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The Romanov Play: Come to This Reading! Also Here's Some Stuff That You Should See



To what you say? To a reading! Of this darn play! It'll be at the Greenhouse Theatre on November 17th at 7pm as part of their Trellis series. You should totally come. It's gonna be fun, and also, by coming and responding to the play, you are helping me make it better which means how nice are you for doing that? The NICEST! 

AND - because I can't resist, here are three other things I want to share. They come under the headline of Some of the Stuff I've Found That Make Me Unable to Not Keep Writing This Play.  (You know.  SSIFTMMUTNKWTP.  It rolls off the tongue.) There will be more. For now, you just have to see - 

1. This photo of the Romanov daughters:

To me this image looks EXACTLY like what it is - a family vacation photo. That special, unavoidable family vacation photo that parents insist on taking when you need to not be doing that anymore. Here is what I imagine the girls saying, going from left to right:

Anastasia: Are they taking our picture again? I- wow. They are, they are taking our picture again.

Tatiana: If I'm very still it will go away, if I'm very still it will go away...

Maria: Wait, where am I supposed to be looking?


2. This part of a letter from Nicholas to his future wife:

"Oh! do not say 'no' directly, my dearest Alix, do not ruin my life already! Do you think there can exist any happiness in the whole world without you!"

-Tsar Nicholas II, writing in 1893 to Alexandra after she had refused his first proposal.

3. This quote on the tsarina at work during WWI:

"I have seen the empress of Russia assisting in the most difficult operations, taking from the hands of the busy surgeons amputated legs and arms, removing bloody and vermin-ridden field dressings."

-Anna Vyrubova, a lady-in-waiting to Tsarina Alexandra

The tsarina and the two elder girls went through a rigorous training program so they could help as nurses at the hospitals during World War I. Once qualified, spent long days dressing and redressing wounds, keeping soldiers company and helping with even the most gruesome operations. They also turned all available space in the city into wards for the wounded, including all of the major rooms in the Winter Palace. Here is a picture of Olga and Tatiana with a soldier:

Another fact to keep in mind with this image: as the war progressed, the Russians eventually ran so short of supplies that the soldiers were sometimes sent to the front without bullets. I promise I'm not being flippant when I say: WHAT??? HOW IS THAT A THING? 

To be continued. As always.  

PS: Thanks to all of you who suggested titles. ("Crazy Russian Eyes?" Amazing.) It's by no means a closed discussion, so if you feel inspired, don't be shy.  

The Romanov Play: Thoughts on a First Read-Through

Alright, guys. Here's some Real Talk: a First Read-Through is scary. Even if your play doesn't open for another year, it's still scary. Here are the three steps I have found to be essential to survive one: 


STEP ONE: Start by carefully tricking a group of incredibly talented and kind people to be in your theatre company.  

This takes years.  For myself, I can neither confirm nor deny the use of kidnapping.

STEP TWO: Proceed to talk non-stop to these people about whatever it is you want them to read.

This way, when you finally get around to actually asking them to do it, there's a part of them that will be willing to do it just so you'll stop talking about it. This is also a trick, because mwahahaha, you're never going to stop talking about it - but you can totally imply that you might, and they will totally believe you.

STEP THREE: Once aforementioned company members (and if you're lucky, maybe an additional friend or two) are gathered for Desired Reading, bring them cupcakes.

You won't need them, especially if you were smart enough to have tricked Carinne Uslar into being in your theatre company (you can't it's too late she's ours mwahahahah again). She will already have provided wine and snacks because she's an amazing hostess. HOWEVER - and this is very important - bringing cupcakes will ease your conscience. As you listen to friends who have worked two double shifts in the last two days and who should be at home asleep but who are instead are sitting next to you asking you how to pronounce Tsarkoe Selo, you will at least be able to say to yourself, "Well, Self. At least you brought cupcakes."

