The long journey from North Blvd. to Madison St.

Artbeat

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By Doug Deuchler

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Theater in this community will soon have an exciting new company jumping into the mix. I just chatted at Eastgate Cafe with a talented young director and educator. His plans are thrilling.

"I've had experience with theater since my teens, almost 20 years ago," said Brian Fruits, clearly brimming over with enthusiasm. "I love this community and I'm so excited to be back here where my roots are. It's going to be wonderful doing shows here. I can't wait!"

Though he's only 35 years old, Brian Fruits' bio is full of extensive accomplishments. He is, for instance, an alumnus of Hephzibah Children's Association, having survived a very challenging childhood in the 1980s.

"I came from nothing. I don't even have any photos of myself as a child. But the fine folks at Hephzibah launched me and gave me such a solid start. They were truly wonderful. I will always be indebted to them for their unfailing kindness and their focus," says Fruits. "I went to Concordia University too. So I am really invested here. I'm totally committed to the theater and to this area. My fiance and I moved back from Memphis and are living in Oak Park now. We're totally plugged into the community. It's already home sweet home."

Brian Fruits' troupe, the Saltbox Theatre Collective, is producing their first show at the Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison, in September. 

"Our focus or theme this first year will be Identity. Our initial production will be The Bacchae, a Greek tragedy by Euripedes," Fruits explains. "This show will run for four weekends. The opening weekend will be a celebration for those who have helped us and believed in us."

The Bacchae focuses on what the Greeks thought were the two aspects of human nature: the civilized, rational side and the sensual, instinctive, beast-like side. The conflict is between Dionysus, the amoral god of wine, a virtual party animal, and a humorless, puritanical young king of Thebes who denounces the lusty religious fever sweeping his kingdom and denies the god's divinity. Dionysus is integrated into the plot as a character — he's not some remote presence. As you might imagine, Dionysus is angered by the blasphemy and there is a showdown. 

The tragedy was written hear the end of Euripedes' life about 406 B.C. It's an undisputed classic, yet few of us have had the opportunity to experience the great work in performance.

"I think audiences will find this play quite thrilling," Fruits says. "We're having a full Greek chorus and we're creating Greek costumes and ceremonial masks. In addition to being an emotional powerhouse, this production will be a knock-out visually. We're incorporating all the arts. And the cast will reflect the diversity of this community as well."

Fruits, who has a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in fine arts in theater, has been teaching and directing for quite a while. He is also an instructor in the theater department at Concordia University Chicago, his alma mater. But he is especially full of excitement to be launching his first production here in two months with Saltbox. 

"I grabbed 12 friends and we did a 'think tank' on our possibilities and potential," he explains. "Our brainstorming got a lot of good results. We're going to be a 'collective,' which means we'll collect artists and talent — everyone from service-types to performers. 

"Even though we're a not-for-profit, we need to pay our rent and royalties. Our board members are seeking seed money through the Kickstarter program. We are looking for $3,871, but we are already almost at 70% of that goal."

"I tend to pick shows about family and home," Fruits adds. "Perhaps this stems from my background. The Bacchae is a potentially disturbing work but it reinforces our theme of identity. Artistic vision is so critical. The play is over 2,000 years old, but it still has much to say to us. It even has echoes of the recent Ferguson [Missouri] crisis. We are intent on doing dicey, cutting-edge work. 

"The Saltbox Theatre Collective is very happy to be planted in this community," he said. "We're a cooperative created by individuals acting as a group to create some amazing theatrical experiences for our audiences."

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James Gus  

Posted: July 22nd, 2015 12:37 PM

Anyone looking for more information on Saltbox Theatre including upcoming show details can check out their website at: http://www.saltboxtheatre.org/ As well as the Madison Street Theatre's page: http://www.mstoakpark.com/

Davida Ellen Williams from Oak Park  

Posted: July 22nd, 2015 12:46 AM

I have known Brian Fruits since he was 5 years old when his journey began at Hephzibah Children's Association. Even then Brian had a sparkle in his eyes and a warmth that could melt your heart. I knew that he was special and that one day he would do amazing things with his life! I also knew that we would always be friends. It will be great having Brian back in Oak Park, bringing his talent, energy and enthusiasm with the Saltbox Theater Collective. I have always been a fan of his work and I know that the Oak Park theater community will enjoy it tremendously. When Brian was 19 he directed a play at his high school and donated the proceeds to Hephzibah. Even better, he invited all of the Hephzibah group home children to attend. Children and staff were seated on stage because Brian wanted our children to not only enjoy the play but to learn from it as well. They loved the whole experience. Brian has also brought his high school students to Hephzibah every Christmas for many years to perform everything from a magic show to a band and choral concert. Brian and I would then do a question and answer session with the children as we explained that he had lived at Hephzibah as a little boy and letting them know that they too could follow their dreams and be whatever they wanted to be! The most sincere question that I will never forget is when an 8 year old girl asked "Brian, did you have hair way back then when you lived at Hephzibah 600 years ago?" When Brian traveled across the country to earn his master's degree I was so proud of him. But secretly I feared that he would never venture back home again, despite his promises. Well, WELCOME HOME BRIAN! I cannot wait to see your plays and watch your audiences grow. You have come full circle after working very very hard to arrive at this "stage" in your life. BRAVO! With much LOVE, Davida Davida Ellen Williams, LCSW Retired Hephzibah Social Worker

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