Her dark materials
Genial director Joanie Schultz thrives in gloom.
“When you’re a little girl, no one says you’re going to be a director when you grow up,” Joanie Schultz says. The diminutive Chicago-based director arrived at Columbia College Chicago from Colorado as an undergrad musical-theater major with visions of Broadway in her future. But Sheldon Patinkin, then the chair of Columbia’s theater department, pulled her aside after class one day and said, “Did it ever occur to you that you’re a director?” Schultz changed majors.
More than ten years later, Schultz has created a body of work that covers everything from ensemble drama (In Arabia We’d All Be Kings) to the experimental work of Charles Mee (A Perfect Wedding) to a six-hour, non-operatic version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Throw in a couple of prestigious directing fellowships with the Goodman and the Drama League, and it’s easy to see Schultz as part of the next wave of Chicago storefront directors close to crossing over to directing at the city’s most prominent theaters.
Next on Schultz’s docket is A Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz (no relation). It marks her return to Edgewater’s Steep Theatre, where In Arabia garnered the Jeff Award for best ensemble. Troy has three holdovers from Schultz’s Arabia cast, Steep company members Caroline Neff, Michael Salinas and artistic director Peter Moore. Neff plays Charlotte, a 15-year-old girl coping with the loss of her mother.
In a recent rehearsal, Neff’s Charlotte tries to lure a jock, played by Nick Horst, to her house with some confectionary delights. It’s hilarious and horrifying. Schultz runs through the scene again and again, asking questions about tactics and motivation.
“Joanie has a real easy confidence about her and about the work, and it fosters a very open, relaxed atmosphere in which to work,” Moore says. “The designers and actors seem to thrive in it.”
Schultz, 32, developed that confidence under the tutelage of some of the best theater artists in Chicago. Soon after graduating from Columbia, she landed a receptionist gig at Steppenwolf, where then–associate artistic director Curt Columbus would give her afternoons off to assistant direct for Patinkin, Anna Shapiro, Amy Morton and Adam Rapp.
When Shapiro took over the M.F.A. directing program at Northwestern, Schultz joined Jonathan Berry and Robin Witt in Shapiro’s handpicked first class. (The three remain best friends; all three will direct at Steep this season.) Schultz says the Northwestern program transformed her as a director and a person. “Anna made us slow down our work, made us articulate our ideas, thoughts and problems,” she says. “The medium of directing is speaking.”
This fall she’ll direct a reading of playwright Sarah Gubbins’s The Kid Thing for Steppenwolf’s First Look series as well as Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at Columbia College, where she now teaches. In the spring, Schultz will helm Rapp’s The Metal Children at Next Theatre. It’s the third time Schultz will have directed Rapp’s work, after assisting the playwright on the 2005 world premiere of his Red Light Winter at Steppenwolf.
“She understands the tricky tone of my work, which, if misunderstood, could come off as glib or antic,” Rapp says. “She also knows how to cast, which is an underrated skill in the directing game. And with my material she finds the balance of pathos and humor.”
Given Schultz’s pleasant, pixieish demeanor—she sports rose-colored cat-eye glasses and a nervous giggle that would melt many a hipster’s heart—one wonders how she delves into the darker territory of Helen of Troy or Rapp’s work. But the uncomfortable is Schultz’s comfort zone.
“Her plays tend to say to an audience, ‘Hey there, buckle up, this ain’t going to be easy, but you’re not going to forget what we’ve got in store for you,’” Gubbins says. “Don’t be fooled by her charming veneer: Schultz is a hard-ass. She’s the Mr. Miyagi of Chicago theater.”
A Brief History of Helen of Troy opens September 23.