Meet Graham Whittaker

Graham Whittaker, whom Alan Bennett himself portrayed Talking Heads Graham 2in the BBC TV original production in 1987, takes serious offense at A Chip in the Sugar, a literal metaphor for an unwanted intruder in his life. Life has been just fine for Graham and his mother, who he lives with, cares for and relies on. His world is shaken by the sudden appearance of Frank Turnbull, an old flame of Graham’s mother.

Mr. Turnbull’s influence is keenly felt by Graham, and as he loses his grip on his mother, Vera, he fights to maintain the status quo. Although he doesn’t see it, his struggle to “get back to normal” may destroy his mother’s chance at happiness.

In many ways, by letting his characters tell their own stories, Alan Bennett gives us a window into why they are the way that they are. Many of his characters have made choices to let the world pass them by, or as one reviewer described Graham as “being smothered by his comfort blanket.”

Meet Susan – Talking Heads

Talking Heads Susan 2Alan Bennett has been hailed by critics as a “chronicler of English ordinariness’ and for his uncommon ability to pierce through the mundane scenarios, or seemingly acceptable behaviors, of his characters and reveal both the tragedy and humor which lies beneath.

For Susan, the tediousness of life as a vicar’s wife has settled heavily on her shoulders in Bed Among the Lentils. She doesn’t feel cut out, or even equipped, for the responsibilities of her ecclesial life and has serious doubts about God anyways. Her humor and doubt often find themselves combined in her sarcasm, but also betray an unshakable sadness and loneliness – “so long as you run a tight jumble sale you can believe what you like.”

Mr. Bennett is not one to offer a Hollywood happy ending, there is no fairy godmother for Susan, instead he offers a realistic portrayal of of life and the possibility of redemption for which we are all looking.

A Few Words about Talking Heads

Talking Heads_left Banner“Some plays seem to start with an itch, an irritation, something one can’t solve or a feeling one can’t locate.” Alan Bennett

Highly regarded as one of the finest playwrights in Britain, Alan Bennett had always assumed he would grow up to be a clergyman, if for no other reason than the fact that he looked like one.

Luckily for audiences, Mr. Bennett has had the opportunity to write and play many vicars, as a playwright, screenwriter, actor and author, without actually being one. He is best known for The Madness of King George III which won a BAFTA in 1996, and The History Boys, for which he was awarded the Tony for Best Play in 2006.

Alan Bennett’s best characters are often downtrodden or unfortunate in life.  Some of his most familiar characters came to life through Talking Heads, a series of monologues written for BBC Television in 1987 which earned him his first Lawrence Olivier Award. These poignantly comic pieces introduced British audiences to six characters, ranging from a reluctant vicar’s wife to a middle-aged man caring for his aging mother.

Talking Heads gives these characters the opportunity to tell the story from their own perspective, without contradiction from other characters, and discovering new things about themselves along the way. At the same time, the characters force audiences to read between the lines. As Alan Bennett said in an interview: “. . . the monologue is all about what’s not there. What they don’t tell you.”

This summer Elements is bringing three of these characters to life. Join us July 31 – August 9 for Bed in the Lentils, A Lady of Letters, and A Chip in the Sugar.

Mission Accomplished

IMG_6505The past two weeks in Chicago have flown by. Today was our last performance and tomorrow we will begin the trek home, but before that, a quick look back at our time in the Windy City.

This was Elements first time touring in Chicago, and having spent a month here in the summer of 2012, we were quickly reminded of the many things we love about this city. It was wonderful to have an opportunity to reconnect with some of our teachers from that month of study, and to meet and see new people and places.

Our first stop was at the Elaine and Zollie Frank Theater at the MayerIMG_6492 Kaplan JCC in Skokie, IL. What a lovely, hidden gem of a theater! The staff there have been trying to reinvigorate the theater programing and we hope our two full performances of Merchant and post-show discussions will help them on their way to realizing that goal.

A few days later, on Tuesday, February 17th, we had the wonderful opportunity to perform scenes for the students of the University of Chicago’s Lab School 7th and 8th graders, as well as the faculty, staff and students of the Chicago Theological Seminary in the beautiful Chapel space at CTS. These scenes sparked conversation moderated by Rev. Lillian Daniel, Rabbi Fred Reeves, Sr. Danielle Dwyer and Chris Kanaga. It is always our privilege IMG_6951to see the incredible connections young people are able to make with Shakespeare, and reminds us again of why education is such an important part of our mission.

On Ash Wednesday, February 18, we were grateful to be able to work with Rabbi Fred Reeves again, this time at KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in Hyde Park, where he serves. To perform scenes from The Merchant of Venice in that space was incredibly powerful for the actors, and the audience responded to their work in new and different ways which informed a thoughtful panel discussion.

IMG_4664Thursday was frightfully cold, so cold that public schools were cancelled, but a few hardy souls braved the cold to attend a Shakespeare sonnet workshop at the Lincoln-Belmont Branch of the Chicago Public Library. Those who did were rewarded with a presentation on sonnet writing, both how Shakespeare wrote, and an introduction to writing your own. At the end of the presentation, the attendees began working on their own four quatrains and a couplet, all written in iambic pentameter.

Our final venue on this tour was the Dominican University Performing Arts Center, located on the lovely campus in River Forest. After load in and rehearsal on Sunday, we were joined in the theatre on IMG_7668Monday morning by 500 high school students from the surrounding area. For many students it was their first time in a theater and for many more, the first time seeing Shakespeare performed. When the performance concluded, the room was buzzing with questions and the actors answered as many as they could before the students had to board their busses to go back to school. We hope they caught the Shakespeare “bug” and keep asking questions and looking for the truth that Shakespeare reveals.

What a privilege to have been able to work on our craft and what an incredible journey it has been – two cities, 3 IMG_6528workshops, 10 performances, and 2,000 miles. New York and Chicago, in the words of the great man himself, “Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.”