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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in March 2010.
Chicago used to be the kind of town where actors were afraid of saying words like “hell” or “damn” on the stage. And taking off their clothes during a play? Unthinkable.
These days, smoking a cigarette is just about the only thing that might draw a fine; playwrights and directors can be as shocking as they want to be. But this wasn’t the case throughout much of the 20th century, when Chicago’s theaters had to deal with censors from the Police Department and City Hall. “Because there is no national law about censorship, every community gets to create its own,” says John Houchin, author of Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century.
In the early 1900s, one of the most controversial shows was Salomé, an Oscar Wilde play that Richard Strauss adapted as an opera. Based on a story from the Bible, Salomé gave theaters a chance to present a striptease, which the title character performs as she demands that her father, King Herod, bring her the head of the prophet Jokanaan. In 1908, the Chicago Tribune criticized Lotta Faust’s Salomé dance at Chicago’s Garrick Theatre, complaining, “Her undulation becomes more riotous as the dance continues.” Police Chief George Shippy went to the theater the next night to check it out for himself, but he didn’t see anything wrong. “The dancer wore flesh-colored tights,” he said. “Her back was not bare, as has been said … The dancer did not wriggle nor posture improperly.” But when one of the most famous Salomé dancers, Maud Allan, tried to perform in Chicago in 1916, city officials stopped the show. “Salomé emerges at the same time as contemporary dance,” said Houchin, chairman of the theater department at Boston College. “It’s part of a general issue of showing women on stage. It breaks through a whole lot of barriers pretty quickly.”
In 1935, the Chicago police censor allowed Tobacco Road to open at the Selwyn Theatre (located where the Goodman Theatre is today). Critics praised this play about poor white sharecroppers in rural Georgia — “a priceless contribution to American drama,” the Chicago Herald-Examiner asserted — but Mayor Edward Kelly was outraged when he saw it. “It is an insult to decent people,” he claimed. “The language throughout is utter profanity and vulgarity. There is not a redeeming line or gesture in the whole production.” Kelly revoked the Selwyn Theatre’s license.
Erskine Caldwell, author of the novel Tobacco Road, happened to be in Chicago at the time. He insisted that his book and playwright Jack Kirkland’s stage version of it were “no more profane than everyday life.” The show’s star, Henry Hull, admitted that the play was vulgar, but he added, “So is life in the raw. If it is a play unfit for Chicago people to see, then the Bible is an unfit book for them to read.”
The producers of Tobacco Road sued the city, but they lost their case on appeal. So they took their show on the road to Milwaukee. The mayor of that city sat in the audience on opening night, laughing approvingly at all the jokes. Tobacco Road was not produced again in Chicago until 1972.
In 1948, Chicago censors demanded the removal of offensive dialogue from Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan’s play about the U.S. Navy, Mister Roberts. Later that year, they banned Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute, but they changed their minds later and let it open.
The city did not change its policy on censorship in the 1960s, but it seemed the police were letting theaters get away with a lot more. “In recent years we have heard all the old four-letter words that used to be considered off limits,” Tribune critic William Leonard wrote in 1968, “and we have witnessed ladies with bosoms just as devoid of décolletage as any of the damsels in Las Vegas or San Francisco.”
The real test came when the musical Hair arrived Chicago after a successful and controversial run in New York. Hair’s producer, Chicago native Mike Butler, knew how to deal with censors. “He just had an army of lawyers, and anytime they were not granted a license, he took them to court,” Houchin says. “And he got a couple of Supreme Court decisions.” When the cast of Hair briefly stood naked on the stage of the Shubert Theatre (now the Bank of America Theatre) in October 1969, the police were nowhere in sight. The age of censorship in Chicago theater was over.
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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in February 2010.
Staging a fight scene for a play is a bit like designing a rollercoaster ride: it should look dangerous, but it needs to be safe. Those swords you see onstage don’t have sharp edges, but they can deliver some serious bruises. Many stage firearms make enough noise to damage someone’s hearing if they’re fired too close to the head. And it isn’t hard to imagine all the things that might go wrong when actors swing their fists, even if they aren’t really trying to land a solid punch.
When actors fight with fists, swords, knives or guns, what we’re actually watching is a carefully choreographed dance. In rehearsal, the actors make sure their bodies are in the right place, positioning themselves at angles that will keep the audience from seeing the tricks they’re using to make the fight seem real. They practice their moves over and over, until they can smoothly execute the entire fight sequence, making it appear spontaneous. “For every ten seconds of violence that you see onstage, it’s probably about an hour to an hour and a half of rehearsal,” says David Woolley, who teaches at Columbia College and has been choreographing fights in Chicago since 1982.
