Fun Home

I saw Fun Home at the Victory Gardens Theater. It was an incredible production. They invited cartoonists and visual artists to show their work before the show. I appreciated the interactive wall for audience members to draw pictures associated with their own memories. Prompts included drawing your home, your first love and other sentimental topics.  Through these activities, audience members were engaging authentically with the work from the moment they walked in the doors of the theater. I thought this was a smart way to connect audience members emotionally to the content of the musical.

Image result for fun home victory gardens

The musical is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. I’m interested in the adaptation of a graphic novel into a stage musical. What elements are retained? I’m also curious about how the coming of age story of a queer artist is treated. I’d like to explore the musical with these considerations in mind.

Lisa Kron, who adapted the graphic novel to the musical, developed the idea of having three Alisons on stage (small Alison, college-aged medium Alison, and present day Alison). Kron talks more about the process, which she call painstaking in this interview. With the oldest Alison creating the graphic novel on stage, the creative process seems more present than in reading the novel. She describes her choices, how she is uses objects to conjure her memories.

Image result for fun home victory gardens

In the graphic novel, the literary references are much more prominent and run throughout. One of my favorite themes in the novel is how she connects her relationship to her father to the inverse to the story of Icarus and Daedalus. In the graphic novel, she is explicit about the connection to the myth from the start and end of the story with the game of airplane to Alison’s desire to enjoying reading Ulysses (with Stephen Dedalus) like her father, and the drawing of maps from a bird’s eye view. Journey and distance are evoked through literary references. Also, like Joyce’s Ulysses, the chapters evoke stylistic elements of English literature. Bechdel’s chapter titles harken back to famous English works of literature.

The references are intricate and consistent throughout the graphic novel. For example, the first scene shows the airplane scene with the book Anna Karenina on the floor beside her father. The book seems to foreshadow his suicide and calls forth the famous first sentence of the novel “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and Anna Karenina’s step in front of a train. Throughout the whole story, it’s as if we see the truck coming to hit her father.

Image result for fun home drawings

Although the musical shows that books are important in Alison’s relationship with her and in her coming-out, it minimizes the references in favor of capturing emotion. It seems fitting that the literary references should stay in print and emotions come alive on stage because this is generally what we associate with each medium. The airplane scene in the musical gets its own song rather than its own book. Musical themes are repeated in emotional moments and give depth to what the characters may be feeling.

In some ways, a graphic novel is particularly poised to transition to the stage. The panels can make up scenes complete with dialogue. Music helps us hear the many voices sounding at once. I think that is another reason why the three Alisons is all the more genius. We can hear her perspective concurrently at all three phases of her life. We also get a chance to hear a song by Alison’s father who we don’t have access to his inner thought process in the graphic novel. The staging allows deeper access to the internal thought process of more characters.


The show feels closer, the emotions more reckless than in the graphic novel. The characters are right in front of us proclaiming how they feel through song, whereas in the graphic novel, the starkness of conversation in an east coast family leaves the emotions more implied and distant.

These different emotional registers make each interpretation effective in its own way. Both are playing with the idea of distance. The emotional distance differing in each, makes the themes of motion and physical distance even more prominent.

Both start and end with playing airplane. This game brings Alison and her father close physically, while an airplane implies travel or increasing distance. She says it is one of the rare moments they make physical contact, but it is through a game that imagines her soaring away.

Throughout both interpretations, we hear about trips, maps, and cars. In the musical, Alison’s coming out is phrased as she “leapt out of the closet.” The motion is all tarnished with Bruce’s suicide, stepping in front of a moving vehicle as she immediately adds. “I leapt out of the closet and four months later my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck.” Motion is exciting, motion is painful. This is summizes in the perfect last line of the graphic novel “…he was there to catch me when I leapt”


Throughout the graphic novel, we see Alison’s journey, like the Odyssey and Ulysses, twisting with her dad. Moments of motion are are emphasized with this mock-hero’s journey framework. Her coming out is navigating through Scylla and Charybdis, her exploring Joan’s body is “landing on a new shore” and the last “hurtling into the sea.” Traversing distance is a metaphor for the oscillating emotional distance between Alison and her father.

Ultimately, the graphic novel adds a layer of complexity to the prominence of distance metaphors through the hero’s journey that is missing in the musical. On the other hand, the musical gives greater access to the emotions of the characters to the audience. Motion and distance are essential to both portrayals and the way they are presented gives us an idea about what is different between the two mediums of storytelling.


Dance Theatre of Harlem: Return

I’m still feeling energized and thankful for a stunning production by Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Auditorium Theatre last weekend.

