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Life Arts    H3'ed 2/27/11

Chicago's Stage Left Theatre Presents "An Enemy of the People" Opening March 1

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My guest today is  director Jason Fliess. Welcome to OpEdNews. Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People is opening Tuesday, March 1 at Chicago's Theater Wit. What's this play about, Jason? 

An Enemy of the People, in a nutshell, is about a man who discovers that his town's major tourist attraction could potentially be harming people, and what happens to the community and his standing in it when he realizes that he could save lives or bankrupt his community.  It's very much about public opinion, how the majority can be swayed, personal attack versus reasoned discourse and the role of the press in politics.  It's also a pretty heartbreaking family drama.  

The play was written in the 1880s in a very different world and yet it is incredibly relevant today. How did you decide on this play?

Just like you said, it's incredibly relevant today.  Its questions of tone in politics resonate with the heightened tone of American politics in the last three years.  The dilemma of solving an environmental problem without causing a major economic problem has echoes in the question of oil dependence and global warming.  So many individual lines and situations and conflicts in the play echo social and political issues of today.  

Plus, we're doing Arthur Miller's adaptation, which was written in 1950.  Miller, at the time, was working through some of the same questions about American politics and society that led him to write The Crucible, three years later.  So even though the play is still set in Norway, Miller's distinctly American tone and visceral, muscular language brings the already resonant themes and issues even farther into the forefront.

Sounds good. Tell us about Stage Left and its history. Do your productions generally have a political bent?

Stage Left Theatre was founded in 1982, with a mission focusing on new work.  In 1988, the mission changed to what it is today.  To quote our website, "Our mission is to develop and produce plays that raise debate and challenge perspectives on political and social issues." In all of our meetings and discussions our artistic director, Vance Smith, always puts emphasis on the debate part of our mission--we prefer to ask questions rather than provide answers.  But, yes, all of our productions have some sort of political or social question at the center of them. 


What about you, Jason?  When did you come to Stage Left and what's your training?

I'm from Pittsburgh, PA originally.  I got my B.A. in Theatre Arts (concentration in Acting) at Point Park College, and worked around Pittsburgh as an actor and a director for a few years until I moved to Chicago for grad school in 2004.  I received my MFA in Directing from the Theatre School at DePaul University in 2007.  One of my classmates was cast in two Stage Left shows shortly after we finished, and it was through attending those productions that I fell in love with the company and its mission.  In 2009, I directed Anna is Saved by Jess Cluess in that year's LeapFest, SLT's annual new play festival, and shortly afterward I was asked to join the ensemble.  

Lovely. So you both direct and act? Or are you concentrating on directing nowadays?

Just directing. Acting was where I started, but I prefer directing, and I'm better at it.

Okay. I read that this play was the basis for the 1975 Spielberg blockbuster, Jaws. Is there any truth to that rumor?

That's what Wikipedia tells me.  I've actually never seen Jaws , but it's on my list once the show opens.

What did Arthur Miller do to the original? How is it different? Why did you decide to use his version?

Miller's adaptation takes the structure of Ibsen's original and updates it--not so much in its setting or its ideas, but in the way that those ideas are dramatized.  The characters in this version are much more flawed, which is always interesting, and the conflicts between them are much more well-defined.  The drama in this version is much more personal--where Ibsen brings ideology to the forefront, Miller allows the hopes and needs of these people feed their actions, which makes them much more relatable and realistic.  The ideology is still there, but it's subtextual--the audience can think about ideology after the play is over, which is always much more interesting and accessible for contemporary audiences.  Miller's language is also quite poetic.  I don't speak Norwegian, so I don't know how much poetry exists in Ibsen's original text, but all of the more literal translations I've read lack the exciting language that Miller uses in this version.  Miller also heightens the danger and desperation present in the final scenes of the play, which is always more exciting to watch.

That's a fact; emotions are not in short supply in this play. You've partnered with UNICEF for this, which is rather unusual. What's that all about?

Part of Stage Left's mission involves outreach.  We have a program we call Partnerships For Action, where we pair each production with a not-for-profit organization that is in some way relevant to the issues raised and debated in the play.  It's an opportunity for cross-promotion for both the organization involved and for the company.  We provide ticket discounts for members of the organization in question, we display their materials in the theater and on our website, and we share a portion of all donations made to Stage Left during performances with the company.

Because so much of the plot of Enemy revolves around the cleanliness of the water, the UNICEF Tap Project was a great fit for this production, as its goal is to provide safe, clean water to children all over the world.

Great idea! Anything you'd like to add, Jason?

Just that this is an important play, and this is an important time to see it.  We're very proud of our production, and we want people to come see it. 

I saw the production tonight. It's a thoroughly thought-provoking piece, well-worth seeing. People stayed in the theater talking long after the curtain fell, a very positive sign. 

  I'm glad you liked it! 

Thank you for talking with me, Jason, at this hectic time. Good luck with the production! An Enemy of the People: at Stage Left Theatre production, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Chicago, March 1 -- April 3, 2011. 
photo credits: Johnny Knight

Stage Left website

"One of the top ten shows to see this winter" -- Chicago Theater Blog

From Stage Left website: For this production of An Enemy of the People , Stage Left is proud to partner with the UNICEF Tap Project, a nationwide campaign that provides the world's children access to safe, clean water. During World Water Week, March 20-26, 2011, restaurants across the United States will encourage patrons to donate $1 or more for the tap water they usually enjoy for free. In tandem, UNICEF Tap Project Volunteers will be supporting their efforts by conducting local fundraising events and activities. Thousands of restaurants, dining patrons, students and volunteers, along with corporate, community, celebrity and governments supporters have made the UNICEF Tap Project a powerful national movement.   Click here for more info.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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