CATCO Closes Their 2020-2021 Season with Streaming Adaptation of ‘Working’
When incoming CATCO artistic director Leda Hoffmann announced the 2020-21 season under the cloud of the pandemic, she threw down a gauntlet for herself and her collaborators.
“ we were going to sell a virtual pass to the season and it was going to include a musical. And when I said that, I had no idea what the musical was going to be; I just decided to trust that we would figure it out later,” Hoffmann recalls.
Talking to Hoffmann by Zoom, she explained the process involved looking through lists of shows she’d loved in the past, and suggestions from others, before settling on the Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso adaptation of the epochal Studs Terkel oral history, Working.
“I love its connection to real stories. I love just how humanizing it is,” she said. “Also, the breadth of the show feels like there’s a way to connect to it for everybody. So whatever your job is, whatever your relationship with work is, there’s a song by a retired guy.”
The nature of the songs and monologues in this musical uniquely suited it to the current format.
“This is a show where the musical numbers and the monologues are primarily one central person telling their story,” Hoffmann said. “But the episodic nature of Working, just from a production standpoint, helps us go, okay, here’s what we do with this one song. The actors are each playing six, seven characters each.”
That format also created a canvas for director Daniella Wheelock and her team, including music director Jeremy Ramey and choreographer Shoshana Canali, to craft ambitious spectacle around these deeply human stories and within the safety regulations. I spoke to Wheelock by Zoom.
Wheelock’s working relationship with Hoffmann goes back to Milwaukee Rep, but she’d never heard of Working when Hoffmann suggested it. Wheelock saw a Chicago Tribune article about a customer treating a grocery story employee badly early in the pandemic, “ And the person who wrote the article compared it directly to Working, to the book by Studs Terkel. And that said like, ‘Things might be changing right now, but there are some things that have stayed the same for the past almost 50 years.'”
“And that’s something that really resonates with me,” Wheelock said. “The search for meaning and fulfillment [in] relation to our job. And I think that throughout the pandemic, people have really started to consider what that means for them, and if their jobs are worth it, or what happens after you lose a job that has been very fulfilling? And what happens when your relationship has to change to something that you’ve been doing for 30 years?”
Once she engaged with the subject matter, Wheelock put together a crack team. She’d known choreographer Canali since college and when she reached out, Canali was directing a virtual production of the extremely physical and complex The Wolves.
“I knew that she was someone who could adapt to this format in a way that was really necessary,” Wheelock said.
When Wheelock and I spoke, they were filming some of these choreographed sequences which threw the challenges of distance into relief.
“I think when you have a rehearsal space that you’d go to, you know that it’s just for rehearsal and you are allowed to take the space you need and move the way you do,” she said. “When you’re in your own space, it can be difficult to do that. You might have a small space or you might not have space to dance. You might have people who live below you who don’t like it when you’re dancing at nine o’clock at night.
“[Shoshanna and I discussed] what pieces we’re going to have dancing or movement in them. We talked a lot about how to make sure people were comfortable in their spaces and how to make sure that we weren’t moving too much because of the constraints, while also conveying, and what we wanted to convey in each piece. I think we’ve found some really great movement moments without having to do backflips and cartwheels and anything. Not that we would want to in the show anyway. But there’s not going to be any crazy acrobatics or anything like that, but it’ll still be really fun, which is good.”
That feeling for people’s comfort extends and expands on the empathy suffusing the Terkel original and through the various revisions of the musical. Wheelock effusively praised the cast for their openness to take on these challenges.
“We’ve done the best that we can on the design team and the creative team’s part to give them as many resources as we can,” she said, even to the extent of having a Chicago-based actor come to her house and fixing the problem by lending her own microphone.
Wheelock amplified, “We’ve been trying to make sure that they know that they’re supported and that regardless of what happens, we are here. And then, I mean, of course, with new processes comes a lot of discomfort and a lot of growing pain and a lot of scary things. I mean, not everyone has done this before. And even those of us who have, it’s been maybe once or twice throughout the pandemic.”
Just as the choreography is more robust than many of us are used to after a year of virtual theater, this Working doesn’t skimp on the musical production values. Of the music, Wheelock said, “It’s all Jeremy [Ramey]. He’s got a lot of samples. He, thankfully, has been working in this way for some time even before the pandemic and it sounds fantastic. I mean, it’s never going to be the same thing as going into a theater and hearing a band, but it sounds great. And doing it this way has also allowed us the flexibility to kind of play with what the orchestration can be. So, if there’s a song that is more like, I don’t know, more funky or something that is a little bit more dated, we can put it, use music to create the context for that piece, which is fun.”
Ramey also brought familiarity with the piece, his company Theo Ubique did it right before shutdowns began.
“We have a month of rehearsals to record everything and to get everything edited and that’s a lot,” Wheelock said. “So, the first thing that he did, as soon as he signed on, was start to make tracks for the actors to learn their parts with just piano and occasionally with rhythm and their parts that are clearly outlined.”
Once the actors downloaded these roughs, “We had one meeting with each actor talking about what they were singing, what parts they had, if they had any questions,” she said. “And then for the most part, the actors have just learned that music on their own, sent recordings to him. And then if he has notes, he sends notes back. And there’s a kind of conversation with that.”
Wheelock said, “And the great thing about Working, I think, is that it reminds us that things, yes, things have changed. We are all doing things differently now than we did last year, but there’s a lot that stayed the same for better or for worse and will stay the same, probably for the rest of our lifetimes.”
Hoffmann said, “People are realizing that people want to commend them for their jobs, but no one’s paying them well. And I was like, yeah, we should probably do a show where we can talk about what the heck are jobs mean to us. Do we like them? Should we like them? Do they define who we are or can we be other things?”
As we’re forced to face those questions and perspectives on work continue to shift and morph, Working proves to be as vital as ever. This production uses the 2012 revision with songs by Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, and James Taylor.
Working premieres April 29. For streaming tickets and more info, please visit catco.org/working.