The TomKat Project has been sweeping Chicago for the better part this past year. Now it is off to New York City to hold its own at the New York Fringe Festival, but not without a few last performances in Chicago.
OK, now we all know who "TomKat" is, but do we know what "The TomKat Project" is? No? Allow me to shed some light on this two-act comedic play that dives into the love lives of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and The Church of Scientology. Don't worry, my sources aren't People Magazine, I got the skinny on this play from those who actually created it.
I had the pleasure of finally seeing The TomKat Project while it ran at UP Comedy Club. The set-up is simple and smart. All seven cast members are dressed in black and take their chairs with a prop bin next to them. That bin helps them transform into 54 characters throughout this two-hour production. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey and Matt Lauer to Nicole Kidman and Steven Spielberg makes an appearance during this show. You can't help but be impressed by the level of research, character study and dedication these actors have invested in this project. At times a cast member will raise a sign that says "this dialogue is verbatim" as proof that the story we are watching unfold is, indeed, based off of real life conversations and happenings and it adds another level of reality to the show.
Once intermission hits, you might find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the amount of inside celebrity gossip you just witnessed. You may also be finding yourself, once again, questioning why Katie Holmes ever entered into this relationship. However, once the second half begins, hold on, because there's a twist ahead that you'll never see coming and one that gets so far inside your head that you forget what is real and what is the story narrative.
I was so pleasantly surprised by the level of detail, conviction and questions this play brought to the stage. I loved this intimate production and kudos to every individual involved. The TomKat Project is a smart, sophisticated and well-executed comedy. They do an incredible job at turning this over-publicized celebrity relationship into a comedy simply by exploiting and questioning "the truth." I was able to ask the cast and production crew a few questions, so read on to learn more about the thought and vision behind this project.
A few thoughts from the cast and production team:
Walt Delaney (Tom Cruise)
What is it like to be representing Tom Cruise in this factual, yet satirical production about his love life?
It is an interesting role in that every audience member enters the show with a formed opinion of him, and most of the time it has been negative for whatever reason. People tend to hold steady to the understanding that he is a lunatic, which may very well be true, but I don't see him that way. One of the many joys of this show for me, personally, is to see how people wrestle with these preconceived notions as the story progresses. I would not say that The TomKat Project strives to change any one's opinions of the matter, but rather to show them multiple lenses to see it through.
What things did you do in preparation for playing this role?
I basically watched everything I could find that had Tom Cruise in it. A lot of movies (i.e. Rain Man, Minority Report, Magnolia, and several others) as well as every interview YouTube could provide me with. My YouTube account still recommends me Cruise clips to watch based on my previous binge.
Julie Dahlinger (Katie Holmes)
What is it like to be representing Katie Holmes in this factual, yet satirical production about her love life?
I approached playing Katie in The Tomkat Project as a character rather than a real-life person. I looked at her from three places: what she says about herself, what others say about her (which is A LOT) and what she does. There is a lot of societal judgement about Katie Holmes but I believe she's a nice Midwestern girl, like me, trying to do the right thing. Lucky for me I'm not playing my best guess at Katie but the Katie that Brandon Ogborn wrote within the reality of our TomKat world. His guidance along with our director's, Elly Green, was crucial in finding the Holmes I now know in my heart.
What things did you do in preparation for playing this role?
I read and watched everything Katie Holmes I could get my hands on. The many David Letterman interviews are great and very telling - I think she and Dave might secretly be best friends. Elly also had us create a historical timeline of events for everyone in the show which was great for finding motivations and seeing how life decisions might have been made for everyone involved. I also watched all of "Dawson's Creek" and like to learn how she lives in her body and uses her face. I now have very strong muscles in my right cheek and unconsciously rock my "Katie smile" in real life.
Brandon Ogborn (Writer/Narrator)
What was the idea/vision behind The TomKat Project and what were your goals with this production? What were you hoping to accomplish?
The impetus for The TomKat Project was me wanting to do something more substantial than the sketch shows I had written in Chicago. Once I landed on the Holmes-Cruise divorce as a topic and started to do research on their backgrounds and the Church of Scientology, I immediately discovered a rich narrative within their own interviews. Tom and Katie essentially told the story themselves, reminding me of The Laramie Project and documentary style theater. With that, as other celebrities and characters began to populate the landscape of the script, I thought, "Shit, I know all these incredible actors and impressionists in Chicago that only get to do that kind of stuff once a year to showcase for SNL."