So what are some of the tricks that actors use during stage combat? “The secret to a good slap is not hitting somebody in the face,” Woolley says. “The physical reaction of the actor is as though they’ve been hit.” What makes the slap seem realistic is the sound. Fight choreographers call the sound of people hitting each other a “knap,” and they use different tricks to make a knap. Sometimes, an actor hits his own body with one hand to make the sound, while his other hand seems to be hitting his opponent.
When Nick Sandys choreographed a boxing match for Shattered Globe Theatre’s 2008 production of A Requiem for a Heavyweight, the trick was hidden inside the gloves. Sandys says boxing gloves make a hard impact only if the fighters tighten their fists. “If you leave your hands relaxed, they’re like having a big sponge on the back of your hand.” But the sound of the glove’s impact is the same, so the boxing looks and sounds real to the audience. “This looked like the biggest pounding you’ve ever seen in your life,” Sandys says.
Sandys, a native of York, England, who’s been acting and choreographing fights on Chicago stages since 1992, revealed another trick of the trade in a class at The Theatre School of DePaul University. He showed his students how to do a “flipper kick.” An actor lies on the floor, with his back to the rest of the class, one hand jutting out like a dolphin’s flipper. Another actor approaches and lift his leg to kick his classmate. To the audience, it looks and sounds like the assailant landed a solid kick on the victim’s head or torso. But he actually just kicked that “flipper” hand, which the audience can’t see. The contact of his foot against that hand made the “knap” sound.
But the most important trick of all is the constant teamwork between actors. It may look like they’re trying to kill each other, but they’re actually working together. “They’ve got to be partners and not antagonists,” says Chicago fight choreographer Charles Coyl, who teaches at Roosevelt University and the Actors Gymnasium in Evanston. The actors give each other subtle cues, signaling when they’re ready for the next move. “The victim controls the action,” Sandys says. “If the victim doesn’t respond correctly, the illusion is broken. Their reaction sells the danger of the moment.”
On occasion, Sandys uses historical research to make his stage violence look real. For a swordfight in Faust last fall at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, he studied books about 19th-century French saber technique. For The Ballad of Emmett Till at the Goodman Theatre in 2008, Sandys researched the shocking murder that galvanized the civil rights movement and constructed a devastatingly brutal scene based on Till’s actual injuries. Some audience members had trouble watching this violence, but Sandys intended it to be difficult. “It is one of the murders that changed the face of the 20th century, and it needs to be horrific.”
In Shakespeare’s time, Sandys suggests, sword fights onstage must have looked authentic. After all, Italian fencing masters ran popular salons just down the street from the Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare’s acting company included a master of arms and an actor who’d killed a man in a duel. But as sword fights and duels became less common in real life, they became less realistic on the stage. Later, when audiences got used to seeing realistic violence in movies and television shows, theaters had to step up their game. Founded in 1977, the Society of American Fight Directors has certified thousands of actors in the skills of stage combat. The society also created a common vocabulary for how to describe fight moves.
With Sandys as his fight choreographer, actor Dev Kennedy learned that lingo when he starred in The Castle of Otronto last fall at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. At first, the directions seemed like gibberish, with numbers representing different areas of the body (when a fight choreographer says “1,” for example, he’s talking about your head). Mastering his moves felt like learning a foreign language, but Kennedy says he succeeded through sheer repetition. “It becomes part of you, it’s in your body and you’re able to execute it easily.”
In his class at DePaul, Sandys showed students how to handle rapiers and daggers in a duel. The room echoed with the clink and clatter of metal blades. And then, as the young actors began to learn their moves, Sandys told them to think about what their characters were feeling. “We’re trying to tell a story,” he said. “Each phrase begins in a certain way and ends in a different way. Something has changed. The power has shifted. What is the story? What does it make you feel like? … Just think, if this was real, how much danger you’d been put through already — a lot!” The students laughed. “I always tell them: The fight is useless without their acting. No matter how good my choreography is, it doesn’t matter if they don’t act.”
This article by Robert Loerzel was originally published in the December 2009 issue of North Shore Magazine.
They boarded grand 19th-century steamships in their finery — well-heeled men and women embarking on what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime. What they saw abroad would inspire them and, in a few cases, would ultimately change the political, cultural and architectural landscape of Chicago and its North Shore.
WHEN FRANCES WILLARD TURNED 30 on Sept. 28, 1869, a grand tour of Europe had landed the adventuress and her steamer trunk in Genoa, Italy. The Evanston schoolteacher had been traveling the continent a year and a half already, first by steamship and then by train — and would continue her study of the Old World’s “high culture” for another year.
