Prodigal Playwright

The road from page to stage is often long and frustrating. An author submits a play to a theater company, where it winds up at the bottom of a stack of unsolicited manuscripts. Finally, someone gets around to reading it. If he likes it, he’ll pass it on to someone else, who’ll then mull it over before deciding whether to do a staged reading. The reading may lead to work with a dramaturge, who would help the writer shape the piece, or it could go through a workshop process in which it’s subjected to group critiques. Even then, it might never make it to a full production. But on rare occasions, if a theater is lucky, a script turns up that seems ready to go right from the start.

Victory Gardens Theater thinks it’s found such a work with Sidney Bechet Killed a Man, a new play by Stuart Flack that will have its world premiere January 23. The play doesn’t tell the story of Bechet, the legendary jazz saxophonist, who actually served 11 months in a Paris jail for shooting a man in 1929. Flack’s play is about a highly successful heart surgeon who winds up murdering his financial adviser–who’s also his best friend–after the surgeon discovers he’s been ruined financially. The plot is further complicated by the surgeon’s affair with the friend’s wife. “There’s lots to think about in this eloquent play,” says Sandy Shinner, Victory Gardens’ associate artistic director, “but it’s also a real page turner.”

An Evanston native, Flack is no starstruck amateur. He’s studied playwriting with Arthur Kopit at Columbia University, and he’s had three full-length plays produced in New York and Buffalo. Flack moved back to Chicago 18 months ago and submitted Sidney Bechet Killed a Man to Victory Gardens shortly after his return. Flack had some old ties to the theater. While in high school and college, he hung out there doing odd jobs and taking a playwriting class with Steve Carter, one of Victory Gardens’ writers in residence. Flack says Carter was the first person to encourage him to write.

Sidney Bechet Killed a Man caught the attention of Shinner and artistic director Dennis Zacek, who wasted no time in scheduling a staged reading last winter. If there was one question they had about the script, says Shinner, it was whether its long monologues would play as well onstage as they did on the page. The reading was an unqualified success, and since then Flack has only fiddled with the ending.

Though Flack has yet to start work on another script, he says he harbors no plans to leave theater for the greener pastures of movies and television. “I like the challenge of doing theater and the whole process of putting up a show.”

Sweet Dreams Come True

Northlight Theatre, which has seen its share of dark days in recent years, is tasting the sweet joy of a hit show with Always…Patsy Cline, playing through January 5 at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre on the Northwestern University campus. The production, which presents both an overview of the country singer’s life and a concert performance of her hit songs, has apparently struck a chord with a broad audience. Northlight managing director Richard Friedman says Always…Patsy Cline is taking in between $8,000 and $10,000 a day in ticket sales, with the single best day’s receipts totaling more than $12,000. A group of local investors is interested in moving the show to a larger venue for an extended commercial run that could begin as early as mid-January. Northlight may participate as an investor, says Friedman, who would also serve as one of the show’s producers. The most likely new home for Patsy Cline is the Apollo Theater, where Gentlemen Prefer Bonds will close at the end of this month after a shorter-than-anticipated run. Another possible venue is the Royal George Theatre, which has been dark since Mrs. Klein abruptly closed earlier this month. Friedman says it will probably cost between $100,000 and $175,000 to move Always…Patsy Cline. The producers may need to promote the production heavily during January and February, traditionally one of the slowest theatergoing periods of the year. If Always…Patsy Cline winds up at the Apollo, it would be playing in a house where a another country-themed show, Pump Boys and Dinettes, became one of the city’s longest-running shows ever.

Steppenwolf Backs Off

The Steppenwolf Theatre’s plan to build a multimillion-dollar structure adjacent to its home is now on hold indefinitely, according to managing director Michael Gennaro. The new building was to include both commercial retail space and additional offices and rehearsal rooms for the theater company. But since the project was first announced about a year ago, the idea has been reconsidered. Gennaro says the organization wants to get a better sense of what its space requirements will be five to ten years from now. He says the immediate need for rehearsal quarters has been met with the recent completion of the parking structure south of the theater. The garage’s bottom floor has been glassed in and is now being used as a rehearsal space.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stuart Flack photo by Eugene Zakusilo.