apartment, the “Wintry Mix” has begun. The “Wintry Mix” is that awful combination of frozen rain with swirling snowflakes and the gross city-brown/black slush soaking the hems of your jeans and god I hate it I hate it so much.

The “Mix” might be worse than the crazy snowstorm, which, if the internet forecast is correct, will arrive tommorow, swirling stinging frozen flakes (each one of them magically unique, but who gives a shit because each precious flake is whipping at your face and it’s FREEZING) into a freezing, agressive fog that makes our beautiful town nearly invisible. Somehow, though, the “Wintry Mix” is worse.

I think it’s because, unlike with the Windy City blizzards, we’re kind of expected to put up with the slushy mess, to go on about our business, to buck up because at least it’s not snow. We can be forgiven for avoiding leaving our homes during a blizzard (except, of course, in February, when A Twist of Water is playing and you need to get to the theater… no excuses there, people) but trudging through the mix feels so…mandatory. But you know what? I’m not going out there. Not today, not tomorrow.

That’s enough complaining for this post. There are downsides to living here, and many of them are coming down in wet sheets from a grey sky as I type this. You take the bad with the good anywhere you go. I love it here.

I love the neighborhoods. I love the architecture. I love the food. (To live anywhere, I really need to love the food.) Mostly, I love the people. And lucky for me, I’m in the Theatre Capital of the World.

Everywhere I turn I see tremendous talent, and passion, and commitment to art. Chicago theatre artists are not in it for the money, for fame, for some kind of elite social status. Theatre in Chicago is down to earth. It’s real. It’s hard work and low pay and, despite that, low levels of martyrdom and pretense. It’s about community. It’s about Chicago – thinking about it, almost everything feels like in some way, it’s about Chicago. At the rate we’re exporting brilliant plays and artists, it’s about sharing Chicago with the world.

When Caitlin Montanye Parrish and I set out to create this play, we were both grappling with the idea that we might be leaving Chicago, at least for a while. I stayed here, she left (for totally valid Grad-School related reasons and we support her 100%, plus there is no Wintry Mix in Los Angeles). Before saying goodbye, we needed to tell Chicago how we felt. No matter where we’re living, no matter where we are, this is home. This is where we made our new families. This is where we became ourselves.

In A Twist of Water, Noah tells us that “Chicago is Chicago because of its water.” That’s true, it’s where we got our name. For me, though, Chicago is Chicago because of its people.

All this being said: Deep Dish pizza is disgusting. I’m sorry, but gross.

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