Two respected and soon-to-be-famous playwrights, Margaret Lewis and Forest Park resident Lisa Rosenthal, were inducted into the ranks of Chicago Dramatists’ elite Resident Playwrights last Saturday.
A receptive audience was presented selections from Lewis’ Last Known Alive and Fellow Travelers (currently in rehearsal at Stage Left Theatre) and Rosenthal’s Retreat and All God’s Children. Forest Park residents should be especially proud, as Rosenthal has lived here for the last four years. You may have even seen one of her productions, such as Under Our Clothes at Forest Park’s very own Circle Theater.
With her connections to Circle Theater and Chicago Dramatists, one might see a possible connection between Rosenthal and another Forest Park produced playwright, Rebecca Gilman. Gilman’s Goodman Theatre produced Spinning into Butter is set to become a major motion picture starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Beau Bridges.
“I take that as a tremendous compliment,” commented Rosenthal. Of Dollhouse, Gilman’s Henrik Ibsen adaptation, Rosenthal added, “I think that is a seminal work of our time.”
Rosenthal hopes her own germinal writing can become as influential to the Chicago theater as Gilman’s, and that is apt to happen as she is obviously on a similar path of success.
Dressed Midwest casual in Levis, black tennis shoes, turtleneck, and shirt-coat, Rosenthal’s pleasant mix of calm and yet simultaneous child-like enthusiasm and joviality give one the sense that she could just as easily be a content painter taking a break in a living room overlooking a scenic Massachusetts seaside.
Rosenthal sat in the second row seating of the playwrights’ theater, her back to a stage filled with full-size photographs of six naked women with spray-painted graffiti captions such as “Where are my HIPS??” “SIT UP STRIAGHT MARITZA!” and “my HUGE boobs hurt my back,” self-derogatory body image commentary on the cast of another Chicago Dramatists’ show appropriately entitled Sex Oh!
Post-presentation, audience members complained of the inappropriate distraction of the life-size posters, but Rosenthal, ever the optimist, commented that the posters actually fit with her pro-choice themes in All God’s Children.
A major staple of Rosenthal’s writing is a sense of spirituality, especially if that term is taken broadly and not narrow-mindedly. Issues of Christian-defined morality struggles creep up in her plays, she’s worked with the Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays, and she speaks openly about her interests in Buddhism.
In 2003 she even went on a retreat in Green Lake headed by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen monk and Buddhist author nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. “The only place you can live your life is right here and right now,” said Rosenthal, “The way to peace is to be peace now.”
With titles such as All God’s Children and Retreat, it is not hard to see the obvious spiritual connections; although Rosenthal insists that Retreat’s title has nothing to do with the seclusion of religious meditation and much more to do with the immediate withdrawal of someone under attack. The beautiful thing about theater is that it is a controlled violence”a polar opposite to the violence produced by “the current administration” that Rosenthal mentions with lowered voice throughout the interview.
“I get so much more by giving something away than by holding onto it,” Rosenthal added. Her theater is a gift, a Zen-like gift where the immediacy of existence is embraced. And similar to a sand mandala, which is created only to be destroyed, as anyone who has been to a post-show theatrical strike knows, the sets all come tumbling down. The moment of theatrical performance must be enjoyed as it will pass never to be reenacted the precise same way again. “It’s a once in a lifetime thing. It’s like love,” said Rosenthal.
When she added, “I actually think Buddhism has a lot to offer people,” you can easily replace “Buddhism” in the sentence with “theater” and it will hold just as much truth for Rosenthal. Part of that truth, that offering, is the educational aspects of theatrical performance.
“Theater helps people rethink,” Rosenthal explained, “Education is a big problem in our country.” Education is another important focal point for Rosenthal, both in terms of helping to cure social ills on a communal level and for herself. She holds an MA in Sociology from the University of Arizona.
Again with a Zen-like (and Shakespearean) rejection of absolutism, Rosenthal added, “I’m not trying to create the ultimate answer on some question. I’m trying to create a view.” And views create deep complexity, pluralistic multiplicity, and dramatic integrity. This allows her to avoid theater-stifling didacticism, a problem of some neophyte playwrights. But Rosenthal is no beginner.
She has been writing for the stage for more than a decade and keeps herself occupied with several writing projects to ensure she continues to improve as both a writer and a teacher.
“I think there’s too much passivity in our culture,” said Rosenthal, a writer who is far from inactive.
At the Q&A after the staged reading, Rosenthal noted that she is active with the Oak Park Public Library’s Writers’ Club, heads up a Recovery Journal Workshop for people dealing with cancer with Gilda’s Club, and is constantly working on non-fiction and children’s literature book proposals. She is also active in the Fernwork Arts Incubator (a non-profit organization in Oak Park set up to foster cross-media projects) and the Playwrights’ Collective.
Although all of her projects are obviously close to her heart judging by the ebullience in which she speaks of them, it is the latter which most comes up in conversation with Rosenthal. The collective formed when a group of students at Chicago Dramatists decided they wanted to meet outside of classes for continued feedback and encouragement. It has been the one-two punch of her involvement in the Playwrights’ Collective and Chicago Dramatists that Rosenthal admits has been the first causer leading to her notable authorial achievements.
Those achievements include having had plays produced in seven states, the reception of numerous awards, the publishing of a book she edited entitled The Writing Group Book, and the inclusion of Retreat as part of the Metropolis Performing Arts Center New Play Festival.
With twenty-seven years under their belt supporting the original drama of Chicago area authors, Chicago Dramatists is a playwright’s networking heaven. Most famously, the theater offers its Saturday Series and a variety of classes such as “Discovering the Soul of Your Story” with The Big Kahuna author Roger Rueff and “The Rewrite” with Jeff award winner Mia McCullough.
The Saturday Series is a weekly script-in-hand staged reading of a play written by either a Chicago Dramatists’ Network or Resident Playwright, helpful both in terms of rewriting feedback and showcasing to Chicago area theater representatives. Chicago Dramatists is that rare theater that is set up to help playwrights get future productions. If someone is lucky enough to become a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists, you get to hobnob on equal footing with writers with the stature of Robert Koon and Brett Neveu, two playwrights famous and respected in the Chicago theater world. Network Playwrights total around two hundred and pay to participate in Chicago Dramatists. Resident Playwrights are a select few of twenty-seven chosen for inclusion.
“I’ve known Lisa for about a year. I’ve seen quite a lot of her work and I have to say she’s quite talented,” said Chicago Dramatists Managing Director Brian Loevner, “She’s a person with a long reputation and a long history with Chicago Dramatists.”
Those interested in learning more about Lisa Rosenthal can find more information at www.lisarosenthal.com. Those wanting to see her work can look forward to a 2 p.m. staged reading on March 22 of Retreat in its entirety at Chicago Dramatists at 1105 West Chicago Ave. as part of their Saturday Series. “I think Retreat is a fantastic piece,” said Loevner, “I’m looking forward to seeing a full reading in March.” More information is available at www.chicagodramatists.com.