This year Chicago delivered to Broadway the two most important new American plays of the season, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and David Rabe’s star-studded Hurlyburly. Both plays originated in the Goodman Studio, a stark, 135-seat house off the main auditorium of the city’s historic Goodman Theatre. The most important revival of the Broadway season, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with Dustin Hoffman in the lead, also opened in Chicago, at the old Blackstone Theatre in the Loop. And for the past two years a scraggly, young Chicago ensemble called the Steppenwolf Theatre Company has reigned supreme Off Broadway in New York with three brilliant productions it shipped in: Sam Shepard’s True West, C. P. Taylor’s And a Nightingale Sang…, and Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead. John Malkovich, one member of the troupe, not only directed Balm in Gilead and starred in True West but also played Biff to Dustin Hoffman’s Willy in Salesman.

The evidence would almost suggest that the heart of the theater world has very suddenly been transplanted to the Midwest. Those in Chicago’s burgeoning theater community would not argue. In fact, many of them feel that their newfound prominence was inevitable.

“There are no overnight sensations,’’ says Roche Schulfer, the youthful president of the League of Chicago Theatres, which number ninety-three at present. Schulfer, who is also managing director of the Goodman Theatre, adds, “For ten years, we’ve sort of had one giant Chicago theater company. Now, all of a sudden, people are being acknowledged for work they’ve been doing for years. “

“What’s different about Chicago,” according to Gregory Mosher, the passionate artistic director of the Goodman, “is that we encourage and reward a sense of community.” Mosher, who directed Glengarry Glen Ross, is widely perceived by his Chicago contemporaries as the leader of the pack, the key figure in the city’s siege of New York.

“He did something that I don’t think any artistic director anywhere has ever done,” says Mike Nussbaum, a veteran Chicago actor who was a member of the Glengarry cast. “Mosher opened up his theater to other local theater companies. Most artistic directors would rather bring in groups from other cities. That’s a mark of his commitment to Chicago theater.”

The Goodman Theatre, established in 1925, clings like a granite bur to the back of the Art Institute of Chicago, and until 1977 the institute ran the theater in a very conservative fashion.

Mosher arrived on the scene in 1974. Fresh out of Juilliard, he was hired to create a secondary Goodman stage—called Stage 2 then, now known as the Studio. Twenty-five years old, he knew even then that he was allergic to institutions. “An institution doesn’t create,” he maintains. “An institution shelters, supports, preserves, and all those other nice things. But it doesn’t create. And it doesn’t like to take chances.”

Mosher was asked to supply a season of experimental surprises that would complement the classics on the main stage. He started by hunting for writers, and on one of his first days on the job a serious-looking young man smoking a fat cigar showed up in his office. His name was David Mamet. Mosher knew of him, although there wasn’t much then about Mamet to know. The son of a wealthy Chicago lawyer, a bad actor but a decent playwright, he had a devastating way with dialogue and a killer case of overconfidence. His play Sexual Perversity in Chicago had been roundly praised. Mamet was a founding member of the St. Nicholas Theatre Company, which had originated at Goddard College, in Vermont, and which had moved to Chicago with Mamet.

“I have one of the strangest ambitions I know of: I want to be an actor on the stage in Chicago,” said Del Close.

The writer dropped a pile of pages onto Mosher’s desk and matter-of-factly informed him, ‘‘You have to do this play. This play is going to win me the Pulitzer Prize. In fact, I will put $5,000 in escrow and if it doesn’t win the Pulitzer, you can have the money!”

“At which,’’ Mosher says today, “I laughed.”

The play, which Mosher read and hastened to direct, was American Buffalo. While it did not win a Pulitzer (Mosher didn’t get the $5,000, either), it inaugurated one of the most important playwright-director relationships in America. (The prize came ten years later, with Glengarry.) In 1978, when the Goodman named Mosher artistic director—the youngest in the country—he promptly hustled Mamet into the position of associate artistic director. The Goodman now had the writer in residence, and Mosher had the theater for writers that he had wanted from the start.

Mosher is still so devoted to breeding new drama that a generous portion of the Goodman’s $4 million budget for the current season (the largest in the theater’s history) is being siphoned into something he calls the New Theatre Company. This company, when it debuts in January, will have fifteen members, including playwrights Mamet and John Guare. Their mission is to bring into the world two or three shiny new plays a year. “That’s twenty to thirty new American plays over ten years,” Mosher crows. “You gotta go back to the thirties to think of a theater that’s spawned as many plays. Then talk about the world watching Chicago. It will be unbelievable.”

