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By Robert Loerzel

Originally published in Playbill magazine in June 2012.

Theater and comedy in Chicago wouldn’t be what they are without Viola Spolin. She may not be quite as famous as others who left their marks on the city’s theater scene — such as playwright David Mamet or performer John Malkovich — but as an innovator who devised a set of games that allow actors to improvise and project profoundly truthful performances, she has had a lasting effect on the way actors and comedians play.

Spolin encouraged actors to stop thinking of themselves as individual performers and forced them to pay more attention to the people around them. The result was ensemble theater, which emphasized the way a whole group acts and interacts, instead of putting the spotlight on one or two stars. In the 1970s, Spolin acolyte Sheldon Patinkin passed on her lessons to a fledgling company called Steppenwolf Theatre. “I spent a year with them, teaching them the games and helping them to build up an ensemble,” Patinkin says. “Basically, Chicago theater is ensemble-oriented, and I think it has a lot to do with Second City and with Steppenwolf.”

Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, used those games as the foundation for The Second City’s sketches. Eventually, Second City changed the way comedy is performed on stages and screens everywhere, spawning TV shows such as Saturday Night Live, plus countless films and improv troupes. “Her influence is everywhere,” says Patinkin, an early member of Second City who’s still directing today — and still using Spolin’s techniques.

Spolin’s 1963 book, Improvisation for the Theatre — the essential guide for actors and comedians learning the art of improv — is the all-time bestseller for Northwestern University Press. As Rob Reiner says in a blurb, “Her book is the bible.” Spolin, who died in 1994 at the age of 88, has been called the “High Priestess of Improvisation.” The funny thing is, she didn’t set out to change the worlds of comedy and theater. In the beginning, she was more of a social worker than an acting guru. Her goal was helping children.

Spolin, who was born in Chicago in 1906, believed she could use games to teach children to become more creative, more in touch with their own intuition. She picked up these ideas in the 1920s, when she studied with Neva Boyd who had founded the Recreational Training School at Hull House. Boyd taught her how to use games, storytelling, folk dance and dramatics to help people achieve “self-discovery.”

In 1925, Spolin asked herself, “What is the reason that a timid child can be brought around by play when all else fails?” The answer, she asserted, was that even shy children could be lured into a “group acting as a unit.” Spolin put her ideas into practice in the late 1930s, working for the Works Progress Administration, which President Franklin Roosevelt had launched to create jobs and pull America out of the Great Depression. Her task was leading children in theater games at Chicago schools and parks.

In a memo, Spolin explained that children would learn more by participating in creative activities than they would from hearing “a lot of rambling philosophies and pet theories.” She wouldn’t let kids act their favorite scenes from The Lone Ranger because that “was more imitative than creative.” Instead, she had them play charades, or games such as “This Reminds Me,” in which she handed them objects and asked them to tell stories about what these things reminded them of. Some of the children she worked with had attended plays, and they imitated the stiff, formal style of the actors they’d seen. Spolin thought these children were in “desperate need” of some games to help them break free of old-fashioned acting styles.

In June 1940, she presented a public performance of a show created by her students. “During our many months of improvisation, the children have developed an amazingly good sense of staging and dramatic structure,” she observed. “Many in the audience found it difficult to believe that these plays were the result of the children’s efforts.”

It may not have seemed all that important at the time — just a bunch of kids putting on a show — but Spolin was laying the groundwork for decades of theatrical advances in Chicago. Paul Sills played his mother’s games with adult acting ensembles at the Compass Theater in 1955 and when he launched Second City in 1959. His mother helped out, leading workshops. “Everybody realized fairly quickly that when people play the games together, they form an ensemble,” says Patinkin, who worked with both Compass and Second City. (Spolin’s students also included Joyce Piven, co-founder of Evanston’s influential Piven Theatre Workshop).

Patinkin says Spolin’s teachingstyle was indirect. “She didn’t want to talk about what had just happened,” he explains. “She just wanted you to do it again or move on to a different game. Paul was the same way. It wasn’t about discussing it or intellectualizing. It was about doing it.”

Spolin’s book includes instructions for dozens of games. In one simple exercise, actors pretend they’re watching sports. In a game called “contact,” actors must find a logical reason for making physical contact with another player whenever they say a line. Another game involves speaking gibberish. As Spolin explained, gibberish helps the actors stop worrying about “the multitude of technical details surrounding the initial plunge into rehearsal.” It frees them up to move more spontaneously. In other words, as Patinkin recalls Spolin saying, “Get out of your head and into the space.”

