Guy Van Swearingen, Shira Piven and Michael Shannon Revist Victims of Duty, 2017.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the extraordinary level of success Michael Shannon has achieved as actor in movies (Elvis and Nixon, The Shape of Water), TV (Boardwalk Empire, Waco, Fahrenheit 451) and theater (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) over the last twenty years, he often returns to work at A Red Orchid Theatre, the acclaimed 88-seat theater in Old Town which he had helped found in 1993. In 2016, for example, he performed in Brett Neveu's Pilgrim's Progress and in 2018 he directed Neveu's play Traitor. That same summer Shannon would appear in Ionesco’s Victims of Duty reprising the production the company first did together in 1995 when A Red Orchid was still in its infancy. It was directed by Shira Piven, who went on to direct for television (including Chicagoan, Jill Soloway’s, Transparent) and film (Welcome to Me starring Kristen Wiig). Also in the original Victims of Duty cast was Amy Landecker, now known for the role of Sarah Pfefferman in Transparent. Amy was unable to return for this revival of the production; however, Michael Shannon and A Red Orchid’s founder, Guy Van Swearingen, reprised their roles, with Shira Piven again directing.
In 1993, A Red Orchid Theatre’s inaugural production was Jack Gelber’s The Connection. It was directed by Mary Arrchie Theatre founder and artistic director, Richard Cotovsky, who would appear in the 2018 production of Victims of Duty. In 1994, they had their first sold out run with a production of Born Guilty, directed by Piven, which transferred to the Jane Addams Center Hull House Theater on Broadway. I sat down with the three of them in a small office on the second floor of A Red Orchid Theatre during the ninety minutes before a rehearsal began. Downstairs, the set was being built.
MICHAEL SHANNON: Guy and I had been hanging out a lot at that time [the early 90's] , and we were both kind of in a dark place, I think, for different reasons. Feeling a bit lost. And we were kind of inseparable then. We would go to Borders Bookstore on Michigan Avenue and sit in the theater section and read plays. One day I pulled [Victims of Duty] off the shelf. It just blew my mind. I said, "Guy, you've got to read this play, man." At that time, A Red Orchid Theatre had been kind of dormant for a little bit.
After that, not much was happening. And we thought, Well, this Ionesco play is how we should open it back up.
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: Back in the early days of A Red Orchid, we just did plays as we were inspired to do them. We didn't do plays because we needed to provide programming for any great subscriber base or anything like that. I guess we wanted to do plays that we felt a connection with. And this is one of the plays that fell into that category. So we went in search of a director.
MICHAEL SHANNON: We needed somebody with a lot of tools beyond the typical scene study/character breakdown/objectives rigmarole. Not to pooh-pooh that. I know it's a big part of Chicago theater. But this play's like a magic trick. You've got to create some magic.
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: We thought that it would be a great play for Shira, given where she came from and her experience and the sort of improvisational theater and construct that the Piven family was noted for. We thought that that would fit well with this kind of play.
Shira’s parents, Joyce and Byrne Piven, have a long and rich history in Chicago theater, dating back to when they were part of Paul Sills’s and David Shepherd’s Playwrights Theater Club which opened in 1953. In the late 60s, Joyce was in the cast of Paul Sills’s Story Theater, and in the 70’s the Pivens opened the Piven Theater Workshop in Evanston, which still trains actors, young and old, in the Piven technique based in theater games and improvisation that the Pivens initially learned from Paul Sills and Viola Spolin. Byrne died in 2002. Joyce remained in Chicago until 2017 when she moved to Los Angeles.
I think for Mike and I––if I can speak on both our behalf –– in our imagination Shira was just so perfect. We couldn't see the world any other way at that time. And I think that's what we were conveying to her: "This is a perfect project for you. We can't see anybody else but you helming the ship for this production." And that's a lot to say no to, I think.
MICHAEL SHANNON: I remember it was almost like we were courting Shira. We’d go over to her place at night.
