The live run of the problem comedy, Genealogy, by T.J. Elliott and Joe Queenan directed and coproduced by Dana Pellebon has ended at Broom Street Theater in Madison Wisconsin. Our sellout standing ovation audiences during this three week run encouraged us to keep on telling the story and, therefore, we invite you and whomever you think wants to engage with this Satire Of Inconvenient Family Ties to watch the video of Friday, November 19’s Live Stream at this link.
“Theatre is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”
On March the 12th, 2020, Joe Queenan I were set to audition actors for our second co-written play, Grudges.
March 12th, 2020.
That’s the day the pandemic hit the fan with the NBA canceling its season, ERs overflowing, and travel of pretty much any kind cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. Theater also just stopped. Around the country, whether in Broadway palaces or school gyms, Regional playhouses or East Village cabarets, it just stopped. Dead.
But we couldn’t bear to give up. So, hatching our tagline #maketheaterlive, we produced Grudges on Zoom followed by Within The Context Of No Context by George W S Trow, and my solo effort, the Swedish screwball comedy, Keeping Right.
And then this year, we got to actually make theater really live again through the gracious coproduction of our third play, Genealogy, with Broom Street Theater in Madison WI. Because that’s what’s important about theater: it’s live. You have to remember the lines right then. The lights have to go up at the right time and the sound effects have to go off at the right time. And the audience is right there. Breathing, coughing, laughing, groaning: right there.
Other arts amaze me, but theater is the one where you are least likely to know what’s going to happen. Oh, yes, there is a script, a text that the playwrights created and of which upon that foundation the director has formed a production. But every night the connection between the actors and the audience and even among the actors themselves can differ.
The Irish critic Fintan O’Toole put it very well recently:
“Live performers …make their own decisions, here and now, in this moment. In a filmed performance, the performer loses that power. It belongs to others – the director, the editor. But this also applies to us as members of the audience. At a live event, we choose where we look and how we listen. In a virtual event, other people are – sometimes heavy-handedly, sometimes subtly – making those choices for us. This is what we miss about live performance: the autonomy and integrity of the performer, our freedom to shape our own responses, the sense of our shared presence in space and time.”
That’s one of the reasons why being able to see and feel and hear our wonderful actors perform Genealogy this month awed and thrilled us. But certain events reminded us of the fragility not only of theater, but of life. One of our team, one of our amazing actors, took ill. (He’s doing much better now and we trust on the road to a full recovery) And our astonishing director, Dana Pellebon, approached Karl Reinhardt (who had been doing spectacular work as our stage manager from day one) to ask him if he was willing to step into a role of a character who is on stage from beginning to end of our 95 minute play.
And he did. Karl committed to make theater live. God bless him.
He played the role last weekend and he’s playing it again this weekend including at our live stream performance on November 19th. (Tix are here; choose “11/19 Live Access” from the dropdown menu.) Stepping into a role that another actor has created without having had the benefit of the weeks of rehearsal, the space to learn lines, the experiences to forge connections with the other characters is beyond daunting. Try terrifying on for size. Yet Karl did it and he did it very well. That’s why on Saturday night when I get to see the live stream, I’ll be toasting not just the entire cast and the director and the crew but especially Karl Reinhardt who embodies the commitment to make theater live despite that “series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”
posted by T.J. Elliott
The combination of the lingering effects of the pandemic and the distance to Madison, Wisconsin from our homes in the New York City area meant that Joe Queenan and I did not meet many of the actors in our Genealogy cast in person when we had our Zoom table reading a few months ago. And then when we were auditioning several actors for the part of Glenn Weber, the former MTV personality now hosting what another character in the play describes as the “tabloid version” of ancestry podcasts, watching applicants on video was the only method available to us. Jackson Rosenberry stood out even on that colder medium for his energy and inventiveness.