Back in the beginning, before Mamet, before Mosher, there was Paul Sills. He was a brooding genius, a mercurial enigma, and the son of Viola Spolin, the gifted teacher who wrote the bible of improvisational acting, Improvisation for the Theater. At the University of Chicago in 1955, Sills formed a group known as the Compass Players, which included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Severn Darden, and Barbara Harris. They specialized in daring sketches, spontaneously conceived and fearlessly performed.

Compass eventually became Second City. Sills stayed at the helm until 1964, but Second City would always be his personal legacy, even in its move to television as SCTV. Second City performers, over the last twenty-five years, have included Alan Alda, John Belushi, Bill Murray, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Peter Boyle, Valerie Harper, Shelley Long, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, and just about every other brilliant comic actor in America. Because of them, Chicago became the indisputable improvisational comedy capital of the solar system.

Del Close, a revered figure in Chicago theater, was there when it all started. He worked with Sills, became a cornerstone of the Compass Players, and later directed and shaped Second City at perhaps its funniest. NBC at one point paid him to make house calls to save Saturday Night Live. According to Bob Woodward in Wired, Close, a former drug addict, used to shoot speed into John Belushi’s buttocks. “The old Second City was built on drugs,” Close recalls.

“A name doesn’t mean anything here. So we don’t have all this star shit. Chicago is an ensemble town.”

“I’m turning over a new leaf,” he says. “I have one of the strangest ambitions I know of: I want to be an actor on the stage in Chicago.” He has an insight that he regularly imparts to improv students: ‘‘Every young actor ought to take twenty-five years off, be a social radical, be a dope fiend, sell explosives to the Black Panthers, and then, when you’ve had enough experience to give a little authority to your craft, come back and start working for the Goodman.” Among other roles, Close always plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in the annual production of A Christmas Carol at the Goodman.

“Almost all of the work being done in Chicago can somehow be traced to Second City,” says Stuart Gordon, another widely acknowledged instigator of the city’s theater revolution. Fifteen years ago Gordon ignited what Chicago calls its Off-Loop theater by unleashing his Organic ensemble on the city. To this day Organic prides itself on being the only professional company in town dedicated exclusively to producing original plays and adaptations. An example of Gordon’s characteristic chutzpah: his company was doing a six-hour version of Huckleberry Finn five years before Nicholas Nickleby got on the boards.

Alan Gross, a playwright well known in Chicago, is admittedly a bit jealous of his old friend Mamet. Gross’s best-known play, Lunching, was a big Chicago hit, and is still restaged around the city. But it hasn’t traveled the way Mamet’s plays do. “In New York, I am always called a local or regional playwright,” he complains. “I don’t understand why a national playwright lives on the Hudson River and a local playwright lives in the middle of the country.”

Until very recently, Chicago had a way of imbuing its theater people with insecurity. Mike Nussbaum is a good case in point. A former Chicago exterminator, Nussbaum was the first director of Lunching. He also originated the role of Teach in Mosher’s historic production of American Buffalo. On Broadway he played a frightened, aging nebbish in Glengarry Glen Ross.

After twenty-five years of doing what was considered to be good work,” he says, “my credits meant absolutely nothing when I would come to New York. Nothing. Only now does a Chicago credit have credibility.”

According to Gary Sinise, who directed Sam Shepard’s True West at the Steppenwolf Theatre, no one in Manhattan would give him the time of day until Steppenwolf moved the production to New York two years ago and critics declared it to be definitive. “I remember phoning one New York agent and telling her that we were gonna try to do some plays out there. And she said, ‘Out there? Out there! You, young man, are out there! We are in New York/’ So I just screamed at this bitch and hung up.”

Gregory Mosher has this to say about East versus Midwest: “When you talk about Chicago theater, you talk about companies. But when people talk about New York theater, they speak of individuals. Stars. Actors. Producers. Directors. Right? Wellllll … what a difference!”

Alan Gross adds, “A name doesn’t mean anything here. So we don’t have all this star shit. Chicago is an ensemble town. The actors protect themselves from unemployment by banding together.”

