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Mary Zimmerman’s dialogue-free production speaks volumes about Northwestern’s interdisciplinary approach

Eight faculty and alumni collaborate on ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’

EVANSTON -- When MacArthur Genius and Tony Award-winning theater artist Mary Zimmerman calls, people answer.

The Northwestern University Jaharis Family Foundation Chair in Performance Studies and School of Communication alumna B.S. ’82, M.A. ’85, Ph.D. ’94 helms the world premiere of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, where she is an ensemble member.

Including Zimmerman, eight Northwestern alumni and theater faculty are involved in the production, which opened Nov. 7 in Chicago. Northwestern-connected collaborators include Amanda Dehnert, Christopher Donahue, Ana Kuzmanic, Tom Lee, Todd Rosenthal, Phil Smith and Tracy Walsh.

Zimmerman, who is also an artistic associate of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, earned a graduate degree in performance studies at Northwestern, and credits her time here for her interdisciplinary approach to making theater. She sees it as a benefit for her students.

“Performance studies are wildly interdisciplinary,” Zimmerman said. “I use that education from Northwestern every day of my life.

“Unlike a conservatory approach, the wide distribution requirements of a Northwestern education attract students who are curious about the world. They don’t have to audition to enter the department, which speaks to a broader interest. They are not here to learn a craft and leave,” Zimmerman said. 

Inspired by and adapted from the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” follows the adventures of a little toy soldier brimming with love and unblinking bravery.

Undaunted by the challenge of staging a story with only one line of dialogue on the page, Zimmerman seized the opportunity to collaborate with her Northwestern peers on a wordless production that relies solely on visuals, music and movement to carry the story.

Renowned for generating highly visual adaptations of classical literature for the stage in collaboration with an ensemble of actors, some of Zimmerman’s best-known projects include “The Odyssey,” “The Arabian Nights,” “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” and “Metamorphoses” -- for which she received the 2002 Tony Award for best direction of a play. She co-wrote the libretto and adapted the Philip Glass opera “Galileo Galilei” and in 1998, was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Zimmerman has served on the Northwestern School of Communication faculty since 1984.

For “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” Zimmerman said she wanted to create “an insanely abundant and rewarding visual life for the audience that is always blossoming.” 

The resulting production has been called “transformational” by the Chicago Tribune and “gloriously creative and terrifically engaging” by the Chicago Sun-Times.   

Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic ’04, an associate professor of theater at Northwestern, was excited when Zimmerman said there would be no dialogue.

“We discussed how we can treat the costume to evoke child’s play and festive ornaments…we wanted the costumes, along with everything else, to convey that visual delight,” Kuzmanic said.

Choreographer Tracy Walsh ’89 said, “Mary and I share an irreverent sense of movement and fun. I’m interested in dances that help move the story forward instead of just looking pretty.”

In addition to Kuzmanic and Walsh, the artistic team includes Northwestern theater faculty Todd Rosenthal as scenic designer, Amanda Dehnert as co-composer, and puppet designer Tom Lee, a Northwestern visiting artist in 2018.

Other Northwestern alumni involved in the production include actor Christopher Donahue ’90 and producing director Phil Smith ’88.

Mary Zimmerman WEBWe caught up with the busy director to learn about the secret ingredient to interdisciplinary collaboration.

Q: In a 1999 interview for the Northwestern alumni magazine, you explained that rather than starting with a script, you start with an image. What was the starting image for “The Steadfast Tin Soldier?”

MZ: It started with an advent calendar – the idea of opening a holiday show with a curtain that covers the set. I wanted to create that feeling of anticipation a child has of opening the next window – the anticipation of what is under the tree. We use the curtain to count down the 25 minutes until the show begins. Each minute reveals an object or image that has do with the show – to increase the anticipation.

I also thought about a dollhouse. The Steadfast Tin Soldier was created in four different sizes. The scale keeps changing from a small toy soldier to the full-size actor. Another image was the baby’s hands reaching inside a dollhouse for the soldier.

Q: What does your approach to making a play have in common with traditional theater making, and how is it different?

MZ: There are big ways it is different. The time I’m writing the play is superimposed on the time I’m rehearsing versus a year in advance. (Zimmerman writes the play in the hours between rehearsals, writing the next day’s script only the day before.) 

What they both have in common is finding the way through the process, staging and figuring it out as you go. It also needs to be designed on a calendar, just like every other show.

Q: What do you look for in the casting of an ensemble for one of your projects?

MZ: Performers have to be very brave to participate in the process because there is no advance script and no dialogue.

It takes bravery to deal with that as well as an openness to not knowing what your parts are. The parts evolve as we go along. The actors have a huge influence on the play. If someone can sing or has a circus skill, it provides an opportunity to put that in. The work is made for the particular performers. 

Q: Since the work is made for individual performers, do you need to use the same cast to mount the show elsewhere?

MZ: For years I assumed I couldn’t publish and remount my plays. But I came to realize the stories are broadly universal and accessible. They can be done with other casts. However, I prefer working with my own original casts. There is a spirit there from making it together, and they have an enormous influence.

“The Steadfast Tin Solider” continues through Jan. 13, 2019, at Lookingglass Theatre Company at Chicago’s historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

Tickets and more information are available on the Lookingglass website or by calling 312-337-0665.

Mary Zimmerman photographed by Eileen Molony.