Really Big Shaw

Culture queen Lois Weisberg says she knew nothing about George Bernard Shaw in the spring of 1956, when she turned the first page of a biography of the Irish playwright, realized his 100th birthday was approaching in July of that year, and saw an opportunity. Her main responsibility at the time was taking care of her kids, but she pulled together a two-day symposium, bringing luminaries like author William Saroyan and actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke to Chicago to speak. Shaw himself couldn’t make it, having died six years earlier, but everyone else–“his friends, his lawyers, his authorized biographer”–trekked to the Sherman House hotel at Clark and Randolph, where, at Weisberg’s urging, a room had been named for the playwright. In the giddy success of the moment, the Shaw Society of Chicago was launched, with civil rights lawyer Elmer Gertz as its president and the Sherman as its clubhouse. For the next five years, the society met there for monthly readings of Shaw’s plays, produced and directed by Weisberg and performed by local radio actors. More than 30 years later, after Weisberg had become head of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, fledgling director Andrew Callis approached her about starting a theater company that would stage similar readings. Says Weisberg: “He sounded so much like me to me that I invited him to do the plays at the Cultural Center.”

ShawChicago was launched in 1993 as a program of Cultural Affairs, which handled all its administrative work, paid the bills, and provided free performance space. Callis was artistic director; when he moved away in ’95, Robert Scogin took over, aided by managing director Deborah Davis. From 1994 to 2000 the company produced three free staged readings a year and developed an outreach program that takes them into high schools and colleges. Then a year and a half ago it got pushed out of the nest. Davis says Cultural Affairs wanted to use its resources for other groups, and, with a mailing list of about 4,500, “we were ready to spread our wings.” They were also itching to put on a full production, something Weisberg would not support. “There are so many of those companies in Chicago,” she says, “and there are very few companies doing free readings.” ShawChicago added a board of directors, began fund-raising, and moved its office into Davis’s home. Last month it opened its first show outside the auspices of Cultural Affairs: 12 concert readings of Candida (set in a parsonage) in the austere, brick-silo sanctuary of First Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church on LaSalle.

Scogin says ShawChicago will continue to do three readings each season, including at least one at the Cultural Center. Eventually the company, which now has a budget of $120,000, wants to move into a permanent space, do four full productions a year (of works by Shaw and his contemporaries), and create a Shaw festival. One space Scogin is casting a covetous eye on is the currently shuttered Fine Arts Theatre, and he’s hoping for financial help from the city: “The precedent was set with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Goodman.” This weekend the company begins previews of its first full production, The Millionairess. Shaw’s story of a woman who thought she could make money on anything will be the first show ShawChicago has ever tried to make money on, and it marks the first time patrons have had to pay for a ticket. It was coproduced with Evanston’s Next Theatre and will be performed there. That was the easy part: Scogin’s other job is as managing director of Next.

Cabaret Confab

Local venture capitalist George Middlemas hired Andrea Marcovicci to sing at a party he was giving a while back and got to know her agent, Donald Smith, who’s also executive director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation. The Mercer Foundation (named for the legendary 20th-century chanteuse) aims to build audiences for the Great American Songbook. Smith has produced a dozen massive annual cabaret conventions in New York and three in San Francisco, and when he told Middlemas over lunch he’d do one in Chicago if only he could find a sponsor, Middlemas’s family foundation came through with a substantial portion of the $80,000 Smith needed. The first Chicago Cabaret Convention is coming up March 14-17, with 85 singers performing two songs each in successive evenings at the Empire Room, the Park West, and the Casino club. Legends like Julie Wilson, Polly Bergen, Steve Ross, and Celeste Holm will be joined by locals including Beckie Menzie, Spider Saloff, and Tom Michael. There will also be two free events at the Cultural Center and related performances at Davenport’s Piano Bar & Cabaret and Gentry on State. “The places where this music can be heard are disappearing,” Smith says. “And you don’t hear it on radio or television.” In Chicago the list of lost rooms includes Mr. Kelly’s, Toulouse on the Park, the London House, and George’s; the Empire Room hasn’t served as a regular venue since 1972. Smith says he’ll consider the convention a success if he’s able to say at the end, “We’ll be back next year.” What’ll that take? “We need to not lose our shirts.” Smith isn’t making it easy: tickets ($25-$75) are available by mail only until March 1. Call 212-980-3026 for more information.

Naked Ambition

To dress or not to dress is what they’re pondering at Court Theatre. The publicity photo for Hamlet, directed by Charles Newell and starting previews February 14, shows actor Guy Adkins wearing nothing but sideburns and nipples, looking vulnerable as a plucked chicken. According to the accompanying press release, “L.A.-based costume designer Joyce Kim Lee is creating shimmering, contemporary costumes, except for Hamlet, who will wear black (when he’s wearing anything at all…).”

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