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Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ spawns 10-minute plays

McKenzie Gerber stars “The Stray” (10-minute play inspired by song “Highway Patrolman”) written by Scott T. Barsotti. From play 'Deliver

McKenzie Gerber stars in “The Stray,” (a 10-minute play inspired by the song “Highway Patrolman”), written by Scott T. Barsotti. From the play "Deliver Us From Nowhere" based on the Bruce Springsteen album "Nebraska"

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‘Deliver Us from
Nowhere: Tales from Nebraska’

♦ Through May 20

♦ Right Brain Project, 4001 N. Ravenswood

♦ Tickets, $15

♦ (773) 442-2882;

Updated: May 28, 2012 8:39AM

Live albums are nothing new in rock ‘n’ roll.

Live theater albums are something else again.

Check out the difference when the Tympanic Theatre Company presents “Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales from Nebraska,” an evening of short plays based on Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album “Nebraska,” at the Right Brain Project in Chicago.

“We do short-play festivals pretty frequently and always pride ourselves on treating them with a lot of care and not just throwing together a lot of stories that have nothing to do with each other,” said Tympanic artistic director Dan Caffrey.

He added that he’d never heard of an evening of short plays inspired by a classic rock album — a thought that immediately made him think of “Nebraska.”

“I’m a huge Springsteen fan, but I also felt ‘Nebraska’ fit our mission in terms of the type of stories we like to tell: dark, gritty, fantastical stories that aren’t necessarily supernatural but have a ghostly feeling.”

The next step was pitching the project to Chicago playwrights and directors: 10 each, since Caffrey had in mind a new play inspired by each of the album’s 10 songs. He asked each writer to rank his top three songs from the album, then did his best to give each their preference, the only guidelines being a limit of 12 pages — or 10 minutes running time — and the instruction to write whatever the song made them feel.

The result, Caffrey said, is a “pretty broad range” of plays based on Springsteen’s songs, sometimes a direct dramatization, sometimes an entirely different story inspired by key images, ranging in time from the ’30s to the ’60s to the ’80s to the present day, linked by original live music (Springsteen’s songs do not appear) and divided by an intermission at the point where the vinyl album would be flipped from side A to side B.

“The tone is very dark, as it is in the album, and spooky and rustic, but hesitantly hopeful,” he said. “Some of the pieces suggest glimmers of hope in really bleak circumstances.”

Wilmette native Chris Bower, a poet and short-story writer (recently nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize), didn’t discover his interest in playwriting until going for his graduate degree at the School of the Art Institute. The writer/director and Columbia College teacher has had a play produced in Chicago every year since 2003, though, including multiple Rhino Fests, where he made the acquaintance of Caffrey.

“They’re a very ambitious company and this is a very ambitious project,” said Bower, who took on the challenge of writing a piece for “Deliver Us From Nowhere” despite the fact that “Nebraska” is not one of his all-time favorite albums.

“I admire it, rather than love it,” he said. “I really admire the fact that [Springsteen] released the home-recorded demo versions of these songs, rather than the studio recordings he made — and, of course, they’re great songs, really well-written. If I had loved them, though, I probably would have felt too close to them to come up with anything interesting.”

Bower chose two of the songs he knew least and wound up writing a 10-minute play called “When You’re Dead” based on Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill.”

“‘Mansion on the Hill’ is probably the least narrative song on the album,” Bower said. “It just kind of meanders through images, including a family looking out the windows of a car at a big mansion in the distance.

“That was pretty challenging. [Laughs]In moments of desperation I thought of just using the phrase ‘mansion on the hill’ and then doing whatever. You know, one guy says to another, ‘See that mansion on the hill?’ Get that out of the way and just forget about it.”

Instead, Bower wound up creating a first-person monologue about stories from the lives of a brother and sister who are basically raising themselves because their parents are in some ways ghosts, just drifting through life.

“It was tough,” Bower said. “I really admire people who can write a three-minute song that’s satisfying to listen to. And 10 minutes is kind of a similarly hard length for a play. Five minutes is easy. When you get to 10, though, that’s the time the story wants to blossom and turn into something else.”

Bruce Ingram is a local free-lance writer.

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