A Dead Whale Productions is a new theater company in Chicago, but theater does not begin to describe what they do. Founding Artistic Director and Artistic Associate, Dane Eissler and Tyler Garamella blend several areas of the arts with visual performances, poetry, and gripping imagery that challenge the boundaries of traditional theater.
I recently chatted with Dane and Tyler in their Chicago apartment, which turns out to be just as eclectic as the shows they produce. While surrounded by grungy art and odd puppets, Dane poured me coffee from a french press and lounged on the couch next to me, his feet bearing mismatched socks kicked up in the air. Tyler sat on the opposite side of the room by the piano, surrounded by sheet music and various scraps of paper. As the heavy Chicago rain spattered against the window, I listened to Dane and Tyler recount the tales of their past and how A Dead Whale came to be.
“I was originally all set to get into cartooning and animation,” Dane says, taking claim for the illustrations strewn about the apartment. “I had a dream to go to [California College of the Arts], but then I saw Spam-A-Lot in New York. It was the original cast and was just so cool.” Dane recalls how he started writing theatrical in middle school and working as a tech in his school’s theater department.
After working as a techie, Dane’s high school drama teacher convinced him to start performing in the theater’s ensemble. Then, during his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast, Dane got a taste of the spotlight. “The guy who played Maurice went on a ski trip when he wasn’t supposed to, so I got a promotion,” he chuckles. “And I’ve been distracted from my life-long dream [of cartooning] ever since. And I’ve found a new dream.”
Dane explained how attending Rowan University expanded his understanding of theater arts and the many mediums it could entail. He especially found a keen interest in clown work and puppetry, where he could explore hyper-reality and push the boundaries of what could be considered theater- knowledge that now serves as inspiration for his current productions.
Whereas Dane discovered his love for theater in middle school, Tyler on the other hand, has always been involved with some sort of performing.
“I started acting when I was five,” Tyler recalls. “I was definitely into attention as a kid,” he laughs.
“I have these memories of my mom and grandma asking what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would say “Scientist!” and my mom and grandma would say “Good job!” so I would say I wanted to be a scientist as often as possible just to get attention.”
Dane cuts in, “Tyler forgot to mention that he was a child actor and there is a hilarious Toys ‘R Us ad with him-“
Tyler murmurs, “It was Zany Brainy”
“Even better,” Dane laughs.
Tyler playfully smirks and continues with his story.
“At some point I did [also] want to be a comic book artist,” Tyler continued “But I went to school for music and theater. I played the trumpet for 15 years, but being a musician is kind of lonely, spending all day in a practice room just for [a small panel of people] to tell you you’re not good enough.” Tyler ultimately decided to focus his efforts more on theater.
However, “I still have the trumpet in my room for when I need to impress someone,” he chuckles.
Tyler and Dane met while they were both studying theater at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
“I think we officially met when [Tyler was] in Dorothy Meets Alice, playing the Mad Hatter, and I was designing the poster. We weren’t very close immediately,” Dane says. “We still had like the ‘new friend jitters’.
Two years later, Dane and Tyler put the jitters aside and became a lot closer as friends. During what the two describe as the ‘Infamous Vodka Night,’ Tyler and Dane got together and shared their interests, thoughts, dreams… and a bottle of Tito’s. As their inhibitions were lifted, a deep friendship and theatrical inspirations were formed.
“The whole night we just talked about theory and art and what we liked, and we watched clown videos on YouTube,” Dane said. “At one point we were talking about the worst theater names we could come up with and I mentioned, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a theater company called ‘A Dead Whale’? A dead whale is like a giant blubber flesh sack, and who wants to look at it? It’s going to explode if you don’t let the gas out, no one wants to look at it or smell it, or be near it. It’s gross.’”
Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a theater company called ‘A Dead Whale’?
However, that night in college was not the end of the idea of a theater company between the two of them, or the name that arose. After graduating, Tyler and Dane moved to Chicago so they could work within Chicago’s diverse theater scene.
“When we moved here,” Dane said “We were coming up with ideas, and I brought up the name A Dead Whale again and Tyler’s eyes lit up.”
Dane explained his initial reservations for the name because he didn’t want to be misunderstood by animal rights groups.
