Interview: Michael Shannon and Travis Knight Talk About Turret, Working With an Ensemble and Being Fearless on Stage

In 1993, A Red Orchid Theatre (and its talented ensemble of writers, directors, and actors) established itself as a pillar of Chicago's independent theater scene. In 2024, two of its founding members, Michael Shannon and Lawrence Grimm, are starring alongside ensemble member and Associate Artistic Director Travis Knight in the company's next venture: a world premiere of Levi Holloway's new play, Turret. Michael Shannon has built an acclaimed acting career, appearing in television, theater, and films like The Shape of Water, Knives Out, and Nocturnal Animals. Travis Knight is also a seasoned actor and has recently expanded his expertise into directing at A Red Orchid. Ahead of Turret's May premiere, I sat down with Shannon and Knight to discuss bringing Holloway's vision to life, their characters in the post-apocalyptic epic, and their dream projects for Red Orchid.

I'm so excited to talk with you guys. Obviously, I haven't seen the show yet. I wanted to start with you, Mike. You've been in a lot of film and television as well as theater, but is there a kind of project that you are prioritizing right now or are you just taking things that really excite you?

Michael Shannon: Well, after the strike, it was kind of necessary for me to try and make some scratch, because I got mouths to feed and all that. But I'm very glad that I was able to make time for this. We've been meaning to do this for a while, actually. It was supposed to be part of our 30th anniversary season. Unforeseen circumstances pushed it a little bit and I think Levi appreciated having a little more time to work on it. And yeah, it's all lined up kind of perfectly. I love this theater, the Chopin Theatre. I've been coming here for a long time, but I've never done a show here, so it's really cool to be in here. But before and after this production, I'm in Budapest, Hungary, doing some . I did a film there before I came here, and then after this I'm going back to do a TV thing. So it's kind of a wild year. 

Michael Shannon. Photo credits Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos.

An average commute for sure. You guys have both done so much with A Red Orchid Theatre. How does your experience change when you're having a hand in different elements across productions? Do you think that enriches your experiences with the shows for both of you?

Travis Knight: Yeah, I think so. I mean, this is my fourth show acting at Red Orchid, and then I directed a show this past fall, but I also wear the associate artistic director hat. And I think wearing that hat and being involved in pre-production with the shows and not having my hands in all those things, but at least having the knowledge coming into this with what the design looks like, this is how much things cost, this is who we have on the team, and getting teams together and things like that. Yeah, it totally enriches, especially the questions that I'll have while we're rehearsing or we're being on set or things like that. It gives me a different perspective of how these things are built and what actually all goes into putting on and producing a play. Because there’s a ton that goes into producing a play that people don't realize. Because they come and they sit and then they watch the actors do the thing on set. But there's just dozens of people who are involved in getting it on its feet. 

Yeah, absolutely. How about you, Mike?

MS: Oh, well, back in the old days, I used to have to worry more about all of that, but because of my elder status, I guess now all I have to do is show up and act, so I'm always tremendously relieved when I walk in and see everybody running around trying to get everything done. I'm like, “Oh, I don't have to do that any more.” But then sometimes I feel a tinge of guilt, I guess. The other night I cleaned up the food table. For the old days. I should make myself useful.

Just doing your part. 

TK: I also think there's an element of being an ensemble member. There are so many ensemble members in the room, and Mike was here at the very beginning and has that wealth of knowledge of what Red Orchid is about. And when there are so many ensemble members in the room like that, there's this sense of collaboration and creativity that's really intoxicating and it's really exciting to be in here. Because all have ideas and thoughts about things and there's a familiarity between the people that we're able to shorthand certain things and come up with big ideas. Like Mike Durst, our lighting designer, the other day, came up and had an idea for a scene that we were staging during tech that ended up being great and that we'll probably keep, because it looked cool and it felt right, and it's great to be in a room like that. 

Travis A. Knight. Photo credits Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos.

MS: And members of the ensemble are always welcome to come watch the rehearsals and sometimes people drop by and that's really uplifting to know that the group as a whole is interested in the thing, even though they're not in it or not getting their chance to do their thing or whatever, they still care about it as if they were so that's nice.

Yeah, this is a super tightly cast play. And it's kind of about isolation and masculinity. Have you guys created a special bond within the cast through rehearsals?

TK: Oh, definitely, yes. I think getting to know Mike more has been an absolute treat and a gift. Being on stage with Larry again has been awesome. The last time Larry and I did a show, we didn't actually talk to each other. It was a play that was a silent retreat. So now we get to speak to one another on stage, and that's fun. And I do think that there is a bond that is forged when you do a play together. We're all going through this thing and doing this thing, especially on a world premiere and a play that's never been tested, really. You don't know how it's going to be received. I just show up and I have fun doing this thing. I think there is something very special that is built within a cast, especially when there's only three of us.

Yeah, absolutely. What do you think, Mike, you like them?

MS: Well, it's a very relationship-driven play. I mean, at the end of the day, the kind of central element of the play, despite all the bells and whistles and sci-fi and thriller aspects, which are a lot of fun, but the core element of the play is this relationship between Rabbit and Green. And it's a fascinating and complex relationship that is always changing. It's never what you think it is until the end where you kind of realize what you've been watching, which is my favorite kind of thing to work on, really, is creating a relationship that has complexity and dimensionality to it.

