Musical staging of ‘Chess’ coming to Ashland in the fall

Livia Genise
Livia Genise

Livia Genise, former artistic director of Talent’s Camelot Theatre Company, is now directing the musical “Chess” for Ashland Contemporary Theatre. It opens in September.

Genise, a veteran actor of Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theater and Hollywood, first came to Ashland in the 1980s. She raised her children and earned a degree in music from Southern Oregon University before she took on the directorship of Camelot Theatre.

During her 10-year tenure at Camelot, Genise fostered the enormous growth of the organization and mentored a generation of young theater artists.

EH: Tell me about “Chess.”

LG: It was created by Bjorn and Bennie Anderson, who wrote all of the ABBA music and “Mama Mia.” Tim Rice is the lyricist and wrote the book. The story involves a Cold War-era chess tournament between an American grandmaster and a Soviet grandmaster as they vie for one woman.

EH: What is “Chess” about?

LG: The state is bigger than the individual, and what is the sacrifice? We are powerless when governments are in charge. No matter how much you love your country, you can still be used by it.

EH: How do you take a game that’s played on a small board and make it a musical?

LG: A chess match is one of the most incredible creations, because no moves are ever the same. Otherwise, you don’t win. Everything is unexpected. Everything is an improvisation. That’s what’s exciting about it. It’s not about the board game. The board game is a device. It’s about the game of politics and the game of love. The fact is that it’s artistry. That’s why the two chess matches that are played on stage are ballets with black versus white. It was never about a board game.

EH: Tell me about working with new actors and artists at the Camelot Theatre.

LG: When you work with people, you try to say things in a way they can hear it, because you know that everybody wants to do their best. The only way that happens is if that person is willing to grow and be vulnerable and trust you. To me, safe space is the most important thing. If the theater can’t supply a safe space, the actors can’t develop to their full potential. I left because the space was no longer safe for the artist; it was all about the bottom line, not about the artist. What do you have in a theater, if you don’t have artists?

There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote that changed my life: “This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake.” One of the most important sentences: “Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

To me, that’s what theater is, a splendid torch: Let’s light the way. I want to do theater that really shakes you, wakes you up, and makes a difference.

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