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For Lookingglass: Classics, acrobatics and a Tony

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This Sunday, as Broadway celebrates its own and recognizes the best work of the season during the 65th annual Tony Awards, an outsider will be mentioned along with all those names in lights. Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre will be the 2011 recipient of the Tony for best regional theater.

One of the ensemble's signature plays is called Lookingglass Alice. The adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic story inspired the founding of the company. Its version, written by founding member David Catlin, is a combination of drama, spectacle and breathtaking acrobatics.

A poster in the lobby describes Lookingglass as "theater without a net," and artistic director Andrew White says that philosophy is both literal and figurative.

"Theater without a net refers to, I think, the ethic that we have that there's always a level of risk and challenge and daring that we bring to every production. Sometimes that's actually physical with a level of physical virtuosity and acrobatics and circus stuff that is done without a net, quite literally, which is exciting and thrilling for audiences to watch," Catlin says. "But also I think it means that means that almost every work we do is a new work, is a world premiere, and we are giving it its first go in front of an audience. So to a degree every work we do, whether it involves physical theatrics and circus stunts or not is theater without a net in that respect."

Lookingglass was incorporated in 1988 by a group of college friends attending Northwestern University. That group included actor David Schwimmer, who six years later would star on the sitcom Friends. Schwimmer, who remains part of the now 22-member ensemble, says in many ways, Lookingglass worked to create a physical language.

"Part of our training — our rehearsal process for, I'd say at least the first ten years as a company — were rigorous workouts before we actually started working on character or text or anything. Every rehearsal started with an hour workout," Schwimmer says. "Some of the plays really required it."

The company's visual sensibility, says Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, is what makes Lookingglass stand out. Jones is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, which votes and then recommends a regional theater for the Tony Award.

"I think Lookingglass, visually, has put its emphasis not on massive sets and Broadway budgets, but on, really, the human body and on how the human body exists in space," Jones says. "Frequently their visual sort of look of these shows has been exceedingly distinctive."

Just as distinctive, perhaps, is the company's source material for plays, most of which are adaptations of non-dramatic material. Its latest production, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, is an adaptation of a public radio series. Just before a final dress rehearsal, as the crew took time to adjust the lighting and sound, director David Kersnar, another Lookingglass co-founder who co-wrote the play along with other members of the company, says when word arrived that it would receive the Tony for regional theater, everyone was surprised and excited.

"As a company, our prime directive is to tell great stories, and so this just was not something that was on our radar," Kersnar says. "And I think for us it was just a bit of a pat on the back that we're doing the right thing."

The Last Act of Lilka Kadison is about the life of a woman who escaped Poland as a teenager on the eve of World War II. It's a world premiere, one of more than 50 that Lookingglass has produced in its 23 years. Many, like its adaptation of Arabian Nights, have toured across the country. Tony Award-winning playwright and director Mary Zimmerman, who is also a Lookingglass ensemble member, adapted the classic collection of folk tales.

"What the book of One Thousand Nights and One Night really says is that it's through storytelling that we cultivate empathy," Zimmerman says. "I think it's the greatest testament that there is to why we tell stories and just the importance of it in our lives."

Zimmerman also wrote and directed another of the ensemble's signature pieces, an adaptation of the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, which had its world premiere in Chicago in 1998. The play opened in New York shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I think a lot of New Yorkers went to that and really found, in that production from Chicago, a sense of healing," says critic Chris Jones. "And I think that's a great example of how one of Lookingglass's most important moments was actually in New York. And that, I think, is perhaps testimony to how this theater became, really, a national institution."

On Sunday, when Lookingglass takes home the Tony Award for best regional theater, it will be the fifth time a theater from Chicago has won the award. That's the most of any city in the country. Artistic director Andy White says the trophy will be proudly displayed in the theater's lobby.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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