By William Scott
“I’ve never seen so many white button-down shirts and thin black ties sitting in our lobby—rows and rows of boys in black ties,” recounts TimeLine Theatre artistic director PJ Powers of the audition process for the highly anticipated Chicago premiere of Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys.” “The enthusiasm and competition to be in this show is unlike anything I’ve experienced. I watch about a thousand auditions a year and have never seen anything like the number of letters and emails and calls I got.”
The fierce competition to land a role on stage mirrors the high stakes offstage, as TimeLine prepares for its most ambitous and high-profile production yet, amplified by an economic downturn that’s threatened the very existence of some of its peers. But if TimeLine’s feeling the pressure, they’re not showing it. Instead they’re exhibiting the poise typical of theater companies several times larger, maintaining the collegial sense of artistic collaboration that keeps things humming along.
“There were guys in that audition who had beaten me out for roles, which on my end breeds envy,” remembers actor Joel Gross of his experience. “But there we were, reading for different characters and working together, enjoying each other and being directed by a smart and enthusiastic director. It was a good feeling.”
Gross is one of the guys who won a prized role in the play’s titular band of teenagers at a fictional boy’s grammar school in the north of England in the early 1980s. The eight pupils are preparing for the entrance exam to Oxford and Cambridge. Through the students’ encounters with each other and with three instructors, each with different styles of teaching, a story unfolds that examines human relationships and the effectiveness of education.
“What’s so fascinating about this play to us,” says Powers, “is it asks many of the same questions we have been asking for years. Most principally, what is the value and need for looking at our past? How do we better understand today by grasping what came beforehand?”
TimeLine’s mission is to produce plays inspired by history that hold contemporary relevance by shedding light on current issues. “The History Boys” serves that mission in an entirely new way.
“This play runs parallel to our mission instead of inside it. It’s about how history is made. It’s a play about different perspectives on history,” adds Nick Bowling, who’s directing this production. As the founding artistic director for TimeLine, Bowling has an especially keen understanding of what the play means to the company and the stakes that come with the visibility of a high-profile premiere.
When TimeLine decided to reach for the baton that is “The History Boys,” the company did so knowing expectations would be great. The play first opened at London’s National Theatre in 2004 and a deluge of critical acclaim followed. After the acclaim came the trophies. England’s prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Play was given to the work as well as the award for Best Direction to Nicholas Hytner. When the boys hopped the pond to Broadway in 2006, original cast intact, The Tony Awards seemed to agree with their British counterparts, anointing the production with its prestigious award for Best New Play. That same busy year a film adaptation was released with the director and original cast returning to their posts. Though it toured widely internationally and in the UK after its London premiere, its Broadway run, while healthy enough to extend after its Tony triumph, didn’t generate enough box office to entice producers to take it on a tour of the United States. Thus, the rights became available.
Powers knows that the successful production history is a double-edged sword. “There are so many theatergoers in Chicago that make regular trips to New York and London I’m hearing from a lot of people who have already seen this play and are coming to it with preconceived notions,” he says.
The only safe assumption for TimeLine’s go at the play is that it will build from the solid foundation Bennett’s put on paper. “We aren’t using the initial design as any source of inspiration. We are not using the original casting as any source of inspiration. We are approaching it as a really fresh piece to figure out how it works best in Chicago in our intimate space.”
TimeLine’s venue on Wellington Avenue in Lakeview is getting a mass overhaul for this show. The company has a history of reconfiguring the seating arrangement show to show, but this time scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge is reimagining the venue in a new way. In addition to some housekeeping that includes brand new (and more comfortable) seats, what was once a lobby area will now become playing area, including eight bedrooms for the boys to return to when not involved in the scene. The actors worked with Bembridge to decide what their characters had on walls and bookshelves, giving the audience another layer of intimacy with the students. When people enter the space, the boys will be in their rooms, and the play has begun.
Renovating and reconfiguring a venue, casting a show with twelve actors and paying for the rights to perform an in-demand commodity does not come with a small price tag. Beyond the artistic risk lies an equally large financial risk. Many mid-sized companies on the scale of TimeLine are suffering, even shuttering in the failing economy. TimeLine, however, is continuing to take the kind of calculated chances that have propelled their work to high esteem.
“Even in the recession it is still a no-brainer,” says Bowling. “People want to see this play. We are already selling out nights and have met half our single-tickets goal and it hasn’t even opened yet.”
It is not only TimeLine’s confidence in the material that allows the company to take risks the size of “The History Boys.” In eleven years of operation, the theater has shown consistent growth and an annual cash surplus. Their success is made even more impressive by the fact that they operate with a full-time staff of only four.
A large part of that success is the sincerely appreciative way the company communicates with its supporters. In 2009 they began publishing a quarterly newsletter called “Inside Story,” an up-to-date account of the company’s financial situation. The goal is to establish transparency with people TimeLine considers to be investors, subscribers, donors and ticket buyers.
“We aren’t going to go into this year like bats out of hell. We are truly a very fiscally conservative company. We make specific, clear choices,” says Bowling, indicating “The History Boys” as one of those deliberate decisions. “It will make us money. It is going to do well for us. It is a smart bet for us to do this play.”
