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Investigations: Claudia Allen

image: Research headerWriting plays Dubbed a "master in small-town realism" by the entertainment-industry magazine Variety, playwright Claudia Allen has been on campus this fall teaching her craft as a part-time humanities lecturer, advising students that "your life experience is what makes your stories unique because nobody else has your life."

image: Julie Harris and Mike Nussbaum starred in Allen's Winter (photo by Liz Lauren)Allen, a resident playwright at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, has been practicing what she preaches. Her sense of humor as well as themes taken from her own life repeatedly show up in her writing. Her new play, Xena Live!, is her latest contribution to Chicago's campy late-night theater offerings. A theatrical spoof on the action-packed TV show Xena, Warrior Princess, Allen's version is performed at Chicago's About Face Theater and features a man in drag as Xena. It highlights the lesbian subtexts in the TV show. Because some of her plays are "rather sedate and set in the living room," Allen finds it exciting to incorporate fight scenes into Xena Live!: warriors combat giant beetles in areas like Ravens' Wood, named for the beetle-infested Chicago community of Ravenswood, where Allen lives. Allen has also written and produced several other parodies, such as Gays of Our Lives and A Gay Christmas Carol.

Allen first discovered her love of playwriting during her college years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree in English. There, Allen distinguished herself from classmates who were writing dormitory dramas by writing about a middle-aged woman dealing with a deteriorating and aging mother. For Allen, the theme of aging became a distinctive mark that would resurface in many of her 18 plays. Winter, the latest of six of her plays to have been produced by Victory Gardens, ran for more than a month this past summer. Directed by Sandy Shinner, the play told the story of a young couple, played by Tony Award-winner Julie Harris and Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum, reunited in their old age.

"I've always liked writing about older people because they've lived," says the 44-year-old Allen, noting that she spent a lot of her childhood in small-town Michigan "sitting on porches talking with old ladies."

At work on a screenplay based on the stage version of Winter, Allen is also readying for a May production at Victory Gardens of her newest play, Cahoots, a madcap comedy starring Sharon Gless, of TV's Cagney and Lacey. --E.C.

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