April 12, 2005

Stage Left Theatre keeps the love alive with Leapfest

The fact that it's so unassuming makes it so phenomenal. In a small, musky space tucked away in Wrigleyville, the Stage Left Theatre Company is holding its second annual Leapfest, a theater festival dedicated to the development of new sociopolitical plays. And what plays they are.

Since these plays are in development, there is no point in my reviewing them at this moment. Suffice to say, I was blown away by the professionalism and quality of the first play in the festival, Hiding Hannah. With a theater with less than a hundred seats, an audience consisting of mostly friends and family, and a cast and crew dedicated to putting on a set of incredible plays that are only getting better, Leapfest 2 is what theater is all about.

The title "socio-political plays" is a little bit misleading. While Hiding Hannah definitely deals with issues of media control over the lives of individuals, more important than that is the struggles of individual relationships. While other plays in the festival deal with civil rights, Nazism, political corruption, assassination, and the war in Iraq, all of the plays deal with individual relationships as much as they do with politics—and this is a wise choice. While promoting interest in politics, any art medium, especially drama, can be unbearable without fully developed individuals. Not so in Leapfest 2.

Leapfest 2, which will run with various plays until April 24, takes place in the extremely modest Stage Left Theatre, just off the Addison Red Line stop. The El can be heard passing by during the show, and parking often gets monopolized when the Cubs are playing. The theater is equivalent to that of an Off-Off-Broadway production. The audience—while mostly composed of regulars, friends, and family—is incredibly diverse. From downtown hipsters to Harley-Davidson owners to elderly theater patrons, it's mind-boggling to think of how such a small theater company could attract such a range of people. Then again, that's the beauty of a theater that addresses such a wide range of concerns while still maintaining such a gritty true-to-life aura.

That said, the plays aren't perfect. Nor should they be, since they are in development, and anyone who's tried to write a play can tell you the rigorous process needed to produce any semblance of a quality play. But the beauty of Leapfest 2 is what goes on after the show, where audience members are expected to give feedback on what they just saw.

This is a far cry from the usual post-show discussion, which—while often talking about the themes presented in the play—is often stale and perfunctory at best. Instead of limiting the feedback on a play to members of a company, Stage Left has decided to open up the feedback forum to the audience, an extremely rare and risky move in the theater world. Yet the risk seems to have paid off, as even the mostly unlikely audience members gave shockingly insightful praises and criticisms of the play. This is a critic's dream, as he is not left with only his word but also the audience's on the play he has just witnessed. It's also ideal for anyone who wants to know the inner workings of a play and wants to know how to bring those workings to the surface.

It is hard for the uninitiated to imagine how much grueling effort it takes to develop a play to the polished form that is seen by an audience. But it is especially dangerous for a critic to forget this. And while Leapfest 2 is certainly not the most polished production in Chicago, it is the only one that shows insight into developing a play, changing a play, and seeing how that process made it better. Many times I found myself wondering, "How can so many people put in such an effort to a play not yet perfected?" The only answer I could think of was the love for theater and everything that goes into it.