This kind of optimism was the prevailing attitude about the play from the moment in late 2007 the company discovered the performance rights were becoming available from Samuel French, a major theatrical licensing house. “We have been tracking the play for many years. I first read it when it was playing in London,” Powers says. “Immediately we thought this was an ideal TimeLine play but didn’t know what its future was. Once it became clear a tour wasn’t coming here we put in a proposal pretty quickly. The day we got the rights was certainly a happy day around the office.”
Powers has been asked before how a mid-size company won the Chicago premiere of such a major work that might normally go to one of the larger theatrical houses in town with budgets that dwarf that of TimeLine. Powers retorts, “Why are people surprised that we got it? Why shouldn’t we have gotten it? We can do the stellar production that the play deserves.”
Indeed, TimeLine’s production history and overwhelmingly positive reputation has established a track record that inspires trust. Notable productions include Tennessee Williams’ “Not About Nightingales” fresh off its Broadway debut, and the first resident Chicago production of Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” after its Broadway tour. This tradition will not end with “The History Boys.” The company just announced they will be producing the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention” in their 2009/2010 season. Beyond the quality of this kind of work, TimeLine may have another advantage in producing work the size of “The History Boys.”
“There are probably several companies in Chicago that couldn’t do it because it has too many actors,” Bowling explains. “We are a company that can afford to still do bigger plays.” As the cost of doing business continues to climb and the crucial donor support that funds most of Chicago theater dries up, companies that are less established or that are handcuffed to Equity contracts (the union that represents professional actors) are beginning to cut back on shows that require large casts and production values. TimeLine is not bound by weighty contracts and a solid financial footing means they can still take risks. Their other major asset lies in organizational infrastructure, specifically, the eight members of the TimeLine Company.
Unlike many other ensembles at many other theaters, TimeLine’s members cover a wide array of specialties from the usual actors and directors to members of the administrative staff and literary management. Bowling is one of those members and, in further explaining the perfect fit of “The History Boys” for the company, he draws parallels between the two.
“It’s a play about how history can be told from eleven different perspectives; it really has eleven narrators,” Bowling says. “We are a company that has eight narrators, eight people that help tell our stories and drive our mission. That sounds a little precious; it’s not meant to be, but it’s true.”
Even with these pieces in place, the large themes and dense literary and historical content of the play add yet another level of complexity crucial to the success of the production—casting capable young actors.
Powers, by the side of Bowling, began the process of culling down the potential cast members last July. “It was a thrilling process. We saw over 200 guys for these eight roles,” says Powers, referring to those neatly dressed hopefuls that lined the halls. “A huge majority I had never seen before. They were quite literally fresh off the bus, the train, or new to town. Some are still in college. A lot of them are making their professional debut with this show.”
“The History Boys” requires a command of language and a believable aura of youth—casting the right boys will determine the success of the production. Once the hundreds of applicants had been herded in, the issue of the day became how to narrow the field. “It was key to me, as much as I could, to find people that seemed like boys. It really requires the boys to be juvenile still. They need to still be kids. Some of them aren’t twenty anymore but there is still a kid’s heart to them,” Bowling says.
Boys came from every direction. Some of the hopefuls showed up at general auditions or were scouted by Bowling and asked to come. Cast member Behzad Dabu has, perhaps, one of the most unusual stories. “I was selling a fridge and a board member at TimeLine wanted to buy it from me,” Dabu says. “After seeing my Web site, he found out I was an actor and told me about the show.”
Robert Fenton did not even live in Chicago. He was in from Virginia visiting friends who told him about the audition and encouraged him to attend. “I remember going into the lobby of TimeLine at the first callback and seeing about twenty boys who looked exactly like me,” says Fenton. “When I finally read my monologue Nick said, ‘Good job but that’s not what I want for him.’ I was about 180 degrees in the wrong direction, and completely petrified.” Despite initial setbacks, Fenton’s talent and openness to play and explore eventually secured him a role of Lockwood, the group’s fashionable class clown.
Getting the boys to the audition was only step one. Figuring out which boys would work in an ensemble was the next major hurdle for Bowling. “I always think I know what I’m looking for and inevitably I’m wrong about something. It was important to me to find a really interesting mix of people. So much of the audition was based on playing,” he says.
“One of the things I did was ask them to reveal their most embarrassing story. Something that was really real, that was true about them, that shares something about themselves that was risky to tell us. Some of the people were cast because of the story they told,” remembers Bowling fondly. “One boy told about when a girl broke up with him. He walked out on the streets of his hometown shouting and screaming. It made me realize this guy has such a lovely heart that I had to have him in the play.”
“What’s been really cool, once we cast the show, is how hungry these guys have been to just throw themselves in,” says Powers. “There is one guy who plays piano in the show. When we cast him he was a modest piano player and he has been working for six months on these pieces. He wanted to make sure he nailed them.”
Bowling gave all the guys extensive homework. Each one was assigned a poet and would be expected to be an expert when they showed up to the first rehearsal. They would be called on during rehearsal to answer questions. “I wanted to set up the process to be like what these boys go through in school vying to get into Oxford and Cambridge,” Bowling says.
Bowling deeply appreciates the work his young cast brings to rehearsal. “The boys are terrific. It’s kind of invigorating working with eight boys in their twenties,” he says. “Their energy is all over the place. They’re really creative and really exciting and at times obnoxious and at times scattered and forgetful. It is lovely coming back to boyhood in a way.”
“The History Boys” plays at TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington,(773)281-8463, April 22-September 27.