Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

The story of LOVE STORIES

Monday, November 16, 2015

by Jake Voss

A retrospective glance at the life of LOVE STORIES reveals something innate about life: it's never short on surprises. One must expect the unexpected. And what one carries forward from the past will undoubtedly influence the present and future. The LOVE STORIES of today was carried from the East Coast to the Midwest over the course of more than twenty years. It's a journey of unexpected twists and turns, and of how artists fuse the old with the new to create the original. The story begins with a student.

Jennifer Uphoff Gray "read many, many, many, many, many, many, plays" in college. As an undergraduate, she unwittingly came across two of the one-act plays that would become part of LOVE STORIES: THE JEWISH WIFE and HERE WE ARE. Upon graduating, Gray did what one does with a degree in theater and moved to New York City. She carried those pieces in a mental library, and stumbled upon VILLAGE WOOING while perusing a collection of Shaw's short plays.

In 1995, when Gray met some actors she felt compelled to collaborate with, the connections between the pieces began to resonate. Each featured one female and one male actor, were all written in the 1930s by playwrights of different nationalities, and each captured a special moment of conflict in the life cycle of a marriage. "I was particularly struck by the fact that all three didn't name their characters," said Gray.

Asked to describe the original production, she said, "This is one of those down and dirty when-you're-in-New-York-as-a-director-in-your-twenties projects." After a brief rehearsal period, Gray and her team assembled scenery, props, and costumes, and ran four or five performances. Gray didn't necessarily intend the collection to have a life after New York. She had planted the seed of another production in a few close friends, but no opportunities took root. Audiences would enjoy LOVE STORIES again only after Gray played a central role in founding Forward Theater Company.

Forward's third season presented an unexpected quagmire. Two plays had lined up well. Finding a third to unify them was proving problematic. "At one point I threw this collection of plays out on the table and had the advisory company read it," Gray described. They resolved to produce it. Gray thought she would direct LOVE STORIES in its reprise, but the nebulous task of plotting the season's order called for a guest director, instead. "I knew Paula [Suozzi] pretty well at that point," Gray shared. "I thought, 'If anyone is going to do the right job with this, it's Paula.'"

The two had what Gray called "a lovely conversation" in which a shared conclusion revealed itself. In New York, Gray had collaborated with an ensemble of actors to stage the pieces. But now, a decade later, in a new state, and with a new director, the pieces seemed to be saying something new. Gray and Suozzi paid attention to their instincts and sought to stage the piece with just two actors. They were looking for a pair.

They asked James Ridge and Colleen Madden, and were thrilled when they accepted the roles. "The fact that they were married in real life was a huge bonus," said Gray, "but really their facility with pieces from this period, and their ability to do Shaw, that was real." Now a decade later, in a new state, with a new director, and new actors, Gray worked with Suozzi on the onerous task of setting a new order.

In New York, Gray broke VILLAGE WOOING into three sections that served as the show's opening, middle, and closing. After much deliberation, the collaborators settled on a new order and prepared for first rehearsal. It arrived with something neither Suozzi nor Gray anticipated. As Gray shared: "She and I [were] talking after the first read-through we did with Jim and Colleen. Our first rehearsal. You know, when we're opening in three and a half weeks. We did the read-through, and we looked at each other at the end and said 'They're in the wrong order!' So we changed the order they were going to be in that day."

Gray credits Suozzi with the final concept: the first two scenes were progressing points in a rehearsal process; the final piece was the realized performance. "It was wonderful to see what Paula, and Jim, and Colleen created, what they put in of Jim and Colleen's actual lives, their life experiences as a couple, as a working couple of actors," Gray said. After what Gray called "a gorgeous production" that magnified the symmetries she first felt in New York, no chapters would be added to the story of LOVE STORIES for another ten years.

With the entrance of C. Michael Wright, Artistic Director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, LOVE STORIES became part of a history of co-creation. As Wright recalls, it all started over a fated lunch. The docket: collaborations between Forward Theater and MCT. "She pitched a few ideas and I pitched a few ideas," said Wright, "and one of the ideas she brought up was three one acts that she had done in New York." The Artistic Directors put the one acts on hold in favor of producing a new work by local playwright Gwendolyn Rice, followed by COLLECTED STORIES by Donald Margulies.

But, firmly attuned to the pulse of Wisconsin's theatrical heartbeat, Wright couldn't help but take notice of Forward's LOVE STORIES in 2012. Profoundly fascinated, he reached out to Suozzi and asked her to share her experience over breakfast. "And she loved it," he recalled. "Colleen and Jim loved it. Everyone who saw it loved it. I got excited by the possibility of doing our version of it." But it would be several years before the right season for LOVE STORIES came along.

For Wright, LOVE STORIES had all the right characteristics, like an inherent eclecticism. "I really like the idea of that blend of styles," he said, "the Brecht, the Shaw, Dorothy Parker. I always like to get a mix of old plays [and] new plays." Similarly, the plays commented on love, an idea with vast programming potential, and one Wright hoped to one day explore in an entire season. Given MCT's history of producing Shaw, the line-up was impossible for him to put off any longer. Just over a year ago, he reached out to Suozzi.

With credits at Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Shakespeare, and Florentine Opera Company, freelance director Paula Suozzi was and is no stranger to Milwaukee's theatre scene. Approached by Wright to direct the third iteration of LOVE STORIES, her first thoughts considered the city. "We will reorder them for Milwaukee," she said. "They're going to be in a different order and have a very different thrust." But there are a few elements from Forward's production that MCT will retain.

A married couple of actors, local stage veterans Jim Pickering and Tami Workentin, fill the various roles. Similarly, Wright wanted to riff on Suozzi's concept of staging the plays in rehearsal. Compelled to share life in rehearsal with the audience, Wright sought to use the plays as a way to open a door. He wanted to "...give the audience a chance to see what it's like before they get there." Audiences should expect to see substitute costume pieces and props, tape on the floor, and, most importantly, a snack table.

"I still have a set of fabulous red Amelia Earhart luggage that I bought at a thrift shop for the train ride in HERE WE ARE," Gray shared. "And I just haven't been able to get rid of it because...I'm very sentimental about it." Likewise carried forth for reasons sentimental and artistic, LOVE STORIES contains compelling perspectives. Its journey seems to argue that one's life takes shape in how one mixes what is brought with what is found. In his famous PYGMALION, George Bernard Shaw said, "What is life but a series of inspired follies?"


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