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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.

Randolph Street, Chicago’s theater row

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in June 2009.

If you took a stroll down Randolph Street in Chicago’s Loop in the early 1900s, chances were pretty good that you’d rub elbows with an actor. The sidewalks were crammed with thespians almost every afternoon on Randolph, a street with so many theaters that it was nicknamed “Chicago’s Rialto.” In 1907, the Chicago Tribune reported, “The people of the stage flock to the Rialto as bees swarm to their hives.”

The people of Chicago flocked there, too. For most of the 20th Century, the area around Randolph Street was the city’s top destination for entertainment. It was the place to go for stage shows, films, fancy restaurants and jazzy nightclubs. But then the North Loop fell into decline. By 1980, all that remained were a few crumbling cinemas showing skin flicks. Not today. Now, the street is aglow with marquees announcing some of the best live entertainment the city has to offer.

Three of the area’s theaters are ornate jewels originally built in the 1920s: the Chicago Theatre, the Oriental Theatre (now the Ford Center for the Performing Arts), and the New Palace Theatre (now the Cadillac Palace). And all three were designed by brother architects Cornelius and George Rapp. George Rapp once said a theater is “a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons.” He wanted to transport audiences into a magical place with his architectural details, creating, he said,  a “cavern of many-colored jewels, where iridescent lights and luxurious fittings heighten the expectations of pleasure.”

The oldest of these shrines is the Chicago Theatre, near Randolph at 175 North State Street, which the Rapp brothers designed in 1921 as a movie palace for Balaban and Katz, a national theater chain based in Chicago. The Rapps clearly had France on their mind when they drew up the blueprints. The building’s terra-cotta front looks like the Arc de Triomphe, while the lobby resembles the Royal Chapel of Versailles, with the Paris Opera House’s grand staircase thrown in for good measure.

In 1926, Balaban and Katz unveiled the Oriental Theatre at 4 West Randolph Street. This time, the Rapp brothers turned to India for their architectural inspiration, with elephant throne chairs and Buddhas. The ushers wore turbans, and on opening night, a jazz band played a song called “Insultin’ the Sultan.” Later that same year, the Rapps used the palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles as their model for the 2,500-seat New Palace Theatre, a vaudeville house run by the Orpheum Circuit at 151 Wes Randolph.

The decades that followed were the heyday for entertainment along Randolph Street. Duke Ellington, Jack Benny, Benny Goodman and Danny Kaye performed at the Chicago Theatre. The Three Stooges, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday appeared at the Oriental. Jimmy Durante, Mae West and Bob Hope played the New Palace. And just off Randolph on Dearborn, the Harris and Selwyn Theaters (designed by C. Howard Crane and H. Kenneth Franzheim) produced shows with Helen Hayes, Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Audrey Hepburn and Noel Coward.

As time went on, stage shows gave way to movies and seeing a picture in a Loop theater was a big deal. Neal Samors, co-author of Downtown Chicago in Transition, remembers going downtown to see The Bridge On the River Kwai. “You didn’t go downtown without getting dressed up,” he says. “My grandfather was wearing his hat and top coat.”

But then movie attendance fell. Restaurants closed. The Loop started to seem like a ghost town after business hours. And the area began to lose its theaters. The Garrick, 64 W. Randolph St., a beauty of a building designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, was demolished in 1960. By the 1970s, Loop theaters were showing kung-fu flicks and black exploitation movies. Cinestage, the former Selwyn Theatre, played X-rated movies like Lovers Convention. In 1980, Tribune critic Richard Christensen saw some high school couples all dressed up for graduation, buying tickets for a martial-arts movie. “It was a sad sight, for this ugly theater with its crummy movie was the best that the North Loop had to offer these kids,” he wrote at the time.

After the Oriental’s balcony was damaged in a 1978 fire, the theater continued showing movies with the balcony closed. A year later, the city discovered piles of beer cans, whisky bottles and popcorn bags upstairs. “A rat certainly wouldn’t have trouble finding plenty to eat, would he?” one inspector remarked. As if that weren’t bad enough, rival gangs fought inside the Oriental, marking the walls with graffiti. Shortly before the Oriental shut down in 1981, Tim Samuelson (now the city’s cultural historian) visited the theater as a martial-arts movie was playing. “Some guy had snuck into the balcony, and he was practicing his kung-fu kicks—kicking in the ornamental grilles,” he recalls.

