Quick Chat: Associate Artistic Director Carey Cannon Talks Winter Words

Posted February 14, 2019

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APT: How did Winter Words come to pass?

Carey Cannon: The idea came from, as many ideas do, something that happened in Brenda's kitchen. The idea that we get together and read plays to figure how they work. Plays are always better heard out loud, they're not meant to be enjoyed alone. And it started with a discussion that I think she had with (APT Physician and former board member) Mark Timmerman, who was there for one of the readings. And he said how wonderful it was to be able to hear a play - to just gather together and hear a story - how it activated your imagination in a way that full productions can't. Because we give you all of those elements by collaborating with all those other artists. But when it's just the story - just the words of the playwright and really good actors - it allows you to hear that story in a different way. 

And so it went from Brenda's house to the Touchstone. It became, how can we invite our audience? Because we always want to share all the fun stuff. Some people ask if we're auditioning these plays for future seasons. And it's not meant to be that. It sometimes operates in that way; we'll hear a play and say, oh gosh, we have to produce this. And we have produced a couple of plays that have been in the readings. But it operates more as, we think this is a good story we want to share it with you. And then we want to hear what you think. And it's wintertime. So any chance to gather together with our community, with the incredible audience, and tell a story? Immediately after the first one, we were like, oh yes. We want to do this more. We got great responses. 

APT: Are you surprised by the response that you've received from Winter Words?

CC: I'm always surprised by how extraordinary and enthusiastic our audience is. And maybe I should stop, because they're consistently invested and want to be here and want to support and want to listen. But what reminds me to keep being surprised is, when we bring a new actor here, we did the reading of The Moors, and Emjoy Gavino and Aurora Real De Asua, and Keira (the director), who's been here as an audience member but not as a director, were all new to us. Emjoy and Aurora had to leave that night to go back to Chicago. I ran back stage to say thank you, and they were clutching each other and talking about how they had never been in front of an audience like that. And Emjoy has had a long career as an actor in Chicago,  she's played all the big houses. So for an actor who's been at Steppenwolf and the Goodman and a company member of Remy Bumppo to say, oh my god, your audience! And she's right. They listen like crazy, and they're incredibly supportive. And then they have interesting, fascinating things to say after the plays. So it's unusual, our audience is unusual. I should keep that in mind. Yes, surprised. And why? Because they continue to prove themselves to be the best audience in the country. 

APT: How do you select the plays that you're going to read? There's modern plays, and more contemporary. What makes a play a contender for Winter Words?

CC: We give ourselves different directives every year. Some of it is to not be too restrictive. If you make too many rules you have to live within them. So essentially, the quickest answer can be, there's a couple of boxes that we hope that these plays will tick. One, we keep talking about poetic language, and how we love those plays that are poetic. And so we look for plays with challenging, dense poetic language. That's not the only thing we look for. We look for things that are kind of classical adjacent. Some things that are a little more off beat. We look for other voices, voices that we don't typically produce or see. So the opportunity to have different cultural perspectives. To share those stories with our audience. To have our core company actors of color, or have people who reach out to us with plays that weren't on our radar, that's exciting. 

And sometimes it's about, this play is 400 years old. Nobody's produced it in the past 120 years, but it used to be like the West Side Story of its day. And is this play still viable? Can we produce this play? Do we want to produce this play? Does this play still speak to us at all? And sometimes, like we did an in-house reading of The Critic, we weren't doing Winter Words readings yet at that point. But sometimes we'll read a play and say oh my gosh, this is absolutely speaking to me. And oh wow, this director is gonna go crazy with this. and sometimes in the Winter Words series, it's being able to produce an evening of The Rover, just hearing it, and saying what do we think? Or Way of the World. These really complicated plays with really hard language. And sometimes we walk away and say ok, we had all core company actors, and some extraordinary newcomers, maybe we could do this play. And sometimes we walk away and say it's just not fun or interesting us to do another scene of a drunk man running around chasing a woman who's saying no. We're just not finding that funny these days. 

So yeah, dense poetic text, new voices, older plays that we don't know are still viable. Plays that don't feel like our right down the middle of what APT produces. All those are choices. This year it was mostly Jim DeVita who did the dramaturgy and reaching out to the directors for the plays since I was mid-casting the 2019 season. In seasons past I was more involved in selection. This season I'm really just batting clean up. 

APT: Can you describe the rehearsal process a little? It's a whirlwind.

CC: Oh gosh, it's crazy. So the first 11 minutes we're signing contracts. It's paperwork. We have a stage manager, the actors, the scripts and binders, the table and a director. And six hours. And many of these plays read at two hours. Or two plus, some of them. So sometimes the actors are just highlighting. Many of them, it's their only day off. They're in the middle of another show, so they don't have time to do a lot of prep. So it really feels like an improv class, with poetry. And some of it is just figuring out what they're' saying. In a play like Emilie, which we just did, the Gunderson play, there's physics. So just talking about the history, the physics, who Voltaire is, what his body of work was, so that they have a general idea of what the world of the play is. Same thing with The Moors, which is very referential to the Brontes and that sort of gothic style of literature. So even if the director had 10 minutes to say, look, we're gonna do a 10 minute course on gothic literature, so we understand the size and style of these, it's already lunch break.

And then, we usually move the tables away, put the music stands up and develop with the actors and the director very simple visual storytelling to help the reading. And we've been asked to limit movement, because it's about the scariest thing an actor can do is get in front of an audience with a hard text and six hours of rehearsal. So we have, this year in particular, really limited that. Directors will say, well, I just want a couple of props. We'll just say, nope. What we've got is a terrific actor - Rob Doyle has done it for the last two - who's going to read stage directions. So we don't pretend this a production or a full mounted, produced story. This is a reading. So we want to always add more and more and more, and we have kind be really strict about putting  a governor on that so we can't go to blocking or dance. I mean, Kelsey Brennan basically improvised a power ballad in The Moors. But that's as far it goes. 

APT: Is there one specific reading that you were surprised by?

CC: I knew I liked The Moors. Brenda and I couldn't ourselves from reading some of it out loud in her office. But how funny it was, and how smart it was, read out loud by those great actors, it was even belter than I'd anticipated. 

On the other hand, there was one script in particular that I really didn't care for. But Jim (DeVita) had really been championing it because he believes, and it's a good point of view, that kindness is an undersung storytelling virtue. And he really liked that about that play. And our audience loved it, and I loved that there was so much of our audience that was on team kindness. And it teaches me, as Associate Artistic Director, to keep in mind that I sometimes I need to pull my own preferences out of it, and that that is a really important part of programming - that just because it's not to my taste does not mean it doesn't have real value for a lot of our audience. 

And sometimes the question is just, is it a play? What more would a full production add that this reading didn't already do? And I think in The Moors, there's something really delicious about the idea of a full production of that play. And we knew that about Eurydice. We were like oh, wow. In the hands of a director who is absolutely allergic to sentiment, and who is visually exacting, this play is going to light up. And when it's a living playwright, the idea that you can reach out to someone and say hey, does it have to rain in the elevator? Can we address that convention in some other way? Being in communication with the playwright is really cool. 

APT: Is there anything I missed? Anything important about the series that you love?

CC: It can get very lonely in the winter. When our audience arrives, it feels great. Because in the winter time, we're casting and looking ahead to 2020 and this year working on strategic planning, and actually getting together in a room to hear a story with our audience is, it just gives us a boost. To go back in and do our work for them. Because we're getting to do the thing, we're getting to tell stories. Off-season when the actors aren’t' here and it's just us chickens, it really feels good that every couple of weeks we get to have our audience here and tell a story. It's so much fun.