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Creatures of habit: Actors’ routines

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.”

Playbill feature: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Will Wrote: Chicago’s role in the debate over Shakespeare

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.”

Playbill feature: ‘The Hunchback Variations Opera’

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.

Christmas theater, past and present

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.

Early African-American theater in Chicago

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.

Censorship in Chicago theater

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.

On fight choreography

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.”

Photo by Robert Loerzel

What is a dramaturg?

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.”

Chicago theater lingo

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.