Jenny Magnus and Curious Theatre Branch Take the Hidden Dynamics of Rehearsals Front and Center

The world premiere of Still in Play: A Performance of Getting Ready last weekend revealed a behind-the-scenes view of the theater – both its vision and the intense interpersonal dynamics. The piece was developed by Jenny Magnus through a year-long residency at the MCA with her Chicago-based ensemble, and featured live music by Crooked Mouth Band, comprising ensemble members.


Photo: Kristin Basta

Magnus, Adjunct Faculty in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Media MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, wanted to explore “really innovative ways to actually reside,” during the year-long residency, and to embrace a large amount of uncertainty in artistic process and outcome. The core of her research was done at her “Office Hours” booth in the museum’s galleries where she made herself available for conversation with museum visitors for an hour a day, four days a week, over multiple periods of the year. “Picture the booth with Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip,” Magnus says, with its famous ”The doctor is in/out” flip sign.

The conversations that transpired over the year informed Magnus’s work on Still in Play. Subtitled A Performance of Getting Ready, the play brings the backstage energy prior to a performance out to the audience, showing the performers’ anxious preparations, strained relationships, power struggles, all while they are working furiously to collaboratively create. These behind-the-scenes dynamics can seem mysterious, hidden from everyone except the few participating. “Usually all you see is the finished so-called thing, but there’s tremendous real humor and pain in trying to make something together,” says Magnus. “What’s most fascinating about rehearsal is the possibility of shaping your experience, and then being able to do it again, to make it more satisfying. This doesn’t happen in life.”

Magnus says her first conception involved two people having a conversation behind the curtain just before it goes up, but when the MCA asked her to create a new work, she decided to expand it. “I thought, Maybe I’ll try to do something I’ve never done before, which is make a really enormous show,”

This innovative form of artist residency—long-term, collaborative and deep, rather than a few days for rehearsal in the performance space—presents new creative challenges as well as opportunities for both artists and the cultural institutions supporting them. Read more about the work and the residency in New City and Time Out Chicago.