Rhino Fest SUBJECTIVE IS BEAUTY Spotlight- – Talking to the Two Directors

Subjective is Beauty Photo: Paul Brennan

Rhino Fest, arguably Chicago’s ultimate incubator for experimental theater, has been the place to find off-the-beaten path experimental theater treats for nearly three decades. This year the festival—which continues until February 25—includes 32 shows, 6 nights a week for a total run of six weeks.

 For up and coming theater talent Rhino is known as a place to be—not just for playwrights or actors, but also for up and coming directors.

 SUBJECTIVE IS BEAUTY, which describes itself as “a two-character, one-act, zero-dimensional play” reminded this writer of the dense intellectual content in plays by Ionesco or Genet. More philosophical exploration than plot-driven, this play by Paul Wiliam Brennan especially struck this reviewer that directing this dense philosophical piece requires no small talents.

 An interesting back story is that SUBJECTIVE IS BEAUTY had not one but two directors working as co-equals, and not the typical Director plus Assistant Director. More, these two directors—Lauren Katz (LK) whose theater reviews you can read on these pages, and Taryn Smith (TS)—had never met before this project.


Here are excerpts of an exchange with each about this play and how it was enriched by the co-directing model.  

Lauren Katz
Photo: Stefan Brun

How did your Rhino Fest collaboration come about? How do you each know the playwright ?

TS: I know Paul from another production I was involved with at the Prop Thtr called Oracle of the Gutterpunks. When Paul approached me to direct he mentioned he had reached out to another director and asked if I had any interest in collaborating with another director and I absolutely was!

LK: I have directed in other smaller festivals around town, but this was my first time with Rhinofest. I did not know the playwright (Paul Brennan) personally, but I was put in touch with him by another playwright involved in Rhinofest who I had spoken to a year ago. When I let him know I was interested, he mentioned he had another director in mind as well, and was curious about a collaboration.

What was different about directing for this play?

LK: As with any festival, there is limited time with actors and the performance space, so there is a lot to figure out in a short amount of time. In part I think this is what made having a co-director so helpful. We could share the work and figure out together how to proceed in our short amount of time. Subjective is Beauty certainly has a lot going on! It’s so abstract and philosophical, so there was a lot of detail to sort out and understand in the short amount of time we had. Though challenging, it made for a fun month.

The play has been marketed at times as a new take on Beauty and the Beast. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to describe it, but there is some truth to it. I think this play is an abstract breakdown of beauty – how we think about beauty, the importance we place on it, and how it can drive us. The characters in this play all have to consider how they define beauty, and what might happen if they let that go.

TS: I would describe the work as an abstract look into beauty, intelligence, and vanity.

I think this play was different to direct because of the abstract and philosophical nature of it. There are so many different directions you could take with a show like this and you have to find the best was to serve the story. The challenges with working within Rhinofest are challenges you face with any festival-because there are so many shows happening space tends to be limited and you never get quite as much rehearsal time as you want but it always comes together in the end!

What were the particular challenges of directing Subjective is…

TS: I think the language was the biggest challenge with the show. It’s very wordy and the conversation is circular, which works for the feel of the show and also I think helps the audience stay with us. It was challenging for both us and our actors, which is why I think we both really appreciated the collaboration. It was wonderful to hear everyone’s interpretation of the text.

LK: The abstract and philosophical language of the play was definitely the toughest challenge, I think for Taryn and me, as well as the actors. The play is interesting, but definitely a little dense, and we wanted to make sure we kept the audience engaged and moving along from moment to moment. We spent a lot of time breaking down the concepts of the play into smaller chunks, and while it made for interesting discussion, it was certainly challenging with the limited time we had. It was in these moments that I especially appreciated having Taryn there – we could figure out the meaning and how to proceed together.


Do you relate personally to the content of SUBJECTIVE IS BEAUTY and would you want to direct a similar work in this genre in the future?

LK: I do relate to this play, and I think a lot of audience members can. The play asks us to examine how we go through the world, and to consider the importance we place on different values, beauty included. I know I certainly place importance on beauty and how the world perceives me, even if I do not always want to admit it. In a world that is so focused on how we present ourselves, it’s useful to do a little self-reflection.

I would definitely direct another play of this genre! The abstract nature of it allows for a lot of room to play as a director. Taryn and I had fun building a world for this play that had a lot of room for imagination. Rhinofest offers a great opportunity to experiment with those skills – both as a playwright and a director. I think part of the fun of Rhinofest is that there are so many different stories that come out of it, and the setup encourages all artists involved to take risks.

