On June 12, 2011, Andrew White walked across the stage of the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan to accept this year's Regional Theatre Tony Award on behalf of Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago. "It's the highest award in the country," says White, the troupe's artistic director and a founding member. "Probably every regional theatre feels the same way. We were very ecstatic to receive it. And you've got 90 seconds onstage to encapsulate 23 years of our history — all the people who have brought their hearts and minds and passions to what they do. It was a very pressuring moment."
The company's collective passion — "because we are a very collaborative organization" — and its mission, White says, "is to change, charge and empower."
That statement "mainly refers to our audiences, but it's our artists as well, when we work in classrooms with students and teachers," through the troupe's varied education and community programs.
The mission "derives from our original production of Alice in Wonderland, with Alice's journey through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole — she goes on a journey and comes out the other side feeling changed and charged and empowered, and in a different place. We want audiences to leave the theatre looking at the world differently from when they came in. Some shows have social or political impact; some are circus-based, where audiences leave thinking they didn't know the human body could do that." For the 2011–12 season, the company's ensemble has chosen three plays — the company, not the artistic director, decides on the plays — all involving, says White, "moments in history; decisive moments, turning points."
The first, earlier this fall, was The Great Fire, written and directed by ensemble member John Musial to coincide with the 140th anniversary (on Oct. 8) of the Great Chicago Fire. "Chicago was razed to the ground, ruined, devastated, destroyed," White says, "and then rebuilt into this amazing city. The play focuses on events surrounding the fire, not its cause — what people were going through that day, how it affected the rich, the poor, everyone in between. What were the choices they had to make? Do you flee right away? What do you take with you? What were the recurring things you see in disasters today, like 9/11 or Katrina?"
Next up, in January, is Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, by Ed Schmidt. It's set on April 9, 1947, when Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers is about to break baseball's color barrier by bringing Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. "It's a microscopic look at an imagined meeting between enormously powerful and charismatic people in one hotel room. Rickey is trying to get blacks united behind him and he finds it's more complicated, that there are divergent views. He thought all blacks would be supportive. But Paul Robeson, for example, comes in and talks about the effect on the Negro Leagues—they will disappear."
The final production, next June, is Eastland, written by White, with music by artistic associate Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman. It's July 24, 1915, White says, and "the Eastland, a boat on the Chicago River, has been chartered to bring workers from Western Electric, mostly blue collar, first generation immigrants, to a picnic. The ship tips over and 884 people die."
One particular aspect intrigues him. "Very few people, even here in Chicago, know about it. It's very curious why that is — why do some disasters rise to the surface and make indelible marks in our histories and memories? And why do some get erased from our past and totally forgotten?"