What’s in a name?

In early 1999, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune covered TimeLine for the first time, reviewing our second production, No End Of Blame by Howard Barker. He led off his review with this:

TimeLine Theatre is a dull name for a new off-Loop Chicago troupe …

A great way to start this relationship.

But he did hedge on the comment, continuing with:

… Especially one that demonstrates a capability for exciting work with minimal resources.

Little did Chris know that our dull name could have been even worse.

‘Tis true. MUCH more dull.

Oh, how I wish I could have seen the opener to his review if we were “Sentient Theatre Company.” Or “Senary Theatre.” Or “Spinning Wheel”!

Yep, those were all on the table.

PJ Powers’ 1997 notebook

I recently came across a treasure trove of avoided mistakes in an old notebook at home. It is from 1997, and it includes many scribbles, ideas, and plans for the very early days of a new organization that would eventually be known as TimeLine Theatre Company.

The discovery of my old notebook came as part of recent archival digging to prepare for our upcoming 15th Anniversary gala — going back through 50 productions worth of photos, video and news clippings and reliving the painstaking work that went into getting this company off the ground.

The six of us who started it (confident youngsters that we were) aimed to build something bigger than ourselves — something beyond the life of a fly-by-night company that would produce a few plays and burn out. We dared to try to create a company that would one day, some day in the distant future be regarded as a significant player in Chicago’s incredible theatre community.

We took that work (if not ourselves) very seriously. Creating an infrastructure and spending a good year before ever actually producing a play, we signed on for a marathon, not a sprint.

But before we attacked that lofty goal, we didn’t even know what the heck to call ourselves.

For the first few months of meeting and planning we very foolishly referred to ourselves as “The Group,” just so we had something to write in our calendars to note a meeting time. But “The Group” was kinda already taken by one of the most influential American theatre companies ever, so it seemed like we should come up with something else or be laughed out of town outright.

But before we coined a name, we had to be clear about our intent. What kind of theatre did we aim to do? Somehow we knew early on that a distinct mission was critical not just in the short-term but to be our guide well into the future. Inspired by our impassioned leader, Nick Bowling, he offered up the idea to create a theatre focused on exploring history.

A pause overtook the room. Sounds of crickets filled the air.

I believe I was the first to turn a puzzled look into words.

History plays??? History plays!?!!?! Like, forever? That’s what we’d always do?!?

I wasn’t even quite sure what that meant, and I could only imagine visions of me donning an Abraham Lincoln taped-on beard, exclaiming the Gettysburg Address in some middle school auditorium on President’s Day.

But Nick and my equally sober colleagues walked me back from my knee-jerk reaction. “Let’s use theatre and history not just to explore the past but as a point of context to discuss social and political issues of today,” they urged. “What if we created theatre that made history sexy, not dusty. Plays that were relevant and resonant today — that spoke as much to today as they do to the past.”

Thankfully I saw the light, and in hindsight am so grateful for their vision and what has been a continually invigorating mission to lead our way.

So we knew what we were about! Hooray! What next?

We had two tasks:

  1. Each of us needed to pony up $50 to file paperwork with the state to become a not-for-profit organization. (Well-funded, trust-fund kids we were not. I even recall my mother scolding me for wasting $50 on something “that would never turn into anything” — a quote I have never let her forget.)
  2. Come up with a list of possible names for the company.

Lordy. A name?!?

Developing a mission seemed the easy part. But NAMING the company?? Them’s fighting words.

We each dutifully scribbled in our notebooks before making our impassioned pitch to the full group. Some of the doozies you see in the photo above aren’t even a quarter of the bad ideas. They are just some of my bad ideas.

I assure you, some of my others were worse. And my cherished colleagues’ were much worse. Any day now they will admit it.

“Sterling Players” I believe was proposed (I still hope, in jest), as was Laughalot Theatre Company, although I’m quite certain that that one was late at night after cocktails. Plus, once we decided that TimeLine’s first play would be Robert David MacDonald’s Summit Conference — an intense, erotic, imagined meeting between the mistresses of Hitler and Mussolini — Laughalot Players really seemed an ill choice.

Of the names I came up with (and I’ve spared you the subsequent pages of my notebook with the really crappy ones), it was “TimeLine” that I thought was my winner. I pitched it, mostly I think because I needed a dictionary to even know what the hell “Sentient” or “Senary” meant; definitions I’ve already forgotten.

Eventually, after lengthy … and I mean LENGTHY debate (as was and is our nature), “TimeLine” it was.

Victory!!! We had our name … and a solid two years to enjoy it before Chris Jones would dismiss it!

All we had left to figure out was if we were theatre or theater — a discussion that I really just can’t go back to, even to recap. Even at my most pretentious I really just can’t get into it again. Just know that we’re in the “-re” camp.

So TimeLine Theatre Company we were.

Draft sketches of TimeLine’s first logo, by co-founder Kevin Hagan.

And with about $43 left in our bank account after filing state paperwork, we had a big task at hand — get others to believe in us enough to support our enterprise.

Somehow we did. Slowly but surely. And the Little Engine That Could was out of the station, chugging along, with many ups and downs ahead in the distance.

Now, we find ourselves preparing to celebrate our 15th Anniversary. On TimeLine’s stage right now is our 50th production (and our 16th Chicago premiere), with our eighth world premiere set to start rehearsals in a couple weeks. We proudly employ more than 100 artists a year, and are working in four Chicago Public Schools through our dynamic Living History Education Program, led by TimeLine co-founder Juliet Hart. And just in the past 14 months we’ve had the incredible honor of being named the nation’s “Company of the year” by the Wall Street Journal, Chicago’s “Best Theatre” by Chicago magazine and one of the nation’s 10 most promising emerging theatres by the American Theatre Wing — the little company that started with $300 in the hat.

TimeLine’s first official logo, designed by co-founder Kevin Hagan.

I am truly humbled and awed by all of it, and deserve credit for precious little of it. Except, I guess, our name. For all the rest, I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time, working among amazingly bright people and supported by one of the smartest and savviest audiences anyone could hope for. I’m fortunate beyond words to have hitched onto this amazing wagon that is just hitting its stride.

And the “dull name for a new off-Loop Chicago troupe” — yep, I’ll own that one proudly, Mr. Jones.

I thank my astonishing colleagues for agreeing to it, and for letting me be a player on the team for the last 15 years. My life and TimeLine’s work has been many, many things since 1997. But dull? Not so much.

In 1997, TimeLine Theatre Company was founded by Nick Bowling, Brock Goldberg, Kevin Hagan, Juliet Hart, PJ Powers and Pat Tiedemann. PJ has served as the company’s Artistic Director since 1999.

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  1. John Sterling

    Personally, I think Sterling Players is a fine name…

  2. $50 in the hat « Behind the ‘Line :: TimeLine Theatre Company Blog

    […] Oh, there were a few tough things. First: Can choosing a name for the company really be so bloody impossible? […]

  3. Past, present, future « Behind the ‘Line :: TimeLine Theatre Company Blog

    […] Juliet: I will never forget doing Summit Conference for an audience of two. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And I remember the debates about the name of the company. […]