Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Feature

Jenny Magnus, one of the fringe theater's most literate scribes, gets her due

With Magnus in Play, Rhino Fest will present perhaps the most ambitious, comprehensive retrospective of a playwright’s work Chicago has ever seen.


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When Jenny Magnus moved to Chicago in 1987, her career objective was to "do stuff." Among the first stuff she got done was cofounding Curious Theatre Branch, the cramped, amenity-free North Avenue storefront that became the epicenter of the nascent Wicker Park theater movement. That movement exploded and helped transform an ossifying off-Loop scene into a vital playground for artistic experimentation and aesthetic innovation.

Since then she's performed in numerous Curious shows, written and produced some dozen of her own plays, recorded two albums of original songs, formed a few bands, and cocurated the massive Rhinoceros Theater Festival in each of its 25 years. She also nursed her father through the cancer that eventually killed him, shepherded her mother through the darkness of Alzheimer's, raised a daughter, and helped nurture the next generation of theater makers, teaching at Curious, Columbia College, University of Chicago, University of Illinois, and Chicago Public Schools. She's the closest thing to a mother hen that Chicago's unruly fringe theater scene's got.

Now she's laid a hell of an egg. This month she released Observations of an Orchestrated Catastrophe, a 400-plus-page collection of nine plays spanning nearly 20 years, published by Chicago's JackLeg Press. To celebrate, Rhino Fest will present perhaps the most ambitious, comprehensive retrospective of a playwright's work Chicago has ever seen. Magnus in Play brings together some of the city's most transgressive theater artists to stage seven full-length plays from Observations. In four days. As an added bonus, the mini Magnusfest includes an evening of Magnus's original songs performed by a small mob of fringe favorites. What makes such an exhausting project worth doing? I asked the artists behind the shows.

  • Brian McConkey

Karen Yates, director of Sky Area Ten's The Willies

Thu 2/20, 8 PM; Sat 2/22, 6 PM; Sun 2/23, 9 PM

"The Willies is a series of monologues about the crap that keeps us up at night. The stories that we tell ourselves, the memories we massage, the erroneous conclusions that we draw about ourselves and our lives.

"And it's nuts. The people in it are nuts and the humor is out-of-control wackadoodle. And then you realize, oh, that's me.

"Jenny's not a bullshitter. Her work is loaded for bear. She has a singular voice that doesn't pander to the status quo, thank God. Have you ever seen those black boots she wears? Yeah, so those boots are like her writing: big, dirty, and aiming for your cultural face. Pow."

  • Gerard VanHalsema

Allison Shoemaker, director of the Ruckus's The Strange

Sat 2/22, 2:30 and 9 PM; Sun 2/23, 6:30 PM

"The Strange is about two people—a grown woman and a young girl—who meet late at night on three separate occasions in very unpleasant circumstances. They carry with them ugliness, and despair, and hope, and innocence, and through these encounters begin to wonder if such things are contagious, or if they're in all of us, all the time. It's got a lot of grit and guts to it, and it's sometimes frightening, but with threads of gentleness peeking out here and there. It's also funny in a not-so-pleasant kind of way, which I love. Also, great roles for women! Can't get enough of those.

"Jenny's an original. There aren't enough of those. She sits down in the audience and you're immediately on notice. Have I really thought about this? Have I risked enough, have I pushed enough, have I left any bullshit in here? That's my experience, anyway, and I know I'm not alone in that. And that's just when she's watching. As an artist, she's so honest, so curious (pun honestly not intended), so spare. It's incredibly inspiring. She pokes her fingers in bruises. She digs into the ugly stuff. It's not hygienic."

KellyAnn Corcoran (pictured) will perform Room, directed by Jen Moniz. - DALTON LEISON PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Dalton Leison Photography
  • KellyAnn Corcoran (pictured) will perform Room, directed by Jen Moniz.

Jen Moniz, director of Room

Sat 2/22, 4 PM; Sun 2/23, 3 and 8 PM

"Room was actually one of the first shows I worked on after moving to Chicago. I was the board operator for the original run [which Magnus performed solo]. Her performance was cemented in my mind, as it was in KellyAnn [Corcoran's] mind [the actress who will perform the show]. We both wondered if we would be able to forget how Jenny had done it. But I quickly realized that the text for the show contains a gift in the very first line. 'Don't think, don't prepare, don't imagine or envision, don't expect or defend.'