In 1982, Plitt Theaters filed for a permit to demolish the Chicago Theatre. The city refused and Plitt sued. The lawsuit ended in 1984, when the newly formed Chicago Theater Preservation Group bought the theater and the city settled out of court with Plitt. After a year of renovations, it reopened in 1986. Mayor Harold Washington cut the ribbon, remarking: “It would have died a quiet death, unnoticed and unmourned. Now it marks a new chapter in the life of the city.” And Frank Sinatra strolled out onto the stage, snapping his fingers and launching right into his famous song about Chicago, “My Kind of Town,” adding at the end of the tune: “And I mean it!”

Meanwhile, some neighboring theaters fell to the wrecking ball. The Roosevelt Theatre, on State Street south of Randolph, came down in 1980. The United Artists Theatre and the Woods Theatre, both on Randolph near Dearborn, were demolished in 1989. The State-Lake Theatre went out of business in 1985, but the building survived; in 2006, it became the new studio for WLS-TV. Yet, thanks to a combination of private investment, donations and government funding, other theaters were reborn, looking as grand as ever. In 1984, Mayor Washington created a tax-increment financing district covering 15 blocks in the North Loop. Taxes from increased property values were diverted to pay for development—including an estimated $60 million for theater renovations. Expanded by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1997 to cover much of the Loop, the TIF zone expired at the end of 2008. The Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky called this Loop TIF district “a barely overseen slush fund that sucks tax dollars away from schools and other public services,” but city officials have said it succeeded in creating a lively entertainment district, boosting all sorts of downtown businesses.

The Oriental reopened as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in 1998. The New Palace reopened as the Cadillac Palace in 1999. And in 2000, the Goodman Theatre moved into the space formerly occupied by the Harris and Selwyn. (The interiors of the two theaters were in unsalvageable condition, but their still handsome facades were saved by the Chicago Landmarks Commission.) Other theaters on Randolph include three run by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park, 205 East Randolph Street.

Movies are no longer the main reason people go downtown; the only Loop venue showing films these days is the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street. Instead, what draws people from all over the Chicago area and beyond are Broadway musicals, big-name concerts and a wide range of drama and comedy. And while the sidewalks might not be as packed with theatrical folks as they were back in 1907, you never know—you might just bump into an actor.

Playbill feature: ‘Shining City’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in January 2008.

Are ghosts real? Or do these apparitions spring out of the human psyche? Are they supernatural beings from another world or merely manifestations of our own emotions? Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, has never seen a ghost, but in directing Conor McPherson’s Shining City this month, he tackles material in which the notion of a phantom plays a key role. A man named John tells his psychotherapist, Ian, that he has seen his wife’s ghost. Real or imagined, John’s experience seems to spring from his feelings of guilt over the way his relationship had been going with his wife before she died in a horrific car accident.

McPherson, whose earlier plays included spooky dramas such as St. Nicholas and The Weir, says he has been drawn to stories about ghosts, vampires and other horrors since he was a child. The spirits in his scripts are both literal and metaphorical. “When people are having a supernatural experience, it always seems to me to be a very lonely experience. It’s a very good useful tool for getting inside a character’s vulnerabilities,” the playwright says.

In 1992, when McPherson was just 21, he introduced himself to Falls, who was in Dublin to direct The Iceman Cometh. In the coming years, as McPherson’s work began to appear on the stage with increasing frequency. (His latest play, The Seafarer, also marks the playwright’s Broadway directorial debut.) “I’m just bowled over by his writing,” says Falls, who earned high praise for this 2006 Broadway production of Shining City. “Often, with very few words, he creates extraordinarily deep characters.”

As a teen, McPherson’s main ambition was actually to play in a rock band, but then he read Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s quintessential Chicago play. “That really blew my mind,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is like nothing I’ve ever come across before.’ I knew then that I wanted to write a play. It had a huge bearing on me becoming a writer.”

McPherson describes Mamet’s plays in two contradictory ways. On the one hand, he loves how Mamet’s dialogue flows “like a river of thoughts.” On the other hand, he says, “It is very tightly structured and built like a machine.” McPherson set out to accomplish a similar combination of intellectual depth and naturalistic dialogue in his own plays.

Although McPherson has developed his own, distinct voice, Falls still sees some similarities to Mamet. “What they share is the ability to create characters who are struggling toward conversation, who are often bumbling around, finishing each other’s sentences,” he says. “People always say, ‘They’re such naturalistic writers. They have such a good ear for dialogue.’ It isn’t as if David and Conor just transcribe conversation. They take conversation and then they turn it into poetry.” Falls says McPherson, who is now 36, surpassed all his previous plays with Shining City, a drama that seems simple on the surface but has unexpected depths. “He writes with an extraordinary humanity.”

