Three years ago Marc Rosenbush should have been on top of the world. Not yet 30, the stage director had already accumulated a resume full of productions and a thick file of favorable reviews. He was helping to transform the Splinter Group’s modest annual Buckets o’ Beckett festival into a big-budget affair with important Chicago directors like Frank Galati and Sheldon Patinkin and a cast list that included such nationally recognized actors as John Mahoney and Estelle Parsons.

But something was missing. A few months before the festival, Rosenbush’s wife of three years left him. She had grown tired of being the wife of an off-Loop director: the long hours, the uncertainty, the low pay–when there was any.

“It was strange not having her there during opening night,” Rosenbush says. “That was the fun part of our marriage, even when other parts were rocky.”

After the festival was over Rosenbush escaped to a Zen Buddhist retreat in the south of France. “After all that happiness and all that acclaim–all that, ‘Ooh-wow, what an amazing thing you’ve done’–I was like, Where’s my wife? Where’s my life? I suddenly realized I hadn’t dealt with any of it.”

Rosenbush took a sabbatical from the Splinter Group, moved back in with his mother in Oak Park, and devoted himself full-time to Zen meditation, with interruptions for personal-development tapes and seminars. “I was afraid I didn’t have control over the next stage of my life,” he says. “I had to rethink the way I lived.”

Rosenbush realized that such fears had held back his career and damaged his marriage. Feeling renewed, he went on to develop a series of his own seminars, called “No Fear,” designed to help performers work through the same kind of psychological impediments that had tripped him up.

“Midway through class someone would start crying during an exercise,” he says. “I’d ask, ‘What’s going on?’ And they’d say, ‘I’ve done four or five thousand auditions in my career and I just realized I’ve never auditioned for a director. Every audition I’ve done was for my dad, who said, “You’re an idiot. You’re never going to make a living. Go get a real job.”‘ Recognizing that is half the battle.”

Rosenbush also threw himself back into his work. Just before the Beckett festival he had been approached by a writer friend, Robert Toombs, about adapting for the stage Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s graphic novel Signal to Noise. He read the book and was intrigued by the story of a dying filmmaker who copes with his illness by writing a script for a movie he will not live to make. The script is about a group of pilgrims in the tenth century who, convinced the world will end on December 31, 999, spend that last night on a mountaintop awaiting Armageddon. Rosenbush identified with the fact that the filmmaker felt much more comfortable in a world of his own making than in the real one. He wrote Gaiman asking for the stage rights.

Gaiman is a big name in the world of comics and graphic novels. His sophisticated comic The Sandman has gained a reputation for overturn-ing conventions and creating a higher literary standard for a genre long associated with hyper-muscular Ÿbermenschen and their curvy female cohorts.

Gaiman says he gets requests like Rosenbush’s every week, but the director’s letter stood out because it “seemed so sensible.” He hasn’t worked closely with Rosenbush and Toombs on their adaptation, but he’s kept in touch from Minneapolis (where he moved from his native England six years ago to be closer to his American wife’s family), critiquing various drafts and even sending them his notes for the novel to aid in their research. Previews of Signal to Noise begin next Thursday, the same day Gaiman is coming to town to sign copies of his latest book, Stardust, at the Stars Our Destination bookstore in Lakeview.

“I talk to my ex-wife,” Rosenbush says with a frozen smile. “She’s like, ‘Why couldn’t you get to this point in your life five years ago?'”

Signal to Noise previews at 7:30 next Thursday and Friday, February 4 and 5, at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (773-871-3000); tickets are $17. There’s a benefit performance Saturday, February 6, at 8 for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which defends the First Amendment rights of comics artists and businesses; Gaiman will be present. Tickets for the benefit are $40. The play runs through March 14; regular tickets cost $23 to $26.

–Jack Helbig

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