Richard Engling Talks About LEAVINGS

Richard Engling will be stepping down as Artistic Director of Polarity Ensemble Theatre after leading the company since its founding in 2004. “For my final production, I’ve selected something I believe is the most important script in our twelve year history,” Engling said. “The world premiere of Gail Parrish’s LEAVINGS presents a story of racial reconciliation that is both moving and inspiring. Every week it seems, we get more reinforcement for the need to insist that Black Lives Matter. I’m using my final selection as Artistic Director to echo that call.” LEAVINGS ran October 21 through November 20, 2016 at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago.
Learn more about the show at

The Life of Literature in VISIONS OF ANNA

By Deborah Blumenthal, Dramaturg

When writing VISIONS OF ANNA, the novel that would later inspire him to pen Anna in the Afterlife, Richard Engling always knew that the text he was crafting to honor his friend Fern Chertkow would be a novel, and not a memoir. He and Fern both loved fiction, and the kind of truth that can come through in it, and so in tribute to her, he chose to tap into that shared love – and in true literary style, he did it both in form and content.

Jean Marie Koon plays a role based on real life author Carol Bergé, with Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew.
Jean Marie Koon plays a role based on real life author Carol Bergé, with Sheila Willis and Richard Engling as young writers, Anna and Matthew.

It’s the content part that’s become most alive in Anna in the Afterlife, though. The play is, of course, fiction – a nod back to Engling’s original choice – but unlike the novel, the play unfolds on its feet in front of us. And the love of literature is everywhere; it’s in the characters and in Engling’s text.

We see Anna and Matthew as graduate students in creative writing, sharing and nurturing an understanding of one another born out of and built on a love of fiction. They reference their influences, their loves, writers of whom the other reminds them: Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Jack Kerouac. In their younger years, they relish in living their lives in the footsteps of the greats: Hemingway, Orwell, etc.

Lionel Gentle plays the African poet and novelist Mbella Sonne Dipoko.
Lionel Gentle plays the African poet and novelist Mbella Sonne Dipoko.

But the literary presence in the play extends beyond a set of characters who love books, words, and their craft. It is in the very fabric of the play.

Matthew often contemplates the idea of destiny, and is asked to answer difficult questions about unfinished work, or what he was meant to do – what he could do with the remainder of his life. He also thinks, often, of time he could spend with his daughter.

In a script development meeting several months ago, Richard Engling and I were discussing some of the thematic threads that are woven throughout the play, and the various directions in which he might take them. There was a lot bubbling around about legacy, I remember saying – questions about what an artist leaves behind, and how much that matters, if it ever does. “It’s like the Sunday in the Park With George thing,” I said.

For the unindoctrinated, Sondheim’s beautiful “Children and Art” suggests that those are the two things we are truly capable of leaving behind. Art, like a child – or a child, like art – is a legacy. We love our children, and we put what we love in our art. Matthew’s most pivotal moment, perhaps, in his journey, comes when he thinks about what he wants to leave behind.

Sheila Willis plays Anna, a character inspired by the fiction writer Fern Chertkow.
Sheila Willis plays Anna, a character inspired by the fiction writer Fern Chertkow.

Anna and Matthew were collaborators, too, and there’s a line in the play about the possibility of a book honoring Anna. Should Matthew choose to do this, he will help Anna achieve a legacy she might have wanted, while also creating his own. And, as art so adeptly imitates life, he will do just what Engling has set out to do in writing his works: to find some truth in storytelling — to explore life vis-à-vis fiction.

Richard’s novel, VISIONS OF ANNA, can be purchased at


Dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal
Dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal

By Deborah Blumenthal

Anna in the Afterlife (companion play to Engling’s novel VISIONS OF ANNA) has had a long life, as it were. Playwright Richard Engling began working on the play in 2010, and it appeared in Polarity’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays in 2011. In the years since the festival, “it’s always been in this process of improvement,” says Engling. There have been table reads, staged readings, and discussions, and he has enlisted feedback throughout the process from actors, director Susan Padveen, who has been on board since 2011, his co-founder Ann Keen, his daughter Zoë (also a writer), and dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal.

Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew.
Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew in rehearsal.

