Evan Garrett can’t help but feel a little starstruck.
His dormitory, Max Palevsky Commons, is just steps away from Court Theatre, one of Chicago’s most critically acclaimed theater companies. And as a Theater and Performance Studies Major, Garrett has been given an inside view of the theater world from Court’s directors and dramaturges.
Garrett’s theater studies are about to get even better.
He and five other undergraduates have been selected to perform a never-before-seen short play by the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner in a staged reading on April 8. Kushner will be on campus to discuss the play, But the Giraffe, and his other works, as part of the ArtSpeaks fellowship program and speaker series on April 6.
In the meantime, Garrett is taking a class on Kushner and rehearsing around the clock under the guidance of University Theater staff and Court Theatre directors, including Court’s celebrated artistic director Charles Newell.
According to Heidi Coleman, Director of TAPS, UT owes Kushner’s upcoming visit to its strong partnership with Court Theatre.
“These kinds of collaborations really come out of the ideas that bounce back and forth between UT, TAPS and Court,” Coleman explained. Newell and UT’s staff “really make it a priority to come up with projects that we might both be interested in.”
Coleman says that the partnership between Court Theatre and UT is a natural, given the theaters’ locations and resources. Still, it is rare for universities to regularly collaborate with professional theaters to this degree.
“It’s all about the relationships for us. Charlie [Newell] is invested in students in very real relationships, not just lip service,” Coleman says.
Garrett agrees. “To have an hour and 20 minutes where the artistic director of Court is directing you is amazing. There are not that many places in the world where you get a critically acclaimed director and such an acclaimed playwright working with undergraduates,” he says. “That’s exactly what is happening with But the Giraffe.”
Garrett especially appreciates the connection he’s been able to establish with Newell and Court Theater via a class he took in winter 2010: The Theatrical Illusion: Corneille, Kushner and the Baroque, co-taught by Newell and Prof. Larry Norman. The course coincides with a run of Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s L'Illusion Comique at Court.
Newell says the class he is co-teaching is a rare opportunity for students in the College to work closely on a theater production with professional artists. “Not only are we talking about the coming theater production, but the students have been visiting the rehearsal hall and working with the actors in the company,” he says. “Hopefully this will inform and challenge and inspire students in their own work at UT.”
According to Newell, Court Theatre had a long history as Hyde Park’s only community theater until it became a part of the University and later a professional company in the mid-1970s.
“Jump to 2010, and [with] the collaborations we have been able to form with TAPS and the extraordinary activity going on at UT,” Newell says, and Court has found a variety of opportunities to bring students through its doors to watch rehearsals, and speak to actors and directors. “But the Giraffe is just one of those win-win cross-pollination opportunities that Court and UT have been finding.”
Garrett, for one, regularly takes advantage of Court Theater’s discounted student tickets, and tries to tie what he’s learned from their productions to his own work whenever possible. Court’s Radio Macbeth, for example, serendipitously aligned with a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth on campus last year.
Garrett was taking a class at the time taught by Kate Peterson, a dramaturge at Court. Peterson introduced him to Anne Bogart, director of the reimagined Macbeth production. He has also attended Court Theater rehearsals, most recently with his class on Kushner’s works.
“It really speaks well to the University that we are able to do this,” he adds. “We hear about the Nobel-prize winning physicists all the time but not so much about the arts; UChicago is really working hard for the arts.”