Seven actors, a playwright, a director, a lighting designer, a stage manager, and I have arrived in Edinburgh after 30 hours of travel. They’ve come to present Stormfield Theatre’s production of Hauptmann at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest theater festival. I’m along to record their journey, be it a success or failure. They are wide-eyed enthusiasts from Chicago, a city whose reputation for theater has been built on just such finely crafted, low-budget dramas as Hauptmann. None of us has any idea what we are in for, not even Wendy Lueker, who may have dreamed the whole thing.
There is a phrase for August in Edinburgh; they call it “festival month.” Normally a quiet port city dominated by an austere 500-year-old castle built on its highest hill, Edinburgh is transformed into a carnival city each August. Besides the Fringe, there are the Edinburgh International Festival, which presents world-renowned performing arts companies, a book festival, a film festival, a jazz festival, a television festival, a crafts festival, a beer festival, and the military tattoo–a marching bagpipe festival.
The streets of Edinburgh overflow with artists and culture during festival month. Street chalkers are reproducing famous works of art on the sidewalks outside the National Gallery. Among the street-corner bagpipers there’s a blue-haired punk piper playing American jazz tunes. And artisans sell the same jewelry and paintings that artisans sell in Chicago. Even the children of Edinburgh get involved. I’ll meet two chalkers, red-haired nine- and ten-year-old brothers, who are bagging about 20 pounds (or $32) a day in handouts from sentimental tourists like myself.
But by far the biggest game in town is the Festival Fringe. There are over 300 Fringe performances a day in nearly 200 locations. Posters emblazon every available wall space; actors line the streets handing out fliers. Every kind of theater is available, from the Gorky Theater of Leningrad’s classic production of Uncle Vanya at the International Festival to such Fringe silliness as Britain’s Slave Clowns of the Third Reich, the story of “a luscious young comedian forced to wear torn underwear and perform humiliating nightclub routines by evil Nazi laugh-masters.” The effect of this cultural deluge is staggering, on the order of Chicago’s storefront theaters performing all of their season’s plays in three weeks’ time.
The Edinburgh International Festival was started in 1947 with the postwar aim of fostering international relations through the arts. A fringe festival sprung up spontaneously that same year as artists excluded from the larger festival seized the moment to put on their own shows before a larger public body. Now, in many ways, the Festival Fringe is the main festival; it is bigger, cheaper, and it accounts for much of the personality that makes festival month what it is. There is even talk this year of a need for a new festival, less bureaucratic and less staid than the Fringe–a fringe of the Festival Fringe.
Stephen Graham, a London producer who has hooked up with Chicago playwright John Logan to produce his plays abroad, was able to get Hauptmann booked into the Assembly Rooms, which is generally considered to be the best venue on the fringe. It is also the largest, with five stages, each offering five to seven different shows daily. This Georgian showcase, designed 200 years ago to reflect the elegance of that part of Edinburgh now (as then) known as “New Town,” sets up plastic chairs on risers, niftily converting its spacious chandeliered ballrooms into theater spaces for the festival. Stormfield has been housed in the Wildman Room, a small space off the lobby seating 125. It is the least expensive rental available in the building “but it can be a good one,” an Assembly Rooms staff member tells us.
In the Assembly Rooms, no play is allowed to run longer than two hours; Stormfield has to cut two scenes from Hauptmann to get in under the wire. Sets must be struck within minutes of the final curtain. To keep things moving smartly in those spaces where crowds are large, an army of black-clad young Scottish women who serve as ushers will have organized the next audience into a queue in the lobby before the previous show ends. This patiently waiting public is generally younger and hipper looking than Chicago’s theater audiences, more like our city’s Friday evening gallery cruisers. Performances start at 11:30 AM sharp and continue to 2 AM the next day. For three weeks the Assembly Rooms clicks with the precision of a Swiss watch, a French train, a Japanese factory.