“I did like the name,” Dane continued, “So our agreement was, we’ll pick the name as long as when we make a certain amount of box office [sales], we will find an animal charity or whale conservation group to donate it to.”
“Originally I wanted to have A Dead Whale be a multimedia entity,” Tyler went on to explain. “We’re both very interested in multiple mediums. This is part of what’s great about Chicago, because like you’ve got the comedy community, you’ve got the puppetry community, you’ve got the physical theater community, and everyone seems to dabble in all of it. I’m really into film and we both have a stage background and Dane is huge on puppetry.”
Dane continued, “Part of our mission is to create work by all means necessary, which means we pull from all mediums, though our main focus is creating theatrical events, but it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘theater.’ We’d like to do movies. Whatever gets the story told, we’re down for.”
Whatever gets the story told, we’re down for.
As for being both roommates and theater co-founders, Tyler and Dane describe their working together/living together situation as “An ideal creative partnership.”
“We’re both good at listening to each other and understanding where we’re coming from and understanding frustrations and perspectives,” Dane states. “We work well together. We’re both listeners.”
“We know our personality dynamic pretty well,” Tyler continues. He pauses.
“We joke a lot about platonic marriage.”
They both laugh.
A Dead Whale’s staff also includes managing director Samantha Price.
“She is the person that holds us together,” Dane says. “Tyler is good with creative stuff, I’m good with creative stuff, but the business side, she’s killing it. She deserves a lot of credit.”
“We also have a whole company of exciting talented folks,” Dane continues. “We’re planning on using the company to generate [original/re-envisioned] work. We also will have guest artists who will come in for workshops. Overall we’ve just got a great company and support system.”
I asked the two what they look for in actors and collaborators.
Dane sits up. “Part of our mission is to challenge and diversify the traditional theater experience. We’re looking for risk-takers, people who can work with a group. One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got was ‘look for artists who propose with rigor and let go with ease, and work toward the whole and not the ego.’ When we cast, we don’t just look for talent, we look for people who seem genuine.”
“It’s a lot about who you are in person,” Tyler adds.
“There are so many talented people in Chicago,” Dane continues. “But you’re not necessarily looking for talent at an audition, you’re looking for direct ability, if the person is willing to ‘jump off the cliff’ for you. You’re looking for an ensemble like organs in a body; will they make the body work? What we look for in artists is a willingness to go the ten extra steps, and then the ten extra steps after that.”
“Also trust.” Tyler chimes in.
Any uncharted territory involves uncertainty, and with a theater company that as original and inventive as A Dead Whale, it is important for all involved to trust the direction, trust the process, and overall trust each other.
Hog’s Belly, written by Tyler and directed by Dane, is an upcoming production that opens July 20th at Gorilla Tango Theater.
“The only [genre] I can describe it as, is like Fable Noir,” Tyler says. “We’re using animals to tell fables to adults, and the writing is like processing my own negativity through fable and genre.”
“It reads like a script for an animated movie.” Dane adds. “It’s playful in content, playful in form, but showing material that you should (probably not) show your children. You tackle the issue of drug addiction, but do it in an ‘innocent’ way so it’s playful.”
Dane created the theater’s following show I Love You, Jane Doe that opens this October.
“It’s like if Tiny Tim had a really fucked up children’s show,” he laughs. “[The character] Jane Doe is going to be a life-size puppet. And three actors will operate the puppet. There’s no dialog, it’s all movement based and we’re having original music written.”
Dane explains that in Philadelphia, where the two are from, the theater works are very concept-driven and European influenced. Meanwhile in Chicago, theater is more Mid-American influenced story. As far as the future of A Dead Whale is concerned, “We want to take what we learned on the East Coast and combine it with the atmosphere here,” he says. “We want to make new work in new ways and test the limit of what theater can be.”
Tyler adds, “What is amazing about Chicago is that it is a city that they encourage you to make your own shit. Like this is the first city that you’re encouraged to write your own audition monologue. I’ve never heard of that before. You see a lot of people creating their own theater companies, and we have an outside perspective, and I really feel like we can do this.”
“Like no other city I’ve been to, Chicago welcomes you to try,” Dane says.