-- -

Now, having taken these three steps, a First Read-Through happened to me last Sunday, and due mostly to step #1, it was SUCH A FUN DAY! Thank you so so much to Shariba, Kanome, Zack, Joey, Bryan, Carinne and Lew for your help. It occurs to me now, I'm not sure if I hugged you all. I meant to. I meant to give you all giant, warm, grossly fuzzy hugs, so be prepared the next time you see me. 

As far as How the Play Is Going, here is what I will say for the record in This Here Blog Here, if only for the amusement of Future Keely, that she may chortle heartily. (For some reason I always picture myself as a very hearty chortler in the future.) What I learned - or perhaps, if I am honest, what I confirmed, because I suspected as much - is that I am one transparent writer lady. The scenes I was less interested in - well, they weren't as interesting. I'm a bad faker. The good news is: the excitement I've had by myself about the stories I love the most - stories I couldn't tear my eyes away from when I first read them in the source materials - became excitement I got to share. Here's one of those stories: After the revolution, when the Romanovs were in captivity, Nicholas II (ie the deposed tsar) was very aware that he was an ex-tsar.  He even tried to find the humor in it. "Don't call me tsar anymore," he'd say. "I'm only an ex." One day, in the early weeks of their confinement, the family gathered for lunch and found that the ham they were intending to eat was burnt. Nicholas said, "Well, this may have once been a ham, but now it's nothing but an ex-ham." And the captive family laughed together.

I mean.  I just.  It's such a piercing moment of self-awareness to me. Such a raw picture of someone's fight to find an equilibrium. And it's also such a Dad Joke. Ex-ham. Ha! Who would have imagined the last Russian emperor telling a Dad Joke? 

There's more where that came from, but I'll leave it there for now. There's something else I have to tell you guys: I still have no idea what the heck to call this play. Like for realsies. I'm taking suggestions. Once upon a time I was going to call it Fall. Like fall of the Romanovs, fall from grace, fall from power... omg do you get it? You get it. Do you really get it, though?

It seemed so elegant, so simple! One word! It would say so much! It would be so easy to put on a poster! But alas, I awoke one day and realized, all that title really says is OMG LOOK AT ME I AM SO DEEP I'M LIKE THE DEEPEST and it's got to go. So if somebody has a better idea, please send it my way and I will shamelessly steal it. 

One last note (especially if we're talking about the Deepest, because you guys, I am NOT) - here's a picture of Rasputin and also of Viggo Mortensen. Why do they look so similar, and should I re-write the play to be a prequel to Lord of the Rings? I leave it to you to ponder.



The Romanov Play: An Introduction

The thing is, I'm writing this play.  

It's a play about the fall of the Romanovs, about the necessary end of the Russian monarchist government and the family destroyed to make that happen. It's a tragedy, but it isn't meant to feel sad, at least not most of the time. It's more about people than events because the people in this story are fascinating. They're complicated and passionate and surprisingly funny. Most of all, they are disturbingly recognizable.  

You won't see this play anytime soon.  While there will be a whole bunch of read-throughs and workshops and meetings and other sexy things to get the pulse racing throughout the next few months, the actual show won't go up for another year. The thing is, though, I'm excited about it NOW.

So I'm going to start talking about it in this blog, every step along the way until I finally get to show you all the whole thing. I don't know who "you all" might be, but to whoever is reading these words: Hello! I am so glad you're here. I want to show you something:

This is Anastasia Romanov. She's thought to be fifteen years old in this photograph. The man next to her, pretending to allow her to smoke, is her father, Tsar Nicholas II.  I love this picture, the look in their eyes. Mischievous.  Goofy, even.  It looks like they are both about to burst out laughing.

After this photograph is taken, they and the other four members of the family have about two more years before they will be shot, bayoneted and buried.

I found this photograph by accident in a library. The moment was like an upside-down, nightmare version of what I felt when I was a little kid seeing the "real" Santa for the first time. In the space of an instant, something that I had categorized as intangible seemed to acquire texture. Breath.

