an interview of artistic director
with John Rosenberg
John Rosenberg: Who are you?
Alexander: I’m Alexander Utz, a playwright, actor, and the artistic director of Avalanche Theatre in Chicago.
Why did you say it like that?
Sorry, sometimes I use that tone without realizing it.
Tell me about Where the Air Meets the Water.
Where the Air Meets the Water was written during the winter of 2020, as I was thinking about how to create live, in-person theatre under the restrictions of the pandemic. The performance is a pair of intersecting one-on-one walking plays for one actor and one audience member on the Chicago lakefront.
It was produced and performed in the spring of 2021 with two casts (four actors total). Among the creative team, we ended up describing the show as a conversation between the actor and audience, while the city of Chicago improvises around them. It was a really special experience with some truly dedicated and talented artists bringing it to life.
Who are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
I’m very much influenced by the artists in my immediate sphere, people in and around the Chicago theatre community. I’m inspired by Felix Abidor’s use of humor to reckon with heritage, by Christopher Vanderark’s experiments with theatrical form, by Cara Beth Heath’s ear for dialogue and by Marjorie Muller’s ability to make you sympathize with almost any character. I’m inspired by the specificity and subtle humor in Gabriela Diaz’s performances, the boundaries pushed in Mary Kate Young’s. I’m inspired by Owen Hickle-Edwards’ love of storytelling in all its forms, by Bec Willett’s brilliance in creating visual motifs and being a guide for her collaborators, and by the way Zoe Sjogerman embraces doing something because it’s new and will be fun for people to experience, above all else. Because the people around me are such talented artists, I want to make things that impress and inspire them. A little selfishly, I want to make things that they’ll want to work on with me.
How did the idea for Where the Air Meets the Water come about?
I was talking with friend and fellow writer Owen Hickle-Edwards about one-on-one performances, and how it was a form that interested me, especially in the context of the pandemic. We started discussing different stories that could be told as an actor led an audience member around Chicago, and my mind fixed on this idea of watching a friendship break apart. What would that experience be like to see? What things would you hear, and how one-sided would it be? From there, I started writing a monologue for a character. Then as I was developing the script, I realized I wanted to tell the other side of the story as well. So I started writing the other character. Eventually I realized it would be the perfect end point to have the two characters meet at the lake, and talk for what could be the last time.
Why didn’t you direct the show?
I’m more interested in seeing what another artist will create with the script I’ve written. I’ve found that there are always elements in my plays that I didn’t even realize were there, and it takes another set of eyes to bring those out. I like being surprised by intelligent, artistic choices in the staging of my plays that I would have never imagined. Seeing other people express their own art through my scripts is the most joyful part of the playwriting experience.
The director for Where the Air Meets the Water was my friend and longtime collaborator Bec Willett. She has been a champion for my work since we met through a staged reading series in 2017, where she directed a reading of the first play I ever wrote. She has an incredible skill for bringing out the best in artists: from actors to writers to designers. She is able to push you without you realizing you’re being pushed. For a project that required so much trust between the actors, so much preparation for the unexpected, I wouldn’t have picked anyone else.
How did the idea for Where the Air Meets the Water change from draft to draft and then once in rehearsal?
The idea for the script stayed mostly the same from draft to draft before we started rehearsing. However, once rehearsals started, a few changes did come up. We were intentional about casting the play with a diverse group of actors with different perspectives, so something I needed to adjust in rehearsals was how each character would think and communicate about their experiences. Because we had two casts, I ended up writing two slightly different scripts, to tailor the characters to each actor.
For example, the character AJ was played by a cis male actor in one cast, and by a nonbinary actor in the other cast. Besides pronouns, this changes the way the character relates to masculinity, and their relationship with the other character in the play. So those adjustments became an interesting thing for me to tweak and explore over the course of rehearsing the play.
I find it awesome you created a show where audiences have diverging experiences. Did any crazy things happen with audiences and performances?
Thank you! There are definitely stories… One performance was almost derailed by a dog jumping in the lake (which is still very cold in May), and a woman asking one of our actors to call the police to help rescue the dog. Luckily the dog was pulled out by its owner and survived, and the play was able to continue! We also had an audience member slip and fall toward the beginning of a performance (he was okay!) But the box of wine he was carrying in his backpack was not okay… After the actor noticed the backpack dripping, we held the show to help him get cleaned up. We knew there would be unexpected things, but Chicago definitely threw some surprises at us!
How do you show up in your plays?
I’m going to answer this question by taking “show up” to mean physically show up, as in “be present” or “pull your weight.” How do I pull my weight in my plays? I hope to always write characters that are interesting for actors to explore, characters with layers to uncover and with enough space for an actor to build around. I want to write characters that actors want to play. I also want to write plays that are interesting from a design and directorial perspective, that challenge people to create in a new way. I enjoy seeing and being a part of that collaborative process. I think and hope for that to be how I show up.
Haha, I meant more how do you think aspects of your life or personality or worldview show up in your work.
Ah, you got me. I think Where the Air Meets the Water is the most straightforward example of this, since a lot of the stories the characters tell are embellished versions of my own life and experiences. From a more holistic viewpoint, I think each one of my plays grapples with whatever happened to be on my mind during the time when I was writing it. I have plays that wrestle with growing up and leaving home, I have plays that explore themes of being in debt or out of control of your own destiny, I have plays that delve into the intersection of Middle-Eastern and European heritage (my heritage). I don’t consciously bring these themes or worldviews to the forefront, I prefer to let the story and characters take charge, but the internal conflicts I face in my everyday life do bubble to the surface of my writing. I like the feeling that it’s subconscious. I don’t want to go into a play thinking, “Now I’ll write a play about my relationship with my parents!” I’m much more interested in having those things come through the writing without me consciously realizing it.
