“In life, there's barely an ending — let alone a happy one. Our experiences are dragged one into the other. My idea of theatre is having the audience take more questions than answers with them.”
– Joanna Settle in PerformInk
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Stage Persona: Joanna Settle
Performink, September 1, 2000

I want the audience to have to organize their position themselves in relation to the work. That’s why I work site specifically. At the same time, it’s not some Artaud exercise in torture. I love the audience.”

Director Joanna Settle describes her drive to blast through the confines of a neat little proscenium and into the real of chaotic humanity. She has to feel right about a space and its ability to embody a work’s inherent conflict. She also has no qualms about stripping a space bare or flinging open its doors or dumping a ton of gravel on the floor for a Greek tragedy so that the audience can feel beneath their own feet the deafening crunch of a society at war with its tormented conscience.

Settle’s work can be, dare I say, blissfully unsettling.

The artistic director of Thirteenth Tribe, a multifaceted troupe whose compelling environmental productions soar through a disordered universe, is a kinetically driven presence. Although a bit calmer these days, she still craves the energy of life-altering moments. That’s why, for Settle, the traditional theatrical blueprint can be repressive.

To paraphrase the director, it depresses her to walk into a lobby, purchase a ticket from a typically surly box office employee, trudge across a stained carpet, get coffee in a styrofoam cup and, once inside the theatre, pop up and down to let people into one’s row. By the time the curtain rises, she believe such tedium can drain the Mac out of what should be a transcendent experience.

What, then, inspires this bold experimentalist who is not a slave to concept over content?

“I’m interested in epic existentialist work,”says Settle, who basks in the musicality of her own description. “It might be a new play or an old play. What counts is that I have to mean what’s on the stage. I have to be able to stand behind it. It’s a very non-academic approach. The language has to be of a caliber, and there has to be room for me in the language to do something.”

Interestingly, her next project is set in what appears to be a bona-fide theatre. But like the play’s subject, it’s just an illusion.

Through Sept. 24, Settle is directing the world premiere of Hurt McDermott’s How to Be Sawed in Half, a play about a washed-up magician and his assistant’s journey through an act that conjures disturbing psychological realities. Presented by Flow Arts and Thirteenth Tribe, it will be staged on the Athenaeum Theatre’s mainstage. The idea is that of a box within a box–two desperate hacks performing in a faded movie palace-like space to underscore a certain vacuous glory.

“I’m very specific,” says Settle, 30. “I approve all the material. With me, you don’t just hire a director. It’s like hiring a way to do the play.”

The New York native was invited by her relocated college friends – the founders of Thirteenth Tribe – to direct Jean Genet’s The Balcony in 1996 at the Chopin Theatre. She and her colleagues created a sensual and sardonic atmosphere in which funhouse mirrors made the audience co-conspirators in this pointed argument against specious morality.

“During The Balcony,” says Settle, “I realized this [Chicago] is where large-scale ideas can happen.”

She spent much of her young years living in Brooklyn with her mother and in New Hampshire with her father. After majoring in theatre at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, Settle was one of three students accepted into the Juilliard School’s inaugural Andrew W. Mellon Directing Program, where she did her graduate work and met her mentor, master-director Joanne Akalaitis.

Despite the prestige of the Juilliard name and her involvement in the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, Settle was living in a warehouse near the docks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She grew exhausted from the drudgery of making ends meet while honing her expansive creative vision.

“It can be such a monumental struggle to just survive in New York,” notes the director. “It’s not just the high cost of producing a show, it’s the difficult living conditions.”

“When I came to Chicago, I thought it was so cute to drive a car. I didn’t do that in New York. I wanted an apartment with hardwood floors and a kitchen. And when I work, I need space.”

Settle opted to stay in Chicago. She then directed a provocative production of Megan Rodgers’ Bombs in the Ladies Room in the basement of a Wicker Park art gallery. Its surroundings reflected the sensory deprivation imposed on an imprisoned woman accused of being a terrorist. Samuel Beckett’s Play was set in the window of a furniture store for Around the Coyote Festival. The Enduring legend of Marinka Pinka and Tommy Atomic turned the Theatre Building into a clinical, plastic-coated refugee camp in Bosnia.

But one of Settle greatest Thirteenth Tribe triumphs was Blood Line: The Oedipus/Antigone Story, featuring a new translation by Nicholas Rudall. It was staged two years ago at the Viaduct in the space’s raw form before it became a more legitimate theatre. In addition to the aural antagonism of the gravel, this contemporary interpretation created stingingly unforgettable images – like the moment Antigone exits and the huge warehouse doors are rolled up to reveal bonfires rising from trash cans framed against comfortable neighborhood back porches.

The director details her process in relation to Blood Line. “How do we do this is my big question,” Settle emphasizes. “With Blood Line, I asked, how many people are in the chorus and who the fuck is the chorus? I determined that they have to like real people.”

The chorus also left the building – they; too, quit on Antigone in a stunningly dramatic way. Had they stayed inside the theatre, it would have felt false.