What's more, because the Romanovs lived in an era when photography was becoming increasingly accessible, there is a vast array of images just like this. These pictures of what I used to think of as something long and ago and far away reveal a family that isn't - wasn't - so different from families anywhere.  Not so far away at all.

Further reading only served to cement this realization. There are entire archives of first-hand accounts documenting domestic scenes that are almost obscenely relatable. More often than not I found myself reading not of the drama of life at court or issues of state, but of family dinners and books read for school, of angst-ridden teenagers and bewildered parents. Of kids striking goofy poses for pictures they never imagined the world would see.

This didn't - doesn't -  fit into the narrative I had envisioned for the rulers of Imperial Russia. I struggle to hold in my head these two realities at the same time:

1. The population just outside the palace gates lived in unforgivable poverty.  

2. The family inside was too human for me to hate.

There is more to be said on this. The suffering of six people is in no way equitable to the suffering of the millions - millions - who suffered around them. For every scene I write about the Romanovs, a voice inside my head rattles against my skull, asking "But why these people? Why tell their story?"

The answer I keep coming back to is this: the story of the Romanovs seems to me so much like the story of power everywhere. These were ordinary people who - horrifyingly - thought they were doing the right thing. As did those who took over after them. Historians continue to debate whether either regime was actually better for the Russian people in the end.

All around the world - and all throughout history - there countless examples of the same: revolutions which beget revolutions, fights for justice which beget injustice. And so often the people involved are not the villains I would imagine - would perhaps even prefer - for them to be. They're just ordinary people, doing what they think is right.  Which terrifies me. Which breaks my heart. Which compels me to explore and tell this story as best I can.

There's something else you should know. The most astonishing part about this writing process is how much original dialogue I'm able to use. There are so many diary entries, newspaper articles, personal letters and even witness statements that remain from these years. The truth is, little of the play was born in my imagination; it's mostly the words of the people who were actually there. The way they tell their own story is exquisite.  

So that's the thing - I'm writing this play.

"EL Stories" opens the Illinois High School Theatre Festival

Waltzing Mechanics' third annual edition of EL Stories: Holiday Train, called "a quirky gem" and recommended by the Chicago Reader, is proud to perform in the opening ceremonies of the 39th annual Illinois High School Theatre Festival (http://www.illinoistheatrefest.org/). Performances will bow at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 9, 2014 and 9:00 a.m. on Friday, January 10, 2014 at the CPA Theatre on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Each show will be followed by a brief workshop with students and teachers detailing how the Waltzing Mechanics create their signature documentary productions from verbatim interviews.

Recognized as one of the top fringe shows by the Chicago Tribune, Waltzing Mechanics' annual holiday edition of EL Stories celebrates (and laments?) one of the city’s most recognized institutions with an hour-long ride, featuring some of our favorite Yuletide public transit stories.  As always, audience members at each performance are invited to share an EL story of their own for a chance to have it played back during the performance or included in a future show.

EL Stories: Holiday Train is adapted from original interviews by Keely Leonard and directed by Zack Florent. The cast includes Jon Beal, Zach Bundy, Patrice Foster, Kyle Geissler, LaKecia Harris, Sarah Liken, Natalie Sallee, Tiffany Small, Thomas Sparks, and Lew Wallace. Production stage management is by Carinne Uslar assisted by J.D. Ostergaard.

Produced by the Illinois Theatre Association, the Illinois High School Theatre Festival (IHSTF) is the largest and oldest non-competitive high school theatre festival in the world. The three-day festival takes place every year in early January, and switches locations between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Illinois State University. Over 4,000 students, teachers, university representatives, exhibitors, and volunteers come together to put on over 25 different high school productions and over 150 workshops.

EL Stories: Holiday Train will conclude its regular run at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Saturday, January 11 at 11:00 p.m. Waltzing Mechanics' next edition of EL Stories, the fourteenth in the series, premieres Saturday, January 18 at 11:00 p.m. at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets and information are at 773-404-7336 or waltzingmechanics.org.