So I expanded on the idea, bringing celebrities into the script as they appeared, chronologically, in the tabloids - Oprah, Matt Lauer, Tom Hanks, Jessica Alba, along with Katie's family and Scientology characters like David Miscavige. That's when the story lit up the pages, making me think I could actually get busy/talented people like Brianna Baker to sign on to the show. I knew how sensational a show about TomKat would be so I fought my comedy brain to keep it as real and emotional as possible. This is what attracted the cast, the director, Elly Green, and Alex at the Upstairs Gallery to give us a run.
I also believe the heart of the story is what gave us the audience, the press and the accolades we ended up getting. It also attracted Jeff Parker, who saw the show a few months ago, and asked if he could have his students at the Cherubs program at Northwestern put on an hour-long version of the show this summer. I saw that the other day - all these high school kids from all over the world doing my "play." It was really emotional for me because the entire time I was writing it, there was this voice saying, "This could be something colleges and high school's put on - it's like a fun version of The Laramie Project." Seeing the Cherubs production also made me realize the show has morals to it, even though it's just a silly comedy.
My stepdaughter just graduated from the Youth Ensemble at American Theater Company, and at her graduation, the Artistic Director, PJ Paperelli, gave this beautiful, heartfelt speech. He said, "Theater is about making the audience leave and having a conversation about truth." When TomKat first opened at a little space in Andersonville, after a show, all these girls were arguing with each other about who was to blame in the divorce; Tom, Katie or Scientology. It was magic to see that because it made me think we did it. We started a conversation.
Dein Sofley (Producer)
What have been the greatest challenges and rewards in producing this show?
We operate as a collective. The director, cast and I all agreed that after production costs, the revenue from ticket sales would go into a pickle jar to save for our New York premier instead of anyone taking pay or profit. So we're all equally invested.
With all the enthusiasm of the press and the steadfast support of Matt Barbera at The Playground Theater we quickly sold out shows making the initial demands on me as a producer seem small. We never anticipated such success. Even though the big one-off's in Chicago at The Second City and Just for Laughs took us all to task, I feel I fully earned my title once we were accepted to FringeNYC. Now I'm plotting a picaresque expedition.
The greatest rewards are in the laughs, the acclaim for the director and cast, the bonds we've amassed, the creative community we foster in the process and, oh, the free drinks.
Elly Green (Director)
How did you pair up with Brandon and the production team to produce this show?
I actually met Brandon at Vincent, the restaurant he works at in Andersonville. He served me and my husband and was very dry, charming and told us about his various projects as well as his "love-of-my-life/how-I-met-my-wife" story. At the end of the night he gave us his card, and said we should be friends. We started an email conversation and a couple of weeks later he asked if he could send me TomKat. He said "I'm at an impasse as to whether to move forward with producing it or scrap the thing." He even offered to pay me for reading it...bless him!
We met to discuss the play and whilst I wasn't imagining I'd direct it at this point, the more we discussed the play, though, the more invested I became. After hearing a table read, I was even more excited about the scripts potential, and pretty soon after that I threw my hat in the ring to direct it. The 'production team' was (and still is!) Brandon, his amazingly resourceful producer/wife, Dein and myself. My husband, Matt, ended up operating sound, and bringing some ideas to the table on that front. But that's it! There's not really any 'designers' on board (except John Ahern's incredible original composition). It really is a very small, DIY venture.
What message did you want to send and what challenges did you face?
It's so easy today to get spoon-fed information from the press. The play takes a celebrity couple, who everyone thinks they know, and gives you the story from many sides. Sure, it uses verbatim material, but it also uses hypothetical scenarios and straight-out pastiche to hint at the huge blind spot we all have, the huge unknowns in any celebrity story, and to point out the subjectivity of all the "facts" that we surround ourselves with. Which is a long way of saying, we wanted people to question what they knew, and who they trusted.
In terms of challenges, for me as a director, it was a crash course on Tom and Katie. I really didn't know that much about the marriage, and hadn't been in the US [Elly is British] or exposed to that press during it's course, so I knew very little. As a 34 year-old woman, of course I was huge Dawson's Creek fan, and I've seen my fair share of Tom Cruise movies. But honestly, I knew practically nothing about the marriage, or how that came about. So, the challenge for me was suddenly plunging myself into that world. Luckily, I had a group of crazy talented actors to do that with me. And the only other challenge has been getting everyone in the room at the same time (these comedy/improviser folks are all insanely busy!)
The TomKat Project has a few more shows in Chicago before heading off to The Big Apple. They had a show this past Sunday, but they have shows tomorrow, Wednesday, August 7 and Thursday, August 8 at 8pm at The Playground Theater and you can buy tickets now. If you happen to be in New York at the end of this month for the Fringe Festival, you can check out The TomKat Project at these times.
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