Cure for Writers’ Cramp

The next local theater to “pop” will be Writers’ Theatre Chicago, says John Adams, who’s pretty pumped about it. Adams is leaving the Goodman Theatre after 15 years as its business manager to take over this week as Writers’ executive director. He’ll be coming on board just as the small company attempts to negotiate a deal that would move it from its 50-seat black box behind a Glencoe bookstore to larger quarters–ending several years of nervous speculation that it might head for the city. The move would take it only down the street and around the corner. If they seal the deal, for the next five years at least, Writers’ will pursue its goal of building a theater of national standing from a location as unlikely as the bookstore: the white-pillared, redbrick home of the Glencoe Woman’s Club.

For most of its nine-year history, Writers’ has been a one-man show. Artistic director Michael Halberstam, who founded the company with Marilyn Campbell (now literary manager) and first board president Betty Askow, hung on when the original ensemble fell apart after the first year. Since then, with minimal staff, he’s done everything from acting to swabbing the toilet. He made the tiny theater an Equity house, and his talents as a director (on display this spring in a terrific premiere of The Gamester at Northlight and in Writers’ current production of Strindberg’s The Father) have drawn some of the city’s best actors. Working in quarters tight as a living room, Writers’ has earned a half dozen Jeff nominations and won two Jeff awards; last month Halberstam got an award from the Chicago Drama League. “When I began to look around and I looked at this company,” says Adams, “I found that every artist I know of wants to work up there.”

Adams was looking because, at 40, he was ready for a change. An accountant who started hanging out with actors in college, he spent six years at Dart Industries and Dart & Kraft before joining the Goodman. During his time there, the Goodman budget grew from $3 million to $12.5 million and the theater conducted the capital campaign that funded its new building. He’s ready to apply that experience to Writers’. With development director Chris Toft, he’ll begin meeting with fund-raising consultants pronto. The plan is to raise money to endow the company and to purchase or build a permanent 300- or 350-seat theater in Glencoe or nearby in five years. The initial agreement with the Woman’s Club, an interim measure, would bump them up to about 125 seats. They plan to be in the new quarters for the 2002-‘3 season and they hope to keep the bookstore space as a studio theater. Look for an announcement next week that the artistic director of one of the city’s more provocative troupes will join Writers’ as associate producer in August.

Playwrights and Play Wrongs

Director Terry McCabe knows how to fix what’s wrong with contemporary theater. First, kill all the dramaturges. Well, no, that’s overstating it. Just eliminate their jobs. It’s not their fault, but they’re a symptom of what McCabe sees as a big, festering problem: the onslaught of the auteur director. In his cogent little book Mis-directing the Play, out this month from Chicago publisher Ivan R. Dee, McCabe makes his case that “the show that needs a dramaturg has a bad director.” Dramaturges, as we know them in American theater, came along just 20 or 30 years ago. They’re performing a function that no director worth his or her salt ought to delegate, he says. “What we have now is the wholesale abandonment by directors of their job.”

“The myth of the director as auteur is a transplant from film,” McCabe explains. “In film, the director controls every nuance of what the audience sees; the finished work is the result of the director’s vision. In theater, that’s not true. The essence of theater is that it’s live and differs with every performance.” McCabe skewers auteur directors for using canned techniques like videotape to get more control over performances, and for arrogance and oppression in their relations with actors–most blatantly in their “shameful” behavior during the audition process. This kind of tyranny is counterproductive, he says. But the worst damage is often done to the play itself. “Strictly speaking, the only creative person in the theater is the playwright,” McCabe maintains. “Only the playwright is creating something from nothing. Everyone else is interpreting. The director’s job is to tell the playwright’s story, clearly and interestingly, not to distort it into a vehicle for his own vision.”

McCabe has what they used to call a great character face–features that meander off center as if they’ve met a few boxing gloves–and when he makes a point in conversation he plays out the scene as he talks, dipping a toe in an imaginary pool, for example. He got an MFA at Northwestern University in 1980; cut his teeth in brief stints at Northlight, the Goodman, and Body Politic; and was a founder of Stormfield Theatre. Stormfield disbanded after its production of Hauptmann won an Edinburgh festival award and “a bunch of us realized that we were in a position to start working at larger theaters that would actually pay us money,” McCabe recalls. He was resident director at Wisdom Bridge until it closed its Howard Street theater in 1994; since then he’s been a freelance director and artist in residence at Columbia College. His production of Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase is in the last weekend of a run at the Theatre Building, and he’s working on a new musical comedy by Kingsley Day and Philip LaZebnik, Aztec Human Sacrifice, which will open there in January. His credits include the premiere at Victory Gardens of Never the Sinner (by John Logan, who coauthored the screenplay for Gladiator) and Court Theatre’s revival of A Delicate Balance.

“If you believe that your job as director is to fashion the production so that the play reflects your artistic vision, then you are not only bad, you are dangerous,” McCabe writes in his book. In person, he’s reluctant to talk about hometown examples, but he does mention a production of Sophocles’ Electra at Court Theatre in the early 1990s, in which director Mikhail Mokeiev placed a large pool of water front and center. There’s nothing about it in the script, McCabe says, but “the whole play was performed around this pool so that in the final moments, Aegisthus could dive into it and disappear, leaving the audience wondering what happened to him.” According to Sophocles, says McCabe, “Orestes takes Aegisthus inside the house and kills him.”

Hard Core Shown the Door

This week, nine months and a lot of construction after its originally scheduled opening date, the Chicago-Main Newsstand reopened for business. But don’t look for the once-popular aisle of porn. Because the city of Evanston now owns the building, the stand is offering only the “adult sophisticate” titles you’d find at Borders or Barnes & Noble. That means Penthouse and Playboy. Shoppers intent on Blueboy, Cherry Pop, or Panty Girl will have to go down the block to the back room of Main News, which doesn’t have to contend with the city government as landlord.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.