"Oh My God, Are You Serious?" - Anna, Andersonville

Actresses Shannon Bracken and Adrienne Matzen memorably render this transit tale in the current run of EL Stories, playing Saturday nights at 11pm through August 18. 

Click here ("Oh My God, Are You Serious?") to hear the original storyteller – Anna from Andersonville – as she narrates the fraught encounter she had with an ex-boyfriend on the Red Line.  The recording’s transcript follows:

PATRICE: Okay. Your name and your neighborhood please. ANNA: Anna Smunt and Andersonville. PATRICE: Kay, great. So, what’s your EL story? ANNA: So last night, my friend Marina and I - who is right here - were coming home from "Hunger Games" and it was a late night showing, it ended at like 11:30 – and we’re both riding the Red Line up north – she’s sitting by the window and I’m sitting right next to her, and I – we had been talking about the movie up to this point I said “Oh, check this-- MARINA: --website, yeah-- ANNA: --website out that I had posted on Facebook. And she was reading it, and very entranced by her phone, and the essay that she was reading, and I am kind of zoning out at this point, I look up and and there’s a group of people getting on at some North stop – and I see a black jacket and a buzz head and I know right away who it is, after a SECOND of seeing it – it is my ex-boyfriend, who I thought – he was going to be the Man that I was Going to Marry, I had the Family Jewels, until I found out that he had been cheating on me with our mutual friend who was married at the time and then she had ended her marriage to be with him and I had not seen him since I found out that this had happened. MARINA: And, and they live in my building now, and like we were all friends, and ANNA: so she’s – MARINA: I’m still friends with them, AND with Anna, ANNA: Right MARINA: And - But I’m sitting on the train with Anna. ANNA: So, he used to live in her building MARINA: In the apartment that they now live in together ANNA: Yeah, so then I moved out and she moved into this building. So they're all going to the same spot, and I’m going to the same stop, um, so I, in that one second that it registers that it’s him – I turn to Marina, very calmly and I say: "Casey just got on the train." And, she goes: "(gasp) Oh my God are you serious, oh my God, where is he? Do you know that it’s him? Oh my God I can’t believe this. Is he with Kate? Of course he’s with Kate, he’s always with Kate. Oh my God, what do you want me to do? Oh my God, I’m freaking out, this has never happened to me before, oh my God, what do you want me to do? Oh my God." And I’m like: In my head thinking, "YOU’RE supposed to be the one calming ME down through this experience because I’M supposed to be freaking out in my head –" And I said out loud to her: "Calm Down. You’re reading something on you’re phone. We’re acting like everything is okay. You’re reacting to this very funny essay that I asked you to read and you’re pointing lines that you think that you want me to read because you think it’s funny." And she goes: "Oh my God, but I’ve never dealt with this before! And, oh my God, did he SEE you? And, I-eh – What do you want me to do?" And I said: "Please. Just stop being scared." MARINA: And of course in hindsight I’m thinking, well, obviously I did that to keep, you know, her mind, off of the fact that, you know, SHE should be the one freaking out, of course I did it all on PURPOSE…yeah…. ANNA: And I go: just- ssstop being weird. And she’s like: "I’m NOT being weird. And then she pauses and she goes: Yes I am. Okay. Picks up her phone and then for the rest of the ride – of -" MARINA: Where I was like, sitting with my head, I could not look up, I could NOT look up, because, I know that like – I’m friends with them, and, you know, so usually I would, you know, say hello, but I’m here with Anna and li- it’s just a really awkward situation. ANNA: So the plan was for me to exit at – one eh- one stop before Bryn Mawr, which is the Berwyn stop, and get off there and just walk to my apartment from there, but it turns out that, when we get to the Wilson stop, they say that they’ll be running Express to Granville - MARINA: Which, I don’t, I di-, I didn’t hear, I don’t know if you heard, ‘cause I was, we were so entranced with the situation ANNA: (Overlapping) I'd – yeah. MARINA: that we didn’t realize that it was going Express and then suddenly we’re at Granville. ANNA: And I had heard it, but it didn’t register that Granville was like, north of where I needed to be. So, we all had to get off at the stop together – MARINA: And like, the maneuvering to actually – er, like, NOT bump INTO each other –and I, my head is still down, I cannot look up, I’m just like, “Oh my God.” And so somehow Anna maneuvers both of us to like – Ah, av- ANNA: The opposite end. MARINA: To the opposite end and avoid, avo- you know, and we’re like at different points on the platform – ANNA: In order to then get back ON the train going south to get off at the next stop. MARINA: Yeah. ANNA: And in the end, it was fine, and nobody made eye contact. MARINA: Yeah.

