Erica Weiss directs Jim Farruggio in 'Vigils'
"Believe it or not, the play terrifies me," said director Erica Weiss. "It's the furthest out of my comfort zone I could have stretched,"
She's referring to "Vigils," the whimsical dramedy by Detroit playwright Noah Haidle that she's directing for The Gift Theatre, opening Thursday. It's about a young widow who struggles with memories of her firefighter husband when the opportunity for new love arrives.
Weiss arrived in Chicago from Denver in 2001 to study theater at DePaul. Upon graduation, she founded the former Hypatia Theatre Company and is now the associate artistic director of Route 66 Theatre Company, where she co-created and directed the 2011 world premiere hit production, "A Twist of Water," which then moved Off-Broadway. We called Weiss during tech rehearsals to find out more about her collaboration with The Gift on "Vigils."
If the play terrifies you, what led you to accept the challenge of directing it?
What really attracted me there was the opportunity to do something that I never would have picked up and said, 'This is a project for me.' The work that I have been doing has been much more realistic, much more grounded storytelling, and 'Vigils' is a little bit poetic, a little bit whimsical and has a lot of aspects of memory and fantasy elements to it and repetition and all of these other theatrical elements that I just haven't played with. But can I take what I know I do well and my ability to listen to a play—can I take all of that and really stretch myself with this show? We've always got to be onstage telling a story and living a kind of truth no matter how magical the story gets, no matter how many mystical or dream-like or memory-like places it goes—we have to keep it grounded somehow. And I think that's what The Gift does and that's what I do.
How did you come to be associated with 'Vigils?'
I have been a longtime admirer of The Gift and a huge fan of [co-founder] Michael Patrick Thornton. He's one of my favorite, favorite actors in the city. I had been talking to Mike for awhile about directing over there; really wanting to get to know them. I'd pitched him a project and that just didn't wind up being a great fit for their ensemble. But Mike called me when he was finished with theater selection and said, "Can't do that show. But I have this other show; I think it's really beautiful. Will you direct it?' And I said yes because I'd been wanting to work with The Gift for a long time and it's a really unique opportunity to get offered a show that you didn't necessarily bring to the table.
What was a turning point for you as a theater professional?
The production of "A Twist of Water" that Route 66 Theatre did in 2011. There's a real before and after in my career picture—that was the first time I directed an Equity show and it was the first time that my longtime collaborator and I had gotten the chance to really showcase our work in a fairly high-profile way. They took a big chance on us, a big leap of faith. And it was a really good show if I do say so myself. [Laughs.] As a director, you don't go and audition. You have to have a body of work to show that you are a director that should direct whatever next show, but you can't build that body of work unless someone takes a chance on you—or unless you do it yourself, which is what I did with Hypatia Theatre Company originally, right out of college. ['A Twist of Water'] took me all the way to my New York debut when we transferred it Off-Broadway. I couldn't say enough about how much one opportunity to do one show can really change your life.
Where do you go in Chicago for inspiration?
Depends, is it warm out? Cause it's almost never warm out. [Laughs.] I am usually in my little enclave on the North Side in Lincoln Square. When I'm walking around the neighborhood, it just makes me remember how much I love the city in terms of it being a city of neighborhoods—because it's so Chicago in Lincoln Square, but it's also so Lincoln Square. And you can go over to Andersonville and have that same kind of experience or into the Loop, all of those different pockets that are such neighborhood places—but still, like, this is our city. I have a very emotional reaction every time I see a great shot of the skyline from a window or from any kind of view. I think a lot of Chicagoans have that and I've really taken this as my adopted hometown. Just to be able to look at the city in a whole in that skyline when you're experiencing its smaller parts every day. 'A Twist of Water' was a love letter to Chicago. And having gone through the process with that play and then bringing that play to New York and telling New Yorkers about Chicago, it just forges those ties within me deeper and deeper to the point where, flying in or driving down the highway, whenever I see Chicago in that iconic Chicago pose, it keeps me very, very inspired and happy to be here, no matter how many degrees it is out. [Laughs.]