A funny-cruel play about a tough-sweet world—that’s “Being Seen,” a backstage two-hander making its Chicago premiere at the Den Theatre. The play is a real-time portrayal of an audition, that lonely, scary ordeal for actors. It’s being staged just as the theater scene returns—or attempts to return—to something approaching normality, following a pandemic period that has produced epic levels of isolation and lingering feelings of fear and vulnerability.
“I see it as a tour-de-force comedy with a dark underbelly,” says playwright and director Richard Gustin, speaking from his Milwaukee-area home. Gustin, a retired professor of theater at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is justifiably proud of the reception of “Being Seen” at the New York Fringe Festival in 2015, where the play was voted a Fan Favorite—an honor accorded to only twelve out of the fest’s one-hundred-eighty-plus productions. In New York, the role of the auditioning director was played by noted Broadway actor William Youmans, who, according to Gustin, gave the slightly power-mad character surprising depth and charm in his high-handed interactions with Allison Minick, who played the eager-to-please actress seeking the part.
The Chicago production will feature Will Clinger of “Wild Chicago” and “Wild Travels” series fame and local musical-theater mainstay Kelly Anne Clark in those roles. Both performers are gearing up for the play, which centers on the question of how far people are willing to go to get what they want, whether it’s the realization of an artistic vision, the approval of an idolized role model or simply the opportunity to be seen the way they wish to be seen.
Playwright Gustin is a quadruple-threat stage professional: actor, director, writer and teacher. He describes “Being Seen” as in some ways the natural summation of his long theatrical career, which includes stints at stages throughout the Midwest, from Detroit to Kansas City, including Chicago’s own Free Street Theater and the late and lamented Ivanhoe playhouse at Clark and Wellington. (He also put in time at “Shear Madness,” the unkillable camp comedy that ran in Chicago throughout almost the entirety of the eighties and nineties.)
“A lot of ‘Being Seen’ was written while I was waiting around during rehearsals,” says Gustin. “I’ve acted and directed so much that a play about a director and actor just sprang from my heart and mind. Honestly, this play was a chance to exorcise some demons.”
Based on our conversation, those “demons” include the doubt and self-questioning that inevitably arise over the course of a life on the stage, with its radical imbalance between effort expended and financial reward bestowed.
“I just wanted to put on paper the wild and torturous world of live theater,” says Gustin. “For actors, there’s a ninety-five-percent unemployment rate every day of the year. What other profession would put up with this? People are working as a barista or server to put food on the table, while yearning for a six-week contract at some regional theater so they can do what they love to do. After ten, fifteen, twenty years, most professional actors are so dispirited and depressed and worn out that they drop out to do something else. I think that’s a tragedy.”
“Being Seen,” though, is not exactly a tragedy, according to its author. “It’s a very funny play, about two lonely people looking for happiness and fulfillment in an upside-down world. It’s about achieving your dreams—but it’s also about the emptiness that might be at the end of your rainbow.”
It’s a show that will “pin the audience’s ears back,” says Clinger, who was also interviewed by phone (as was Clark). “I like my comedy dark, and Richard writes dark comedy.” Clinger refers to the play as a “cometragedy.”
“Richard has written some very funny stuff, but it will take the audience on a journey,” says Clinger. “As the director, I don’t play softball, I play hardball. The things I pull during the audition don’t rise to the Harvey Weinstein level, but there are definitely some mind games going on. I’ve never played a character this Machiavellian.”
What’s it like to portray a showbiz rogue like the director?
“I’ve worked with manipulative directors,” says Clinger, who, although perhaps best known for his TV and film work, got his professional start at the Second City Touring Company in the 1980s, and has sustained a long and varied stage career since. “And I’ve been in enough auditions, I know the milieu. Actually, these are my favorite kind of parts, where you’re in a position of high status and get to drive the action.”
Not that the play will be easy. “This is the first two-hander I’ve done, and I’m on stage the full hour-and-a-half. It’s over a hundred pages of dialogue—Kelly and I are really going to be relying on each other. We’re lucky to have the writer as director, when questions come up during rehearsal.”
It’s Kelly Anne Clark—a Michigan native whose local stage experience also goes back decades, having acted at the Goodman, Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Northlight and the recently shuttered First Folio, among many other theaters—who carries the most dramatic weight in “Being Seen,” as she decides just how many hoops she’s willing to jump through in pursuit of a meaty role.
“Kelly goes to some strange places,” says Gustin about the part he wrote. “She’ll need every tool in her toolbox.”
Clark agrees that the physical demands of the tightly focused, no-break production are only part of the play’s challenge.
“It’s about that audition feeling of an actor coming into this wide, empty space, with no props or anything on stage,” says Clark. “You’re a little bit naked—all there is to show is what you have inside. Here’s a character who has done all the work, but is at a difficult place in her life and is feeling a certain desperation, to a point that can get pretty ridiculous. I’m going to have to dig into my own cracks and crevices to find that note. For the audience, it’s going to be funny, but there will be moments when they go, ‘Hmm.’”
Like her character, Clark has recently experienced a critical moment in terms of her life and art. When the pandemic hit and theaters shut down, she made the midlife decision to go back to school and earn a degree in library science. It was only after putting her acting career on hold that she was cast in “Being Seen,” a rare non-musical part for her. As with Clinger, it’s the first production she has been in since the curtain fell on live theater three years ago.
“The play’s title—‘Being Seen’—has taken on a new meaning since the pandemic,” says Clark, referring to the breakdown of normal patterns of school and workplace interaction and the emptying out of public space. From that angle, this production—really, any live production, in this era when even many reopened theaters are struggling for audiences, funding and relevance in a virtual world—is a victory against invisibility.
“Since the pandemic, I’ve been hankering to do live theater and experience a real audience,” says Clinger. “I’ve been doing other things, like a bluegrass comedy act at clubs, but it’s not the same.”
Nothing is quite the same as live theater, and it’s only now, when its continued existence isn’t guaranteed, that we become fully aware of its importance in our lives. For all the play’s black humor, Gustin describes “Being Seen” as a “love letter to theater.”
In a polarized society, theater serves as an “equalizer,” according to the playwright, allowing us to come together on the most basic level.
“Theater exists so we can dialogue,” says Gustin, summarizing his philosophy. “We watch a human story together, and having gone through this experience, I like you simply as a fellow human being with whom I have something in common. Yes, the director in the story is flawed—but life is about learning to work with flawed people.”
“Being Seen” runs June 14-July 2 at the Den Theatre, 1331 North Milwaukee. For ticket information, call (773)697-3830 or visit dentheatre.com.