Last summer Joanna Settle caught the kind of break usually reserved for characters in Busby Berkeley musicals. After nearly two years directing off-off-Loop theater Settle landed an assignment to direct a multimillion-dollar production of Grease that would tour South America. German producer Peter Massine had heard about Settle from one of her colleagues, flown her to Germany for an interview, then sent her to New York to cast a company of 25 actors. Rehearsals would begin in September in Curitiba, Brazil, and the show would open there in October. Settle was excited by the prospect of having a handsome budget and placing her directorial stamp on a big-time show, and Massine had dropped hints that other assignments would be forthcoming. But things didn't quite work out that way.
Settle began to realize the production had problems when she discovered the set construction was running a week behind schedule; the construction shop, located in a slum of Rio de Janeiro, wasn't equipped to handle such a massive undertaking. "Brazil is a hammer-and-nails culture," quips Eric Snodgrass, the show's sound designer. "They don't know from power tools." According to Settle, conditions in the shop were so poor that the set designer developed a severe lung infection while helping to finish the project. Costumes for the show were late as well, because the seamstresses were in no hurry to finish their work. "They knew that the more hours they worked, the more pay they would be able to take home," Settle explains. Because the set was late, Massine had to cancel the first week of a two-week run in a 2,600-seat theater. Settle had been told she'd have eight days to tech the show, but she wound up with only three, scrambling to incorporate the scenery, lighting, and costumes before opening night.
As the engagement in Curitiba drew to a close, the company learned that they'd be facing near-empty houses in Sao Paulo. The show was scheduled for four weeks at a theater with 2,200 cabaret-style seats, but according to Snodgrass only 600 tickets had been sold. "No one seemed to have done much of a job marketing the show," he notes. When the crew began loading in the set, they discovered that the theater had a 220-volt electrical system, while the Curitiba theater had operated on a 110-volt system, so new transformers and lighting equipment were brought in at the last minute. "I think the technical director was asleep most of the time," says Settle. "It was like suddenly putting up a completely different show and watching what I had already done fall apart."
Settle learned, perhaps too late, that Massine's big-time operation wasn't so big. He'd never staged a show in South America, and his partner, Marco Lemanski, was a wealthy Brazilian with no experience as a theatrical producer. According to Snodgrass, a review from a Curitiba newspaper convinced Massine that the show was too loud, and while Settle was out of town he ordered Snodgrass to lower the volume. "When I left Curitiba, the show was rock 'n' rolling," Settle recalls. "But when I returned I felt like I was in church." She also discovered that Lemanski was giving his own notes to the cast. "There are no unions and no rules and regulations in Brazil to protect directors from this sort of thing," she says. As the show listed into the red Massine and Lemanski turned on each other, and three weeks into the Sao Paolo run they closed the show and sent the cast back to the U.S. for Thanksgiving. The production was scheduled to tour Rio, Buenos Aires, and other South American cities, but in early December, Settle got word that the tour had been canceled. "It would have cost a fortune just to move that set from Sao Paulo to Rio and get it loaded in."
The director hasn't spoken to Massine or Lemanski since the show folded. Recently she's been in New York helping director Joanne Akalaitis remount Court Theatre's production of The Iphigenia Cycle at American Place Theatre, and next week she returns to Chicago to direct Blood Line for Thirteenth Tribe. "It was all very heartbreaking," she says of the Grease debacle. But she's learned a few things. "I've learned a lot about what you need to put in your contract. And no matter whether you're working on a show that costs five hundred dollars or five million, the rehearsal rooms are always cold."
Pegasus Leader Takes Flight
Warner Crocker, former artistic director of Pegasus Players, is leaving Chicago to become artistic director of the Wayside Theatre, a 38-year-old nonprofit repertory company in Middletown, Virginia, about 90 minutes northwest of Washington. Crocker's superb production of the epic The Kentucky Cycle won a slew of Jeff Awards in 1997, but it lost money for the Pegasus company. From there Crocker became artistic director for New Tuners Theatre and also facilities coordinator for the Theatre Building, where his bare-bones staging of the musical western Overland opens this weekend. But Crocker is looking forward to having a full-time creative job that will pay him a living wage. He leaves with mixed feelings about Chicago theater: "In many ways, it's like it was 15 years ago--a theater scene in transition to who knows where."
City Lit Surveys the Wreckage
Last week the board of directors for City Lit Theater Company met to consider the fate of the financially strapped company. (As reported here last month, the company has scrapped plans to produce adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Lefcourt's The Dreyfus Affair: A Love Story.) City Lit might stage some coproductions with other companies while it tries to regroup, and its education outreach programs have managed to stay in the black, so they'll continue for the foreseeable future. "We're exploring several possibilities," says Mark Richard, artistic director, "but shutting down the company is still entirely in the realm of possibility."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joanna Settle photo by Charles Eshelman.