Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=33749
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 7:21:17 PM CST
Most Chicagoans go to the theater to be entertained, amused, and to escape reality for a couple of hours.
Indie darling Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, however, has something else in mind.
Celebrating its 10-year anniversary this season, the company decided it was a good time to push the limits of conventional theater by fusing it with a political issue. Remy Bumppo has long referred to itself as “think theatre,” and the company has expanded that concept this year with “thinkTank.” An innovative new program that opened March 22 and runs through Sunday, thinkTank combines a socially charged play with a series of intense post-show discussions. This year’s issue? Immigration.
“This kind of spun out of the idea that, well, we’re 10,” said Stephanie Kulke, Remy Bumppo’s Director of Communications. “We’d like to stretch out a bit and expand our ‘think theatre.’”
The first in what the company hopes will be an annual event, this year's “thinkTank” is built around the play “An Immigrant Class,” based on Chicago writer Jeff Libman’s book of the same title. Shawn Douglass, an artistic associate director with Remy Bumppo, adapted the book for the stage. Douglass led the program’s development over the past year, and when Remy Bumppo initially brainstormed issues for “thinkTank,” he said, immigration was a natural fit.
“Last spring, we were trying to think of things that would still be relevant in a year,” Douglass said. “Immigration came up-- because of the marches and everything-- and seemed very relevant.”
After deciding on a theme, the next challenge was finding a play that would cover all the different aspects of immigration that Remy Bumppo wanted to represent. Douglass said that it was crucial to show the immigration struggles of people who came from varied ethnic backgrounds. A strong link to Chicago was also necessary.
“I literally Googled ‘Chicago immigrant stories’ to see what would come up,” he says. “That’s when I found Jeff’s book.”
Libman, a lecturer in English as a Second Language at Truman College, based his book on the lives of four students in his class, natives of Cuba, Guatemala, West Africa and Belarus. The book’s wide range of experiences and its Chicago setting seemed to be a perfect match for “thinkTank”.
Remy Bumppo’s newest ensemble actors, Charin Alvarez, Phillip James Brannon, Tony Sancho and Rebecca Sohn,, take the roles of Libman's students in the show directed by artistic associate Linda Gillum. The actors' own diverse ethnic backgrounds helped them to fully inhabit the roles, Douglass said.
Ticket sales have been brisk, and almost half the audience has been staying for nightly 30-minute post-show discussions designed to represent all sides of the immigration debate.
"We’ve had a really interesting spectrum of folks involved, from different immigration groups to those in favor of patrolling the borders,” Kulke said.
Each night, a chosen speaker, ranging from a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman to a member of the Illinois Minuteman Project, leads the discussion. Douglass said that lively debate has been the norm.
“There was a member from the Service Employees Union in the audience who was talking about assimilation, and a group of social work students asked, ‘Don’t you mean acculturalization?’” Douglass said with a laugh. “The man said, ‘I don’t think I know the difference!’”
One criticism Douglass hears is that the college-student characters are not representative of the many immigrants who must work two part-time jobs and are unable to attend school. Douglass said such comments open up conversations about the similarities between immigrants and the rest of the U.S.
“What does it mean to tell your story?” Douglass asked. “We wanted to show through these stories onstage that these people want the same things as us.”
With the success of its first “thinkTank,” Remy Bumppo already has plans for next year’s edition. The topic hasn't been chosen yet, but Douglass would like to see the company tackle the role of religion in society, national security vs. individual freedoms or the viability of the American dream.
“We want people to see [Remy Bumppo] as a place to see entertaining and provocative theater,” Douglass said, “but beyond that, to actually think about what it provokes.”
Now through April 15, playing at Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257N. Lincoln Ave., 773-871-3000.