The House Theatre of Chicago and Chicago Flyhouse have worked together for more than a decade with Flyhouse being the performer flying vendor of choice. For an upcoming performance of The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz, the cast has been learning to fly in the Flyhouse rehearsal space. We had the opportunity to talk with The House’s Artistic Director, Nathan Allen, to learn more about the company’s past and standing out in the Chicago theater scene.
Where did the idea of The House come from and what was the process of getting it off the ground like?
Nathan: Most of us met at Southern Methodist University and decided we wanted to start our own thing after graduation. A few of us had also studied at The British American Drama Academy in London. For me, the collision of a traditional American actor’s training with a much more audience focused European classical and physical training inspired questions about form and purpose. We started thinking about what we wanted to make, but more importantly who we wanted to serve. When we arrived in Chicago, we were met with this overwhelming support. People were excited by us and as a bunch of hard-working kids from hard-working families, we were able to harness that excitement into a relatively sustainable institution. We have our ups and downs like any group but we’ve survived on a sense that anything is possible in our theatre and community. It’s a lot to convince someone when you’re dealing with such ancient vocabularies but we’ve taken that challenge seriously – so much so that we started to resist the mundane. It became a challenge to continue staging the unstageable, to put our audience at the center of an imagined epic experience. That artistic chip on our shoulder fueled an ambition to grow, and we’re lucky that for some of our audience it’s made us fun to support. Seventeen years in and still doing it seems as impossible as anything, but here we are.
“It became a challenge to continue staging the unstageable…”
The cast for your upcoming show is doing performer flying training at Flyhouse’s rehearsal space throughout February, why is the partnership the two groups have formed important?
Nathan: There are only a few theatre companies in Chicago working regularly in such physical spectacle and stagecraft. Having a partner that can engineer fly systems, educate designers, directors, and performers in their use, and advise throughout a safe rehearsal process makes all the difference in our ability to experiment with and eventually stage these effects.
What has changed in theatre since your company was formed?
Nathan: That’s a great question. In a real way, the theatre hasn’t changed in thousands of years, but that’s probably dodging the question. Still- I like to think that as we see modern media technologies become more and more isolating (especially those technologies that claim to be “social”), we see a reckoning with those purer and ancient purposes of our art form. Even in the frame of the last 17 years, I think we’ve seen more artists and producers aiming their work at the theatre’s social functions, becoming more inclusive, and building spaces tuned for community building.
Is risk taking an essential part of a theatre company?
Nathan: In many ways, it’s a difficult business to begin with. But the way we’ve found to thrive in it is by trying to stand out- do something different. To try new things and embrace the risk of failing as a part of what makes the work exciting. Learning requires risk. The hardest trick is building a community of support that will take those risks with you.
What sets The House apart from others in the region?
Nathan: Our people. Our culture, led by our incredible Company Members, and nurtured by our Staff and Board, is as kind and courageous and encouraging and entrepreneurial as any arts and culture institution could be. Culture is everything, especially in a not-for-profit, and our people curate that culture. I think that it shows in our work.
Nathan Allen (Artistic Director) – The House Theatre of Chicago
Nathan founded The House Theatre of Chicago with friends in 2001 and continues to lead the company as Artistic Director. In his role, he is responsible for the development and programming of all projects. Writing and directing credits include Death and Harry Houdini, The Sparrow, Rose and the Rime, The Last Defender and The Hammer Trinity (The Iron Stag King, The Crownless King, and The Excelsior King.) He also wrote and starred in The Valentine Trilogy (San Valentino and The Melancholy Kid, Curse of the Crying Heart, and Valentine Victorious) and directed The Magnificents by Dennis Watkins, with whom he created the weekly magic show, The Magic Parlour.
Nathan’s work has been seen on the stages of The House, The Steppenwolf Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, The Arsht Center of Miami, The Stoneham Theatre in Boston, Strawdog Theatre, The Neo-Futurarium, Collaboraction, and The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Nathan has received acknowledgements from the Joseph Jefferson Awards, The Orgie Awards, and The American College Theatre Festival. He has been named an Associate Artist at The Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami and received the Emerging Leader Award from his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.