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"Sick by Seven" Preview- an upcoming A Red Orchid Theatre incubator series and an interview with auteur/ Professor David E. Tolchinsky

By Debra Davy

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Northwestern University Professor David E. Tolchinsky is a leading auteur- a  screenwriter, teacher, sound designer, theater director,  author, art installation collaborator and playwright.  As the Chair of Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV- Film, and the Founder/Director of that institution’s MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage, he’s directly responsible for developing curricula to teach and for hands-on teaching of students writing in these genres. In 2008, he was appointed as a Northwestern University Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence.  He’s been nominated for and won numerous awards, notably a “Best Director” award last year at the Riant Theatre’s Strawberry One-Act Festival, for his dramatic and comedic autobiographical play “Where’s the Rest of Me?” the subject of an earlier essay he penned.

David E. Tolchinsky in India; photo courtesy of Debra Kahn Tolchinsky

Tolchinsky is a prolific creator. He’s the co-creator of an upcoming film –based installation/performance/lecture series about historical and new radical therapies, called “Wilhelm Reich, An Attempt to Heal in the Modern World”, which will premiere in approximately one year, and for which artist Dan Silverstein will create a sculpture, filmmaker Melika Bass will create a film,and his spouse, filmmaker Debra Kahn Tolchinsky, with whom he's successfully collaborated before, will curate. For this project, Tolchinsky's writing a piece about a protagonist suffering from some kind of illness. His medical tests are normal but he knows that something is “terribly, terribly wrong”. Conventional psychiatry offers no help, but he meets the often reviled psychiatrist Dr. Wilhelm Reich in a dream,who posits the notion of “armoring caused by blocked orgone energy” as the source of the problem.

 Tolchinsky's also just completed a short film, “an uncanny trip into a retirement home,” commissioned by Fork the Man Productions, about “the coming of age of older people”, inspired by his mother’s revelations. Tolchinsky is fearless about revealing in his work aspects of his own psychology and how early experiences with his primary family members have influenced that psychology. In this way, life informs his art.

 Tolchinsky is co-curator with Brett Neveu, playwright and writing instructor, of “Sick by Seven”, part of A Red Orchid Theatre’s incubator Series, premiering June 17, 2016. The theme of “Sick by Seven”, produced by Sarah Gitenstein, a Chicago actor-director, and featuring playwright Marisa Wegrzyn, theatre director Shade Murray and filmmaker/installation artist Melika Bass, (see above) among others, is “unexpected diseases”. Both installations examine the interplay of societal expectations and stigmas on new conceptions of illness as well as the effects of illness on the affect of human beings.

Sarah Gitenstein; photo courtesy of Zoe Mckenzie

“Sick by Seven” will combine live theater and video in seven interrelated works which investigate mental, physical and even societal health in today’s world. Some of the specific issues covered are anxiety, phobias, “mysterious” or unusual diseases, such as “alien hand syndrome” and the uses of medication.

 The collection of plays and videos include:

-“Kiss Alive!!!” by Grant James Varga, which, he has said, explores “the possible healing aspects of nostalgia”.

-“Alien” by Lisa Dillman, about  “a disorder where one's limbs seem to move of their own accord”. Dillman has said, “I’m…fascinated by the intertwined psychological and physical issues surrounding health and illness”.

 -“Where’s the Rest of Me?,” Tolchinsky’s play inspired by a great monologue instructor and a famous old film, a favorite of his father, the story of legs amputated unnecessarily.

-Excerpts from an untitled film by Melika Bass, inspired by the life and work of Wilhelm Reich (commissioned/produced by Dan Silverstein and David E. Tolchinsky)

- “How to Use a Flashlight”, by Marisa Wegrzyn, a musing about the disempowering effects of illness, in which a woman instructs us in the art of self defense using a flashlight

-“Psychodramatic”, by Shannon Pritchard, wherein excessive googling makes a woman believe her partner may have leprosy (and perhaps everything else)

-“Oh Happy Dagger”, by Brett Neveu; two fast-food workers discover their divergent illnesses give them not just asomewhat physical bond, but possibly also a reason to share odd secrets, buried beliefs and emotional connections.

Brett Neveu; photo courtesy of Tim Sullens

 This reviewer had the opportunity to interview Tolchinsky about his life and work, his thoughts about “Sick by Seven”, and his views about what constitutes health and sickness in the modern world. He is a remarkably thoughtful as well as erudite individual, who has long been interested in the meaning of mental health-his father was a well-known practicing and academic psychiatrist- and the juxtaposition of mental/physical/emotional factors in health and diagnosis. Some of his comments appear in paraphrased form below:

 “Unexpected diseases are… more common than we’d like to believe”. In the midst of life, people will experience the feeling of being "unwell"; they will think, "I don't feel right but I'm not sure why". Often, physicians examining these patients can find no "real" indicia of physical illness and medical tests reveal negative results. Then the question arises, what is "wrong"? People can also "make themselves physically ill"- then the questions arise, “Is this mental or physical illness” and “is the illness real”??

David E. Tolchinsky in Prague; photo courtesy of Bara Mojzisova

He wants audiences to talk about these plays, for the pieces “to burrow into their brains”. He believes each one is an example of a story “that the playwrights could not wait to tell”. He hopes they will provoke discussion, and will promote tolerance and acceptance of unusual states of psychological and physical illness, and further the dialogue about what it means to be healthy or sick.

 Indeed, the purpose of the project is to get each audience to think about “the area between physical and psychological cases”, to ponder what it means “to make things up”, to make people reflect about the use of art in depicting mental illness.  In his own experience, he has seen more and more students making use of psychological/psychiatric services without fear, and being able to admit they are struggling.  If his and his colleagues' work can aid such a result, this would be an instance of art informing life.


To find out more about this series, and to buy tickets for “Sick by Seven”, opening June 17, 2016, at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, go to  A Red Orchid Theatre website

"Six by Seven" poster; image courtesy of/designed by Ken Pagni


Note half the ticket sales go to the Mental Health Association of Illinois.




Published on Jun 02, 2016

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