Playbill, December 2016 — As the world marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Chicago had good reason to boast. Even though it’s an ocean and half a continent away from Shakespeare’s home turf in England, the city hosted the largest celebration of the Bard in 2016.
“There’s really nothing that matches Shakespeare 400 Chicago,” says Jill Gage, referring to the year-long series of events that took place at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier and other venues around town. As that festival wraps up in December, Gage has curated an exhibit at the Newberry Library called Creating Shakespeare. Inside two galleries flanking the research library’s entrance, glass cases offer glimpses of rare books—including the Newberry’s very own copy of the First Folio, a massive tome that collected all of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, seven years after his death. Just seeing Shakespeare’s words printed in black ink on that yellowed, centuries-old paper is an eye-opening experience.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine’s Chicago edition in April 2015.
Last fall, Marcus Gardley was supposed to be writing A Wonder in My Soul, a play revolving around a group of Chicago soul singers from the 1960s. It was scheduled to make its world premiere in April at Victory Gardens Theatre. But after writing a first draft, Gardley found himself thinking about a different story, one that was flashing across TV screens, Twitter, and the front pages of newspapers. “I was watching the news a lot,” he says. “I became obsessed with it.”
Gardley was riveted by news stories about Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death set off weeks of protests, and then more erupted when a grand jury failed to charge Wilson with any crime. Across the country, “black lives matter” became a rallying cry for people angry at what they saw as a pattern of police brutality toward African-Americans. Demonstrators filled the streets again when another grand jury decided against indicting a New York City officer in the death of Eric Garner, a black man who’d died after police put him in a chokehold. A video showed Garner saying, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times just before he died.
Gardley, a 37-year-old African-American playwright known for his poetic style, knows what it’s like to face suspicion and the threat of violence from gun-wielding cops. Several years ago, when officials in Berkeley, California, invited him to work on a community project there, police officers stopped him as he was walking down the street one night. “They came out of their cruiser with their guns drawn and had me on the ground,” Gardley recalls. “It was very devastating. They said I fit the description of a serial rapist in the neighborhood.” Gardley ended up getting apologies from Berkeley’s mayor and a police official.
As Gardley watched the turmoil resulting from the recent events in Missouri and New York, his thoughts about these issues began intruding on the play he was writing. “It was disturbing the narrative structure and disturbing the themes,” Gardley says. “I had a major block. I couldn’t continue to write the play.”
Gardley went to Victory Garden’s artistic director, Chay Yew, who was getting ready to direct A Wonder in My Soul. “I know this is crazy,” Gardley recalls saying, “but do you think I should take a stab at writing about what’s going on in the country right now?” It was a bold request. Nine months earlier, Victory Gardens had announced A Wonder in My Soul as part of its season schedule. And now Gardley was talking about writing an entirely different play — and getting it up on the stage in just a few months. How did Yew react? “His eyes got really big,” Gardley remembers. But Gardley says Yew quickly told him, “If that’s what you have to do, you should just go for it. That’s what it means to stand behind a writer.” Yew now says he was just doing what theaters should do. “You follow the artists.”
Victory Gardens announced in late January that A Wonder in My Soul had been scratched from the season schedule. In its place, Yew would direct a new play called An Issue of Blood. A press release explained that Gardley wrote this play “in response to recent events and social injustices.” But An Issue of Blood isn’t directly about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner or the protests they sparked. “I wanted to look at history and get behind why these laws were made, laws that protected certain people but also made other people feel like they weren’t protected at all. And so I started to read everything I could get my hands on about how laws were created in the United States, and what did this country look like before the Constitution.”
Gardley looked at books about the colonial era, including Anthony S. Parent Jr.’s Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740, where he found the true story of the first blacks who were brought to America — as indentured servants, not outright slaves. “What most people don’t know is that there was a large contingent of Irish slaves,” Gardley notes. “They joined forces with the African-Americans and they raised a revolt. They rebelled because the laws were changing.” Black indentured servants, who’d thought they would gain freedom and a piece of land after seven years of service, were told that they were now going to be slaves for the rest of their lives. “There were other laws changing — that you could kill an African-American person without any penalty,” Gardley says.
