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April 2011 Archives

Normal Adjacent

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Photo by Craig Schwartz

Possibly there’s something wrong with me. Last night I left a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical starring a Tony award-winning actress dissatisfied, and I can’t quite pinpoint the cause. “Next to Normal,” a play about bipolar disorder, has all the dramatic trappings an audience might desire: family drama, ballads, sex, lithium and rock and roll power chords. Yet despite adroit performances, mighty voices and a bursting-at-the-seams score, some essential aspect is absent.

The lauded musical takes the audience into a superficially typical American home. Turns out bored housewife Diana (Alice Ripley) struggles not exactly with the tedium of everyday life, but with the deficit of emotion her collection of pills leaves in its wake. With the support of her son Gabe (Curt Hansen) Diana abandons her meds for the manic highs and dizzying lows of her disease.

A no-holds-barred performer, Ripley is every inch the professional as she thrashes through two hours of belted songs and gut-wrenching drama, but there’s no denying the fact that Ripley’s voice needs serious rest.

Also staring in the touring production, at Bank of America Theatre are the affecting Asa Somers as Diana’s long-suffering husband and Emma Hunton as their goal-oriented daughter. Hunton, is a revelation, traversing the show’s rough emotional terrain. Both funny and touching, she truly steals the show.

Maybe I should be grateful that a play not based on a Disney movie or hinging on the songs of Abba has grabbed the theatre world’s attention. Maybe every lyric doesn’t have to be perfect. Still, when bipolar is clumsily aligned with land formations as in the song “I Miss the Mountains,” when clichéd phrases like “cuts you like a knife” are bandied about, when a lyricist has the audacity to write the line “living on a latte and a prayer,” it makes me miss the days of shows like “Evita,” a “Chorus Line” and “Into the Woods.” Seems like writers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey might even agree with me. Why else reference a line from “The Sound of Music?” Yeah, it’s funny to ally Diana’s pills with the more traditional ‘Favorite Things,’ but it also exemplifies a trend I’ve noticed in recent musicals: the tendency to allude to classics. Something about the inclination makes me wonder if current playwrights aren’t conscious of our postmodern moment, when one gestures at authenticity by replicating what came before.

Or maybe I’m just a purist who doesn’t think anyone should ever sing about lattes. Ever.


"Next to Normal" runs through May 8th. Purchase tickets here.

A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

The 14th Annual Chicago Improv Festival

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If you’re on the Chicago comedy scene you’re hip to the Chicago Improv Festival. In its 14th year, the event features performers both local and international at a variety of Chicago venues. Rance Rizzutto, a teacher, photographe and ten year comedy veteran, is one of many Chicago performers taking part in the yearly comedy ritual. Below, he talks to Our Town.

Our Town What’s your favorite part about performing in the festival?
Rance Rizzutto I love that a city already so full of improv can get a fresh dose from outside sources. It is refreshing to see the small nuances in the playing styles of teams from across the world.

OT Who are your influences?
RR Late 80’s SNL, Dana Carvey era; Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Seinfeld, the show and the man; and Monty Python. I like a good mix of honest reality, physicality, and absurdity.

OT Your fiancée, Deanna Moffitt is also in comedy. What’s that like?
RR Improv is all about embracing and accepting another person’s ideas. It really helps when both people in a relationship understand that. Plus we have fun in general because we’re immersed in the playful nature that surrounds improv.

OT What’s your worst onstage moment?
RR I haven’t really had any horror stories that I haven’t just rolled with. Most recently I was hosting a show with middle school students in the audience. I made a comment about how Rebecca Black was awful. You would have thought I slapped their grandmothers. I got them back on my side, but I had to work for it. Rebecca Black is awful, right?

OT Best comedy advice?
RR Think as little as possible. By that I mean if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say that means you’re listening to the voice in your head and not the one in your scene partner’s mouth. You’re going to miss something. Make a character choice then listen and listen hard.

OT What can we expect from your work in the festival this year?
RR I’m lucky enough to perform with people I not only love playing with, but watching perform. I’m a bit of a mischievous performer and when I hear the one thing get said that doesn’t seem like it belongs I pounce on it and make sure it is an important part of the world we’re creating on stage. As an added bonus, I’ll be performing with the Istanbulimpro group from Istanbul, Turkey. I performed with them on my brief overnight stay in Istanbul and it was a fantastic moment in my life.

