What better place to enjoy Irish theater than the University of the Fighting Irish? Everyone at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center is thrilled to welcome the Irish Theatre of Chicago back to our stage for their performance of The Dance of Death by August Strindberg in a new version by Conor McPherson. The play tackles marriage, love, and life with humor and veracity that only an Irish playwright can offer. We asked the cast a few questions about what audiences can look forward to. Read on to learn their responses.
What is the audition process like to become a company actor with the Irish Theatre of Chicago?
Kevin Theis (The Captain): There is no formal audition process to become a company member with ITC. In the past, all of our company members have come from the casts of shows that we have done. If you perform with us and we like the cut of your jib, there’s a very good chance that the ensemble will nominate you to become a member. Then the ensemble meets annually and votes for new members (if new members are needed).
Why is it important to perform the work of Irish playwrights?
Kevin: I don’t believe Irish playwrights are all that different from playwrights all around the world but certainly the Irish experience is a unique one. Like many cultures, the Irish are deeply in love with language, lyricism, and poetry and it shows in their dramatic works. But the plays have to be relevant to the modern age or it is pointless to do them.
Who is your favorite playwright and why?
Kevin: Actually, the playwright who adapted this play — Conor McPherson — is among my favorites. I have performed in two of his greatest plays, The Weir and The Seafarer, and deeply admire his adaptations of Uncle Vanya and The Dance of Death. Other favorites include Brian Friel, George Bernard Shaw, and Tom Stoppard.
Carolyn Kruse (Alice): I love Tenessee Williams, he created visceral and surreal storytelling through complex neurasthenic characters that are a dream for actors to play.
Could you tell us a little bit about Dance of Death? What can audiences expect?
Kevin: This is a very strange, funny, dark play that deals with such subjects as the fragility of life, the perils of living with someone out of necessity rather than love and the bonds that hold people together, sometimes in spite of (or because of) their faults.
Matthew Isler (Kurt): This show is about the dynamics of a marriage and what happens when past familial relationships come to visit. The show touches on many themes, marriage, forgiveness, revenge, manipulation, the meaning of life and what comes after.
Dance of Death deals with difficult themes such as loneliness, divorce, and tyranny. How do the actors deal with those themes off-stage?
Kevin: It is important not to let your dramatic life on stage seep over into your real life. “Keep the drama on the stage” is an old saying but a good one. That said, when you explore these kinds of themes, you cannot help but examine your own existence, your experience, or even your own life choices. That’s all for the good. And, with luck, you won’t find too many similarities with characters like these.
Carolyn: By seeing a therapist? Seriously though, therapy is probably a good step! I think a lot of couples and families had to face this during the pandemic. Being locked down with the same person/people day in and day out. Some marriages did very well and others fell apart.
Matthew: One day at a time.
Taking a production on the road must be difficult. How have you prepared to take Dance of Death on tour?
Kevin: Touring with shows is a great joy. It allows you to share your show with people who might not otherwise see it. And performing in a new space in a city you’ve never visited is always a thrill. But I don’t have a special preparation for bringing DoD on the road.
Carolyn: We are currently only in the first week of rehearsal. I trust my director knows how to allocate time to work in a way that helps us as actors work at an accelerated pace in order to get the show ready for the tour.
Matthew: The same way I would prepare any stage play, do the work, find the character, memorize the lines. I will probably pack a bag for the trip as well.
What does the company do for fun? How do you ensure morale while touring?
Kevin: The ITC ensemble has known each other for years, sometimes decades. We are a very tight-knit group. We read together, perform together, drink together … everything. We are extremely lucky that way.
Do you have any advice for aspiring actors?
Kevin: Yes! Remember that acting is a profession but it is also a calling. Sometimes you will be paid, sometimes you will do it for the sheer joy of it. But remember always to bring the same energy, enthusiasm, and training to every job, no matter the remuneration. We don’t just do this to pay the bills. There are better jobs for that.
Carolyn: Live your life outside of theater. Take time to experience things, travel, get your heart broken. Take up a new hobby that has nothing to do with acting. Take risks. Work hard and listen more than you speak. Take care of your body and your mind. Learn techniques — like meditation and mindfulness — to help you process rejection.
Matthew: Never give up the dream and continue to find ways to work.
How do you find connections between yourself and the character you play?
Kevin: With few exceptions, you can always find a bit of yourself in the character you play. Or a bit of the character in yourself. The key is to dig deep and find those similarities and bring them out whenever possible.
Carolyn: Mary Ann Thebus, a wonderful acting teacher and actress taught me that — everything you need to play the role is already in you. What is the piece of you that fills this role? Use it. So, I just start from myself and how I’m similar to the character and how I might have experienced similar things and start from there — and then I use your imagination. Mary Ann was also big on “casting” people as the other characters — who in my life is similar to this relationship I have with Kurt and the Captain? And, go from there … I tend to work more inside out than outside in.
Matthew: Through rehearsal and preparation of the show, hopefully, you can identify situations in your past where you can relate to what your character is going through. Maybe it’s a person you know or something that has happened that you can identify with so that your emotions and reactions can feel a little more authentic.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this show?
Kevin: There are multiple layers to these characters and we are going to delve deeply into each of them. I hope audiences can see the depth of this play and that we can do it justice.
Matthew: I hope the audience enjoys the work we put forth and I hope they can laugh while identifying with some of the larger thematic throughlines.
Thank you to the cast for taking the time to answer our questions. See Irish Theatre of Chicago perform The Dance of Death on October 27–29 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.