For Lookingglass: Classics, Acrobatics And A Tony The Chicago theater company founded in 1988 calls its work "theater without a net." It has long been dedicated to performances of new works that involve enormous physical demands of its performers. On Sunday, Lookingglass will receive the 2011 Tony for best regional theater.
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For Lookingglass: Classics, Acrobatics And A Tony

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For Lookingglass: Classics, Acrobatics And A Tony

For Lookingglass: Classics, Acrobatics And A Tony

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

This Sunday night, Broadway shows and performers will find out if they've won Tony Awards. We're going to hear about one winner and, in this case, their prize has already been announced. The Tony Award for Best Regional Theater has gone to Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago.

And NPR's Cheryl Corley has this profile.

(Soundbite of play, "Lookingglass Alice")

Unidentified Group: Which hand am I holding up? My left.

Unidentified Man #1: My right.

CHERYL CORLEY: One of the signature plays of Chicago's Lookingglass Theater is called "Lookingglass Alice." It's the ensemble's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic that inspired the founding of the company. The Lookingglass version is a combination of drama, spectacle and breathtaking acrobatics.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: A lobby poster describes Lookingglass as theater without a net. Artistic director Andrew White says it refers to the ensemble's philosophy of taking risks by doing acrobatic stunts without a safety net and presenting new works.

Mr. ANDREW WHITE (Artistic Director, Lookingglass Theatre Company): And we are giving it its go - its first go in front of an audience. So to a degree, every work we do, whether it involves physical theatrics and circus stunts or not, is theater without a net in that respect.

CORLEY: Lookingglass was incorporated in 1988 by a group of college friends attending Northwestern University, including actor David Schwimmer, one of the stars of the hit TV show "Friends." Schwimmer, who remains part of the now 22-member ensemble, says, in many ways, Lookingglass worked to create a physical language.

Mr. DAVID SCHWIMMER (Actor): Part of our training, our rehearsal process for the first, I'd say, at least the first 10 years as a company, were rigorous workouts before we actually started working on character or text. Every rehearsal started with, like, an hour workout.

CORLEY: Wow. It's like theater boot camp or something.

Mr. SCHWIMMER: It really was, and some of the plays really required it.

CORLEY: And that visual sensibility, says Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, is what makes Lookingglass stand out. Jones is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, which votes and then recommends a regional theater for the Tony Award.

Mr. CHRIS JONES (Member, American Theatre Critics Association): Lookingglass, visually, has put its emphasis not on massive sets and Broadway budgets but on, really, the human body and on how the human body exists in space. Frequently, the visual, sort of look of these shows has been exceedingly distinctive.

CORLEY: Just as distinctive, perhaps, the company's source material for its plays, most of which are adaptations of nondramatic material. The company's latest production, "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison," was inspired by a public radio series.

Unidentified Man #2: Tilt that (unintelligible) a little bit.

Unidentified Man #3: The volume.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, right there.

Unidentified Man #3: Plenty of time.

CORLEY: Just before a final dress rehearsal, the crew was taking time to adjust the lighting and sound. Director David Kersnar, another Lookingglass co-founder, co-wrote the play along with other members of the company. Kersnar says when word came that Lookingglass would receive the Tony Award for Regional Theater, everyone was surprised and excited.

Mr. DAVID KERSNAR (Director): As a company, our prime directive is to tell great stories, and so this just was not something that was on our radar. And I think for us it was just a bit of a pat on the back that we're doing the right thing.

CORLEY: "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison," about the life of a woman who escaped Poland as a teenager on the eve of World War II, is a world premiere. So far, Lookingglass has produced more than 50 world premieres, and many, like its adaptation of "Arabian Nights," have toured across the country.

(Soundbite of play, "Arabian Nights")

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as character) Know then, my lord, that there was once a great merchant, Abu al-Hasan...

CORLEY: Tony Award-winning playwright, director and Lookingglass ensemble member Mary Zimmerman wrote the adaptation.

Ms. MARY ZIMMERMAN (Playwright and Director): What the book of "One Thousand Nights and One Night" really says is that it's through storytelling that we cultivate empathy, and I think it's the greatest testament that there is to why we tell story and the importance - just the importance of it in our lives.

CORLEY: Zimmerman also wrote and directed another of the ensemble's signature pieces, an adaptation in part of the Roman poet Ovid's "Metamorphoses." A world premiere in Chicago in 1998, "Metamorphoses" opened in New York shortly after the September 11th attacks.

Again, critic Chris Jones.

Mr. JONES: I think a lot of New Yorkers went to that and really found, in that production from Chicago, a sense of healing, and I think that's a great example of how, you know, one of Lookingglass' most important moments was actually in New York. And that, I think, is perhaps testimony to how this theater became, really, a national institution.

CORLEY: So next Sunday, when Lookingglass gets a Tony Award, it will be the fifth time a Chicago theater has received the award, the most of any city. Artistic director Andy White says the Tony will be proudly displayed in the theater's lobby.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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