This year Rizutto performs with Chaos Theory on Thursday 4/28 at 10:30 p.m. at the Playground Theater, Deltones on Friday 4/29 at 8 p.m. at iO Chicago and Istanbulimpro at 9 p.m. on Saturday 4/30 at the Playground Theater. For more information on CIF visit

A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

Be the Change

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Luz Dyer Father Simpson Anne Rog.JPG
2010 Metamorphosis Party

Homeless to gainfully employed--could there be a more positive metamorphosis? Probably not. That's why The Lincoln Park Community Shelter, a comprehensive social service agency is working to help homeless adult men and women obtain housing and gain self-sufficiency. To that end, the organization is throwing a Metamorphosis Party to both showcase the presentation of the Compassion in Action Award and benefit the LPCS in its quest to create hope and change for Chicago’s homeless.

Our Town spoke with Heather Pressman, the organization’s Community Relations Manager about their success rate, twenty-six year history and of course, the upcoming gala.

Our Town To what do you attribute LPCS’s success rate with members?
Heather Pressman The programs at LPCS are highly individualized, the staff flexible and responsive to guests’ needs. There are several different ways guests can suggest improvements, which helps them invest in the programs they are participating in. Our goal isn’t just to get people housed, [but] to make lasting life changes so that they don’t find themselves homeless again. We also try to stay connected to graduates to ensure things continue to go well and help if needed.

OT What makes LPCS’s individualized support system unique?
HP Guests living in the LPCS work with case managers to assess their needs for referrals to additional support services and permanent housing. Guided by each guest’s personal goals, case managers work to provide resources in three broad areas: Track 1: Addictions Recovery; Track 2: Mental and Physical Health; and Track 3: Employment and Education. The program both empowers and challenges guests to address barriers to self-sufficiency by making progress toward meaningful sobriety, mental stability, healthy lifestyles, livable wage employment and permanent housing. The program also offers daily educational and support groups, classes, and activities, including career building, job search, healthy lifestyles, financial management, computer tutoring, and daily living skills enhancement. Each track has measurable outcomes, and includes assessment, goal setting, referrals, educational groups and classes, advocacy, and follow-up for each guest.

OT This year’s Compassion in Action Award honorees are Pastor Jeffrey Doane from Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church; Reverend Linda Packard from Church of Our Saviour; Father Tom Hickey from St. Clement Church; and Reverend Thomas Henry from St. Pauls United Church of Christ. How were they chosen?
HP The Compassion in Action Award acknowledges that individuals who make long-term commitments to an organization's mission are the people who make both stability and change possible. The recipient of the Compassion in Action Award will always be an individual (or individuals) who inspires the community to action, and one who mirrors the community's compassion, over the long term.

Come the Apocalypse, Shawn Babiarz will be Working Out

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I have a theory. Actually I have many, including one where all those random ipod glitches are part of the Computer Race’s master plan to accustom humans to automatically responding to seemingly haphazard signals. For the purpose of this blog however, let’s focus on my Gateway Exercise Theory. You’ve heard of gateway drugs. Pot, for example, is said to open the door to cocaine and heroine, though in my observation, it’s more often responsible for arguments over whether fast or slow moving zombies rock the hardest and over-reliance on the word “dude.”

I think everyone has a Gateway Exercise which, once discovered, helps you gain physical strength and mental confidence, thereby allowing you to try other forms of exercise, even those outside your comfort zone. To uncover your GE, think back to your childhood. What activity was effortless, fun? Me, I loved riding my bike, it felt easy in a way running didn’t—after all, I was sitting down. Predictably then, Spinning is my GE, though I worked out unhappily for a decade before I realized it. Once I started Spinning, it felt natural to branch out. Now I practice yoga, weight train, run and both teach Spinning and take classes. Best of all, I know if the fast-moving Zombies invade, I’ll be able to outrun them.

For physical therapist Shawn Babiarz, biking and swimming were GE’s of sorts, but when he found himself in a workout rut, he decided to further broaden his horizons. Says Babiarz, “I needed to come up with a piece of equipment that challenged my whole body and kept me mentally engaged.” After some trial and error, Babiarz developed KoreFit™, a system which “takes the principles of Pilates” and uses the “Variable Stability System to transfer air between both halves of the KoreFit™ creating a dynamic challenging platform.” Babiarz adds, “You control this challenge by turning the control knob in the center of the unit, allowing you to increase or decrease the amount of air that flows through either side of the KoreFit™.” Essentially then, KoreFit™ amplifies a formerly static workout by, among other things, engaging your abs at all times.

Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is James Bohnen?

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Photo by Johnny Knight

I’ve loved Playwright Edward Albee since high school, when I picked up a resale copy of “Seascape,” his absurdist work about a pair of human-size lizards processing their relationship issues. I was instantly hooked, and not just because it made about as much sense as anything else going on in my sixteen-year-old life.

Years later, in 2002, I got spur-of-the-moment discount tickets to “The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia.” Serendipity incarnate. Turned out I’d landed smack in the middle of the Broadway opening night with Albee himself in attendance. By turns shocking, funny and heart-rending, the show was startlingly current, boundary pushing in new and important ways.

I’ve since seen “The Goat” in LA and now, Chicago, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss Remy Bumppo’s excellent production with Artistic Director and co-founder, James Bohnen.

Our Town Edward Albee has courted controversy for over fifty years. How does he stay current?
James Bohnen Perhaps being gay in a period when society wasn't accepting contributed to his focus, but I wouldn't presume to conclude that. Albee pushes boundaries because [as] a passionate and engaged man he has held to his belief that the theatre is a place where the norms of society should be constantly exposed and examined. He is a man of great trust in the theater, bless him.

OT What attracted you to the play?
JB We had hoped to do “Virginia Woolf,” but heard Steppenwolf was, so I decided to read “The Goat.” My hair stood on end. It was so bold and tight and challenging. The action took you on a downward spiral and yet it was filled with a wonderful balance of love and loss. I fell in love at first read.

OT What unique challenges does it present?
JB Many, but hardest is to keep the audience from deciding early whose side to be comfortably on. I was determined nobody watching should be able to say, "Well, that is so far from my own experience that I will just check out." The other challenge is to allow the actors enough time and understanding to risk as much as they obviously must to make the audience believe in the struggle. This is exacerbated by the intimacy of the playing space at Greenhouse; it is both thrilling and harrowing for actor and audience to have pain that close.

OT Albee is known for over-the-top fight scenes. How did you humanize moments of high drama?
JB We approached them as simply and truthfully as possible. If violent action isn't fully grounded in an inability to express yourself any other way--at least with Albee's intelligent characters--then it seems gratuitous and gives the audience reason to distance themselves. We built each moment with as much emotional precision as we could to make the audience wince with a sense of "I might have done the same thing in that moment.”

OT What about the china breaking sequence?
JB [That] always presents problems. One day in rehearsal we were exploring regular terracotta pots and Annabel [Armour] threw one and it just exploded. I was twenty feet away, and a shard hit me. Needless to say, they were never considered again. We experimented a great deal with breakage issues: color, safety, all the usual suspects. We borrowed some fine pottery from various friends to make the room look elegant [and] had our breakable stuff built by a potter at the Lill Street Gallery and Studio. The challenge was to have the breakables not seem obvious in the immediate context.

Susie Bright: "We Know how it Connects"

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Photo by Honey Lee Cottrell

For almost three decades, feminist sex writer Susie Bright has taken America on a guided tour of her sex life, offering political ruminations, writing advice and titillating anecdotes. But what do we really know about her life outside of the bedroom? Her new memoir, “Big Sex, Little Death” addresses this omission, offering characteristically frank, often startling accounts of topics as varied as Bright’s early work as a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, her fraught family life, and the truth behind her ongoing feud with anti-sex crusaders.

Our Town Why write a memoir now?
Susie Bright When the publisher approached me, my parents had died recently and I was learning things I never would have discovered if they were alive. I thought I knew everything about my family, but there are people who come out of the woodwork, there’s a box of letters that falls in your lap. I also had a twenty-year perspective on the highlights of the feminist sex wars, things I didn’t discuss when we were in the thick of it. It’s funny how some of the biggest things in your life, you realize you’ve never told anyone.

