A new school commune: Beau O'Reilly on the tribal family that makes up 'Still in Play'

September 14, 2011

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard at Still in Play (opening tomorrow and running just through Saturday). Curious Theatre Branch cofounder Beau O’Reilly, one of 17 performers in Still, helped me sort things out. Jenny Magnus, another cofounder who developed the script during a yearlong residency at the MCA, was his partner for a decade. But for donkey’s years she’s been married to Stefan Brun, who directs Still in Play.

Understanding the ties that bind Curious, in the abstract if not in detail, is crucial to this work about theater and community. For O’Reilly, theater has always meant family. The son of actor-director James O’Reilly, who led the Body Politic to stardom in the 80s, he has 13 siblings, including several sisters in the music or theater biz. His sons Colm O’Reilly and Rory Jobst are performers, and in fact Colm and two of O’Reilly’s nieces are also part of the multigenerational Still in Play cast.

“It’s pretty tribal!” O’Reilly says of Curious, now nearly 25 years old. “But it’s very unofficially that way—we don’t all live together, everybody does other things, a lot of people are married or in relationships outside the group. It’s not communal in that old hippie sense, but there is a community that’s developed over several years.”

The meta-theatrical Still in Play takes place at a theater in the hour before a performance is to start, as the actors and techies arrive, schmooze, and warm up. The lines are blurred between rehearsal and performance, improvised and scripted, real life and art.

“There’s a lot of wink in it,” says O’Reilly. “At one point Jenny and I have an actual fight, where we’re yelling at each other and swearing at each other in a way we might actually have done 15 years ago. And [director] Stefan walks out of the auditorium and stops us and says, ‘Could you go back to that one part and do that again, but walk this way?’ There’s a lot of comedy in it.”

Music also plays a big role in Still in Play. In fact Curious Theatre “Branch” was conceived as a side project of the band Maestro Subgum and the Whole.

“That’s gone full circle,” says O’Reilly, “because the Crooked Mouth is now the band within the theater company.” A folk and pop-rock ensemble, they’ll perform Magnus’s songs during Still. “Songs break out—they’re rehearsed and then kind of realized and made complete. I play the cane and sing,” O’Reilly says. “I mostly strum it. I’m the best cane player in town—you can ask my grandchildren.”

“This is the first time Jenny has worked with such a large ensemble,” he adds. “Her pieces are usually two characters. For her, part of the experiment was, ‘What would happen if I have 15 people having the same discussion I would usually have with myself or with my performance partner?’ Lots of things are fresh and new for us, rather than it feeling like a victory lap or something. It’s more like, ‘Oh, here’s a whole new beginning to the way we work together.’”

What’s O’Reilly’s perspective on the Chicago theater scene these days? “I went through a bad period about five years ago,” he says, “where I really felt it was doing very poorly. People weren’t coming to see work, there weren’t spaces to do work. Press for original work was harder and harder to get. Funding was getting dryer and dryer. And I still think the great dilemma in Chicago theater is that it has this huge reputation, but it doesn’t really have a huge audience. And when you get to original work, that audience is even smaller.”

“But I’m back to thinking that it’s pretty lively!” he says. “I’m having fun, a lot of people are having fun. I’m going to see things quite a bit again, and even when something isn’t perfect, I’m enjoying watching the effort, people taking some risks. So I think it’s healthy. We have to work really hard to make it happen, and that hasn’t gotten any easier. But I’m more relaxed about it.”