Most of the ninety-three theaters in Chicago have their own resident actors. Among the most respected companies are Remains, Victory Gardens, Wisdom Bridge, Organic, Huron, Body Politic, Practical, Court, Northlight, Second City, and, of course, Steppenwolf and the Goodman. Actor William L. Petersen is a founding member of Remains, which is considered by many to be the finest troupe consistently working in Chicago. Yet Petersen sometimes works with such neighboring companies as Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge, and the Goodman. “The ensemble movement has been regenerated in Chicago,” he observes. “Everybody helps everybody here. We compete amongst each other, not against each other.

Joe Mantegna, who won a Tony for his performance in Glengarry Glen Ross, credits his good fortune to his ensemble training at the Organic Theater. “Acting,” he explains, “is like baseball. You can’t play it by yourself. Having the opportunity to work constantly, creating your own work, is such an advantage in this business. We were honing our craft while our contemporaries in New York were sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.”

Judith Ivey, another Chicago alum, acted five years on the prairies, usually at the Goodman. Her performance in Hurlyburly has once again made her a star in New York. (A year ago she won a Tony for her Broadway performance in Steaming.) “Chicago is now so much more than a training ground,” she says. “Chicago has become terribly exciting because it really is sort of carving out American theater.”

If New York and Los Angeles are recognized as the marketplace, Del Close has always seen Chicago as the laboratory. The priorities in Chicago theater would be inconceivable elsewhere. “Here, the idea is to do not the longest-running show for the greatest possible salary,” he says, “but to do the best possible show for a short run and then get on to something else.”

“Chicago theater is big-shouldered theater,” says Robert Falls, the artistic director of Wisdom Bridge, a gutsy little theater that sits on the northernmost edge of the city. “At its best, it’s a very muscular, fuck-it-all kind of thing. It’s not polite. It has rough edges. It’s not polished. But there’s a tremendous energy to it.” Wisdom Bridge is all of that. Its current season includes Hamlet with Aidan Quinn, Kabuki Medea, and a revival of the company’s adaptation of Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast.

William L. Petersen, who originated the Jack Abbott role, says about Chicago actors, “We’re fresh. Our attitude is less measured; there’s more wild abandon. Among the companies I work with, for instance, we very rarely choreograph fights onstage. We just let ’em work themselves out. As a result, people get hurt a lot.”

Alan Gross says, ‘‘More chances are taken in Chicago than anywhere else. The reason? There is no money to be made in Chicago, so no one has to be careful. No one can make a living here. So you can do anything you want. And we do. There’s nothing to lose. And that is exactly what makes this an interesting and viable theater town.”

At the same time, because there is no money to be made, it is hard to keep actors in Chicago. In the last two years, many of the city’s best actors have been working in New York. In other words, despite the fact that these people helped galvanize Chicago into a theater center, many of them can’t afford to hang around.

John Malkovich says he never earned more than $5,000 a year in Chicago. ‘‘You just kind of live in a burned-out pigsty and try to put on good plays and never think much beyond that,” he recalls. Malkovich, the nucleus of the sixteen-member Steppenwolf ensemble, is a native of rural Benton, Illinois. He is the one with the big forehead and the high profile. His voice is a sultry whisper in which every syllable suggests an implosive volatility. A skilled director and performer, he will probably soon be a big movie star. On the strength of his performance in True West, he has important roles in two films released this fall, Places in the Heart (which also features Lindsay Crouse, Mamet’s wife) and The Killing Fields.

Malkovich was one of Steppenwolf s founding members in 1976. The company, which borrowed its name from Hermann Hesse, was made up mainly of people who had acted together at Illinois State University at Normal. They started out in a parochial school basement in Highland Park, a northern suburb. After four years of strong press support, they moved into Chicago proper and continued to show a real genius for tough, original interpretation. A perfect example of this, in the opinion of artistic director Jeff Perry, was their production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.

“That interpretation was so personal, so vibrant. Laura was not a beautiful thing with a slight limp. She was a girl, like Tennessee’s sister, who would end up being institutionalized. The gentleman caller was not a total breath of fresh air—he was kind of a conniving asshole. Tom was trying to get out of the house to make homosexual liaisons, without beating the audience over the head. And Amanda was someone who could alternately keep a family together and drive them apart. It was just beautiful.

