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Theater Tue Sep 28 2010

One on One with the Director of 1001

1001_photo by Saverio Truglia_7827.jpg

Joel Gross (as Shahriyar) and Mouzam Makkar (as Scheherazade) in 1001. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

By now you may have heard the hype about 1001, local favorites Seth Bockley and Collaboraction's version of Jason Grote's critically acclaimed Post-Modern retelling of "Arabian Nights."

I'll cut to the chase-- the play is fantastic. But you already knew that. How can you go wrong with Grote, Bockley and Collaboraction?

What you have here is a surreal, action-packed comedy on speed or mushrooms or something with a healthy dash of politics sprinkled on top. And yes! It's sexy! And there's murder! Above all, this production squeezes every last drop of juice out of an unbelievably talented little troupe of actors-- six, to be exact, playing a whopping 28 roles, running around like lunatics somehow seamlessly performing all the scene changes and costume changes in front of us.

I spoke with Bockley a few weeks ago about 1001, so instead of me telling you about it, I'll let him:

How did you get involved in directing 1001?

I've been aware of the play for a few years, as well as its writer, Jason Grote. He's a wonderful playwright who is criminally under-known in Chicago and around the US. 1001 is a play I've always loved of his--one of three or four that I'd like to direct and work with. He is one of the few contemporary American writers who, when I read his work, I immediately want to bring to the stage. This is particularly because the dialogue and the characters are so riveting, disturbing, surprising, and hilarious; but also because they are so inherently theatrical and totally written for a design-driven approach. So I feel like he, along with certain other contemporary playwrights, offers a big canvas on which to paint.

1001 is written as a trunk show-- Grote uses that word-- and by that I think he means that the show is driven by actors. You can watch them doing what is necessary to make the play happen. So that's exiting to me. I like to see actors doing scene changes and costumes and stuff. So that's why the play has always appealed to me. And just thematically, I think it's a really exiting and provocative comment on the relationship between America and the Middle East.

Yes, it's very timely.

Yeah, and it's been timely, frankly, for a while now. It was written, I think, between 2004 and 2005 and it seems like a reflection on the past decade. It is very much a play about cultural collision and the history of East meets West and Jason seems to bite off a huge amount with a wink. He's very playful about that. For example there is a character, Sinbad the Sailor who is one of the characters in "Arabian Nights"--one of the stories in it is about him. And in the play he delivers a monologue about going to IKEA and I think that's just a wonderful moment.

And you've worked with him and/or his work in the past, correct?

Yes on a puppet show with food, sort of about the Passover. But it was a short piece. And I think quite an experimental piece in a lot of ways.

Yes it was only ten minutes long, right?

Yeah, and it was a lot of fun. It was also a very irreverent take on the tale of the flight from Egypt. Very fun.

Why do you like working with Collaboraction?

Collaboraction is a company that embraces the idea of theater as event. That's the core value that I think I share with the company and have always been drawn to. The company's aesthetic and philosophy. They see theater as a medium that can only survive when combined in a dialogue with other media such as visual arts, such as music. You have art that is in dialogue with the entire contemporary art scene. They are really open to that kind of vision; a cross-polination between disciplines, and I love that. And I feel like it's a place where I can play with a little bit more of a contemporary aesthetic. I associate Collaboration with things like video design, and there's the Sketchbook event which turns into a dance party with DJs and there's something very contemporary about that. I like that as an outlet. Other companies I've worked with are a little more traditional or just not specifically tapped into that scene.

You are a playwright, director and performer. Can you tell me how your experience as a writer and performer effects the way you direct, or maybe just how they effect each other?

For this particular show it's actually very liberating to not think as a writer. Almost everything else I've done overlaps--I'm either a co-writer or I'm adapting--but for this I did not have that responsibility so this case is kind of the opposite of what you're talking about. It's important for a director to have acting experience, though, so that they understand how actors think and get in the moment, particularly in this case because 1001 is a very actor-driven show. When I'm working with Redmoon I'm often looking at visual art, puppetry, things like that and thinking less about the psychology. But this is a very psychological piece. And I'm able to use my design background and training very heavily. Each of these three things are things that I rely on heavily, that I need in my life, so I need to keep doing all of them. With 1001 I can't change any of the lines, which is a fun constraint.

Would you say there's a common theme that runs through your work?

Well the one thing I can think of is that I continually focus on making the audience aware of where they are and actively conscious in every moment. For example, when I'm performing I often do work as an MC. I like the audience to be aware that I'm talking to them directly and that we're experiencing this moment together. For exmple when I directed Jon, there was a part at the end that was really exiting for me because I felt like the audience, who had been sitting at that point for 85 minutes would really wake up and be like "Oh, I'm here. I'm really here right now." And I want that to support the narrative experience

Well that's interesting, it seems very progressive, because in the past there has often been this emphasis on the "suspension of disbelief". The audience was supposed to forget where they were--in a theater, surrounded by other people. And it sounds like you're talking about encouraging the opposite feelings...

Yes. And it's not a new idea. Brecht was doing that a long time ago. He aimed to make the audience awake instead of entranced or asleep. Both things actually have value. There's always a tension. As an audience member I really enjoy being sucked into a world and then awakened.

Can you speak a little about how and why you've planted roots in Chicago?

Chicago challenges me and poses enourmous opportunity. To me it's the most exiting place to make theater because you have the unique combonation of willing, engaged audiences (and that's number one for sure). Number two: a community of artists of a high enough caliber and with enough diversity so that there is no ceiling to what can be achieved and there's no limit to the dialogue. I love that fact that I've been making sort of design-driven visual theater for six years here and I still don't know a lot of people who are doing the same thing. And that's crazy considering that it's actually the minority of the kind of theater that happens in Chicago. So the depth of the community is crucial. I have so much to learn from other people who are doing good work around me. It keeps me on my toes, keeps me challenged.

1001 is currently playing at The Chopin Theatre through October 9. For more information and/or tickets, visit Collaboraction's website.

 
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

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