SHIRA PIVEN: Guy and Mike definitely pressured me. I had moved out of my apartment at that time and was living with my parents for like a minute. At that time, I was planning to move to New York, and I thought I couldn’t do a play right then. I'm leaving town! But they’d show up at my parents' house. One of you had a motorcycle!
MICHAEL SHANNON: It was Guy’s.
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: It was my old BMW. Yeah.
SHIRA PIVEN: My mom still talks about this. It was like some really romantic moment to her. She said, "They showed up on a motorcycle, Shira. They really want you to do this play." I was like, "I don't know. I've got to get out of here." It was this feeling that if I didn't get out of Chicago, now, I was never going to get out of Chicago. But somehow I managed to reconcile things so I could do both.
I was ultimately so happy that I did it. I remember my dad came to see it. When you grow up in your [parents’] profession, you have to find your own way. And I remember this feeling of––maybe this is true maybe it isn’t––but I felt like I didn’t care what he thinks of it. That I was really proud of this. That I liked what I was doing. I didn’t need his approval. It was the first time I had that feeling. And then, interestingly enough, he really loved the production. He said something like, "I wish I were able to take some of these kinds of risks."
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: I remember his reaction, how wholly moved he was by what he had witnessed when he saw this show.
SHIRA PIVEN: Really? Oh wow!
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: And I do remember him being effusive in his comments about risks. It was clear to me how proud he was of you and your work because he was really taken with it.
SHIRA PIVEN: I guess it was almost like a passing of the mantle. So, after that, it was like, okay now I can go to New York.
MICHAEL SHANNON: The first time we did this play was in what, '95? Wow. So it was basically half my lifetime ago. I really like doing plays more than once; I like revisiting them. I'm always leery of making pronouncements like this, but it kind of feels like this might be my favorite play. (I think.) We had an interesting realization, Guy and I, when we came back to start rehearsing, that the first time we did the play we had been very introspective. We looked at the play in relation to ourselves and our life and metaphysical quandaries and whatnot. And all of that has remained relevant. It hasn't dissipated. But now the play feels very much of this moment, culturally. I mean, the first line in the play is, "Any news in the paper?" It seems like a good time to be doing a play that starts with that line. But Ionesco defies you to say his play is about this or that. Just when you think you know what it’s about or what it means, the next day you come in and it's like sand through your fingers.
Shira quoted Ionesco the other day as saying something like, “People are always asking me questions about my plays. If I had answers, I would be a politician. I don't have the answers. I just want to ask the questions.” That's very in line with how I feel about what we do [in the theater]. To the extent that it has any value whatsoever (which is debatable), but if you can argue that it does, it has largely to do with its ability to make people think, I think.
SHIRA PIVEN: I didn't realize how much I like this play, but doing it again I'm realizing how much I love it. It does exactly what I'm almost always looking for in other plays, which is that it starts from this place of not being literal at all. And yet it makes this kind of human sense. People sometimes think of absurdist theater as being very heady and intellectual. It's not just some sort of absurdist exercise. I feel like there is this weird human logic to this play. But it's really hard to pin down what it's about. Like Mike said, it's like sand through your fingers. Ionesco, he's not fooling around. He's funny and he's whimsical at times. But there is a spine to this play and a sense to it that seems to transcend logic.
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: I think it's a really remarkable piece of writing. I think it's quite poetic. And I think that the places Ionesco takes us in this story are places that I think that maybe we all need to spend a little more time in once in a while as we walk through this world. I mean, look: the whole world's absurd to begin with. We're on a rock floating in space for crying out loud. So [the absurdity] is a lot of what appeals to me about this play.
MICHAEL SHANNON: It's funny though because you think, "Oh I've learned so much in twenty-two years." And then you try and do a scene and you're like, "Oh man, this is as hard as it was the first time." And the other thing: we were doing some exercises last night, stuff that I probably could have just done for hours the first time we did this play. And I was like, oh man, I'm tired. Like, this is weird. And I'm not even that old.