Willard’s journey with fellow teacher Kate Jackson (whose wealthy family bankrolled their two-year-long adventure) came at the dawn of a golden age of pleasure travel, an era when intrepid explorers boarded large steam ships to cross the Atlantic and see parts of the world they had only read about in books. In some ways, it was the American elite’s attempt to mimic the English, who believed that a “Grand Tour of the Continent” was essential education for those in the upper class. The notion of seeing the world was romantic and glamorous, but getting there was hardly luxurious. Willard’s transatlantic voyage took 12 days, and she was seasick the whole time.
However, once she arrived, and began to see the European cities, art and artifacts she had once only dreamed of, Frances Willard slowly began to discover the woman she would one day become.
Writing in her diary on her birthday, Willard was invigorated from seeing Italy’s treasures of art and architecture. “I was never braver for the future,” she wrote. But when she went to Rome a month later, Willard felt oppressed by the sight of so many poor people begging on the city’s streets. After two months in Rome, she wrote in her diary, “The world seems so sadly out of joint; ‘the cry of the human’ sounds so wailingly in my ears…” Willard began to feel the need to change the world. As she recalled later in her memoirs, “I never dreamed in those lethargic years at home, what a wide world it is, and how full of misery … Rome caught me an intense love and tender pity for my race.”
In Damascus, a tour guide took Willard up a set of rickety stairs to a slave market, where “several miserable negro women, tattered boys and one pretty Circassian girl” were penned up, waiting to be sold. “They hold out their hands for alms,” she wrote in her diary. “Some are in bed, sick in body or in heart. It is a sad sight to behold, in some regards the saddest upon which I ever gazed.”
In Egypt Willard saw women toiling to build a railway embankment, their backs lashed by all overseer’s whip. She described a woman in a black robe walking through the desert with a baby on her shoulder: “If we come near enough, the sight of that dusky face, into which the misery of centuries seems crowded, will smite us like a blow.”
And then, after two years abroad, Willard went back home to Evanston and began drawing from those experiences as she began lecturing about the plight of women around the world. Soon, she found herself in demand as a speaker. In the decades that followed, Willard became one of America’s most famous women, leading the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and crusading to ban alcohol, campaigning for women to receive the right to vote and later waging her battles on a global scale, advocating a “universal federation” that would bring peace to the world.
When Willard made her trip 140 years ago, historians estimate that only one out of every 1,100 Americans traveled overseas each year. While actual statistics are hard to come by, there is little doubt that other North Shore residents were among these fortunate few able to indulge in such an adventure.
“North Shore people would have been exactly the sort who’d make extended visits to Europe, perhaps while at university, perhaps on honeymoon, perhaps while exploring the Bohemian side of their personality while trying to write or paint on Paris’ Left Bank,” says John K. Walton, who edits The Journal of Tourism History.
Like Willard, many of these late-19th-century and early-20th-cenmry travelers brought back ideas, culture and philosophies that changed their lives forever. In some cases, those ideas and philosophies changed the North Shore, too.
Another prominent North Shore resident also traveled to Europe in the late-19th and early-20th century, bringing back influences that remain with us today. Between 1892 and 1893, architect Howard Van Doren Shaw made his first voyage, gleaning ideas from designers such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh of Glasgow, who was combining new elements with traditional forms.
“This type of extended sojourn to see the great art and architecture of the world was common among artists and architects at the time,” writes Shaw biographer Virginia A. Green. “Shaw spent his days sketching buildings and making notes about proportions and colors.”
Inspired by what he’d seen, Shaw built a country estate in Lake Forest called Ragdale in 1898. And Shaw continued to draw inspiration from his travels in 1913, when he visited Paris, Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna, Budapest and various German towns. Shaw’s sightseeing influenced the work he did on Lake Forest’s famous square. “The style of Market Square is a delightful amalgam of European vernacular motifs, planned to re-create the feeling of a village that has grown over the centuries,” Green writes in her book.
And then there’s the story of Evanston architect Daniel H. Burnham and Lake Forest architect Edward H. Bennett, who drew heavily on inspiration from overseas travels when they wrote their famous Plan of Chicago in 1909.
Visiting London in November 1908, Burnham wrote to Bennett: “The Chicago work is seldom out of mind and I feel more and more confident of it as I go about over here. There were has been such a thorough plan as we have for Chicago. But it will take 50 years to make such a solid town as London, even after we have the street layout adopted.” The following month in Italy, even as Burnham commented that Rome was the loveliest city he had ever seen, he wrote: “As we look back on Chicago, its vital quality looms up in the mind. There is where things are to be done.”