Those facts inspired Gardley’s script, which he describes as a mix of history, myth and African-American music from the colonial era. He thinks audiences will connect the dots between these events from almost 400 years ago and today’s controversies. “It’s so crystal-clear, it’s shocking,” he says. An Issue of Blood focuses on a free black woman in the colony of Virginia who plans to marry her son to the daughter of a powerful white planter as a symbol of peace between the races. The cast includes six-time Jeff Award winner E. Faye Butler, Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks.
This isn’t the first time Victory Gardens has responded to the “black lives matter” protests. In December, two weeks after the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case, the theater hosted a one-night event called We Must Breathe, featuring poems and short plays inspired by the news, including one by Gardley. After the performance, audience members talked about the issues. And then, many of them marched out into the streets of Lincoln Park to protest. “People were looking for something to do that was productive, and to talk about how we feel,” says Victory Gardens’ associate artistic producer, Joanie Schultz, who directed We Must Breathe. “It was really beautiful to be in that space, in that sort of community that we created for that night. It was actually one of the most profound and powerful moments of my theatrical life so far.”
Gardley, a native of Oakland who has also spent time on the East Coast, senses a different kind of racial tension in Chicago, where he has lived since he became a member of the Victory Garden playwrights ensemble two years ago. “Chicago is extremely segregated,” he says. “I feel like when I go into certain businesses on the North Side, there’s always a glance that is a little chilling. I don’t really get that anywhere else. Once I talk — and once they get to know what I want and that kind of thing — I think it goes away. But I sense it, and it’s not just me. Other artists I talk to feel the same way.”
Last year, Victory Gardens bused in several groups of young people from the South Side to attend performances of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, Gardley’s play about two Chicago mothers whose lives are shattered by a homicide. “For a lot of them, this was the first play they ever saw,” Gardley says. “They had a really great time and had a lot of questions about how to make a play. And so we decided to start a very small theater company with them, to teach them the very basics of theater-making in Englewood.”
Schultz, who has been watching as Gardley and Yew bounce ideas off each other for An Issue of Blood, is thrilled to see Victory Gardens taking such swift action on current events. Theaters often get locked into the schedules they announce to subscribers far ahead of time. But it’s actually possible to write a script, design a show, rehearse it and get it into the stage fairly quickly, she says. “It takes much longer to make a movie,” Schultz says. “Live theater has an opportunity that other mediums don’t necessarily have. We should be a place for people to come talk about and think about what is going on in their world right now.”
As the “black lives matter” protests made headlines, Gardley felt curious about the thoughts of an uncle and a cousin who work as police officers in California. But, he says, “I can’t even have a discussion with them. That blue wall of silence and that brotherhood is so intense.” Gardley hopes his play can spark the dialogue that needs to happen. “That’s how you move forward: conversation. That’s why I do theater.”
Photo at top: Playwright Marcus Gardley with Victor Garden’s artistic director, Chay Yew, at a reading of An Issue of Blood. Photo by Michael Courier.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in 2014.
In 1902, Parisians laughed whenever they heard the name “Chicago.” In cafes, they joked about that city in America where some judge had just ruled that the popular French play Cyrano de Bergerac was a work of plagiarism. Incroyable! And even more unbelievable, that American judge said French playwright Edmond Rostond had stolen his smash-hit romance from … a Chicago real-estate developer? Sacre bleu! How could such an outlandish allegation be true? “It must be April Fool’s Day in Chicago,” world-famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt sniffed in disbelief.
But it was no joke. A federal court official in Chicago had indeed compared Rostand’s 1897 play with a more obscure script—The Merchant Prince of Cornville by Samuel Eberly Gross. Sure, it seemed unlikely that one of France’s most respected authors would lift major plot points from a virtually unknown book by a real-estate tycoon who’d built more than 10,000 working-class houses in Chicago and the suburbs. But that’s exactly what the court decided. There were dozens of similarities between the two plays. Cyrano was “a clear and unmistakable piracy,” the official concluded.