What are you interested in exploring with your writing?
I’m interested in exploring how stories get told, and the ritual of storytelling. Especially performative storytelling. I’m interested in writing about the sharing of a story, how it can be manipulated to serve a purpose, or how it can be a way to forge bonds between people. I’m also interested in rites of passage: what do people feel they need to do in order to move forward? What stories do they tell themselves about their own lives?
To give some examples, my play Generation Red is about the first four people to be born on Mars, who imagine what life is like on Earth by playing a game where they make up movie scenes. A play I’ve recently written, Gut, takes the form of a group of fur traders sitting around a campfire and sharing a story, to welcome a newcomer. And the play I’m currently writing, Kingdom of Neptune, is about convicts being transported to Australia in the early 1800s, who find camaraderie and hope by reenacting their own trials for each other.
What stories do you think you tell yourself about your own life?
Oh, that’s a great question. We all like to tell ourselves things happen for a reason, don’t we? I recently found myself hired for a job that is, for all intents and purposes, a dream job. It’s right at the intersection of all the things I find interesting - theatre, architecture, history, storytelling, design. And over the past few years, since I moved to Chicago, I’ve had odd jobs in a variety of those fields, from being an architecture tour guide to freelancing as a designer to starting my own theatre company. These things were usually self-taught interests that grew into part-time jobs. And now I’m doing something that’s all of those things, all of my interests, full-time. So I think I’m currently telling myself the story that those previous experiences are part of a larger path that led me to this opportunity. Because it’s hard to admit it being all happenstance and luck. I’m choosing to call it an intentional, well-timed, accident.
Do the stories that people tell about themselves or tell about others vary widely in your plays? How would you describe the stories that people tell about themselves?
I don’t know if they vary too widely. I think I’d describe them as generous: I think my characters are very generous with their storytelling, they allow space for the others to contribute and share joy in that collaboration. I’m realizing now that there’s another way I show up in my plays. I also enjoy sharing space and collaboration in storytelling.
I do want to challenge myself on that, though. I want to explore less generous storytelling. The play I’m writing now, Kingdom of Neptune, is my way of exploring that. Since it’s about convicts reenacting their trials while en route to Australia, I have the opportunity to explore truth and lies in their storytelling, in service of whatever story they’re telling themselves about their own guilt or innocence. It’s fun stuff.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller in your personal life? Meaning, if someone brings something up at a bar, will you hold court and have 15 sidebars to a story?
Only if it’s something I’m really passionate about. I could go on and on about, let’s say, the history of American urbanism and different eras of neighborhood design if you got me started. But most of the time I like to sit back and listen. My friends are much better storytellers than I am.
What are you not interested in?
I’m not interested in the traditional idea of theatre as a proscenium stage presenting a drama grounded in realism. I want to push the boundaries of what theatre is capable of, how to connect with an audience in unconventional ways, and how to use unconventional spaces to stage performances.
What disinterests you about presenting drama grounded in realism?
It’s probably that I’m not very good at writing it, haha. But I think the real answer is that it’s already been done so well by so many people, that I don’t think that I as an artist have anything to say or do in that sphere. Nothing that would add to the conversation. I’m far more interested in exploring what else theatre can be, how else it can connect with audiences, ways they’ve never experienced before. I still believe there’s value in realism, but it’s not what really gets me excited artistically.
What is the driving idea behind Avalanche and the plays it presents?
The driving idea is to get new plays by contemporary playwrights in front of more audiences. That’s why we publish each play we perform, and give a copy of the script to every audience member. The thought is to get these plays, which deserve attention, into people’s hands. So not only are we giving playwrights the opportunity of a production, but we hope that by making their scripts more widely available through the production, that more opportunities will follow.
As a playwright, where do you see yourself in the Chicago theatre scene?
I see myself as someone who is still emerging in the Chicago theatre scene. I hope that as I continue to establish myself, I’ll be seen as a kind and supportive collaborator, and an artist who likes to push theatre’s boundaries with thought-provoking scripts.
As a small independent theater company, where does Avalanche see itself in the Chicago theatre scene?
We see ourselves as a company for contemporary playwrights, first and foremost. We want to be a company who creates performances that support the playwright’s script, while also experimenting with engaging the audience in unconventional ways. For example, our upcoming production of Cara Beth Heath’s Outlaws, a play that takes place during prohibition, we plan to perform site-specific in a brewery with the audience seated at tables among the action of the play. We want to be a company that’s known for creating fun, memorable experiences that celebrate the artistry of today’s playwrights.
Can you explain to me the thought process behind not wanting to produce your own work?
For myself and my relationship to the company I run, I think it’s important to have that boundary, though. Because I could see myself taking advantage of it. Endless opportunities, what isn’t to like about that? But as a company that’s committed to specifically producing new plays by contemporary playwrights, and bringing focus to those playwrights, we need to foster an environment in which those writers want to work with us, and are excited to work with us. If we were to continually produce my work over other equally talented writers, we’d be undermining the whole mission of the company. I was okay with producing Where the Air Meets the Water because we were in the uncharted territory of the pandemic, and didn’t have any other real options if we wanted to produce something safe, in person, while still being true to our desire to experiment. But outside a circumstance like that, I want to be using our platform to uplift as many other writers as we can.