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April 2014 Archives

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Photo by Stephanie Simpson


Kevin Noonchester may have come to Chicago to contribute his puppetry expertise to Mercury Theater’s production of "Avenue Q," but the non-work highlight of his trip was visiting the offices of Cards Against Humanity.  “If you love Avenue Q,” Noonchester says, “then you're the right person for this hilarious party game.”


And no, Cards Against Humanity didn’t pay him to say that. What he was paid to do, was unite actors and puppets to create believable characters in the much-loved musical. While Noonchester works as a voiceover actor and puppeteer, perhaps the endeavor closest to his heart is Avenue Q Puppet Camp, which brings "Avenue Q" to schools and theaters across the country. He spoke with Our Town about his experience with Mercury Theater, eating his way across Chicago, and the unique physicality of creating puppet characters.


Our Town  What inspired you to found Avenue Q Puppet Camp?
Kevin Noonchester  When you produce a show like "A Chorus Line" or "42nd Street" you cast people who have dance experience. However, with "Avenue Q" that show-specific skill is puppetry.  But, WHERE do they learn the puppetry?  That's where I come in.  I was trained by the original Broadway creative team and worked alongside members of the original cast That "authenticity" is something that helps Avenue Q Puppet Camp pass along the magic that helped make the show such a success. The magic of "Avenue Q" is in the audience believing that the puppets are alive and are the ones experiencing the love, the loss and the journey of the characters in the show.


OT  For the actor, how does establishing a puppet character differ from just creating a character?
KN  In puppetry, there is a vocabulary of movements and gestures that will help you translate all that internal work into a performance you share with your audience.  For example, you need to make a specific motion with your arm and hand if you want your puppet to breathe or sigh.  When an actor does it, they just do it and no one stops to break down the technical aspects of it.  Everything we take for granted as living, breathing actors is something we need to deliberately do in order to make our puppet come to life. 
 

OT The actors in "Avenue Q" are visible as they operate puppets. Essentially, this requires that both person and puppet sync to create one character. Can you talk a little about the opportunities and drawbacks there?
KN  Having the actors be visible and playing the part in tandem with their puppets was one of the first real concept obstacles the show had on its way to Broadway.  It was a theatrical convention invented for Avenue Q that freed the characters to move where they wanted without having to build an elevated set like they had on The Muppet show.  Puppeteers are used to not being seen. Having to deliver a quality facial acting performance while manipulating a puppet, like in "Avenue Q," is foreign to even the most experienced puppeteers.
 

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When AK Summers and her partner decided to have a baby, Summers had no intention of writing about the experience. Yet as a butch woman adjusting to the norms and expectations of pregnancy, at a certain point she chose to process her experiences the way many artists synthesize important life events: through her work. The result? Her graphic memoir, "Pregnant Butch." Summers will visit Chicago's Women and Children on April 30th, but first she spoke with Our Town about gender identity and more.


Our Town Why did you and your partner decide you should be the one to get pregnant?
AK Summers I really wanted to be the one to do it. As I say in the book, I’m adopted and have always wanted to experience what it’s like to be biologically related to someone else.


OT I’d imagine it took a while for you to be comfortable presenting in a gender non-conforming way. In what ways did you have to then restructure your identity again while pregnant?
AS I didn’t have to restructure my identity so much as I had to learn to deal with the discomfort of the disconnect between my appearance and my sense of who I really was. (I think they call this “gender dysphoria.”) My big, curvy pregnant body did not match my internal sense of self. When I was initially pregnant I was often mistaken for a fat guy on the subway (and had a hard time getting a seat!), but later on this phenomenon stopped. I became unmistakably a pregnant woman, and that was tough. I aspired to look like the comics character Tintin (with a beachball under his tidy little sweater), but I felt more like Fred Armisen in Portlandia drag. I talk in my book about how some of this had to do with the actual physical transformation of pregnancy, but another part of this feeling of disconnection had to do with how the culture of pregnancy. For instance, a lot of what is written in pregnancy guides assumes you are both heterosexual and OK with a view of pregnancy as the apex of femininity. A lot of talk about the Man-Woman divide—really unnecessary essentializing stuff from the point of view of a pregnant butch. I was also not prepared for how public the body of a pregnant woman becomes. I wanted to still be treated as my regular, butch, gender non-conforming self, but it almost seemed like that part of me became invisible once I was very pregnant.

