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October 2013 Archives

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November's Hot Writer: Gretchen Kalwinski

My genre: Fiction. And sometimes essays. Also, journalism. Oh, and occasionally poems, though I mostly call them flash-fiction now. 

 My literary influences: Let me just say how lucky I am that I’ve actually gotten to study with some of them: Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Stuart Dybek, Goldie Goldbloom, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Diane Di Prima, Jeffrey Eugenides, Karen Russell, Junot Diaz, Sharon Solwitz, Alice Walker, Patrick Somerville, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Lynda Barry, Diane Ackerman, Michael Chabon, Dorothy Allison, and Aimee Bender. 

My favorite literary quote: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” –Gustave Flaubert. (I aspire to this, but fail frequently—both at the life part and the writing part.) 

My favorite book of all time:
Impossible to narrow to one. As far as the classics, The Iliad and The Infero, from which I learned everything I needed to know about storytelling. Middlesex and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay for pure pleasure. And, because I love books that tell the truth about the lives of women, The Awakening and Hateship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage. 

I’m currently reading: Again, I'm commitment-phobic! I keep a few going at one time, for different moods. One is Wild, by the brilliant Cheryl Strayed, who wowed me at last year’s AWP conference. Also: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

My guilty pleasure book: Embarrassing, but I’m a sucker for spiritual/esoteric writers like Marianne Williamson, Eckert Tolle, Carolyn Myss. Reading that stuff can be like watching a sci-fi movie or getting drunk or listening to weird Sunday night radio programming. It gets me out of my pragmatic left brain, and lets my thinking become more liquid and unconscious. When that happens, ideas tend to come more easily. 

I can’t write without: A candle, preferably an expensive, woodsy-smelling one. At least for the generative phase, when I need to feel like something unconscious and almost mystical is happening. It sounds very woo-woo  I know, but I’m prone to procrastination, and this just works for me. I'm going to stock up on candles now that I'm in thesis mode.

Worst line I ever wrote:
Here’s one, from a terrible old confessional free verse poem. “I’ll be your surgeon. I am religion. With charts and graphs, I’ll prove you’re alive.” Dramatic much, Younger Me?

Brief Bio: Gretchen Kalwinski's writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Make Literary Magazine, Paterson Literary Review, and Featherproof Books, among other venues. She’s served as a panelist on WGN radio, Chicago Tonight, and the Bad at Sports podcast, and in 2009, she was awarded a Ragdale Foundation artist residency. She works as a copywriter and is finishing up her MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. You can find her at gretchenkalwinski.com

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. 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 following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

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Chicago comedian Amy Eisenberg created monthly showcase, "Just Dickin' Around," as a platform for female comedians to perform in a safe and supportive environment. Recently, comedians Tamale Sepp, Marla Depew and Krista Atkinson came on board. Eisenberg spoke with Our Town about her influences and how being bad at life makes her good at comedy.

Our Town What separates JDA from other comedy events?    
Amy Eisenberg I wanted to create a platform where female stand-up comedians can be brilliant and fearless with their work, talent, and comedy, an environment where the ladies can let it all hang out and go balls to the wall!

OT Why include an open mic?    
AE Why not.....? My motto has always been "Go BIG, then go home/”The fact of the matter is, in the world of open mic, regardless of how far we've come with women's lib, it's still super difficult for females to feel empowered to perform. I pride myself in creating an open mic that's free of political favoritisms. It's so disheartening to show up to an open mic where favored comedians are allowed such things as jumping the roster, being provided a longer set time, and having private cheering sections which makes any new face feel like they don't belong. Here, every comedian is treated equal.

OT Why are women only spaces important in comedy?
AE
Women deserve to have an honest space to feel free, so they can have the opportunity to make mistakes, grow, and learn while embracing their talent. There is something to be said about the magic that happens between women when they come together. It’s untouchable.

OT
What drew you to stand-up?
AE My life... and not being good at it. Doesn't that deserve to be shared?

OT Best/ worst stand-up experience?
AE The best/worst stand-up experience for me was when I was in the middle of a joke, my mind went blank, and no words came out… So I just stood there, marinating in all of my awkwardness until I finally just acknowledged it. Then I realized that fucking up isn't that bad and that sometimes when you fuck up, it’s a gift; you end up with a brand new joke or an even better punch line.


Once: A Review

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This review was written by freelancer Andrew Weir.

