By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04
Photo by Robert Kozloff

We thought about everything from family history, birthplace, and age to very specific things like what kind of candy you liked and what stickers you’d put on your laptop.”
—Scarlett Kim
Second-year TAPS major

In Luigi Pirandello’s famous 1921 absurdist play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, a family shows up at a theater rehearsal demanding a story for itself. Their author has left their plot unfinished, fates dangling. The director agrees to stage their tale, but when the piece ends tragically, it’s unclear how much of the action was reality and how much was staged.

Since January, seven UChicago actors have been navigating their own Pirandello-esque creative process, sculpting complex characters out of scant beginnings and weaving a plot so hyper-current it reads like tomorrow’s headlines. The result is the Theater and Performance Studies program’s newest work, ReWILDing Genius, opening May 1 at the Logan Center for the Arts.

Exploring a commune of fiercely intelligent computer hackers hell-bent on engineering a more just world, the production is a collaboration between UChicago and The New Colony, a Chicago theater company renowned for its novel approach to creating new work. For student actors, it’s a rare opportunity to directly shape their own roles—even before a script exists.

Create a character

“The philosophy New Colony works with is that the actors are the experts on their characters,” explains TAPS major and second-year M.C. Steffen. Together with the director and playwright, they started with a basic outline and crafted the entire production from scratch. The collaboration was part of a winter TAPS performance workshop taught by New Colony co-artistic directors Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood.

“We gave the students about two sentences for their characters, telling them what their character represented from an archetypal standpoint,” Hobgood says. “Other than that, we didn’t have names for the characters. We didn’t know anything about them.”

The cast spent the first six weeks of class developing their roles. “Every actor was responsible for his or her own backstory,” says second-year TAPS and visual art major, Scarlett Kim. “We thought about everything from family history, birthplace, and age to very specific things like what kind of candy you liked and what stickers you’d put on your laptop.”

They then fed these details into improvised scenes, fleshing out characters and group dynamics. For second-year TAPS and anthropology major Amoretta Cockerham, it was an ongoing discovery process. “Things that you thought you knew about your character weren’t necessarily true once you were put in a situation with others,” she recalls.

Based on those discoveries, Hobgood and New Colony member Megan Johns penned the play’s script over spring break. “In our shows,” says Linder, the show’s director, “you, the actor, are letting the playwright know that you’ve already dreamed up the character in your head and that’s who they should be writing.”

The story evolves throughout the process. For example, the playwright might “bracket,” a line, which is New Colony shorthand for allowing the actor to phrase that sentence differently in every performance. The technique keeps things fresh—and keeps the cast focused. “It ensures our actors are always listening to each other and connecting,” Linder says. “It makes it new each night.”

Keep it new

"The New Colony’s focus on the new captures the spirit of UChicago performance studies, says TAPS director Heidi Coleman. “The program is very much about new work development,” she says. “In these residencies, we work with a Chicago-area theater company developing a specific piece from experimental labs, to course work to production premiere over a two-year period."

ReWILDing Geniusis the second such collaborative production, the first being last year’sAn Actor Prepareswith Theater Oobleck’s Mickle Maher. These residencies continue as New York producers participate in a course led by Coleman, Linder, and Mitch Salm, AB’09, to translate and adapt a French rock musical bound for Broadway in 2014. Next year will bringa circus production created with The Hypocrites, a Jeff Award-winning company.

For students, it’s an opportunity to get real-world experience—and connect to Chicago’s top performing artists. “They’re participating in the creation of new professional work where the students really matter,” Coleman says. New Colony’s Hobgood agrees. “It’s very easy to collaborate with UChicago students because they’re such an intelligent and knowledgeable group,” he says.

For New Colony, the campus was the ideal breeding ground for their creative vision. “We really wanted to do a story that students of the U of C community would be able to look at and say, ‘I know these people.’ We also thought it would be fun to do something as contemporary as humanly possible,” says Hobgood, who first started discussing the collaboration with Coleman in 2011.

Capture the now

That’s when cyber-vigilante group Anonymous grabbed the world’s attention. Suddenly, the word “hacktivist” was on everyone’s tongue and splinter factions like LulzSec were bringing down websites like Sony Pictures, senate.gov, and cia.gov. “The havoc they were wreaking implied they must be some huge, well-organized group to pull this off,” Hobgood recalls. “In the end, LulzSec ended up just being mostly a handful of 20-somethings.”

The events triggered a premise for the show: a commune of whip-smart hackers whose zeal for social change could have dangerous consequences. “It’s about what happens when really intelligent people try to change the world,” explains third-year TAPS major James Fleming, who plays the group’s charismatic ringleader.

Mining themes of hacking and cyber-attacks, the show turns a mirror on present-day society by “posing questions about how morality is changing as the world of technology changes,” says Cockerham, whose character Kelly puts her causes before her community.

The January suicide of Internet activist and prodigy Aaron Swartz prompted the ReWILDing cast and writers to change the ending of the show, which had suddenly become eerily prescient.

“New Colony has done an amazing job of thinking about the cultural moment and really tapping into that,” Coleman says. No sooner would they improvise a scene in workshop than they’d see the same event pop in next week’s news, remembers Hobgood. “We kept saying to ourselves that it feels like we’re writing a play that is actually happening right now.”

Trust your truth

The New Colony project also has helped students tap into another reality: what it means to be a successful working actor. “The number one weakness that most actors come into the room with is that they want to be respectful, so they don’t make brave choices,” Hobgood says. “But learning how to really go with your instincts and trust your gut is essential as an artist.”

It’s a lesson the ReWILDing cast has taken to heart. “As an artist committed to devising new pieces in my work, it has truly been an inspiring experience to collaborate with those who hold similar convictions toward seeking original truthfulness in theater,” says Kim, who plays the community-minded Lily. The New Colony approach “empowers every actor to nurture their characters to their utmost potential.”