After 17 years of putting its unique spin on works varying from classics by Shakespeare and Chekhov to contemporary plays such as Philip Dawkins’s Still Life in Color, the TUTA ensemble debuts its first original piece with this week’s Fulton Street Sessions. Marking the tenth anniversary of the company’s move to Chicago, the cabaret-style production capitalizes on the distinct physical and musical style the Utopian Theater Asylum has developed over time.
“We really wanted to play with space, with music, with elements that constitute theater performance,” says Zeljko Djukic, 48, the Bosnian native who cofounded TUTA in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Natasha, in 1995. “The key word is session to me. Here’s a bunch of people coming to the rehearsal room. All we have is our imagination and the space and objects that we surround ourselves with, and let’s go with that.”
Using current headlines as starting points, the ensemble crafted stories that evolved through various previews, including a January weekend on the Pritzker Pavilion stage as part of Millennium Park’s “In the Works” lab series. “The material started in a very specific matter,” founding company member Jacqueline Stone, 37, says during a conference call with Djukic. “It was very detailed or more specific to one particular event or piece of news. I feel like over time and putting it in front of audiences that each segment in the piece got more open, more universal.”
That focus on the universal has helped TUTA’s popularity grow, particularly among patrons for whom English is a second language. Djukic attributes that to the company’s dedication to producing plays from outside the U.S., a decision that Stone felt would be embraced by Chicago audiences when TUTA was making plans to leave D.C. “The city of Chicago was an environment and an audience that we felt our challenging work would be welcomed by, and I think that that has been true.”
The evolution of the TUTA ensemble in Chicago has given it the confidence to produce an original work. “Because of our time together, I think we’ve been able to take the artistic vision further,” Stone says. “I don’t think that we would have fully had the artistic language together to do something like that, or to risk that. We were still finding each other.”
They’ve found each other on Fulton Street, where the company members combine personal stories, current events and new music by Adding Machine and A Minister’s Wife composer Josh Schmidt to create a show that aims to prompt conversation. “We want to talk about things that are neglected. Subjects that are not really easy to bring onstage,” Djukic says. “You find out that a baby was found in a plastic bag in front of the church. These things are just stated in the media.” Sessions’ goal is to translate such “coldly stated facts” into more broadly pertinent vignettes.
“And the beauty of theater is exactly that: You can expose things without necessarily defining what they are. I like being provoked in theater. So not getting answers, simply posing questions and exposing situations and contradictions of living is something I think theater does the best.”
Fulton Street Sessions opens Thursday 23 at Chicago Dramatists.