Oobleck the Elephant | Letters | Chicago Reader

Oobleck the Elephant 

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To the editors:

I very much appreciate the Critic's Choice plug for Birth of a Frenchman for the Rhino Fest [August 21], and I also don't believe that Jack Helbig meant to disparage Theater Oobleck in any way with his allusion to my work with them. However, since, with very few exceptions, nearly every article in the theatrical press praising me and Mickle Maher since our leaving Oobleck has also in the same breath put down the troupe in some large, small, conscious, or unconscious way, the accumulation of such incidents has caused me to clench my teeth at even slightly negative comments about Oobleck that attach themselves to positive ones about me. I hope you'll allow me the chance to set a few things straight by printing my letter.

I won't write here about why I left the troupe. I've talked to journalists about it, but the actual complexities of human interaction seem to be too difficult for them to assimilate. Therefore, the real story has not been told, and I can pretend it's not too late to say, "None of your business."

Oobleck is also too complex an organism, apparently, for even conscientious journalists to accurately portray. Mickle and I were only two-thirds of the most often produced mainstage writers, which were themselves only a fraction of Oobleck's mainstage and an even smaller fraction of the group's total writing talent. Reviews for these other works were just as glowing as those for Mickle and me, but in articles about the group as a whole, even before I left it, Oobleck's diversity has tended to be ignored.

Oobleck is like the proverbial elephant groped by blind men who, grabbing a tusk or a tail, decide that that is the shape of the whole beast. Tony Adler, a longtime voluble supporter of new theater, grabbed Mickle and me early on. Bill Williams, less voluble but no less supportive, had grabbed David Isaacson first, but Bill didn't go on to write about David in Chicago mag, Stagebill, and the Trib (as Tony had about Mickle and me, if not by name then at least by focus on our work or style). Consequently, even though I spell David's name clearly six or seven times for some jackoff at the Lerner papers, he's still not mentioned in the jackoff's article. David has had as many Oobleck hits as I have, and he's an excellent writer who deserves the attention of the press when it talks about Oobleck as a whole.

Justin Hayford, whose intelligence I respect, was a blind elephant anatomist who grabbed When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus. So when he later saw Dave Buchen's hilarious and well-wrought agitprop Buck and Town he got angry and said, "Hey, this isn't an elephant!" Women writers also tend to get passed over by blind men. Rachel X. Weissman, Robin Harutunian, Terri Kapsalis, and Jane Richlovsky have all hit the Oobleck mainstage and received positive press in the Reader, Windy City, Theatre Journal, and elsewhere. The festival and short-play wing with Buchen, Lisa Black, Angela Woodward, Danny Thompson, Ted DeMoniak, Wylie Goodman, Annette Jagner, Eliot Jackson, John Shaw, Todd Toussaint, and Sarah Brown, just to name some of the writers, have all attracted big crowds and good press from Pilsen to Andersonville.

Oobleck has been all over town and all over the spectrum of writing and acting styles. They've had and continue to have working relationships with performers and stagecrafters from groups such as Cardiff Giant, Redmoon Theatre, Curious Theatre, Milk of Burgundy, Theatre of the Reconstruction, Next, Transient, New Crime, and Blue Rider, to name only a few. Oobleck has been key to the development of the present community of off-Loop theaters producing original drama, and has helped make this theater more inexpensive (free if you're broke!) and therefore more accessible. In its diversity Oobleck has become an intersection for some of the most talented and original artists, musicians, writers, and performers in the city. Members of Oobleck have had direct discourse with Annie Sprinkle, Ntozake Shange, and Jerzy Grotowski; their influences sweep from Marlowe to Miller, Renaissance to radio, Bakunin to Buckley, Gluck to Glass, Picasso to Peanuts, Euripides to Urine, Calvin to Hobbes. Maybe one day someone will explore Oobleck as deeply as they deserve, or maybe if you want a job done right you have to do it yourself. In any case, they deserve the support of the theater community for which they've worked to create a fertile climate.

Oobleck is regrouping after the departure of two of its prolific writers. But the space Mickle and I took up in the season was just that: space. We did not have a monopoly on talent. That talent is a polymorphous monster that now has more room to breathe, a monster destined to continue to confuse the groping anatomists who will seek to define it.

Jeff Dorchen

Theater for the Age of Gold

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