Civil War at the House Theater: An Interview with Nathan Allen
by Berit Godo
Whether it’s Shakespeare, ancient Greek myth, or Huckleberry Finn, there are some stories that seem to remain solidified in our canon, sometimes even across cultural lines. In an attempt to begin to answer the question of why we retell certain stories over and over again, I spoke with Nathan Allen, Artistic Director of The House Theatre of Chicago, about how they use storytelling to bring Chicago together.
So, you’re the Artistic Director of the House Theatre… what does that mean exactly?
I pick what plays we do and who does them, and I am there to assist and lead the artistic vision of the organization.
What do you look for when you’re choosing shows?
There’s a couple major factors in it. One is that I find most theatre to be pretty boring so it needs to be something like... weird. It needs to sound a bit impossible, is usually what we’re attracted to. We like impossible stage directions, like when it says something that makes you think “oh how would that even happen in a theatre? how would you accomplish that?” because that means that you’ll probably make the audience use their imagination somehow or play along somehow and that’s our whole idea. That’s what The House means, we named ourselves after that part of the theatre where the audience sits.
Another big ingredient though is that we have an ensemble of artists in the house so it needs to be weird in a way that’s exciting to those number of artists. So we’re supporting the work or explorations of these artists, and trying to find stuff that challenges the status quo a little bit but seems necessarily theatre to us, that couldn’t be a movie or a TV show or something else.
A lot of shows that The House has put on are retellings of old stories, like The Nutcracker, Hatfield and McCoy (which is already a retelling of Romeo and Juliet), or the Wizard of Oz-- is there anything in particular that draws you to pieces that are already in the canon?
The Mission of The House is to unite Chicago in the spirit of community through amazing feats of storytelling, which is aspirational to say the least, and likely our own impossible stage direction. And I think what that means, what makes theatre useful, is that you can get a bunch of different people who maybe look or live different from each other to sit in a room together and laugh and cry at all the same things. And even more important, to see each other laughing or crying at the same things.
And this is not possible with other forms of media. It’s even not possible in much of the theatre that we see produced, because of the architecture of old theaters. And this is an exercise in empathy in some way, and in theatre the potential for catharsis is different than in a book or a movie in that it can be community-building, live in the moment. And maybe you see someone laughing at something and you're laughing together sharing that common experience, even better is if you see someone crying and you're crying together in the space and you can feel like we're all being moved by something.
And in order to attract a diversity of audience, in order to even get different people to come to the same thing you have to be able to speak in a common language that transcends those differences, and we find that is popular culture. That’s what popular culture is, it’s the most equitable language of art because it’s of our moment and it’s inclusive and/ or trying to be inclusive.
And then popular culture is built on popular mythology, so we end up looking at stories that have universal themes that’re often in mythic structures themselves or in classical structures. Essentially, then, that’s why we end up looking at a bunch of myth and fairytale and stuff that is based on this fountain of mythology, and we’re trying to extract this common experience that we have as humans into a language that lots of different people can hear.
It’d be a really different thing for a bunch of same people to get into a room and laugh and cry and see each other laughing and crying and then feeling like “oh, well at least the people who look and think and feel like I do understand me.” And I think the theatre has a chance to do something a little better for the culture of Chicago. For this city, which is as segregated and separated as any city.
Another way to retell a story within the realm of theatre is to reproduce (or revive) a show that has been put up before. Hatfield and McCoy was first produced by The House in 2006, and then again this year. What was the reason and process like for bringing it back 12 years later?
Yeah, so it's interesting, we only do new work, original work, and something has to be a certain combination of successes in order to merit bringing it back. You have to have people who might be interested in revisiting it and seeing it, or that there's more people who would like to see it, and you also have to have an honest artistic interest in revisiting it, like there's more you want from it as an artist. And then that the service of that storytelling is needed enough by an audience that it merits bringing it back.
With Hatfield and McCoy there was a lot of artistic hunger to keep working on that show, like we've grown up and some of us are parents now and have different relationships with these characters and the music has evolved and the movement is all new and all of that stuff is exciting as artistic growth. So when the time came that it felt like that new work needed to be realized then it made sense to bring it back.
Also, it was a fairly successful production. At the time it opened it sold more tickets than any other show we had done before. And that can be for a lot of reasons, but one of them has to be that people thought the show was good. So, it's a good project to continue visiting, there's more to be mined there. And when we do, like, the Nutcracker every year we're always looking for something new in it. You know, none of these shows make money… even the Nutcracker, we lose money on that show, that's just the nature of the beast. So you just… you gotta lose it one way or another, you wanna do it in a way that's going to be good for somebody!