Beautiful Thinkers: Nick Bowling, Director and Co-Founder of TimeLine Theatre
On the value of bringing the past into the present to inform the future.
Advertising has, and continues, to go through its fair share of changes. What’s interesting is that one of the most exciting evolutions in advertising today is technically a de-evolution — creating live moments and events to contextualize brands in culture. There’s no better live art form than theater to derive inspiration for our craft. There are dozens of parallels: Capturing and engaging an audience, storytelling, scene setting, and casting just to name a few. Nick has helped shape Chicago Theater for over 20 years.
TimeLine isn’t just a name, it’s a concept. How did the idea come about for a modern theater company based on historical plays?
20 years ago, I gathered 5 of my closest friends, whom I believed could help make something bigger than us: a theatre company, which would become part of the artistic fabric of Chicago. After an earlier failed effort to start a theater, I had the foresight to approach this one differently.
Before I gathered anyone, I met with Lily Shaw, a fellow student I met while getting my grad degree at DePaul. When I told her that I was planning on starting a theater, she asked me a very simple question: What was going to make it different from the 200 other theaters in Chicago? Which was funny, because I hadn’t really thought about that. My strategy was to have a home and leave a mark on the world — lofty sentiments. I really hadn’t thought about what our objective should be. This was ironic, given that in theater we never move anywhere in any way without knowing the objective. I told her I didn’t know what that special thing was going to be. And she asks, “Well, what else do you love?” I told her the only thing I loved as much as the theater was antiques. That love came from my mom and my grandmother. I’d spent my entire life living around antiques. And she said, “What do you love about them?” I told her I loved the fact that they tell a story, that they shared something about the past but could be reused in the present. In fact, sometimes they can be better in the present than they were in the past.
She said, “Well there’s your theater company”. And that’s how TimeLine was born. Exploring history and how it connects with modern social and political issues became our mission, that idea of past and present — that thrust and momentum is behind every one of the plays we produce.
That one simple question that Lily asked that day helped us create a mission that has undoubtedly helped us survive and get to where we are today. Many other Chicago theater companies failed even though they were filled with talented artists who had strong business acumen. It’s not enough to put on good shows. You had to have a clear mission.
How has your mission helped inform not only the plays you produce, but also the role TimeLine plays in creating community?
In some ways, determining plays we can’t do helps us focus on what we can. It’s sad that we may never do A Streetcar Named Desire. As much as I love that play, it doesn’t makes sense for us to do it and that’s ok because there are thousands of plays that are within our mission.
Getting young people to think that history can be fun, interesting or have bearing on their lives can be tough. One way we engage in the community beyond our plays is through a program we created called “Living History”. It’s currently in several Chicago public schools. It’s not just about students watching the play. It’s about learning everything around the play. For example, I directed a play called My Kind of Town a few years ago. It’s a good one because it’s important for Chicago. It’s based loosely on a real Chicago police captain named John Burge, who is now a convicted felon. He gained notoriety for overseeing the torturing of many suspects in the 70s through the 90s in order to force confessions.
In this case, we talked with the kids about what their stance on torture was. We asked them if they were ready to say they were against tortures of all kind. Were they ok with it when someone was guilty but not when they were innocent? It forced them to think about how a police officer has to draw that line.
It’s even become more important right now because police brutality and torture is going on all around the country, not just Chicago and it’s often depicted in positive and glorified ways on television shows.
You have unique ways of engaging your audience physically and emotionally in your plays. What are a few ways you’ve done that recently?
I directed a play called The Normal Heart, which is about the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s. Larry Kramer, a playwright and activist, wrote it. Most people originally saw the play as an attack of Reagan and the conservative New York Mayor Koch who ignored the AIDS epidemic and perhaps hoped it would kill out the gay population.
Fast-forward 20 years when we decided to do the play. People no longer hoped that AIDS would kill out the gay population. So we focused on another aspect of the play that was relevant today, which was the examination of how, AIDS created the gay community and how the community handled criticism then and now. AIDS forced the gay community to come together in the 80’s with a mission beyond parties, sex and beauty. Have we fallen back to the pre-AIDS time? That’s where we focused the story.
We designed a living bookcase for the set. The bookshelf was filled with 30,000 books that we got from the Salvation Army. It was designed to be a symbol of all the stories that won’t be written because a gay man died. Inside the bookshelf we put mementos and photos of anyone from our audience who had somebody that lived or died from AIDS. There were little ghosts looking on the set. People gave us a piece of their lives and their history to be shared throughout the run of the show. That’s what’s cool about being a small theater company. We can do things like that. You could never do that on Broadway.
Physically changing the way the audience views a play can make them a better audience. I’ve become a fan of not working in proscenium where the audience is all on one side and everyone is seated looking at one image. Every Broadway Theater is set up this way. Creating scenery for that big of a space inevitably commits you to having to create walls. I hate creating walls in theater because it means your set is generally going to be realistic. One of the things about theater is that it lends itself, unlike movies, to a more surreal, more avant-garde, more hyper realistic world that doesn’t feel like it has to live in the confines of what we all consider reality.
I love working in the round. The play we recently did, The Audience, is set in the round, where the audience is on all four sides. We’ve created stadium like seating. So the seat configuration no longer allows the Queen to present a single face. Everyone gets a different part of her and there’s nowhere for her to hide. There’s no magic you can do. Magic is dependent on proscenium. That speaks to Chicago Theater, which is about grittier, raw, torn open theater where everything has to be seen and everything is witnessed and everything is up for grabs, and you’re not twenty rows away. You’re two rows away. You feel it. It makes me never want to leave small theater.
What need does theater fulfill that no other art form can do?
The most important thing about theater is that it’s elusive. It disappears. There’s something very important about art that we can see and can be a part of that goes away. That quality separates it from almost every other art form. You could also say that it’s the weakest part because with movies, we can always go back to them and share them with our kids. We can go to a museum and stand in front of a piece of art and appreciate it.
Theater demands you to partake in it. You can’t move through it quickly. It’s one art that does change. One night you can be at a performance and it will be on fire. It will be magnificent and the next night it might not be because the audience wasn’t magnificent or the actors were in a different mood. Even though many people say it’s a dying art form, I think that ethereal quality will be the unique thing that keeps it alive.
Nick Bowling is co-founder and director of TimeLine Theater in Chicago. TimeLine was recently awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant for creative and effective institutions. Nick is the recipient of 7 Jeff Awards and was cited by the Chicago Tribune as a Director to watch in 2013.