Ballplayers use the phrase “a cup of coffee” to describe a short sojourn in the major leagues. Evanston-bred-and-based author Mark Larson, a theater lover from an early age, had his artistic cup of coffee as a playwright and performer in the Chicago theater milieu of the 1970s before starting a family and getting what he calls “a real job” as an educator.
“I was infatuated with Wisdom Bridge and Organic and the idea of starting my own ragtag theater company,” he says. “I studied theater in college and left before graduating to start a theater company of my own in Chicago with a small band of friends.” Unlike Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens and Northlight, “it didn’t go anywhere.”
But the fascination lingered. After Larson retired in 2015, he threw himself back into the local theater scene with a researcher’s passion. “I was deeply curious about how it grew from the few storefronts I remembered, plus the Candlelight and Drury Lane dinner theaters further out, to a world-renowned theater town. That question inspired me: How did this happen?”
The result is “Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater,” an encyclopedic chronicle of the performance landscape from the early fifties, when Paul Sills and David Shepherd, co-founders of the Playwrights Theatre Club and Compass Players, met in Hyde Park, to 2017 and the rise of such ensembles as The Gift, A Red Orchid and Steep Theatre. Larson’s book is interview-based, a back-and-forth of voices that, as Larson says, add to and respond to one another in play-like fashion. Unlike two earlier Chicago theater histories—Richard Christiansen’s “A Theater of Our Own” and [former Newcity reviewer] Chris Jones’ “Bigger, Brighter, Louder”—“Ensemble” is written not by a critic but by a theater buff whose goal is to depict and celebrate a large and ever-shifting creative community. The 700-page tome is a labor of love, with the emphasis on labor. It took four-and-a-half years to conduct, arrange and edit its 330 discussions, not to mention the many shows attended by Larson and his wife.
At some point, mammoth projects like this take on a life and momentum of their own and “Ensemble” is no exception.
“I did a lot of posting on Facebook about what I was doing, and whom I was talking to, and I included brief excerpts of the conversations,” Larson says. “The response was significant, with people sending me artifacts and interview suggestions and volunteering themselves as subjects. I wanted this book and research to feel like a collaborative project. And in the end, it really felt that way to me.”
Larson and I communicated by e-mail about “Ensemble” and his own reflections on the broad and varied tapestry that is Chicago theater. This is an edited version of our correspondence.
What inspired you to write this book in this way? I notice it’s partly dedicated to Studs Terkel. Is he a major influence?
Studs was a hero of mine since I read “Division Street: America” as a young man. My dad, who was a journalist in Chicago, knew him, so I met him a few times. I loved listening to his show on WFMT. I dedicated the book, in part, to him because of what I learned from him about the significance of every person’s story, that everyone makes a contribution to the social ecosystem. I tried to emulate that with the book, interested in all the artists’ and theaters’ stories, not just the well-known. I was interested in the community in all its parts and how they all work together.
Why the title? Is it because of the centrality of ensembles in Chicago theater, or because Chicago theater as a whole can be seen as an ensemble?
Exactly. It’s both of those. I decided on the title very early on when I realized how often I was told about how the community functions a lot like one large ensemble. Criss Henderson, executive director at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, when speaking about the Chicago theater movement, told me very early in the process that it was “like we were building this together.” That idea guided me from that point forward.
Was writing this book a positive experience? Were most interview subjects cooperative? Any tough nuts to crack?
Writing this book was a hugely positive experience, I must say. That’s because the theater community here is what it is. I’ve made a lot of new friends and seen a lot of great theater. Tough nuts to crack? Honestly, I didn’t have to twist any arms.
Some of the interviews scared me, though. Alan Arkin had been a hero of mine since I saw “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and “Catch-22” as a kid. So I was already nervous. When we were setting up the interview, he told me he wouldn’t talk to me until I had read his memoir and that I couldn’t ask him anything that is addressed in the book. I happily read the book and planned my interview around what wasn’t addressed there. Harder than it might sound, especially because I take a conversational approach, meaning I don’t write out my questions. Partway through our talk, I apologized and said, “I know you address this in your book, but my book is an oral history, so I need you talking about it to this, otherwise I’m just quoting from the book.” He said, “It’s okay. I can tell you did your homework.” I couldn’t get to John Malkovich, and David Mamet would only respond to written questions with no follow-up. As a result he has one three-word line in the whole book. But other than that—and excluding Elaine May who famously declines interviews—it was all a lot easier than I had expected. People ask me about this a lot. “How did you get so-and-so?” I don’t know. I just asked.
Who’s your imagined audience? Is this book mainly for insiders with some knowledge of the theater scene here or is it also aimed at neophytes?
One audience, of course, is the theater community itself, past and present. But I also intended it for people interested in theater as audience or student, both in Chicago or elsewhere, to give them a sense of the astonishing breadth and variety of what we have here and how influential it is both nationally and internationally. And finally, I always had in mind people who wonder, as I had, how any large endeavor goes from a conversation among friends in a bar to the point where you are building your own building or evolving into a true institution. I was most interested in origin stories and turning points, so they comprise the vertebrae of the book. I wanted to get as close as possible to giving the reader a feeling of being there.