November 1985. Stephen Graham was a young London doctor with a problem–a couple of problems really. He was going to visit some friends who were working in medicine in Nepal but their schedule changed and he had to abandon his vacation plans. His more serious problem was that he preferred theater to medicine. He had not realized it until he produced A Little Night Music in college, but after graduating from medical school he started looking for ways to get involved in professional theater. At first he tried to apprentice himself, to learn the business as an unpaid assistant to a London producer, but he found this to be a poor training method. To get started being a producer, he realized, he must simply produce something.
So, with some vacation time on his hands, he came to the United States planning to visit relatives and see some cities he had never been to before. But in the back of his mind he thought maybe he’d find a play to produce, and he decided to spend two days in Chicago, which–city fathers take note–displaced Disneyland on his itinerary. He arrived on a Saturday, intending to stay Sunday and Monday. Wisdom Bridge and Steppenwolf had been recommended to him but their shows were sold out. Checking the newspapers, he saw that John Logan’s Never the Sinner at the Stormfield Theatre was a “critic’s choice” and he bought a ticket for the Sunday matinee. This, as it happened, was the last peformance of the run.
He was “very taken by it,” and when he returned home he wrote Logan. “I didn’t want to let on that I was a doctor with crazy ideas so I sort of sent him a letter on very posh notepaper,” Graham said later. “I didn’t say that I was a big-time producer but I certainly didn’t deny it any way whatsoever.” To Graham’s surprise, Logan answered him, sending along a copy of the play. They corresponded. Graham sent Never the Sinner to “every theater in London,” presumably using the same posh stationery for his cover letters. And in May 1987, a London production of Never the Sinner opened at the Offstage Downstairs, a theater between off-off- and off-, in American terms, to favorable reviews.
Hauptmann premiered on September 13, 1986, at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church on Bryn Mawr, in a cramped theater space that’s been used over the years by Stormfield, Commons Theatre, and Pegasus Players. Its reviews were mixed. Only the Sun-Times’s Hedy Weiss really enjoyed it. One critic thought it a pale copy of Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s In the Belly of the Beast (which, coincidentally, toured to a Glasgow theater festival in 1985), though neither John Logan nor director Terry McCabe had ever seen it. Initially the audiences were small, 20 people a night, sometimes less. Good word of mouth kept the show running, and by the fifth week, audiences grew to about 50 a night and more on Saturday. In the last few weeks of a ten-week run, the show was selling out. Hauptmann was that rare theatrical bird, a hit despite mediocre reviews.
Bruno Richard Hauptmann was a thickly accented immigrant who came to America to escape the postwar economic turmoil in his native Germany. He went quietly to his death in an American electric chair. He did not struggle or curse his captors but he always claimed he was innocent of kidnapping and murdering the 20-month-old son of America’s 1930s dream couple, Charles and Anne Lindbergh.
The Lindberghs–, says Hauptmann in the play, they had anything that was of value in this country. They had wealth, social position, grace, humor, and that certain removed superiority that America demands from her idols. They stood above the concerns of you and I. They stood–the ideal of American success.
The adoration granted Charles Lindbergh upon his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 caught in America’s throat when his baby was kidnapped in 1932. The infant’s death, discovered two months after he disappeared, symbolized innocence lost to the turbulent 30s, a collective yearning for grace and beauty horribly violated. And a murderer was loose.
For weeks, says Hauptmann, addressing the audience, the shadowy figure of the kidnapper haunted America. He was seen in every playground and at every school. Mothers thought they saw him in postmen, delivery boys, schoolteachers . . .
Arrested two years after the crime, Hauptmann proudly refused the help of a translator at his trial although it was apparent that he was answering questions he did not understand. He may have been banking too much on the renowned system of American justice to recognize his innocence. Justice for him was having William Randolph Hearst pay for his defense while publicly proclaiming him guilty in exchange for an exclusive account of the trial by his attorney. The hoopla surrounding his trial provided Hauptmann with a rare education in American culture, justice, media, and politics.