The current edition of EL Stories featuring “Oh My God, Are You Serious?” runs Saturday late nights through August 18 at the Greenhouse Theater Center.  Advance tickets are available at http://www.greenhousetheater.org/index.php/el-stories

"EL Stories" Director's Note: The Meme

Waltzing Mechanics founder Keely Leonard shares her perspectives on EL Stories in her clever and associative director's note published in our current edition of Playbill.  Join us every Saturday night at 11:00 p.m. at the Greenhouse Theater Center for the most entertaining tales from the rails.

How I Explain What the Show Is About When I’m Listening to an EL Story

EL Stories is about the audience.  It’s about using performance to share stories from the community about their experiences on public transportation and creating the opportunity for others to tell their own story.  It’s a live archive of moments that become a kaleidoscope of the city itself.

How I Explain What the Show Is About When I’m in Rehearsal

EL Stories is about the storyteller.  It’s about reaching for the voice of the narrator from the original recording so that we can honor that voice onstage.

How I Explain What the Show Is About When I’m in a Bar

EL Stories is about the modern-age transportation system as the Last Great Public Forum.  No, no, that’s totally a thing!  Okay, maybe it’s not THE LAST public forum, but it’s certainly ONE of the last – and no, Facebook does not count! I mean an actual, physical space that people from all walks of life have to actually physically share.  Everyone on the EL is bound only by the shared ability to pay $2.25 to get somewhere.   That’s it!  Inside a train you can find people of all professions (including no profession!), all religions (including no religion!), all personalities (including no personality!) – etc. etc. etc.  You could meet someone of virtually any class, race, gender, sexual preference, financial status (or lack thereof), emotional health (or lack thereof) - anyone can get on the train.  And usually, anyone does!  That is AWESOME!

Last Great Public Forum, guys. It’s totally a thing.  This is what I tell people.

How I Explain What the Show Is About When I’m Talking to Myself

EL Stories is about how everyone has a story to tell.  In the year and a half since the show’s inception, we have gotten to talk to countless Chicagoans about their public transit tales.  Under the auspices of collecting performance material, we have begged stories from family members, friends, strangers on the street – anyone who would talk to us.  And the phrase we hear most often repeated is a variation of this:

“It’s not really much of a story, but – “

Yet what follows will always negate this preface.  There will always be a story.   Without fail, despite disclaimers, there is always a story.  Perhaps there isn’t always what might be called a linear narrative, but I have come to believe that it is the momentary glimpse into the storyteller’s world that is in and of itself the heart of the thing.

How I Explain What the Show Is About When I’ve Been Talking to Myself for Too Long

Life! Trains! Theatre! Everything!!!  AH!

(Doors Closing).

What the Show Is Really About

You.  Thanks for coming.

-- Keely Leonard Director

Will your EL story debut this summer?

