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Feature Mon Jan 18 2010
Most theater companies define themselves by what they want. Jeremy Menekseoglu, artistic director of Chicago's Dream Theatre Company, knows exactly what he doesn't.
No fourth wall. No superfluous roles. No poor roles for women. No living rooms. No boundaries of realism. By articulating these rules, Dream Theatre is more efficiently able to arrive at what it is they do desire, a destruction of the barrier between actor and audience.
It began in Russia. As students at the Moscow Art Theatre in the late 90's, Menekseoglu and three friends started the company to explore this tricky relationship.
"We wanted a theatre in which the audience became a part of the story," Menekseoglu says. "A real part."
Originally dubbed the Theatre for Humanity, the company was interested in personal psychology over politics. In the midst of his struggle to find a common ground, a place where everyone could relate, Menekeseoglu had a dream. It turned out to be his revelation. "No matter who we were or how different we were, we all could relate to one another in our subconscious."
So...Dream Theatre. It begins.
After short stints in New York and Florida, Menekseoglu brought the company to Chicago. "Chicago came up because it became clear that it was receptive to any type of new theatre that you could imagine. We came across companies that weren't just talking about great theatre, but were doing it."
Dream Theatre company member Courtney Arnett remembers rehearsing in Menekseoglu's apartment in those early days. "It was my first city gig and an experience like nothing else," she says. "Jeremy pushes the actor beyond what they feel their 'barriers' are, beyond their stereotypes and turns these mass produced college actors into individuals with personal wants and points of view."
Barriers, barriers, barriers. It's a word that comes up a lot when discussing experimental theatre. Breaking the fourth wall is certainly nothing new. Whether it's a dollop of meta-humor, a wink to the audience or, God forbid, a musical number that encourages audience participation, theatres have been obnoxiously trying to incorporate the audience for ages.
But this is not Menekseoglu's way. It never has been. He has far too much respect for his audience. So it starts where it often starts, with the demolition of that pesky fourth wall, the invisible barricade separating actor from audience, fantasy from reality.
"The fourth wall is no longer necessary for theater," he says. "We begin the play the very moment the audience enters. They become a part of not only the story, but of the play's universe."
Somebody famously said that there are no small parts, only small actors. Menekseoglu doesn't subscribe to this theory. Instead of stomping all over the audience, Dream Theatre productions prefer to engage it.
"Any roles that appear for only a moment are removed and replaced by the actual audience," he continues. "We direct our attention to them and speak directly to them."
For example, their recent production of Menekseoglu's unconventional Christmas love story, Cold, found the audience playing the part of a grizzly trucker, a waitress and several annoyed party guests.
The next rule is one close to the company's heart. So close, in fact, that they've created an annual festival, Theatre of Women, around it. All of Dream Theatre's shows would feature strong female characters.
"We live in such a male dominated literary world where you can count the great women's roles on your fingers. In a country where the number of actresses outnumbers the actors almost ten to one, this is unacceptable and utterly ridiculous."
Rachel Martindale, a company member who played Medea in the company's 2008 adaptation, cites this as part of the company's appeal. "Not only did Jeremy write plays that were complex and entertaining, but he had a knack for writing women characters of depth and complexity as well," she says.
How about the set?
"The living room became the symbol of our hatred of the barrier between actor and audience," Menekseoglu says. "By creating the living room we were inviting the audience's attention to wander around and look at set dressing instead of being involved in the performance." Dream Theatre productions allow set to become a malleable thing, able to evolve or devolve spontaneously.
Tying all of these together is a disregard for the boundaries of realism. Societal harnesses do not exist in a Dream Theatre show. Characters say what they feel. Characters do what they do. With no fourth wall, no barriers, nothing set or static, Menekseoglu says that "nothing that happens will feel out of bounds or out of place because in this world of dreams anything is already possible."
An aesthetic is born. But it didn't happen overnight. Dream Theatre's been at it for 12 years, spending most of them as nomads. In 2008 they found their very first home in Pilsen. Situated near the intersection of 18th and I-94, their space is a spooky century-old Brownstone, an old factory that now sports a rotating art gallery and two performance spaces. Perhaps speaking to Dream Theatre's continued perseverance in a town where small companies are made and fade every day, the building is a survivor of the Chicago fire.
Getting your own space can be a death sentence for small companies with an unsteady income, but Anna Weiler, Dream Theatre's managing director, is confident. "We've been able to transform the space into something completely different for each production. It's been everything; a gallery, promenade space, theatre in the round, proscenium, intimate small space, or large deep space. This is the most important necessity for a space for our work."
They also feel right at home in Pilsen. "We saw the type of art that excited our imagination," Menekseoglu says. "Pilsen needs more theatre. It's so receptive to it. It needs to not hide away in its galleries and think that actors and painters and sculptures and musicians are in some way different. We're not. We all want the same things. And our audiences are the same."
The new year finds them tackling their most ambitious season to date. "I have been with this company for almost five years and I haven't seen a stronger season," says Arnett, who will be featured in Agamemnon, the first in a trilogy of new adaptations by Menekseoglu. The company has long been reimagining classic Greek texts, but this is their most ambitious outing to date.
"Greek Theatre is such an incredible place to play in because it too sits on the line between fantasy and reality," he says. "The audience is a mystical being that is safe from the tragedy, but higher than any god."
Making the rounds again will be the company's old standards: the Theatre of Women Festival, their Halloween production, Anna, in the Darkness and their Christmas production, Cold. You can check out a video of Anna, in the Darkness below.
Most anticipated is Devilish Children, an adaptation of a German fairytale, which tells the story of a young boy abandoned at a school for naughty children.
This season opens with a double-bill. Aelita and Shiny Boxes, written by Bil Gaines and Michelle Apalategui, respectively, mark the first time that two new playwrights have ever been produced at Dream Theatre. These shows, according to Menekseoglu, "begin a brand new chapter in our company's history."
Arnett can't get enough. "It is guts and glory, sexual tension, sexual repression, powerful, the story of the hopeful and hopeless, tragic, heroic."
By eliminating what he doesn't want, Menekseoglu has created a brand of theatre that is unmistakably its own, that stands in stark contrast to their peers in the Chicago storefront scene. What's more important is that he found the freedom to discover it. He owes that, in many ways, to Chicago.
"Chicago is like one gigantic fringe festival that never ends. Everything is going on and everything is exciting."
Dream Theatre Company's 2010 season opens February 4 with Aelita and Shiny Boxes. Tickets are $15-18 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-552-8616. The theatre is located 556 W. 18th Street.
(left) and Aine Carlin (right). Photograph by Giau Truong
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.