In 1965, Spolin and Sills left Second City to start the Game Theater, creating shows in which the audience would participate in actors’ games. The Game Theater lasted only a few months, but Spolin and Sills carried on with similar endeavors, including more stage shows and theater training workshops. Sills adapted fairy tales for a show called Story Theater, which debuted in Chicago and ended up on Broadway. Spolin spent the last decades of her life in Los Angeles, where she continued to teach, including workshops with the cast of the CBS sitcom Rhoda.

In a 1987 interview now posted on YouTube, Spolin looked back on her career and said she should have been a physicist. But she didn’t seem to be thinking about atoms so much as she was musing on the physicality of theater. “Playing is a total physical act,” she said. “And through the physical, hopefully we reach the spiritual. In other words, you stir up that which you have — shake it up, explode it.”

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared at The A.V. Club in May 2012.

Kelly Hogan was one of the Chicago alt-country scene’s brightest stars of the 1990s, and she has never stopped singing in the years since then—but she went a long time without releasing an album. Someone looking at a list of Hogan’s records might wonder whatever happened to her. For one thing, she’s been on the road a lot with Buy Cialis Online Canadian, singing back-up vocals for her good friend. Hogan’s also been working for another pal, Generic Levitra Online Uk, scheduling the comic-book author’s classes on how to unlock the creative spirit. Meanwhile, Hogan commanded the stage with her confident and versatile vocals on many nights at venues like the Pfizer Viagra Order, where she used to tend bar. But there was nothing new for Hogan’s fans to buy at the merch table.

That changes June 5, when Anti- Records releases I Like To Keep Myself In Pain. The album makes it clear that the alt-country label is obsolete as a description of Hogan’s music, a beautiful blend of classic soul, pop, jazz, and country. Hogan’s trusted collaborator Scott Ligon, a whiz on guitar and keyboards who also plays in Buy Viagra Cod, joined her in the studio. So did legendary keyboardist Booker T. Jones, veteran session drummer James Gadson, and bassist Gabriel Roth, a.k.a. Bosco Mann, the band leader for Kamagra Free Delivery Uk.

The songwriting credits are filled with some notable names, too. The record features new tunes—many of them written specifically for Hogan—by Buy Hyzaar 100 25, Xenical Sale’s Catherine Irwin, Order Kamagra Australia, Can I Buy Zovirax Ointment Over The Counter’s Brett and Rennie Sparks, Ci Cipro 85 For Sale, Jon Langford and Roth. Betnovate Gm Online composed a song for Hogan with lyrics by author Jack Pendarvis. Viagra Online Kaufen Ohne Rezept Erfahrungen wrote the title song, telling Hogan it was inspired by “a rather morbid e-mail exchange” he’d had with her. Vic Chesnutt gave Hogan a song before his death in 2009. Hogan also covers the Charlie Rich song “Pass On By” and the Best Website To Buy Viagra Online obscurity “Plant White Roses.”

Hogan discussed her new album and her musical roots with The A.V. Club, talking by phone from her home in Wisconsin, where she moved four years ago, to a Mayberry-like small town south of Madison.

The A.V. Club: It’s been 11 years since your last album. What took so long?

Kelly Hogan: People ask me that question. I’m like, “Dude, I was too busy!” I mean, I did that thing for ’XRT, a cover song a week for a year. I still have all that stuff in the can.

AVC: And you’ve been busy with live performances, playing with Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, Buy Kamagra Online In The Uk, and others.

KH: I was probably just trying to figure out how to be a good, well-rounded musician. That’s what I’m always trying to be, you know? Just trying to do all kinds of things and take on all kinds of challenges—the harder, the better. The more frightening it is, the more I like it. My last record came out three weeks after 9/11. It was a really weird time. And it’s always hard, when you’re a peanut, to put out a record and tour. I just couldn’t afford to tour. I’ll take a loss, but I can’t ask my band to go out for less than what they’re worth and come home after four weeks with $100.

AVC: You consider yourself a peanut?

KH: Yeah. It’s still hard when you’re a peanut. Now I’m a big circus peanut. [Laughs.]

AVC: What was the origin of this album?