OT You write that women’s memoirs are often diet books or tell-alls. Why?
SB It’s the snake biting its own tale. Mainstream media and publishers say no to anything truly original. I once proposed a book about my experience as a sex positive feminist and parent to one of my former publishers who said, ‘You can’t be a mom and a sex goddess at the same time.’ I laughed my ass off, although I could only laugh so much because it was a rejection. The professional climate is rife with male chauvinism. A friend of mine’s daughter recently got an editing post at a digital media company, but she wants to do international reporting. She’ll hafta buy her own ticket and airdrop herself into the gnarliest situation she can, because of the gender rigidity in mainstream media publishing. There’s a tracking regime, like, ‘Would you like to write about diapers? How about edit these very important men’s work? You don’t want to do news and hard Op-ed, are you kidding? Wouldn’t you feel better working in PR and marketing and all these other areas where strangely, there are lots of other women?’ We’re faced with those obstacles, which you can get really mad about, and stamp your feet, but you might also find you’re participating. It’s not enough for me to worry about where I get to publish or what I get to say. What am I doing in terms of publishing other women’s real life adventure stories? If I’m not doing that then I can just shut up.

OT Reading your book, I was struck by your bravery. You talked your way out of many explosive situations. Do you look back in amazement?
SB In the moment I didn’t have any doubts. Like, I have to hitchhike to San Francisco, what the hell are you doing obstructing my path with your gun and your psychosis? Afterward is when you open your eyes in the middle of the night. In a narrative, of course, those elements are dramatic highlights. Most of the time my life could be called ‘the kindness of strangers.’ I’m talking to you from Baltimore, where I’ve just been kissed and fed and treated like a queen by people I’d never met. Being plugged in and open to new experiences is definitely worth it.

OT You write about anti-sex advocate Kittie Mackinnon publicly decrying porn and rough sex, but privately sleeping with a woman who in your mind embodied kinky sex. Why do people like her condemn what they enjoy?
SB Look at the GOP Christian zealots who get caught with their pants down in the public square. Same reason, they believe they’re special. If they have a kinky sex life, if they like naughty pictures, if they entertain themselves with taboos, if they have secret prostitute friends, they can handle it because they’re different, they’re entitled. You see this all the time among the uber elite. It’s an aristocratic point of view, which is why sexual freedoms and sexual speech is the foundation of democracy, the litmus test. If people can’t make their own decisions about their sex life and speak freely about it--we’re talking everything from reproductive rights to what you like to fantasize about-- it means there’s a group of people setting up and enforcing public policy in vindictive and prejudiced ways.

I've Made a Little Space for Amber Benson*

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Interviewing someone you’ve never heard of is easy. Sure you gotta research, but becoming informed on a deadline is cake compared to fielding a phone call from an icon. Amber Benson may be a minor mainstream star, but for fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” she’s a major deity. Thankfully, she’s also one of the most genuine, forthcoming celebrities I’ve had the privilege of interviewing. On the final leg of her book tour, Benson hits Challengers Comics Saturday April 9th, and she’s looking forward to it, but maybe not as much as she’s looking forward to grabbing a burger while she’s in town.

Our Town How’s the tour?
Amber Benson A little crazy. I feel like I haven’t been home in months. We had a really amazing turn out in New York and Houston, people waiting in the rain, crazy stuff.

OT You knew early you wanted to act. When did that goal crystallize?
AB I was a hyperactive child. My mom put me in ballet and lots of after school programs to wear me out so I would sleep. I remember being onstage in “The Nutcracker,” this little marshmallow rolling out of some guys skirt and realizing I did not like ballet. It’s beautiful and I appreciate it, but the rigor was not very appealing as a child. But being onstage and having people clap? That was like catnip, so I sort of matriculated over to the drama world.

OT Acting led you to everything from producing to writing for TV to novels; surprising or part of the plan?
AB If you have a brain and you’re a woman, being one thing isn’t enough. As a creative individual, you have to diversify. Plus you can’t really make a living as an actor. A small percentage does, but then there’s everybody else who’s struggling. As an actor, you’re regurgitating somebody else’s dialogue invented in their world rather than yours. I knew I would go crazy just being an actor. I had always written short stories, bad poetry, plays, that sort of thing. When I was approached about doing the Willow/Tara comics for Dark Horse, I was excited to try something new and writing-centric. After the BBC read the comics, Chris Golden and I were asked to do the “Ghosts of Albion,” an animated program. Then Random House asked us to novelize that universe, so that was my entré into writing long form prose.