Bennett’s family donated these letters in 2008 to Lake Forest College’s library, along with more than 1,500 photographs that the architect used while he was working on Plan of Chicago. Many of these pictures showed Old World architecture. Bennett’s work was shaped by his experiences as a student in Paris. He had also toured the Mediterranean in 1902, and he would visit Egypt in 1910. Bennett was not just Burnham’s co-author on Plan of Chicago — he also worked on zoning plan for Winnetka and Lake Forest.
“Wealthy Chicagoans returned from Europe and wanted their houses and gardens to reflect the aristocratic and upper middle-class homes there,” says Arthur H. Miller, archivist and librarian for special collections at Lake Forest College.
“The Lake Forest places on maple grounds reflected European styles in houses and formal gardens, circa the 1890s to 1930s. These yielded to Art Deco in the 1930s and to International Style in the 1950s. But the post-Puritan generation here built in the mode of what they had seen in their travels for homes and institutions.”
On a trip to Europe in 1926 and 1927, another local architect, Henry Dubin, met the legendary Le Corbusier. Until then, Dubin had designed houses in the English Tudor style. “That changed his whole idea about architecture,” his son, Arthur Dubin, said in an interview. “He built a new modern house in Ravinia, and it was not easy to build it. They not only disliked the modern architecture but the fact that it was designed by a Jewish architect made them even more unhappy.”
Arthur Dubin, who lived most of his life in Highland Park and now lives in Northbrook, became an architect himself. In 1949, he sailed to Europe and retraced his father’s footsteps, looking at buildings designed by Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. He sketched what he saw and sent postcards home.
“We tramped over Versailles from beginning to end,” he wrote. “It is a disgustingly grand palace. No wonder that the people finally decided to change things. The best part of the visit, like lots of other things here, was that it is just like the architecture history books say — except that now I have touched it myself.”
But architectural ideas were not the only concepts that travelers carried home to the North Shore. Golf was practically unknown in the United States when Lake Forest author Hobart Chatfield-Taylor returned from a trip to Scotland in 1892 with a set of clubs. A year later, he helped to create one of the area’s first golf courses, with seven holes near a bluff in Lake Forest.
Reading through the travel diaries, letters and books of North Shore residents, you can get a sense of what it was like to go abroad in the years before airlines made it easy. People passed the time on transatlantic ships by dancing, playing games, reading books and writing letters, but the most popular activity may have been socializing with other passengers.
Sailing in 1910 on the R.M.S. Mauretania (sister ship of the ill-fated Lusitania), Lake Forest schools superintendent John E. Baggett wrote that he was shy about striking up conversations with strangers. But he did enjoy the simple act of observing other human beings. “How queer many of them (us) are! Of how many kinds!” he wrote.
As two unmarried sisters from Winnetka, Mary and Beatrice Williams, crossed the ocean in 1928 aboard the R.M.S. Ausonia, Mary wrote in her diary: “I am having quite a flirtation with the head waiter. (I would!) He even told me his name this morning.” Later, she added: “I love this life. I never would have believed I could enjoy it so. … I like this little boat a lot. It would be better if there were not five girls for every man.”
Some North Shore tourists traveled abroad in search of romance — or, in any case, romance found them. And what better place to look for romance than Europe’s glittering ballrooms? Getting into a court ball was no easy task, but Cissy Patterson managed it. Patterson, who spent much of her youth in Lake Forest, was a member of the Patterson-McCormick clan that included Chicago Tribune publishers and editors. In 1902, when Cissy was 17 years old, she went along when her uncle, Robert S. McCormick, became the U.S. ambassador to Austria-Hungary. “Vienna is the prettiest, gayest, most frivolous place one could imagine,” she wrote in a letter. Later that year, Ambassador McCormick was transferred to Russia, and Patterson went there, too. A Chicago newspaper reported she “was having the time of her life in St. Petersburg with dances and dinners, wonderful fancy dress balls, suppers and wondrously brilliant court entertainments at the most sumptuous court in the world.”
At one of these dances, Patterson fell in love with Count Josef Gizycki, who had a reputation for womanizing. They got married in 1904, but the relationship quickly went sour. Gizycki’s “castle” in Ukraine was less romantic than his descriptions of it. “It was old and ramshackle and stood in the middle of a little village full of peasants’ huts,” Patterson later testified. “It was five miles from a railroad and almost entirely without modern improvements of any kind.” Patterson said her husband was cruel and unloving. After giving birth to a daughter, Patterson fled with the girl, Leonora. The count sent three henchmen to London to kidnap his daughter. He finally turned the girl back over to her mother when President William Howard Taft intervened by writing a letter to Czar Nicholas II. Patterson returned to Lake Forest, as her divorce case stretched on for thirteen years. Her fairytale romance did not have a happy ending — but Patterson bounced back in other ways. She later became the publisher of the Washington Times-Herald, and her journalistic scoops included an interview with Al Capone.