KH: Andy Kaulkin is the honcho at Anti- records, and I’ve known him for quite some time now through Neko. … I was at Amoeba Records. We were doing an in-store with Neko, and I was shopping in the jazz section and Andy walked up. “I gotta talk to you.” I thought I was late for bus call. I was like, “I’m sorry I’m late!” He said, “No, no, no. I want you to make a record for Anti-.” I thought I was being punked. I was like, “Really?” It all goes back to Andy. The label’s fantastic. It all goes back to the dude who’s running it, because Andy just loves music so much.

AVC: So he had the concept of putting this band together and having all these people write songs for you?

KH: Yeah. He suggested from the get-go that I should call in favors, because I’d sung with so many different people. Last February, he said, “What do you think about coming to L.A.? And we invest our money in the band?” And I was like, “Okay, who are you thinking?” And he said, “I’m thinking Booker T.” And I’m like, “Tell me more.” He mentioned James Gadson on drums, and I’d just seen that Still Bill documentary the night before, the Bill Withers documentary. It’s so great. James Gadson was Bill Withers’ drummer. Have you seen the footage of Bill Withers on “The Old Grey Whistle Test”? You’ve got to Google that, man. It pans over to James Gadson and he’s got this awesome Afro and this cool suit and a gold tooth and he’s just smiling this gorgeous “Everything is all right and it’s gonna be all right” smile. He still does that. That’s his playing face. You know how when most people are concentrating on playing, they look like they’re pooping?

It was just this weird thing—that Andy mentioned James Gadson the day after I’d watched that documentary and then Googled Gadson specifically for an hour afterwards. I’m like, “You’re shitting me!” And then Gabe Roth was magically available for only that one week between two Dap-Tone tours. We had to get a permission slip from his wife to release him to us. But then (Kaulkin) was talking about getting a guitar player, and I was like: “Wait just a minute now. All right, I’m going to go in with Booker T. and James Gadson and Gabe Roth. I’m going to need somebody I know. I need to bring somebody to the party.”

AVC: That must have been Scott Ligon?

KH: Yeah. I just knew that Scott was going to blow those guys away. And I swear I thought that Scott Ligon and Booker T. were going to start making out with their mutual admiration.

AVC: How did you get the songs?

KH: Andy said, “Write a list of all these people you’ve worked with.” I was like, “Dang! I’ve worked with a lot of awesome people. There’s a lot.” So I wrote 40 fan letters to people, saying, “I’m making a record. I think you kick ass. I’m looking for songs. Do you have a song that you think I could do right by?”

AVC: It must be awesome to have these songs coming in for you to sing.

KH: It’s terrifying! Every aspect of this project was fraught with terror. It was scary for me to write to these people. It was probably scary for them to get the letter. It was scary for them to write the songs. It was scary for me to get the songs. But like I said, I like to keep myself off-balance, teetering—keep myself open. That’s why I picked the title. I like to keep myself in fear.

AVC: How much do the final recordings vary from the demos?

KH: It varies song by song. Scott and I would play with the songs at his house. We were making demos to send to the band, just very skeletal demos, because we were going to arrange as a band all together, which is also scary. And then we spent those Mondays at the Hideout last March, and that was also non-negotiable to me. I was like, “I’m going to have to play these songs live because that’s where I’m more able to discover what the song wants and needs.”

The Robyn Hitchcock song, we didn’t know how we were going to do it. Should it be in 6/8? Like this doo-wop thing? Should it be this kind of rock ’n’ roll thing? In the studio, we saved it till later in the week, ’cause we still weren’t sure about it. Then we came back from lunch that day and I was like, “Okay, we’re going to do that Robyn Hitchcock song.” And James Gadson was like, “Oh, yeah, this one!” And he started playing this doop-de-dee-dee, like the Sons Of The Pioneers, and he started yodeling. And then Scott started playing these overtly Willie Nelson-y things on the nylon-string guitar. Booker walked in from lunch and he was smiling. He was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah—that!” And then we were like, “Duh! He produced (Willie Nelson’s) ‘Stardust,’ man.” So it became this sort of weird cowboy noir.

AVC: Do you see all this music as being of a particular genre, or are you past the whole idea of thinking, “What genre am I performing in right now?”