I fell in love with the musical near-romance ONCE the first time I saw it. In fact, taken with the film’s sweet, nontraditional love story, I raced to the Borders across the street from Landmark Century Cinema to buy the soundtrack by musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. I’m moved by the story whenever I revisit it, which made me both very excited to see the touring production and afraid of how much would be changed in order to adapt the story to the stage.

Walking into the Oriental Theatre, I was met with Bob Crowley’s set design, a neighborhood Irish pub, the perfect backdrop for this story.  Before the show, the audience is encouraged to come onstage to order a drink from the bar and mix with the cast as they jam on a few pre-show songs.  The result is a fun vibe, like an open mic night, making the large space feel much more intimate.

ONCE is not your standard musical with characters singing their thoughts, rather it has the flavor of a play with music. John Tiffany’s brilliant staging combined with Steven Hoggett’s inspired movement allows the songs to be expressed not simply through vocals, but via stylized physicality.  Not only is the show deftly acted, but the musicianship of the company is phenomenal, with most performers playing anywhere from two to five instruments. True to Hansard’s haunting and soulful singing, Stuart Ward’s vocals are gritty and emotional, more rock musician than Broadway star.

Overall, ONCE is akin to a black box play rather than a splashy musical. This choice keeps the show faithful to the film’s subtly sensibility, however; it makes the few overplayed moments that much more jarring. For instance, at one point a middle-aged character throws out his back performing karate moves, an unnecessary infusion of physical comedy, out of place in this simple story. Similarly, the complexity of the love story is undermined by turning subtext to text--literally. In a lovely scene between the Guy and Girl, he poses a question, she answers in Czech, and her response is translated and projected as a supertitle. This same moment occurs in the film, but the audience is trusted to fill in the blank, interpreting what she might have said. To me, these examples stem from a single objective: to keep the show accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

Despite some minor complaints, I walked away feeling very positive about the show.  The story is incredibly engaging and the performances, truly astounding.  Happily this tour allows more audiences to be exposed to this delightful and heart-wrenching tale, which leaves town on October 27th. Race out and see it before it’s too late.


Andrew Weir is a Chicago-based actor, writer, and director with an MFA in Theatre from Western Illinois University.

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Want to turn me on? Come close and whisper in my ear: "pop culture through a feminist lens." Goosebumps, see them? So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about Pop Goes Alicia. Running every first Tuesday of the month, this panel features a rotating roster of local writers, comedians, and activists discussing the latest in pop culture, gender and current events. Host Alicia Swiz promises November’s show will be complex and entertaining as always. She spoke with Our Town about the show’s impetus and execution and even played a little free association.

Our Town What inspired your show?
Alicia Swiz I wanted to create a fun and entertaining public space where people could have the conversations that usually happen privately. Gender is a complicated idea and it's not one we usually encourage critical thinking about outside of academic spaces. The same goes for pop-culture. Both are happening all the time, defining who and what we are, what we value, the choices we make, yet it seems like every time I try to have a deeper or thoughtful conversation about either, outside of my feminist circles, I am met with resistance.

OT What’s interesting to you about pop culture?
AS My parents were divorced and I spent a lot of time left to my own devices growing up. I feel like I was raised by pop culture - TV, music and especially, movies. They were my friends. The images and messages in the media I've consumed have informed who I have become and I am fascinated by the effect.

OT Is pop culture serious?
AS Pop culture is a mirror that reflects who we are as a culture and as individuals. It is extremely powerful. In its best moments it gives us creative ways to express ourselves; it can give us a sense of community and understanding of the world around us. At it's worst, it offers us a scapegoat. It allows us to write off deeper, cultural issues because "It's just a movie." No, it's not. It never is.

OT How does your feminism fit with your interest in Pop Culture?
AS My feminism is rooted in choice and value. The choice to make whatever decisions are best for me and to have those choices be seen as valuable. When things I relate to aren't being reflected in the pop-culture landscape or are being reproduced in disrespectful ways, I take it personally and for me that is a feminist issue. It tells me that the world I live in doesn't value my voice, my story, my being. Feminism allows for alternative narratives, for marginalized voices, for a world beyond the dominant power structure to exist. Pop culture is one of the most powerful venues for sharing that. We just need a a lot more girls and a lot less white people calling the shots.

OT Can you sit back and enjoy or do you find yourself always critiquing?
AS Oh jeez. That's tough. In order to enjoy, you have to be comfortable with your complicity. You have to be able to say "Yeah, I'm dancing to "Blurred Lines" and it's ok." One of my primary areas of interest is adolescent identity and it's constructions in pop culture, especially of girlhood. And you certainly aren't going to get very far telling a 13 year old girl that she can't watch Twilight or listen to Miley Cyrus. My goal - as an educator, as a performer, as a mentor - is to encourage people to think critically about the media they consume while also calling attention to the positive take-aways. 