Falls’ 2006 Broadway production of Shining City was nominated for two Tony Awards, including best play. Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly and two New York Times critics, Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, included it on their lists of the top-ten plays of year. “In terms of construction, Shining City is as close to perfection as contemporary playwriting gets,” wrote Brantley. The Chicago run of Shining City will feature the same design as the New York production but it will have a new cast, led by Jay Whitaker as Ian and John Judd as John.

When Whitaker read the script before auditioning, he was struck by Ian’s enigmatic nature. Ian is onstage for the entire play, but he barely says anything during the sessions with his patient. At certain points in the play, however, audiences get glimpses into Ian’s private life, revelations that make him appear less sympathetic than he is when he’s merely listening. “I really think the audience is going to see this guy in the moments when I’m not speaking,” Whitaker says, adding that he doesn’t mind playing a character some audience members may end up disliking. “I’ve played a lot of villains, a lot of bad guys,” he says. “I always find something in those people that I love so dearly.”

The ghost story in Scene One was McPherson’s starting point for writing the script. Like the ideas that have sparked his other plays, it popped into McPherson’s head one day. “I don’t have a lot of control over it,” he says. “If an idea just comes into my head, and it stays for a long time, then that’s probably something I’ve got to write. It seems to sort of bake in my head like a cake.” As McPherson expanded that ghost story into a series of psychotherapy sessions between John and Ian, he explored the way men think about women and the way humans deal with loneliness and guilt.

McPherson gave up drinking a few years before he wrote Shining City, and he says his experiences overcoming alcoholism shaped the narrative. “Shining City is a play with a tremendous amount of guilt in it—looking at where drinking had brought me and how badly it made me behave, and how ashamed I was. That play is very much like the morning after. You’ve come through a big fright or a big emotional experience, and you’re standing, trembling in the sunlight.”

Although he shifted from musical ambitions to the theater long ago, McPherson still enjoys writing and performing songs, and he’s a devoted rock fan. The Neil Young and Gene Clark songs featured in Shining City are indications of his musical tastes. “Music is the art form I’m most interested in,” he says. “If I’m not listening to music, I’m reading about music or I’m playing music. It’s my secret world. That’s where my passion is, really.”

McPherson is modest about his musical abilities, calling himself an “enthusiastic amateur.” He doesn’t think he could achieve anything great as a musician, so he tries to write plays that are, in their own way, a sort of music. “You can’t really say what it’s doing to you,” McPherson says, describing the qualities of music he tries to capture with his writing. “It somehow made you feel different and slightly more alive. Something has happened. Exactly what that is, I can’t exactly say. You’re trying to speak to the audience’s soul more than to their mind.”

On props and prop masters

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in the summer of 2007.

Last spring, as Lookingglass Theatre held tech rehearsals for the African war drama Black Diamond: The Year the Locusts have Eatern, freelance prop designer Rachel Jamieson sat in the theatre pondering fake blood. “There’s a lot of it,” she says. “We tried blood recipe after blood recipe. It was shipped in by the gallon.” And then there was the question of what to use for bile. “We have a dozen different things backstage waiting to see how they look under the lights,” notes Jamieson. “One of my favorites was lime curd. You need something that won’t taste too bad in the mouth of the actor.” At one point, she walked backstage just as an actor finished spitting up some lime curd. “How’d it go?” she asked. The answer: “Yuck.”

In the language of the theater, “prop” is short for “property”—anything you see on the stage other than the scenery, costumes and, well, the actors. Besides devising realistic approximations of bodily fluids, Jamieson’s work on Black Diamond included transforming a couple of classic Charlie McCarthy dummies into look-alikes for two actors in the show. Jamieson is one of the younger props professionals who prefer to be called “prop designers,” emphasizing the creative aspect of their work. “Prop master was the old term,” she says. “It’s becoming ‘prop designer,’ even though the job is the same. Props people look at it as a nod of respect.”

Well, not all of them. “When people call me a prop designer, I cringe,” admits Alice Maguire, who has been props supervisor at the Goodman Theatre since 1988. Maguire doesn’t see herself as a designer. “The scenic designer sets the concept. We take our cue from them.”