I prayed to the Good Lord above to pity and spare a poor innocent man, he says. It came as a great shock to realize that the Good Lord above is not more merciful than the state of New Jersey.
As weary, arriving foreigners, the Hauptmann cast must be wondering how receptive Edinburgh will prove to be. Stephen Graham has met us at the train station with a rental van and ferried us and our voluminous accompaniment of luggage to the apartments where we’ll stay. As soon as we set down our suitcases, Graham asks Terry McCabe to step outside to talk. That seems odd to me, even odder when a half hour passes without their return. We’ve been eating and sleeping on airplanes and trains for a day and a half, we seriously need good food and a decent rest. Why must they have this meeting?
Later Graham tells me that he took McCabe outside to ask if he’d brought over any extra money.
August 1983. Wendy Lueker, who was named for the character in Peter Pan, was traveling in the never-never land of Europe when she came quite by accident upon the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It made a big impression on her, a huge impression, such as Disneyland makes on small children and Russian diplomats. She already felt an affinity with the Scottish people and landscape. As an actress enchanted by the raucous carnival that is Edinburgh in August, she fell in love with the Festival Fringe as well. It became her dream to perform in it.
April 1987. Terry McCabe called me on Saturday morning with three pieces of good news. One, Stormfield had been asked to take its production of Hauptmann to Scotland. Two, there was a producer in London who would pay for everything but the airfare and the actors’ fees. Three, he wanted me to come along to chronicle the journey–the theater would pay for my airline ticket and provide housing. “This is the biggest thing Stormfield has ever done,” he explained, “and it’s happening out of town. I want someone from Chicago to record it.” It sounded too good to be true. I’d seen Hauptmann and thought it an excellent piece of theater, so I accepted.
My God, I thought when I’d hung up, it’s a junket. But then I remembered something else he had said: Stormfield would have to raise about $12,000 over the summer to cover its end of the trip–an amount equal to 20 percent of Stormfield’s 1987 budget. I’d seen this kind of up-against-the-wall fund-raising. There’s no way this is going to come off, I decided.
June 15 1987. The weekend of benefit performances of Hauptmann at the Briar Street Theatre to raise money for the Scotland trip ended with a rousing near-sellout Monday night. The performances exceeded Stormfield’s goal by about $1,500. (And Stormfield would later receive $5,000 from the new Chicago Artists Abroad grant program of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation, putting the company over the top.) At intermission, the Borg-Warner Foundation’s Ellen Benjamin, a friend of the first order to many of Chicago’s small arts enterprises, told Terry McCabe and myself that she felt a palpable sense of support for Stormfield from Chicago’s theater community. It’s true. McCabe said “no comps” all week, yet many theater folks saw the show anyway, actually paying $10 for their tickets.
Borg-Warner covered all expenses of the benefit run and the actors donated their time, allowing Stormfield to attempt the benefit without financial risk, an ideal (and rare) situation. Paying benefit expenses is not the sort of contribution most foundations, including Borg-Warner, generally make. “Have you checked your mail?” Ellen Benjamin asked McCabe. “Check your mail.” He returned from the box office a moment later with an envelope and a check. It was from Benjamin, her personal contribution. That does not happen every day either.
At the final curtain, the audience erupted into long, heartfelt applause, and around the theater, where moments before there had been sniffling and crying, clusters of people stood up cheering. Onstage, the actors paid a surprise tribute to Denis O’Hare, who so skillfully shouldered so much of the show’s weight in the title role. O’Hare took his bow at center stage and spread his arms to signal the others to join him; that much had been choreographed. But the other actors remained on either side of the stage, joining the audience in a tribute to a performance that was moving, insightful, funny, and always seemingly effortless.
That night, Terry McCabe and the cast celebrated after the show. Hey, this is really happening, they said to each other. We’re going. This is it. We did it. Wendy’s dream is coming true.
