Two years ago Dexter Bullard turned down a job many would have killed for. The artistic director of the Next Theatre, Harriet Spizziri, was retiring, and the first person she thought of to replace her was Bullard.

The choice seemed like a natural. Bullard had directed some of the company’s most successful shows, including Bouncers, which ran for 11 months.

“I gave the offer two weeks of brutal thought,” says Bullard, “and then I came back and said, “No, I’m leaving with you, Harriet.’ I was so frustrated by the diminished returns of theater. You put up a big show for $25,000. And you go gulp! You eat the debt and go on. And the next thing you know, you have an $80,000 debt.

“And frankly,” continues Bullard, who’s now just shy of 30, “the audience at Next was almost twice as old as me. I am trying to make theater for my generation.”

So Bullard founded Plasticene, a small gypsy theater company meant to be everything Next was not: portable, low budget, and unencumbered by a board of directors and a conservative subscriber base.

“I’m following the model of a rock ‘n’ roll band. My number-one rule: Don’t invest in a home. Don’t take a storefront, scrape the walls, and paint it black. Number two: Don’t get an office, a desk, and all those other trappings of corporate power. Creating a theater company shouldn’t be about building a board of directors. Who wants to do that? Creating a theater company should be about working with other artists.”

Bullard brought together a tight band of performers and backstage personnel: set designer Robert G. Smith, sound designer Eric Leonardson, and actors Brian Shaw, Julia Fabris, Michael Cates, and Laura T. Fisher. The goal for the first production was to create a show backward, beginning with the set and costumes and ending with the play. Bullard also wanted to produce a show for less than a thousand dollars that could be set up quickly, performed in any space with electricity, and then packed away for the next performance. “It was a Guns of Navarone-type deal. We have our bomb specialist, our knife thrower, and they all work together to accomplish this difficult task.”

The set–three doors positioned at odd angles to one another–was built in April 1995. Immediately after it was finished Bullard began rehearsing his actors, sometimes asking them to improvise bits, other times refining scenes created in earlier rehearsals.

The end result, Doorslam, cost around $500: $300 for the set, $100 each for costumes and props. This hour-long hybrid–half dance theater, half physical comedy–is reminiscent of both Compagnie de Philippe Genty, the French dance-theater troupe that performed here several years ago at the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, and Tiny Dimes, the barbed corporate satire Bullard directed two seasons ago at Famous Door.

Doorslam focuses on four white-collar working stiffs–all dressed identically in black pinstripe suits, white shirts, black shoes, and dark gray hats–who with frantic, comic exaggeration undergo the daily rituals of upper-middle-class life: getting up, getting ready for work, reading the paper, hobnobbing at the coffee machine.

“Doorslam is kind of like an album. It’s 26 cuts of action. It follows a dramatic structure–exposition, crisis, going to a climax, denouement–but no one can tell you here’s the story. You have to experience that yourself.”

First performed last fall at the Chopin Theatre, Doorslam reopens this weekend at 9:30 PM Saturday and 7:30 PM Sunday at Steppenwolf’s Studio Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Call 335-1650 for more info.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ J.B. Spector.