By Ilana Kowarski
For the Ruckus Theater Company, the move to Chicago from Kalamazoo was a long time in coming but, according to Artistic Director Allison Shoemaker, it was “always the plan.” When brushing her teeth three years ago, Shoemaker had a revelation, and realized that she wanted to form a new-work theater company in Chicago. A Midwesterner, Shoemaker felt that she had “uniquely Midwestern stories to tell,” and that Chicago would be a place that would be receptive to those kinds of stories. Shoemaker also thought Chicago was unique because of its “community of supportive artists that challenge each other to be better.”
But she didn’t want to leave her friends at Western Michigan University behind. Shoemaker had enjoyed her student experience at the play-development lab, and thought that she and her fellow students “worked really well together.” “For the first time the theater I was making was the kind I wanted to make,” Shoemaker emphasizes. Because she wanted to continue that positive experience and thought that her friends shared her commitment to new-play development she recruited them to join her company in Kalamazoo, planning to move the theater to Chicago when everyone was ready to go. Logistically, arranging the move proved difficult, and took longer than expected. As Managing Director and Resident Playwright Ryan Dolley explains, “For a long time, we were scattered, but eventually we all settled down here.”
Once the majority of the company had moved to Chicago, they began looking for a theater space in the city. While they were looking, they met members of the Side Project Theater, a Chicago company which also has an interest in new and experimental theater. After they got to know each other, Dolley reports that members of both companies knew that they could have “a relationship that could bear artistic fruit.” Side Project Theater offered to let Ruckus Theater use their space for a year, and Ruckus Theater gladly accepted.
Dolley reports that he is excited about the move. According to him, Chicago is “the place to go for young artists to do bold, new work,” because Chicagoans are “smart and savvy enough to approach your work without the kinds of commercial expectations you get in New York.” Dolley says that this kind of open-mindedness leaves more room for innovation and makes Chicago “a theater city in which you could do whatever you wanted.”
According to both Shoemaker and Dolley, Ruckus Theater does unique work that might not fit into a conventional theater community. Shoemaker stresses, “There’s a lot of theater that’s really polished and really safe, that’s entertaining but easily digestible. The kind of work we do requires an unbelievable amount of emotional and intellectual commitment from the creators and the audience… We go full-tilt and don’t really look back.” Shoemaker describes Ruckus Theater as “daring” and emphasizes that this is something that the company is proud of, “As a company, we tend to create things and select things based on what both fascinates and frightens us—it’s not worth doing if there’s not some risk involved. If we can’t dismiss it or stop thinking about it, odds are other people will feel the same. If it spooks us or compels us, we’ll tap into something deeper and broader in ourselves—it may be messy, but it certainly won’t be boring.”
In many ways, the stories that Ruckus Theater productions tell are different than ones you’d see at other theaters. “The American realism model doesn’t appeal to us,” Dolley explains. “’Death of a Salesman’ is not how my friends would want to spend their Saturday.” Ruckus Theater, says Dolley, prefers less-conventional play genres, like film noir and science fiction. But Dolley reports that what makes Ruckus plays particularly special is that they describe extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, mixing “fantastic” events and settings with a “representation of people you might actually know.” Instead of plays with characters who are presidents, Ruckus Theater does plays about people with more everyday jobs, like plumbers, and Dolley believes that this allows Ruckus to give a voice to “people that are often underrepresented in theater.”
Dolley suggests that the plays have a distinctly Midwestern feel. Dolley declares that one of the things that he loves about the Midwest is that it is “a real place where people deal with each other on a level playing field,” and he asserts that his plays reflect that Midwestern ethic without “caricaturizing” it. “Midwesterners work hard, don’t take themselves too seriously like the Easterners, and aren’t as freewheeling as the Westerners,” says Dolley, who claims that he has embodied that spirit in his characters. Dolley says that the problems Ruckus plays discuss are also very Midwestern. A child of Detroit in its decline, Dolley says his plays deal with today’s Midwest “losing what was its backbone” and “envision a way forward for the characters and for the region as a whole.”
According to Shoemaker and Dolley, the way they tell their stories is also innovative, with all the plays that Ruckus Theater performs taking “place in one concrete universe.” Shoemaker explains that, because “Ruckus writers write for a very specific universe,” their stories are all connected to one another, and so characters from one play often show up in the next. Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, this method of storytelling, Dolley suggests, “rewards people for paying attention” and gives people who attend multiple Ruckus productions “a more enriching experience.”
Because Ruckus Theater does exclusively new plays, Shoemaker says that the plays are “exhilarating.” “Every piece of new work has an energy to it that you don’t see in something that’s been done before,” Shoemaker says. “When a new playwright looks at a blank page, there’s a void that needs to be filled.” According to Shoemaker, Ruckus Theater members work together to “fill the void” and cooperate in “a casteless theater” where everyone “leaves their fingerprints on the project” and helps to develop both the work and “the artists that create the work.” According to Dolley, this is part of what makes Ruckus Theater special, the fact that every company member can make suggestions to the playwright “that will be in the script the next day.” “If everyone is selfless and works to make the play the best it can be, it’s exciting…that’s what makes it exciting for me,” says Dolley.
To learn more about the first Ruckus Chicago season, click here for the season announcement.