The set for Arts/Lanes’ production of Romeo and Juliet at the Halsted Theatre Centre has a lean and hungry look. This isn’t the sumptuous Renaissance of Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, or the sleek 20th-century vision of last season’s Goodman Theatre production. The only thing onstage for most of this version is a bare, slightly inclined wood platform, which serves as a street corner, a table, a bed, and finally a funeral bier.

But the audience isn’t complaining. The sounds you hear during this performance range from semistifled giggles and outright bursts of laughter to the occasional gasp of surprise at a plot twist that, though familiar to most theatergoers, is startling and new to many of these viewers.

These viewers are teenagers who, along with their teachers, travel from their inner-city or suburban high schools to Arts/Lanes’ weekday Shakespeare shows. The general public is welcome, too; when the house isn’t sold out (though it often is), anybody can show up and buy a ticket at the door. Curtain time is 10 AM.

The theater-for-teenagers hook is hardly unique to Arts/Lanes, of course; but this company is special for several reasons. First of all, there’s its founder and artistic director, Dr. Ralph Lane. When the history of the growth of off-Loop theater is written, Lane’s name should loom large: as a teacher at Glenbrook North High School and later Illinois State University, he trained several waves of important talent. He has particularly close ties to Steppenwolf Theatre. Many members of the troupe, including John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Terry Kinney, Gary Cole, Jeff Perry, and Randall Arney, studied with Lane at ISU; Frank Galati, affiliated with Steppenwolf as well as with the Goodman Theatre and Northwestern University, was a student of Lane’s at Glenbrook North; and Lane himself has directed three Steppenwolf shows.

“I had a great time,” says the 62-year-old Lane of his years as a teacher. “Whether I was a wonderful teacher is not testable on the basis of the evidence we have. What we do have is a group of excellent people who loved working with me.”

Yet Lane’s success at inspiring students to pursue careers in theater leaves him with ambivalent feelings. He says wryly that he gave up teaching “to keep from corrupting the youth.”

“I talked for years about theater as an addictive drug and teachers as pushers,” he says. “You let anybody step onstage and get that applause, and they love it. . . . I found that we had a much larger proportion of students going into theater than was normal. I believed in it, of course, and thought it was of value to these people for them to learn about it. But I was concerned: what were all these people going to do? At this rate, there was going to be nobody going to the theater. They were all going to be in it.”

Lane eventually quit teaching to enter the professional arena. He led master workshops for working actors and directed plays at regional theaters. Out of this grew Arts/Lanes, formed with the joint mission of providing entry-level work for young professional actors and developing audiences through a special marketing program devised by Lane and commercial producer Doug Bragan.

The marketing plan is simple but unusual in theater for young audiences. Rather than take productions to schools, Arts/Lanes brings audiences to its space (it moved to the Halsted Theatre Centre this year after several seasons at the old Ivanhoe Theatre).

“We make them come to us,” Lane says. “Our whole philosophy is that you don’t get people to go to the theater by bringing it to them. You need to get them to go to the theater. If you import a show for a school assembly or something like that, you may introduce them to dramatic literature. But you don’t introduce them to going to the theater.” Requiring teenage audiences to take the active step of attending a show, Lane feels, is a key part of breaking the passive attitudes developed by people who spend much of their leisure time watching television.

An unusual hallmark of Lane’s productions is the actors’ deliberate interaction with the audience. In Romeo and Juliet, which is performed in a brisk, pared-down, intermissionless version that lasts about two hours, the characters walk through the auditorium and often directly address viewers; Romeo’s thrilled exclamation “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” for instance, is delivered not as an abstract statement but as an urgent question from Romeo to a young man sitting in an aisle seat.

Such one-on-one contact invariably provokes verbal response from the crowd, especially given the play’s intense romantic and sexual content. Lane acknowledges this is sometimes greeted with displeasure by teachers who spend much of their day telling kids to shut up; but he has no intention of changing his style.

“We want them talking,” he says. “We want this interaction. It’s remarkable. Their eyes just light up the minute you talk to them–not at them, to them. Have you ever watched how people will talk back to the screen when they’re watching a soap opera, for instance? I want them to feel about this play the way they feel about All My Children.”

The simplicity of Arts/Lanes’ productions is also questioned by some teachers, says Frank Stilwagner, an actor who also serves as the company’s manager. “I had one teacher call me up after she brought a group to see a show, and she was quite disturbed,” says Stilwagner, who like most of the troupe is in his early 20s. “She said, ‘I disagree with what you do. That wasn’t theater. Theater is the sets and the lights and the staging.'” The production’s bareness is partly a matter of necessity–Arts/Lanes generally shares its stage with at least one other production–but Lane is also a strong believer in the notion of found space.

“I always tell my actors, ‘Use what you’ve got,'” he says. “It doesn’t have to be like life. It just has to be true to itself. If it is, it will be an effective work of art. One of my favorite sayings comes from Malcolm, Edward Albee’s dramatization of James Purdy’s story. It says, ‘Between simile and metaphor lies all the sadness in the world.'”

These days, Lane and his wife Rowena divide their time between their homes in Key West, Chicago, and Normal, Illinois. Lane will be in town for the International Theatre Festival next month, teaching adult seminars in acting and directing under the auspices of ISU and the Illinois Theatre Association. He’ll also be making plans for his company’s fall season, which will balance three productions in repertory. For a man who’s officially retired, he keeps busy.

“You know, when I was teaching high school and I’d get frustrated, I’d say, ‘Kids, that’s it. I’m going to retire and open a bowling alley.’ I guess I finally opened my bowling alley.” Arts/Lanes’ current productions, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, run in repertory Mondays and Tuesdays at 10 AM through May 15, with a final show Friday, May 18, at the Halsted Theatre Centre, 2700 N. Halsted; all shows feature a postperformance discussion. Individual tickets are $8. For more information, call 642-2342.

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