Halsted and University

There’s something about a small, urban storefront converted into a theater that I love. Maybe it’s just my Chicago origins where storefront theater spaces abound and where I first experienced professional theatre as a professional wannabe. That city has a slew of them, so many in fact that they’ve at times become their own marketing tool and arts category.

As a young man studying acting I remember numerous trips to Steppenwolf in their old little storefront space at 2851 N. Halsted. Sadly today that spot is some modern building housing something called Golf Tec, an indoor golf lesson business or some such thing. To some people those are hallowed grounds for the pioneering work done by that company in the 1980s, and I cringe at the thought of a modern building filled with plaid pants and cleats taking up that space. Also I’m not much of a golf fan, but still – I’m sure you see my point.

2851 N Halsted, post Steppenwolf, pre-demolition. (Courtesy of PerformInk.)

I remember walking in to that theater for the first time and was surprised at how….small it was. There was hardly any lobby to speak of, the box office was a tiny corner, the ceiling was low and the place felt cramped. On another visit I recall walking in and not noticing any of those those elements because it now felt comfortable to me, but I immediately noticed the Tony Award proudly and simply displayed in a small glass case in one corner.

The theater space itself was a shallow stage, with a low ceiling. There was no room to fly anything in and if there were ever any wings it was only due to scenic design and perhaps by hanging black curtains. It wasn’t the fanciest place or the largest, but that’s not what that company is or ever has been about—it was about the work, the plays, the acting, the art of theatre. And I saw many a magic and beautiful moment on that stage, up close and personal.

After Steppenwolf built their current home, others moved in and the storefront continued to be a theater, but in 2004 it was demolished.

I’m thinking about all that now because last night after my show I was having drinks with some friends and learned about this article: Gremlin Theatre looking for a new home.

2400 University, Moon over Gremlin, November 2011

2400 University, Moon over Gremlin, November 2011

That is the theater where I’m currently doing a play. It’s a small, intimate, store-front space in an old building on University Avenue in St. Paul. The company moved in there only about five years ago, and has put a lot of sweat equity into it, as it wasn’t a performance venue prior to them. In addition to their own productions, they lease the space out to other, nomadic, groups.

It has a small lobby, the box office is an old bar in one corner, there’s no fly space, no wings, the ceiling is low, the stage itself is shallow and there are about seven rows of tiered seating.

Storefront spaces like this aren’t as common in the Twin Cities as they are in Chicago but few have reminded me as much of 2851 N. Halsted as 2400 University.

Gremlin, and the other theatres that have used its space, are gritty groups. Gremlin’s own mission includes “Gremlin Theatre seeks to… [perpetuate] the idea of theatre as a relevant, entertaining, and socially valuable activity for the audience and the artist.” An intimate space like this is just what that mission needs.

There’s something about how a storefront space is accessible and pedestrian friendly, and how a theater in such a place makes it feel like an integral part of our community, that it enhances the experience as both an audience member and as an actor. There’s no stage door for separate entrances by company members, it’s not in a big building with other businesses with which to compete or have to accommodate, and yet there’s a nice big window in front that thousands of cars drive by and pedestrians walk past and they can see that the arts are present and active and essential to our local culture.

It’s intimate and immediate and there’s nothing like it to put an audience and actors in the same space. And in my heart and mind, we as theatre artists and we as a community need more of this, not less.

2400 University closes as a such a space this coming August, and the owners will renovate it into something else entirely. I sincerely hope Gremlin finds a new home just as special.

Missing Mr. Wilson

Lanford Wilson died this week. He was a founder and pioneer of many aspects of late 20th-century American theatre, and helped create numerous theatre companies, and careers, in the process.

One of Steppenwolf’s early big successes was his Balm in Gilead, a production which inspired at least one acting teacher to use that script as the basis for a character development project through improvisation for several generations of students. It was in that class and through Wilson’s characters where we were challenged, where we stretched and where we sometimes failed only to be able to learn. I still use the lessons from that semester and that project in my work today. In Balm in Gilead, the characters were all flawed, desperate, deeply written and hungry. I suppose it may have been those similar characteristics in young actors that helped us all connect.

The first time I ever saw an original cast of a major play by a major playwright as it worked its way to Broadway was Wilson’s Burn This. It made a brief two week (and sold out) Chicago run on its way from LA to New York. We knew it was an opportunity to see something great, and the cast alone was worth what it took to get the tickets and make the trip home to see it. (I was away at school at the time.) Later, when it hit Broadway, it would earn a few Tony and Drama Desk awards and nominations. (I still think Malkovich was sadly overlooked for the Tony. His performance was mesmerizing. Joan Allen, who did win a Tony, absolutely deserved that award.)

The beauty and perfection with which Wilson wrote those characters was of a different hue than his Balm characters, but they were still those emotionally deep, charged characters looking to find a way to fill the void and longing in their lives.

I guess that’s how I think of his plays and his characters: flawed, hopeful and seeking. They’re human. They’re real. They’re people with whom we can connect and in whom we can find ourselves.

There will never be another new Lanford Wilson play, and for that the world feels a little more lonely.

Tracy Letts wrote a modern classic

Last night I spent a rare night in a theater. One of those unforgettable experiences where I had the opportunity to watch a legendary actor, in a uniquely successful, modern play. A couple years ago I was able to see Cherry Jones in her Tony winning performance as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, a Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winning play. Last night I was fortunate to see Estelle Parsons in the Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winning play August: Osage County.

It was a night that was amazing and powerful and reminded me why I love theatre. Of course, besides the obvious, one of the unique things about the whole experience is that this is a play, not a musical. It’s a straight, 3-act, proscenium and kitchen-sink drama. And it’s touring the country, getting huge houses and rave reviews.