“We’re drawn to plays where the acting has to be observant and strong,’’ Perry adds. “No one believes they’ve succeeded if two actors aren’t communicating well onstage. If one actor’s performance is bad, then all performances are bad.”

John Malkovich, in spite of his Broadway and film successes, claims he has not outgrown this troupe, and he plans to direct a play called Coyote Ugly for Steppenwolf in January. He is, however, less than reserved in his criticism of Chicago’s support of theater.

“It is a very apathetic city,” says Malkovich. “Two years ago we moved into a larger theater with 230 seats and a two-foot ceiling. That was an artistic compromise. We thought we would need the money from the additional ticket sales in order to do the work we wanted. We have never sold that theater out. Ever. In fact, we can rarely fill up more than half of the house. Whereas in New York we can’t seem to find enough seats for people who want to see our work.

“The city government has been shit as far as theater is concerned. It’s completely worthless. The city of Chicago has never rented us a building cheaply or given us a grant of any kind. So before I could say I consider myself a Chicago actor, I think a more important question would be, Is there a Chicago audience or not? I have big doubts about that.”

Though some artists seem to be exiting, Chicago is pulling others in. They say Elaine May lured Mike Nichols back. In the summer of 1983, May submitted Hotline, a funny one-act play about suicide, to the Goodman to be staged on a program with two other oneacters, by David Mamet and Shel Silverstein. Nichols flew to Chicago to see May perform with Peter Falk in her play in the Goodman’s tiny Studio theater. He liked the play and the theater.

Shortly afterward the script of David Rabe’s new play arrived in Gregory Mosher’s office. When Mosher read the play and declared he wanted it for the Goodman, he was told that Nichols, who had staged Rabe’s play Streamers, would like it. The cast, he was informed, would consist of William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Walken, Judith Ivey, Harvey Keitel, Jerry Stiller, and Cynthia Nixon. Nichols said he wanted to present the play (which was finally named Hurlyburly about a week before it began previews, on March 23) in the little Goodman Studio.

Before Hurlyburly moved to New York in late June, Nichols told a Chicago interviewer why he had decided to try out the play on such a modest scale. “We chose the small Goodman Studio for the premiere because we were deliberately looking for a way to work on the play without other issues being involved. Considering the reputations of the people in the cast, we knew there would be too much focus on them in New York.”

Mosher was criticized to some degree for turning his theater over to a bunch of big-time show-biz types. Purists whined that a nonprofit theater, such as the Goodman, shouldn’t be usurped as a tryout house for what would certainly be a Broadway-bound bonanza, and had no real Chicago ties in the first place. Hurlyburly, after all, was a California play, a study in the downside effects of Los Angeles life. Glengarry, on the other hand, which had made its American debut in the Goodman Studio less than two months before the Nichols gang arrived, was quintessential Chicago—from the actors to the hard-boiled subject matter.

Mosher replied that the Rabe play had as much right to work out its bugs at the Goodman as did Mamet’s. He said, “There was this school of thought that Glengarry was a homegrown, ‘our guys’ kind of production and Hurlyburly was all fancy-schmancy movie stars, high-glamour parties, and folderol. Well, ladies and gentlemen, the truth is, there were seven actors in each play and they all sat down to work.”

As always, Mosher believes he was merely allowing art to evolve—clearly the only reason he gets up in the morning.

John Guare, the New York playwright who will be working with Mosher’s New Theatre Company this season, feels that Chicago is a bit like Manhattan during the Off Off Broadway movement of the early sixties. “Chicago is not the answer to all ills. But what Chicago does is allow. People there allow work to flourish.”

Stuart Gordon of the Organic observes, “In the past, Chicago used to be just a stop on the road. We depended on New York for a new product. That’s all changed in the last fifteen years. What the audiences here really respond to are world premieres, things that are originating in Chicago.”

This year Gordon’s Organic troupe is going where Chicago theater has never gone before. The Organic is going sitcom. Norman Lear scooped up the company’s most successful and longest-running production, E/R Emergency Room, and sold it to CBS. E/R, like many Organic productions, was written and shaped by ensemble members, who in this case got their material by observing all-night shifts in several North Side hospital emergency rooms. Now, as a weekly half-hour television program, it stars Elliott Gould, and in the pilot presentation featured major characters from The Jeffersons.

What, in pop-culture-conscious America, could possibly represent a greater coup for any theater town?

Print Article