Around the table

As To Master the Art begins its new life, courtesy of the Chicago Commercial Collective and Broadway In Chicago, I thought it worth noting just how we got to this point in a process that began an astonishing seven years ago. Ironically, the process has played out—just as much of the play itself does—around a table.

Laughing, loving, debating, discussing, deal-making, sharing, creating and planning—these happen throughout our lives around a table. And quite often there is food that brings us together.

Looking back at the seven-year evolution of To Master the Art, perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me how much of this play has come to life in a similar fashion—gathering around a table over a meal, hatching big plans that eventually led to incredible destinations we couldn’t have initially imagined.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights around the table for To Master the Art:

Summer 2006 at the kitchen table in a cottage in St. Josephs, Michigan
During breakfast at the annual retreat of TimeLine Company Members, pitching ideas, my amazing colleague Juliet Hart broke out a copy of a new book, My Life In France, and passionately proclaimed, “We must create a play about Julia and Paul Child!” Immediately intrigued, we all started talking about next steps and getting our hands on more biographies to learn about this fascinating couple. I offered up one idea: “I think we have to talk to Bill Brown,” knowing that he was not only one of our favorite collaborators, but also the most Julia Child-crazed person I knew.

Winter 2007 at Bill Brown’s dining room table
After doing additional research and having some preliminary conversations with Bill over many months, it was time to make things more concrete. Over a delicious meal, he totally shot down the first idea—that he star in a one-person play, taking on both characters of Paul and Julia. Bill was not at all interested in that route. But he was definitely intrigued by creating a show about Paul and Julia, and we agreed to keep thinking and talking.

"To Master the Art" playwrights William Brown (left) and Doug Frew,
“To Master the Art” playwrights William Brown (left) and Doug Frew.

Summer 2008 at the table in Bill Brown’s backyard
Again over a delicious dinner, Bill—now joined by Doug Frew—shared a two-page proposal about the play that they wanted to write together. It was terrific, and soon thereafter, TimeLine Theatre officially commissioned them to write it.

2006 to 2011 over multiple breakfast meetings at Mitchell’s Diner
Brian Loevner and I met every few months over breakfast to talk shop. A recurring topic was our frustration that there were few (or no) options in Chicago for hit shows from Off-Loop not-for-profits to get extended life in a commercial transfer production. Little did I know that Brian would have bigger plans down the road, to be revealed at a later meal ….

Fall 2008 at a table at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Bill and Doug spend days combing the archives of Julia Child, reading countless letters and documents.

Winter 2009 at Doug Frew’s home
With Julia’s French Onion soup simmering on a stove in the background, Bill and Doug gather at the table to start work on the script.

August 2009 at Le Bouchon restaurant
Bill, Doug and I have dinner after forcing ourselves to see the new film Julie and Julia, assessing whether or not we thought it would be the undoing of our own project, which was already very much in-process. After much discussion and tremendous food, we were poised to charge forward, believing that we were creating something unique and stage-worthy.

January 2010 around folding tables in TimeLine’s rehearsal room
A workshop of To Master the Art.

Artistic Director PJ Powers (from left), Doug Frew and William Brown around the table at the first public reading of "To Master the Art"
Artistic Director PJ Powers (from left), Doug Frew and William Brown around the table in a discussion with the audience after the first public reading of “To Master the Art.”

February 2010 on the set of TimeLine’s “Master Harold” … and the Boys
Using the table and kitchen from this Athol Fugard play as our stand-in, we present the first public reading of To Master the Art.

October 30, 2010
The table for To Master the Art officially comes to life on the Opening Night of its world premiere at TimeLine. The eight-week run sold out within days and we mounted a campaign for the play to have continued life somewhere.

February 2012 at Smoke Daddy’s restaurant
Once again dining with Brian Loevner over lunch, he tells me that he’s starting a new commercial producing initiative, focusing on remounting hit Chicago productions, and he wants a TimeLine production to be among the first projects. “What do you have?” he asks. By the following day he has the script of To Master the Art and 20 reviews of the production.