In any theatrical endeavor where hope and risk and the chance for incalculable success are involved, expectations have a way of evolving in one direction, cost overruns in the other. In the case of Stormfield’s production of Hauptmann, the usual problems have been aggravated by the decision of Terry McCabe and Stephen Graham to decide key financial aspects of their working relationship after Stormfield arrived in Scotland. They had sounded so affable and enthusiastic to each other over the telephone that it seemed a reasonable way to proceed.
So it is that shortly after our arrival, I am accompanying McCabe on his way to see Graham about money problems. I want to sit in on the meeting, for posterity’s sake, but I’m refused.
The problem they mean to discuss is the food allowance. Graham has given the actors five pounds each per day, and McCabe has already told them they would get eight. Which is what Terry thinks Graham said he would pay when they talked on the front steps the day we arrived.
And Terry has another item on his agenda. Far from having extra money to contribute to production costs, which he understood back in Chicago to be solely Graham’s responsibility, Terry wants to work out a box office split. Box office splits come two ways, off the top or as a percentage of profit after expenses are met. Terry wants Stormfield to receive a small amount off the top because he knows there isn’t likely to be any profit in the festival’s three-week run even if the show is wildly successful. Graham, on the other hand, is worried about snowballing expenses. He expected to lose maybe 1,000 pounds (about $1,600) on the show, but as the opening approaches he’s come to realize he might lose closer to 3,000 pounds.
As to the first matter, Graham maintains that Terry must have misunderstood him. He said five pounds, not eight pounds. He suggests that Terry might have converted the amount into American money, which would be eight dollars, then mistakenly told the cast eight pounds. As to the box office split, Graham offers McCabe all the profits instead of anything off the top. He points out that he’s laying out 5,500 pounds from his pocket with little hope of recouping the investment and he figures he has the right to get as much back as possible. “Do you want me to have to sell my house?” he asks. Terry regards Graham’s participation in producing Hauptmann in Edinburgh as the kind of investment all producers must make: Graham holds an option on the British rights to Hauptmann, and showcasing it at the festival, where potential British investors can see it, is good business. Why should cash-poor Stormfield Theatre subsidize his investment?
So there is no agreement on either issue and the situation is quickly becoming prickly. The cast, which brought the discrepancy in the food allowance to McCabe’s attention, is angered by the news that Graham intends to stand pat at five pounds a day. Five pounds is not the reasonable food allowance they were promised, and they blame Terry and Graham for not having dealt with this issue sooner.
A half-serious cry is now circulating among the cast: Wen-deee! Wake up! Your dream is turning into a nightmare.
October 1986. Stephen Graham was back in Chicago, this time to wrap up details with John Logan prior to the London production of Never the Sinner. Hauptmann was now running at Stormfield. Graham took in the show, then went out with the cast for drinks. “It was all very congenial and friendly and silly,” Donna Powers, who plays Anne Lindbergh, remembered. “We had just dropped Denis off. It was John, myself, Wendy, and Stephen. Stephen says, ‘Gee, this play would be wonderful at the Edinburgh festival.’ Wendy screams in the backseat. She was just like someone completely having every fantasy fulfilled. And she said, ‘Don’t even say it, Stephen. Don’t talk to me about it because it is absolutely the thing I would most like to do in my life. I want to play the Edinburgh festival.’ And he goes, ‘No, really, would you all like to do that?’ And I just jumped in and said, ‘Of course I’d like to do that.’ And John said, ‘Are you kidding? They’d all love to do that.’ And he says, ‘Well, maybe I’ll look into it.’ Wendy’s like screaming and giggling and just going bananas. She’s so happy. I’m just like, ‘Let’s not think too seriously about this because you never know how these things work out.’ So Stephen talks to John and Terry a little bit about this. Terry comes into the dressing room one night before the show and says, ‘I’ve got some good news. Stephen Graham is seeing about what it would take to take this show to the Edinburgh festival next August.’ And everybody goes, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Especially Gary [Brichetto, who played the judge and other parts], the curmudgeon: ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I’ve been in five, six shows they say that. I’ve never gone once. I don’t think this Edinburgh festival exists.’ Everybody’s going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll believe it when I see it.’ And Wendy’s going, ‘No, it could actually happen guys. It could, it could, it could.'”
