Dead Writers Theater’s “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST” Preview – Featuring Unique Set Design Inspired by Pop-Up Valentines and Toy Theaters

"The Importance of Being Earnest" will run only for four weeks of July in one of the Athenaeum Theatre's more intimate spaces


Recently chosen to be Jeff Eligible, Dead Writers Theatre Collective (DWTC) is dedicated to producing works either by or about dead writers.  DWTC is known for staging highly elaborate and detailed productions on a small stage. Through extensive dramaturgical research, DWTC aims to make all of their work is as historically accurate as possible.


Jim Schneider, Artistic Director for the Dead Writers Theatre Collective, started his work on this upcoming production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”  by noting that  Wilde specifically chose to premiere “The Importance of Being Earnest” on Valentine’s Day of 1895, a time when  pop-up Valentines were very popular.


Pop up Valentine of Wilde's day


Schneider says, “This play is not only a classic love story but also a message to the London gay underground scene which Wilde frequented with his young love, Lord Alfred Douglas.  It’s his Valentine to the British aristocracy whose hypocrisy he despised for the double lives they lived and the moral rot he felt lay under their rich trappings. So, why couldn’t we make the staging for each of the three acts unfold in front of you like giant Valentines?”


While Schneider says he had no doubt that pop-up Valentines were a good creative idea, he wondered if they actually function as planned on-stage?  That was the question Schneider posed to stage designer Eric Luchen when they began working together six months ago.


Schneider says “We originally wanted to have the set for each act function and move like a pop-up card,” Luchen states. “But our stage at the Athenaeum Theatre is only 20’ x 24’ and that idea didn’t utilize the space as well as I would have hoped.”


To find a way to make Valentines work, Luchen followed the Dead Writers Theatre Collective tradition of going back in time.   Luchen comments,  “I started doing research and realized there was a strong connection between the Victorian Era and Toy Theatres,” he states. “Suddenly, Valentines and toy theatres merged into a single and elegant solution.


Toy theater


Schneider elaborates, “Miniature toy or paper theatres date back to the early 19th century in Europe. They were printed on paperboard sheets and sold as kits at the concession stands at opera houses and theatres. Audience members would assemble them at home and perform the show themselves with family members and guests, often with their own musical accompaniment.


Toy theater


“In the first half of the 19th century, toy theatres were produced for more than 300 of London’s most popular plays.  Publishers sent artists to record the scenery, costumes and dramatic moments of the live productions. Theater management would often provide free seats to the artists as these toy theatres provided outstanding free advertising.


“Toy theatres presented a wide range of staging.  However, the one thing they all had it common was the use of a proscenium, a space that surrounded on the top and sides of the stage.  The historical concept of the proscenium is that it provides the frame of the fourth wall of theatre stage space which divides the actors and their stage-world from the audience.”


Chicagoans will see a recreation of the toy theater concept at work in this upcoming production of “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST”, with a set utilizing a highly detailed proscenium inspired by those seen in toy theatres, behind which, the two dimensional set pieces layer and give the appearance of a giant Valentine for each act.


According to DWTC, The look for each of the three acts will be completely different. Act Two has been the most challenging because it fuses the toy theatre and Victorian valentine ideas in an organic and stylized setting. Designing each piece to give the audience the visceral feel of a garden yet still work inside the stylized concept one would see in a Victorian valentine has gone through several versions. The result of this tremendous amount of research and design effort is a stage that literally comes out and unfolds in front of the audience for each act


The entire stage area is 20’ x 24’ and everyone in the audience will be close enough to see and enjoy all the details.


Scenic Designer Eric Luchen


“One thing I love about the Dead Writers approach to theatre, is their emphasis on detail work,” says Luchen. “There will be an incredible amount of detailing painted into this design. I began focusing on these painted details as I created the drafting for each set piece, to ensure that they work on the individual pieces and cohesively as a whole. Our Technical Director needs detailed silhouettes to ensure the success of the two dimensional scenery and our charge artist needs a very clear idea of what the finished pieces should look like.”


DWTC also puts great emphasis on costumes


Watching the stage quite literally unfold is a compelling reason to see this production which runs from July 1 through July 31 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport.  Collective Managing Director Bob Douglas, however, is confident that the acting and costuming will definitely outdo even the lavish staging. “We’re once again being meticulous with our performances and costumes,” he states. “Wilde used the stage to launch fashion trends and this was the wonderful glittering world of the Victorian Dandy -- a time when gentlemen wore top hats and velvet collars while holding an elegant walking stick in a white gloved hand.”

Tickets are available at the Athenaeum Box Office at 773-935-6875 or through the Athenaeum website.  


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