The play Bleacher Bums is as synonymous with the Chicago Cubs as the ivy at Wrigley Field, the rooftops across from the ballpark on Sheffield and Waveland Avenues and waiting until next year. While we will know soon enough if the long wait for World Series glory for the Cubs will finally end this year, one thing is certain — Bleacher Bums is back. And just as this season has thus far been ground-breaking in many ways for the Cubs, the new production of Bleacher Bums promises to be a bit different as well.
The play, originally written collaboratively in 1977 by members of the Organic Theatre Company, from an idea by actor Joe Mantegna, was an instant classic. Now almost 40 years later, Bleacher Bums has been staged countless times around the world and was also turned into a television movie in 2002.
It tells the story of a group of Cub fans in the bleachers at a game against the visiting rival St. Louis Cardinals. They bet each other, talk about life, tease each other and persevere as Cub fans. Although it was updated in 1998 by the writers from the Organic to reflect the 1997 season, much of the play has stayed the same.
On Thursday, previews begin for the latest depiction, this time being done by Open Space Productions and staged a few Kris Bryant home run lengths from Wrigley Field at The Broadway Theater of the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway Ave.
While Open Space is staging the 1998 version of the play, director Nich Radcliffe told The Chicago Ambassador that he has a few surprises up his sleeve. One thing that isn’t a secret is that the character of Zig was given to a woman to be played as a woman because Radcliffe and his producer felt the bleachers in 1998 were not all male, as one might assume by reading the play. Another interesting tidbit is that the character of Greg, written as a blind character, is being played by a visually-impaired actor, Israel Antonio. (Rounding out the cast are Katherine Bellantone, Erik Burke, Max Downs, Zach Finch, Colin Jones, Gina Phillips, Brady Richter and Amy Sunshine).
Perhaps the biggest change or gamble, depending on one’s point of view, is the change in the subtext, which Radcliffe explained to Bob Chiarito of The Chicago Ambassador recently before a rehearsal. He also talked about turning out a play in three weeks from the time the cast was hired to its premiere; the challenges of doing a well-known play and more.
CA) The first thing I’m wondering, is why now? Is it just because of how well the Cubs are playing this year?
RADCLIFFE) One of the questions that I ask myself when looking at a piece is ‘why this play now?’ I think you kind of answered it. For as well as the Cubs are doing, why not go back and take a look at that bleacher bum culture, in this instance of the late 1990s. We all know the history of the play, [originally written in 1977 about that season and then updated in 1998 about the 1997 season]
I think it presents a great opportunity to go back and look at it. It’s hard to appreciate the present without remembering the past. As Cub fans, we all remember the past all too well but it’s easy to remember in a sense but it’s different to go back and look and listen to these conversations about Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and Kerry Wood.
CA) Why did the writers settle on 1997 versus a few years later where maybe they could have incorporated the heartbreak of 2003 and the whole Bartman saga?
RADCLIFFE) There are two versions of the script. There’s the original version and an updated 1998 version. Those are the two versions that are available.
CA) One of the characters in the play is being played by Israel Antonio, who is visually impaired. The character the is playing is blind, so you must have felt that it was important to have a blind or visually impaired actor?
RADCLIFFE) I thought it was important that the opportunity be presented. I’ve read a lot of plays in my life and there aren’t very many that specifically offer up that opportunity for a blind or visually impaired actor. While the chance was there, I thought we should do our best to see if there where any visually impaired actors who were interested and who would fit the role. We had a hard time finding any. We only found one other and he was an equity actor so he wasn’t really eligible for this production. We didn’t cast a blind actor to cast a blind actor. We didn’t read the play and say, ‘Oh, let’s get a blind actor.’ We read the play and said this is a blind character. So, why wouldn’t you try to hire a blind actor to play a blind character? But, if I had auditioned a half dozen blind actors and none of them could act their way out of a wet paper bag that was open at both ends, I would have cast the best seeing actor for the role. But Israel walked in and he gave a good audition and we hired him. It was great.
CA) Are you a die-hard Cub fan?
RADCLIFFE) I grew up a couple hours from the Cubs AAA affiliate in Iowa. Pretty much the entire state of Iowa are huge Cub fans. My dad is a huge Cub fan. His mother and father were tremendous Cub fans, not to sound like Donald Trump with the word tremendous. I remember them siting by the radio to listen to the Cub games when I was a kid, because they weren’t always on television. As for the play, I heard it was being produced and I sent in a letter and my resume and told them that I’d like to be considered.
CA) The turnaround is very quick. [3 weeks from casting to previews]
RADCLIFFE) Yes, very quick.
CA) Did they come up with the idea late?
RADCLIFFE) I don’t know, I’m just the director. They hired me to direct and that’s what I’m doing.
CA) Are you confident that the actors will have it down?
RADCLIFFE) Absolutely. It’s certainly not my first rodeo and it’s not theirs either. They all are professionals and I have all the faith in the world that we will be fine. I wouldn’t have assembled a cast that I didn’t feel wouldn’t be able to pull it together.
