Plays that Make a Difference

by Douglas Okey

A true intellectual can understand the difficult terrain that lies between Doubt and Proof. Bob Gorg, at least, is counting on it.

Gorg believes that central Illinois playgoers will take to such plays when Many Lights Stage Productions launches this fall in Canton. The recently retired Spoon River College speech and drama instructor has partnered with a local church in, an effort to create a “home for intimate theatre in central Illinois.” Gorg recently spoke about the new venture, about Chicago theatre, and about peace and justice in the space where Many Lights hopes to entertain—and challenge—its audience.

“The plays that we’re going to do, we call them ‘plays that make a difference,’” Gorg explained—a sentiment echoed in the nascent theatre’s mission statement. The “community of theatre artists” that is Many Lights will “produce plays that make a difference to the human mind and spirit and have the potential for positive social impact.”

This impact, not surprisingly, explains the partnership between Gorg and the theatre’s main sponsoring organization, Canton’s First Congregational Church (FCC). Gorg said that FCC is a “socially aware church that fights for peace and justice.” Church Council President and Many Lights board member Gordon James agrees. First Congregational is “known for presenting controversial films and speakers on a lot of issues,” James averred, adding that the theatre seemed a “natural progression” for the church.

Gorg continued, “As part of that mission, they wanted to do theatre here that stands by itself, with plays that are reflective of society or plays that generate discussion of issues that might impact people in a significant way”—plays like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a drama examining a scandal at a Catholic school in the 1960s, and David Auburn’s Proof, which uses the world of mathematics as a backdrop for questions about personal veracity and identity. Both plays garnered Pulitzer and Tony awards in their original runs, and to Gorg, this matters. “We won’t even consider a play unless it’s been ‘recognized’” with prestigious awards, he insists.

If this doesn’t sound much like the typical fare for a community theatre, Gorg has two responses.

First, is there doubt that Many Lights is a community theatre? “Really good question. I don’t necessarily have an answer to it,” Gorg admitted. He situates the venture “somewhere between community and professional.” Second, Many Lights will be “filling a niche that is not filled” by other theatres in the area. Some theatres do occasional plays that are “significant, that have lofty ambition, but I don’t know of any theatre that does only those kinds of plays,” Gorg asserted.

As he spoke, Gorg eyed the truly intimate space in which Many Lights will stage its performances. On this particular day, the narrow community room at FCC could have been hosting an ice cream social or a bridge club, with tables and chairs arranged almost cafeteria-style in the space, the tiny stage area barely noticeable at one of the narrow ends of the room. Gorg conceded that, as a performance space, the room “could be better” in terms of sight lines and exits, but he savors its potential.

“I got to act on stage here,” Gorg recalled, “and I found the place really intriguing. I mean, I like this space.” That play was a 2007 production (pre-Many Lights) of The Laramie Project, based on the murder of a young gay man in small-town Wyoming. Gorg’s participation in that production led an FCC pastor to approach him about creating Many Lights.

Reticent at first, Gorg warmed to the idea as he contemplated his retirement from teaching and his 28-year directing gig at Spoon River. Eventually, he came to regard the Many Lights venture as “continuing my contribution to the area in the arts.” The theatre’s name alludes to the song “What Light” by the experimental rock band Wilco.

“A light is a point of view,” Gorg explained, “and each one of us has inside of us a light of intelligence, a light of our particular perspective that we bring to whatever we encounter. So ‘Many Lights’ are the many different perspectives or points of view that can be gleaned from a production of a play and can lead to a higher understanding, an intellectual realization or perhaps some sort of relational change—or if you really want to dream big, some sort of societal change.” This artistic dream dovetailed with the church’s mission of pursuing peace and justice, and the theatre was born.

A member of the church himself, Gorg regards his partnership in entirely positive terms. As artistic director, he exercises complete creative control over play selection, and directors of individual plays will retain authority over their respective productions.

Gordon James confirms this arrangement. The church is “very comfortable” with Gorg as artistic director, James said, characterizing the partnership as a “real natural association.” With Gorg’s many years of experience and a core group of committed participants, James expresses confidence in the “people resources” to do good plays in Canton.

What people will comprise the Many Lights audience? And what plays will they enjoy and be moved by? Gorg claims the audience is out there, just waiting for the right theatre to trigger their natural interest in drama as social engine. These are playgoers who are “not just looking for a fun evening watching television on stage.” He added, “People will be able to see things here that they wouldn’t be able to see unless they drove to Chicago and went to a relatively small professional theatre.” He recounts his own awakening during the birth of the Chicago theatre movement, where he witnessed the rise of theatres like Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge and Northlight, featuring actors, directors and playwrights including the likes of Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Michael Maggio and Tom Stoppard.

In fact, Stoppard’s landmark 1966 comedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead electrified Gorg’s artistic sensibilities and led him to seek a career in theatre. The classic riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet “seriously influenced my life...It changed my whole way of looking at the world.” Many Lights will emphasize this kind of play, including “serious comedies” like Stoppard’s and others by playwrights such as Marsha Norman, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Stephen Sondheim.

First up is Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, which Gorg will direct himself. Auditions for the production were held on September 18th and 20th, with performances scheduled for November 7th through 9th. Beyond that? Gorg has directors in mind, but anyone can propose a play to produce. “We especially encourage qualified directors to submit plays they want to direct. But anybody can submit a play, and then we would go to directors in the area or maybe someone will come in that we don’t know with a script, saying, ‘Here’s a script that I know and I’d like to direct it.’ That’s cool.”

No doubt about it. a&s