A split screen shot of K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill from What Is Left, Burns. K. Todd has blue projected onto him and Jon Michael has pink projected onto him.

Closer than ever: How collaboration ignited What Is Left, Burns

A behind-the-scenes conversation with ensemble member Jon Michael Hill and Stage Manager Laura D. Glenn

A conversation with ensemble member Jon Michael Hill and Production Stage Manager Laura D. Glenn, moderated by Associate Artistic Director Leelai Demoz on What Is Left, Burns

Leelai Demoz (LD): I'm so excited for this conversation about What Is Left, Burns by James Ijames, directed by Whitney White. The actors and the directors and the writers were like, "Let's just dive in, let's just try this, let's do this." It is so incredibly exciting. When I took this job, I didn't think I'd be working on filming things, but I'm happy to embrace it. And I'm so inspired by the courage that everyone on the staff has shown in doing something that we don't usually do. We are figuring it out, being really clever about how we capture these, and learning from what we've done and building on it. So, What Is Left, Burns. Let me set it up, James Ijames, when we approached him about doing this, we said "Would you like to write something?" He said sure. So, he wrote something in about three weeks, and it must have just flown out perfectly because it had these two amazing characters. And just the brief summary: It's two poets separated by age and distance engage in a video call, after not having seen each other for 15 years. Keith is a distinguished poet and a professor of literature. And he's moving towards retirement after a recent divorce from his wife, Ronnie, his younger former lover and mentee has a New York Times best-selling book and a burgeoning career ahead of him. The two men wade through the connections that they once had, as they struggle with the desires that still bind them. And so, we just did it a few weeks ago. It stars K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill, who's with us. And we also thought it would be great to have our stage manager Laura D. Glenn, talk about a little bit of the behind-the-scenes of how we did this. So, Jon, let me start with you. How you doing, man?

Jon Michael Hill (JMH): I'm here. It’s good to see everybody.

LD: When you first read it, what are some of the things that attracted you to wanting to do this piece?

JMH: Yes. James formulated these characters, and they're trying to pick up where they left off, but you can tell in the subtext, there's a lot that's unsaid. there's a lot of history. And one of the things that draw you to pieces of work is that level of mystery. It's that law of attraction. And they said K. Todd was doing the other part and I was like “Alright, that’s my guy.” We hadn’t been on stage together since 2008, so that was part of it. Ronnie, the character I was playing, is really unlike myself where he doesn't have much of a filter, and there's a sense of play. In terms of just the creative side of it, I was pretty excited to get to tackle something like this.

LD: That's great. It was really exciting to see. And the last time you were on [Steppenwolf’s] stage was True West, which was either last summer or 25 years ago… I don't know, because time has changed. But, it was really cool for me in the first rehearsal, when you did the first read through, to see you all working. And I could see it so close. Like you never see actors working. So, you had a short amount of time. What was that like? What was your approach that was so different than when you're on stage?

JMH: I usually like to be close to off-book at the first day of rehearsal, just so that I don't have to think about the lines. I can just worry about the people I'm up there with and reacting in the moment. And with this, I just really had to hammer the lines before you get in there. Because we were filming. Probably the second day we had footage that was going to be in the final piece. So, you kind of had to be ready. Usually, you get so much more time with a play to work on rhythm. And so, there you really just kind of had to be ready to go. Much like if you got a guest star on a TV show and you had to show up and jump into this machine and know your lines and be ready to go and put something on camera that's going to live forever. It’s pretty stressful.

LD: Well, you make it look easy and your work is beautiful. Let me bring Laura into this conversation. Laura Glenn, how are you?

Laura D. Glenn (LG): I'm well, Leelai. How are you?

LD: Good. Laura, I'm going to start with a very basic question. What does a stage manager do?

LG: Oh, my goodness. Facilitate the room and the process. I'm the right hand person to whoever's directing. I'm there to protect the actor's rights, but also facilitate their creativity. I take a lot of pride in making a safe environment for people to be vulnerable, and to create, because you know, getting the job is a very different quality than creating a work.

LD: Exactly.

LG: But, I call the cues. I make lights go on and off and things like that.

LD: I was just looking at your credits, and I just kept on scrolling on how many plays you've done at Steppenwolf. Like, my hand got tired! So how many plays have you staged managed? You've seen such a breadth of work? 