Thus, I wasn’t surprised when we asked for his bio after he was chosen for the role to read its very first sentence: “Jackson Rosenberry is very excited to work on this production.” Finally meeting him a few weeks ago in person and watching his work in the first two rehearsals, I realized that this was something of an understatement. Jackson plunged dynamically into the role and I found myself cracking up at the ingenuities of his interpretations. He also read the script so carefully that he caught a mistake we had made in describing someone’s ancestor. I don’t think I will ever get over the sensation of gratification that comes from recognizing someone has read our words very carefully.
As I learned more about Jackson’s work in the theater, I understood the strong foundation that he brings to our work. Since moving to Madison in 2017, Jackson has been involved in multiple productions around Madison including Henry IV Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor, both produced by the Madison Shakespeare Company. He has also been involved with several productions at Broom Street Theater, including Lysistrata, and Hamilton: The Original 1917 Broadway Smash Hit. Having an opportunity to grab a drink at the Weary Traveler after one of the rehearsals with Jackson, it was very clear how very happy he is to return to Broom Street once again to bring the love of theater back to Madison after such a long time. And that long time is now less than a week before Genealogy directed by Dana Pellebon opens at Broom Street Theater Our live stream on the Broom Street YouTube channel will be on November 19 and we are very happy that Jackson Rosenberry will be part of our fine cast.
posted by T.J. Elliott
In my own biography, allusions to 35 years away from active work in the theater receive comic treatment: “In those lost years, T.J. produced, directed, and performed among casts of thousands in a mélange of corporate telenovelas and tragic, comic, melodramatic, and semi-absurd organizational performance art.” But as Sigmund Freud pointed out jokes even self-deprecating ones like the above example can camouflage what is very serious in our lives. Freud noted in what had to be one of his lighter moments that “our enjoyment of a joke is based on a combined impression of its substance and of its effectiveness as a joke.” The effectiveness is not just getting people to laugh, but also at times a way for handling something that was uncomfortable or even painful.
In my case, I missed theater terribly, and explaining more than three decades away from it remains slightly difficult. The good news is that all of that earlier theatrical career — writing, performing, producing, directing, pitching, — proved enormously useful in my succession of straight jobs. In a wonderful example of consilience, a concept first introduced to me by EO Wilson of Harvard, a great deal of what I learned in those years of ‘semi-absurd organizational performance art’ enriched my subsequent playwrighting and indeed my understanding (limited though it remains) of how the world works.
I read and learned a great deal about the way the world works: everything from adult development to adult learning, from knowledge management to project management, from leadership to followership, from neural networks to social networks. From that latter domain, academic papers like this one about the concept known as the Strength of Weak Ties introduced by Mark Granovetter proved useful in those corporations and they prove useful today in trying to #maketheaterlive, which is our motto at Knowledge Workings.
Atticus Cain, who plays Mosiah Wilson in our upcoming production of Genealogy at Broom Street Theater opening next Friday, November 5, could serve as a textbook illustration of Granovetter’s points about how the weak ties in our network, the friends of friends of friends if you will, may prove more valuable to us than our immediate circle in many circumstances.
Ed Altman, who first worked with Knowledge Workings in Grudges when that Queenan-Elliott drama went up live on Zoom in May through July 2020, was in another streamed theater piece that summer, The Statement, hosted by Theater for the New City. Ed invited me to see the piece and that was where I first viewed Atticus. Thus, when I was casting my solo playwrighting effort, Keeping Right, for its live Zoom performances in December, Ed recommended Atticus to me for the part of Sven McManus. Perfect. This kind of connection happens all the time in every type of work, but in theater where the usual structures of workplaces are not available or do not apply being introduced to a powerful actor whom you otherwise would not know is a kind of mighty grace. You’re not sure how it works, but you’re awfully glad that it does work is often as evidenced. As Jeffrey Rush famously pronounced in Shakespeare In Love, “It’s a mystery.”
And while we are offering quotes, this one that appeared at the end of Atticus’ bio seems also apt: “I am a series of small victories and large defeats and I am as amazed as any other that I have gotten from there to here” – Charles Bukowski. We are amazed as well and feeling very lucky yet again.