SHIRA PIVEN: I do find that the gift is that these guys have done it before and also it’s probably somewhere in my own muscle memory, but mostly I notice it with these guys. I feel like there is this deep well that they bring to rehearsal that's really exciting. These guys have worked together so much. And because we have such a short rehearsal period, it's great to be able to tap into that.
MICHAEL SHANNON: The first time we did Victims, Guy and I hadn't really acted together before.
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: I guess the experience coming back twenty years later for me is that I approach my work as an actor with a different sort of rigor than I did twenty years ago. And it's exciting to be able to explore this play with that greater experience.
SHIRA PIVEN: I feel the same way. There is a new kind of rigor that is fun to try and employ in this circumstance. But for me doing this play now also turns out to be a great gift. [When they first contacted me about doing it again] part of me was like, do I want to do a play now? And then the minute I picked up the script––and I'm not exaggerating––I felt like this is exactly what I need to be doing in every sense. It just felt creatively like the thing that I should be doing, now.
Tickets for the revival of Victims of Duty went on sale at noon on May 30th, and the entire run was sold out by 4:00 pm the next day.
MICHAEL SHANNON: It is pretty ironic because when we did it the first time not a huge amount of people came to see it.
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: I think it got a little more full toward the end. But there were nights when there were only seven people out there. I’m curious to look at the old reservations and see how many did come.
MICHAEL SHANNON: I don't think we were ever sold out. It's going to be fascinating to have the experience of doing this play with a bunch of people watching it. I think it's going to inform the play in a way in which we weren't able to experience before. The audience is part of the experience. And if there's seven people out there, that's one experience and if it's full that's going to be another.
But to me, Victims of Duty was then and is now just as important as anything else I've ever done. In a way doing this is kind of unrealistic because you have to make a living, particularly once you start having a family and you have other concerns. But I don't like the notion that the work we did was somehow insignificant because we weren't getting paid a lot of money or not a lot of people saw it or it didn't make us famous or whatever. Today, I still think it's as important as anything else I do. Working on it now and coming in every night and hacking at it, it's just very meaningful. It's very valuable.
GUY VAN SWEARINGEN: These experiences [we’re talking about] may be small in the great picture of the world but are just so vitally important to our humanity, to ourselves. And yeah, maybe not a lot of people did come to see us the first time. But as Michael says it didn't make the work any less important. That's why we were picking plays the way we were then because we were wanting to do things that affirmed our views and that we felt were important in being able to do that. And what a fascinating thing to come some twenty-two years later and visit it again with all the experience we’ve had between then and now.
MICHAEL SHANNON: You know, those two photos on the wall are from [the first time we did] Victims of Duty. Playing around in a construction site over by where Binny's Liquor Store is now on North Avenue. I look at those and a lot of times I think that I don't even know who that guy is. And yet I know that probably he and I have a lot in common, I guess. My life was so different back then, there's so much that ... I mean, when twenty years go by everybody has a lot of stuff happen. But I had a lot of stuff happen. I think I'm an intrinsically very nostalgic person. I'm kind of riddled with nostalgia. I think I find it comforting somehow. I guess without it life just seems too chaotic, too random. Because the thing of it is that I was not a person that was on the fast track to success, really. I was a barely functional person. And I found this devotion [at A Red Orchid] that is in and of itself somewhat elusive and bizarre. But I was devoted to it no matter what. And then all this other crazy stuff happened. But yeah, it just seems in a strange way I feel safe here somehow. Like it doesn't scare me. And I know this play is very difficult and there's anxiety and consternation about it. It's a very fast rehearsal period, and we have a lot of work to do and all this stuff, but it never really frightens me. It's a lot more frightening to go to L.A. or go to some foreign country and speak with a funny accent as a Mossad agent like I just did [in BBC’s Little Drummer Boy]. That's terrifying.
But this, A Red Orchid, is like my den.