The play has undergone a lot of change in its five years in development, not the least of which is its title: the older version was not called Anna in the Afterlife – it was called Absolution, and did not actually take place in the afterlife, a development that now, according to Engling, “really defines what the production looks like.” Padveen recalls, “I can’t even remember the first form this play took…. It’s been really interesting to see it change in terms of the container for the story: the story has always been the same, but how it was told and what the structure was and what the arc of it was have really changed a lot, and in a really good way, I think.”

Kevin Grubb as Elliot, Richard Engling as Matthew and Shawna Tucker as Patty.

Anna’s history, however, extends back farther than just the script’s development process. When Engling’s friend and fellow writer Fern Chertkow died in 1988, he wanted to craft a literary tribute to her. The result was his novel, Visions of Anna, which later motivated him to write the play, although the play is much more inspired by than adapted from the novel: “[several years after writing the book], an idea started coming to me to approach that material again, but for the stage… This was not an adaptation of the novel, this was a different way of approaching the same source material.” Padveen agrees: “I never felt that it was adapted from something else. I know that the story was the same, but I really felt that Richard attacked it as a stand-alone piece.” The play, along with Chertkow’s book She Plays in Darkness and Engling’s novel, is now part of The Afterlife Trilogy.

The development process has continued throughout rehearsal, albeit in different ways. Being in the rehearsal room has brought to light new things about the script: Padveen explains that “as it’s gotten up on its feet, a lot of the exposition that was in the text has been less necessary, so some of that has gone away, and the changes being made in the past few weeks have been smaller, says Engling: “We’ve made a lot of little changes, mostly line changes, a lot of little cutting. We dropped one scene and wrote a new one… mostly refinements and trimming and that sort of thing.” Engling has also taken on the unusual task of balancing being both actor and playwright (he plays Matthew), and although it is challenging and demanding, it also “really informs” the writing process: being in all of the scenes gives him an “intimate view,” and “being inside” it all has helped him continue to improve the script.

Bryan Breau as Colin and Ellyn Nugent as Afterlife Anna
Bryan Breau as Colin and Ellyn Nugent as Afterlife Anna

As performances draw closer and the Anna team gets ready to welcome its first audiences, an exciting mystery remains in the process; there are still things to be discovered, and surprises still to come, particularly as the design components come to life. Engling considers himself lucky to have a team of esteemed designers collaborating on the show: “When you write a play and you say, okay, this is in the afterlife, you’re really putting it out there for the designers to come up with something interesting. And I had no idea how it would be affected. I had some inklings of what I thought it might look like… but it’s really an exciting process to have people coming in doing lights and sounds and projections and composing music. It’s like we’ve unleashed this little army.”

Anna in the Afterlife ran April 22-May 24 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Those looking to enhance their theatre-going experience by reading the novels of THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY can purchase the books at

Engling Joins Dionysos Lineup

Richard Engling
Richard Engling

Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling joins the 2013 Dionysos Cup playwrights with a bonus reading of his play, Anna in the Afterlife, companion play to his novel, Visions of Anna. Anna enters the festival not as part of the competition, but as a work Polarity has had in development for a number of years, going through a series of revisions aided by Engling’s long-time collaborator and Polarity co-founder Ann Keen and appearing in the 2011 Dionysos Cup under the title of Absolution.

Anna has gone through enormous changes in the process of development,” Engling reports. “Absolution had a heavy streak of meta-fiction running through it. Now that the play is set entirely in the afterlife, it’s actually more ‘realistic’ than before. It’s been getting the full Polarity treatment. Ann Keen, Susan Padveen, Darren Callahan, Sarah Grant, Richard Shavzin, Beth Wolf, Maggie Speer, all have spent considerable time working on various stages of this script with me, reading and critiquing or directing staged readings, doing an amazing amount of service. Plus there are about 20 actors, many audience members and others who have played roles, weighed in and helped out. I’m very grateful for all the assistance.”

Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays
Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

“The journey has been fascinating for me, exploring and imagining the world of the afterlife–and especially imagining what would continue to motivate the souls there in the spirit world. Every time I sit down to another round of revisions, it’s a process of exploration and invention. I have some ideas about what I want to achieve, but how I’m going to do it, what characters are going to say or do–I often have no idea until it hits the page. Like Dipoko says, I’m listening to the voices. And they often surprise me.”

Behind the scenes Polarity has been soliciting development help with two novels, as well, in preparation for launching The Afterlife Trilogy: A Live/Lit Collection next season. This interconnected 3-part project is an ambitious and exciting one, especially for a not-for-profit theater. The works span 40 years of creation and offer a unique, multi-sensory experience when taken as a whole.