KH: I never think about it. If a song is a good song, it’s a good song. Country and soul music have so much in common to me. Gosh, I wake up singing a different song every day. I was singing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” Why? [Laughs.] Sometimes it’ll be the “Look for the Union Label” jingle. I never know. I don’t worry about genre. Even back to my band, The Jody Grind—record labels would take us to dinner and go, “You do all these different kinds of music. If you would concentrate on one of the things that you do…” But, no, we’re not going to do that just to be marketable. And here I am, still eating ramen noodles, 25 years later. And that’s fine with me.

AVC: Were you exposed to a lot of different kinds of music growing up in Georgia?

KH: My first crush was—at the same, I was double-dating, in my mind, Davy Jones and Buck Owens. For some reason I had a crush on Buck Owens—“old liver lips,” that’s what Roy Clark would call him. I was really into country music at the time. I have an aunt who is 10 years older than me, and I used to love to sit in her room and watch her clean out her purse, and we’d listen to Paul Revere And The Raiders and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Monkees. And I was constantly listening to the radio. We’d spend our days with my grandmother, and she’d listen to WPLO AM radio in Atlanta, which was the hardcore country station—Charlie Pride, Lynn Anderson, Buck Owens and all that. We’d watch Hee Haw at their house. And then my mom was listening to Tom Jones and Van Morrison, and my dad was a huge soul music fan—Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Booker T., all that stuff. Nobody in my family is a musician. But music was always on somewhere.

In high school I was really into Van Halen and AC/DC. A friend who was a year ahead of me in school came in one day with two Billie Holiday records and said, “Here, I’m trying to save you from yourself.” And, oh, man, I took all my heavy-metal records and I sold them to this guy in my homeroom for, like, five bucks. And I’ve had to re-buy them: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Diver Down. Why did I do that? I thought I was all cool and jazz after that. But what an idiot. The world is big. There’s room for “Big Balls” and “I Cover The Waterfront.” Isn’t it an awesome world we live in? Genre schmenre.

AVC: Did you take to singing pretty easily when you were young?

KH: My mom always said I freaked her out as a 1- or 2-year-old. I knew the words to songs on the radio. I could sing them to myself in the crib. I was always over by the record player listening with my head against the speaker. And singing. One of my first Christmas presents, when I was 4, was my own little record player.

But I was painfully, painfully shy. I was at summer camp a year before sixth grade. And I used to sing in our tents at night—six girls in a tent. They wanted me to sing at a going-home ceremony when the parents came to pick everybody up. I was like, “Hell no! No way!” So they stole my clothes one day when I was in swim class. And I walked around for three days in a bathing suit before I said, “Okay, I’ll sing a song.” That was the first time I ever sang in front of people—at a Girl Scout camp in ’76, in Augusta, Georgia.

AVC: And how did it go?

KH: It went great, actually. I was shocked. I sang “Memories” from The Way We Were, barefooted, in front of about 200 Girl Scouts, Brownies, and parents and counselors. I finally got my nerve up to go audition for chorus in that school year. … I went to All State Chorus every year, where you would work with university choir directors and do all the complicated stuff. I got to sing with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus with Robert Shaw, Beethoven’s Ninth, one time. That was really fun. And then I had to kind of unlearn all that, because I started playing in bars on the fly when I was still in high school. You have to lose a little bit of your diction to sing in a jazz band or a rock band.

AVC: Do you do vocal exercises?

KH: I try to warm up. I found that the opening measures of Louis Jordan songs make great warm-ups. Instead of just [sings scale] “Da da da da da da da da,” it’s: “Open the door, Richard! Open the door, Richard!” I just listen to music that I know by heart while I’m putting on makeup. Me and Neko do that in the bus. We like Patty Loveless songs, and we sing along to that.

You have to really take care of yourself on the road. I learned in the Rock*A*Teens you can have delusional, feverish flu and be on Robitussin when you’re playing guitar, but you can’t sing. You have to really take care of yourself, and there’s nothing that replaces sleep. I definitely miss out on some awesome drunk good times because of being a singer and not a guitar player. I have to go to bed.

AVC: Do you arrange your harmony parts?

KH: Mmm-hmm. I don’t write them down on paper, but I make them up in my head. I can just hear them. I like to live with a song for a while and drive around with it or listen to it while I’m doing something else, like doing dishes or taking a bath. I hear melodies in everything. I harmonize to my vacuum cleaner. I harmonize to a factory whistle in my town that goes off six times a day. I want to write them a letter: “Could you please give me a couple of more toots or let it ring out longer?” Or if a car alarm is going off, I start writing a melody around it. It’s bizarre.

