A Milwaukee theater “Success” goes to India
In 1990, John Kishline got interested in business success — in a clinical way. How do you define it? What are its costs? He wrote a play, Success, about it. Theater X staged it in 1991. Naturally, it was a success.
Since then, India has become a emerging economic power. You could say that country has become obsessed with success. Kishline and friends will see if Indians can also be obsessed with Success. They’re taking off Thursday (Aug. 5) for a seven-show, six-city tour of India. The tour centers on a theater festival in Chennai, sponsored by Hindu Metro Plus, a newspaper with national circulation.
Kisline’s company, called Theatre MXT, comprises actress Deborah Clifton, his spouse and a veteran of the Theater X production; their son, Sam, an actor based in Los Angeles, who will serve as stage manager; and actor-director Edward Morgan.
The play takes the form 90 minutes of an executive’s workday. The action encompasses three meetings and four phone calls. Kishline plays an advertising executive who devised ads crucial to the election of Bush 1. The exec is in crisis; a partner has involved him in shady dealings that threaten his business and their friendship. A presidential candidate from an emerging democracy visits to enlist his services. The White House is on the phone demanding a commitment for the next election. His wife is on the phone and furious. And at the end of the day, a bright young employee threatens move to the competition unless the exec can come up with a better deal.
To research the play, back in the day, Kishline interviewed the late Dennis Frankenberry, who designed some key ads for the Bush 1 campaign, as well as business executive Sheldon Lubar and then-mayor John Norquist.
In the original, Wes Savick played the employee as a younger version of the pressured exec. On the tour, a young Indian actress, Kriti Pant, will give the part a different spin.
That choice was both practical and aesthetic. It seems that the Indian newspaper mogul who is sponsoring the theater festival took a personal interest in the visiting American company. He was on the fence about Theatre MXT.
‘The casting and conceptual switch sealed the deal,” Morgan said, in a joint interview with Kishline and Clifton, at the couple’s home in Whitefish Bay.
They could hardly ask Indian actresses to come to Milwaukee to audition. They winnowed 25 resumés down to a half-dozen auditions conducted via Skype.
“It was so much fun,” Clifton said. “Morgan and I got back out of view of the camera. And there was Kriti on the computer screen, playing a scene with Kish. We got an excellent actress. She’s toured the U.S. with an Indian production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and she lived in Louisville for a while.”
The gender/ethnicity change of the young character isn’t the only update. In 1991, Clifton played a young presidential candidate in the fledgling democracy in El Salvador. In the update, she’s Egyptian.
“Coincidentally, a woman is running for president in Egypt,” Clifton said.
“We got a call from Mike in February,” Kishline said. “Another company had fallen through. He asked if we had anything. At which point I called Morgan, and we started conjuring up ideas.”
Morgan and Kishline, Milwaukee theater veterans, have known each other for years. Last September, they co-wrote and co-produced a show about the Lady Elgin maritime disaster.
But Kishline credits Clifton for the idea of pulling Success out of mothballs.
“With India’s headlong dash up the ladder, it should resonate,” Kishline said.
Once the Chennai edition of Metro Plus got behind the group with funding for the festival, the State Department was able to arrange a multi-city tour. In addition to performing the play, the ensemble will conduct about 25 workshops for Indian theater people. Theatre MXT will fly among their internal destinations, Chennai, Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai, Delhi, Gurgaon and Hyderabad.
They’re trying to get the geography straight. A map of India hangs on the living-room wall.
“Yes, that’s our map,” Clifton said. “We’ve been staring at it.”