It’s the time of year for valuing the people in our lives. I’ve been having a relaxing time with family away from the city for Thanksgiving, but part of my heart is still at the Dance Theatre of Harlem student matinee with my students. Continue reading

Page to WebPage?

December always seems to fly by, doesn’t it?! This time of year I’ve been traveling quite a bit and not around as much for the fabulous Chicago performances this time of year. But I still found myself engaging with the arts through new media and the internet.

Technology really is changing the way we look at performing arts.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t have the arts without people. But there are so many ways technology is giving us more opportunities to be consumers of performing arts.

I’m examining  3 hot, recent examples that are changing the way we think about what performing arts should be.

What do you think has the most potential? What do you think the future holds?

  1. Performing Arts with Google

So this is really crazy to me. I went to open on new tab on google chrome and there, at the bottom of my screen, something like “click here to explore the performing arts.”

Thought #1- “Gosh, google analytics know me well!” Click! Thought number #2- “Yes! The internet is actually working to make performing arts accessible.”

Then I played with it for a bit and investigated more.

There weren’t many full length performances which I was really hoping for. But it was really lovely and a great foundation for what could be with buy-in from cultural giants around the world.

I watched ballet, I looked at archives, I went onstage at Carnegie Hall, I took a tour of the Kennedy Center all from my computer chair.

I was excited when on my travels, I got to take a tour of the Kennedy Center irl.

However, Continue reading

Seeing Eye to iPhone


Before Turkey Day, I went to another Thursday event at the Harris Theater, Mix at Six featuring Lucky Plush Productions.

The Mix at Six structure is interesting. Affordable, short performances on a weeknight so people can attend after work at 6pm. They build enthusiasm for the artist’s other full length performances at the Harris Theater.

A social event for young, hip artistic types that otherwise don’t have plans on a Thursday. It’s a smart move to increase audience awareness, but are there some flaws? But what about people who don’t work in the loop? Is the concept popular?

Seats were general admission, which would make it easy to invite friends at the last minute with tickets only $10 at the door. But, everyone at the performance fit on the orchestra level. Considering there are 3 balconies, it certainly wasn’t a full house.

I’m in full support of low ticket cost and promoting theatrical events to make them more accessible to the community. Mix at Six is an excellent test case to see what this type of series could do for a community. I think much smaller scale cities would see brilliant results from this type of program with not a lot of competition for a Thursday night slot. I’m curious to see what it looks like as the series continues.


Lucky Plush Productions seemed to be a great fit for the evening as well. I’ve wanted to see them perform for a while and admire their mission to create “work that is richly complex while also being broadly accessible.” It’s a challenge to strike that balance, which makes the troop especially intriguing in my mind.

Their work has a delightful fusions of dance with theatrical, comedic story arcs. I was impressed with the honesty of the performance.

Especially the second number, struck me as an inventively realistic critique of reality tv. A part that really stuck with me was one of the performers dancing with her phone between her ear and her shoulder all while carrying on a conversation.

We are drawn to watching one another in “real” form on tv and on stage. This is essential to performing arts, but also eery with technology observing our every move. Even the first piece “The Queue” set in an airport also had awareness of being watched as inherently important.

Lucky Plush reminds us that the performing arts are about being watched. And in our world full of technology, it’s trickier to define what it means to watch or be a consumer of performing arts. And they do so with an affable sense of humor mixed with a critical eye to deliver very entertaining work.


I’m a fan of this Lucky Plush clip from “Punk Yankees” in 2012    Watch it!

The pervasiveness of technology is used a lot as a theme these days. We are both drawn in and creeped out by all that the capability of the technology we use everyday. Especially for the arts, artists can use technology to help create/stage their work (youtube, garageband, vine etc.), but art can’t be done without humans at all. Different from the work of engineers, artists can’t be replaced by computers because their work is inherently humanistic. And that’s the important part.


I drew on this theme of technology and the ever watching eye. I recreated the iphone with signature background as a pencil drawing. We spend so much time staring at our phones like little zombies. I thought, what if the phone looked back at us? (…besides from the obviously creepy “periscope”-esque camera functions). So I added a subtle face in the stars peering back at the viewer.-

How much art is around us everyday that we don’t really see? How much art could there be around us if we were just looking in the right ways?

Lucky Plush shows the beauty, the humor and the poignancy of real life. When we engage with the world around us, art can be anywhere from an airport to the cell-phone in our pocket. Mark your calendar for their show Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip at the Harris Theater on March 3!

If you can move, you can dance. If you can see, art is all around you.

Twyla Tharp. I had been looking forward to this 50th anniversary tour performance at the Auditorium Theatre for a while now!