OT Did you find that people within the queer community responded to you differently while you were pregnant? What about in mainstream society?
AS Around the time that I got pregnant, a lot of the women I knew in the queer community were also trying to get pregnant. The conversation about queers having babies was definitely in the air, so I didn’t feel like an outlier. Mainstream folks, on the other hand, did seem to respond differently. In the most positive sense, it often seemed like people were happy to have this point in common with me. Many people struck up conversations about pregnancy or their kids, who probably would not have done so without this social glue. The downside was, I sometimes felt that my butchness and my gayness—my difference—was being willfully overlooked. That I was just being treated as just another pregnant woman, in other words, as though I was straight. I am not saying that a conversation about my gender issues with some nice lady on the bus was what I wanted to have happen, but I did often feel crazy when talking to straight people who didn’t understand that gays were lacking many basic civil rights. That marriage, adoption, spouse-only hospital overnight privileges, the threat of violence and harrassment on the street, losing family over sex and gender identity—all these aspects of queer life still had a bearing in the ways gays experience pregnancy and family. To pretend like it was all cool—that we were all just humans having babies—felt like denying who I am. That said, I do think there has been an immense shift in public attitudes in the last ten years especially. Think about it, when I was pregnant, very few politicians were willing to say they were in support of gay marriage. It was the political kiss of death. There was still serious support for civil unions—practically a separate-but-equal style solution to the problem! I am not exaggerating when I say it felt only quasi-legal to be gay. And then also in these last ten years has been the most incredible Trans visibility movement. The notion that gender is something that is self-defined, as opposed to being “assigned” at birth, is actually entering the public imagination. I really am very heartened about these changes in the world that my son is growing up in.

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Photo by Greg Inda

Who's that Guy, you may be asking yourself. Well luckily I've done the footwork--by which I mean stolen his shoes and worn them to follow him back and forth across Chicago, from audition to improv gig-- so I can tell you that Guy F Wicke is not only a guy worth knowing, but my April Crush of the Month.


Full Name: Guy F Wicke

Hometown:  
Sweet home Chicago, and I love exploring and absorbing different areas. I've lived all over the place: Northcenter, Park Ridge, Irving Park, Forest Glen, Bucktown, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Andersonville, Lincoln Square, Edgewater, Wicker Park, and now Lakeview. Up next is a return to Bucktown, so I’ll be looking for the tell-tale glint of sunlight off your stalker binoculars.

Profession: Actor, improviser, voiceover-er, teacher, coach, and freelance publicist for the arts via my company, Wicke International. I use the umbrella title "Local Character" to encompass all my various pursuits.


Hobbies:
I never tire of playing pool at various dives, even if I'm just practicing by myself. There’s something therapeutic about it for me apparently. I foster dogs whenever my living situation allows, and volunteer at Anti-Cruelty whenever my crazy schedule allows. Dogs, man. Talk about therapeutic. I love reading and watching documentaries, keeping up with the latest developments in history, science, and world events. Watching PBS Newshour on my phone the morning after it aired. Absorbing the world around me, basically.


Our Town Describe your journey to acting.
Guy F Wicke I grew up idolizing actors and comedians, but I was such a painfully shy kid that I never thought I'd be able to do what they do. Then one night some high school friends and I were drifting through Wrigleyville and Joey Tilton handed us a flyer and talked us into seeing a Low Sodium Entertainment improv show. Bang. Pow. I loved it. Eventually I sucked up the courage to start taking classes, completed their entire 8 level conservatory, and was cast as a member of that troupe. I was transformed. I had broken out of my shell and I loved performing and making people laugh. I yearned to try my hand at dramatic acting as well, but it was over a decade before I worked up the courage to take those classes. And guess what? Bang. Pow. I loved it. I was again transformed. I learned new skills and found new confidence. Now I'm constantly acting, and constantly auditioning, and I love it all. So the moral of the story? Don't let fear hold you back from what you dream of. Or, a bird in the hand is worth a rabbit in a briar patch. I'm not sure. I'm not great with morals.


OT How did you get into publicity?
GW It all started when I was in a theater company that was going through a pretty rough period of getting light crowds. I became determined to improve the situation and started assisting with the company's marketing & PR and eventually took over the position of Marketing Director--basically learned everything from scratch. The crowds at our shows did improve over time and that little upstart theater company made it through those rocky years to become a fixture on the Chicago improv scene: pH Productions. A byproduct of my enthusiasm for pH was the discovery that I really enjoyed the work of promoting theater. I decided to call my little freelance operation Wicke International as an homage to my late father, who had used that name for a business of his own once upon a time. What I love about being a publicist is telling stories. I love sharing what makes a certain show special and deserving of recognition, even in the midst of all the incredible art happening all the time. 