CA) I was told that you told the actors during the auditions not to watch any previous productions of the play or the movie version may be available on YouTube and other places. Why was that?
RADCLIFFE) That’s right. Why do you think, I’m curious?
CA) To come at it fresh?
RADCLIFFE) That’s right. I’m not putting that movie on stage. I’m putting this production on stage.
CA) You’re talking about the movie version or previous stage productions of it?
RADCLIFFE) Either one, it doesn’t matter. That’s not what I’m putting on stage. We are putting the production that we create on stage. I think if you talk to any director in this city who is worth a damn, they will tell you the same thing. They don’t want an actor watching a movie version or another staged production of the same thing that they are directing. I didn’t hire an actor to play Joe Mantegna’s Zig or Joe Mantegna’s Decker, I hired the actor to play the Zig that we are going to create together.
CA) What are the differences with staging a play that’s been done before rather than a premiere of something that no one has seen?
RADCLIFFE) I’ve directed a lot of premieres. If you direct a premiere and the playwright is still around, you have an additional collaborator. That’s the biggest difference. They are in the room and you can say things like ‘I’m not sure this is doing what you wanted it to, what were you trying to achieve with this dialogue?’ And you can work with them. When you are working on an established piece that’s been around for 40 years and has seen a lot of productions, you don’t have that collaborator and you don’t have any wiggle room. You have an obligation to figure it out and make it work. As we are working on this play I find myself constantly commending Organic for what they created in what I have heard was a largely improvised process. They did so many wonderful things to create subtlety in these characters, which makes them interesting. A lot of social commentary that works today as well. But that’s the biggest difference, having the playwright to collaborate with or not having the playwright. And as I’ve said, I don’t go back and steal someone else’s production. That’s called plagiarism.
CA) Are you able to take any license with the script at all? If an actor thinks something isn’t working, can they do it another way?
RADCLIFFE) We are bound by law to stick to the script. [RADCLIFFE proceeds to pull a copy of the script out of his bag and read the following from it:] ‘Professionals and amateurs are hereby warned…no one shall make any changes to this play for the purposes of production.’ This is in the front part of every published play. The only way you get around that is when the piece is in public domain. And for that, the author has to have been dead for 50 years and the estate has to have not renewed the copyright.
CA) Despite the fact that the play was already written and has been performed numerous times, did you still do a lot of research? [Long-time Cub fan and proclaimed ‘Bleacher Preacher’ Jerry Pritikin is a listed as a special consultant for the production as well]
RADCLIFFE) Oh yeah. I cannot impress upon you enough the importance of research to a director and his work. Whether a play has been produced or not quite honestly means nothing. It’s meaningless to my work as a director. The only thing that a play already being produced does for me is it gives me reviews to go back and read to see what problems may exist. I can go back and read reviews of previous productions of a play and hear critics talk about ‘this didn’t work for me, this didn’t work for me’ and I can say that’s a potential problem, I need to make sure I solve that.
CA) Is that something you did?
RADCLIFFE) I always go back and read reviews. I don’t usually talk about what I read in those reviews. I just keep that for myself.
CA) How much weight do the critics hold?
RADCLIFFE) You have to measure it very carefully. What I’m looking for generally is a recurrence. If something continues to come up in the reviews than you know as a director that you have to solve the problem.
CA) Is there any added pressure because some of the audience may have seen other versions versus doing a play that no one has seen?
RADCLIFFE) I think they each have their own type of pressure. When you produce or direct a play that is well known, you run up against more of what I’d call expectations than pressure. I can’t help someone else’s expectations. If they saw a previous version or saw the Organic do it in 1979, and they come in with an expectation of seeing ‘this bit’ or a character done exactly how they saw it, that’s not my problem. It’s like when the X-Men movies came out and people got their knickers twisted up because X-Man wasn’t up on the screen in black and yellow spandex. That’s audience expectation. Whereas with a premiere, the pressure you run into is that if you blow it, you might have just nuked a playwrights career. You might have killed a playwrights dream of having his show on Broadway. So they are very different pressures. I’m a big sports fan, I’m a big Blackhawk fan, I’m a Bear fan, I’m a Cub fan. I root hard for my SIU Saluki’s and I translate a lot of it into my direction of any play. We hear athletes saying things like ‘Don’t let the game get bigger than you. Live in the moment, stay in the present. Do your job on every play. So every day I walk into the rehearsal room and I tell this story. I think if anything is magnifying pressure for us it’s how quickly we have to turn it out. To put up a play in half the time you normally would, that’s where we are feeling a little pressure. But it’s like I said, the actors are all pros, they’ve all been around.
CA) To go back to your point about the social commentary in the play still being relevant, I suppose the fact that the play is still being produced 40 years later, it sort of proves that it’s a timeless classic.