Because the Festival Fringe is something of a marketplace for London producers looking for new product, the Edinburgh production of Hauptmann is especially a career opportunity for its author and producer. For the actors and director, it’s a nice credit and a low-cost opportunity to travel, but they aren’t likely to be asked to be a part of any subsequent British production. But John Logan and Stephen Graham are showcasing a product and the product is Logan. It’s Hauptmann too, but Graham, on the heels of the London production of Never the Sinner, which he also holds an option on, hopes to establish Logan as an up-and-coming American playwright. His eye is on the West End, where he wants to mount both shows eventually. London’s West End is the pinnacle of British theater, but it is not as aesthetically commercial or financially prohibitive as Broadway; some good small plays without roller skates or cat costumes can make it there.
“All I want to be is a playwright,” John Logan tells me. “I don’t want to write a screenplay, I don’t want to direct a film. Theater is the medium that I love so much, that I feel a duty to.”
It is a medium in which he has been conspicuously successful. As a student he won Northwestern University’s Agnes Nixon Playwriting Award for his first effort, Never the Sinner, which is about the Leopold and Loeb murder, then wrote Hauptmann shortly after graduating in 1983. Since then he has written plays about the Russian Revolution (Snow, which opened in a Stormfield-Pegasus Players coproduction this month), the murdered Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Kitty Genovese murder, and Scotland’s Burke and Hare murders; and–a departure for Logan–he’s written a fictional play about leprosy. That’s seven plays in five years with an eighth nearly completed. Of these, four have been produced, which is a rather remarkable track record for one so young.
At 25, Logan is already very much the veteran playwright. “Thank God I have a small apartment and thank God I have no roommates,” he says, “because when I write a play everything goes up. Pictures of everyone, maps of everything that took place, you know, notes stuck to the wall. I’m very organized, I mean, I know this already, I’m hyperorganized about things. I have notebooks of all the notes, plans, things. But then there’s, of course, chaos because you have to switch scenes, you have to juggle note cards. Going to my apartment when I’m writing a play–Snow was the worst example because there was so much about the Russian Revolution. I had everything I could get my hands on. There were piles of books, there were notes, there were pictures all over the walls. You can barely see out the windows because there are so many things hanging. But it’s like an exorcism. You go through it, it’s done, then I put all that stuff away and I never look at it again.”
To be quite honest about it, Logan can be maddeningly self-assured. He is always “on.” He is enthusiastic about his life in the theater to the point of incontinence. Words rush from his mouth, witty, snippy, bright, and, as Stephen Graham said, he has the good-natured habit of laughing at the end of every sentence. He does not stop to edit his verbal impulses when he casually refers to himself as “the most exciting playwright to come out of Chicago since David Mamet.” That seems preposterous at first, but you get to wondering, if not him, who? Which is the kind of question Logan will enjoy seeing in print. One way of controlling your treatment by the press is to give them something to talk about. I think Logan, who professes to take seriously the role of the media in advancing his career, has that principle down pat.
Terry McCabe likes the compassion he sees in all of Logan’s plays. Likes working with him, too. “The thing about John, and I find it charming, is that he knows he’s as good as he is,” Terry said.
How good is he? Terry has directed 11 new plays by Chicago playwrights in the past four years, which must be more than any other director in Chicago can claim, so he is something of an authority on young local playwrights.
“Good enough that I have no doubt that in five years he’ll be a nationally known playwright,” he said.
Logan enjoys his bad boy reputation. “The last thing I am is complacent about theater,” he tells me. “If I have to be angry and arrogant to have my point of view heard or to get where I want to get, to hell with whomever’s feelings get hurt.” The point of view he’s referring to concerns a deficiency he perceives in Chicago theater: he thinks it has fallen under the sway of “the cult of the actor.”