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April's Hot Writer: RK Arceneaux

My genre: Creative non-fiction



My literary influences: JAMES FRANCO. Lolz. But for real, loves me some Mark motherf-cking Twain. My love for him is everlasting. When my son was born three months prematurely, I passed many hours in the NICU reading "The Prince and the Pauper," and "Pudd’nhead Wilson" to my tiny spawn. Memories! Flashback to high school as we discuss "Huckleberry Finn" and my teacher singles out and asks the only African-American girl in our class how she feels about Twain's usage of the n-word followed by a discussion on how she feels being the only black chick in the class. Awkward.

My favorite literary quote:
"To thine own self be true" for the following reasons:

-Because if my sister had pubes, they would artfully obscure this line which is tastefully tattooed onto her nether regions.

-Because in the movie "Clueless," Cher (worship at the alter of Cher forever) schools the snobby college bitch who misquotes Hamlet:

Snobby College Bitch: It's just like Hamlet said, "To thine own self be true."
Cher: Hamlet didn't say that.
SCB: I think I remember Hamlet accurately.
Cher: Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn't say that. That Polonius guy did.

ULTIMATE BURN.

-And because Shakespeare is a total badass and if you disagree that is nice but I think we can all agree that you are WRONG.

My favorite book of all time:
"The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe. I generally like stories about people who sell their souls to the devil but I especially love Faustus because he does not sell his soul for noble reasons like love, but because he is a greedy asshole and wants to know everything. Goethe’s version is good I guess. if you are into endings of redemption and god’s mercy, but in my opinion if you sell your soul to the devil the ONLY appropriate ending is that you rot in hell in a lake of fire for all the days.

I’m currently reading:
My child is in a highly strict MOM OR GTFO stage and he considers not reading aloud to him a form of ignoring him, which is highly punishable by the baby dictator. He likes to grab books with his grubby little hands and crumple the pages beneath his sticky fingers, as if to say, ‘why you not loving me tonight, MOM!’ I barely have time to defecate in private; reading alone is not happening. I do not mind pooping with a pal, but I do not like my books to get mangled, so I do a lot of reading out loud. I know I am out of shape because reading books out loud to my son expends so much of my energy that I have to down a few Oreos and iron supplements in between chapters or I start to become light-headed and wispy-voiced. Ignatius and I are currently reading "Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm" by Philip Pullman. P-Pullman is da bomb.



My guilty pleasure book:
In high school, which was only 4 years ago for me, I was obsessed with the "Twilight" series. My AP Stats teacher and I would meet in her classroom at lunch to discuss the books. Yeah. For the record: Team Edward or gtfo.


I can’t write without:
Everyone in the house to shut their yappers. And coffee.

Worst line I ever wrote:
Je ne regrette rien!


Brief Bio:
RK Arceneaux lives in a large house on the outskirts of town with her two chihuahuas in waiting, her huz, and baby. Her forthcoming novel has yet to be named but will probably be a Beatles’ reference. She infrequently updates her blog (diddlerontheroof.blogspot.com) and spends her days in elaborate dresses, romanticizing over artificial ingredients and forgotten dreams.

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 writer Bill Hillman embodies the city’s dichotomies. A former gang affiliate and Chicago Golden Glove Champion, Hillman is also an award-winning writer and storyteller. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Newcity, Salon.com, and has been broadcast on NPR. He’s told stories around the world with his internationally acclaimed storytelling series the Windy City Story Slam. Tonight, April 10th, The Empty Bottle hosts the release party for his debut novel, "The Old Neighborhood." Hillman spoke with Our Town about his dark past and his brilliant future.


Our Town How is writing like street brawling?
Bill Hillman Street fights are deadly serious. I’ve hurt people in permanent ways, reconstructed their faces and put guys in comas. I was nearly beaten to death off rush street by a bunch of off duty cops and bus boys. Weapons come out and suddenly you’re dancing with death, not to mention one hard kick to the head can kill a man.
Writing is deadly serious too. If you aren’t ready to kill and die for your words, don’t even bother setting out on a career as a writer, you’ll never make it or create anything important.  The world will break you into tiny pieces.


OT Take us through the process of writing your book from initial inspiration to final execution.
BH I wanted to write a novel about my family’s struggles with street violence. My Dad started a gang in the 1960's the younger generation of that gang broke off and went on to start one of the most notorious gangs in Chicago the TJO's. My Dad used to beat the hell out of the leaders of the TJO's and even helped them get jobs. My eldest brother became a TJO 15 years later. He sunk into the violence very deeply and became addicted to drugs and ended up in prison for armed robbery. My other brother lost his best friend in a gang murder and retaliated. Later my sister was shot in a drive by shooting after getting involved in gangs. My third brother became a Chicago cop. I knew this was powerful material that could be crafted into a magnificent urban family saga. I've been in hundreds of street altercations and have experience in the drug trade, so all these things made me say, man, I could write a great Chicago novel using these moments in my life and family history as the map. I couldn't write in Chicago, I was partying to hard and screwing everything up. I was 23 and so easily distracted.

