New Colony vibe helps bring ‘Orville and Wilbur’ to life

Written By By MARY HOULIHAN For Sun-Times Media Posted: 07/13/2014, 03:42pm
Array ORVILLE AND WILBUR DID IT! director Andy Hobgood (left) with actors (front from left) Josh Odor as Scraggs, Jessica London-Shields as Jen, (middle from left) Evan Linder as Zak, Kevin Stangler as Jasper, (back from left) Morgan McNaught as Melitta, Alex Grelle as X, and Joey Romaine as Pandro pose for a photo after rehearsing. The New Colony’s “Orville and Wilbur Did It!” at Signal Ensemble Theatre. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

The creation of “Orville and Wilbur Did It” was all about the process for playwright David Zellnik. Teaming up with The New Colony to develop the piece was definitely something new for the writer best know for the musical “Yank!,” a love song to ‘40s musicals, which had a successful Off-Broadway run in 2010.

New Colony’s process, which is all about collaboration, begins at the very inception of an idea for a new play. Zellnik thought this a fascinating way to work and was eager to play along with cast and director in creating the new comedy.

“I’m used to sitting alone in a room and trying to come up with lines and then imagining what these lines will sound like on stage,” says Zellnik, during a phone conversation from his home in New York’s theater district. “I’m used to collaborating on musicals but the work with New Colony was something I had never tried before.”

Zellnik had the idea for “Orville and Wilbur” rumbling around in his mind for years but could never quite figure out how to bring it to life. After he befriended New Colony artistic director Andrew Hobgood and learned about the theater he felt his ides could work well done in their method.

“Orville & Wilbur Did It” follows five 20-something actors and a stage manager as they travel across the country in a van performing a non-Equity, 58-city tour of a children’s musical about the Wright Brothers. The show features Alex Grelle, Evan Linder, Jessica London-Shields, Morgan McNaught, Josh Odor, Joey Romaine and Kevin Stangler; Hobgood directs.

Years ago Zellnik and his brother, Joe, adapted Arthur Giron’s play “Flight” (also about the Wright Brothers) for the children’s touring company TheaterworksUSA calling their musical “First in Flight.”

“That show was pretty high quality and serious but the whole world of touring children’s theater did amuse me on some level,” Zellnik recalls. “Plus I would hear horror stories about life on the road from friends. I thought it could be fun to capture that energy of bitching and also the longing and hopes of this group of young people in the midst of a pretty surreal yet completely everyday occurrence which are these tours.”

The process began with Zellnik creating an arch for the show as well as character descriptions and sending all this to New Colony. Then he came to Chicago and worked directly with the cast and director building the characters and storyline through interviews, scene work and improv. After all this work, only then did Zellnik write a first draft.

“Writing for the specific actors was so interesting,” Zellnik says. “I could hear their voices in my head. The writing process became totally new for me.”

Zellnik is only the third playwright from outside the ensemble, and the first from outside Chicago, to work with New Colony. “He jumped right into it all,” Hobgood recalls. “His first draft was the funniest first draft I’ve ever read. For someone of his caliber to be interested in working with a Chicago storefront theater, well, that doesn’t happen every day.”

Zellnik also has several other projects in the works. He and his brother also are writing a new musical about Ruth Harkness, who in the ‘30s was the first to bring a giant panda from China to the United States. And a thriller “Hunters and Thieves” is ready for its first reading. Plus after he’s done with “Orville and Wilber,” Zellnik plans on heading to Berlin to start working on a new play that is “just an idea” at the moment.

Another reason Zellnik says he wanted to work with New Colony was his “Chicago envy.” He’s seen numerous Chicago show transfers to New York, including New Colony’s “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” and knew there was “something great going on here.”

“New York has an image of being like an Olympic village where people from all over the world come to try and compete,” he says. “That can make for amazing theater but it can also mean it’s kind of the opposite of a community. It feels like there is a much stronger sense of support and community in Chicago where people nurture their own. For me, it’s been a fascinating first time experience.”

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