Smile Politely

Learning more about A Dance in the Dark

A dark theatre stage with several chairs and music page stands. Three people are on the stage, two sitting and one standing. There is a spotlight casting pinkish light on the actors.
Illinois Theatre

The University of Illinois Department of Theatre will present Theatre Studies New Works Project on Thursday, February 16th (Close), Friday, February 17th (A Dance in the Dark), and Saturday February 18th (Valiente). These three projects are student-driven, and produced by Latrelle Bright. Student theater-makers are in the process of learning how to workshop and produce theatrical works of their own, and these plays are readings with partial staging and props.

Gina Maggio and Julie Oelerich are senior theater studies majors. They are the writing and directing team behind A Dance in The Dark, which premieres Friday, February 17th. Maggio is the playwright and Oelerich is the director. I recently corresponded with them about their production. At the time of publishing, waitlist tickets are available on the Krannert Center for Performing Arts website.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Smile Politely: What is A Dance in the Dark about and what can audiences expect when they see it?

Gina Maggio: A Dance in the Dark is about an aging professional ballerina dancer living in New York City who is at a crossroads in her career and marriage, dealing with the expectations of having a child while being past her prime as a performer. At the same time, she must face a terrible secret that is coming to light about her husband and his past. These factors force her to reconsider her life choices and threaten her sense of self. The audience can expect some quite heart-wrenching and brutally honest moments that are balanced by some very comedic scenes.  

Julie Oelerich: A Dance in the Dark is an insight on what it means to have a “perfect life,” and how it can come crumbling down when the truth comes out. Katherine, a 37-year-old ballerina, faces challenges in her marriage, career, and her world view. Audiences can expect storytelling that does not shy away from the truth, even with the most taboo subjects.

SP: How did A Dance in The Dark come to be? What was the creative process like?

Maggio:  I originally wrote the first draft for Professor Thom Miller’s Advanced Playwriting class last spring semester and submitted it to the New Works Project back in early autumn. I consider myself a feminist playwright and wanted to craft a unique story that touches on the various aspects of a woman’s life, such as career, motherhood, and relationships (romantic and platonic.) I was also very inspired by the Me Too Movement and wanted to examine a perspective that isn’t heard very often, that of the women close to the men who are accused of these terrible crimes. The creative process, after being accepted for the New Works Project, consisted of initial meetings with the director Julie Oelerich and dramaturg Meghan Landon and their thoughts on the piece. We then made a goal for a second draft to be done by the time the semester started. In the first week of school, we had a reading with the cast and they shared their thoughts and questions. Throughout the rehearsal process, they all provided invaluable feedback that motivated me to rework the script even further and into something we are all very proud of!

Oelerich: I was fortunate enough to join the team in November when I was assigned to direct this piece. I had the privilege to work with the playwright, Gina Maggio, and dramaturg, Landon, to create game plan of what we wanted the script to look like moving forward with our process. In the first weeks of rehearsal, the cast was able to offer questions to Gina, which helped shape the script we have for this week’s final performance. This is a living, breathing, and ever-changing piece, and I have had the absolute privilege to even have a small part in shaping it. 

SP: Do you dance? How did you include dance in this work? 

Maggio: No, I wish though! I have enjoyed attending the ballet in the past and have always found it fascinating that a common misconception about ballerinas is that they’re just tiny and fragile beings, when really they are these incredible artists whose bodies have to push through intense physical obstacles and pain in order to present the beauty and power that is their art. I thought that having the main character Katherine’s occupation as a professional ballerina would serve as a strong metaphor for the journey her character takes throughout the piece (not to give away too much.) There are a few design elements that incorporate ballet, but in future drafts, I hope to blend the mediums of theatre and ballet even more. Although I’ve seen a few ballet performances, I will admit I don’t know too much about it — I was frequently texting my stepsister Claire Nyi, a dancer and ballet instructor, throughout the writing process to fact check. 

