Auspicious craftsmanship

This week we’re taking a trip down memory lane with an extensive interview with five of TimeLine’s founding Company Members, commemorating the 15th Anniversary of the meeting that started TimeLine on April 9, 1997.  You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here and Part 3 here …

It was bold, audacious, erotic, bizarre, provocative and a show that probably no one would ever produce as an inaugural production. What the hell were we thinking?!?!

Other choosing the mission, what is another crucial decision you all made in those first months that contributed to ensuring TimeLine’s long-term success?

Nick: We reached out for help. To everyone we knew. We asked for what we needed and nothing more. It’s amazing what people are willing to give you if you know what you need.

PJ: We behaved like we were far bigger than we were. We each took job titles, had job descriptions (and ones poached from a theatre with a budget over $2 million … whereas we had about $300) and were very formal about our meetings and planning. We focused most of our time on building a business model and infrastructure, knowing that the art would come out of that and after that. We also established a culture that exists to this day in which we would talk about the things we did well and the things we needed to do better.

Who else do you remember being involved in your first year as a company? There must have been other participants. What do you remember about their contributions?

Nick: All of our families were involved in one way or another — lending us time, money and support. Two of my best friends, Renee and Tom Zipprich, were a big help. They were great sounding boards for my ideas about the company and although they were both finding jobs and starting a family, I always knew they would become a bigger part of this dream. They attended the first meeting and today are very generous donors and subscribers!

The TimeLine Company in 1997 with others who were involved during that first year (seated from left): Dezhda Mountz, Lara Goetsch, Juliet Hart, Pat Tiedemann; (standing from left): Kevin Hagan, PJ Powers, Brock Goldberg, Nick Bowling.

Juliet: Renee Zipprich, Lily Shaw, Dezhda Mountz. There is an exhilaration in starting something new that I think we all felt that first year … kind of like holding our breath until we opened that first show.

Pat: Lara Goetsch. I think there may be others who claim credit for bringing her into the fold, but I want to go on record saying it was me, all me! She joined our meetings as an “unofficial, non-voting delegate” (how wicked were we?!) and added immeasurably to the company. No way would TimeLine be where it is today without her. I firmly believe her presence early on in our development had a profound impact on the stability and creative growth of the company. She continues to move the company forward internally and within the theatre community in Chicago and at-large.

Not sure if it was the first year — probably the second — but Chris Hofmann also had a great influence on the company at a critical time for us. I’ll never forget telling him how desperately we needed technical support, knowledge, ability and supplies as we were moving into “our own theater” for the first time. Or how he jumped in with both feet, working tirelessly using his considerable talents and connections to advise us, procure and install equipment and upgrade our technical capabilities. I have a vivid memory of him high atop scaffolding he borrowed, hanging the lighting grid he researched, designed, tested and installed at the theatre. His great burst of energy and assistance when we moved into the theater gave us a huge shot of much-needed momentum and greatly improved technical abilities at a critical point in our development. His expertise continued to assist the company as technical director and then a Company Member, enabling us often to view things from a different angle and more fully realize complex and technically challenging designs in the new space.

PJ: There were a couple other major players in the very early days. Dezhda Mountz was our first unofficial intern/volunteer and she did a lot of grunt work for us. I think we actually also coaxed $50 out of her in our initial pitch-in. And Lara Goetsch, who is now a Company Member and our Director of Marketing and Communications, came on board pretty early and helped us figure out how to market ourselves and produced our first shows. Obviously, we never let her go.

Talk about your choice of a first production. Why Summit Conference? What did that production say about TimeLine, and what were its biggest lessons?

Pat Tiedemann as Clara Petacci, Juliet Hart as Eva Braun and PJ Powers as a young German soldier caught up in their world in “Summit Conference.”

Pat: I brought Summit Conference to TimeLine. It had been performed in my undergraduate university, and I had seen a production, although I had not acted in it.  Of course, we had just the beginnings of a mission, and I for one was desperate for a play that proved that a mission of doing plays about history did not have to be dusty and boring and pedantic. Summit Conference seemed to fit our mission (it was about real historical people) with a nice non-pedantic premise (a fantastical unpredictable meeting) and a very densely provocative structure and narrative. Plus, it fit our company: A script in need of serious dramaturgical research and support, with great possibilities for creative design and a strong directorial statement, acted by a tailor-made cast of two actresses and one actor. Everyone had equally meaty roles to dig their teeth into and there was enough danger to challenge all with a few good risks. What more could you want! Except, of course, for any sense of comfort or assurance that we could successfully pull it off or that an audience would be interested, understand and/or enjoy. Ah!  What passion! What courage we had!

Kevin: I think Summit Conference was the perfect choice for our first production, and not just for literary reasons. It wasn’t just that the story was perfect for our mission. I think it was the production as whole that established who we were, what we wanted to say and the visually interesting worlds we wanted to create and live in for a short period of time.

Nick: Pat had brought the play to the team. We all struggled with it because it was such an unusual play — a surreal look at the mistresses of Hitler and Mussolini where the actresses actually morph into those infamous men.  It worried us that it was our premiere and the play might be suggesting we would always be doing these kind of plays. There were many more safe choices, but we decided to move forward with Summit Conference because it fit us so well (it was very much in our mission and there were roles for all six Company Members). We decided that we had to look at this play not as THE ONE but as a starting place on what was sure to be a long journey. The production was done on a shoestring, with outdoor work lights and furniture salvaged from alleys, but it was beautiful and haunting in many ways. We used video in that first show, which is funny to think about now. It wasn’t a modern projector but an old reel to reel. There was an aesthetic that we built on that show that has remained. Bold design and strong acting.

In TimeLine’s first review, the Chicago Reader praised the “auspicious craftsmanship of this TimeLine Theatre debut.”

Kevin: I think one of the things that really appealed to audiences initially and still does today is the look of a TimeLine production from front of house, through the audience, across the stage and in patron mailboxes. The worlds we worked to invent early on in terms of sets, lights and costumes were about creating almost another character for the play — not one that intrudes or knocks you over the head by “putting the metaphor on stage,” but another character that lives and breathes as naturally as the written characters and offers a unique and interesting perspective on the time, place, and texture of their environment.

Summit Conference was a great example of that — using real furniture and real period uniforms/dresses, featherweight scrims that served as projection screens and room dividers, and a highly expressive playing area based on Speer’s grandiose and austere vision of architecture of the Third Reich — we created a world that felt at once as otherworldly and historically correct as the play itself.

Nick: We learned how hard it was going to be. People weren’t going to just show up. We would have to really be in this for the long haul … and build our audience one person at a time.

We were so excited when we had people we didn’t know!  I remember a show where we had about eight people we’d never seen. We asked them afterward how they had found us. There had been one review in The Reader (God bless Mary Shen Barnidge), and it helped pave the way with those first audience members.

PJ: That show was wild!! I actually just last month watched archival video of that show for the very first time because I was looking at old footage for our 15th Anniversary video. And I was kinda blown away. It was bold, audacious, erotic, bizarre, provocative and a show that probably no one would ever produce as an inaugural production. What the hell were we thinking!?!?

Well, I guess the answer to that question is that this show set the bar high for what we aimed to be. It was challenging for everyone (the artists and the audience), it got people thinking, it had imaginative design choices, and it showed right out of the gate that TimeLine had a clear focus and was aiming high. It wasn’t fully successful (or well-attended) but that show was a promise to those who believed in us that we were on to something.


PART 5 of our interview with TimeLine’s Founding Company Members — favorite memories, favorite productions, and dreams for the next 15 yearspublished on 4/13/12.


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