by Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
Milwaukee native playwright Aaron Thielen has a hit on his hands. His original musical "Hero," running through August 19 at the Marriott Theater, 10 Marriott Drive in Lincolnshire, IL, is receiving rave reviews from the press and audiences alike. The story of Hero (Erich Bergen), who lives at home with his widowed father Al (Don Forston), above the comic book store that they own and operate, it touches on themes of love and loss and finding the power within you. Hero, who draws his life like a comic book, is faced with a series of important and potentially life-changing decisions, especially when former flame Jane (Heidi Kettenring) enters the frame. I spoke with Thielen about "Hero" in July 2012.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) How much of Aaron is in the character of Hero?
AT: (Aaron Thielen) That is a good question. Very little, actually. It's not autobiographical. It all came out of my head, so I'm sure there's a little bit of me in it. But it's not based on me or my passion for drawing or anything like that.
GS: So, do comic books play any sort of role in your life?
AT: Yes. I think that like a lot of young boys growing up, you see a lot of comic books. Your friends read a lot of comic books. They were definitely a part of my life. I loved reading them, but I wasn't crazy about them. I think I had a good balance [laughs] between real life and comic books. I loved the idea of having a superpower and I think it resonates with real people [laughs]. The idea of Hero having a superpower and finally, at the end, embracing it - I was asked why I didn't do more of a superhero musical, as far as having superpowers, and I said I kind of did. That's the point. It's a real, literal- based idea of somebody having a special gift, deciding to use it or not use it.
GS: Whether it's drawing or being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
AT: Exactly. For me, I like the idea of people having a gift and being accepted with that gift. I loved the "X-Men" movie. I cried at that movie, which is ridiculous [laughs], because it feels like there are so many themes with the idea of having a gift and being ostracized for it. Being able to embrace who you really are and being put down for it. I think those kinds of feelings resonate with all walks of life.
GS: In the comic books world, are you a Marvel or DC comics fan?
AT: I don't discriminate between either. There are things I like about both. The thing about DC is it's been around so long. I've always been a huge Green Lantern fan. But I really like Marvel and where it's gone, especially this year. There's been a lot of really amazing stuff. I like that.
GS: Do you draw at all?
AT: Not even a little bit [big laugh].
GS: Hero's journals sound like the kind of thing that Alison Bechdel did so well in her graphic novels "Fun Home" and "Are You My Mother?" Did you read those books and do you have favorites in that genre?
AT: I don't. That's not proof that this came out of my head. I don't have a background in that kind of illustrating. In fact, when I met Charles (Riffenburg), who does all of our illustrating, and is the voice of Hero in his drawing, I explained the show and had him read the script. He sat me down and showed me tons of stuff. Because we were trying to decide what is hero's point of view. How would he draw and what sets him apart, what is his superpower? He showed me lots of different examples of your basic comic book, your superheroes, but also your journaling style. It was great to have Charles, because he's an expert on it. He lives it, he knows everything about it. He could fill in the gaps for me. I know quite a bit, but there's so much to know.
GS: Being a Milwaukee native, how important was it for you for "Hero" to have a Milwaukee setting?
AT: The idea sort of started there. I had been working on new works and I thought it would be fun to go out on my own and write something, even just as a pet project. There's an antique shop right by Allen-Bradley downtown and it's quintessential Milwaukee. It's kind of small, but it's got two bay windows, it's an old tavern turned into an antique shop. I used to go there and look around. In the back of the shop is a yard with a house attached. I thought it would make an awesome set. I kept thinking, who would live there? If this shop wasn't an antique shop what would it be? A comic bookshop. Who lives there? Who runs it? What are the lives that happened? That's what it all generated from. And because I'm from Milwaukee, it felt very authentic to put it there. Some of the characters are based on people that I know. I just got a Facebook (message) from a friend I grew up with. (Hero's parents) Al and Adele are kind of based on his parents. They're coming on Friday. It's going to be really fun to have them see it. Al, in real life, is it like Al in the show, other than his heart and the essence of him. Adele, of course, isn't in the show, but is based on that idea of an amazing mom.
GS: What about Hero and Kirk's relationship – did you have a cousin like that in your life?
AT: Yes, he's based on my cousin Kirk.
GS: Has he seen the show?
AT: Yeah [big laugh]. He's been along for the ride. We did a reading here at Marriott a year and a half ago, just a quick, one night, for 600 subscribers to see what they thought, and Kirk was there. It was a different actor playing the role of the time and he, of course, loved it. He loved this new guy (Alex Goodrich), too. It's not necessarily exactly Kirk, but the essence and how he lives his life is very similar to Kirk in the show.
GS: So, your cousin's name is Kirk and there's the scene in "Hero" where the character of Kirk dresses up for Halloween as Captain Kirk.
