Micah Figueroa and Monica West in Lookingglass Theatre's Moby Dick (photo by Liz Lauren).

Epic Evolution 

Lookingglass co-Founder and director David Catlin talks the challenges and benefits of remounting one of the company's most successful productions, the epic tale of Moby Dick.

By Leslie Price

From the Summer 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

“Who would have thought that anybody would want to come see Moby Dick—the book that somebody made you read?” laughs David Catlin, director and adaptor of the incredibly popular production that's about to enter its second run at Lookingglass Theatre beginning June 7. Catlin himself confesses that he hadn't even tackled the tome until well into adulthood, but Lookingglass' audiences were up for the challenging tale during its original run in 2015, and they’re ready for more.

​Back from a hugely successful national tour, the Jeff Award-winning production virtually sold out its original Chicago residency leaving a lot of patrons wondering whether they'd get a glimpse of that elusive whale someday.

​Says Catlin, “At Lookingglass, we do tend to bring things back. Because so much of our work is new work, you just don't know what people are going to respond to.”  He explains, “When we've had a show that's had some kind of success, we do try to bring it back particularly in the summer or during a winter holiday slot.”

With a remarkable cast, gorgeous visuals, and plenty of Lookingglass' signature circus-style physicality, Moby Dick is bound to please folks who are seeing the show for the first time and those who enjoyed it a few summers ago.

While many elements (and cast members), have remained the same, Catlin feels the voyage is even more thrilling the second time around. “Any time you get to work on a story, it's really wonderful,” he says of revisiting his epic adaptation. “Then to have the opportunity to keep working on it with a group of collaborators is really, really exciting.”

Catlin and the ever-talented team of Lookingglass artists and the professionals at Evanston’s Actors Gymnasium (with whom Lookingglass collaborated on this and other productions) have been tweaking and tightening the show pretty much since the first preview performance.

He remembers, “When we did it at Lookingglass at 2015, we had some ideas about the ending, and the final confrontation. We're always trying to pack as much into the storytelling as is appropriate, and one of the things we do is incorporate a lot of circus stuff. And circus is something that eats time.”

Because that kind of high-flying, show-stopping spectacle takes so much effort to do safely, there wasn't much time left over to adjust and revise those scenes.

​“It wasn't until the second week of previews when all the collaborators got together at Epic Burger and talked through what the ending wanted to be,” Catlin explained. “We came up with something we really liked, but we didn't have a lot of time to finesse it. By having the opportunity to continue working on the play, we were able to go and make each of the moments a little tighter, a little cleaner, and have a little bit more variety as the ending was unfolding. I'm much more satisfied with it now. I loved it when we first did it, but it felt a little raw and we've been able to finesse it over time.”

Catlin has had plenty of opportunity to work on, play with, and finesse the show. In the two years since it premiered at Lookingglass, Moby Dick spent time at D.C.'s Arena Stage, Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, and California's South Coast Repertory. Each of those experiences allowed Catlin and his team to find new approaches and insight into the piece, and they're bringing a slightly tighter and more nuanced version back to Chicago.

“One of the artistic directors at Arena Stage asked me to consider making it a two act play because their audiences often take the train, and the train ends a little early so a lot of people leave to catch the last train,” Catlin noted. Not many writers or directors would be up for that large of an overhaul in the midst of a tour, but Catlin was willing to give it a go considering the piece was evolving while on tour anyway.

​“The process of that made me challenge some of the moments of the show,” he says. “We were able to get it down to two acts. It was really exciting.”

Although he did successfully reconstruct Moby Dick into two acts, Catlin ultimately decided that structure wasn't quite right for the show's return to Chicago. The rewrite wasn't all for naught, however. “One of the things that we've learned is that it wants to be a three-act play. But,” he adds, “a tighter three acts than we've had before.”

As it turns out, the adjustments to accommodate the transportation challenge of Arena Stage's ticket-holders gave Catlin and his creative team a chance to “hone the storytelling and challenge every little moment to make sure it's perfect for the audience.”

Other tweaks have been made as the show has folded in new cast members, too.

“I'm always of a mind to respond to the people that are in the room, so the play changed a little bit,” says Catlin. “The relationship between Starbuck and his wife is not a big one in the book, but there was something about working with the two actors who were on the tour (Walter Briggs and Cordelia Dewdney) that made me want to pull on that thread just a little bit more to lift that part of the story, so you really felt Starbuck's conundrum when he was wanting to be the dutiful first mate and also having this family at home that we now care about.”

​Catlin began his own journey with Moby Dick in 2012 when Lookingglass, Blair Thomas and Company and the House Theatre won a grant from Boeing to collaborate on three distinct adaptations of Melville's classic novel. While each company has moved forward in its own way, Catlin cherishes that “heavenly collaboration” for what it offered him at the start of the project and for how it continues to influence the piece today.

“We had this amazing, generative, collaborative process to share and steal and inspire each other,” says Catlin.

While the process of working together on the beginnings of three distinct pieces of theater was somewhat unconventional, Catlin asserts that those discussions were instrumental in strengthening his vision for both the original and current productions. He explains, “This fertile think tank helped clarify it and not dilute it.”

Those early conversations have stuck with him as he's tightened and polished the show, but Catlin believes that there are moments in Moby Dick that have also been brought into sharp focus due to recent events. “There are things about this show that feel particularly connected to the current political climate,” he told me.

​Catlin specifically mentions a passage from Ishmael in the first moments of the book in which the character states the day's headlines as:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States”

“Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael”

“Bloody Battle in Affghanistan (sic)”

Catlin omitted those lines from the original production and simply kept the rest of the speech that follows. However, he's considering putting those eerily predictive headlines back in this time around.

“I hope that people will leave the theater and be thoughtful about that,” he says. “There are elements that resonate that much more now.”

Whether it's added lines, a tighter structure, or more nuanced moments, Moby Dick is certain to resonate with audiences as it sets sail once again. Chasing that white whale has proven much more successful for Lookingglass than it ever did for Captain Ahab.

Moby Dick runs at Lookingglass Theatre June 7 through September 3, 2017.