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Kathleen Wheaton has traveled the world as a journalist and travel writer, experiencing first hand being a cultural outsider. Her book Aliens and Other Stories is a loosely-linked collection of stories that is above all about people in exile – from their native countries, their families, their objects of desire. She spoke with Our Town about her writing process, her work as the Assistant Editor of Narrative Magazine and why there’s no shame in being a short story writer.

Our Town Your undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing. Do you think a formal education in writing is necessary?
Kathleen Wheaton What was helpful in my case, and in many cases I imagine, was that my college creative writing class was the first place I'd met an actual, live writer. You get a sense of what that life is like, even if you're relatively successful--the solitude, rejection, and worry about money. If it still looks good to you, then by all means proceed. But your actual education as a writer--reading constantly, writing and then rewriting--will be on your own time and take many more years. 

OT Any journalistic habits that you had to unlearn or work against when writing fiction?
KW Maybe because I started out as a fiction writer, I feel that journalism only improved my writing: I learned to be clear, specific, and economical. Beginning writers often confuse being cryptic with subtlety.  And nothing should be in there just because it sounds pretty. 

OT What inspired your story collection?
KW I went to Argentina in 1987 because I had been hired to put together a travel book on Buenos Aires. The military dictatorship had ended a few years earlier and it seemed that the whole city was suffering slightly from PTSD. I'd be sitting in a cafe talking to a contributor about maps or photos, and they'd mention that they'd been arrested during the dirty war, or that someone close to them was a desaparecido, or that they'd spent some time in exile. And then they'd go back to talking about the guidebook--everyone I met was really excited about the idea that tourists might want to come there.  But those blurted-out confessions haunted me, and eventually became the germ of several of the stories in Aliens. 

OT How did you realize you were writing towards a collection?
KW We moved to Washington, DC after 10 years in Latin America, and I felt a bit like an immigrant myself at that point. So I began writing more stories, with some of the same characters, about the experience of adapting to life in the US.  

OT How do the stories relate?
KW All of them are about people living in some type of exile, but the collection centers around a character named Gabriel Baum, an Argentine journalist who disappears during the dictatorship. Gabriel himself appears briefly in the book, but several of the stories have as protagonists his wife, his children, his parents, his friends. 


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Photo by Miss Missy

Margaret Cho may be known as the outsider’s comedian, but throughout her decades long career insiders have certainly taken note. From opening for Jerry Seinfeld to conquering off-Broadway to stints on Dancing With the Stars and Drop Dead Diva, not to mention sold out national tours, Cho’s a new kind of American Sweetheart. Openly poly, frank about her bisexuality, and perhaps most significantly, in touch with a vulnerability born of a childhood spent trying to fit in, Cho continues to attract fans of all stripes. She took time before her Mother Tour hits Chicago to speak with Our Town about crafting a joke, her sexuality and how she defines success.

Our Town When did you first realize you were funny?
Margaret Cho I think it may have happened when I was a kid, but I was painfully shy for a long time, so I didn’t share it with anyone until I was into my teens.
 
OT How has your comedy changed over the years?
MC I hope to have gained some insight and sensitivity and compassion – but then again I do really enjoy very crude jokes!
 
OT Can you take us through the process of writing a joke or a bit from inspiration to final product?
MC It can arrive totally complete – which is the best way – jokes should be fully formed if at all possible. I can also just ask my mother what I should say.
 
OT As a comedian, what do you wish you’d known early on?
MC I wish I had known to trust myself more.

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Storyteller Eric Warner as an avid participant in Chicago’s vibrant Live Lit scene. A headliner for The Side Project’s "The Kindness of Strangers: A Festival of Storytelling," Warner understands the power of a well-told story. He spoke with Our Town about the festival, his worst Live Lit experience, and the moral implications of entwining art and life.

Our Town What’s special about Chicago’s Live Lit scene?
Eric Warner A special thing about Chicago’s scene in particular, is that it is so welcoming. The tellers, the curators/hosts, the audience, are so diverse that I think it really inspires people to write and tell their own story. Every show I’ve seen, you’re given information on how to submit your story. It seems to be a level playing field for everyone to get involved, there aren’t many hoops to jump through.