TS: I do relate personally to the text. I think almost everyone has had moments when they get stuck in their own vanity (either with appearance or accomplishments/intelligence) and are unable to see past it. I also think it is very easy to judge other for what we perceive are their faults and this play does a great job of showcasing the fallacy with that. 

I would like to direct another play of this genre. I like being able to create my own abstract world. I would absolutely work with Rhino again-I think it’s such a great place to just try something and experiment. Those have been some of my best experiences with theatre.

How is directing a play like Subjective Is useful to your development as a director?

TS: I think a play like this is a big challenge as a director. You have to be very clear in your understanding of the text in order to convey the plays meaning to the audience. I believe it’s helped me grow as a director because it wasn’t easy-I always feel like I learn so much more when things are harder. This play kept me on my toes and allowed me a huge range of creativity which has led me to feel more confident in my directing abilities.

LK: As a director, this play certainly pushed me outside of my comfort zone in a great way. I am used to working with plays that are a little more literal, and the abstract nature invited me to think in a different way, especially in building the world and helping the actors understand how to work within it. It was also very helpful working with another director. I love collaboration, but I had never co-directed before. This was a great way to experience that.

You both mentioned that you would like to work with each other again—why?

LK: Taryn and I worked really well together! I think we both had a similar view of the play overall, but where we differed allowed for a much more complex story to unfold. Where one of us didn’t know the answer, the other was often able to fill in, and especially for a play with so much going on, I think that was helpful! We had a lot of fun working together and I would definitely work with Taryn again! Our directing styles seemed to blend well and I know I definitely learned a lot from working with her and seeing how she thinks.

TS: I think a play like this is a big challenge as a director. You have to be very clear in your understanding of the text in order to convey the plays meaning to the audience. I believe it’s helped me grow as a director because it wasn’t easy-I always feel like I learn so much more when things are harder. This play kept me on my toes and allowed me a huge range of creativity which has led me to feel more confident in my directing abilities.

I honestly wouldn’t recommend co-directing for just anyone. I think it must be the right people to be able to meet in the middle as directors. You have to find the right balance, so the majority of the work isn’t falling on one person. It differs from ADing in the sense that we were both equal and consulted each other for major decisions. We made sure we were on the same page before every rehearsal, checked in with each other often and took turns communicating with our actors.

LK: I also would not necessarily recommend co-directing for anyone. As an Assistant Director, I would say the main job is to help the director’s vision come to life but as a co-director, you are building an artistic vision together. It takes a lot of open communication and I think Taryn and I were lucky to find that we worked well in that department.

TS: This play was the perfect piece to co-direct. There are so many ways to interpret the text and it was great to have someone else there to do so. This is the type of show where you get something different out of it every time you read/see it so it was wonderful to see what stood out to Lauren. It felt like when one of us wasn’t sure of a portion of the text, the other was. It was also great to have someone else to help build this abstract, non-dimensional world with!

Who do you think the best audience is for a play like Subjective is…?

LK: I think if you are attending Rhinofest, you are signing up to experience something different, and this play will not disappoint. I really think that anyone can find something to which they can relate in this play – from feeling lost in new surroundings, to re-examining how you present yourself in the world. I think anyone can point to a time they felt out of place and had to figure out the “new rules,” and this play can certainly add to that perspective.

Picture this Post looks forward to touching base with these two up and coming Chicago directors going forward. In the near future you can find Taryn with her actor hat on—play a part in Old World’s cabaret called As Time Goes By this April where she will also be performing with her husband. Lauren Katz—in addition to penning reviews for Picture this Post and facilitating audience discussions at Steppenwolf which she has done since her first Assistant Director gigs there upon arriving in Chicago— next has a gig Assistant Directing Women Laughing Alone with Salad at Theater Wit, which opens March 9. Lauren shares, “Speaking of plays with a lot going on, the playwright, Sheila Callaghan, definitely fills her play with a lot of exciting storylines.”

Most Picture this Post theater reviews are written by actors, directors and playwrights- or wannabes in these categories. To learn more about the lead theater reviewers for Picture this Post, visit the Picture this Post masthead.

And, here are pictures from other Rhino Fest performances this year--

Rhino Fest
The Interview
Rhino Fest
Diane Hamm at Cabaret Prop'd
Rhino Fest
Cabaret Prop'd
Rhino Fest
Cabaret Prop'd
Rhino Fest
The Crooked Mouth
Rhino Fest
Cabaret Prop'd

All photos and slider photos from Subjective is Beauty are credited to Stefan Brun, except for those otherwise indicated.

All other Rhino Fest photos are courtesy of Rhino Fest.

For more information on Rhino Fest--- schedule and tickets-- visit the Rhino Fest website

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