AT: Yes, it happened during rehearsals, but I never made the connection [laughs]. No one would believe it but I really thought that I would love to see Susan (Dara Cameron) as Spock. I thought that would be really funny. And then I thought, what could Kirk be? I guess he would be Captain Kirk, I guess that would be fine. And then I was like, Captain Kirk, right, right. I literally never made the connection [laughs] until we decided that she would be Spock.
GS: Comic-Con 2012 just wrapped up in San Diego. What do you think the Comic-Con crowd would think of "Hero"?
AT: I don't know. Part of me thinks they would think musicals are nerdy; and not in a good way. There might be a hierarchy of going, "We're nerds, but we are not that nerdy."
GS: That's a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
AT: Right! That would be something that they could go, "Ugh, that's so lame! Come on let's go see Kevin Smith." Whom I love! I always thought, because Comic-con just ended and I do have friends that love going, that it would be fun, next year, if the show has a life, to go there and see, could we have an audience there.
GS: It seems like sort of a natural fit.
AT: This is a big generalization, but I think that they might at first go (shakes his head) and then they might hear that it's pretty okay. They might realize that it's not making fun of it. That's the thing that I'm most proud of the show. I feel like so many contemporary musicals now comment on the form or they're cynical and that's their definition of the form. I feel like this is a throwback musical in that it doesn't make fun of itself, it doesn't poke fun of musicals, like, "I know it's a musical, but were cool." It embraces the musical form. It's about depression and finding oneself and struggling and finding humor in things that maybe aren't funny and the goofiness of the world we live in. That's what I'm most excited about the show, that that's what I was able to achieve.
GS: Hollywood has a long-standing love affair with comic book superheroes, but Broadway is new to subject, with the possible exception of the Superman musical in the 1950s. Most recently it's exemplified by "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark." Did you see that show and, if so, what did you think of it?
AT: I didn't see the second incarnation. I saw it before they made all the cuts.
GS: So you saw it when people were falling from the rafters?
AT: [Laughs] yeah. Someone got stuck while I was there, just floating over the audience. And there was a group of kids at the beginning of the show who were kind of narrators, which was sort of strange. But here's the thing, the set was spectacular. It was an extravaganza; which is always fun to see, if you want that kind of entertainment. And people are going; people are spending the money to go see it. Whether you think it's a classic musical or it's just an event, there is a market for it. I am all for that. "Hero," and this is not a slam to that musical, feels like the anti-"Spider-Man" musical. That wasn't my goal, but it's a happy coincidence that the show came out now, while that is still playing. I feel like it can be produced inexpensively and you don't need $70 million to do it to tell a story. You just need 12 really gifted performers and a comic bookshop to tell the story.
GS: I'm glad you mentioned sets and extravaganzas, because "Hero" is one of the best uses of in-the-round staging I've ever seen. What are the challenges and rewards of such a venue?
AT: That's a good question, because I've been associated with this theater for 19 years. This is really all I know at this point, this is how I think. It's great for storytelling. I don't see backs of heads anymore. I don't see people not looking at me. I feel like I can tell what's happening. But I think it's because I'm around it so much. I'm always surprised, when producers come to see a show and they're like, "I couldn't see them." It's fascinating to me how people can't necessarily picture what this would look like on a proscenium. But for me it forces the audience to get sucked in to the story because there's no set to deal with or distract them. You just zoom in. That's why we had such success (at Marriott) with "Les Miz" and "Miss Saigon," and shows like that that were enormous. Even "Beauty and the Beast." It forces us to shrink the world and focus on the good storytelling. For "Hero," it was a no-brainer to be able to be tight into the scene and invite the audience to this little world.
GS: Especially since it's an original play and it was written for this space, with the hope of moving to the next space.
AT: The next step for the show is to put it in a proscenium. I still love the revolve. I still love my original idea of having a shop with a yard and a house that rotates. I'm hopeful that I get that opportunity to see it in a proscenium.
GS: "Hero," like comic books, puts emphasis on the role that fate plays in our lives. Please say something about that and the part that fate has played in your life.
AT: [Long pause] that's an interesting question. This career is just weird in general; especially my trajectory, starting out as an actor and landing here. Because I would say, six or seven years ago I never would've guessed what I would be doing. When I was performing, I thought I'll be doing this forever. Until you get to the point where you think, I need to know if I can do anything else because I can't do this forever. You just kind of give yourself the idea of trying something else. Fate hands you what you're supposed to do. I don't know where I'm going to be in five years. I could be doing something completely different, not in the business at all. I think, no I know, I'm completely fine with that. Because I never thought I'd write five years ago. I never went to school for it. It was never a thing I thought that I needed to do with my life. I started working on new works and I worked with some really extraordinary people. I thought I wanted to see if I can do that. Fate brought the right people into my life and the right situation. The fact that I did (the stage musical adaptation of) "For The Boys" last year, it's ludicrous that I was able to pull that off. Even just to get it on stage, the fact that that happened is fate stepping in and making that happen. But I wouldn't have been able to do "Hero" had I not done it.