Both plays were about one man who writes love letters and speeches to help another man win a woman’s heart—even though the man writing the letters is just as much in love with her. In both plays, the woman stands on a balcony as the two men try to woo her from below. Both plays have literary duels using wordplay instead of swordplay. Both have key characters named Hercules. And big noses feature prominently in both.
Gross decided to sue when he saw the Chicago premiere of Cyrano in 1898. He’d written his own play back in the 1870s. Gross had shopped around his script, but no one was interested. He tried again in 1896, publishing 250 leather-bound copies. The Merchant Prince of Cornville finally made its premiere at a London theater that year, but was quickly forgotten.
“I never heard of Mr. Gross nor his comedy until he began action against me,” Rostand insisted in a deposition, testifying in Paris as part of the legal proceedings in Chicago. Rostand also pointed out that Cyrano de Bergerac was an actual person who’d lived in France in the 1600s. Rostand said he’d based his play on real history.
The court found no proof that Rostand had read Gross’ book, but it was at least possible he’d seen it. Gross had given his script to theatrical producers in Paris, including the French actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin—who later starred in Cyrano de Bergerac. Was that just a coincidence? “There’s a man named Gross—bah!—in Chicago, who says Rostand stole Cyrano from his play,” Coquelin said. “It’s ridiculous. The fellow is ridiculous.”
Judge Christian Kohlsaat rewarded a mere $1 to Gross, but his ruling effectively halted U.S. productions of Rostand’s play for years to come. “Cyrano shall not be played without my permission,” Gross said. Over in France, Rostand ridiculed the Chicago court ruling. “I am ready to admit I took … all our 17th-century history from Eberly Gross of Chicago,” he jested.
“You see, there is no answer there—nothing but an attempt at sarcasm,” Gross replied. “That’s the trouble with the French—you present an argument and they reply with a shrug of the shoulders. All they can say is that I did not write that because I am an American. … I have won a fight for the American people.”
But Gross’ triumph did not last. Learned Hand, a federal judge in New York who later became famous as a Supreme Court justice, issued his own ruling in 1920. Hand said the two plays weren’t actually all that similar—and The Merchant Prince of Cornville was a bad piece of writing. Would Rostand have imitated Gross? “Highly improbable,” Hand declared, opening the door for American theaters to bring Cyrano de Bergerac back onto the stage.
By that time, both Gross and Rostand had died. Cyrano de Bergerac has endured as a beloved romance, inspiring more than a dozen movies, including 1987’s Roxanne, starring Steve Martin. Meanwhile, The Merchant Prince of Cornville fell even deeper into obscurity. It has rarely, if ever, been performed. That doesn’t settle the question of plagiarism, but history’s verdict on the quality of the plays is clear. Victory, Cyrano.
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.”
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.”
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. ThePirates 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.
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.”
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in March 2012.
What are Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo doing together on the same stage? Why are they sitting at a table with microphones? And why are they singing operatically about a stage direction written by Anton Chekhov? Audiences may well wonder about these things when they attend the world premiere of The Hunchback Variations Opera at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre. But that doesn’t bother the playwright, Mickle Maher. In fact, he thrives on provoking reactions.
The whole idea of this Theater Oobleck production sounds preposterous. Beethoven and Quasimodo are an unlikely pair of people to hold a panel discussion about a mysterious sound that Chekhov called for in The Cherry Orchard. Beethoven wasn’t even alive when Chekhov wrote his play in 1904. And Quasimodo was never flesh and blood — he’s a character in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Besides, Beethoven and Quasimodo both went deaf, so how can they even hear what they’re saying to each other? But Maher — a co-founder of Theater Oobleck — thinks of the stage as a playground for ideas, where people from real life mingle with characters out of classic fiction. In one of his previous plays, The Strangerer, the existential writings of Albert Camus infected a presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The results were both funny and disturbing, as Bush and Kerry argued about the best method of murdering moderator Jim Lehrer.
“What we imagine to be the real world and what we believe to be the imagined world are constantly cross-fertilizing and existing within each other,” states Maher. “And the theater is the place where they do that the best.”
