Firebrand Theatre enters Chicago's Equity landscape with 'Lizzie'

Thursday, 09 November 2017, 11:26:17 PM. When Firebrand’s punk rock musical “Lizzie” opens in previews Nov. 11, it will mark the first time more than five years that a new Equity

When Firebrand’s punk rock musical “Lizzie” opens in previews Nov. 11, it will mark the first time more than five years that a new Equity musical theater house has launched in Chicago.

With a mission to “employ and empower women,” Firebrand’s aims are unlike most other musical theater houses. Artists say the differences between working on “Lizzie” — a retelling of the story of suspected ax-murderer Lizzie Borden — and doing, say, “Oklahoma!” at other area companies, are palpable on many levels.

When: Nov. 11 – Dec. 17
Where: Den Theatre’s Bookspan Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $20-$45

“It seems to have captured a lot of peoples’ imaginations,” says Harmony France, who co-founded Firebrand with actor Danni Smith (who has stepped back to focus on her career and is now an “artistic adviser”). “We haven’t even opened a show yet and we’ve gotten national press,” she adds, noting coverage Firebrand has gotten in Playbill, Broadway World and American Theatre Magazine. “And people have been donating their time and talent since we announced.”

The monetary donations to fund the company’s projects have totaled upward of $40,000, primarily raised through concert fund-raisers starring musical theater luminaries volunteering their voices. As a “Tier N” company, Firebrand is at the bottom of the union pay scale.

Even at Tier N, going Equity right from the start is all but unheard of. Paramount Theatre Aurora was the most recent musical theater venture to start producing as an Equity house (in 2011), and they had a multi-million budget from the jump. It took Porchlight Music Theatre over a decade to go Equity.

“We wanted people to take us seriously. So we knew from the start that we had to be union,” France says. She plans to scale up in the future, but for now, the pay scale hasn’t been an issue. “We’ve got designers working on ‘Lizzie’ for less than they’d usually get simply because they want to be a part of this.”

Firebrand began roughly two years ago with a $600 anonymous donation and a long-simmering discontent with an art form historically dominated by men both off- and onstage. France incorporated the company as a non-profit about 18 months ago.

“As far as I can tell – and believe me, I’ve looked —there’s no other musical theater company out there that’s [all] about giving voice to women. Which is crazy because it’s 2017. And clearly, people are responding to this,” France says.

firebrand-theatre-enters-chicago-and-039;s-equity-landscape-with--and-039;lizzie-and-039; photo 1

The cast of Firebrand Theatre’s “Lizzie” — Leah Davis (from left), Liz Chidester, Camille Robinson and Jacquelyne Jones . | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Finding musicals that feature dominant, female leads who don’t spend the plot mostly singing about men, is a challenge that rules out only doing shows written by women, France says. For example, “Lizzie” was penned by Steven Chelik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner.

“We don’t have the luxury of only doing shows written by women because there simply aren’t many of them out there,” says France. And not every show that features women front and center meets Firebrand’s criteria. “‘Nine,’ ‘Company’ and ‘Quilters’ all have lots of female characters — but what do they do? They spend the show arguing or talking about men,” says France.

“Other than ‘Fun Home,’ I couldn’t name another musical where the plot is specifically about women, and the women’s main concern isn’t men,” says “Lizzie” director Victoria Bussert, “It’s unfamiliar territory.”

Of the 38 artists working on “Lizzie,” 36 identify as women. The all-female cast and the preponderance of women everywhere else impacts the work in ways both subtle and overt. Bussert spent early rehearsals encouraging the women to literally spread out — to take up as much space as possible with their bodies. Going big can be both liberating and unsettling, Bussert says.

“In the opening scenes, we’re dealing with mics and mid stands – it’s a very traditionally masculine rocker choreography. I spend a lot of time reminding them to stretch their arms all the way out. The inhibitions, the way we women edit ourselves as we move through the world, that falls away in the rehearsal room. There’s a joyousness and a freedom that takes over,” Bussert says.

For actor Liz Chidester, playing Lizzie Borden is “unlike anything I’ve done before.”

“Lizzie’s this combination of masculine and feminine. She just [erupts] — physically, vocally, violently. She’s a villain and a victim. I can’t think of another role that’s anything like it.

“There so many women who participate in musical theater, and there aren’t as many jobs for us as there are for men,” Chidester adds. “I’m happy somebody finally noticed.”

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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