She continues, “I’m a visual learner. I remember things for a long time. And I’m very associative. I was reading Antigone and watching CNN at the same time. Between all this news, a human interest story came on about a little girl in Palestine who hit her head on a rock. It was this boom, boom, boom of the news; then this extended human interest story. That turned out to be the tempo structure for Antigone [within the Blood Line saga.

In Antigone, one woman says, ‘I’m going to do the decent thing.’ But she, really doesn’t do anything. She does this.”

Settle makes a delicate gesture with her fingers, like she’s sprinkling dirt over a grave (symbolizing Antigone’s desire to bury her brother).

She adds, “The play indulges one question, then Antigone dies. As soon as that occurs, all these other tragic events happen –boom, boom, boom – like the CNN news broadcast.”

The director also had to determine the kinds of psycho-sexual obstacles these epic characters encountered. This was mirrored in the angle of columns and the pattern of the carpet.

It’s not surprising that Settle came to theatre through painting, installations and lighting design. She also enrolled at Hampshire College as an undergraduate physics major, but switched to theatre.

“I had been in plays in high school,” explains Settle. “In college, I got involved in carpentry and as an electrician in theatre. I was drawn to the physiology and how the eye recognizes light. I saw a play with light and objects. I originally thought I would major in physics, but I spent all my time in the damn theatre. And I’m so bossy, I wanted to direct.”

Because she is such a multidisciplinary thinker, Settle chose directing. It encompasses, in her words, technical aspects, design, reading, interpersonal skills and intellectual questions. Her approach is very malleable.

“Theatre is about telling the emotional story. My work is about no transition. One reality is true; another unrelated reality can be equally true. People in life don’t transition. They just flash.”

Settle has assisted Akalaitis on four productions in Chicago (including Court Theatre’s Iphigenia Cycle) and New York. The experimental director also served as Settle’s mentor at Juilliard and continues to be very supportive of her development as a theatre artist. They enjoy a candid relationship in which they can honestly critique each other’s work and allow for ongoing creative growth.

“I think the mentoring relationship is gone from the arts,” Settle remarks. “JoAnne has had as much to do with me as a person as she has as a teacher. “I think the mentoring relationship is gone from the arts,” Settle remarks. “JoAnne has had as much to do with me as a person as she has as a teacher. “She’s a more experienced human. There’s a generation between us. She is still living a very full life in the arts. I feel lucky and hugely grateful that I’ve had the pleasure of spending five wears with a master artist who really believes in the theatre of ideas.”

Settle will have the opportunity to continue her pursuit of the “mentoring” model. She was recently one of six directors chosen from a highly competitive national search to receive a 2000-2002 NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Directors. The $17,500 fellowship is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and administered by the Theatre Communications Group. Over a period of six months within the next two years, Settle has the option of creating her own work, observing a director’s process, assisting a master director, or experiencing various theatrical projects.

She survived a rigorous six-month application process, which culminated in an interview before a panel of distinguished directors in New York City. Settle recalls how storms prevented her from flying out of O’Hare. The adrenaline kicked in, and she drove non-stop with Thirteenth Tribe ensemble member Anne DeAcetis in torrential rains all the way from Chicago to New York. She arrived one hour before her interview and found herself strangely relaxed.

Some of Settle’s more immediate plans for the fellowship include participation in a Dramaturgy Convention at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum; a visit to Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska; and possibly assisting director Ping Chong.

“I’m mainly interested in exploring how the actor develops character,” she says. “I come from a very design-centric background. I want to improve my toolbox in terms of choices. I have a tendency to tech from the beginning. I can put bodies in space in a way that’s interesting and poetic. But I’m wondering what I’m cutting off?”

At present, Settle’s mind is on How to Be Sawed in Half, and Thirteenth Tribe’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s Macbett scheduled for November. For How to Be Sawed in Half, Thirteenth Tribe teamed up with a commercial company called Flow Arts. For Settle – who directed a tumultuous South American tour of Grease a few years ago – the merging of a for-profit and non-profit entity may be a new model to follow.

“I’ve worked in so many different environments,” Settle notes. “I also saw the commercial world, which can be very ugly. But I believe there is a way of combining these different types of theatres. The commercial world needs something that’s heavily aesthetically driven. One way that can be achieved is through a partnership with a visionary non-profit theatre.”

The director, who acknowledges that her family experienced financial struggles, prefers dramatic material in which hard-luck characters don’t necessarily win in the end. She is not drawn to Chekhov or upper-class dramas or sentimental works. She often resorts to a physics state of mind.

“When you strip things down,” Settle contends, “we’re very small. This is physics. Senseless things happen and there doesn’t have to be a reason for it. Life is chaotic; it’s not comfortable. I don’t think there are heroes. I think people live incredible lives.

“In life, there’s barely an ending – et alone a happy one. Our experiences are dragged one into the other. My idea of theatre is having the audience take more questions than answers with them.”

- Lucia Mauro -