Another Dynamic Duo at Stage Left Theatre
Do not underestimate Amy Szerlong, the director of Beth Kander’s The Bottle Tree which just opened at Stage Left Theatre. Behind her unfailingly polite and cheerful demeanor is a woman in charge. Succeeding Vance Smith, who has led Stage Left since 2009, Szerlong and colleague Jason Fleece will soon take the reins as Co-Artistic Directors.
My own association with Stage Left as a playwright occurred over a dozen years ago during the leadership of another dynamic duo – Jessi Hill and Kevin Heckman. When I learned that Stage Left, one of Chicago’s oldest ensemble-based theatre companies, would once again have two artistic heads, I had to find out more.
Two viewpoints – sharper vision
“We want to be one of the main players in Chicago,” says Szerlong. With nearly 35 years of Stage Left history behind them, she and Fleece are “looking ahead to prospering for the next 35.” Fleece has been an ensemble member since 2009 and Associate Artistic Director since 2013. Szerlong’s tenure is shorter – she first worked with the company in 2012 and became an Ensemble Member in 2015.
Szerlong notes that “Jason has much more institutional knowledge of Stage Left,” plus great familiarity with existing plays. “I bring a fresh perspective and I’m very engaged in new work development programs.” While they have different aesthetic tastes – Fleece tends to gravitate towards more non-traditional scripts than Szerlong – this has led to a productive collaboration. “In talking through season planning, we often have to justify our choices to each other – and that makes for stronger selections.”
Changing course in college
Szerlong brings another skill set to her leadership role at Stage Left: training in arts administration and a day job in Goodman Theatre’s development department. “I can see theatre through the lens of business,” she says. A native of Chicago’s North Shore, Szerlong attended the University of Richmond in Virginia with plans to become an actor. She credits a course in arts administration with “opening my eyes. So many jobs were available in the nonprofit administration sector that I realized I wouldn’t necessarily have to make my living as an actor.”
Along with discovering the management side of the performing arts, Szerlong also defined her interest in directing during college. A century-old script created a pathway to her future – Susan Glaspell’s 1916 one-act Trifles, a murder mystery set in a farmhouse kitchen. Szerlong decided to update the design elements of the script to the 1950s and stage the play in the university theatre’s green room where a small kitchenette was “generic and dated enough to be passable.” Fitting 20 seats into the green room, Szerlong saw her production sell out three nights in a row – and found her footing as a director. “I tried something that I didn’t know how to do and learned as I was doing it.” She recalls. “It was an exciting, affirming, confidence-building experience.”
Plays with a purpose
Even before graduating, Szerlong made plans to return to Chicago as a director. Her involvement with Stage Left began as an assistant director for its new play festival LeapFest. When participating playwrights sought her opinion, she realized that she had “agency in the rehearsal room.” Besides contributing to a play’s development process, Szerlong was inspired by Stage Left’s mission to raise the debate on social and political issues. “Each LeapFest script dealt with a different aspect of our society. They all had a purpose. No matter how minute the effect might be, they might make a difference in the world. That was really, really exciting for me – and it still is.”
Photo Key/Credits-- from Top to Bottom:
Amy Szerlong headshot - Photo by Ian McLaren
Slider of Bottle Tree images-Ian McLaren Photography
Jason Fleece and Amy Sterling -Photo: Ian McLaren
Szerlong playing Smitty in the University of Richmond's production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Photo : David Van Gelder
Two photos of Szerlong at University of Richmond- Brittany Taylor
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas, which came to life in Stage Left’s very first LeapFest, will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.