LG: I don't think I know the number. My first [Actors’ Equity] show stage managing for Steppenwolf was Love Letters in 1990. So, it's been a while. This is my 30th year doing shows. There’s a lot. The theater has changed so much from a small operation at 2851 N. Halsted. To me, 1650 is still the new building. That's what I find so funny. But it's a 25-year-old building. The size and breadth have just gotten amazing. But what's so great, and why I try to choose to work at Steppenwolf more than anywhere else, is that the level of work starts at such a higher place, especially because the ensemble know each other so well. I don't know that we could have accomplished what we did with this piece, What Is Left, Burns, if K. Todd and Jon didn't know each other as well. The level of work just starts at such a higher bar. They know each other, they trust each other. It was really great. Stage managing virtually is a very different thing--- 

LD: Well, I was going to ask about that. Let me just present the picture for everyone. When you look, she has a long table. And there's like a script and very sharp pencils. And then there's like a contraption that plays sound effects and it's a combination of high tech and sharp pencils. So, how does that translate to the virtual where you're basically working through Zoom and we're capturing the video through Zoom?

I had a laptop dropped off at the apartment, a projector, and colored lights, because you're not just going to watch two people hop on a Zoom call for 20 minutes. Like we shot basically a music video. And I learned that people can do a lot of different things all at one time, if you've got good enough support.

- Jon Michael Hill


LG: Well, some of my job is much easier. The technical aspects-- Jon Hill had to be his own cinematographer, wardrobe person, props person and projection coordinator. For me, the first time I did one of these was American Clock, and when I put everyone on a 10 minute break, I had to be like, “So please come back because I can't see you. I can't find you if you wander away and go get something to eat.” But I still did my stuff of reassuring people like, “No, no, no, you don't sound funny today. That was a good take.” If someone's privately messaging me where they seem low energy, I'm like maybe they're having an off day. The people management is still part of the job.

JMH: There are so many continuity issues that I wouldn't have felt comfortable moving forward if I didn't have a keen eye like Laura Glenn watching the thing. A stage manager inspires confidence in everybody because you know there's somebody that's watching everything, that's got your back. And the other thing that’s interesting about Laura, when we were doing True West with [Randall Arney], Randy is well known as the best storyteller in the ensemble but Laura Glenn rivals Randy because she retains all of those stories. I feel like Laura Glenn is kind of integrated into the soul of Steppenwolf in a way that no other stage manager is really. It’s insane that we were able to have her for this.

LG: Oh, thank you, Jon. That means a lot Thank you.

LD: And in addition to Laura, we had a full production team. We have someone from [the artistic department], we had producers, we shipped a projector to Jon and had it set up. So, Jon, you work a lot on camera. You’ve been series regulars where you’re always in front. What were the challenges of doing this because we had no way to have a camera person in the room with you? You and K. Todd were in New York, but you are in separate places. What were some of the challenges and what did you learn?

JMH: Well, it takes a lot of patience. I think we had a good team. And Laura can speak more about Matt Chapman and Rick Haefele and the kind of insane remote technical work that they were able to do. I had a laptop dropped off at the apartment, a projector, and colored lights, because you're not just going to watch two people hop on a Zoom call for 20 minutes. Like we shot basically a music video. And I learned that people can do a lot of different things all at one time, if you've got good enough support. Because the first day, I was very flustered, I was late to the meet and greet because I was setting up this and that. But once you get on the call with everybody and everything, and there's so much input and collaboration, it puts you right back into a rehearsal room and you know that you're going to be able to figure it out.

LG: Lowell Thomas, who's a video producer on this, him and Whitney spent a lot of time in pre-production about knowing what looks and feels they want for these things. Because it is going to be so much more than any just Zoom stuff that's out right now. We shot a little movie using iPads, laptops, phones. There’re multiple camera angles. We would shoot things more than once. It was interesting. We we’re all at first “why does he need a projector?” and then once we see this image of Jon in his bedroom, with water flowing. There’s one day we couldn't get the projector to work and what was fascinating, even to me, was that Jon turned it on. But Rick Haefele and Matt Chapman were controlling it from Chicago. So, they could slow down the video, they could speed up the video, they could modify the color of it. It was really fascinating how much that we could use the technology to heighten the work as opposed to being frustrated by it. Whitney White is getting really good at these pieces.

LD: Whitney is really great. And she just had a vision and it kind of just all came together. And again, everyone rose to the occasion and went out of their comfort zone and made it happen, which I think is just amazing. I saw this quote that Martin Scorsese said. “The technology is always an element of creativity. It's never the source of creativity.” As we do this, we're probably going to think about how do we remotely control cameras and shoot from somewhere else. We’re going to do this safely, but we're going to challenge you. It’s going to be so exciting to see the whole organization and the ensemble come together to tell these stories. So, stay tuned.

We’re going to do this safely, but we're going to challenge you

- Leelai Demoz