AVC: Do you do something different with the delivery or timbre of your voice to meld with a particular singer?

KH: It depends on what the song needs. It can vary measure by measure in a song. I’m that nerdy about it. There’s definitely a different attack or how much vibrato. Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s my joy. That’s my nerdy joy. My nerd world. That’s where I live. I think about that stuff all the time.

AVC: One thing you’re not known for so much is writing songs, but you do have an excellent one, “Golden,” on the new record.

KH: Thanks, man. I don’t know. It’s a time-honored tradition: The writers write the songs. The singers sing it. I always say Bob Dylan just fucked it up for everybody. You have to do both or you don’t get any respect. But whatever. I wake up every day thinking about singing and being a great musician. I wake up, like, every third day about maybe writing a song.

AVC: What’s the story behind how you came to write “Golden”?

KH: That is a song about Neko and for Neko—about how me and her are cursed. We know what we do is really hard but we can’t stop doing it. I wrote that quite a while ago for her. It struck me later that all the references in it are kind of antique, you know? There’s pay phones and transistor radios. I wrote it pre-cellphone. She actually did call me from a pay phone one morning, when she was in the middle of nowhere in Canada, and the van broke down. I was like, “Oh, dude. I feel ya. I feel ya, man.” That was like 1999 or something. On the way to work—it’s totally true—I saw her face on a Ted Nugent billboard. On Ted Nugent’s body. I was, “Yeah, man!” That’s just my wish for her. And just kind of our little friendship and how we’re doomed.

AVC: The two of you have already had great stage banter together.

KH: Tampon, tampon, vagina, vagina, tampon, penis.

AVC: And now you do it on Twitter.

KH: Yeah, it’s fun. I love talking to her that way. Actually, we tone it down it for Twitter. We hit it off immediately when we met. We just spoke the same language.

AVC: You really open yourself on some of your Tumblr posts. You had a Viagra Generic Online Canada last year about a photo of your old band, The Jody Grind.

KH: Phew, that took a long time to write. But I’m glad I wrote it. Yeah, I’m really enjoying Tumblr. I don’t write songs, but I like to write write. That’s using my Lynda Barry method. It’s just whenever something sparks, like a photograph. It’s just memory stuff. What draws me to certain song lyrics is when they’re visually evocative. Like the Vic Chesnutt song. That song only has, like, eight words in it, but they’re all like visual flash bulb images: Easter dresses, choir robes, muscle cars.

AVC: How does it feel to sing the song Vic Chesnutt wrote for you, now that he has died?

KH: I don’t know what they’re doing with any posthumous release for him, but the demo, he recorded it with Accutane 2009 Online over in their basement one night—and the demo is stunning. It just floored me. It’s great. He put in his e-mail, “I was too high to hit the high notes.” Bullshit, Vic, it sounds awesome. Yeah, I’m really glad that it’s out there. I don’t want to talk too much about Vic not being around. You know, he had a hard—just getting up every day and going to the bathroom was harder than most of us—it’s like having to do your taxes every day. I don’t know. So, yeah, it’s really sad. I played some of my record for Patterson Hood from Where To Buy Clomid Online Uk in October, and he said, “Oh, that little bastard would’ve loved this.” And I was like, “You think so?” I just hope he hears it somewhere, and I hope he likes it.

Photo by Robert Loerzel

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in May 2012.

Metallica helped Nick Sandys get into the right frame of mind when he was playing the title character of Macbeth. The Chicago actor blasted the heavy-metal band on his car stereo as he drove to the theater. When he’s in the car en route to a performance, ames Vincent Meredith rattles off his lines. Mary Beth Fisher visualizes scenes in her mind as she runs in the afternoon, picturing the stage where she’ll be acting a few hours later. Before curtain time, Patrick Clear likes to clear his mind by napping for 20 or 30 minutes on a cot in his dressing room. Marc Grapey also chills out backstage, but he prefers listening to favorite tunes on his iPod while reading a magazine or book.

These are just a few of the routines that Chicago actors follow to make sure they’re ready to deliver a strong performance. Their strategies may differ, but they all face the same considerations; for example, when and what to eat? Actors generally like to finish dinner at least an hour before a performance. “Eating is always a conundrum,” says Grapey, a cast member in the Goodman Theatre’s Race and The Iceman Cometh. “I’ve never gotten used to eating at 5 o’clock. It’s weird.”

