Theatre Above the Law is Changing the Game
By: Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Molly Maloney
When Tony Lawry founded Theatre Above the Law (ATL) he did so knowing that this theater would be different. It would break norms - or theatrical “laws” - that have become the standard in the art form.
Everyone adapts Shakespeare, but he wasn’t the only writer around, Lawry says.
ATL is never going to endeavor on a four-hour long epic Pride and Prejudice.They are a company founded with the audience foremost on their mind. There are never intermissions and the goal for production length is 90 minutes or less.
Earlier this year ATL mounted an adaptation of Cyrano with a woman playing the title role instead of a man. Not only was the production given a more relatable time period for modern audiences, it was also adjusted for modern attention spans.
“Even another theater company recently did Cyrano, but left it in the (original) time period,” Lawry says. “That’s not relatable to a Roger’s Park audience in 2018. That’s our mission - to be relatable...theater ‘law’ is to be true to the text. But no you don’t need to. You need an audience who can leave and not be confused.”
Lawry has commissioned another adaptation of an old favorite, The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, likely for the 2019-20 season.
School for Scandal is a five act comedy of manners from the 1700s.
Adapting typical theater behaviors like intermissions is one of the ways that Lawry is centering ATL’s mission to best serve their audience.
While some may see adapting old work to such a short runtime or updated lingo as pretentious, Lawry sees it as the opposite. It’s simply about meeting the audience where they are, not where the theater practitioner thinks they should be.
“You have to not play down to the audience, but respect them enough to give them a fresh take on an old thing,” he says. “...Times are a changin’ and the theater should too.”
One avenue of change ATL is taking in great stride is the creation of youth casts.
Sometimes the company will choose a show that involves several young actors, such was the case in ATL’s Thornton Wilder shorts last year, however that doesn’t always happen. When it isn’t a matter built into the work Lawry builds it himself.
In their current production, Ladies in Waiting about a trio of bridesmaids and a bride-to-be right before her wedding, there are two casts.
The adult cast and the youth cast. They share the same rehearsal process, perform the exact same play and are given stipends for their work.
Lawry isn’t aware of any other theater company doing something as advantageous as this idea of creating an entirely separate cast just to employ young actors.
“I doubt paying a separate young performing cast has crossed anyone’s mind,” he says.
When asked why it’s important to him to do such a thing that isn’t done Lawry replys: “It needs to happen.”
“What better way for these kids to learn?” He explains. “They don’t learn in high school and college what a professional rehearsal process is like... Universities and high schools are sending kids out there without the right education. Why can’t 15-year-old me be in the same rehearsal room with adult me and learn that process before even getting on stage?
“Explaining to them why we take a five minute break every hour - because that’s what equity rules are. We rehearse by the rules. That’s something they don’t know or get taught about.
That’s why I do it.”
ATL isn’t an equity house. They aren’t expected or forced to work by the strict rules of equity. For Lawry it’s a matter of respect for the performers.
These young performers he seeks out are, often enough, students he’s already worked with before. ATL does a free after school program twice a week with Chicago Math and Science Academy and Lawry also teaches six week teen improv classes on Saturdays during the school year.
He encourages students to audition for ATL.
In the case of Ladies in Waiting two of the young women were former students, two came from general auditions and the young man playing the wedding photographer is a student from his after school program.
Lawry knew that he could easily cast young performers by posting an audition notice online. That streamlined process of theater to agent to young actor doesn’t really fit his idea of a successful young performance troupe.
“I could post audition notices and get kids with agents from the suburbs, but that’s not doing something for the kids in Rogers Park who have the same goals and dreams,” he says. “If I can get into some of the schools around the theater I find talent and utilize that.”
See the young performing cast at the Saturday matinees of “Ladies in Waiting.”
“Ladies in Waiting” is playing now through May 26 at McKaw Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available for $20 at the door or online at theatreatl.org.
If you wish to donate to ATL’s mission you can do so at theatreatl.org. Donations can be specified to go to any part of their mission including to pay performers or the theater’s after school program.