Some of the North Shore’s travelers were more like adventurers than tourists, trekking to exotic corners of the globe in search of scientific data or just a thrill.
Henry M. Bannister of Evanston and Robert Kennicott, who grew up at the Grove (now part of Glenview), went to Alaska in 1865 — back when Alaska was still foreign land. They were part of a Western Union Telegraph expedition exploring the Russian territory. Kennicott died of a heart attack while taking compass readings in the wilderness. An Eskimo rescued Bannister when he got lost in a snowstorm, after falling behind his companions and their dog sled. “I remember thawing my nose nine times and my cheeks several times but at the tenth trial Jack Frost got the best of me, and … no amount of rubbing or blowing the blood into my face would bring out the frost,” Bannister wrote to his parents. Bannister shared his observations about Alaska with officials in Washington, helping to persuade them in 1867 that the United States should purchase the territory from Russia.
Frances Willard’s nephew, Frank Willard of Evanston, spent years traveling in downtrodden disguises, hanging out with tramps and thieves in both the United States and Europe. Using the pen name Josiah Flynt, he wrote the book Tramping With Tramps. “Flynt” mocked American tourists for showing so little concern about the present-day conditions of the foreign countries they visited. “Americans flock to Europe in thousands, going feverishly from place to place as if their very lives depended on seeing such trifles as the old snuff-boxes of ancient celebrities,” he said.
Flynt stopped at the Munich home of playwright Henrik Ibsen and the Russian estate of Leo Tolstoy, where he ended up staying for 10 days. When Flynt talked about traveling with tramps, Tolstoy stroked his white beard and gazed dreamily at a chessboard. “If I were younger, I should like to make a tramp trip with you here in Russia,” Tolstoy murmured. “Years ago I used to wander about among them a good deal. Now, I am too old — too old.” (Flynt drank himself to death in 1907, according to his friend, Arthur Symons. “I have never met any one in whom the actual love of the road is so strong as it was in Flynt,” Symons said.)
William Montgomery McGovern, who began teaching political science at Northwestern University in 1929, had disguised himself as a “coolie” seven years earlier, sneaking into Tibet, where foreigners were forbidden. He traversed mountains to the capital, Lhasa, where he revealed his identity to Tibetan officials and met with the Dalai Lama. “He was a man who obviously was accustomed to be regarded as a god, and who, moreover, had a firm belief in his own divinity, and yet there was a great quietness, even modesty, about his manner,” McGovern wrote in his book To Lhasa in Disguise.
McGovern explored the upper Amazon basin in 1926, writing about his experiences in Jungle Paths and Inca Ruins. After joining the Northwestern faculty and moving to Evanston, he went to Turkey and Eastern Europe to collect items for Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair. He also took some time off from teaching in 1937-38 to cover the war between China and Japan for the Chicago Times.
“He only traveled when somebody paid him, because professors in those days didn’t earn a lot of money,” says his daughter, Carol Cerf, who lives now in Massachusetts. With his amazing adventures, McGovern was a popular lecturer at Northwestern.
“He enjoyed being a character, and he loved telling stories,” Cerf says. He wasn’t driven by a desire just to travel, she says. “It wasn’t to see the world — it was to understand it, to explore it. He was curious.” And although McGovern braved the jungles of South America and crossed rickety rope bridges in the Himalayas, he hated flying in airplanes. “My father did everything he could to avoid it,” Cerf says.
The North Shore’s champion tourist from the pre-airline era may have been Anita Willets-Burnham of Winnetka. She did not go more miles than everyone else, but she sure knew how to get around on a tight budget, sketching and painting pictures wherever she went. After seeing Europe with her husband and four children in 1921-22 and then taking the same clan around the world in 1928-30, she chronicled their adventures in the book Round the World on a Penny.
On their first trip to Europe, their children ranged from nine months to 13 years old. On their second trip, they crossed the Pacific and made their way from Japan through China and India to the Middle East and Europe. They made their trips affordable by renting out their home in Winnetka while they were away. They learned how to find inexpensive lodging and split meals for five among the six of them. Willets-Burnham said the family’s expenses during their circumnavigation came to $2 a day per person.