OT
Can you share a best/worst Liv Lit experience?
EW My best Live Lit experience, as a performer, I think happened when I performed in “You’re Being Ridiculous” this past summer. I don’t know what it was, maybe that I’d told the piece a few times, maybe that my girlfriend and her family and several friends were in the audience, or that I was in the company of other awesome storytellers, but I felt like I was really talking to people, not performing, just telling a story between friends. Every once in a while that happens, and it’s the best. My worst was in my first hour long piece, where about half an hour in I totally forgot where I was in the story. Friends in the audience told me that they thought it was just a dramatic pause, but to me it felt like twenty minutes of flop sweat, and seeing my sweat dropping in slow motion and splashing on the stage, all while my little lizard brain is screaming at me, “you didn’t rehearse enough! You’re sweating like a pig!!”

OT Your piece involves your father. What challenges did you face in working on it?
EW A challenge, throughout the piece, and throughout my life, is that I’ve never really known my father. He left the family when I was very young, came back when I was around 11 or 12, and passed away when I was 27.
His name was Bryan Edward Warner. Depending on who you talked to, or who was talking about him, he was Bryan or Ed. My mom told me that Bryan was the man she fell in love with, that he was like a Greek god. Ed was a monster, who left home for months at a time and set fire to the drapes when he didn’t like the way dinner was cooked. The emotional challenge while working on this piece was going back and writing out every memory I have. And the realization that I have so few. What few I have, especially from adulthood, were of me alternately judging or overlooking him. A structural challenge in crafting the story was how to piece together memories that fit within a theme, so that it’s not just “Eric’s Childhood Slideshow Jamboree”. The theme that I stumbled on was what is called a “psychological phenomenon” that I experienced when I went to Plateau Point in the Grand Canyon and had the incredibly strong urge to jump. The French call it “l’appel du vide: the call of the void”. For so long my dad has been a void in my life, and I struggle with wanting to know more, and how much is enough.


Back it Up

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After performing on "The Voice" and nabbing a part in the documentary, "20 Feet from Stardom," background vocalist Judith Hill has really hit her stride. With a solo record on the way, Hill performs October 20th with Josh Groban at The United Center. Meanwhile, she spoke with Our Town about her music and a special moment she shared with Micheal Jackson.

Our Town How did you break into the business?
Judith Hill I studied music composition for four years at Biola University.  Straight out of college, I landed my first background singing gig for French pop star, Michel Polnareff.  My parents really played a big role in helping me get started as well.  A lot of people knew of me because of my parents.

OT What would we be surprised to know about what it’s like to be a backup singer?
JH Background singing is a group effort.  So, it takes practice and good blending to make a good sound.  Oftentimes, if the section doesn't sound good, artists will just find a new section if they don't like the individual voices very well.  

OT Can you share any unique experiences you’ve had singing backup?
JH When we were preparing for "this is it" with Michael Jackson, there was a time when the singers had to record some additional parts for the show.  Because there were so many things to take care of, I helped edit and engineer some of the parts and got a chance to here the original background parts Michael recorded.  It was very exciting.

OT How did you become involved with "20 Feet From Stardom?"
JH I met the director, Morgan Neville, when recording for Elton John and Leon Russell's record.  Morgan was shooting some behind-the-scenes.  Shortly after, he asked me to be a part of 20 feet.  For a couple years, he followed me around with a camera and did interviews.  When I finally saw the final product, I was blown away.  I am so honored to be a part of this incredible documentary.  It is so honest.  

OT
What was your experience like on "The Voice?"
JH It was a lot of fun!  I had the opportunity to come up with different arrangements for cover songs.  They gave me a lot of creative control which is great and rare for those type of shows.  I also made a lot of great life-long friends.  

OT How has it impacted your career?
JH It has opened a lot of doors.  I landed opening act for Josh Groban and signed with Sony music as a result of the show.  Also, lots of great gigs came my way.  The show reaches so many people.  I am shocked at how many people have stopped me in the street and said how they saw me on the show.

OT What can we expect from your debut solo release?
JH You can expect a lot of inspirational music and fun, upbeat songs.  It's a pop/soul record so expect to hear classic renditions meet the modern world.  

OT Will you have any time to sight see in Chicago? If so, what are you looking forward to?
JH I really hope I'll have some time to sight see.  I really want to eat the pizza, roam through downtown, and go shopping.

Purchase tickets to see Hill and Groban on October 20th here.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. 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 following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

Art of Glass

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Glass artist Sue Regis is committed to creating pieces as unique as those who purchase them. Largely self-taught, Regis uses a table mounted torch with specific oxygen and propane mixtures and Pyrex clear and colored rods finished with Pyrex frit. Perhaps her most significant pieces are those she creates to memorialize deceased loved ones. Regis spoke briefly with Our Town about her art.

