After The Building Stage in October decided to disband the company and close its doors after eight years, artistic director Blake Montgomery gathered the members to brainstorm their last play, which will be staged this spring.
"We knew we wanted to adapt a major piece of literature," he said. The Building Stage is known for creating original theater often adapted from classic works, including their debut production, "Hamlet," and last season's Jeff Award-winning "Moby Dick." "[And] I knew I wanted the show to be personal, related to the ending of this chapter of the company and my life," he said..
Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel "Don Quixote"—about a knight's misadventures on his quest against impossible odds—seemed like a good fit. But rather than adapt the book directly, Montgomery and the company chose to use their rehearsal process to create a new play based on the book's themes. "We start with these random ideas, choosing the ones that make the most emotional sense to the story in some way, and then we just keep working to make them all come together," Montgomery said.
The result is "Dawn, Quixote," an existential fantasy about the cost of dreaming. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how Montgomery's idea was transformed into a playful production complete with multiple Don Quixote characters, fake beards, imaginary horses and ukuleles.
The book is too long to adapt in its entirety, so Montgomery suggests exploring the way that Quixote's persistence through failures and humiliations elevates the perception of him from ridicule to nobility. The company's closure inspires them to explore the play's ending—Must it be tragic? Is the quest noble or simply self-destructive?
A new title is needed to let audiences know that the company isn't re-creating the classic story. "Dawn, Quixote" is chosen to suggest the sun rising on a new day, hope after a dark night, a realization.
Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza on horse and donkey, the dusty plains of Spain under the hot sun—these images remind the company of classic Western films. They brainstorms ways to bridge that connection—Old West setting? Imagery? Music?
How do you determine the cast size when the cast itself is going to help create the story? Montgomery pictures a strange group of six Quixotes wrestling with each other to come to grips with the story; five Quixotes and one Sancho Paza and vice versa; three pairs of Quixotes and Sanchos onstage together. The clincher? The final scene requires six characters.
Early to mid-January
A cast of three men and three women is selected. But all must play Quixote at some point, so how can you transform them to look identical? Fake beards!
The cast dives into rehearsals, exploring key scenes from the book to see which parts should be included, what tone each scene conveys and what will be exciting onstage.
The cast discovers that iconic Western theme music helps evoke Quixote's hopes and fantasies without having to talk about them directly, which leads them to realize that traveling songs could suggest times of journey and that Quixote could sing sad country monologue songs as a counterpoint to the comedic novel. Company member Pamela Maurer is brought in to write songs and teach the ukulele to the ensemble.
As the story develops, Montgomery and the cast realize that getting rid of some realistic props and minor elements such as armor and horses could heighten the sense of fantasy. Enter: imaginary horses.
Montgomery and the cast identify the heart of the new play and finalize which episodes from the novel are necessary, stripping those episodes down to the bare minimum of text needed to move the story forward. They also create new scenes to help illuminate the new play's theme.
The final product is starting to come together. Technical challenges such as how to get into and out of scenes, when to use music and how to integrate the story with the evolving set design are addressed.
During preview performances, Montgomery along with the cast and artistic team will gauge the production's flow and make last-minute changes if necessary.
Go: 8 p.m. Friday through April 27 at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St.
Tickets: $35-$30; $20-$35 for students; $15 previews through Sunday ($5 for students). 312-491-1369; buildingstage.com