Willets-Burnham’s advice for travelers included these tips: Wear a cape. “What is worn under a cape is nobody’s business.” Learn how to communicate through gestures. “I turned actress, and felt like a lady with a hundred faces.” Don’t be afraid of losing your way. “If you want to see a city properly, get lost in it.” Bring art supplies. “A paint box — a remedy for nerves, a substitute for adjectives.” Travel light. “Even the burden of one suitcase disturbed me. Why be a human truck horse?” And bring along your children. “Families are assets, and if you take one along you are always home.”
Willets-Burnham came out of her journeys with a feeling of warmth toward the rest of the human race. “Travel does something to you,” she wrote. “It has made me feel that the world is mine; I love it all.”
John Gilkey is a convicted thief from California who bought stuff using other people’s credit-card numbers. There’s nothing especially dramatic or shocking about Gilkey’s crimes, although he did figure out some fairly clever ways of getting away with fraud for a while. If Gilkey had stolen something mundane like groceries or office supplies, we wouldn’t be reading a book about him. Ah, but books were the object of Gilkey’s serial pilfering. And not just any books — he stole rare first editions and antiquarian volumes that are worth thousands of dollars.
So what we have here is a book about a guy who steals books, who’s caught by an amateur sleuth who loves books. It sounds like just the thing you’d want to read if you were, well, a person who loves books. However, Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much does not turn out to be a solid addition to the true-crime library.
Bartlett keeps her story moving along at a good pace with clear, plain prose, but the narrative fails to deliver much in the way of actual thrills. She goes to great lengths to probe the motives behind Gilkey’s obsession with stealing books, constantly asking: Why did he do it? And why is he so interested in old books?
Gilkey’s own answers to those questions are not particularly profound. Bartlett senses that he wants to build a collection of old books as a sort of status symbol, so that he can impress people. Paradoxically, Gilkey can’t really impress anyone, since he keeps his stolen books hidden away in secret stashes. Digging deeper for more insights, Bartlett turns to other books about obsessive collectors and book thieves, and she finds a few relevant quotes.
Judging from her footnotes, Bartlett’s research was pretty thin. For example, instead of quoting directly from a 1985 collection of Sigmund Freud’s letters, she relies on a 2006 book that quotes the 1985 book. Bartlett pulls her most interesting details from other recent books about book collecting, especially Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness, which just makes you want to seek out those earlier works. And her footnotes reveal that she relied on interviews to construct the story of Gilkey’s crimes, without citing any police reports or court documents.
The great strength of Bartlett’s reporting is the access she received from Gilkey himself. Her interviews with Gilkey are the most fascinating aspect of this book, revealing a self-deluded man who continually finds ways of rationalizing his crimes. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much eventually turns into an intriguing psychological study of the relationship between the author and her subject. Does Bartlett get too close with Gilkey as she tags along with him on visits to a bookstore he had once robbed? Is it her responsibility to tell the police when Gilkey tells her details of his criminal exploits? Bartlett raises these questions without satisfactorily answering them. She seems to feel queasy about becoming a participant in the story she’s writing about.
In the end, no matter how much Bartlett tries to puff up Gilkey’s book thievery into a weighty topic, the story boils down to some rather obvious traits of human behavior: People like cool stuff. Some people become obsessed with cool stuff. Some people become so obsessed that they steal it. And if the stuff you steal is cool enough, someone just might a book about you.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in October 2009.
Of all the people listed in a theater program, the most mysterious may be the dramaturg. Or should that be dramaturge? The spelling is hard to pin down, and so is the definition of exactly what this person does.
“I wish I had a pithy way of describing it,” says Tanya Palmer, dramaturg and literary manager at the Goodman Theatre. “It encompasses a lot of different roles.” Here are a few of the tasks a dramaturg might perform: dig up the history of an old play, research the setting of a play, offer constructive criticism to a playwright working on a new script, write program notes and develop didactic material to display in a theater’s lobby.
Aaron Carter—who holds the job at Victory Gardens Theatre—and some of his colleagues have been trying to think of a new title. Carter likes to say he’s a “dramatic engineer.” He’s heard one dramaturg call herself a “playwright whisperer.” Meghan Beals McCarthy, dramaturg at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, puts it this way: “A dramaturg is an information designer. There’s a lighting designer, a set designer, a costumer designer. Those are tangible things you can point to. The dramaturg decides what information gets to the audience and in what way.” (In addition to their work as dramaturgs, Palmer, Carter and McCarthy are also literary managers at their theaters, trying to find noteworthy new plays. And Palmer will have a play of her own, Joan D’Arc, adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans, in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre this fall. As she works on the script with Bosnian director Aida Karic, Palmer is getting help from dramaturg Rachel Walshe.)