“Through some of the theater companies we have developed a reputation in the world–talk to people here [at the Edinburgh festival] about Chicago theater and they will back this up–of having great acting, of having visceral, emotional, powerful acting!” Logan says. “And we do and we’re blessed by that, having that pool of actors from which we can draw! However, in that focus, we have lost some of the attention that should be paid to other facets of theater, particularly the playwright and director.”
Which is not at all an uncommon opinion, particularly as it relates to playwrights. But no one in Chicago expounds it with more flamboyance.
Hauptmann opens in Edinburgh on the morning of August 7 with its disgruntled cast making a determined effort to keep their offstage problems offstage. They play to 16 persons, of whom 12 are critics.
In the evening I sit in the kitchen playing cards with Ellen Jones, the lighting designer, while McCabe, Graham, and the cast try to sort out their differences in the living room. It comes down to McCabe and Graham having two remarkably different versions of their agreements and understandings. The cast have closed ranks, taking the position that it is not their role to figure out what’s gone wrong and that McCabe and Graham should sort out the problem between them. However, if the eight-pound food allowance is not paid, they will go on strike one day a week.
A day off is no more than they feel they deserve. Originally, the actors were told it is the policy of the Assembly Rooms that each play there be put on seven days a week. They do not like having 23 straight workdays, and no free day to go visit the countryside or stay overnight in Glasgow, but they’ve accepted it. Now they notice that other shows at the Assembly Rooms are advertising six-day-a-week schedules. It turns out that Graham saw seven performance days mentioned in the contract and jumped to a conclusion; in fact, he is in no way bound to offer Hauptmann every single day. Of course, now that the advertising is out it would be messy to cut back.
The cast want to discuss some things among themselves. Graham leaves by himself. I leave with McCabe. We walk until we are good and lost. “I feel like I’m in a battle for the hearts and minds of the cast,” Terry says. It is an awkward position for a director to be in, but the play is well rehearsed after its long Chicago run and recent benefit performances. Now the cast needs its director less than he needs them.
As we walk and talk, McCabe and I guess what will happen next. Graham will give in on the actors’ food allowance, avoiding the one-day-a-week strike and making the greatest number of people happy; but to help cover that increase, he’ll withhold the cut of the box office that Terry feels obliged to bring home to Stormfield Theatre. It will come down to giving up the theater’s money in order to make the cast happy. And Terry will have no choice, because Graham controls the purse. Sure enough. The next day, Graham calls McCabe and suggests the compromise we’ve predicted. McCabe is sick of arguing with him, so it’s done. But they’ll part on bad terms.
Later, when Donna Powers attempts to put the actors’ feelings in perspective, she’ll point out that most of the actors either quit or lost jobs in order to take the trip to Scotland. “We were really scared, I think, a lot of us,” she says. “How was the show going to be received? Was it worth risking everything that we had risked to come over? Then we get here and we find out that people that were supposedly in our camp are screwing us over–though nobody meant to. Then it’s like we are being asked to say who is the bad guy, name the bad guy. And we are like, ‘No, no, this is all bad. We can’t do that. It’s bad enough that we are in as risky a position as we are in now and this bad thing has happened but don’t ask us to make it worse by taking sides.'”
Terry leaves a few days after opening, but before most of the reviews have come out. Donna Powers tells me over lunch that Terry, on his last morning in Edinburgh, stood in the audience at the end of the show applauding and crying. “Terry’s a sentimental guy,” she says, “but he hides it, so for him to be so open and affectionate with us and really show how much this whole show meant to him, and all of us who were involved, there was a sadness to it, a melancholy, which really said to me, ‘I am letting go of it. It’s not mine anymore.’ And, in a sense, that’s true, his job is over, he’s done his job. But it’s still his, as much as it is any of ours.”
