Play tells of circus performers buried in Forest Park

Concordia drama students experience Chicago storefront theater up close

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By Jean Lotus

Forest Park Review Editor

Who remembers an unnamed clown's performance after the show? 

Chicago playwright and neo-futurist Jay Torrence examines the transience of performing art and the tragedy of the anonymous circus workers killed in the 1918 Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus accident in Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck! beginning Feb. 13.  

Concordia University's Artists of Concordia Theatre present the show for two weekends at Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St., in Oak Park.

The show draws on historic events that have a deep connection to Forest Park.

Around 4 a.m., June 22, 1918, the engineer of a U.S. Army train fell asleep at the controls as his train sped 60 miles per hour near Hammond, Ind. The empty troop train struck the 26-car circus train, which was stopped on the tracks. In the fiery accident, sleeping circus workers and animals burned to death as wooden train cars lit by old-fashioned oil lamps caught fire. 

Eighty-six accident victims were buried in the Showman's Rest section of Forest Park's Woodlawn Cemetery. Because the circus had just hired a group of add-on roustabouts, many of the victims were never identified. Memorial stones read "Baldy," "Four-horse driver" and "Unidentified male #61." 

But the show must go on. The Wallace-Hagenbeck Circus missed only one performance, hiring some fill-ins from Ringling Brothers and carrying on with their tour of the Midwest. 

By 1939, the circus involved in one of the worst train accidents in U.S. history was advertising, "train after train of double-length railroad cars loaded with wonders from every land." 

Cemetery tells story

The untold stories behind those Forest Park tombstones led author Torrence to conceive of the play, according to colleague and director Halena Kays.

"Jay was moved by the idea of trying to tell a performer's story," Kays said. "Those grave markers are so anonymous. That's what got him started." 

The plots of Showman's Rest in Forest Park were purchased only months before the accident by the Showman's League. The president of the Chicago-based performers' organization at the time was Buffalo Bill Cody.  

Roustabout was developed and produced by the Neo-Futurists in 2006, Kays said.

Trying to capture the legacy of long-forgotten clowns was one of Torrence's goals. He also wanted to use the Neo-Futurist experience to examine what watching a performance means to an audience. 

That's what led Kays to want to work with Torrence, she said.

"Jay as an artist is attracted to performers and people who are trying to create something beautiful for the public," she said.  

"But sometimes the most joyful thing has the possibility of becoming the most horrible. I find that innately theatrical and interesting."

The Neo-Futurists are known for their "meta-theater," self-referential performances. Actors pop up with signs that read, "Historical Fact" and "Historical Fiction," and speak directly to the audience during parts of the show. 

"Jay is very interested in breaking the 'fourth wall' between performers and audience," she said. 

The play switches between realistic dramatic vignettes, breakout dance performances, and songs and live narration. Six actors, five of them Concordia undergraduates, perform in the show, Kays said. The play veers into the absurd with hand-puppets from the Bible. The playwright is not afraid to poke fun at the pretentiousness of his symbolism either, said student actor TJ Stewart. 

"I give birth to a giant ball labeled 'world peace'," he said, laughing. "It just shows how some absurdities in meta-theater aren't acceptable!"

New direction for theater program

Working with Chicago's experimental theater community is a new direction for Concordia's theater program. Artistic Director Jason Narvy has moved Concordia's theater school to Madison Street Theatre to give students a taste of running a Chicago-area storefront theater. 

"When they graduate, they can either create theater on their own, go on to a master's program where they have to perform on big stages or look for work in companies," Narvy said in a recent interview. 

"They've already done all that; they've run an entire theater production company."

Kays worked with Torrence last year on Burning Bluebeard a story that examines the historic 1903 Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago. 

Coincidentally, many Iroquois Theater victims are also buried in Forest Park.

Kays enjoys working with students and exposing them to experimental Chicago theater.

"There's no money in any art, so you should do what you're passionate about," Kays tells them. "If that takes you to Hollywood or New York, that's amazing. But if you're in a small storefront in Chicago that's also a pretty awesome life."

Kays enjoyed casting the students. 

"I'm always looking for different personalities and body types. But what I'm mostly looking for is attitude and work ethic in actors," she said. "This show pushes students into doing things they've never done before. They're taking risks."

"I'm surprised by how attached I became to the characters," said actor Elizabeth Gruenes. "Their names and stories are lost and that's sad." Other student actors include Matt Bender, Katie Jendraszak and Kaycee Jordan.

Kays calls the play, both absurd and tragic. 

"It's a train crash that killed hundreds of people. Some moments are heartbreaking. The play asks, 'Why does useless tragedy happen and what does that mean?'

"We see these characters and follow their story, knowing they'll be dead by the end of the play, but it's also fun and funny. It's dark humor but respectful to these people. That's the intent."

Performances of Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck! are Feb.13-15 and 20-22 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 16 and 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, with discounts for students and senior citizens.

For tickets or more information, visit CUCroustabout.BrownPaperTickets.com or call 708-209-3469.

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