One of the first texts I read in college was the introduction of Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. Just stepping into my own routine for the first time in my life, I thoroughly embraced her thoughts on rigor and routine in developing creative ideas. This text really was formative for me. So with this performance coming, I checked the book out from the library to grow closer to her thoughts on creativity and to what had enthralled me as a college freshman.

The performance

Even in the program notes, she lets us into her creative process yet doesn’t let the dance become overwrought with conceptual narratives. Dance is simply movement.
The Bach pieces had a exquisite balance of formal ballet influence mixed with signature “Twyla” moves. In contrast to the rigidity of ballet, they seem to be how the body wants to move. Especially the coupling. The pair work was innovative and fluid. There would be tight arabesques and then bodies swaying together at the hips, as if you popped into a Latin night club.
The conclusion tied together the piece and united the dancers in a circle. (Which called to mind this image of a Matisse painting, that was an influence to her (I read that after I saw it at intermission)). Free and jubilant. The dancers went through a journey and came back together, united in doing the choreography from the opening. The work came full circle. I also think it goes to show how powerfully visual images resonate in this piece.
Henri Matisse Dance II
 After intermission, Yowzie exploded in full, vibrant color.


RIka Okamoto

Twyla Tharp




Rika Okamoto is simply remarkable. It is clear watching her that she has worked with Twyla Tharp in diligent study. Something about the joy she exhibits and an indescribable nature of her movements reminds me of videos and photos of Twyla Tharp herself.

Check out this side by side. It really is remarkable how well she exhibits the style.

I simply couldn’t take my eyes off of her when she was on stage, particularly in Yowzie.

Lack of precision gave way to really show how individual dancers move. Even the bows were differentiated. I really think her work shows us about life as simple as it can be whole also hinting at the complexities of the relationships and the people around us. She lets her dancers be themselves, embody their character and life and then juxtaposes them together like a breakfast club of dance personalities.

What is the future of dance?

Especially in dance and classical music, today we start to expect robotic precision. Recording technology fights for our attention and the market for dance companies becomes even more elevated. During the performance, I thought about how great it is that this type of free-form performance can be sustained. But for how long? With video streaming and our dependence on technology, where is the place for live performance?

Perhaps grass-roots performance organizations can fight against this stigma of art-making being only reserved for the perfect.

I went to see The Luna Troop‘s dance concert the following night after I saw Twyla Tharp. Their mission is to include non-professional dancers and give them performance opportunities reconnect them to the joy of dance. Their age range spans 5 decades!
J. Lindsay Brown and dancers of Ensemble Espanol also graced the stage with Rogers Park High School dancers too. It was really inspiring to see these Chicago community organizations coming together
Twyla Tharp’s company is not the standard ballet troupe. The age range of dancers is wider and they are not forced to blend in with precise synchronization like a band of robot soldiers. Her work makes bounds to challenge what we think of as a professional dance group.
Seeing these two performances back to back, I felt delighted that a variety of dance groups can exist doing innovative work on a large scale and a small scale. (Keeping in mind this is Chicago and large, urban cultural hub) Though so many activities vie for our attention, dance is still something that is electrifying live and can move us at many different levels on precision, especially when love of the craft guides the movement.
Everyone can be an artist!
 Something beautiful about the world of technology that we live in is that we are given so many opportunities to get our art out there. Immediately iPhoneography came to mind when thinking of how to transfer the idea that art doesn’t have to be high-brow precise to be good art to visual art. We don’t need Michelangelo technique to capture a moment. We have cameras, filters, tilt shifts and ways we can make the art of everyday, fantastic with a device we carry around with us all the time.
There are even large scale awards and competitions. Not to mention instagram! @artofchi recently had a contest for the best scene of a chicago landmark taken in an innovative way.
Check it out!
I took a few picture that I thought the design aesthetic was pleasing. And I liked the unity of the circle like Twyla Tharp used in the Finale of the Bach piece.
As a culture, embracing everyday art more gives more opportunities to enrich our lives with sharing human experience. The arts should not be a craft only for a select few, the more people they can reach, the more we are connected. Let’s innovate and keep creating no matter what level, because there are always more ways we can engage with art.
We are all artists, no matter what age, skill, or ability. 
I’m particularly looking forward to the aMID festival this Winter that “celebrates the underserved performative body of the aging artist and challenges commonly held views regarding the age demographic of a dancer or physical performing artist.” This will be an exciting show and I think a lot of these themes of countering precision and celebrating that age can’t even hold back the joy of dance. It’s one to put on the list!

