Interview: A Red Orchid Theatre Takes on a Werewolf Story of Love and Isolation. We Discuss Turret with Playwright Levi Holloway and Actor Lawrence Grimm

A Red Orchid Theatre's newest production Turret is a world premiere written and directed by Levi Holloway, whose recent works have included a Broadway run of his play Grey House, his adaptation of Pinocchio at Chicago Children's Theatre, and writing a new stage adaptation of the Paranormal Activity franchise for London's West End. A Red Orchid Theatre was founded in 1993 by ensemble members Guy Van Swearingen, Lawrence Grimm, and Michael Shannon. A Red Orchid Theatre's ensemble includes playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and teaching artists. Holloway became an ensemble member in 2019 and has acted in Red Orchid productions as well as staged world premieres of his plays Haven Place and Grey House there. Turret is staged at the Chopin Theatre in West Town rather than Red Orchid's own theater in Old Town; the production includes Red Orchid ensemble members Lawrence Grimm, Michael Shannon, and Travis Knight. Grimm has acted and directed for Red Orchid and is a dedicated arts educator, all of which he has in common with Holloway. I spoke with both about Turret's rehearsal process, the play's central struggles of isolation and love, and the role of art in finding and sustaining human connection.

I'm so excited to talk to you guys. Okay, I'm going to start the question for Levi . So you've acted, you've written, you've directed. I just talked to Mike Shannon and Travis Knight, and they said that you kind of write towards actors sometimes. Do you feel like you go for a dramaturgical approach or it's kind of a mixture of everything when you're writing?

Levi Holloway: No, I’m pretty low altitude when I'm writing. Yeah, I've always been a hyphenate artist, so I think I have a way through. But I've had the good fortune at Red Orchid to write for people that I know are going to agree for whatever reason to be in the play. So for Mike, for Travis, for Larry, I just picture them in my head, and because I know them and love them so much the words just come and then we shape 'em in the room. So if the question is like, how do I write for actors? Yeah, I guess I've asked myself, who am I writing for and what's the most economic way through?

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So you've both been in this play exploring masculinity, love, isolation, kind of a threat on the outside world. Without giving away too much, how do you find yourselves in this story?

Lawrence Grimm: Well, part of it is what Levi just said. He's quite skilled, not just in writing, but writing for. So it's not that big of an ask to find yourself in the words in reading it. Every time I read it, I was hearing Travis and Mike in the roles. I feel like as far as me finding my way, the thing that we're working through that's been exciting is how—I was actually just having this conversation with Paul, and he used the words “how simple and complex things are simultaneously.” So around those themes that you mentioned, at certain moments, it's like, “Oh, of course.” But you look closer at Levi's writing, particularly with my guy Birdy, I feel like there’s completely straightforward in some ways, and then there's a dense complexity to the ride around all of those things: isolation, loneliness, connection, figuring it all out. I don't think I'm giving anything away, but there's an interpretive moment about some rooms, some ancient rooms. It is not unlike trying to decipher another language. And then once you tap into it, it's like, “Oh, of course it makes total sense.” So it's privileged. It's really cool. Because there’s not always that simplicity and complexity living together.

LH: Well with this one, I started writing it in 2020, right at the front of the pandemic and I was feeling some isolation. And then my father passed, and so I wanted to write about that. And then I finished it years later after my son was born because I couldn't figure out how to finish it until that happened. So to the question, how do you find yourself in it? I'm permeating throughout the whole thing. My life and my biography are everywhere, so much so that sometimes I kind of try to hide. It's a weird balance, being so central and not wanting to be central at all. And then that's part of, that's maybe the core of it, the nucleus of it, but outside of that, it certainly wears genre and it wears the mythology. So that's just a jacket. Every story starts with a map. So I make the map of the mythology and then figure out a personal way through. So it's very personal, very vulnerable, but also very spectacle driven. So there's an intersection.

Levi Holloway. Photo Credit Jesus Santos.

Levi Holloway. Photo Credit Jesus Santos.

Yeah, I love how you put that. You're obviously right in the middle of the work, but you also want to be as far away from it as possible. That describes so much of the process of writing anything. I really appreciate that.

