Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cold Basement Dramatics continues to create interest with new play, "At His Best"

In her new play, "At His Best," playwright Cassandra Rose explores the lives of two women from different decades linked by a visit from the same man. 

Rose is also the artistic director of Chicago-based Cold Basement Dramatics,, which is staging "At His Best" through Jan. 26 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

General admission tickets are $15, available at

I had the chance to talk to Rose and director Mike Mroch about the play. 

Q - Great to talk to you. In writing "At His Best," what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? 

CASSANDRA - I started this play with the hope that I could showcase the difference between a nice guy and a good person. The character Sam Brogan in the play has a lot of good intentions inside him, but sometimes intentions are not the same as reality.

From the discussions I've had with audience members after the show, it seems that this flaw in Sam Brogan's character can be intensely felt and pitied. I also love playing with the element of time, so having the play split between the 1980s and the present was a challenge I was more than willing to tackle.

I hope these two times impact each other in a tangible way in the audience's mind. 

Q - What should audiences expect from the show? Any surprises? 

CASSANDRA - Lots of surprises! Yes! Cold Basement Dramatics' mission statement is to present plays about the things we hide from ourselves and others, so naturally the family at the center of this play has a lot of secrets.

One family member has taken a secret to the grave, which is why you might hear a door slam too many times or notice the lights flickering over the kitchen sink when Sam is left alone. Just be ready for some reversals and revelations along the way.

Photo by Brandy Reichenberger

Q - You are also artistic director for Cold Basement Dramatics. How do you think the theatre company fits into the Chicago theatre scene? What are the short and long-term goals of Cold Basement Dramatics? 

CASSANDRA - I like to think of Cold Basement Dramatics as Chicago's lint trap. My ideal play would be one that other theatre companies would be too afraid to produce. 

As such, we're constantly looking for fresh, difficult stories told with great insight and love. During the play submission season my inbox becomes a litmus test for our current culture, where these wonderful playwrights are walking this razor-thin line between what people don't want to talk about and what people need to talk about.

Last year, we got a lot of plays about babies - having babies, not having babies, wanting babies but not being able to have babies, etc. This year with marriage equality flourishing across the country, I've already noticed an uptick in the number of plays we're getting about LGBTQ issues.

Something else we take into consideration when searching for new material is what is this story telling? Because honestly, sometimes we get a story that tackles a very important issue, but the play ends on an incredibly racist note. 
Or the moral of the story is that a woman can turn a gay man straight with enough emotional blackmail. And those are lessons we just don't want to be teaching folks.

If we are telling stories that others are not, we have a responsibility to make sure our stories uplift people, not divide them. So, our short term goals are as follow: We'll have our annual ten minute play festival Secret Stash III this spring, along with a staged reading series, followed by our production of "The Half-Life Of Memory" by Jason Lindner at the DCA Storefront this June.

As for long term, we're taking full length play submissions until Feb. 15th, and we recently received our 501(c)3 status from the federal government. So things are looking up. 

Q - Mike, I know you have worked with Cassandra before. What made you want to direct, "At His Best?" 

MIKE - It's true, Cassandra and I went to college together, and I always wanted to direct her work. We finally got a chance last year with Cassandra's ten minute play, Margret. 

CASSANDRA - That was a play about a couple that really wanted to have a baby, but their unborn child had a genetic abnormality called Trisomy 13. See? Even I'm not immune to the litmus test. 

MIKE -  I like working on new plays and being a part of that shaping and collaborating process. When Cassandra first brought this play to me two year ago I was excited to focus on how we tell secrets.

It's a play about people in two times and two places; it's a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but each person in the story is only there for a snippet of it. This play highlights how blurred the lines can be between two different perspectives [for example between Ann and Brogan in their relationship].

And there are heightened dramatic moments without it being overly theatrical. For the most part, it's about people trying to do the right thing.

Whether it's the right thing or not, ultimately, can be up for debate- but at no point is anyone trying to objectively hurt anyone. 

Q - Cassandra and Mike, what would you like to do next? Any dream projects? 

MIKE - Besides new plays, I'd love to tackle John Logan's work. I like Red, but I love Peter and Alice even more.

That's the story of the real life inspiration for Peter Pan meeting the real life inspiration for Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), and the two work out what it means to be a cultural celebrity. Also, I want to work on Chekov again, definitely.

CASSANDRA - As for me, I'm hoping to go back to the Kenyon Playwrights Conference again this June. It's a wonderful week-long conference in Gambier, Ohio, if a little pricey.  

Last year I created an indiegogo campaign called The Dictionary Project, where people would give me donations and a random page in the Random House Webster's Dictionary, and I would write a play based on one word on that dictionary page. By the end of the summer I wrote 30 one page plays, 15 three page plays, and 6 ten minute plays.  

No matter what, the writing goes on.