Tony Adams is a theater artist, designer, and artistic director of Chicago’s Halcyon Theatre—a company known for its productions of female-centered stories. From 2008 until 2014, Halcyon produced the Alcyone Festival, a yearly celebration of women playwrights and their work. “The first festival was crazy,” Adams recalls. “We did ten plays in repertory with something like ninety-five actors.” After telling people the company wanted the festival to focus on early women playwrights, Adams said, “A couple of people we knew who where getting their masters and Ph.D’s in women’s studies were like, I love Lillian Hellman!” He laughs and says, “So in response, we did ten centuries of plays leading up to Hellman.”
The company no longer produces the festival because, as Adams notes, the “conversation around gender equity has changed since 2008,” so that six years later a stand alone festival felt like it had “morphed into a ghettoization.” With more people producing the work of female playwrights, Halcyon expanded the idea behind their festival into their core programming: the company is committed to making sure their seasons are at least 50/50. They did a two play season in 2014/2015, which was at parity; their current season featured all women, with plays by Madhuri Shekar, Charise Castro Smith and Callie Kimball; and three of the four writers in Halcyon’s 2016/2017 season are women, including plays by Marie Irene Fornés, debbie tucker green in co-production with The Blind Owl, and the Chicago premiere of Marisela Treviño Orta’s The River Bride, which had a successful run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival earlier this year. The fourth show is a coproduction with A-Squared Theatre Workshop (details are being finalized).
Halcyon started out “in church basements and art galleries and found spaces.” Because of their success, they received “advice/pressure to be a quote unquote real theater,” prompting them to move into “one of the big resident multiplex theaters.” While the company gained new audience members, Adams admits they lost “about an equal amount of people who didn’t want to go to that neighborhood. We realized we had lost our way a little bit.” They restructured the company and “moved back to the part of town where we started,” and are now in residence at Christ Lutheran Church in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood.
I talked with Tony about his major artistic passions and insights into the dramaturgy of plays from artists like Maria Irene Fornés, one of Adam’s three major artistic influences.
What drives you to advocate for more balance and diversity in the kinds of stories we tell in the theater?
Part of it is, simply, just so much more is possible. I love Breaking Bad and I loved watching Mad Men, but it would be a damned shame if those were the only two TV shows on the air. If you don’t have an Orphan Black, if you don’t have Nashville, you don’t have Empire to balance those two stories out. There’s very much a dominance of one kind of story. It shows up in subtle ways. Critics will say, “Oh, it’s theatre, but it’s not really a play,” or you have Isherwood saying Kris Diaz doesn’t know his craft because Chad Deity isn’t structured how he [Isherwood] prefers. Even something on a very fundamental level like: does a critic or does an artist, does anybody, approach a play on the work’s terms, or do they expect it to bend to their personal terms. It’s such a different relationship.
I’m directing a production of Maria Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends. What’s fascinating to me about reading reviews of that play is how widely misunderstood it is. It tends to be directed by white dudes and people who overtly align as feminists. One of the things that seems to happen is that, not all, but a lot of white dudes, think that they don’t have to do their homework because they know it. A lot of feminists have approached a play like Fefu thinking that their lived experience tells them everything they need to know and they don’t do their homework. Irene comes at the text from such a different perspective than any major playwright, so it’s a trap… It’s dangerous for any director to assume they don’t have to do their homework.
You mentioned that Fornés comes at a text differently.
One of the things Irene said is that the text is the motor that starts the machine, but the machine is the important part. This seems counterintuitive to the sanctity that we tend to approach scripts by people of her level of mastery, but the idea is that the order of the plot points aren’t what drives the story. There’s an emotional arc, and images are used to convey emotion while the text supports the image. The other fundamental difference, which is really how we walk through our days, is that we like to think that we think through all of our decisions and make really rational decisions. What we really do is we make highly emotional decisions and then go back and try to justify why we made that choice. In Irene’s world, you do something and you may later go back and try to understand why you did it.
Exploring Irene’s work demands going against what most actors are told you’re never supposed to do on stage. They also require a tremendous amount of vulnerability and physicality, which is a challenge. It’s different from doing Pinter. It’s not better or worse. I’m a little biased in that I think that nobody other than O’Neill has had a greater impact on the theater than her. You have to approach her plays differently and even the basic underlying ideas of her work. I was talking to my scenic designer the other day about how O’Neill’s big premise was often “this is what was,” and Annie Baker’s is, “This is what it is.” So much of Irene’s work is, “This is what could be.” You find clear choices that allow multiple interpretations. It’s a small, but potentially vast difference between creating intentionally or unintentionally unclear things.
What do you think are Fornes’ contributions to American Theatre?
It’s impossible to overstate: she trained or inspired a who’s who of American Theater. She’s now thought of as a matriarch of Latina/o/x playwrights, but her presence is in Shepard’s work, Kushner’s, Churchill’s, David Henry Hwang’s, and more. The activism of New York Theatre Strategy is still alive in renewed forms. The book Conducting a Life is a great intro for those who don’t know her work or impact.
How have other countries’ theater practices influenced your company?
Our house is never closed. Actors are out welcoming people when they get here and that is something I whole-heartedly stole from Théâtre du Soleil. One of the things that stops people from going to see shows is the fear they’re going to be made to look stupid because they’re not “initiated.” If you have somebody who’s unsure if they’ll feel welcome, who had a crappy day at work, and got stuck in traffic on the way home, it can be the end of Act 1 before they’re ready to interact with the play. Our work can be challenging in terms of content and we have an aesthetic that is different from what a lot of people are used to in Chicago. Many in our audience are coming to Halcyon for the first time, aren’t necessarily native English speakers and they aren’t used to going to the theater. The more we can do to welcome somebody in to the space before the show starts, the better we can facilitate an exchange of energy between the actors and the audience.
Another part is trying to see how can we communicate the story with our full bodies and everything at our disposal, so that if somebody doesn’t necessarily understand the words at first glance, they’ll understand the story that’s being told. That’s something that we’re still trying to hone and fine tune.
Your company has consistently produced female-centered stories by female playwrights. What’s the impulse behind that decision?
My work connects my mom’s dream with my daughter’s potential.