CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The theatre department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will produce a season of plays that offer a fresh look at the American theater. The department will bring a wider range of voices to the stage in its 2021-22 season through work by women, people of color, LGBTQ authors and students.
“The term ‘American theater’ often means a canon of mostly white, mostly male writers – people like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill. Those are great playwrights with great plays, but theater is storytelling, and the stories they tell tend to be limited in terms of who is an American and what is an American story,” said Gabriel Solis, the head of the theatre department and a professor in the School of Music.
“We really are using the year to help ourselves and help our audiences to expand the stories we’re hearing as American stories and American theater,” Solis said.
They include works by younger playwrights and alumni, and an adaptation that will allow student actors, designers and stage technicians “to take an original play as a starting point and make a version of it that speaks to their concerns now,” Solis said. “They’re really thoughtful, smart young people who have been living through some tumultuous, eventful times. They bring a lot to the table in saying which stories matter to them today.”
This season’s plays also reflect common themes from American theater, such as the country’s history of racial interaction and conflict, issues of class and labor, and hope for the future, Solis said.
“There are some great plays, and a lot of very relatable stories that feel real and a part of our lives,” he said.
Lighting designer Nicole Rataj (center) writes light cues with programmer Yingman Tang (left) and assistant lighting designer Jason Jakubaitis (right) during “The 48” rehearsals.
Photo by Zack Saunders
Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.
“Redline Collection,” by Illinois alumna Kristen Joy Bjorge, is part of a 10-play series inspired by the iconic century cycle of playwright August Wilson. It is about the lives of queer women in Chicago, and it takes place in the 1980s at the start of the AIDS crisis. A three-week workshop residency with the playwright allowed students to be involved as Bjorge refined the new work. The workshop culminates in performances Oct. 7-9.
The comedy “Native Gardens” examines American urban landscapes, Latinx experiences and issues of race, taste, class and privilege through neighbors feuding over a fence line. Playwright Karen Zacarías has raised the profile of Latinx theater through her work. “Native Gardens” runs Oct 14-23.
Illinois theatre alumnus Nathan Alan Davis wrote “Origin Story,” about a millennial working two jobs to pay off her student debt. Running Nov. 5-13, the production will be the Midwest premiere.
Theatre faculty members and students devised an original work, “Vaslaren (The Whistleblower),” based on Henrik Ibsen's classic political play "Enemy of the People." This play takes Ibsen's script and adapts it using movement, sound, music and media to examine an age-old question through a modern lens. It runs Feb. 11-19.
“Neverland” is a modern adaptation of the Peter Pan story by Native American playwright Madeline Sayet. The play examines the story from an Indigenous perspective and offers a hopeful glimpse of a future filled with wonder. The world premiere of this all-ages production is April 7; it runs through April 16.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Sweat” tells the story of a group of friends who work together on a factory floor and how layoffs and picket lines drive them apart. It runs April 15-23.
In staging this season’s plays, the theatre department restructured its rehearsal and performance processes in response to a culture of overwork, Solis said.
“The industry as a whole has been wrestling with how much it asks of people in order to produce theater. We are in the middle of some real reorientations about work expectations and making theater humanely,” he said.
The department reduced its rehearsal schedules from six days per week to five for its student actors, designers, stage managers and technicians. It also eliminated rehearsal shifts that called for working 10 hours out of a 12-hour period in the week leading up to a performance.
“We believe we can make compelling art with a reduced schedule,” Solis said. “We’re training students to become leaders in the industry. We’re trying to model for them thoughtful approaches for not just how you do it, but how do you change if things are not working? A lot of us have recognized this year that some of the ways in which we work don’t make us healthier and may not make us work better.”
The theatre department also has developed protocols for returning to live theater as safely as possible, Solis said. Audience members, casts and crews must be masked at all times, except actors when they are onstage. The casts and crew must test regularly, even if fully vaccinated.