It remains to be seen whether any of these new terms will replace the old word. In the meantime, these local dramaturgs say they prefer to spell the word without that silent “e” on the end, pronouncing it with a hard “g.” Perhaps it makes sense to use the hard German pronunciation of dramaturg instead of the soft French version, dramaturge. After all, the founding father of dramaturgy was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German who was known for attacking French playwrights. In 1766, a new national theater in Hamburg hired Lessing as a sort of in-house theater critic. Lessing published reviews of the theater’s plays—along with lots of historical context and dramatic theory—in a two-book series called Hamburg Dramaturgy.
If the idea was for Lessing to help those Hamburg thespians hone their craft with some constructive criticism, it’s debatable whether he succeeded. Some of the writers were stung by his harsh words. “Since he pulls down everything, nearly all courage for further effort has oozed out of me,” one discouraged playwright lamented. But Lessing set a new standard for how to analyze plays, and theaters began employing dramaturgs to bring that sort of thoughtful context to their productions.
In some cases, dramaturgs work on plays that were written a long time ago by playwrights who are no longer living. In that case, the dramaturgs really have their work cut out for them. “You’re trying to answer all those things that you’d ask the playwright if they were there,” Palmer says. Things like: Was the play autobiographical? Did it reflect something that was happening the world at the time it was written? What did people say about it the first time it was performed? A good dramaturg answers those questions and then sifts through all that information for the nuggets that will be the most useful to the director. “You have to be selective,” Palmer says. “There’s a bazillion things. You could go on and on and on.” When the Goodman Theatre’s artistic director, Robert Falls, directed Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, Palmer’s tasks included researching the themes that Falls wanted to emphasize, such as the impact of Puritanism on America. “It was less historical and more philosophical,” Palmer says.
A dramaturg’s task is quite different when the assignment is working with a living playwright on a new script. In that case, the dramaturg helps the playwright with historical details—even details involving very recent history. When Gloria Bond Clunie was writing Living Green, which was produced recently at Victory Gardens, Carter helped her capture the right speech patterns for her 1990s West Side Chicago characters by tracking down some recordings that originally aired on National Public Radio.
Just as importantly, the dramaturg asks questions and offers suggestions. “We’re a sounding board, helping the playwright realize her vision of the play,” explains Carter. If a playwright’s idea isn’t coming through in a scene, the dramaturg tries to spark a better rewrite by talking it over. “Really,” says Carter, “you’re just someone who listens well, and knows how to talk the play out of them.”
This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2009 issue.
Lipitor Questions OnlineLast year’s Preteen Weaponry came stickered with this bold announcement: “The first piece of Oneida’s much-anticipated ‘Thank Your Parents’ triptych of releases, which will lay bare the band’s colossal vision of a new age in music.” One assumes that they were joking about the huge impact their music would have. After all, the Brooklyn art-rock band has been releasing superb records for many years while receiving little of the attention they merit. And sure enough, the riveting Preteen Weaponry went largely unnoticed by most rock critics. Now that Oneida has released the second part of its trilogy, Rated O, it’s clear that band’s boasts were not completely in jest. No, Oneida is not creating “a new age in music,” but it is certainly making highly ambitious, top-notch experimental rock.
Even though Rated O is the middle piece of a three-album triptych, by itself it’s a massive, three-CD set—a triptych within the triptych. Oneida must love things that come in threes. Preteen Weaponry was basically one song divided into three parts, and now, Rated O offers 15 songs split into three distinct sections. The first disc emphasizes electronic beats and circular keyboard patterns, sounding more like a dance record than anything Oneida has ever done. Guest vocals by Dad-Ali Ziai give the opening track, “Brownout in Lagos,” an Afro-beat flavor, but heavy reverb makes it sound like Ziai is fighting against crashing waves of electric noise. Claiming they were exploring the boundaries between what music is considered “organic” and what’s considered “synthetic,” Oneida reportedly built these electronic songs by playing most of those notes live, rather than using sequencers or programming. With their virtuosity and sharp sense of timing, Oneida’s members give the music a constant sense of forward motion.