Our Town What drew you to glass art?
Sue Regis Right out of high school, I took a jewelry and metal smithing class at Joliet Junior College, [but] I'm basically all self-taught, but every day offers opportunities to learn something new. 
 
OT What inspired you to create glasswork to memorialize the deceased?
SR After successfully incorporating pet cremains into glass pieces, I was given the opportunity to learn more about doing the same thing with human cremains. A local funeral home encouraged this new aspect of my art and my business.
 
OT How do you work with family members to create these pieces?
SR Family members contact me, and meet with me in person (if possible) to talk about their loved one, and what they want made.

OT Describe your involvement with Joliet Area Community Hospice "Lights of Love".
SR In 2011, JACH contacted me about making ornaments for Lights of Love. This annual holiday event happens in conjunction with Festival of Trees, and is a tribute to loved ones that have been lost that year. People that purchase ornaments receive tickets to the event. Last year's event required 1000 ornaments.

OT How has your work changed over the years?
SR I hope it's gotten better! I do more production work with big projects like Lights of Love, and I do a good amount of custom work. At the beginning, I did pretty much whatever I wanted, so that's been a big change.

OT What piece are you proudest of?
SR I had a student that passed away, and I did pieces for her mom. Working with the cremains of a friend was emotional, but it provided closure. One came together color and design-wise in a way that could never be duplicated, and is very "her." The last piece is a piece that she made that cracked in half. Rather than just repairing it, I put the two pieces back together with her cremains in the middle piece.

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Check out Sue Regis' glass art here.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. 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 following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

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Love musical theater? Soft spot for horror? Have we got a show for you. Now in its third year, Chicago's own Musical of the Living Dead is offers blood and singing, everyone's favorite combo. Our Town spoke with creators Brad Younts and Marc Lewallen about the show's the parody's origin and evolution.

Our Town What inspired you to create Musical of the Living Dead?
Marc Lewallan In musicals, people break out into song because they are filled with so much emotion that speaking won't convey those emotions; in the horror genre characters are constantly brought to heightened emotions through traumatic events. [We love] campy horror such as Evil Dead by Sam Raimi or Dead Alive by Peter Jackson. and classic old time musical theatre, of the Gershwin and Rogers and Hammerstein and Jerry Herman variety, hat and cane numbers and tap dancing and the like. So over the top, just like in horror, it felt like a perfect marriage of two things we both have great respect for but also a great appreciation of the cheesiness inherent.
Brad Younts We also loved the idea of making it an interactive experience - spraying blood, guts, and gore into the audience to heighten the comedy.

OT As a duo, what’s your writing process like?
ML Very simple, in part because we have a very compatible aesthetic and sense of humor. After we put together the initial outline and defined the characters, we took turns independently taking passes at the script, focusing on character, or jokes , or physical bits, or punching up the rhythm. We passed it back and forth with no commentary; just punched up each other’s bits and eliminated things that weren't working.
BY We also had a great process with our composer Mary Spray.  Mary elevated the songs beyond our wildest expectations. We'd often give her thoughts of genres and inspiration and she'd create something completely original. Most of the time she'd nail it the very first time.

OT What are some influences?
BY George Romero's films have obviously had a huge influence on Musical of the Living Dead, but there are also films like the later Nightmare of Elm Street films (the campier, wise-cracking sequels). I think we were also inspired by the boldness and fearlessness of Chicago Sketch Comedy - seeing groups like Off Off Broadzway and the Cupid Players really inspired me to push further.
ML Very offensive humor like Seth McFarland and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, where anything is fair play, because nothing is sacred. A lot of the humor could be very offensive if we weren't doing it so broadly or with such a satirical tone. Our characters are repugnant and horrible archetypes.... but within their dreadful behavior lies some truth and some ironic commentary.
BY I also think (somewhat unintentionally) that a lot of the characters are inspired by people from our hometown - albeit extremely exaggerated versions.

OT You’ve staged the show for four years running. Do you tweak it each year?
BY The real differences aren't from year to year, but from show to show...We encourage our actors to play within the boundaries of the script. It keeps it fresh for them and fun for our returning audiences. This year, with two casts (for the 8pm and 11pm) no two shows will ever be the same. There will always be something new for an audience to experience.
ML We also strive to make it bloodier than they year before. We have people now coming dressed all in white, arriving early to sit up front for the splatter zone so they can get completely covered- drenched- head to toe in blood, posting their photos on twitter or facebook and telling us that they are soaked all the way to their underwear. We love that.

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