Is there a central or indispensable person or institution in the history of Chicago theater?
I asked Richard Christiansen that same question the first time I met him, and he said without pause, Paul Sills. I suspect that’s quite true. Without him and David Shepherd, there is no Playwrights Theatre Club, which I see as the start of the movement, no Compass, no Story Theatre, no Second City and all that begat. Paul and his mother Viola Spolin’s impact, through Viola’s book, “Improvisation for the Theater” and her theater games, continues to be immeasurable. You can see their fingerprints everywhere.
Is the ensemble aspect of Chicago theater a goal in itself, or is it basically a means to an end, such as a film or TV career?
The ensemble aspect is, I think, a means to an end, but not necessarily to a film or TV career. There is a strong belief that working for the good of the whole produces better work. I heard a lot of stories from actors who had worked on either coast, and a distinction they often draw is that, especially in Los Angeles, the reason to do theater is as a showcase for yourself, which produces a different level of work. I saw “Tiny Alice” in New York with a stellar cast: John Lithgow, Glenn Close, Bob Balaban. They were all brilliant. But when I compare that assemblage of great talent, an obvious box office magnet, with, say, the work in Steppenwolf’s “August: Osage County,” where they had, for years themselves, as Amy Morton told me, been “a large dysfunctional family playing a large dysfunctional family,” the work is decidedly and noticeably different. I just haven’t yet found the words to describe the difference.
What would you say are the major strengths of Chicago theater?
Its strengths are what we have been talking about: a generous spirit, a true belief that rising tides raise all ships that they act on daily, a gutsy willingness to take major artistic risks and an astonishing array of different options for audiences to choose from on any given night. I’ve witnessed and heard about a lot of powerful examples of veteran theater-makers nurturing younger members. There’s an emblematic story in the book about Laura Eason, then artistic director at Lookingglass, calling Nathan Allen, artistic director and co-founder of House Theater the morning after she saw their first play: Allen’s “Death & Harry Houdini.” She invited him for coffee and then introduced him to Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Martha Lavey, who wanted to hear all about what their company was about and wanted to achieve. This is just after they arrived in town! Years later, Nathan asked Curt Columbus, also at Steppenwolf, “Why are you guys so nice to us?” And Columbus said, “Because it’s the rule.”
David Cromer told me something he heard director Gary Griffin say about the difference between New York City and Chicago. Griffin said that in New York it’s a for-profit model that carries a hefty set of expectations which—and this is me speaking now—can be stultifying to risk-taking. Chicago’s nonprofit model gives artists and audiences alike leeway for risk taking. It’s all a chance to get better, try new things, work with people you want to work with. Michael Shannon told me that when people tell him how nice it is of him to come back to work at A Red Orchid, he thinks, “I’m not doing anybody a favor. I don’t feel obligated to come back here. I’m not being dutiful. Doing [Brett Neveu’s] “Pilgrim’s Progress” [in 2015] is just as satisfying as anything else I do.”
In the vast scheme of things, is Chicago theater—especially the storefront variety—an important part of the American cultural landscape?
That’s one of the themes of the book: that in an ecosystem each element makes the other elements possible. Consider that David Rabe workshopped and opened a new play, “Good for Otto,” at the forty-seat Gift Theatre, and that Simon Stephens is an artistic associate at Steep Theatre, that Michael Shannon continues to return to the eighty-seat A Red Orchid Theater to perform and direct. You can view storefronts as incubators for great works and talents. Tracy Letts’ first play, “Killer Joe,” was first performed at Next Theater in Evanston, in a converted classroom. But I hasten to add that many storefronts will bristle at the notion of being an incubator. They like performing in these small spaces. I’ve asked artistic directors of storefront theaters the hypothetical question, “If I came up with six million [dollars] for you to build a theater, how would you use it?” Often I’m told they’d look for ways to retain the intimacy.
You must have learned a great deal as you did your extensive research. Were there any major surprises? Did anything in particular impress or depress you?
For me the biggest surprise was how accessible everyone was and how readily they jumped in to talk about their present or past work in Chicago theater. When I thanked Ed Asner for his time at the end of one of our conversations, he said, “Are you kidding me? You’re asking me about a beautiful time in my life.” That was a common sentiment. I mention this because it’s an indicator of how people remember and think about their lives and work here.
Two other anecdotes come to mind that epitomize the ethos here. One is from Alan Arkin, looking back to 1960 when he joined the very first Second City cast, and the other is from David Schwimmer, more recently. I asked Arkin how he looks back at his time in Chicago. “I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life,” he said. “I feel like I’m in a good place, but one of the things I think about periodically is that it might have been smarter had I stayed in Chicago. There was a sense of us against the world, a sense of family that was really genuine when I was at Second City.” I also like the moment when David Schwimmer says, “It hurt, to be honest, to hear you ask me what it was like for me to leave Chicago. I never left. In my heart, in my heart of hearts, I’ve never left, I never will leave.”
The public launch for Mark Larson’s book will be at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on August 12.
“Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater”
By Mark Larson
Midway Books, 687 pages