Sandys, artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre, likes to eat pasta in late afternoon. “People say, ‘Oh, you can’t do theater on pasta,’” he says. “I love eating pasta, as long as I’ve got that hour for it to process, because it gives you so many carbs and it gives me energy.” Fisher, a regular at the Goodman and Court Theatre, eats a light supper around 4 or 5 p.m. By show time, she says, “You’re pretty well digested, but you still have the calories to burn. I eat very carefully before, and then eat with complete abandon afterward — which is not so great for the waistline, but what are you going to do when you’re starving?”

During the run of a play, Fisher tries to take her days at a measured pace. “You have to moderate your energy level,” she says. “Every performer knows the amount of energy a particular show takes. You know what your reserve has to be when you get to the theater at 7:30.” Clear, whose many credits include Race at the Goodman and The March at Steppenwolf, says hobbies help his mental state. He cooks, bakes, does woodworking and weaving, relishing the pleasure of having something solid in his hands when he’s finished — something that isn’t possible with the evanescent art of theater. “There’s very little left over for us to ever step back and look at,” he says.

Actors are required to be at the theater half an hour before curtain time, but many like to arrive earlier than that. Some walk out onto the stage. “It’s about feeling at home,” Sandys relates. “I do a little stretching and breathing and moving around on the set,” offers Fisher, “just to put myself back into the geography of the play.” Grapey has practical reasons for visiting the stage. “I like to check my props,” he says. “In Race, I would make sure my chair was always exactly where I wanted it.”

Clear shows up early, too, but he’d rather spend that extra time off the stage, napping, warming up his vocal cords with some exercises, or sharing his baked treats with the cast and crew.  “I try not to have too much on my mind by the time I get to the theater,” he says. “The whole ritual of getting into the theater, signing in — it’s like I feel permission to let everything else go. By the time you get into costume and makeup and wig, you let the rest of your day go and just focus on this.” Other actors say they’re mentally preparing for their performance during those moments in the dressing room. “Sitting in front of the makeup mirror is really important,” Sandys says. “That’s another part of becoming the character for me. Even if there’s minimal makeup, it’s like you’re seeing that face change.”

When Meredith is in a show at Steppenwolf, he goes into the trap room beneath the stage. “I love being in such close proximity to the stage, but no one’s around me,” he says, describing how he speeds through his lines one more time in that hidden place. “That gives me a bit of courage when I get out onstage.”

When the show’s over, many actors like to have a drink or two with their cast mates. Others put a premium on getting a good night’s rest, so they head home. “Some people get off the stage, they get into their car and they go home,” Grapey says. “I couldn’t do that. There’s just a certain adrenaline rush that I get from being onstage. I don’t stay out all night, but I relish my post-show beer.” Sandys likes to have a ritual drink with the rest of the cast in the dressing room, especially after an intense show, such as Remy Bumppo’s 2011 production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? “We need to toast each other when we come off the stage to say that we have emotionally survived.”

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in April 2012.

When it comes to pirates in pop culture, Jack Sparrow is a Johnny-come-lately. He’s been swashbuckling his way across movie screens for a mere nine years — since 2003, when Johnny Depp starred in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Sparrow certainly cuts a dashing figure, but he owes a lot to the fictional buccaneers who sailed before him. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance helped launch a popular fascination with nautical naughty boys way back in 1879. That was four years before Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island introduced the world to Long John Silver, and more than two decades before Captain Hook debuted in J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan.

Those Pirates of Penzance are an unusual bunch, as far as pirates go. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum? Well, these fellows are more inclined to sip sherry. And they’re all orphans, too tenderhearted to attack other orphans. “It’s a very tame, funny, charming kind of pirate, not a mean and scary guy,” says Dominic Missimi, who directs Pirates of Penzance this spring at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Of course, actual pirates usually aren’t such nice fellows. They rob, kidnap and kill. Pirates have been around since ancient times, but the most famous ones, including Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, prowled the seas from 1716 to 1726, a decade of widespread plundering known as The Golden Age of Piracy. Today, pirates regularly assault merchant vessels off the coast of Somalia. And they’re not sporting eye patches and wooden legs. But in the realms of film and theater, pirates are romantic figures. “As the threat of piracy receded … the public perception of pirates underwent a change,” wrote David Cordingly in his 1995 book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates. “Instead of being regarded as common murderers and robbers they began to acquire the status of romantic outlaws.” It’s true. Pirates may be bad guys, but it’s hard not to get caught up in their daring exploits. Like the cowboys of the Wild West, pirates represent a sense of free spirit and adventure.

