On a recent night, Emily Schwartz took a seat on an overstuffed couch in the eerie downstairs lounge of the Chopin Theatre. The red walls and mismatched antiques created a fitting haunted-house-like setting for the 32-year-old playwright and Edward Gorey aficionado to host a discussion on prophecies—namely, psychic predictions about the fall theatre calendar.
Chicago had sent Schwartz and three local theatre directors—all women—to various tarot readers to have their fortunes told. They asked the psychics questions about their upcoming plays and the season in general; then they gathered in the history-saturated Chopin to compare notes. Schwartz, the ringleader of the discussion, was enthusiastic about the project: She has spent the better part of this past year researching the turn-of-the-century fascination with séances and mediums. Her new show, The Spirit Play, produced by Strange Tree Group and opening October 5 at the DCA’s stage in the Loop, probes the line between entertainment and truth and explores “our need to believe in something magical, even if we know it’s not real.”
The women kicked off the conversation with critiques of their psychic experiences. “There was no set design, no sound design, no costumes,” Joanie Schultz, the director of The Kid Thing at Chicago Dramatists (in association with About Face Theatre), said with a sigh. Jess Hutchinson sympathized. Hutchinson, who is staging Burying Miss America for New Leaf, had been hoping for a “weird gypsy,” but instead, she said, her psychic “wore a lime green knit sundress.” Julieanne Ehre, who is directing Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending for Shattered Globe, visited a woman who incorporated slightly more scenic elements: beaded curtains, good lighting. Despite these observations, the directors concluded that the tarot business isn’t unlike their own work: “In theatre, we craft this reality we want people to believe in,” Hutchinson said.
As the conversation progressed, Schultz admitted to considerable experience in the psychic realm. “My dad hosted a psychic TV show in Colorado,” she confessed, shaking her head. She didn’t believe what her tarot reader had to say; it had been too vague. Ehre, who described herself as “cynical but not tarot card agnostic,” interjected: “[My reader] told me something big would happen to my career—not this fall but in 2012.” The day after her reading, Ehre learned that Orpheus Descending—originally slated for October—had been bumped to February 2012.
Soon the directors realized that each psychic, even when asked explicitly about theatre and career ambitions, chose to redirect the tarot reading toward romance, marriage, and children—apparently assuming that’s what her female customer wanted to hear. “If a woman sees a psychic, it’s gotta be about a man,” Hutchinson said with a laugh. So Schwartz shifted the discussion to the insiders’ own predictions for the fall season. The women agreed that it shows promise: Several theatres are advancing contemporary topics and new voices, such as the local playwright Sarah Gubbins, who wrote The Kid Thing, about two lesbian couples looking to become parents. “Homegrown Chicago realism, with text-based scripts and an added aura of magic,” Schwartz said, summarizing the city’s current theatrical reputation with gusto. As for the psychics’ fall predictions? “There will be plays,” Schultz intoned. “And people will write about them!”
GO The Spirit Play opens Oct. 5 at DCA Storefront Theater. 312-742-8497, strangetree.org
The Kid Thing runs through Oct. 16 at Chicago Dramatists. 312-633-0630, chicagodramatists.org
Burying Miss America begins Sept. 29 at the Lincoln Park Cultural Center. 773-980-6391, newleaftheatre.org
Orpheus Descending opens February 2012. shatteredglobe.org
Illustration: Tony DiMauro