Tempest Transformed

By a turn of fate, I saw Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Tempest on the first Friday night performance of its run. Magic is illuminated in this telling of Shakespeare’s play with Teller (of Penn and Teller) as one of the Adapters/Directors along with Aaron Posner.


There were easily over twenty substantive magic tricks laced throughout the show. I couldn’t help but think “Wow. This is what a big budget can get you.” There was so much art packed into one evening, it was almost unbelievable. From the magic tricks, to the live band playing Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan songs, to the ornate set, Chicago Shakes firmly established itself as an institution of performing arts anchored in patrons willing to dish out the dough.


Beckoned in by Ariel

Beckoned in by Ariel

Magic enchants the audience from the moment they walk into the space. The front of the stage tampers into a ship cabin and audience members climb in. Ariel (played by Nate Dendy) engages audience members with card drawing tricks. Starting the show off with this bridging of the world of the play literally into the audience was extremely captivating. When spent cooped up in the lobby until minutes before show, the theatre space instantly opened up to the world of the show (minus a few incidents of audience members dropping cell phones from balconies or making out with their dates…) The style of the magic space was echoed elegantly by the set.


Prospero’s magic was not so much a mystical quality, but a performing art. This tale placed the role of Prospero as the magician rejected by his family for his passion for performing magic tricks. The rejected artist figure challenged the role of art practice to the individual. Ariel takes on a “Teller-like” role for the beginning of the show, letting the magic speak for him. Prospero and Ariel create their world through magic, which contrasts with the stark family Prospero left behind, laced-up and focused on money and power.
But what happens when arts are intersected with money?
Most productions I see are making ends meet to bring performances to an audience. The small budget can sometimes transfer to the stage impacting some qualities of the performance. With The Tempest, the struggling artist was juxtaposed with an art space that spared little expense to deliver a fantastic show. But it happened with such elegance that the irony of struggle with a large budget was buried underneath the pearl of the storytelling. Even with all the flash, the artistic balance was remarkably managed to truly present the story.


The audience was transported to the world of Prospero’s island with ease and thus, affected by the story’s emotions. Through this telling with magic arts emphasized, the focus and desire for revelation of a trick draws an audience in. Magic is an art of transforming. But at base, all the arts can transform. Whether its the audience viewing, the artist practicing or ideas changing, the arts challenge us to think and adapt understanding. Another reason why the cornucopia of art forms (magic arts, visual set, theatrics of Shakespeare’s story, music in the band, movement/dance of Caliban) in this telling of The Tempest was a profound choice.


To focus on Caliban, his interpretation in this telling cast him as a transformed being. He was played by two actors almost fuzed together to be a creature that only the magical island could sustain. This unique staging transformed what we typically think of as dance or movement and made it grotesquely intriguing. Caliban, therefore, is a creature that can only exist in the magical space of the island, because he has been so altered by it.


One of my favorite lines from The Tempest well represents the idea of transformation in this production.

Nothing in him doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change 

Into something rich and strange (Act I, Scene II, 399-401)

Let’s unpack these lines. One does not simply undergo a sea-change, but “suffers.” The weight of transformation does not come easily without pain. The material of the sea-change remains intact, as “nothing fades” but becomes something other, “rich and strange.” The sea-change is hauntingly dynamic because the sufferer comes out of it better (rich), yet marred (strange).

Dedication to art can be a type of sea-change. The artist’s identity is re-formed only through suffering to something “rich and strange.” Prospero fits well as a tortured artist. Sea-change has cast him aside and pushed his art practice. Through the suffering of his family abandoning him, over his magic initially and then as Miranda slowly steps away from him, we see before us a sea-change. Out on Navy Pier, with waves crashing up, the audience at Chicago Shakes experiences its own sea-change at the performance of The Tempest. Not fading the content of the story, but augmenting it with content that makes it more rich and strange.

I interpreted this quote visually to reflect art’s transformation. I chose watercolor relief for several reasons (…besides that I love them). 1) Adding water transforms the paint from something hard into a watery (sea-like?) pigment combining qualities of both paint and water 2) The vibrancy of the colors is dependent on each time you add water which makes it multi-dimensional 3) The transformation to make the relief “appear out of nowhere” like magic.
The presentations of Shakespeare transform today. How many Shakespeare in the Park performances have you heard of? Or even popular films based on the bard? (I wrote a little bit about this after Chicago Shakes Greatest Hits, here). Art continues long passed the playwright’s life and constantly strives for the new in order to change the audience’s perspectives on a classic. Posner and Teller wanted to accentuate the art of magic connected to Prospero and in doing so, exposed truths about the transformation art can cause.