So, I went down to this little town San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of Mexico. I sat and wrote every single day for 6-8 hours for over a month. It was one of the best times in my life. I was producing a powerful narrative that I knew had something special in it. I’d wake up to the sounds of rooster’s crowing and make a big breakfast and then go up on my roof to smoke a few cigarettes with Tom Waits blaring on my computer. I’d watch the small ranch across the way as donkey’s and horses scampered around in the woods. Then I’d sit down and write for hours picking up exactly where I’d left off the day before. It was a blast. I met my wife there, got mugged, stabbed and bludgeoned with a brick but managed to fight the muggers off. I fell in love with that town. It was the place where Neil Cassidy left while counting rail ties to Leon when he died of sudden aneurism. Jack Kerouac visited and wrote there. It’s a special place in the world.The next 9 years was a saga of self-doubt pain and anguish and of course hard, dedicated work.

OT Why publish with Curbside?
BH Victor Giron has created a beautiful publishing house. He loves it and that joy pours into everything he does for his writers. Jacob Knabb is a mad genius, I’m not saying that because he’s a dear friend of mine, I have plenty of friends who are morons. Jacob is a dynamo when it comes to publicity, connections, ideas for events and articles. He makes stuff happen in a way that blows away anything I ever did with the Windy City Story Slam and I did some things.

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In 2002 Terry and Beth Kiely were beginning to ask themselves, “Is this all there is?” Both well-established in their careers, the husband and wife were, according to Terry, “interested in starting something new, something together and having experienced firsthand the profound power of yoga to transform our experience, we knew that yoga would be central to our path forward.” Both yoga practitioners for more than ten years, the duo chose to open Om on the Range yoga studio, and thank goodness they did. On a personal note, I found Om on the Range just after my father’s sudden death. I’m grateful to the studio for providing not only consistently challenging classes, but a safe place where I can grieve, move and grow. I spoke with Terry about Om’s unique atmosphere as well as the rising popularity of yoga in the US.


Our Town What style of yoga does Om offer?

Terry Kiely We offer a power vinyasa style of yoga that combines strong physicality, conscious breathing, and mindful alignment into a flowing series that’s really accessible for all levels of fitness and experience.  We heat the room up to about 92F and turn up the humidity so that everyone gets a good, cleansing sweat going.  All of our teachers want to make sure you feel like you’ve had a good physical challenge and that you’ve had plenty of space clear your mind and feed your soul.


OT What makes Om unique?
TK It all comes down to the people.  Our studio reflects our own style…informal, practical, non-dogmatic, welcoming, fun, challenging, searching.  It’s a real community…a club where everyone can be a member.  We’ve created the kind of studio that we like to practice at.


OT How is hot yoga different than bikram?
TK Well, they’re both hot!  Bikram yoga is done at a much higher temperature…typically more than 105F.  Bikram yoga is also limited to a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises.  The whole class is scripted right down to the exact words that each teacher is required to use.
The power vinyasa classes that we teach follow a similar structure whether they are 60, 75, 90 minute classes. However, there is ample opportunity for our teachers to provide their insight into individual poses, to be creative in the sequence of poses, and to teach new things based on who is in the class.  We found that this opportunity for freshness and creativity was really appealing to students and teachers alike. We actually started out exclusively teaching Bikram yoga in 2002, we started teaching just a few power vinyasa yoga classes in 2004, but they grew steadily.  Eventually, most of our students gravitated toward power vinyasa yoga to the extent that we discontinued Bikram yoga completely in 2012.


OT What do you think about yoga’s growing popularity in the US? What are the pros and cons?
TK Well there’s no doubt that yoga is becoming extremely popular….especially here in Chicago.  It’s a huge positive…what could be wrong with a growing population of people that is more aware, healthier, better able to deal with stress, better able to express their truest vision for themselves and the planet? One downside I’ve noticed is that there seems to be “overcapacity” of yoga in Chicago right now.  We went through an exuberant build up in the number of classes being offered around town in all sorts of venues and recently I’ve noticed some pull back in that as we’ve witnessed a number of studio closings in the city.  The other downside is that I think there’s a great deal of confusion for the public as teachers and studio owners try to define their niche in ever more creative ways (e.g., yoga, yoga with weights, acro yoga, yin yoga, power yoga, paddle board yoga, yoga with your dog, etc. )

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