She Plays in Darkness is the earliest of the works, written by Fern Chertkow in the 1980’s, a few years before her death by suicide in 1988.

The character of Anna in Engling’s Visions of Anna, conceived in the 1990’s, and his just-completed Anna in the Afterlife were inspired by Fern Chertkow.She Plays in Darkness becomes more revealing when read in the context of the other works. Chertkow used much of herself in characters of the twins, Rosemary and Cynthia, slowly revealing a self-destructiveness that echoes the mystery of her suicide explored in The American Book of the Dead and Anna in the Afterlife.

“This project has a lot of history in it,” Engling admits. “Fern Chertkow and I became close friends in graduate school studying fiction writing. We’d each come from other disciplines: music for Fern and theatre for me. We spent a year in Europe after graduate school and experienced a particularly magical time living as novelists in Paris.

“After her death, I was moved to write a novel that became Visions of Anna in the 1990’s. Because we were both fiction writers, I felt only a work of fiction would be a proper tribute to my old friend, so the character Anna does not equal the real person Fern. Many scenes and characters in both the novel and the play are totally invented. In fact, the first version of Absolution, the play, was driven by the character Anna complaining that Visions of Anna was not an honest depiction. All that meta-fiction was cut away as the play evolved into Anna in the Afterlife.”

Anna in the Afterlife
Visions of Anna

Polarity has described Engling’s play in this way:

Novelist Matthew Harken finds himself in a world where he’s not quite alive and not quite dead. His dear friends who have died before him take Matthew back into the past to find the truth about their lives and his. Anna in the Afterlife is a play about choices, life, death and life after death.

Meanwhile, Visions of Anna is the story of a man who, with the aid of a shaman and a beautiful artist he had loved and lost, cures his terminal cancer and puts to rest the ghost of a friend who committed suicide. While it shares some characters and scenes with the play, Anna in the Afterlife, it is a quite different story.

Fern Chertkow’s She Plays in Darkness is a novel about a pair of identical twins who decide to live separately for the first time. Without each other’s presence and support, they veer into disastrous relationships and self-destructive behavior. The twins could almost be seen as yet another, earlier, version of Anna.

Richard Engling’s novel, Visions of Anna can be purchased at

The Novelist Talks Turkey

by Richard Engling

Richard Engling
Richard Engling

What makes a great, juicy turkey for Thanksgiving? A fresh turkey. Overnight brining. And this year I’m using a bacon fat baste for delicious smokey crisp skin that helps seal in moisture.

Broth-basted turkeys are less expensive, but I prefer to season my turkey my way. God knows what they are injecting into your bird at the turkey processing plant. And if you do buy a frozen broth-basted or Kosher turkey–don’t brine it! It’ll be too salty.

Brining a fresh turkey produces the juiciest meat imaginable. You soak the turkey in a brine overnight in the refrigerator–or on a cold porch if it’s between 32 and 40 degrees. I have a huge (12 inches in diameter, 9 1/2 inches high) stainless steel stock pot that fits an entire turkey. It’s a great thing to own because it’s also good for making stock and soups, obviously, and fantastic for steaming crab legs or mixing enough sangria for dozens of friends. Some people brine in a cooler and add ice to the brine so as not to use refrigerator space. Some put the brine and turkey in a tall kitchen bag, seal and put that in a cooler. Whatever you use, if the turkey cannot be totally submerged, it’ll have to be turned occasionally.

Richard’s apple brine:
* 1/2 gallon fresh apple cider
* 1 cup sea salt or kosher salt
* 1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
* 1 tablespoon crushed whole allspice
* 1 tablespoon dried thyme
* 1 inch peeled fresh ginger, sliced into thin slices
* 2 bay leaves
* 2 tablespoons juniper berries crushed
* 1 1/2 gallon ice water

1. In a large pan, combine the apple cider and other ingredients (but not ice water). Bring to a boil and simmer at least five minutes, stirring frequently to be sure salt is dissolved. Cool to room temperature.
2. Pour the apple cider liquid into stock pot or other container. Stir in the ice water.
3. Wash and dry your turkey. Reserve the innards for making stock. Place the turkey, breast down, into the brine. Make sure that the cavity gets filled. If you need more brine, add more salt water (1/4 cup of salt per quart of water). Keep cool (below 40 degrees) and soak for 12 to 24 hours.
4. The next day, drain the turkey, rinse well, pat dry with paper towels. Discard the brine.