It’s a play.

I love that, and I find it hard to believe. We need more of this in our culture.

The script is beautiful and lyrical and extremely powerful at times. It’s also over-the-top with numerous….issues that it touches on. And then after touching on an issue, it pushes that topic over the cliff.  It’s been likened to Long Days Journey into Night and to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and after the emotional beating I felt last night I’d say both comparisons are accurate. For me, personally, there were a couple moments which were more than difficult to hear. And as emotionally wrenching as the script can be, there were many, many moments of hilarity. And the combination made it almost as much a well-written tv comedy series episode (Roseanne came to mind, for more reasons than just the lead actor) as it is the latest notch on the belt of modern American drama classics, like Proof, and Doubt and any number of things by Tony Kuschner. Tracy Letts has written himself well into the history books of 21st century American theatre.

The production itself was also beautiful and flawless…well, almost flawless – I have one tiny quibble, but beautiful and clean and powerful. The show originated as Steppenwolf production and it’s raw, honest acting style is well represented, fitting in with all the productions I’ve witnessed from that company. The cast was brilliant. Shannon Cochran, who plays the eldest daughter Barbara, was a joy to watch! She was funny and tough and tender, and I’d love to see more of her. The credentials of the cast were, of course, impressive, but the star of the show was the household name that many came to see, and who’s received such high praise for her performance. Estelle Parsons. What I cannot believe, and yet I saw it, was that this woman was unstoppable in her performance and energy. She cried, laughed and screamed her way around that stage, and up and down those steps, for 3 1/2 hours. An exhausting feat for any actor, but she’s 82 years old! She’s performing 8 shows a week. And this is not some sort of “Let’s put this icon figure in this role to sell tickets” kind of thing (although, I guess it could be) she leads that cast and works her ass off. I only hope some day I’ve still got that kind energy to do such a thing.

The hard thing is…what is this play about? I’m not sure. It’s about family, and love, and connection and disconnection, and…parts of it are about my family. In some cases, a bit too much. (Thankfully it’s not in a few ways.)

If it had a message, I’m not sure what that would be. But I don’t think all plays have to have a “message” per se. Does Albee’s Virginia Woolf? Or O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey? Or are they essentially stories to which we can each connect in our own way, which in turn might reveal truths to ourselves, for ourselves and for own lives?

And in some ways, isn’t that what art really is? The individual experience and reaction to a created piece?

I think so. Last night I was witness to a beautiful piece of art. It made me think and feel things about my own life and my own family and my own destiny and past. Perhaps someday I’ll see it again, and when I do, I suspect I’ll get something different out of it.

Oh…and just for full disclosure. I’ve adored Estelle Parsons since I first saw her in Bonnie and Clyde, my favorite movie. So I’m biased. And getting to see her in person, screaming and crying and shaking head as if she’d just been shot in the eye, was its own kind of joy. (If you don’t know the movie that might sound cruel. It isn’t.)

Sam Shepard wrote a play

I don’t quite remember the first time I heard the name Sam Shepard, and I’m not positive, but I think the first Shepard play I read may have been Tooth of Crime. In any case, it’s the first play of his that I saw. My freshman of year of college, it was the first production of the season.

It blew my mind.

It didn’t take long for me to be hooked. I drank the kool-aid.

From there I went on to devour his collection of works, which were very popular pieces to be used for scene study classes and monologues. I even took an entire semester of Shepard as an acting class. Sure there were Shakespeare studies and Chekhov studies. Both very worthy. But this was Shepard studies. This was one of the hottest living playwrights of the day.

This was also the late 80s and I imagine the college kids today have moved on, with the possible exception of the truly untouchable pieces like Curse of the Starving Class, True West and, of course, Buried Child. Just thinking about those make me itch to do work on some Shepard.

It was when I was in that Shepard class that a (relatively) local production of his latest dysfunctional-family-gone-awry script was playing. A group of us from the class, plus the acting teacher and several others, piled in cars and drove the two hours back home to Chicago to catch the Steppenwolf production of A Lie of the Mind. It featured Randall Arney, Robert Breuler, Amy Morton, Jeff Perry and Rondi Reed.

If you know anything about these actors or Steppenwolf, you know that’s an amazing cast to have seen together.

The detailed performances, the commitment to the creation of the lives of these characters, the sweat and tears of it all. This was old school Steppenwolf too. In their tiny storefront place at 2851 N. Halsted, with its tiny, low-ceilinged lobby. The Tony award nicely featured in a little glass cabinet. The small, intimate stage where you could practically reach out and wipe the drops of sweat off an actor’s face. I can still see the expression of fear and loathing in Rondi Reeds eyes. (She, by the way, should be more of a household name.)

So combining the powerful gem of Chicago theatre with the mighty work of Sam Shepard…I was in heaven. It was a truly awesome experience.

And why am I reminiscing? Because I just read an article that about a new Off-Broadway attempt at reviving this script. (It incidentally also includes a Steppenwolf member.) I’d love to go to New York and see it. I haven’t seen any Shepard work lately. It’s not done enough, maybe because it’s not appreciated by people who have only seen bad depictions, or perhaps they think it’s too hard, and maybe even some people think it’s become its own cliche. That’s the thing about his writing. As Laurie Metcalf says in the article , “The two things that pop immediately in Sam’s plays are the violence and the insane humor, but when you go deeper, it’s not at all just that. It’s easy to look at the strangeness of his work, and it’s a trap.”

It would be a trap, one which would only lead to mediocrity. There’s so much there below the surface.

If you’re in New York, catch this production. Drink the kool-aid.