Meet Melissa Lorraine, the Artistic Director and co-founder of Theatre Y – who recounts her life’s journey so far—and how the Camino de Santiago inspired THE CAMINO PROJECT
EDITOR'S NOTE: READ THE RELATED STORY-- "Theatre Y Presents THE CAMINO PROJECT Review – Breaking the Fifth Wall Magritte-Style"
At the conclusion of Theatre Y's THE CAMINO PROJECT, you get to break bread with the cast and fellow travelers--and sip wine-- much as you would during the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. During this dinner, Picture this Post Editor Amy Munice had a chance to learn more about how Theatre Y began, and how Melissa Lorraine imagines the next stops -- both for her personal journey and the Theatre Y Ensemble. We invited Melissa to share her story, which you can read below.
"We had just lost our space in Logan Square (St. Luke’s was forced to sell the building), so we decided to allow ourselves to be “homeless” for a year and create a mobile one man performance (Underneath the Lintel: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences by Glen Berger) which we performed all over the city (in bars, libraries, cafes, homes, street corners…etc.).
At one such performance, a man approached me and suggested that we take this performance on the Camino de Santiago. I had never heard of this pilgrimage and decided that 10 years into running Theatre Y, I could really use a long walk to rethink the company and its direction. The man who proposed this became the president of the board and together we organized a group of 40 Theatre Y artists and volunteers to walk (including a family who accepted my invitation on the air during WBEZ’s worldview!).
Most of us walked the 500 miles (33 days) from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago, and some even went to the end of the earth (Finisterre, the “death coast”, the ocean). Darren Hill performed Theatre Y’s one man show each night at each town or village we slept in (28 times), choosing the location upon arrival after walking 15 miles in the heat of the day, recovering for an hour, and immediately performing for over an hour for other weary pilgrims. While walking, my husband Evan and I were plotting a new fully devised production inspired by pilgrimage, myself as director, Evan as writer, and our long-time collaborators Denes Döbrei and Heni Varga as choreographers.
The pilgrimage was remarkable, painful, disruptive, maddening, meaningless, and extraordinary. I hated walking until the final week. I discovered I was terrified of being alone with my thoughts and would seek out any partner to converse with down the road. Wherever you go, there you are. Many of us travelled with strangers to recover a sense of independence in this mass exodus. But we all had a schedule we kept to and almost always slept in the same village. The one exception was losing our 65 year old ensemble member Arch Harmon for 5 days, but we found him eventually! Remarkable to be moving 40 people across a country by yellow arrows painted on rocks and trees.
If I were to do this walk again I would want to have the opposite experience as a challenge. The communal experience is very challenging. But I wonder what the solitary experience is like. There are different routes to Santiago, and Eric K. Roberts (the Tour Guide of our Camino Project) just completed the Northern (more difficult and less frequented) route. It travels along the coast on mountains for much of the road. You have only one option for lodging, so the bargain shopping element of our most popular and populated route is gloriously removed. Our route (The Camino Frances) even took us into the San Fermin Festival (Running of the Bulls…bull fights!!). I’m curious about the experience of the solitary traveller…the song and the madness of companionship with yourself.
No matter the route, the camaraderie in the evenings with strangers is the most beautiful gift of the Camino. Strangers in the same predicament enjoying a fleeting moment. This is what the Camino Project has most joyously succeeded at - the audience and performers embrace at the end of the night. A bond has formed over these 6 hours of transient affairs and common experiences.
My favorite Facebook Comment about the Camino Project:
Don't do it, people! You may end up having a unique experience, maybe even changing the way you view theatre, making the acceptance of the dull banality of everyday life all that much harder, which, as we all know, must be accepted. Recoil deeper into the shell of isolation and passive consumption before it is too late! When we see what is possible -- that the streets can be filled with magic and our social interactions with art -- it may create expectations that the status quo cannot possibly fulfill. Unless, of course, you change the status quo. Anyway, enough dreaming. Get back to work! #keepthedreamdead
- Alan Arthur Scott
I was Meisner trained by Kathryn Gately at Northern Illinois University. She was Sanford Meisner’s protégé and her program was grueling and wonderful. A group of fifteen actors were accepted into my year, and she graduated only 7, reserving the right to excuse anyone from the program at any time if she felt they were not performing well enough. The head of performance was a man named Christopher Markle, mentored by Liviu Ciulei at The Guthrie and other primal masters of the Eastern European theatre, including Lucian Pintilie and Tadeusz Kantor. Gately and Markle’s styles could not have been more antithetical to one another somehow, but this kept a real tension in the department for the actors, a sense that there were infinite ways to explore within the theater. Chris Markle brought George Bigot (world-renowned actor from the Theatre du Soleil) to work on an 8-hour show about the Cambodian genocide, which I performed in.
(Aside: After working with Bigot I swore to work with him again one day, and finally in 2015 I brought him 3 times over the course of one year to work with a group of actors that were in the orbit of Theatre Y these 9 years to create Macbeth, and together we forged what is now the Theatre Y Ensemble.)
