Karen Tarjan noted that when the Seanachai Theatre Company (now the Irish Theatre Company of Chicago) started 20 seasons ago, its tagline was “There’s nothing better than a good story.”
Crossing that sentiment with Chicago’s Daniel Burnham-inspired penchant for making no small plans might explain what Tarjan and the troupe are tackling next – her first original play, The White Road.
The title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Waste Land, Tarjan said.
That would be this part:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-But who is that on the other side of you?”
It refers to explorer Ernest Shackleton and those in his party (there actually were three in the group), all of whom reported that they hallucinated a presence with them as they crossed the glacier-laden peaks of South Georgia island in the attempt to reach a whaling station and help to rescue the rest of the guys who had been heading to Antarctica on board the Endurance.
For Tarjan’s play recounts that chilly saga from 100 or so years ago, when the Anglo-Irish expedition leader, Shackleton, hoped to head from one ocean to the other via the South Pole but never set foot on the Antarctic continent but rather on a journey of survival.
The Endurance wound up stuck in pack ice and eventually sank. The crew of 28 then embarked on a remarkable trek that led to all of them eventually being rescued.
During a read-through of her script, Tarjan said actors told her, “nice movie script you’ve written Karen.”
In fact, thanks to Google I know there’s been a docudrama from 2002 about the Endurance that starred Kenneth Branagh and a PBS documentary recorded in 1999 about the unintended adventure.
That’s not to mention a slew of books about the subject including one which caught Tarjan’s attention about 15 years ago, in part because of the photos Australian Frank Hurley took as a member of the expedition, particularly Hurley’s shots of its dogs.
(Yeah kids, while this was way before the iPhone and the selfie, people still had the urge to document.)
(And yeah, pet lovers, some of the dogs did wind up as dinner. Hey, if I were on the trip, I probably would have been sizing up the other humans to see who would cook up best, if need be, after the dogs were gone.)
Anyway, Tarjan was involved in adapting two of the three books in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy for Lifeline Theatre back in the early part of this century. Ned Mochel directed those shows, and Tarjan recalled they both had been thinking about the Endurance misadventure and how it might be translated to the stage.
(Come to think of it, what’s the Lord of The Rings Trilogy, but a dangerous journey, albeit with evil monsters and a mountain instead of ice and an occasional seal or seabird.)
Tarjan began researching for Shackleton’s story, but dropped it to work on adapting the Civil War novel The Killer Angels, and Mochel moved to Los Angeles.
Flash forward to late 2013, when Tarjan said she took 180 hours to write the play.
During her research, Tarjan found that Shackleton’s trip inspired a good number of business-related writing in recent times, with authors drawn to Shackelton’s leadership during this mega-crisis. (Ignoring perhaps that everybody is Shackleton’s group could have just as easily wound up dead.)
“Shackleton knew when the needs of his men needed to be met,” Tarjan said.
That included keeping their minds occupied with entertainment, dog sled races, talent shows and routine activities.
“He trusted his people and had consideration for what they did well,” Tarjan said.
And the tale of the Endurance not only is one of survival, but of positivity, self-reliance, and rising to meet challenges, she noted.
“This was the great age of polar exploration, and Shackleton was hoping to be the first at something. While he had issues in his personal life, he was most comfortable in extreme environments.”
Of course, staging a show set in the vastness of the south end of the Earth poses its own set of challenges.
Tarjan said the show focuses on just 10 of the crew, with a minimum of special effects to turn The Den Theatre into the frosty, nautical environment.
“It’s a ripping good yarn with songs, music, and jokes,” Tarjan said. “There are funny moments along with this being a story of adversity and keeping your head.”
As for me, the type of adventures I enjoy typically involve food and beverages and privacy for when nature calls. I’m slightly frightened by portajohns, more so by some public bathrooms, particularly ones in forest preserves and at Wrigley Field.
Adventure, though, is how humans wound up all over the planet, on the moon and why some think it would be neat to spend endless hours on a spaceship to be the first person on Mar.
These days manufactured adventure is the stuff of many a cable TV show, be it naked folks trying to survive living in a jungle for a month or a guy trying to catch monster fish, or the one with my favorite title, Fat Guys in the Woods, which is on the Weather Channel of all places.
Nude Chubby Guys Eating Fish – that’s probably something you might find through Google. I just hope it’s not a picture of me after a smelt binge.
But I digress, which is my option as an Irish writer.
The Irish Theatre of Chicago’s world premiere of Tarjan’s The White Road, directed by ensemble member Robert Kauzlaric, plays April 30 through June 13 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.,Chicago.
Tickets are available at www.irishtheatreofchicago.org.