May 2012 over breakfast
Brian meets with Bill and Doug to discuss remounting their play.

January 2013 around the Broadway In Chicago conference table
Representatives from Broadway In Chicago, Chicago Commercial Collective and TimeLine hash out some details of a plan to mount To Master the Art at the Broadway Playhouse as part of the Fall subscription season of Broadway In Chicago.

Artwork for the 2013 commercial remount of "To Master the Art," in partnership with the Chicago Commercial Collective and Broadway in Chicago.
Artwork for the 2013 commercial remount of “To Master the Art,” presented courtesy of the Chicago Commercial Collective and Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse.

April 2013 back around folding tables in the TimeLine rehearsal room
A new workshop with a revised script and some new cast members (and a deluxe cheese tray for inspiration, courtesy of Doug).

September 2013 at a table at the Mity Nice Grill next to the Broadway Playhouse
At dinner before the final dress rehearsal—fittingly, each eating French Onion soup—Bill, Doug and I toast a great tech process and the enthusiasm for that evening’s final run-through. It’s ready for a bigger audience.

It’s taken a long time to bring the show to this point, but to quote Paul from the final scene of the play, we’ve “enjoyed every damn minute of it,” working around a table with an ever-increasing team and finding communion there as collaborators and creators.

Whether it was discussing with the TimeLine Board, Company and staff the feasibility of mounting a production, watching an audition for an incredible actor who came in and seized a role, looking at research photos covering a table in a design meeting, gathering in a production meeting on stage late at night around the table to perfect the aroma of shallots sautéing in butter, or, most importantly, sharing it with an audience—each phase and each contributor has passionately and personally added to the feast of this new play.

In Bill and Doug’s proposal from 2008 they wrote, “Our reasons for wanting to write this play go beyond the fact that Julia Child taught us both how to cook—and by extension, how to live our lives more fully and graciously … It’s a story of discovery. Here was a woman who, at the age of 37, was still finding out who she was, where her true passions lay, and what she was going to do with them.”

That sense of discovery has been a part of every aspect of this play’s process, and led by Bill and Doug’s heart-on-their-sleeve affection, I have watched an astonishing team embody Julia’s spirit of exploration and fearlessness, relentlessly pursuing excellence with unabashed joy and a thankfulness for being at the table together.

To commission a new play involves risk, trust and patience—three things that Julia also embodied and taught us. Just as she was in uncharted territory trying to write her first cookbook, so too were we in this—TimeLine’s first production of a play we commissioned. And that risk and patience have been critical to this venture.

Industry-wide, a depressing number of new play commissions never make it to a full production. And an even more depressing number don’t get the benefit of a second production to continue to develop, refine and reach more people. We feel blessed to have seen both occur, thanks to the trust of countless supporters and adventurous audience members who wanted to go on this exploration with Julia, Paul, and TimeLine.

To Master the Art is a first for TimeLine in many respects. It’s not only our first fully produced commission, but also our first commercial remount, first production in a 550-seat theatre and first partnership with another producer. As Judith Jones says in Act Two of the play, “Well there you have it. We’re making this up.”

Each step along the way has taught us new things, pushed us further and caused us to “live life more fully and graciously.” Now we eagerly give the play back to Chicago audiences (albeit a larger one than in 2010 at TimeLine), and happily welcome more people to the table for the feast of To Master the Art.

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  1. Bernard Holicky

    “To Master the Art” – I saw it in the 5th preview Saturday. It transferred well to this larger venue…If you liked it at TimeLine, you will like it at the Broadway Playhouse at Watertower. Janice Ulrich Brooks did a wonder job as the wicked Madame Brassart. My Saturday’s guest, UK born and a French speaker who lived in Paris, thought Terry Hamilton’s and Jeannie Affelder’ s French has a Persian sound. I missed Joel Gross’ Carolina…I was so taken how he did it a TimeLine.