Stevenson’s Treasure Island is the definitive literary portrait of pirates, but Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical has also had a lasting impact. “In spite of its lighthearted approach to the subject, The Pirates of Penzance has had a considerable influence on the way many people view pirates today,” observed Cordingly.

Missimi — despite his long experience working at the Marriott and other Chicago theaters — never directed a professional Gilbert and Sullivan production until now. Although Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta was originally intended for adult audiences, Missimi sees it as a show that can be enjoyed by children, too, and his version evokes childhood fascinations with these errant swashbucklers of the high seas. He’s added a prologue, setting a fanciful tone for the entire show. “It begins with four children playing with their toys,” he says. “One of their toys is pirate ship, while other puppets suggest the wind from the moon blowing on the boat, seagulls flying and fish jumping out of the water.”

Missimi, who recently retired as a theater professor at Northwestern University, was also thinking about toys when he decided how the music should sound. So he’s asked music director Ryan Nelson to pare down composer Arthur Sullivan’s traditional orchestrations to smaller arrangements, with a touch of calliope and carnival music. “I want it to have a much more zestful, toylike quality,” Missimi says.

W.S. Gilbert’s libretto isn’t exactly kids’ stuff, but the plot follows a rather preposterous course. One of the main characters, Frederic, was supposed to be apprenticed to a ship’s pilot when he was a young lad. But his nurse heard wrong and took him to a pirate ship instead. Now that he’s 21 years old, he’s free to go. Or is he? Since he was born on Feb. 29 in a leap year, it turns out that he won’t reach the age of 21 until 1940. Director Missimi says one of the keys to performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s topsy-turvy zaniness is to treat it with seriousness and respect. “You do it pretty dead seriously, only to see just how absurd the characters or the situations are,” he says.

Spoofing operas and melodramas of the day, as well as the stuffy pretensions of English society, Gilbert specialized in jokes and “topsy-turvy” plot devices. Meanwhile, Sullivan brilliantly blended his own inventive melodies with musical nods to popular composers like Schubert and Verdi. The Pirates of Penzance was the fifth of the 12 operettas that the English duo wrote together, with a title that contained a double meaning. Part of the joke was that Penzance, a peaceful English resort town, was an unlikely place to find pirates. But the title also alluded to Gilbert and Sullivan’s troubles with copyright piracy. As many as 150 unauthorized productions of their previous hit, H.M.S. Pinafore, were performed across the United States. Without any international copyright law in place at the time, Gilbert and Sullivan received zero royalties for all those shows. As a way of combating American theatrical pirates, they decided to hold their next world premiere in New York City, bringing The Pirates of Penzance to the American public before anyone else had a chance to plunder the script.

The show features some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular tunes, including “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” in which the especially pompous Major-General Stanley rapidly recites his redeeming qualities. The very model of a patter song, with a style of vocal delivery that’s half-sung and half-spoken, it influenced countless other show tunes (and has found its way to TV’s Home Improvement, The Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation). At the Marriott Theatre, one of Chicago’s favorite stage actors, Ross Lehman, will play the Major-General. And as if there aren’t already enough words wedged into that song, playwright Kingsley Day is squeezing in a few new lyrics, including some joking allusions to the Chicago theater scene.

For more than a hundred years, the seriously silly shows of Gilbert and Sullivan were kept alive by the constantly touring D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, but that English troupe folded in 1982. (It was revived from 1988 to 2003, but didn’t tour as extensively.) The Pirates of Penzance regained currency in 1981 with director Joseph Papp’s Broadway production, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. Some recent productions have borrowed the look and style of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. And the irreverently inventive Chicago company The Hypocrites upturned tradition by transforming Penzance into a musical beach party.

Missimi’s version for the Marriott skews toward the traditional, but he is quick to note that it is no museum piece. “We’ve had to endure Gilbert and Sullivan societies where everyone stands against the wall like wallpaper as one soloist after another comes forward to sing,” observes Missimi, promising that his version isn’t nearly as stodgy as that. “When they’re staged well and acted well, we come to a wonderful appreciation of the craft of creating a music theater piece with great wit in the lyrics, a wonderful melody and musical invention. These were smart people.” Smart, but silly. That sounds like the very model of a modern Marriott musical.