Richard’s Stuffing:
Prepare your stuffing the night before. I make a big batch in a huge salad bowl and put some inside the turkey and bake the rest in a casserole dish.
* 1 1/4 pound of bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and toasted in an oven at 400 degrees until lightly browned. A firm white bread is good. 1/2 pound could be a lighter wheat. Don’t use heavy whole grain breads.
* 2 1/4 cups onion chopped.
* 2 1/4 cups celery sliced
* One stick of butter
Saute the onion and celery about 5 minute (until tender)
Mix with the toasted bread.
* 1 pound sliced mushrooms
* 1/4 stick of butter
Saute the mushrooms lightly
Mix with the toasted bread.
Stir in:
* 1/2 cup pine nuts (Yes, my friend, PINE NUTS!)
* 1/2 cup dried currents or raisins
* 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
* 1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon minced fresh
* 1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon minced fresh
* 3/4 tablespoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the portion of the stuffing that will go in a casserole dish, dot the top generously with butter. Add a 1/4 cup of chicken stock to moisten and bake covered for 45 minutes and take the cover off for a final 15 minutes.

Make bacon for breakfast Thanksgiving day and reserve the bacon fat for basting the turkey. Or better yet, make BLTs some night this week and save the fat to make Thanksgiving morning easier. Fry a 1/2 pound of bacon, at least.

Roasting the turkey:
If you want stuffing cooked in the bird (and who doesn’t?) stuff the body and neck cavity loosely with stuffing (recipe to follow). Use round toothpick or bamboo skewers stuck through the skin twice, like sewing needles, to hold the close the cavities. Tie the legs together with unwaxed dental floss or kitchen string (Some turkey come with a metal or plastic device for holding the legs together).

If you are not stuffing the turkey, put a few apple and orange slices and a sprig of fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, parley, cilantro or sage) into the cavity for flavor. An unstuffed turkey will roast about a 1/2 hour faster than a stuffed one.

Put the turkey onto a rack in a roasting pan and rub it all over with the bacon fat. (If you don’t want to deal with the bacon fat, use butter). Sprinkle with ground pepper and dried thyme. Cover the breast lightly with a greased, double-thick layer of aluminum foil so it doesn’t overcook. Uncover it to brown in the final hour of cooking.

In the bottom of the roasting pan, pour in a can of low salt chicken stock plus 4 garlic cloves, one onion cut in quarters and a teaspoon each of dried thyme, parsley and sage (or a tablespoon each of fresh).

Roast the turkey on the lowest rack in the oven at 325 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes per pound if it’s stuffed or 10 to 12 minutes if it is not. Brush the skin with bacon fat, butter or pan drippings every 30 minutes. When it’s done, an instant read thermometer will read at least 175 to 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh. Stuffing must reach at least 160 degress to be safe.

The gravy:
While the turkey is roasting, put the neck and gibblets into a sauce pan with three cups of water, a quartered onion, a carrot, one or two sticks of celery, three peeled cloves of garlic, and a 1/2 teaspoon each of dried thyme, parsley and sage (or a 1/2 tablespoon each of fresh). Bring to a boil and simmer as the turkey roasts. Break apart the neck bones with a spoon as it cooks down. Add water if more than a cup of water boils away.

When the turkey is done, strain the broth. Put the turkey on a platter to rest for 10 minutes. Spoon off all but two tablespoons of fat from the drippings in the pan. Pour the remaining drippings into the broth and scrape the stuck bits into it as well. Mix 4 tablespoons of flour into a 1/2 cup of apple cider until it’s smooth. Bring the broth/drippings mix to a low boil. Very slowly pour the flour mix to it, stirring, until it reaches the thickness you prefer. You probably won’t need it all. (Are you now saying, “Richard, @$#&! I put all the apple cider in the brine!”? Don’t panic. Use canned chicken stock instead).

As I finish up my shopping list for the day, I am struck by the similarities between the Artistic Director and the Thanksgiving Chef. Each brings together the best combination of ingredients and cooking. In the theatre, one gathers the team and selects the script, director, actors, designers and technical staff, and provides the environment in which they can “cook” to perfection with the right amount of rehearsal time, money and materials into the final feast. Then it is a matter of getting the guests to the table to enjoy the meal.