Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
By Leslie Price
Actor, director and A Red Orchid Theatre ensemble member Michael Shannon will direct Traitor by Brett Neveu this winter at the theater's home in Old Town (photo courtesy of A Red Orchid Theatre).
From the Winter 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
This season, A Red Orchid Theatre is celebrating 25 years of creating bold productions for the live stage in Chicago, but for ensemble member Michael Shannon, season 25 is not necessarily all that momentous. “Twenty-five is just a number, really. Twenty-five cents is a quarter. I don’t know why 25 is so significant,” he told me. “I think it’s the silver anniversary…When you really stop and think about it, it’s really something we just made up.”
So while that number might seem particularly special to most, the milestone anniversary season really wasn’t enough to get the two-time Oscar nominee to return to direct the premiere of fellow ensemble member Brett Neveu’s Traitor this winter. The truth is it doesn’t’ take 25 years of thought-provoking theater making to get Michael Shannon to return to A Read Orchid; Michael Shannon is returning just because he wants to.
“I like to come back,” he explains. “I wanted to come back because I really love the theater.”
Shannon has been a big part of A Red Orchid since 1993 and returns regularly in roles both onstage and off. “I’ve been there since it opened,” he says, “and I feel like it’s good to have a constant. There’s a lot of change and lot of chaos and flux. I’m in an incredibly different state of mind than when the theater started. My life is incredibly different. But the theater is the constant.”
While Shannon has become more widely known for his roles in film and television (including major motion pictures like Nocturnal Animals, Revolution Road, and in theaters now, The Shape of Water), that one constant of live theater has served to ground him throughout his career.
He explains, “The theater is like a tether, and I go there—as I always have over the years—to examine facets of life that I’m curious about and to ask questions and explore themes. Despite my success, I would be hard pressed to find the opportunity to do that in Hollywood.”
In Traitor, Shannon, Neveu, and a collection of A Red Orchid ensemble members and other actors are diving in and exploring themes from a play written over 125 years ago. Neveu is adapting Henrik Ibsen’s classic, An Enemy of the People, which was written in 1882 and centers around a town deep in crisis. Though the inspiration for Traitor is a play that’s over a century old, Shannon is confident that Neveu’s adaptation will resonate with audiences today.
“It’s a tricky thing we’re asking Brett to do,” acknowledges Shannon. “He’s adapting someone else’s work, which is strange. On the one hand you wonder, ‘Gee, why would you do that?’ But when you read Enemy of the People—It’s a phenomenal play, but it’s a little creaky. A lot of the audience members who would come to see it would struggle to identify with the language and some of the characters because they’re fairly antiquated.
“What Brett’s able to do is bring everything into the now… Maybe make it a bit more palpable for the average Joe on the street here in the Chicagoland area.”
While Neveu’s adaptation will bring the characters, settings and dialogue into the 21st Century, it turns out the themes of Ibsen’s play resonate squarely with contemporary issues. In Traitor, as in Enemy of the People, the play focuses on a town dealing with a situation that will most certainly harm its citizens and whether anyone has the guts to take a stand for the greater good.
“It’s just about responsibility,” says Shannon. “Somebody has to take responsibility for what’s happening. In Traitor, a town is threatened by contamination, and someone tries to do something about it and finds that it’s very difficult to do anything...because a lot of people would just as soon not do anything about it and act like it never happened. So that’s troubling, and that’s going to catch up with you eventually. And that’s happening all over the damn place.”
Although Shannon isn’t attracted to the work solely because of its mirror to our country’s own current state of affairs, he does admit the production is a timely one for A Red Orchid. “This is a good time to do this play…It’s complicated. It’s not just an inspirational story. It shows just how hard it is to solve these kinds of problems.”
Stepping into the role of director, Shannon will have to do a fair amount of problem-solving, himself. While having appeared in numerous AROT productions over the years (most notably 2015's production of Pilgrim's Progress), he has directed only once at A Red Orchid: the 2005-2006 season production of Ionesco’s Hunger & Thirst.
“I’m not jumping up and down to direct. It’s a lot of work.” Shannon concedes. “I think acting suits me more. I’m not necessarily good at explaining things to people. I’m not very articulate most of the time. Directors…have to take care of people, and that can be hard to do.”