Rated O’s middle disc sounds more like previous Oneida albums, with a vibe evoking Krautrock bands such as Can. On this disc’s six tracks, repetitive organ riffs and propulsive drumming lay the groundwork for searing guitar solos, while the band occasionally sings pretty harmonies that might seem more apt for Renaissance monks. Oneida has always excelled at stretching the boundaries of what you’re allowed to do within the confines of a song, and the group does it again on the standout track “Ghost in the Room.” At one moment, most of the band stops, Santana-style, to allow for a frenzied guitar solo. Then the song locks into one last riff and won’t let go, turning that riff around and around for more than two minutes, repeating with a precision that seems robotic at first but yields more and more intensity—until the band suddenly stops. The third disc of Rated O feels like a coda, with three instrumental tracks allowing the band to vamp with a probing sense of improvisation, adding an Eastern flair with sitar and burbling outer-space synths. Expanding to a five-member lineup and bringing in several guest players allowed Oneida to use more sonic colors across these three CDs. Rated O contains so much music that it’s probably not the best starting place for listeners unfamiliar with Oneida, but it is truly epic.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in September 2009.
Theater people have a language all their own. But the lingo doesn’t always translate from house to house. Take the term “Strawberry Shortcake,” for example. It was coined at Lookingglass Theatre in 2001, when the actress Lauren Hirte needed a costume to play an anonymous character in a crowd scene during the company’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. When she donned a frilly Victorian outfit with a big bonnet, her resemblance to the cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake left her castmates in stitches. Now, whenever an actor or crew member puts on a special costume to portray a nameless person in a crowd, people at Lookingglass say they’re being “Strawberry Shortcaked.” So far, the expression hasn’t migrated to other theaters in town.
Producing Artistic Director Philip R. Smith admits being responsible for another piece of Lookingglas slang. In the original production of Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights, Smith played the sheik who describes how hideous his daughter looks. One night, Smith blanked out on an entire paragraph of dialogue and the only part he could remember was the word “scab.” So he blurted out, “She’s … scab!” As a result, if Lookingglass actors forget their lines, colleagues will say, “You scabbed it.” (A more widespread expression for this is “to go up on your lines.”)
“Pimping” is a word you’ll hear around Chicago’s Second City. It’s what happens when one performer tries to embarrass another actor onstage. Let’s say an actor is a terrible singer. In the middle of an improvised sketch, a castmate might say: “Oh, I heard you were a great singer. Why don’t do you that opera song you were talking about?” A little bit of “pimping” can be humorous, but it’s discouraged by Matt Hovde, director of Second City e.t.c.’s show, Studs Terkel’s Not Working. “Usually, it’s just seen in good fun, but sometimes, people get real upset,” he says. “That’s a habit we try to break early on.”
The last line in a Second City scene is known as the “button,” “tag,” “out” or “blow.” The beginnings and ends of scenes are “T’s and B’s,” an abbreviation for “tops and bottoms” (British and Canadian comics call them “tops and tails”). When comedians start laughing in the middle of a scene, Chicagoans say they’re “breaking,” but Canadian improvisers call it “corpsing.”
Bill Osetek, artistic director at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, says he witnessed a new piece of slang being coined at his theater. After a substitute musician hit a bad note one night in the orchestra pit, the stage manager remarked, “Why do they send us ‘Stone Lips’ as a sub?” Now, whenever a musician at Drury Lane hits the wrong note, people say, “Stone Lips is back.”
Some of the older theater slang is rooted in superstitions. It’s supposedly bad luck to wish an actor good luck. So instead, one says, “Break a leg!” There are many theories about where this tradition comes from. One suggests that “break a leg” is an old-fashioned way of describing actors bending their knees to acknowledge applause. Or maybe it describes an audience stomping its feet to show approval. It might simply be a case of reverse psychology: Say something bad to mean something good.
It’s also bad luck to say “Macbeth” when you’re inside a theater—apparently because early productions of the Shakespeare tragedy experienced so many accidents that the play itself seemed to be cursed. Instead of saying the title, theater folk call it “the Scottish play.” Jonathan Weir, an Oak Park actor who plays several characters in Jersey Boys, even sounded nervous when he uttered the name of the Bard’s play during a phone call. “Thank God I’m not in a theater now,” he said. If someone makes the mistake of saying “Macbeth,” there is a way of nullifying the curse. “Go outside and close the door, turn around three times,” Weir suggests. “Spit, and then swear. And then ask to be let back in. That’s supposed to break the curse.” It sounds rather silly, but Weir says many actors are dead serious about this “Scottish play” business.
Like a lot of slang expressions, “the Scottish play” and “break a leg” have persisted for a long time. Their exact origins are shrouded in the fog of history, but people still say the words anyway. And who knows? If “Stone Lips,” “scab” and “Strawberry Shortcake” catch on, scholars a hundred years from now may well find themselves debating the origin of these strange, Chicago-born expressions.