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Two weekends ago playwright and Evanston resident Dan Noonan was in Cedar City, Utah, at the Neil Simon Festival to be honored as one of two winners – out of more than 100 entries – of the Festival’s third annual New Play Contest for his new romantic comedy “Set Up.”
Submissions were required to be original, full-length, character-driven comedies that had never been produced. After this September Mr. Noonan will not be able to enter such contests with this play: “Set Up” opens Sept. 8 at Studio BE, 3110 N. Sheffield Ave., in Chicago, and will run through Oct. 6.
Mr. Noonan grew up in Skokie and earned a BA at Boston College with a double major in political science and theatre. Though originally intending to be an actor, he found that the arthritis-like symptoms of hemophilia, an illness he was born with, made it impossible for him physically to do the work. Fortunately, he says, favorable responses to writing in classes encouraged him to think about turning to playwriting instead.
His first script was actually a screenplay, he says. A comedy called “Being in Touch,” about a man who had been adopted meeting his birth mother, won a Northwestern award – the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Contest, which brought with it readings at the Goodman and Victory Gardens. There was no full production, says Mr. Noonan, but it was very encouraging.
“I absolutely love it,” says Mr. Noonan. “I love the writing more than the acting. It was hard at first – there’s a lot of solitude. I wondered if I could do it. But when I got the first script done, I knew I could do it.”
He went on to do a masters’ in theatre at Northwestern and has been writing for 20 years. An earlier play, “Out Among the Dragons,” was produced at Northminster Playhouse in Evanston in 2005, to excellent reviews. That play depicted the differences in perception of people with AIDS that come about when others discover how they came to have the illness. It was a subject with depth, and yet a comedy.
All my plays are comedies,” says Mr. Noonan.
“Set Up” is, briefly, about Cheryl, single and a specialist in neurology, and Ted, a divorced lawyer. They have agreed to meet on a blind date – Ted’s first date since his divorce, and Cheryl’s intended last before departing for a stint with Doctors Without Borders. Both are settled by and large in their professional lives, but are “still struggling in their personal lives,” says Mr. Noonan.
Mr. Noonan wrote the first version of “Set Up” in the Chicago Dramatists Deadline Workshop (as he had “Out Among the Dragons” the previous year) in 2002. In this venue, he says, five or six playwrights come together with five actors. The writers interview the actors and then each writes a play for them. Usually, he says, each piece runs about 30 minutes.
This was just after 9/11, Mr. Noonan says, and he wanted to write something about people trying to deal with fear. “I don’t know much about international terrorism or politics,” he says, “so I wrote a simple story about overcoming fears.”
As it happens, most of the principals involved in local production are residents or have strong ties to Evanston. “Set Up” co-producer and TheatreBAM managing director Nina Lynn also lives in Evanston, as do main actors Stephanie Sullivan and Peter Civetta. The show’s other co-producer and artistic director of TheatreBAM, Scott Ferguson, and its director, George Keating, teach and direct in NU’s “Cherubs” program – the National High School Institute summer program in debate, film and video production and theatre arts.
Originally from New York, Ms. Lynn is the chair of the department of Speech and Theatre at New Trier High School and has taught theatre there since 1990, as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. She says she met TheatreBAM partner Scott Ferguson their first week of college and they “have been friends since.”
“It was [Scott’s] idea that “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” would be a good kids’ show … in 1993. It’s been 20 years of continuous performance.” The successful live children’s show is TheatreBAM’s main production, though they also produce other shows for kids from time to time, notably “School House Rock Live, Too!” They made a couple of tentative forays into productions for adults but were not satisfied.
Ms. Lynn says of “Set Up” that “this play appealed because it’s about being a grownup. … The characters felt real – if not me, then [they were] at least people I know.”
Originally Ms. Lynn, too, started as an actor. She had an opportunity to produce a show in college where, she says, “what I knew as an artist helped me see how different parts of the art form intersect. [Producing] was about bringing different people together. This [gave] a greater sense of creativity for me.”
It was Ms. Lynn whose appreciation for “Set Up” started the ball rolling toward production. She works with Anne James-Noonan, New Trier’s performing arts coordinator, who is married to the playwright.
“She was on the phone and I was waiting for her. I picked up this script that was just sitting on her desk and laughed out loud on the first page. I asked Anne, ‘What is this?’ She said, “It’s a play my husband wrote.’ I asked, ‘Can I have a copy?’”
It transpired that Mr. Noonan had arranged a staged reading, and he invited Ms. Lynn to it. “I loved it!” she says.
At New Trier, a student produced a shortened version of “Set Up” and, she says, “I thought again, ‘Somebody has to produce this play.’ Then I remembered –
I have a theatre company.” She sent the script to Mr. Keating and Mr. Ferguson, telling them she would like to produce it. She says she was delighted when Mr. Keating said he would like to direct.
DePaul Theatre School graduate Mr. Keating is a full-time actor, director and theatre teacher. He is currently associate-directing and acting in the Mundelein, Ind., Theatre Centre production of “Godspell” as well as directing “Set Up” closer to home. He is another founding member of TheatreBAM, having come on board, he says, about a year after the company was formed in 1992. He was a writer of their hit “School House Live” and was also a member of its original cast. He has known Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Lynn since 1990, he says, meeting through a Chicago Children’s Theatre original production of Susan Zeder’s “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” a folktale from the American South. He met Mr. Noonan in that show’s second year, when the latter played the Hairy Man.
Mr. Keating usually lives in the western suburbs, though he teaches and directs sometimes at New Trier High School. He actually resides in Evanston about six weeks in midsummer when, he says, he moves into Mr. Ferguson’s apartment for their seven-days-a-week, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. intensive teaching at Northwestern. This year was his 12th teaching the about 160 kids who come from all over the world
for the program.
“Theater is not just for actors,” he says. “That’s another reason I love teaching. These are skills that make people feel alive. Especially now. And especially this play [“Set Up”]. The first read made me laugh out loud. I believe these two people are out there – they’re universal.”
Ms. Lynn says they decided to produce “Set Up” about three years ago. They tried to produce it last year, but had started too late in the year and could not find actors who were the right fit. This year they started work in February for the show to open in September.
“Everything seems to be coming together this time,” she says. They hired Kaylee Oost, who had just finished working with Mr. Keating on “Oliver” at Drury Lane Oakbrook, to be stage manager. And to play the protagonists in “Set Up,” they took aboard Evanston residents Ms. Sullivan, originally from France, who most recently appeared in “Slaughter City” by Naomi Wallace at Prop Theater and “Pygmalion” at Stage Left, and Mr. Civetta, among others.
Though Mr. Civetta says this is the first time he has acted in 15 years, he has kept a practiced hand in – every summer he teaches a weeklong intensive theatre camp for kids: the “Extraordinarily Sophisticated, Imagination Club,” in which kids brainstorm, write stories they weave together with aspects of improvisation, and perform. His day gig is director of undergraduate research programs at NU and lecturer in American Studies. The web page for the office of the provost says Mr. Civetta “teaches on the intersection of performance and culture, particularly looking at the impact of religion, politics, and comedy.”
Mr. Noonan’s award-winning “Set Up” treated Simonfest attendees to a staged reading and post-performance response-and-discussion session. The Chicago show is produced by Nina Lynn and Scott Ferguson, directed by George Keating, stars Stephanie Sullivan and Peter Civetti, and also features Jason M. Hammond, Greg Wenz and Lisa Witmer, with scenic design by David Ferguson and lighting by Mac Vaughey.
For more information about and tickets to “Set Up,” opening Sept. 8, readers may visit www.setupchicago.com or call 773-465-8668.