Whichever term is used, props people are instrumental in helping to create the look and mood of a play and the things they bring to the stage often play a vital role in defining a performer’s character. And like performers, props don’t always behave themselves. Greg Isaac, resident prop master at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, says magazines are often a problem. Finding an old magazine to fit the period of a play isn’t difficult, but the periodicals fall apart when they’re handled night after night. “We always have a prop first-aid kit backstage full of clear packing tape, so we can constantly reinforce and repair the ripped covers and pages,” says Isaac.

Dan Pellant, a freelancer who has worked at Victory Gardens and other theatres, recalls buying an electric scooter for one play, only to discover that it needed a special kind of battery that had to be ordered from China. “The actor tried to push the scooter on for the first few performances, but the whole thing was eventually scrapped because he looked completely ridiculous,” relates Pellant. One of Pellant’s most interesting challenges was finding two antique oil-burning opium lamps for Silk Road Ensemble’s production of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child. “They are vastly different in appearance and function than other oil lamps, so substitutions were not an option,” he says.

When a scene calls for actors to chow down, they’re usually attacking bread disguised to look like something else. It’s easier to chew than meat, for example, and less likely to thicken the spit in the actors’ mouths. When James Tyrone and his boys hit the bottle in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, you can beat the hooch they’re belting back is actually tea. “Beer is usually juice,” reveals Jamieson. “Coffee is usually flat Coke—I wouldn’t drink it.”

Some props are built, some are rented, and some are bought. Some are even scavenged. “Sometimes I’ll stop if there’s something in the middle of the street or the alley and pick it up,” admits Pellant. “Maybe I’ll come back later and get it—furniture and odds and ends.” Props people are all visitors to e-Bay. They haunt antique shops and thrift stores, such as the Brown Elephan resale shops, which benefit Howard Brown, the Midwest’s premier lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health care organization. Isaac can often be found at JoAnn Fabrics in Vernon Hills. When employees ask him what sort of project he’s working on, they get surprising responses. “My answers are always things like, ‘Oh, I’m creating a Roman shield,’ or ‘Well, I’m cushion-lining a coffin,’ or ‘I need to stuff some rubber chickens to hang on a T bar.’”

Smaller theaters without much storage space don’t hold on to the bulk of their props, but with its own West Side warehouse, the Goodman Theatre maintains a veritable Xanadu of material from past productions. A former battery factory, it’s a fairly typical-looking industrial space, except for the assortment of objects hanging from the walls and ceilings and stashed into corners: an enormous poppy blossom from Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey; an equally huge pumpkin from David Mamet’s children’s show, The Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two Speed Clock; body bags from last season’s epic production of King Lear. There are chandeliers, suitcases, rakes, brooms, shovels, bundles of branches, tall strands of prairie grass, and lots and lots of chairs. “This is our Brian Dennehy rehearsal chair,” Maguire said, pointing to one among many. “He just likes a good, sturdy chair.”

The Goodman keeps the key props from some plays in trucks parked at other locations, preparing for the day when those shows might be remounted. “We can’t not keep things,” Maguire says. She admits that there’s a limit to how many times a prop can be recycled. “Nobody ever wants to see something twice.” But sometimes all of those odd objects in storage come in handy. When the Goodman’s artistic director, Robert Falls, told Maguire that he needed a stuffed deer for King Lear last fall, she quickly answered, “We have one.” The antlered stag had previously appeared in As You Like It. Now, it hangs in a bag from the warehouse ceiling, waiting for the day when it might make another appearance.

In her office, Maguire keeps three-ring binders from each play, filled with photos, drawings, and notes that directors gave her during rehearsals: “Bread should be in the basket … The chair needs to swivel.” Maguire, whose previous jobs included handling props on the first Friday the 13th film, also keeps a variety of art and history books to give her visual references, ranging from a coffee-table volume of Frank Lloyd Wright designs to a 1933 Horders stationery catalogue.

A good props department is not only well-stocked, but operated by folks who know just the prop for every scene. When the Goodman produced Hollywood Arms (written by Carol Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton), legendary director Hal Prince was impressed by the ability of Maguire and her staff. Anticipating his needs, they had many props ready before he even requested them, such as vintage ice-cube trays. “The minute he asked for it,” she says proudly, “it was there.”

By declining to call herself a designer, Maguire is modest about the role she plays at the Goodman. But she is clearly enthusiastic about her line of work. “You can’t help but love it,” she said. “There’s so much variety.”