For Julia Rhoads of Lucky Plush,
dance comes with a 'Super' story
Lucky Plush Productions artistic director Julia Rhoads leads a rehearsal of “Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip.”
(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
By Laura Molzahn
SEPTEMBER 7, 2016, 1:18 PM
Chicago must be the world capital of dance-theater troupes integrating text and movement — with spectacular results from companies of all sizes: Hubbard Street (collaborating with Second City), the Seldoms, independent artist Peter Carpenter. In that universe, Julia Rhoads is a master, crafting taut, generally nonlinear satires that come across onstage as improvised — essentially comedy improv with a social conscience, scripted but with little resemblance to the lines in a play.
"We learn through doing and sharing with the audience," says Rhoads, artistic director of 16-year-old Lucky Plush Productions, which has worked for nearly 10 years in evening-length dance theater. Doing and sharing also guides the Lucky Plush folks in the studio. "We train to be in relationship to each other on stage through really listening," Rhoads says. That takes time. "There's an improvisational quality, an off-the-cuffness that, like a muscle, needs exercise and practice," she explains.
So the stakes were high for Lucky Plush's one-night premiere of "Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip" in March at the Harris Theater. "We all felt that," Rhoads notes. "But we were very, very happy with what happened." Playing for the first time to a house of nearly 1,000 people, she says, was "thrilling." But she seems to be looking forward just as much to the upcoming remount of "SuperStrip" at the Dance Center of Columbia College, a much smaller space. After that, Lucky Plush tours "SuperStrip" to some major venues: Urbana's Krannert Center and New York's Joyce Theater. And in May, Rhoads debuts a work for Hubbard Street at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
"SuperStrip" encapsulates much of what makes Lucky Plush unique: a breathtaking comic approach to serious issues, self-reflecting takes on contemporary life and the creative process, and up-to-the-minute technology in both design and substance. "That aspect of 'SuperStrip,' its relation to live action, is really exciting and beautiful," Rhoads says. Visual designer Liviu Pasare created prerecorded video and designs, at times animated, and synced everything with live footage captured by an onstage media artist.
That footage is also part of the "SuperStrip" story, focused on the rebranding campaign of a bunch of down-at- heels superheroes bent on doing good. In fact the meeting culture — familiar to Rhoads as the leader of a nonprofit, though she's experienced it in other contexts too — was one spur for "SuperStrip." The characters, however, were inspired by graphic novels (in particular, Alison Bechdel's darkly comic "Fun Home") and classic Marvel comic books.
A Lucky Plush script can take a variety of circuitous paths, Rhoads says. "Sometimes I'll totally script something: I'll say it out loud, and I think, 'This is going to be it.' But I know it's not until they read it — and it usually doesn't sound like it's in their voice at first. Then we do it over and over, more like with bullet points, and they put it in their own way of speaking, so it's authentic to them."
Though sometimes Rhoads does want a line "delivered in just a certain way," she says, "most often I come in with the ideas and either give (the performers) language, which they play with in their mouths and we edit from there, or we build it in real time with each person. We'll start a conversation, and one person will say something, and another person will say something. And then we go back, and they keep adding, and we go back." The result is often too long, "so we figure out what's necessary for that moment in the show," she says, "and start peeling away things that aren't moving the content forward."
Rhoads' dancers, many of whom have been with her for years, have cultivated a sensitivity to one another and the text, she says. "They're not trying to perform it. It's like any real conversation: You need to be receiving the other person's tone, prioritizing the relationship. The minute they try to 'act,' it feels forced. I'm interested in shedding that presentational aesthetic, both in the dancing and in the dialogue."
Last month, Lucky Plush was working just that way at the Chicago Cultural Center on a new evening-length work planned for fall 2017. Tentatively titled "Rooming House," it uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a sort of blueprint for building the piece.
Also part of the Cultural Center process was Lucky Plush's collaboration with three members of Havana-based Danza Teatro Retazos. Because of the difficulties of travel between the U.S. and Cuba, they won't join Lucky Plush in the final result. But the interaction was productive.
"We did quite a bit with a combination of Spanish and English," Rhoads says. "And I became very curious about what people understand when they don't understand. There were times when I completely understood Spanish — even though I didn't understand it. But I didn't care because what was happening physically gave me an anchor. Or I didn't understand and I was frustrated. That was either productive, because of what came after, or we needed to figure out a way to translate, so it wasn't frustrating."
When Lucky Plush held a talkback after the public showing of their Retazos collaboration, audience members said they fully understood and enjoyed the storytelling even when they didn't understand all the dialogue. Rhoads believes that had "everything to do with creating strong relationships onstage, clarifying intention and offering multiple points of access to the content." Practice makes perfect.
"Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 through Oct. 1 at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave.; $24/$30 at (312)369-8330 or www.colum.edu/dancecenter.
Laura Molzahn is a freelance critic.
MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions
We are thrilled to announce that Lucky Plush Productions was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Through this award, the MacArthur Foundation recognizes exceptional nonprofit organizations that demonstrate creativity and impact, and invests in their long-term sustainability with sizable one-time grants.
"Receiving the MacArthur Award is both an honor and a financial grace for Lucky Plush Productions. It validates over fifteen years of dedicated risk-taking, inspires a renewed sense of responsibility and purpose in fulfilling our mission, and will deepen our efforts to create a sustainable model for our work," said Julia Rhoads, Founder and Producing Artistic Director, Lucky Plush Productions.
The MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions has been presented annually since 2006 to organizations across the country and around the world that demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness. Lucky Plush Productions will use the $200,000 that accompanies its MACEI to increase its reserve fund, with a small portion earmarked for technology upgrades and marketing.
This year’s 14 recipients are drawn exclusively from Chicago’s diverse arts and culture community in order to strengthen the city’s vibrant cultural life and underscore the Foundation’s commitment to its hometown.
"These superbly imaginative organizations exemplify Chicago’s thriving arts and culture community, which is vibrant and economically vital to the region," said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. "Support for these diverse and leading organizations reflects our enduring commitment to Chicago and to its cultural life that enriches us all."
According to MacArthur, the Award is not only recognition for past leadership and success but also an investment in the future. For these Awards, the Foundation does not seek or accept nominations. To qualify, organizations must demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness; have reached a critical or strategic point in their development; show strong leadership and stable financial management; have previously received MacArthur support; and engage in work central to one of MacArthur’s core programs. Each year, MacArthur supports more than 300 arts and culture group in Chicago, awarding more than $10 million in grants, mostly through general operating support. Additional information about this year’s MacArthur Awards is at http://www.macfound.org/MacAward. #MacAward