David Schein was sitting in a sidewalk cafe on Western Avenue near Belden, sipping a margarita and enjoying a warm July night in 1996, when a young man stepped out from behind a red truck. Schein remembers he was Latino, about 14 or 15 years old, with a shaved head.

The teen was soon joined by a second boy. The two of them stood a moment in front of the cafe, “talking code with head jerks like a couple at a party.” They abruptly crossed the street to the bus stop on the other side. Before Schein could take another sip of his drink or lick the salt off the side of the glass, the first boy lifted the baseball bat Schein hadn’t noticed before and smashed it down on the head of a third young man waiting at the corner with his girlfriend.

The two boys took off and Schein bolted from his seat, running back into the restaurant to call 911, then crossing Western with a posse of other diners to see if they could help. The young man lay howling in pain, his head dented above the temple. His girlfriend had to be restrained to keep her from hugging him too tightly or shaking him while she pleaded, “Stay strong, Manuel, hang in there, Manuel. Don’t die.”

As the executive director of the community-based Free Street Theater and founder of its teen program, TeenStreet, Schein had worked with hundreds of kids like Manuel and his two assailants and had broken up dozens of fights. But he had never witnessed anything as brutal as this.

Schein had moved to Chicago from New York five years before. He’d started to resent the confinement of his office job, handling classified ads for the New York Review of Books. Broke and frustrated, he says, “I decided I wanted a job in theater.”

Schein had a lot of stage experience. In the 70s and early 80s he ran his own storefront company in San Francisco, the Blake Street Hawkeyes, where he collaborated with west-coast performers like George Coates, John O’Keefe, Guillermo Gomez-Pe–a, and a young actress named Caryn Johnson, who would soon start calling herself Whoopi Goldberg. Schein even directed Goldberg in the one-woman show that Mike Nichols reshaped for Broadway in 1984.

So when he saw an ad for the position of artistic director at Free Street, he jumped at it. At the time the company was facing a crisis of its own. Its founder and driving force, Patrick Henry, had died two years earlier of lymphoma, and without Henry’s leadership the company had been running more or less on autopilot. Schein soon realized he was going to have to do a lot of work just to get the company back on its feet. “If I’d looked at the books, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job,” he says now. Schein began fund-raising efforts, even asking Goldberg for help. “She helped with keeping this place alive the first year. I’m going, ‘You’re a millionaire, come on. It’s for kids in the projects. You lived in the projects.'”

Not all of Schein’s reforms were financial. “When I came to Chicago I slept in the theater for six or seven nights in a sleeping bag to commune with Henry’s spirit. I knew I was going to have to re-create something on his casket.” Schein stepped up the pace of the theater’s output, adding workshops, creating smaller groups within Free Street–TeenStreet; the Clown Doctors (now Arts Connect), who entertained kids in hospitals; and ParenTeen Theater, for teenage parents. He also helped coordinate three European tours for TeenStreet.

But his accomplishments didn’t make Schein any happier. His elevation to executive director of Free Street in 1995 left him cold. Sapped of creative energy, he felt his own work was suffering, and he never really felt settled in Chicago. “I felt like I was allergic to flatland.”

Schein was one of the finalists for a position running Siamsa Tire, Ireland’s national folk theater, when he witnessed the assault on Western. But instead of providing him with further reason to leave the city, Schein says it made him all the more aware of what he had here–his wife, his two-year-old daughter, his house, his job–and of how much he loved his life. The assault and subsequent police investigation inspired Schein to write a long prose poem that would later become a solo show, My Murder. (The young man eventually died of his injuries in the hospital.) Schein has performed the show twice in the past year and has written two companion pieces for it, one about his father’s bypass operation, the other about his daughter.

When Schein found out he hadn’t gotten the job in Ireland, he says he couldn’t have cared less and insists he was even a little relieved. He hadn’t been looking forward to the prospect of tangling with the priests on the theater’s board of directors or moving his actress wife and daughter across the Atlantic to a small Irish village. “Who would have thought I would have a house and a family and a big, interesting, diverse city and a beautiful lake right over there? Right now I feel integrated for the first time in a long time.”

Schein will perform My Murder and Other Local News: 3 Performance Pieces Linked by Voice, Persona, and Me as part of the Rhinoceros Theater Festival at the Lunar Cabaret, 2827 N. Lincoln. It opens Sunday at 7; other performances are Saturday, September 26; Saturday, October 3; and Monday, October 12, all at 10. Tickets are $10 or “pay what you can.” Call 773-327-6666 for reservations. For more information on the festival, see the sidebar in the Section Two theater listings. –Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Schein photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.