Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Relevant Conversation with Rory Leahy

Yesterday I met with Rory Leahy, writer and lead actor of the play, The Irrelevant Adventures of Jarvis McFadden, which plays at Cornservatory until September 4. I reviewed the play for Centerstage Chicago, noting the bumps, but ultimate promise of the American Demigods theatre company that Leahy is running. What stands out about the play is its positive, upbeat message: Stay true to your childhood self, no matter how much people and life beat you down! I was also excited to learn that American Demigods has a mission I can relate to: "To know how we as humans can aspire to be better than we are." It turned out to be a very relevant conversation, topped off by news about American Demigods' exciting slate of projects for 2011: The production of two plays by Chicago playwright Reina Hardy and a 24 Hour Theatre Project. I know a good thing when I see one, so don't touch that dial.

Marla Seidell: Tell me about the original production of Jarvis, which was mounted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a decade ago.

Rory Leahy: I was in a group called The Penny Dreadful Players. We pretty much did our own thing with theatre. We didn’t have a faculty advisor: We were the blind leading the blind. Jarvis was first conceived in the late '90s, with another friend of mine, Tom Beach, who had the idea for the boy detective.

MS: How much of you is in the play?

RL: A great deal, although, I wouldn’t say Jarvis is based on me, it’s more like he’s inspired by life. If I had multiple personalities Jarvis would be one of them. Really I’m all of the characters, even the female characters, especially Michelle [played by Julia Beck].

MS: How so?

RL: She’s got that really nerdy thing, and she’s shy. She reads a lot, she’s not good at parties--she’s my grade school, high school self.

MS: Where did you grow up?

RL: In Edgewater [in Chicago], although I went to high school at Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

MS: So you're hardcore Irish Catholic.

RL: Yeah, my family is originally from the South Side.

MS: At what age did you decide you wanted to do theatre?

RL: I have always wanted to make things up and perform, even before I realized it was a profession. I was seven when I performed in a Christmas pageant. I had a small role as a shepard so I promoted myself to archangel, and got all the neighborhood kids together to put on our own pageant. We didn’t have a script but I phonetically dictated the dialogue to the other kids. I did that sort of thing for a while. The first play I wrote that I’m proud of is a play called Love Story, a political satire, that I did junior year of high school.

MS: How long have you been writing?

RL: Pretty much I’ve been continuously writing things, many of them awful, since I was 17.

MS: How often do you write?

RL: I usually devote my Saturday and Sunday afternoons to writing. Some weekends are more productive than others.

MS: What are you working on now?

RL: I'm working on a prose project, not connected to theatre. It’s a novella, which is premised on the notion of current events. In the story Barack Obama and Dick Cheney switch bodies, with Cheney in Obama’s body and the reverse, and the shenanigans that result.

MS: Tell me about your theatre company, American Demigods.

RL: American Demigods was officially founded in 2009, and we produced a play called Monks in Trouble [directed by Leahy; written by Marc Heiden]. It was a big hit, a lot of people like it, it was produced at the Apollo Studio Theatre. It was kind of a theological horror company, about a group of monks in a monastery, and the evil unholy force there.

MS: What do you want people to take away from Jarvis?

RL: I want people to see themselves in it--it relates to a broad spectrum of the audience. There’s a cheesy message about childhood innocence and that’s a good thing and people should not dismiss it. For most of us, youthful innocence gets ruthlessly beaten away. I want people to think of youthful ideas when they see it.

MS: Are you happy with how it turned out?

RL: Yes, I’m very happy about that. The cast embodies the characters really well. Anyone reading this that has $15 in his or her pockets and has a free Friday or Saturday night should definitely come. It’s pretty lighthearted with some dark moments. It’s a nice contract to doom and gloom in the theater medium.

MS: What are your goals for American Demigods?

RL: I would definitely like for the company to become one of the well-known storefront theater companies in the next few years. There are dozens of Chicago theater spaces and all are cranking out good material. A lot of them go on to great glorious things and die within five years. I hope that American Demigods is one of the ones that doesn’t.

MS: Tell me about how you picked the name, American Demigods, and about your mission.

RL: The reason I picked that name, is firstly, because it’s badass, and second, because I like stories about heroes and mythical things. We explore how to be good and how to be human, and how to be semi-divine. We want to explore what that [divinity] means. It’s obviously a mythical idea; it’s not normal. We want to know how humans can aspire to be better than they are. Whatever kind of theater we produce, even if its edgier and darker, we always want to create protagonists that are sympathetic, even if flawed, and we want them to be heroes to cheer for. Our name also comes from founding fathers [of the country]; they were called the American Demigods.

MS: What’s next?

RL: We’re doing a 1-day event on September 25, a staged reading of the play Erratica by Reina Hardy, followed by a burlesque show. And for 2011 we have three shows planned: In February or March we want to do a 24 Hour Theatre Project, with 4 playwrights, 5 directors, and 15 actors. We as producers will give the premises of the play, and the playwrights will have 12 hours to write short plays and the actors and producers will have 12 hours to put it together to perform on a Saturday night. It’s in the tradition of theatre bootcamp, trying to demonstrate you can really create something out of nothing under very difficult circumstances if you have the right talent and enthusiasm. For the summer, we’re planning to do Con Musical [a working title], a musical about nerd culture at Comic Con. Reina Hardy is writing the book and lyrics and the music is being developed by Matt Board. For the fall, the most likely contender is a series of one-acts I will write with a Halloween theme.

MS: It sounds like you really enjoy your work.

RL: It beats not doing it. I do it because I can’t really conceive of an alternative. I’m not really good at anything other than making stuff up and performing. I’m rubbish with math and science; I pretty much just do the artistic stuff.

The Irrelevant Adventures of Jarvis McFadden is performed at 8.p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, at Cornservatory, 4210 N. Lincoln until September 4. On Saturday, September 25, American Demigods hosts a staged reading of Reina Hardy’s play, Erratica, at The Spot, 4437 N. Broadway, at 4pm. A burlesque show follows the reading.

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