Theater Preview: Evolution Theatre Company Premieres The Sissy Chronicles at Abbey Theater
Many of my favorite theatrical experiences in the before times resulted from collaborations between Evolution Theatre Company, under the leadership of Mark Schwamberger, and Joe Bishara, at the time with CATCO, including Breaking the Code and Corpus Christi.
Schwamberger and Bishara renew their collaboration as part of the Abbey Theater’s exciting Virtual Theatre project with the world premiere of Schwamberger’s one-man show, The Sissy Chronicles. I talked with the two artists over Zoom about their step into this fresh territory.
About their collaborations, including The Sissy Chronicles, Schwamberger said, “When you get [a piece] that important, you really want to put it in someone’s hands that you trust implicitly with this work. [That brought about our] collaboration with these really sensitive projects or works that we were producing.” That comment elicited a warm laugh and, “That’s a compliment,” from Bishara.
While Schwamberger is well-known to the local theatrical community as an actor, director, and producer, and he’s won short play contests, The Sissy Chronicles is the first play he’s written that Evolution has produced.
“I am very conscious and very supportive of making those that are different not feel different and that everyone has a right to be who they are without being bullied, humiliated, intimidated, or whatever,” he said.
That’s the theme of this piece.
“We have come far, but then we have a long way to go,” Schwamberger said. “I think with this piece, it brings out more. I really wrote this piece more for parents than for children: You don’t have to force them to be like every other little boy. [And] it’s written for the individual who grew up with this, that is perhaps still growing up with this, and to say, I can still celebrate who I am and I can still be a man. It was like the time to do it, to say I went through all this and as they say, I’m still here and happy and proud of who I am.”
This personal piece is a one-man show, but not a monologue.
“I represent different characters; I wouldn’t say I necessarily play them, but all my life is involved in this play,” Schwamberger said. “[It goes] from when I was [a] five-year-old, to grade school, to high school, to college. I also threw in a lot of theater. The opening [is] very theatrical because that’s me. I mean, I’m theatrical. This whole piece really represents my life and how I got to where I was today. [I titled] it The Sissy Chronicles [so] there’s an opportunity to have the next play about it. Because even though this is an overall, there’s so much more that you could go into [of] the various phases of my life.”
Schwamberger and Bishara talked about The Sissy Chronicles before the pandemic and even with their extensive collaboration history and mutual trust, it took some convincing for Schwamberger to fully commit to the virtual approach.
“We had many discussions about the pros and cons of streaming and live, because, I mean, let’s face it, I’m a theater actor, not a movie actor,” Schwamberger said. “[You] draw on different things when you’re on stage.”
“Yeah, he snapped at me pretty hardcore,” Bishara laughed. “‘No, I want to be live!’ I said it’s not that I don’t want it to be live, it’s just when the hell are we going to do it, you know? Even when we started rehearsing [Mark was] still on the fence. Then I [showed] him some of the footage of Marie Regina, and he was just like, this is gorgeous.”
Faced with this adversity, there were a few upsides to the change in the approach. Perhaps most obvious is the range of people The Sissy Chronicles can reach.
“By doing it this way, I mean, I have people that are going to see it, they’re in California, they’re in Arizona, they’re in New York, and they don’t have to do anything but sit in their living room and watch it,” Schamberger said. “This is really much more exposure than being in a live audience, but it’s a different experience for me as an actor and not being with a live audience.”
Bishara expanded on that, bringing up another silver lining.
“I think if we had tried to do this while the previously planned Evolution season was going on, I’m not quite sure that [we] would have been able to have such a strong bond,” Bishara said. “Because we both would have been going Mach Five with our hair on fire with the other projects that we have with the organizations that we represent. This actually allowed us to meet during the day [and] operate with fresh minds and fresh eyes and fresh ears. The script [got] to go through an extra level of editing because we have the time to do it. So I’m extremely grateful that Mark was amenable to going in this direction with it, and also I’m grateful that we’ve had this extra time to really put some extra TLC into it.”
Mark concurred, “I thank Joe for it. He would ask me questions that gave me ideas about the script. Even though the script was done, I thought, we were able to collaborate more and really refine it to what you will see in mid-September, [because] we had enough time. We could [get] deeper and deeper into the script, into what I was trying to say, into my psyche and my mind as to what this play was about.”
Joe chuckled, “I think Mark is actually shocked that we still get along after all the time. But one of the things I love, Richard, is working directly with playwrights.”
The collaborators emphasized that even streaming, this is still theater.
“I said this to Joe the other day: when we’re doing a show and you preview on Wednesday, Thursday, you open on Friday; if you screw up on Wednesday, well, you can fix it on Thursday. If you then screw up something on Thursday, well, then you hope by Friday opening you have it fixed,” Schamberger said. “Now it’s like, it has to be perfect now. I told him I’m nervous because if you flub a line on stage, people give you more latitude. The audience, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, you know, you can go on.’ On film, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s very obvious that you just flubbed a line.’”
Bishara said the plan is ultimately to offer the Virtual Theater Project works as livestreams.
“I wanted to make sure that we mastered our technology as well as we could before we moved to that,” he said. “So yes, [when] people interact with [The Sissy Chronicles] in mid-September, it is something that’s been prerecorded, but we’re trying to do almost the entire thing without Mark stopping. We want it to feel like, again, it’s a Virtual Theater Project, so we want it to be as close to all the way through. That ties back into where Mark’s roots are, right? So we think segmenting it will actually cause more harm than help. [It’s] going to be him going all the way through it with us filming it, and then we might add some like a couple like photos or something along the way.”
Schwamberger closed with these thoughts on the play.
“I guess the one thing I want them to know is that, as Joe has described it, it is a comedy-drama,” he said. “I don’t want people to think that this is a, oh, poor me show. It’s not. There’s a lot of joy. There’s a lot of laughter. There’s a lot of fun in it. I want people to [feel], in the end, it’s uplifting. It’s a very positive, hopeful ending. It’s, oh, we’re all doomed. It’s no doom and gloom.”
As Bishara said, “The hope is that we get people back to experiencing things that take place in a theater the way that they’re used to.”
The Sissy Chronicles streams at 7:30 p.m. September 17 and September 18, 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. September 19, and 2:00 p.m. September 20. For tickets and more info, visit dublinohiousa.gov/abbey-theater.