And as to the getting “from there to here”: Atticus Cain was born in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in part in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his loving grandparents. Atticus lived in a total of thirty-five states while growing up. When he was recruited to substitute for a fellow student in a play, acting arrived in his life. After graduating, he advanced to local theater, appearing in plays ranging from Shakespeare to Guare until he moved to Pittsburgh in 1995. Cain resumed acting with a cameo role on the CBS series The Guardian (2002). Since then, he has performed stage and screen roles in multiple cities, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York, Productions include the aforementioned Keeping Right (2020), Wrong Number (2003), and The Stranger (2004) and his own self-written short feature, Opposition. Some of his favorite roles are Sgt. Waters in A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller, Dr. George Washington Carver, in Carver at Tuskegee by Kyle Bass, Alan Beaumont in Deadline, and Dr. Jacob Carter in the original web series Dark Therapy, the story of a therapist who treats supernatural monsters…and a few human ones too. Atticus completed conservatory training in July 2017 at the acclaimed Atlantic Acting school.
Very soon, we will post the link to the November 19th live YouTube stream of Genealogy benefitting Broom Street Theater. With that welcome addition, everyone will get to see how strong our weak ties can be.
Blog post by T.J. Elliott October 24, 2021
While my co-playwright, Joe Queenan, was writing a dozen books and thousands of columns over several decades, my life required me to take several steps back from direct activity in the theater. That did not mean I stopped writing or thinking about plays; it just meant that I had to concentrate on my straight job because I was just not talented enough to dance that corporate tango and stage plays. But those moments in which I could consider theater yielded results that continue to be important now when I’m back full-time in this world. Several large drawers overflow with notes from that earlier era that may yet find their way onto the stage as plays and a few well-worn books that inspired me then persist still in nourishing my theatrical interests.
One of those books is by the playwright Alan Ayckbourn. The Crafty Art of Playmaking became one of the books of my ‘Bible’ guiding me in playwrighting. Perhaps counterintuitively, one of the most important messages Ayckbourn conveys emphasizes an element other than the writing: “Theatre is not about the writing, it’s not about the directing. It is about that, but in the end it’s really about the actors and the audience and most audiences – aside from the cognoscenti who sit there being experts – come to watch a bit of acting. … Stephen Joseph always taught me that you serve that wonderful moment between actor and audience. And that is the precious moment that live theatre has that no other media has quite to that extent and that is why I stick to theatre.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Ayckbourn’s sentiment and that is why meeting and then working with Jamie England who plays Muggs Moriarty in Genealogy, which opens in just a dozen days from now at Broom Street Theater in Madison Wisconsin, elated me so powerfully. Having an actress like Jamie who was not only capable of creating that “wonderful moment between actor and audience”, but also possessed such imagination and curiosity made me certain that a character that enchanted Joe and I as she came into being on the page would now be even more compelling on the stage.
That Jamie owns such talent is no surprise to those who have seen her act in Madison or elsewhere. After all, Jamie has been acting since fourth grade, when she gave a rousing, critically-acclaimed performance as the narrator in Cinderella. Here in Madison, Jamie most recently appeared onstage as Judy in Madison Theatre Guild’s 2019 production of Small Mouth Sounds. Other favorite local acting experiences include turns as Joyce in Body Awareness, Mattie Fae in August: Osage County, Nightshade LaVixen in Sweet William, Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, JoAnn in Company, the unsinkable Narrator in You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery, Lisa in Cancer Stories, Margaret Hughes in The Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Liz Morden in Our Country’s Good, and Arsinoe’ in The Misanthrope. We are very fortunate that she has taken on our Muggs as her next role and for those of you who will see Genealogy either live November 5, 6, 11-13, 18-20 or via our streaming performance will be fortunate to see her performance. For those of you who can travel to Madison, you can purchase tickets at this link. We should have more details on our live streamed formants, which will air on the last weekend of our run at Broom Street. Stay tuned and don’t miss Jamie!