Maher is a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and, like those British comedians, he enjoys transforming things that sound boring into surreal entertainment — boring things like a panel discussion. “It’s an unlikely thing to put in a play,” Maher says. “You take the placid, dull exterior of modernity and you push it up a bit, and it’s funny. Presidential debates are essentially very boring affairs. The furniture is boring, the lighting is boring, the makeup is boring.” And yet, for Maher and his cohorts in the quirky Theater Oobleck, banality is anything but. “We like to see how a theater company can make that exciting.”
The first time Maher wrote about Quasimodo was 2000, when Redmoon Theater commissioned him to adapt Hugo’s 1831 novel for a stage version called Hunchback. Hugo himself (or rather, an actor playing Hugo) interrupted the show, complaining about the way Redmoon’s actors and puppets were performing his tale of a misshapen bell ringer in love with a beautiful Gypsy.
While Maher was working on that script, he also had a job fundraising by phone for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which got him thinking about Beethoven. “Beethoven and Quasimodo were on my mind a lot,” he laughs. But the connection wasn’t completely random. Beethoven was the leading composer of the Romantic Era, and Quasimodo was one of the period’s most famous literary characters, even though the novel is set in the 1400s. Maher recalls thinking, “I’ve got to think of something that would involve them both.”
That something turned out to be Chekhov’s odd instructions in The Cherry Orchard: “Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.” People have long debated exactly what Chekhov had in mind. Maher’s musings led him to imagine Beethoven and Quasimodo teaming up to create Chekhov’s “Impossible and Mysterious Sound.” After their project flops, they hold a series of 11 panel discussions to describe their failure. “They’re both deaf,” Maher says. “They both have a relationship to sound. They’re both tormented. It interested me to have them pursuing an impossible goal.”
None of this made it into the Redmoon show. So Maher took this “extra sauce,” as he calls it, and in 2001 wrote The Hunchback Variations for Theater Oobleck. Then, a couple of years ago, Maher was mowing the lawn one day when he was struck with the idea of doing an operatic version. (“I get my ideas when mowing the lawn,” says Maher, a longtime Evanston resident who moved to Madison, Wisconsin, last year.) Maher asked Chicago composer Mark Messing if he’d write the music. “There was no way I could say no,” Messing says. Best known as the leader of Mucca Pazza, a colorful marching band with rock ’n’ roll attitude, Messing had previously collaborated with Maher on Redmoon’s The Cabinet in 2005. He says he admires the unusual qualities of Maher’s plays. “The form is very different,” Messing says. “It gets surreal. He takes it so far that at some point, your brain starts to let go of logic and you just go for the ride.”
Theater Oobleck received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create the opera, which allowed the group to hire two classically trained singers: tenor George Andrew Wolff as Beethoven and bass Larry Adams as Quasimodo. Wolff says he was shocked by how strange the script was, but he was immediately taken with it. “It was so outside the realm of anything I’ve seen onstage before,” he says. The two singers are accompanied by piano and cello. The melodies for Beethoven sometimes sound like the composer’s music, and Quasimodo’s lines have some of the qualities of early religious chants. Messing was also inspired by later composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Olivier Messiaen.
And as with every Theater Oobleck show, there is no director; actors, writers and designers working as a team. Maher hopes the show will appeal to opera fans as well as the sort of people who hear an aria and say — as he puts it — “Why are these people singing about this stuff that they could be talking about?” Rather than fighting that attitude, Maher finds humor in it, making the operatic experience even more absurd. But The Hunchback Variations Opera is more than just a conceptual joke. According to Wolff, during workshop performances, audience members seemed to make an unexpected emotional connection with the characters. “It’s utterly ridiculous that they would,” he suggests, “but they do.”
Beethoven and Quasimodo never figure out exactly what sort of sound Chekhov wanted. “The true sadness of this sound, of course, is that it has not yet been born,” the Beethoven character says. It’s a touching metaphor for the difficulty of all artistic quests. Like the characters in their show, Maher and Messing are striving to create a highly unusual sound no one has ever heard before. Impossible? They don’t think so.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in December 2011.
It’s December. Everywhere you turn, the lights twinkle. Christmas carols jingle. And Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey or maybe a department-store elf called Crumpet are center stage once again.
