'Powerless': Just your average superhero comic book play

August 10, 2011

The idea that a few twenty-somethings might want to be superheroes isn't exactly groundbreaking. Nor is a play based on a comic book. But combine them, and you've a Chicago-based mini-phenonmenon.

That's the feeling you get when talking to the minds behind Powerless, a self-described "comic book play" currently running at Voice of the City in Logan Square through August 20.

About a year and a half ago, writers David Brent and Mitch Salm had the idea to combine the mediums, though Brent admits they "weren't sure exactly what that was going to mean."

After staging a reading in April 2010, they came back to work in January inspired to create a fully-fleshed out production, one that would divide the show into three acts or "issues". Brent and Salm knew they wouldn't be able to do it alone, however, so the two graduates of the University of Chicago reached out to a fellow alum.

Enter Jack Tamburri, currently an M.F.A. student at the Yale University School of Drama.

"Other people I’m sure would have done a great job, but Jack was the only person we both knew and trusted, and who knew and got the play," said Brent.  "And [he] had a really deep background, not only in theater, but also in comic books.”

The group formed the Society of Young Superheroes, an homage to their play, and a stand-in for the theater company they admit they're not.

Comic book plays have been done before (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark are two obvious examples), but the threesome felt as though previous attempts didn't fully incorporate the nature of comic books.

“Comics and theater are two of the only art forms that really, really require the audience to help tell the story," explained Brent. "When you see a film, the film already exists. You’re watching it, but the film is not changing. The story exists.”

With Powerless, however, they hoped to use the structure of the comic book to help viewers tell the story with them.  That structure relies heavily on "gutters" or the spaces between panels in comics, which prompt readers to fill in gaps in the story themselves.

Powerless holds on to the comic book format by projecting 200 different panel images during the play. It also incorporates voiceovers and adds a live score - all in the hopes that the audience-member can put these disparate factors together on their own. 

“I am interested - through the work, and not by bullying anybody, and not with a program note, but through the content - in making the audience aware of its responsibility in the room," said Tamburri, who feels that much theater these days doesn't use their live audience enough.

They also hope Powerless isn't, well, a huge bore.

"What if you could cut, for example, a two hour play down into one hour, and then just simultaneously project the other hour with images?," said Salm. "Like an image could communicate an entire day even. Or two images are an essential part of the story could just happen instantaneously."

Easier said then done.

By all accounts, tech that includes projectors is a lot more complicated than just panels and a stage, especially in a space that can seem a little empty when a performance isn't taking place.

Powerless is filled with your usual characters -- the slacker, the do-gooder, the hero -- who say things like "Citizens are sorry. Heroes are right", and make sarcastic statements like "It takes a cape to make a f***in' man." 

The show includes references to Nietzsche, and is filled with post-collegiate angst -- and that's all just in the first issue. Sure there's a lot going on, but maybe there should be. 

Nevertheless, Powerless means enough to its creators that it doesn't seem to bother them much whether others dig it, and just the process seems to make them happy.

"There are moments in the show that when I see them, I think ‘That is a mode of storytelling that I have never seen before,'" said Salm. "And I’m really proud of those moments. And when those moments happen you usually only realize them after they happen."

For it was during the show, when, as Brent explains, "We kind of realized both comics and theater tend to attract people who, for whatever reason, want to feel empowered."

"They empower the people to help tell the story," agrees Salm. 

Salm and Brent aren't sure where Powerless will go next; they're currently working on a movie script that's fifteen scenes of five minutes each, all in different neighborhoods in Chicago. We've seen this theme recently in Chicago, with en route, or Cut to the Quick.

But as Salm says,"There are no rules for this kind of thing."