Markle then brought Hungarian Director Tamas Fodor (Studio K) to direct The Virgin, the Corpse, Bishop and the Knives at NIU. I played the Virgin, and the night before Tamas returned to Budapest, he invited me to join his company as an ensemble member when I graduated, to perform in Hungarian! I agreed on the spot, moved to Budapest and began performing.
I do not recommend performing in a language you don’t speak - albeit a valuable exercise in gibberish (thank you Kathryn Gately) and I fooled the audience, but it was a lonely and strange experiment at times. Many of my fellow actors had served time in prison for their involvement in the theater prior to 1989. Studio K was literally underground, below the sewage, down a virtually unmarked staircase (unchanged since the days when such measures were necessary). The theater scene was fascinating, but it was 2001 in Budapest and nudity was a new liberty it seemed. Isolated by a language barrier and fighting to remain clothed on stage, I was having what you might call an existential crisis.
I had coffee with an opera singer (Timothy Bench) who handed me the newly translated Andras Visky play “Juliet”. It was a text like no other. I wanted to meet Andras to congratulate him on what was to me a transcendent work. I asked if I could shake his hand the next time he was in Budapest. He said “I hate Budapest, why don’t you come visit me in Transylvania?” I went, despite expired visas and no face to identify at the train station, we found each other and I spent a week with his family experiencing the most astonishing hospitality of my 22 years. He proposed that I perform the English premiere of this one woman show about his mother. He was sentenced to a Romanian prison camp when he was one and a half years old, along with his 6 older siblings and mother. This play is her struggle to keep them alive and her demand for a better god.
Andras’ writing was deeply heretical. I had rebelled from deeply Evangelical Missionary parents (raised in France), and was “haunted” by Christianity. He came from a place of faith that was restoring to me, wild, vicious, free and full of love. He wrote bull fights and I wanted to be the bull. He introduced me to Barrack Dramaturgy, the idea that the audience chooses to incarcerate themselves with a group of strangers around a problem, and no one is allowed to leave until we’ve arrived at a new place together. He taught me, through performing his texts, how to place my beliefs on the alter of the theater and trust it to refine again and again my complacencies, assumptions, and indoctrinations. All of his plays are investigations of identity, freedom, and eternal love.
I returned to the United States after my year-long contract ended with Studio K, and began looking for a director and producer for “Juliet”. Two years later, Andras was in the US and I brought him to NIU as a thank you for the intentional bridges they had built for me to meet him. Andras met Chris Markle and the rest was history. We travelled back and forth to Romania to prepare “Juliet”, and when Andras attended the US premiere, he said “I can write you six more plays…you should start a company!” So Chris and I started Theatre Y, and true to his word Andras returned with a new play for me called “I Killed my Mother” about a Roma orphan girl. We began rehearsing and Chris suddenly died at the age of 53 from a pulmonary embolism.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to have a company without a director. I had only “Juliet” so I toured her internationally for 3 years, different city every weekend, like a broken record. I performed everywhere from Palestine, to prisons, and international festivals. During this tour I performed one night for New York Director Karin Coonrod, whose mentoring under Liviu Ciulei seemed to signal natural succession. She agreed to direct “I Killed my Mother”, and we produced it in Chicago to test the audience’s response to Visky’s writing…rave reviews, a Best Actress Orgie award, sold out shows…I felt like I could stop touring and plant Theatre Y in Chicago. Karin directed a second version of “Juliet” with me at the Royal George…
During the day I was directing and teaching at colleges and universities, including Moody Bible Institute. Evan Hill was my student. I was trying to find the courage to leave a very difficult marriage of 7 years that included a step son. I toured in large part to get out of the home near the end of our marriage. Divorce ultimately cost me my income (religious institutions still have policies about divorced women), my step son, and for a moment it seemed even some of my family, but I believed that I would kill or be killed if I stayed.
Evan was a fine actor and a brilliant mind. I took him with a group of students to Romania to work with Andras Visky in 2009. Although we are ten years apart in age, we became friends. We sparred often as he lost his faith and transformed from a Michigan Avenue megaphone preacher to a staunch agnostic. He graduated, I divorced, and we fell in love. We were married in Romania with a group of strangers and other angels at Andras’ summer intellectuals camp. It was fully improvised perfection - Andras gave me away in a tent at the base of a mountain, wearing my mother-in-law’s wedding dress.