Oelerich: I have not had any dance training since I was in high school, but I’ve always had an appreciation for the art, and have loved how movement and dance works in this piece. 

SP: What do you hope to achieve with this new play? 

Maggio: Since it’s my thesis project, ultimately I hope it will just help me get my degree! But I’m very excited to experience audience members’ reactions to the material and how they connect to it. I hope the audience can relate to and empathize with the main characters in a way that brings attention to the realities of abusive relationships. How difficult it can be for the countless women who have been left to pick up the pieces of the damage their abusers did and fight to heal from their experiences, and how even the protagonists of the story aren’t perfect themselves but are truly human and rise above their imperfections, which is something that the antagonists will never do. 

Also, I’m a very quiet and shy person, so having a script of mine that is both very personal as well as something that I’ve put a huge amount of effort into being performed in front of a live audience is quite intimidating! So, I think facing my fear of that along with achieving the goals I set myself as a young student artist coming into Illinois Theatre: to create a significant piece of work that can hopefully impact a lot of people and I can be proud of will be more than enough for me.

Oelerich: My hope for this reading is to give audiences an opportunity to see and understand this powerful story, even without a fully staged production. A reading like this, with some staged, lightly designed elements will allow audiences to get an idea of what this play can be. I love getting in on the ground floor of a new work like this, and I hope audiences see that excitement from the cast and crew. 

SP: How was the rehearsal process? What was the most challenging aspect of it? What was a breeze?

Maggio: I sat in on a few rehearsals and was so impressed with director Julie Oelerich’s and the actors’ creative processes. They brought up questions and observations that even I hadn’t thought of, which helped enrich the script by narrowing down the dramatic conflict and clarifying the timeline of events. The most challenging aspect of it was probably finding the time within a full academic course load and my part-time job as an Assistant Early Education Teacher at Next Generation to do rewrites. But overall it was a very chill experience for me compared to the work of the cast, director, and dramaturg. I could just sit back and enjoy watching the piece come to life.

Oelerich: The rehearsal process moved with the various drafts of the script. Because of the workshop element of our process, we were working with various versions of the piece. The cast had a wonderful “go with the flow” attitude as changes were made, which allowed for new discoveries in the rehearsal room. Because this is not a fully staged production; we had the challenge of blocking moments without the crutch of props or set pieces. This allowed us to think outside of the box and forced us to be creative in new ways.

SP: Describe your ideal world premiere. Give me all the details!

Maggio: Just having a premiere of my work by one of the top university theatre programs in the country has been an amazingly fulfilling experience and a dream come true! In fact, the Studio Theatre at KCPA, where A Dance in the Dark is being performed, was the same space where I saw one of my first Illinois Theatre productions in the summer before I started high school in 2012. It was the place that actually made me want to become a theatre artist, so it feels a lot like fate that my thesis is being performed there. But also, [I] can’t say I’d complain if the script ever became published or performed by other major theatre companies across the country.

Oelerich: I would love to see what this piece could look like with full lights, sounds, sets, costumes, props, etc. This show offers a lot of “abstract” moments in dance, music, and other elements that could really be amazing to witness in full. 

SP: What do you want people to walk away with when they see A Dance in The Dark

Maggio: I hope they find it to be a compelling story that brings attention to the hardships of women in abusive relationships. If there’s even a possibility that any audience members, regardless of gender identity who find themselves in a similar situation, feel seen and represented by this piece in a way that can help them leave that relationship, I know that I’ve done my job.

Oelerich: I want people to walk away with a new understanding of what abuse can look like in romantic relationships and hope of how victims of that abuse can change and turn their life around with the right support system by their side. 

PLAY CONTENT WARNING: sexual assault, domestic abuse, pregnancy, alcohol abuse, marijuana use, slurs about women, vulgar language, female objectification, emotional abuse, discussions of violent erotica

A Dance in the Dark
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave
F Feb 17th, 7:30 p.m.
Waitlist only

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