Gr­rrl Power

Fire­brand The­atre en­ters Chicago’s Equity land­scape with ‘ Lizzie’

Chicago Sun-Times - - SUN-TIME AGENDA - Catey Sul­li­van is a lo­cal free­lance writer. By CATEY SUL­LI­VAN

When Fire­brand’s punk rock mu­si­cal “Lizzie” opens in previews Nov. 11, it will mark the first time more than five years that a new Equity mu­si­cal the­ater house has launched in Chicago. With a mis­sion to “em­ploy and em­power women,” Fire­brand’s aims are un­like most other mu­si­cal the­ater houses. Artists say the dif­fer­ences be­tween work­ing on “Lizzie” — a retelling of the story of sus­pected ax- mur­derer Lizzie Bor­den — and do­ing, say, “Ok­la­homa!” at other area com­pa­nies, are pal­pa­ble on many lev­els. “It seems to have cap­tured a lot of peo­ples’ imag­i­na­tions,” says Har­mony France, who co- founded Fire­brand with ac­tor Danni Smith ( who has stepped back to focus on her ca­reer and is now an “artis­tic ad­viser”). “We haven’t even opened a show yet and we’ve got­ten na­tional press,” she adds, not­ing cov­er­age Fire­brand has got­ten in Play­bill, Broad­way World and Amer­i­can The­atre Mag­a­zine. “And peo­ple have been do­nat­ing their time and tal­ent since we an­nounced.”

The mone­tary dona­tions to fund the com­pany’s projects have to­taled up­ward of $ 40,000, pri­mar­ily raised through con­cert fund- rais­ers star­ring mu­si­cal the­ater lu­mi­nar­ies vol­un­teer­ing their voices. As a “Tier N” com­pany, Fire­brand is at the bot­tom of the union pay scale.

Even at Tier N, go­ing Equity right from the start is all but un­heard of. Paramount The­atre Aurora was the most re­cent mu­si­cal the­ater ven­ture to start pro­duc­ing as an Equity house ( in 2011), and they had a multi- mil­lion bud­get from the jump. It took Porch­light Mu­sic The­atre over a decade to go Equity.

“We wanted peo­ple to take us se­ri­ously. So we knew from the start that we had to be union,” France says. She plans to scale up in the fu­ture, but for now, the pay scale hasn’t been an is­sue. “We’ve got de­sign­ers work­ing on ‘ Lizzie’ for less than they’d usu­ally get sim­ply be­cause they want to be a part of this.”

Fire­brand be­gan roughly two years ago with a $ 600 anony­mous do­na­tion and a long- sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent with an art form his­tor­i­cally dom­i­nated by men both off — and on­stage. France in­cor­po­rated the com­pany as a non­profit about 18 months ago. “As far as I can tell – and be­lieve me, I’ve looked — there’s no other mu­si­cal the­ater com­pany out there that’s [ all] about giv­ing voice to women. Which is crazy be­cause it’s 2017. And clearly, peo­ple are re­spond­ing to this,” France says.

Find­ing mu­si­cals that fea­ture dom­i­nant, fe­male leads who don’t spend the plot mostly singing about men, is a chal­lenge that rules out only do­ing shows writ­ten by women, France says. For ex­am­ple, “Lizzie” was penned by Steven Che­lik- deMeyer, Alan Stevens He­witt and Tim Maner.

“We don’t have the lux­ury of only do­ing shows writ­ten by women be­cause there sim­ply aren’t many of them out there,” says France. And not ev­ery show that fea­tures women front and cen­ter meets Fire­brand’s cri­te­ria. “‘ Nine,’ ‘ Com­pany’ and ‘ Quil­ters’ all have lots of fe­male char­ac­ters — but what do they do? They spend the show ar­gu­ing or talk­ing about men,” says France.

“Other than ‘ Fun Home,’ I couldn’t name an­other mu­si­cal where the plot is specif­i­cally about women, and the women’s main con­cern isn’t men,” says “Lizzie” direc­tor Vic­to­ria Bussert, “It’s un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory.”

Of the 38 artists work­ing on “Lizzie,” 36 iden­tify as women. The all- fe­male cast and the pre­pon­der­ance of women ev­ery­where else im­pacts the work in ways both sub­tle and overt. Bussert spent early re­hearsals en­cour­ag­ing the women to lit­er­ally spread out — to take up as much space as pos­si­ble with their bod­ies. Go­ing big can be both lib­er­at­ing and un­set­tling, Bussert says.

“In the open­ing scenes, we’re deal­ing with mics and mid stands – it’s a very tra­di­tion­ally mas­cu­line rocker chore­og­ra­phy. I spend a lot of time re­mind­ing them to stretch their arms all the way out. The in­hi­bi­tions, the way we women edit our­selves as we move through the world, that falls away in the re­hearsal room. There’s a joy­ous­ness and a free­dom that takes over,” Bussert says.

For ac­tor Liz Chidester, play­ing Lizzie Bor­den is “un­like any­thing I’ve done be­fore.”

“Lizzie’s this com­bi­na­tion of mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine. She just [ erupts] — phys­i­cally, vo­cally, vi­o­lently. She’s a vil­lain and a vic­tim. I can’t think of an­other role that’s any­thing like it.

“There so many women who par­tic­i­pate in mu­si­cal the­ater, and there aren’t as many jobs for us as there are for men,” Chidester adds. “I’m happy some­body fi­nally no­ticed.”

MAX HERMAN/ FOR THE SUN- TIMES

Har­mony France, co- founder of Fire­brand The­atre.

| MAX HERMAN/ FOR THE SUN- TIMES

The cast of Fire­brand The­atre’s “Lizzie” — Leah Davis ( from left), Liz Chidester, Camille Robin­son and Jac­que­lyne Jones.

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