I used Theatre Y as a laboratory where I could create my ideal masters program, inviting global artists I admired to work with me on productions. Chicago’s kindred spirits began introducing themselves. You recognize one another on the fringes. Kevin V. Smith became the next key collaborator for many year, but Kevin also empowered me to start directing professionally in 2011 and with each production we worked to start from a true zero point, no formula, digging for something as yet unknown with each new project: we continued to produce new Visky texts (PORN: 1989. A Butterfly) and expanded to Joyce (Exiles), Camus (The Misunderstanding), Euripides (Medea), Beckett (Happy Days), Handke (The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez)…
I performed professionally with Evan in Joyce’s “Exiles” and in Visky’s “PORN: 1989. A Butterfly” and Beckett’s “Happy Days”. My first collaboration with him as a writer was with Denes Dobrei and Heni Varga (who also choreographed the Camino Project) on Evan’s original work “The Binding” in 2012.
In 2015 I brought Georges Bigot to Chicago for 4 months over the course of one year to work with a group of actors that had been in Theatre Y’s orbit these 9 years. Together we created Macbeth, and forged what is now the Theatre Y Ensemble. We took a group of 40 actors down to 16 and relayed all the roles for 9 months before casting one person to perform the composite of all the actor’s discoveries. It forged an incredible bond in the group, and sharpened a collective with a myriad of backgrounds and skills. Surviving the force that is Georges Bigot was also remarkably uniting.
Editor's Note: Read the Picture this Post review -- "Theatre Y’s MACBETH – With a Riveting Tocqueville Twist
As a female Artistic Director, I am interested in further developing our ensemble to find out what becomes possible when the historic dictator role is taken from the equation, even as I continue to direct. One ensemble member received her masters degree in Tadashi Suzuki Movement training, and began training all of the actors weekly. The fabric of the ensemble is the single greatest treasure of Theatre Y today. The culture that has formed, the common language, the growing diversity, and the trust.
In 2018 we transitioned to the FREE THEATRE MODEL (based on NPR’s membership model). Some things are too valuable not to be free, and those who wish to create all-inclusive community in our space, donate monthly as little as $5 to keep our doors open to everyone. We have a conversation with our audience following every show in a desire to remove all barriers between performer and audience and expose our process and our selves to our community. This is one difference in American cultures - they want to talk about the work. Europeans prefer to keep their own interpretations. But they generally have greater exposure to what we consider Avant Garde work, non-linear narrative, abstraction…an American audience welcomes the debate and disclosure.
Our audience is game. They learn quickly that they will never know what to expect. We have no fourth wall, and we work to capitalize on the “liveness” of the medium. We removed the wall blacking out our storefront window for our last production of Self-Accusation in order to use the city street itself as the backdrop of the show. The pedestrians and audience didn’t know who was on display. The Camino Project puts the show in the city itself with all involved performing somehow.
We offer Movement Therapy for Trauma Rehabilitation at Cook County Jail, Stateville Correctional Center, and Lurie Children’s Hospital. We have Story Time for children once a month, and the only consistent Tadashi Suzuki actor training in the city (open to the public). Our goal is to expand our programming to include each member of society…our biggest challenge is telling them we’re here. Diversifying our audience to truly host every kind of person in Chicago who wishes to attend our programs. We need help from our audience to invite individuals who wouldn’t think to come, wouldn’t feel welcome perhaps.
My long-term dream is to build a sustainable compound, perhaps outside the city, off the grid so that we can develop work for longer with international collaborators in a more affordable way, bringing the productions to the city when they’re complete. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with all the staple partners we currently have, and expanding to new continents and practices each year. If we can grow our membership, we can take better care of our artists, providing housing and health insurance, and continuing to diversify in every way possible. Theatre Y seeks to build community and radical hospitality to the extent of its reach and we search only for new ways to do so.
My 500 mile Camino was two years ago, a walk I agreed to because I felt I needed to rethink my goals within Theatre Y. Upon returning from Spain, Evan left for New Haven to begin a masters program at Yale in Dramaturgy. I sold my car to continue walking and had only been living alone in Chicago for two weeks when I got into a car posing as my uber. I survived but lost my faith in humanity, dissociated with my body and dropped out of my own productions at Theatre Y. Denes and Heni invited me to spend a month with them in Serbia to invent a bootcamp of embodiment. It was from this practice that I developed our Movement Therapy for Trauma Rehabilitation program.
We continued creating theater. Visky’s Stories of the Body - “Eva” (the true story of a Hungarian Roma Prostitute) was my first role after the assault, and once again, Andras had written something cathartic and somehow healing for this chapter. “The Camino Project” was in continuous development and we all poured our best desires for the world into this show. We have a reputation for being rather vicious in our subject matter, and this production was seducing each of us back into innocence somehow. As fate would have it, our lead actress Katie Stimpson was injured, and one week before the opening, I stepped into her role.
I found myself performing this role that I had built for a whole person, and encountered myself whole within it. Like a strange medicine I had made for myself somehow. And I don’t know which comes first, the act being whole or the belief in wholeness.
In this production we choose to walk the streets expecting welcome, and we are rarely turned away. I feel renewed love for the city and its people. I’m actually in awe of the people. It is an honor and a pleasure to create experiences like this for them.
I like it.
I like it.
I like it."
Editor's Note: Read the related stories --