"Room is a performer confronting her relationship with her audience and what it means to ask for their attention. The relationship between the performer and the audience is often a fraught one, each asking so much of the other and too often feeling disappointed by what they are given. This play shines a light onto some rarely discussed corners of that relationship, asking what it does to the performer to examine their life the way that they must to create meaningful work.

"Jenny is so open about the struggle involved in making work. She takes all the doubts and joys of making work and wrestles with them right on stage in front of the audience. For other artmakers, to see someone willing to confront those things in their work, to see the struggle laid bare and to see her find compelling reasons to keep coming back, to keep searching, it feels too small to call it inspirational. It is sanctuary and solace."

  • Evan Hanover

Chloe Johnston, director of The Lucky Ones

Sat 2/22, 1 and 8 PM; Sun 2/23, 5 PM

"The Lucky Ones is about—for me, at this moment in rehearsal—the constant battle we fight against time, and the fear that fate is pulling us along. Throughout the play, the characters are trying to forestall something; there's rejection of the future and of one another at every turn. But it's not that they're negative, it's that they're voicing that anxiety we all have about the limits of our agency.

"Jenny is a hero of Chicago theater. She manages to be both uncompromising and a facilitator of so much work around her. I'm a big fan of Still in Play, which was produced at the MCA and Links Hall a few years ago, and I feel like it encapsulates so much of what matters about her as an artist. That play is clear-eyed about the challenges—challenges that, some days, hardly seem worth it—of simply trying to make an honest thing with your friends, without everyone going crazy. And also motherhood. And aging. And learning lines.

"Between her teaching and all the work she's put into Curious and Rhino over the years, she has really made this city hospitable for countless other artists to find their voice and make honest things with their friends, too."

  • Courtesy Rhinofest

Beau O'Reilly, director of Curious Theatre Branch's The Trips

Thu-Sat 2/20-2/22, 7 PM

"Judith Harding, who plays Heave in The Trips, calls it 'postmodern Laurel and Hardy.' It's a genuine, rich look at how our current generation careens around looking for connection.

"I performed in the original production and knew it had a lot of smart, tragic comedy in its wordplay and in its awkwardness about intimacy. The seeming simplicity: two people, two chairs, two music stands, a Beckett-like elegance that lets the scenes go deep and directly to the underneath in human behavior. That's the theater I like to see.

"As a writer Jenny brings the best of performance—its intimacy, its risk—to the best of theater—its storytelling, its character shadings. As a teacher, as a collaborator, she is a fierce perfectionist. She is there for other artists: the rugged veteran who keeps going without much accolade, the wide-eyed beginner who needs someone to pay attention. These are Jenny's people."

  • Courtesy the artist

Kathleen Powers, director of Bang You're Dead's How to Carry Love

Thu 2/20, 9 PM; Fri 2/21, 8 PM; Sun 2/23, 2 PM

"Years ago, before I knew her, I saw Jenny Magnus perform one of the pieces from How to Carry Love at the Big Goddess Pow-Wow at the Metro. When I witnessed the event I thought, 'Dear God, who is this woman?' [And the challenge is] knowing that Jenny Magnus has performed this before, and that that was probably the quintessential version.

"Deep diving into a Jenny Magnus text is the equivalent of theatrical bliss. As a writer, performer, musician, and teacher, Jenny has been a creative force on the Chicago experimental scene for years. We've heard and seen her grow up, become a mother, deal with an aging parent, and continue to evolve as an artist. All along the way she has shared that with us. She is a female artist who writes for her gender and at the same time without gender. Her canon is vast and varied, and it's about time people see that, or at least be reminded of it."

  • Joe Mazza | Brave Lux Photography

T-Roy Martin, musical director of the Billy Goat Experiment Theater Co.'s Nowhere But Up

Thu 2/20, 9 PM; Sat 2/22, 5 PM; Sun 2/23, 4 PM

"Nowhere But Up is a performance of the thoughts and experiences surrounding a declining mother in a nursing home. As a group made up of middle-aged performers, some of us have been through and dealt with dying loved ones in very similar situations. And we have been with each other as we've dealt with these issues.

"This play is very dark. And very sad. And quite terrifying. There is humor, as there always is in Jenny's work, but the emotions and situations can be quite intense. And [the music Jenny wrote for the play] is always more complex than she makes it sound. How does she do that?

"We all deal with death. We all die. Jenny Magnus uses her unique and brutally honest voice to not-so-gently remind you. You'd best heed Jenny Magnus. She is right."


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