For Chicago’s theaters, the holidays have always been an important time of year. However, the concept of Christmastime entertainment hasn’t always been the same. Playbills and newspaper clippings from the 1800s and early 1900s strikingly reveal how few of the December shows had anything to do with Christmas. People celebrated the holiday season by attending tragedies like Hamlet, romantic melodramas, vaudeville variety revues, operas or even blackface minstrel shows.
While the idea of going to a theater on Christmas Day itself might seem strange today (surely those actors deserve a day off), it was a common ritual for Chicagoans in the 19th century. Newspaper articles from the 1860s and 1870s describe thousands of people filling the seats of Chicago theaters at matinees and evening performances on December 25. The Chicago Daily Tribune suggested that the city’s residents didn’t have much else to do on Christmas Day, so why not spend some time at the theater escaping from their “tiresome” holiday preparations and the “dreary” weather? “Under these circumstances the theatre is a sort of necessity,” the newspaper observed in 1874.
According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, American theaters began holding performances on December 25 around 1820. At that time, Christmas was barely recognizable as the holiday we know today. People often went wild around Dec. 25, with “rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking,” Nissenbaum writes in his 1997 book The Battle For Christmas. The day was known for drunken debauchery and even gang violence, remnants of ancient pagan celebrations at the winter solstice. And sometimes, these holiday riots took place at theaters. In the 1830s and 1840s, New York and Philadelphia had to call out extra police to guard against crowds of rowdy newsboys wreaking havoc at theaters on Christmas Day.
At the same time, Christmas was evolving into a day when the people of England and the United States stayed home with their families, feasting on a big meal and exchanging presents—a festival of domesticity and consumerism. In December 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, popularizing the notion that the holiday should be a time of good will toward all men. A few months later, three different stage versions of A Christmas Carol premiered in London on the same night. (The fact that it was February didn’t dissuade the theaters from staging Dickens’ Yuletide tale.) Within a year, 16 theatrical adaptations of Dickens’ iconic story had been produced in England.
While that perennial favorite did not hit Chicago for some time, local theaters did import another form of winter entertainment from England: an extraordinarily silly sort of show called the pantomime. Larded with groan-inducing puns, the plots are borrowed from fairy tales. A shapely young woman plays the male hero. A man in drag plays the “dame.” Actors jam together inside cow and horse costumes. The crowd hisses at villains and yells out warnings to the heroes. One English-style “panto,” Jack and the Beanstalk, was a hit at Chicago’s Adelphi Theater during the 1876 Christmas season. The audience included a large number of boys, who heckled a comedian telling tired, old jokes. Despite all the hissing, a reporter noted that the crowd “seemed to be in a most hilarious mood.”
Another type of show that was popular during the holidays in Chicago was the “spectacular”—a string of largely unrelated songs, dances, scenes and sketches. People were wowed by the pretty scenery and costumes. In 1890, the brand-new Auditorium Theatre hosted a Christmas spectacular, including a “dance of the nymphs and rabbits” and an “insect ballet,” with dancing girls fluttering their arms in the air as they imitated bugs. Another holiday show of this type, Mr. Bluebeard, was playing at the Iroquois Theatre on Randolph Street when the supposedly fireproof venue burst into flames on Dec. 30, 1903, causing 600 deaths. The tragedy prompted Chicago and other U.S. cities to strengthen their fire safety codes.
In the decades that followed, entertainment evolved, but most holiday shows still didn’t have much to do with the holidays. Take 1929, for instance. Chicago’s Christmas theatrical fare that year included the Marx Brothers starring in Animal Crackers, Elmer Rice’s Street-Scene, and Czech sci-fi writer Karel Capek’s R.U.R., the play that coined the word “robot.” Later, in 1953, critic Claudia Cassidy complained that Chicago’s theaters weren’t offering much of anything around Christmastime. “A bit skimpy, this holiday fare,” she wrote. “But you can always write a letter to Santa Claus about juicier bookings.”
It’s debatable whether letters to Santa got the job done, but more Chicago theaters eventually began presenting holiday entertainment. After choreographer George Balanchine reinvented the ballet of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in 1954, it became a December staple for dance companies. Those sugar-plum fairies and mice have been pirouetting since 1996 at the Auditorium Theatre in another version, by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. A Christmas Carol debuted at the Goodman Theatre in 1978, and it was an immediate smash hit, ensuring its annual spot on the theatrical calendar.