Tomorrow night heralds the newest edition of EL Stories - the fifth chapter of the show under the Waltzing Mechanics banner and the second since we began our open run at the Greenhouse Theater Center in March.  Mechanics co-founder Keely Leonard crafted a production comprised entirely of new EL story adaptations sourced from our audiences and riders across the CTA system.  If you've shared a transit tale with us in the past, surely you must be curious if it will find its way to our stage this summer. 'EL Stories' cast in rehearsal for our newest run debuting June 2

We're pleased to announce the seventeen contributors whose own real-life commuting stories will appear upon our stage:

George, Wilmette - "Midnight Raid" Adham, Leicester U.K. - "And We're Off" Owen, Bucktown - "The Story of 'Oh Megan'" Darrin, Uptown - "In Love With a Stripper" Lelani, Fort Wayne IN - "Don't You Live Here?" Audra, Lakeview - "And Sweetheart, We Know" Sarah, North Center - "Florida Will Not Leave You" John and Lou, Wilmette - "It Was Like a Family" Shelby, Old Town - "Girlie Girl" Norm, Arlington Heights - "They All Applauded" Meghan and Justin, Noble Square - "The Boy From the Bus" Mike, West Lakeview - "Punk Kid" Jeremy, Highland Park - "Nice to Meet You But We're Good" Emily, Lincoln Square - "In the Belly of the Beast" Dennis and Ann, Winnetka - "I'm Glad I Got the EL" Anna and Marina, Andersonville - "Oh My God, Are You Serious?" Marta, Bridgeport - "Clearly Not Drunk Enough"

These selected narratives premiering June 2 will continue in performance every Saturday night through August 18.  As you can imagine, the Mechanics collect new recordings weekly, and we have a formidable trove of stories to adapt.  Many excellent tales that may not have made the current show are likely to appear in future EL Stories editions as our open run continues.  Meanwhile, we hope that you'll join us aboard our late-night train for these alternately hilarious and thought-provoking stories this summer.

And remember, if you're the type of storyteller that thrives on instant gratification, we also select one audience volunteer each performance to share an EL story that our ensemble will then play back in scene.  To participate, just check-in with one of our actors in the lobby before the show and say, "Yes!  I have an EL story I'd like to share!"

Advance tickets for EL Stories (with NO service charges or ticketing fees!) are always available through our partners at the Greenhouse Theater Center box office.

Approaching the transfer station

In less than an hour at the Greenhouse Theater Center, the Waltzing Mechanics will culminate another critically-acclaimed edition of EL Stories.  But for the first time since we launched the show in February 2011, there won't be a single "dark" weekend following this closing.  The Mechanics' commitment to run our flagship production openly means another ensemble cast has already been waiting in the wings -- rehearsing an exciting new script of commuter stories under the direction of Mechanics co-founder Keely Leonard.  And next week at this time, instead of wistfully celebrating a closing performance, we will be rallying that cast's public opening.

When I conceived the show three years ago in a collaboration with Strangeloop Theatre's  "Loopshop", I had always hoped that it could fit into the fabric of Chicago's late night theatre community without a foreseeable expiration date.  It is gratifying to report that EL Stories has entertained over 1,800 ticket buyers in the course of 44 performances since Waltzing Mechanics' inception, and I am exhilarated to see where the show is headed under Keely's direction this summer and fellow Mechanic Eric Loughlin's direction this fall.

The edition we close tonight took EL Stories in exciting new directions.  Director and Mechanics co-founder Zack Florent introduced a non-linear structure to the train's movement, began the show with an audio collage of actual CTA commuters recorded by the Mechanics, improved the format of our "playback theatre" scene, and liberally featured the cast without pants (as Improv Everywhere's annual "No Pants Ride" thematically tied the various scenes together).  Documented storytellers originated from communities as centrally located as Lincoln Park and Englewood to as exotic and far-flung as Schaumburg!  It garnered recommended reviews by the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader.  To the many Chicagoans who joined us on this journey and shared their own tales with our ensemble, we are grateful for your generosity of time and spirit.

Most especially, to the departing cast, the show's continuing legacy owes you a debt of gratitude.  Your talents are manifold and appreciated.  It has been the Mechanics' pleasure to have you aboard our train.  Keep in mind we're never far away.  Every Saturday night at 11 p.m., EL Stories will continue rolling.  And as we go, just like commuters, we'll remember the vibrant characters we've encountered.

-- Thomas Murray Artistic Director