LG: Levi said in rehearsal that he puts his trauma in a box.

LH: That's right. And then I light it. 

Light it up, have a lot of set dressing, a lot of distraction. I loved seeing the set, it’s incredible. It's sci-fi, it's futuristic, but it also feels like the past, like ruins. You've done so much genre work in horror I've been reading a bit about in the past couple of years, Levi. Did Turret feel like something that was going deeper into that territory you've explored a bit, with this supernatural woodsy kind of thriller? Or is it something new entirely with this play?

LH: It's hard to speak to genre, but if you're forcing me to, I guess I like horror and I like thrillers because in them, the characters are forced to change in order to survive. But I'm interested in that change being about telling the truth. So is a spiritual cousin to Grey House, which was my last , and also taking this notion of—I've been thinking about this and I'm trying to figure out what it means, but—Grey House, I guess it was on a ghost story, and I think this one is my take on a werewolf story and my next one's my take on a possession story. So I sort of find myself falling into genre, I think. But it’s because my dad introduced me to those genres at a very young age, which I'm grateful for—it sounds bad, but I'm grateful for it. And so with this one, it's got these tethers, these kind of dream-driven tethers to works we all know like Alien or The Thing, where you take a few characters and you put 'em in a very tight space and you say, “Hey, survive this.” And that's what this does.

Absolutely, forced to change. There's so many situations in life outside of genre where you're going to have to do that. And I think this is the explosion of that internal conflict. For you, Larry, you've been in a lot of different plays, genres like Shakespeare, contemporary plays, musicals, kind of across the map as far as I've seen. How do you feel like working with new material compares to those kinds of scripts?

LG: Well, I think it's twice as exciting. I don't think it compares. Nothing against conventionality or standard stuff. But to sort of piggyback on what Levi’s saying, one of the things that I appreciate about his work, mainly as an audience member and first as an actor is that, yeah, you can say it's in a genre. But because it's so personal and because of the lens that it's refracted through, it’s genre busting. I don't think it easily fits into anything conventional in terms of genre. And so that then extends as an opportunity for an actor, because we talk about things that are stylized. And I mean, I can only have the filter of my character in reading it. Usually when you read something it's like, “Oh, these are the four possibilities with it.” You read this, and I feel like it's kind of almost infinite, which is delicious. But then at a certain point it's like, “Okay, got to bear down.” So I would say as compared to doing anything else, it's just, it's lucky because we’re witnessing collaboration. And I also think what's really cool is Levi's got a very specific vision, but it doesn't ever exclude collaboration, design wise, acting wise, direction wise. And I don't think that's easy to do when you've got such clarity and you can see it in your mind to not just hold tight to that. So it's pretty, I mean, I'm lucky. I just feel lucky.

Left to right: Michael Shannon, Travis Knight, and Lawrence Grimm. Photo Credit Jesus Santos.

That's wonderful. So you're both really familiar with and entrenched in the Chicago theater scene. How does this kind of stand out to the work you just did in New York, Levi? Or do you feel like a different kind of feeling of home? You've got your Chicago-based theater company, Neverbird, which sounds amazing. How do you feel like the Chicago community fosters this kind of work?

LH: This is not comparative at all, but I think what I love about Chicago and specifically my home, my artistic home, is that we don't concern ourselves terribly much with what's palatable. And I think our primary relationship is with one another. And that doesn't take anything away from our relationship with the audience. Certainly that's primary too. I think that what makes us unique is, is that at A Red Orchid, we sort of bring ourselves to a cliff's edge artistically, and we kind of live in that sort of precipice of free fall. It feels like there's danger in that, but there's also a tremendous comfort in it because we know that we're not going to let anyone fall. We just love each other too much. So it's somehow both the most scary and most comforting thing all at once.

That was beautiful. It's like I'm talking to a playwright. It's so crazy. How do you both see the roles of theater and arts education evolving for younger generations? Or what would you say to a future playwright or future actor?