The Christmas Schooner, a musical about a sailing captain who risks stormy waters to transport fir trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Chicago’s German immigrants in the late 19th century, was a yearly tradition at Bailiwick Repertory Theatre from 1995 to 2006. A musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen cast a wintry spell atVictory Gardens Theatre from 2006 to 2009. And for the past 10 years, the American Theatre Company has charmed audiences with It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play, a stage version of Frank Capra’s 1943 film classic.
Other theaters have taken an irreverent approach. Satirical holiday sketches are a staple at Second City this time of year, including a hilarious routine about Joseph and Mary seeing a marriage counselor. Several local theaters have staged Santaland Diaries, an adaptation of the David Sedaris essay about his experiences as a Macy’s elf (the aforementioned Crumpet). This year, The Building Stage is doing its own idiosyncratic version of the Scrooge story, calling it Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs “A Christmas Carol.” Again. And a musical adaptation of the popular 1983 film, A Christmas Story, comes to the Chicago Theatre.
Not every Christmas play is as light and fluffy as snowflakes. In December 2008, Steppenwolf Theatre presented two unsettling dramas by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Dublin Carol and The Seafarer, both of which happened to take place on Christmas Eve. McPherson’s subject matter included alcoholism, abuse and a visit from Satan. Too disturbing for holiday theater? Not really. Just think how dark It’s a Wonderful Life gets in its darkest moments, when George Bailey thinks the world would be a better place if he’d never been born. Or consider one of the saddest, most chilling scenes in A Christmas Carol. Dickens had to show Scrooge—and us—the miserable lives of society’s least fortunate people in order to inspire a more benevolent attitude. We all need a good scare from those ghosts sometimes.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in January 2011.
Walking through downtown Chicago one day in 1882, lawyer Jarvis Blume spotted a shoeshine boy performing Shakespeare scenes for a small crowd of bootblacks and newsboys. Blume was amazed — especially because this 12-year-old thespian was black. He could hardly believe that this kid in tattered clothes from Tennessee, whose race had been enslaved a mere 20 years earlier, was capable of appreciating the English language’s most renowned playwright.
Later, Blume brought some of his fellow lawyers to witness this marvel. “What shall I recite?” asked the boy, Charles Winter Wood.
“The ghost scene from Macbeth, if you know it,” one of the lawyers said, thinking it would be amusing to watch a black boy with grime and boot polish on his face trying to turn pale from fright. To the astonishment of the attorneys, Wood performed the scene perfectly. According to Blume, “The negro actually did pale under the strength of his emotions.”
Taken with Wood’s talent, Blume and his colleagues enrolled him in a school of oratory. By the time he was 16, Wood had performed in Othello and Richard III at two of Chicago’s most prominent playhouses, the Madison Street Theatre and Freiberg’s Opera House. But Wood, who went on to a long career as an educator and actor, was a true rarity in those times. It would be many decades before African-Americans achieved anything close to equality in the world of theater. From the Emancipation Proclamation up through the civil rights movement a century later, blacks fought to find a place in theaters run by whites. And they struggled to win roles that went beyond offensive caricature. Chicago was one city where blacks forged a theater of their own.
In the late 1800s, most of the black faces seen in Chicago theaters actually belonged to white performers in minstrel shows, their faces darkened their skin with burnt cork. But it wasn’t just white performers who played these offensive roles. Blacks performed in minstrel shows, too, darkening their faces with the same sort of makeup. As historian Leah Kathleen Cothern has written, the “use of blackface and imitated dialect was, for most African-American artists of this time, the only way to participate in vaudeville and musical comedy.”
“The minstrel show was an opportunity for African-Americans to perform,” says Jackie Taylor, artistic producer of the Black Ensemble Theater. “There were many people in the black community who hated it. And then there were many people in the community who saw it for entertainment and nothing more, and they loved it.” When the Hyer Sisters performed in Chicago in 1889, the Chicago Inter Ocean praised the black group for telling “a story of the soul” that was “positive relief from the hackneyed rubbish of the bogus, cork-grimed variety man.” And yet, the same critic revealed some prejudice, adding that the Hyer Sisters possessed “that rollicking joyousness which bubbles over in the darky nature.”