What drew you to your character initially, or what was your way in?

MS: Well, frankly, it started out as, like I said earlier, we wanted to do something special for our 30th anniversary, and Levi had started writing such wonderful plays and we were doing them. And so it was kind of set up like almost a commission, really. The idea being that he would write this for us and that this would be an event. And so sometimes in those situations, it's a lot of pressure, honestly, to put on a writer, to give them an assignment like that. But Levi had a story, an idea that was actually very personal and important to him, and it wound up just overlapping kind of seamlessly with the parameters he had been given, this was kind of the perfect thing to put in it. I guess what I'm saying is it wasn't like Levi had already written a play and he showed it to me. I was like, “Oh, I really want to do that.” I was kind of just saying, “You go Levi, and whatever you come up with, we'll give it the old college try.” And I’ve been enjoying it. 

TK: Levi wrote a first draft of this two years ago, three years ago, something like that. And he had the idea. And knowing that Mike and I were able to work on something like this, he was able to write in our voice in a way that's really quite something and really very fortunate. You don't get that a lot as an actor. And Levi's a very good friend of mine, and that way in to the play for me, there's something about Rabbit that feels very familiar just in how it's written. And same with Green too. When he told me that he wrote the play and then he had Mike and I in mind when he was writing it, when I read it for the first time, I was like, “Oh, I see, okay, this feels familiar to me in a way, even though it's new to me.” And then to get out here and put it on its feet and stage it, it's a whole other element of relationship building and seeing how it fits and how it feels, and constant conversations with Levi and with Mike and with Larry to really fine tune on those things. But it's a very special project to work on. It's really quite lovely. It's been really great.

Travis A. Knight and Lawrence Grimm. Photo credits Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos.

Absolutely. I love that. Well, you've been starting to direct. How has this experience influenced what you might want to direct next, or what might be in the cards for you?

TK: Oh, that's a good question. I mean, here, any time I work at Red Orchid, when I leave here, I always feel boundless in what I can do in terms of seeing how fearless so many people are in this organization. Being on stage with Mike and seeing how dropped in and fearless he is, and Larry and Levi, and he's written the play and he's directing, he decided to take on two very hard roles and he's doing great. And there's just something really freeing about that. And to be able to go out there and be like, well, I did this thing that was hard. I think any rehearsal process is hard. A new show, it's hard, but it's a great kind of hard, you're honing your craft. It's a challenge. So I think for me, post this show, finding projects that scare me a little, I think are good. Like this one. Projects that I think make me a better artist in how I have to question the storytelling or question the process or question my own process in things. Anything that makes it a little bit of a challenge, I think is on the horizon and something I'm interested in doing and knowing that you can really push yourself pretty far to see what happens.

That makes a lot of sense. I guess for both of you, where do you see Red Orchid Theatre going in general? Is there a dream project that you guys would want or write?

MS: I'm excited because we have so many different cards in our deck, and Levi's card is like this, but there's so many creative people in our company that are creative in such different ways and have such different imaginations and life experience and other members are starting to write. And to me, it's just, I think the most interesting thing we can do, the most valuable thing we can do is to generate our own work and cultivate voices. Writing a play is super hard. I think it's the hardest thing to write, honestly, is a play. And so if we give people the courage and the space to do that and nurture that, I think that's probably our best strategy going forward.

TK: I agree with that fully. And there's also something about being in an ensemble where it's great because we prop each other up and we encourage one another in ways to push beyond where we're comfortable. Even me directing this past fall directing was something I was kind of interested in I had thoughts about, because I've worked with a lot of actors who are directors and they're some of my favorite directors. And were it not that I was at Red Orchid and Brett Neveu who wrote that play Revolution between he and Kirsten, they were like, “You should direct this play.” And I think being part of an ensemble is seeing one another and seeing the talents and nurturing those things and encouraging them to move forward with it and take the chance and put yourself out on the limb and do that thing. So I think for Red Orchid, our growth lies deeply in that and holding one another up and then finding other artists to bring in to continue our growth. So it's an exciting time to be a member of Red Orchid.

Well, this is just the classic question. What can audiences look forward to when they come to see Turret? What's the biggest pull for a night out or matinee?

MS: Well, I think it keeps you guessing. It keeps you on your toes. Like I said earlier, it's never exactly what you think it is. And there's a great kind of mystery about it that I think people will find, hopefully, intriguing and captivating. And despite all the sci-fi elements and stuff, it's got a big heart. It's really a play about, at the end of the day, love and loss, and those are two things I think most human beings grapple with at one point or another. So yeah, I think hopefully everybody will be able to relate to it on some level.

TK: Yeah, I think that's it. I mean, Levi likes to write what he calls puzzle boxes, and there's a lot of puzzles in this one that are fun to solve and figure out. And then yes, the relationships between the people on the stage. What do we need from people in this world? What are we constantly looking for in others? What kind of connections and love and things like that do we need in other people? Especially when you are the last two people on earth. And it's funny, because like they're the last two people on earth, but you could look around now when we're surrounded by people, we're always looking for some kind of connection and who we are in the world and our purpose. And this play has a lot of that. It asks a lot of those questions.

Well, I'm excited to see it. You guys are awesome.

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.