RADCLIFFE) Absolutely, I totally agree. I will add something for you though. There is nothing in the play dictates your interpretation of subtext. So while a production done 30, 20 or even 5 years ago may have turned a blind eye to some of the misogyny that exists in the script, I think in 2016 we are obligated as artists with a higher cultural sensitivity and awareness than society had then. I don’t think anyone would deny that our cultural sensitivity based on race and gender was not nearly what it is now. So I think we are obligated to do our best to not propagate a stereotype or to find a way to leverage it or do something more culturally effective.
CA) That said, you are obligated to perform it as written, correct?
RADCLIFFE) I’m bound to the words, I’m not bound to how the words are performed.
CA) Can you give an example?
RADCLIFFE) I taught for four years. I taught at two different small private universities and then at Southern Illinois University for three years. This is how I used to teach subtext to my students. ‘You’re walking down the street and this gentleman coming towards us says hello to me. I say ‘HI!” What does that mean? The way I said hello to him, what does that tell you about the way I feel?
CA) You’re friendly, happy to see him.
RADCLIFFE) Absolutely. Now, what if I just said ‘hi.’
CA) You’re just going through the motions.
RADCLIFFE) I’m actually probably saying go to hell, let’s be honest. That’s subtext. So I am bound to the character saying the words, but nobody can tell you how the character does that.
CA) You are doing the 1998 version. Is that version a lot different than the original?
RADCLIFFE) I’ve never read the 1979 version. To the best of my knowledge, the only thing that’s different are the names of the players.
CA) Are people going to see a politically-correct, sanitized version of Bleacher Bums?
RADCLIFFE) I told you I’m not changing any words. Here’s the deal. It’s the difference between allowing a female character to be subjected to misogyny without fighting back and allowing a female character who is subjected to misogyny to react in a strong, 3rd or 4th wave feminist fashion.
CA) Let’s assume the Cubs win the World Series this year.
RADCLIFFE) Knock on wood.
CA) Would that spoil some of the romance with the Cub lore? Do they become like every other team instead of that one team that is still grasping for that gold ring with the long-suffering fans. That would end, and maybe some of the poetry, I’m not sure.
RADCLIFFE) I don’t think any Cub fan is going to say I don’t want the Cubs to win because it would make my being a Cub fan not as romantic.
CA) I don’t think anyone would say that, but it’s almost become their identity. I don’t agree with it, I want them to win.
RADCLIFFE) I don’t know, I think they have a good identity right now as the best team in baseball. I think identity evolves, just like society and our culture over time. Would it make the play any more or less relevant? No, I don’t think so. I think that’s maybe why they chose to do it. This comes back to your first question when you asked me why now. I said they are winning now so why not go back and take a look to when they weren’t, because maybe it makes us appreciate it more now. I also think there’s a lot more going on in the play than just the Cubs. The Cubs exist in that play as a backdrop for some other stuff. This is me tipping you towards my version of the play, the story that I’m leveraging out of it. Yes, this play uses the Cubs, the Cubs are all over it and I don’t think there’s another sports team across any of the major sports except maybe the Cleveland Browns, that you could use in this way. But when you do a play, you make it something bigger. You magnify it and in doing that you heighten it. The story transcends the Cubs and their winning and losing. I don’t want to give away too much, plus I have a surprise up my sleeve for the end of the play. Because like I said, I’m bound to the words on the page, but that’s all I’m bound to. I have a surprise or two up my sleeve that will help to thread the last 108 years since the last World Series Championship team to this years Cubs that knock on wood, fingers crossed, will bring the championship back.
CA) Obviously people going to the theater are not all Cub fans or even sport fans.
RADCLIFFE) That’s right. Certainly a play like this will see a lot of Cub fans and see a bit of a different audience than your typical theater goer, but you’re also going to have typical theater goers as well.
CA) You have a long run, 6 weeks. Is it timed to end just after the World Series on purpose?
RADCLIFFE) What do you think?
CA) I don’t want to answer my own questions.
RADCLIFFE) [laughs] I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the opening and closing of the run are not an accident. The play takes place during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. We open this weekend and the Cubs are playing the Cardinals. That’s not an accident. And then we end just after the World Series. If they win it, it would be great for the production to be part of the history of that, the culture of that. It would be cool if people go to the game and then go to the show and it becomes part of this whole culture of the Cubs. And on the other hand, if we aren’t so lucky and they don’t win it, maybe people can come and —
CA) Drown their sorrows—
RADCLIFFE) Yeah, you know. Or be uplifted is what I would hope. That’s me coming back to my vision for the production and what I see as the moral in the play. Sometimes the losers are the ones that really have it all. Sometimes the winner goes home alone and it’s the loser that really has it all. By God, I hope we win, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something to be said for that idea and it’s that idea in my opinion that is at the core of the play.
CA) Lonely at the top I guess.
RADCLIFFE) I hope people don’t think we are going to curse the Cubs because you know what, we’re not. We are doing a play. C’mon. We are not jinxing anybody.
Previews for Bleacher Bums take place September 22 and 23. The play then run September 24 through November 4. For ticket information, click here.