Two of the period’s most popular black performers, Bert Williams and George Walker, honed their comedy-and-dance act in Chicago. In 1902, they had a national hit with In Dahomey, a show partly inspired by African music played in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Williams and Walker were a smash with both whites and blacks, but some black critics accused them of pandering. Albert Ross, a black business professor, attacked them for using “the old plantation Negro, the ludicrous darkey, and the scheming grafter … to entertain people.” Variety published a response from Williams and Walker, who said black entertainers were “entirely dependent on white audiences and critics for their livelihood” and “had to keep in mind the expectations of those audiences.”
In 1901, a group of black businessmen published an announcement, calling for the creation of “a colored theatre in Chicago, controlled by colored people and catering only to colored patronage.” Their dream became a reality in 1904, when Robert Mott, an African-American who’d made his fortune in the gambling business, opened the Pekin Theatre at 27th and State streets. A magnet for the black stars of the period and immensely popular with black audiences from all over, it was, as historian Henry T. Sampson has written, “a place to see and at which to be seen.” After attending the Pekin in 1906, actor Sherman H. Dudley remarked, “I have never felt so proud of being a colored man. … The entertainment was a revolution and shows just what Negroes can and must do in the near future.”
In its heyday, the Pekin and its stock company nurtured many of the early 20th century’s most prominent African-American entertainers, and its house band, Joe Jordan and His Pekin Orchestra, helped to popularize jazz. Two of the Pekin’s vaudeville stars, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, turned their comedic routines into Shuffle Along, a hit 1921 musical with songs by Eubie Blake, including one that’s still familiar today: “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
The Pekin’s success spawned other theaters in Chicago’s Bronzeville, such as the Regal and the Savoy, which featured movies as well as concerts and variety shows. The next boost for African-American theater came from the Federal Theatre Project during the Great Depression. This government initiative helped a group of black performers to create a jazzy, tropical variation on Gilbert & Sullivan called The Swing Mikado, which took audiences by storm at the Great Northern in 1938.
“The Federal Theatre of the depression period was more than a gift from Roosevelt. It seemed like a gift from God,” poet Langston Hughes later wrote in the Chicago Defender. “The Federal Theatre broke down not only the old taboos against colored American as backstage technicians, but the bars against colored actors playing other than racial roles.”
In spite of these advances, few African-American playwrights in the early 20th century had success with dramas dealing with serious issues. Chicagoan Theodore Ward, however — who wrote plays while he made a living by inspecting motors at a factory and shining shoes — attracted notice for his 1938 drama Big White Fog, about a South Side man who believes American blacks should move to Africa. And in 1941, novelist Richard Wright and playwright Paul Green adapted for the stage Wright’s Native Son, about a Chicago black man on trial for murdering a white woman.
Starting in the 1950s, new theatrical groups formed in Chicago’s black neighborhoods, forerunners of the companies that specialize today in plays about the black experience, such as Black Ensemble Theatre, Congo Square Theatre and MPAACT Afrikan Centered Theatre. But in 1956, a young African-American woman who’d grown up on the South Side was disappointed at what she saw in Chicago’s theaters. “One night, after seeing a play I won’t mention,” Lorraine Hansberry said, “I suddenly became disgusted with a whole body of material about Negroes. Cardboard characters. Cute dialect bits. Or hip-swinging musicals from exotic sources.”
Hansberry channeled her disgust into a script about her experiences as a child, when her family moved into a white neighborhood and was attacked by brick-wielding mobs. “Potential backers read my play and cried: ‘It’s beautiful! Too bad it isn’t a musical. White audiences aren’t interested in a Negro play,’” Hansberry later recalled.
But she did find backing for her script, and A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 and becoming a film in 1961, winning wide acclaim and audiences of all colors. The struggle by blacks for a place in the theater was far from over (some would argue that it still isn’t over), but Chicago’s African-Americans had come a long way from the days of minstrel shows.