Cast reacts to Emanuel visit, play extension

March 10, 2011 8:02:29 AM PST
Take a Chicago-centric script, a rave review, an appearance by a mayor-elect, a fatefully timed Groupon and add a ''Twist of Water.'' What do you get? An extended run with nearly sold-out shows.

It's a storyline few plays ever see, as the free publicity gods continued to smile on the cast and crew of the Route 66 Theatre Company's production this winter at Lakeview's Theater Wit.

"A Twist of Water," written by playwright Caitlin Montanye Parrish, tells the story of Noah, 39, the white, adoptive father of Jira, an African-American junior in high school. The pair was reduced to a family of two after the sudden death of Noah's partner and Jira's other father, Richard, in a car accident.

"We wanted to tell the story of a nontraditional family in a way that presented it in a normalized, traditional context," said director Erica Weiss, 28, who has been a collaborator with Parrish for eight years. The two consider themselves "co-creators" of "A Twist of Water."

Between scenes that tell the story of Noah's first timid steps back into dating and Jira's attempts to make contact with her birth mother, Parrish weaves in soliloquies from Noah, a high school history teacher, about the back story of Chicago and how it was built, burnt, rebuilt and reborn early in its history, lining up the histories of Noah and Chicago while highlighting the parallels between the two.

Weiss, who called the play "a love letter to Chicago," said she and Parrish hoped the play would both resonate with Chicagoans who love the city and with any theatergoer who could empathize with the characters.

"It's been an honor the way the city has responded and the way that Chicago has received the message that we were trying to send, which is that we love the city and we wanted to try and tell a story that was unique to Chicago and also universal," Weiss said.

On a recent Saturday, a four-star review from Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones suggested that Rahm Emanuel and other politicians, including Gov. Pat Quinn, come see the play to learn about Chicago and its divergent cultures. That afternoon, Weiss said, Emanuel called the box office and booked tickets. That night, he was one of the audience members in a theater that seats 96. His attendance has since led to additional coverage from the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. A previously scheduled Groupon deal was offered two days later, at the height of the excitement, leading to the sale of about 250 Groupons, or 500 tickets total. Subsequently, the play, which was originally set to close March 20, was extended a week.

That series of events boosted attendance and brought recognition to a script that, like similar, smaller, off-Loop shows, would have otherwise opened and closed with a few good reviews and a pat on the back for all involved.

Weiss used words like, "honored," "privileged," and "excitement" to describe the mayor-elect's visit, saying his presence was not just a gesture toward "A Twist of Water" but the whole theater community.

"He was a fantastic audience member. He was very responsive, and he was really great. He was really nice to everyone. It was a thrill," Weiss said.

"He'd already won the election. There was no political agenda behind him coming here," said Stef Tovar, 40, the artistic director of Route 66 who also plays Noah. "He came to take in the play and did it all on his own and was gracious and really enjoyed himself, and it really says a lot about him, and I look forward to him being our next mayor."

Emanuel's Attendance

At the top of the front page of the Chicago Tribune Saturday, February 26, a small blurb touting Jones' review directed readers to Page 16. In its eighth paragraph, the review gave a tongue-and-cheek call to action imploring local and state politicians to get reacquainted with Chicago by seeing the Route 66 production. Mayor-elect Emanuel got the message and followed through.

Weiss said she heard about the mayor-elect's impending attendance that afternoon, but was forced to hide her excitement from the cast.

"I found out when he called the box office to make reservations. One of our company members called me, made sure that I was going to be there and said, 'Don't tell the cast," Weiss said. "I got a little bit flustered. I called my mom. I called Caitln Parrish, the playwright. I paced around for a little while trying to figure out what wear, and then I got myself together."

Weiss said the cast has kept level heads about the reviews and news response, and emphasized that the goal of the cast has always been to tell a story to what they hope to be a receptive audience.

That said, once the final curtain came down and Weiss announced to the house that Emanuel was in attendance, Falashay Pearson, 24, who plays Jira, said she gasped and jumped up in excitement while on stage in front of everyone, including Emanuel.

"I was just really taken by surprise. I had no idea. I thought it was really cool that he was in the audience," Pearson said. "For him to come that night was just really amazing."

Weiss said Emanuel's attendance, along with his recent attendance at a couple local music shows, are positive indicators of his support for the arts.

"Everything he's been talking about recently about the music scene and the theater scene and his background coming from when he used to be a dancer, it all just feels like a great sign about what kind of leader we're going to have," Weiss said. "To have a mayor who will come to the small theaters and engage the small arts organizations is just really exciting. I can't wait to see how it comes into action. But it feels like incredible validation to have someone come back to Chicago from the White House and take on those kinds of things as a priority."

Tovar said Jones' review alone was probably enough to sell out a show whose marketing strategy was essentially a Facebook page and word of mouth, but with the mayor's attendance and the ensuing coverage, a Groupon deal scheduled well before the review made it a breeze to sell tickets.

"This is a world premiere," Tovar said. "We knew how good the show was, but we didn't know how it would sell."

How It All Came Together

Tovar said that behind the marketing kismet and great reviews are a storyline and cast that are proving to reach their audiences.

"I think what's great about this play is it's about family," Tovar said. "It's something that everybody can relate to because families are messy and full of love and strife and all of these things. And I think above all, in terms of the history of our city and the beautiful scenic elements and the great acting, you're going to see something in this play, if you come to see it, that you have in your own life and you can relate to. Everybody wants love. Everybody wants family."

While the play, a world premiere, enjoyed its sudden acclaim, Parrish has been away on the West Coast, getting her MFA in screenwriting at the University of Southern California. Weiss says she and Parrish, a Florida native who lived in Chicago for nine years, met in theater school at DePaul University.

"We both fell in love with Chicago when we moved here, and it became home," Weiss said. "Even though she's gone and wishes she could be here for all of this exciting stuff that's happening with 'A Twist of Water,' we're very much keeping her in spirit and in mind."

Tovar, a Chicago native who has been involved in professional theater since 1992, said the production and character he plays are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

"I've never been part of a show that's more of an ensemble. It's Noah's story, I guess. But everything from the design elements, to my fellow actors, to the director and the stage management... the evening when you experience it in the theater here is truly a collaboration of everyone," Tovar said.

Pearson says the cast of four enjoys a chemistry common in smaller shows.

"I think that was like a day-one thing. We did our first read-through, and we just clicked for some reason," she said. "It's not like there's a cast of 20, or sometimes you don't like one person or something like that. We all love each other. We hung out a lot after rehearsals and gave each other rides when we needed, so it's been a really great, warm, comfortable experience working with everyone."

Weiss said she and Parrish worked on the play for two years before it went into production.

"To see something that you're so passionate about -- and it was just a script and then it was being read -- to have a larger family of people come together to work on it, I really can't stress that enough, the most amazing part of this whole process has been the people," Weiss said. "'A Twist of Water' became a real family unlike anything I've ever seen before. I know how rare it is."

Pearson has also been involved with "A Twist of Water" since before it was a full-fledged, full-length play, being part of the group that read rough drafts of the script before it was finished.

"Just seeing the play grow, from having one act, to having two acts, to having characters taken out and put back in and just seeing the whole script evolve and then just doing all the work to have it be put on stage, that was a really big deal for me," said Pearson, who said the play is her first professional production.

"A Twist of Water"
Now through March 26
Theater Wit
1229 W. Belmont
Chicago, IL