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in April 2012.

For hundreds of years, people have questioned whether William Shakespeare really wrote the plays we attribute to him. Strangely enough, a Chicago judge ruled on the question in 1916. For a brief time, an official legal decision was on the books in Cook County Circuit Court, declaring that the true author of Shakespeare’s plays was Sir Francis Bacon.

How did the Windy City come to be the venue for this groundbreaking, and possibly dubious, decision? It was all because of George Fabyan, a textile tycoon in Chicago who was obsessed with the theory that Bacon was the true author of the Bard’s scripts — a popular notion at the turn of the 20th century. Fabyan was a large, loud man with some odd obsessions. Riverbank, his 300-acre estate in then rural Geneva, boasted a zoo with bears, alligators, wolves, peacocks and prairie dogs. Pet monkeys scampered around inside his Frank Lloyd Wright-renovated house, where some furniture hung by chains from the ceiling.

Fabyan created a private scientific laboratory at Riverbank, hiring experts to study acoustic reverberations and the effects of the moon on crop growth. “You never get sick of too much knowledge,” he once said. The knowledge-seekers Fabyan brought to Riverbank included Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who said she’d found coded messages hidden inside Shakespeare’s plays. She claimed that the first folio of Shakespeare’s writings used a mix of different typefaces. She isolated the letters in certain fonts, and translated them with a “bilateral cipher” published by Francis Bacon. The words she coaxed from Shakespeare’s scripts seemed to be messages from Bacon himself, one of which appeared to reveal that Bacon was Queen Elizabeth’s secret child. In Richard II, Gallup found this statement: “Men call me Bacon but I am the Queene’s future heyre.”

Fabyan and Gallup believed they has all the proof they needed to discredit William Shakespeare. But William Selig, a Chicago film producer who tapped Shakespeare’s plays for some of his silent pictures, didn’t think so. Selig sued Fabyan in 1916, arguing that Gallup’s research would damage Shakespeare’s reputation — as well as the box-office receipts for Selig’s films. Cook County Judge Richard Tuthill ruled in favor of Fabyan, asserting that Shakespeare was “rather an ignorant man” incapable of writing such sophisticated plays. “Bacon was fearful of the effect upon his reputation if it became known he was a bookworm,” Tuthill said. “But he was a friend of Shakespeare, the theater manager, and he longed to try his hand at play writing, a thing he could not consider in his own name. Hence he used Shakespeare’s name as a cloak.” In the wake of Tuthill’s decision, Alderman Frank Klaus proposed changing name of Chicago’s Shakespeare Avenue to Bacon Avenue. “I don’t pretend to be a Shakespearean scholar,” he said, “but, according to Judge Tuthill, Shakesperare has ‘put one over’ for 300 years.”

However, newspapers and academics heaped scorn on Tuthill. “All that I have to say is that such a view is nonsense,” stated one University of Chicago professor. Some people suggested that the whole lawsuit was a sham, designed to generate publicity for Selig’s movies. The county’s chief judge questioned whether Tuthill had any legal authority to rule on the case. Under pressure, Tuthill rescinded his ruling. As he walked out of the courthouse, he muttered, “The mountains labored and brought forth a ridiculous mouse.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story. All of that research about secret codes in Shakespeare kick-started the field of cryptology. Eighty U.S. Army officers came to Riverbank in 1917 and learned how to decipher secret messages sent by spies and foreign countries. William and Elizebeth Friedman, who began their cryptology careers working with Gallup on those Shakespeare manuscripts at Riverbank, ended up decoding enemy communications for the U.S. military in World War I and World War II. In 1955, the married couple decided to take another look at Shakespeare. And now they saw where Gallup went wrong. Those different fonts Gallup had seen in the first folio? Those were just haphazard differences caused by primitive printing technology. No pattern at all. No secret messages from Francis Bacon or anyone else. Gallup had just found what she wanted to find.

The Folger Shakespeare Library gave the Friedmans a prize for debunking Gallup’s theories. When the Friedmans published a book with their findings, they couldn’t resist including a secret code of their own. If you isolate certain italicized letters in the book and translate them with Bacon’s bilateral cipher, you’ll receive this message: “I did not write the plays. F. Bacon.”