Fortunately for him, Shannon will be collaborating with an incredible group of artists, many of whom he’s worked with before. He and Brett Neveu have a long artistic relationship, and Shannon is looking forward to digging into Neveu’s script: “Brett’s writing is a lot of fun to work on. It has a lot of whimsy in it, and it has a lot of surreal qualities I enjoy. I really like his sense of humor. It kind of aligns with mine.”
Shannon will be directing fellow A Red Orchid founders and friends Guy Van Swearingen & Larry Grimm in this production. Though their history of working together may be helpful in some ways, Shannon isn’t sure how past experience will affect creating this production together. But that uncertainty is exactly what he’s banking on, “It’s not more or less anything in particular. I guess there’s some sort of shorthand. I don’t even know if the shorthand is helpful," he told me. "Sometimes what you’re looking for is something new. Regardless...you still want to be taking that trip into the unexpected.”
For Shannon, familiarity with Traitor's cast and production team is a particular advantage when it comes to the normal maturation process for a production like this. “I guess you don’t have to spend so much time getting to know people, that’s a phase of the process,” he admits. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t have a lot of time.”
Indeed, Shannon and A Red Orchid don’t have much time. The rehearsal process is remarkably short for mounting what looks to be one of the most challenging undertakings in the theater’s 25-year history. Traitor includes five acts, a large cast, and multiple location changes during the action of the play. That’s a major feat for any theater company, much less a 70-seat house in a fairly small space.
Shannon is relatively undaunted, however. “That’s the fun part, I guess—being creative and problem-solving. I guess our theater is suited to little two-person plays...But we’re adventurous. We’re an adventurous group of people. We’ve always kind of said to ourselves, ‘What do we think we are not able to do? Okay, let’s go try and do that.’” And so they are fitting a five-act, large cast, multi-location show into a tiny theater space in Chicago’s Old Town.
Shannon is excited about the design team he's working with to meet those challenges, and he’s contributing a lot of his own concepts for just how to approach them. He teases, “I have a couple of ideas...We’re going to be doing something with the staging we haven’t done before. It’s kind of a surprise. I’d hate to ruin it.”
But then, after a moment—as if he can’t resist—Shannon concedes, “We’re going to be moving the audience around in unexpected ways. The play doesn’t entirely take place in the theater.”
Production challenges notwithstanding, it somehow seems fitting that A Red Orchid is producing such a massive show at a time when it’s experiencing substantial growth as an organization. The company has, at long last, made artistic director Kirsten Fitzgerald a full-time employee, added additional staff, and their subscription sales are through the roof.
Shannon attributes the company’s success to a variety of factors. “I think the leadership is real strong right now with Kirsten and Abby (Madden, managing director) working real hard. I think we’ve been putting on pretty interesting work that you don’t see other places...I think it’s just a combination of good leadership and continuing to put on good work.”
He adds, humbly, “I can’t take any credit for it, really. I’m not there enough in terms of the day to day operations.”
Beyond the amazing work the company has done for itself, A Red Orchid was also the recipient of a $200,000 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions—a distinct nod to the significant and outsized artistic contributions the company has made to the arts in Chicago and to the country.
For Shannon, though, the smaller impact is just as important as any other notoriety the theater might gain. “There’s a part of me that hopes that you can attribute some of (the success) to a sense in the neighborhood that the theater is special. We have a contingent of people that live in Old Town—and, you know, it’s being rampantly overdeveloped right now with crappy restaurants and crappy condo buildings. And in some small way, the residents of the neighborhoods are saying, ‘This thing is special, and we don’t want it to go away.’ You know there are times when we, as a company, think, ‘What’s going on? Should we get the hell out of here?’ And when you have the support of local residents kind of patting you on the back saying, ‘We appreciate the fact that you are here,’ that helps.”
Hopefully, that contingent of neighborhood mainstays has already purchased tickets or season subscriptions. With such a small number of seats available in the little room that houses A Red Orchid’s performance space—and with a growing number of theatergoers who are also very passionate about this company—tickets are bound to sell out for Traitor, as they have with most other A Red Orchid productions in recent years.
With an amazing collaborative team working onstage and off, it’ll be one of the most memorable evenings of Chicago theater this season. Plus, audiences will get to discover just exactly how Michael Shannon will be managing their movements in and out of the theater for the production.
Traitor runs through February 25 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., Chicago, IL. Tickets are available at www.aredorchidtheatre.org.