OT "Death’s Daughter" was your first solo novel. Since then you’ve written two more. Is it getting easier?
AB I’m at work on the fourth as we speak. You have to treat writing like a business. I like to go places to write. Like, ok, I’m leaving to go to my office. I try to do 1500 to 3000 words every time I sit down. It’s daunting to see a blank computer screen and know you have to fill it with 90 to 100,000 words. But the process gets easier—maybe easier is the wrong word. I get better at the process because I’m doing it more. Especially revisio where the book comes together. You vomit it up as a first draft, then go back and rewrite until you get it to a place where it’s not vomit anymore, it’s cotton candy.

OT You blog, tweet and are active on facebook. Social media, boon for artists or distraction?
AB Traditional ways of reaching people don’t work anymore. Magazines and newspapers are going under, everything is becoming internet based. You have to use what you got and what we have is social media. It puts you in connection with fans in a very intimate way. It’s awesome but frightening because all the walls separating the creative from the real world are knocked down.

OT Any social media regrets?
AB I did something just stupid. I was trying to direct message a friend to give them my new e-mail address and whoops, it popped up on Twitter for everybody to see. But I work hard not to talk about where I am while I’m there. I was at the New York comic-con a couple years ago and another writer, a friend, Anton Struass was at the booth and I tweeted, “I’m at such and such booth,” and then I went to do my signing and he’s like, “dude you left and a bunch of people came over, going ‘where’s Amber, she says she’s here.’” I’m learning you have to be protective of your personal space. I’m not on Foursquare. If I get checked in it’s somebody else doing it and I have to beat them up later.

Everybody's a Critic

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Some of us were born to voice our opinions. Before I nabbed this sweet gig, I’d tout mine from my apartment roof. The neighbors still wax nostalgic about my air horn. In our age of blogging this and internet that and tumbleruponlinkedfaceporntube the other thing, everyone from your mother to that guy without pants who hangs out at the Brwn Mawr Redline stop wants you to read a super important blog post about running out of napkins. Still, some bloggers rise to the top, and not because they’re louder or more self-promotional, but by virtue of that antiquated attribute: talent.

Take Robert Bullen, or as he’s better known, Chicago Theatre Addict. Through aptitude, research and determination, Bullen turned a humble online journal into an informed theatre blog and himself into a significant voice in local theatrical criticism.

Our Town Casual blogger to critic. Explain.
Robert Bullen When I moved to Chicago in 2002, I blogged as a way to capture my thoughts so I'd have a record of what I'd done and seen. I probably had about seven devoted readers. Really, I never intended for an audience to read anything I wrote. About two years ago, Edge Chicago [was] looking for a Chicago-based theatre reviewer. I pulled together a sampling of theatre blog posts, got the gig and suddenly [saw] a lot of shows with tight review deadlines. I reviewed about thirty-five over a nine-month period. Then, I [thought] why not do this on my own? That's how Chicago Theatre Addict was born. Getting my name on press lists was a bit of a challenge; a lot of people were like, “who the hell is this guy?” I'm just a big fan of Chicago theatre.

OT When did you first grasp theatre’s power?
RB A production of "Godspell" at a tiny theatre where I grew up in Alpena, Michigan. I couldn't have been older than eight. I remember a woman playing a prostitute sat on my dad's lap in the opening number. That blew my mind; theatre was alive, real and interactive.

OT What’s your aim when reviewing?
RB I [attend] with a clear, unbiased mind and try to enjoy myself. When I write about a show, I try to give enough information so the reader not only understands whether I liked it or not, but why. Then they can form their own opinions.

OT Ever feel guilty?
RB One should never feel guilty about their opinion.

OT What’s your favorite Chicago play this year?
RB I was blown away by Belarus Free Theatre's "Being Harold Pinter. Daring and completely engrossing. Here are people literally risking it all for their art; you had to sit up and take notice. In terms of a Chicago-produced production, I liked Sideshow Theatre's "Heddatron." While the play had some issues, the production was amazing. For lighter fare, Drury Lane did a first-rate production of "Spamalot,” the most fun I've had in the theatre this year -- so far!

OT Top three Chicago theatres. Go.
RB There are the powerhouses like Goodman and Steppenwolf that have the means [to] consistently produce quality plays, but I admire companies that take risks, either producing new works or reexamining well-known pieces in a unique, bold way. The result can either be thrilling or disappointing, but at least it's not safe. Companies that I've seen take risks consistently include The New Colony, The Hypocrites and Red Tape.

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