LG: That's a great question. So we're both arts educators, in different veins, and I think it's crucial. I just went on a diatribe on social media, unintentionally condemning Steppenwolf Theatre. I was a teaching artist there and I did curriculum development for Step Ed and they just canceled their Steppenwolf for young adults because of budget, no doubt. And what was so great about it, and I don't point fingers to anybody at anybody around trying to survive theatrically in a post-pandemic world, it's tricky. But the future, you're talking about creating the next generation of theater-goers and getting younger folks in seats. That was a huge component that I will miss, speaking of Chicago. Evolving, I got to say there's a connection between doing dynamic original work like this because I'm an old guy talking, but I just sense that the younger generation needs a hook that is not conventional. And we're doing lots of programming now within Red Orchid that's education-based. That's my first love. That's how I came to theater was through teaching. But I think it's evolving in the sense of recognizing that this is a generation that has a very different way of communicating and existing in a world, and we need to bend an open theater for access in that way. But I always think about how Levi's got a great history around Pinochio and deaf access. You should speak to that. Not to put you on

LH: You pimp me out. That's what Mike says. Mike has a joke. Whenever you as an actor, you make another act to do a thing, it's not fair. It's hard to talk about that without sounding superlative or over grand. But I think my favorite thing to do, the best jobs I ever had involved working with kids, and the most transformative moments for me as an artist as a kid were watching a grown artist in process. And, here's the hyperbole, is that right now we have more access to one another than we ever had in history. But I don't think we've ever felt so isolated. And I think theater is a social contract that is so vital and personal wherein we are just humans agreeing to watch other humans pretend to be other humans. And there's something so hopeful about that, playing pretend to tell the truth, that is just so necessary to pass forward. So that's why I teach. And Larry is a champion of the education program at A Red Orchid and at residencies all throughout Chicago. So he for years has held a torch light and a lot of us educators have followed that torch light. 

LG: The other bridge that I got to say, one of my favorite, I don't know if I've ever shared this, but one of my favorite shows that we have done was Levi's, The Haven Place. And what I love about it, when we're talking about evolving, is we've done a number of shows where it's intergenerational, where it's not a kid show, but different ages. And to me, that's the ultimate bridge and doing more of that, so that it's not just separate but equal stuff. That's what I want.

No, you're absolutely so good. Yeah, I mean, I've been seeing shows all over Chicago recently and it's just showed how vital and current everything that people are putting on today is. If it's a classic play, they're trying to do it in a new way or rewrite it or trying and succeeding in making it feel so of the moment, which I've really loved seeing. Is there anything that you both would say to people feeling detached or isolated in their lives right now and how live theater or arts education can connect you?

LG: I got to say, it's ironic to draw it back to Levi's work, but the worlds that he creates seem so separate and otherworldly, but the intimacy and the connection in the midst of the loneliness… Greyhound, I think A Haven Place I think of this… There is hope to be had in the midst of these communities in which they're othered, they're separate from, and there's kind of desperate stakes and situations, and yet the opportunity for connection and communication is huge. So what's the answer? If we can make more Levi's play part of the world… No, but I think it's very easy to go between these two realms of feeling going from loneliness to connection. And you can feel it within theater sometimes, but I feel like there's hope in it. As bleak as this world is, there's so much hope in it. I dunno if you feel like that.

LH: For sure. For sure. If you just make art, witness art, you'll feel better. And I think it's really about connection.

LG: We have created this thing at Red Orchid called Studio, where we're just creating open time for artists to come without rehearsal, without a workshop, without paying for a class, without being cast so that people can work out. And the biggest thing that we hear again and again is gratitude for community. Because it doesn't exist as much in theater. I think sometimes, I dunno, in the other art forms you get to work out more. But the connection, it's not to be undervalued. The idea of being in a room and looking at somebody. 

LH: It's true. A teacher told me once that the tough thing about actors is that we're artists that sit on a shelf and we’re waiting for someone to come pick us up off the shelf. That's a tough thing. So I can agree with that sometimes, even though it sounds bleak. And I think what Larry's describing is about how art is a practice, and just like love or health, you got to keep practicing.

Turret runs May 12 through June 9 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St. There is an ASL-Interpreted performance Wednesday, May 22, at 7pm. You can get tickets through the box office at 312-943-8722 or online at www.aredorchidtheatre.org.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Row Light

Row Light (she/they) is a Chicago-based culture writer and editor. You can find their work at row-light.com.