Not all of the actors’ time has been spent onstage or embroiled in arguments. The golfing triumvirate, Gary Brichetto, Nick Kusenko (who plays the prosecutor), and Layne Beamer (who plays Charles Lindbergh), have wasted no time getting out on the courses where the game was invented. Wendy Lueker has been venturing, walking each day in a new direction. Denis O’Hare arranges, through some visiting Austrian producers he’s met, for a group of us to meet the Russians performing Hamlet at the Assembly Rooms. Although the Russians do not speak English, Nick and Gary know a little Russian, and the multilingual Austrians readily help their superpower acquaintances to converse. So we’re enjoying just the sort of encounter the festival is intended to foster.
There are a thousand shows to choose among. One night, I convince Brichetto and Ellen Jones to see a crosstown double bill of trash theater, Slave Clowns of the Third Reich and the Thunder Thigh Revue. Slave Clowns turns out to be a bore, nothing like its advertising makes it sound, and we leave in the middle. I’m not worried about the evening, though, because we still have the Thunder Thigh girls on our agenda. These are two large black women from Baltimore whose posters boast, “We’re Big, We’re Beautiful, and We’re Boisterous.” They are performing Women of Substance, “a comedy . . . about Food, Sex, and Obsession. A warm, wacky, riotously funny show featuring the Statue of Liberty, an amorous refrigerator, Venus on the half-shell, and telephone sex.” We can’t miss.
Unfortunately, we repair from Slave Clowns to the theater cafe, where I sample a double dose of the native spirits, Tennent’s lager and Glenlivet on the rocks. We manage to leave with barely enough time to get to the next theater by cab, and we can’t find a cab. Eventually, I talk a cabbie who says he’s headed to pick up another fare into giving us a ride. We arrive a minute or two late, just after they’ve given my press tickets away and just in time to see a very large, familiar-looking man thundering into the theater on feet that look impossibly small for his body.
Roger Ebert, in town for the film festival no doubt.
At the start of the second week, Fringe First awards, for outstanding British premieres, are given to eight productions. Hauptmann is one of them. It is an honor the play shares with such illustrious dramas of years past as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Since Terry McCabe and John Logan have both returned to the States by now to begin work on Snow, and the cast is in performance at the time of the presentation, Stephen Graham, feeling like a fraud, he says, because he’s had so little to do with the show, picks up the award with his girlfriend and me along for moral support. On the way home we make up awards for each of the cast and crew members. Graham buys a bottle of chilled champagne and we stage a mock ceremony in the kitchen of one of the apartments.
. . . and the Peter Pan Award, for having all her dreams come true, goes to Wendy. Don’t wake up yet, Wendy. We’re not through with this dream.
But what if the reviews had not been good? What if the show had bombed? Wendy Lueker poses the question at a card game. “Would we all be yelling at each other right now?” she wonders. “Let’s not talk about it,” someone tells her. Donna Powers insists, “Of course we wouldn’t. We would be having a good time like we are now.” But to me she says, “I know that’s not true. People aren’t like that. Everyone would have been so disappointed. And felt like we had all made a mistake. We had believed in something that didn’t quite come true. Wendy’s dream would have ended and turned into a nightmare.”
With the Fringe’s thousand shows, plus the competition from the other festivals, it has taken the Fringe First award and a chorus of good reviews to propel Hauptmann to the level of a major hit. The Scotsman got the ball rolling by citing Hauptmann as “a major work,” praising John Logan for reconstructing the play’s historical events “with a vivid forcefulness and a poetic perception that few who see the play will forget” and admiring Denis O’Hare’s “masterful” blend of the play’s “kaleidoscopic multi-Hauptmanns.” The Evening News was moved by the irony, which is perhaps more apparent to non-Americans, of an “immigrant who naively assumed that in the land of freedom and justice the truth would triumph.” The same critic lauded the “haunted and observant skill” of O’Hare’s performance and the “company of half-a-dozen versatile talents who create the main characters in the nightmarish proceedings.”
The Financial Times is one of the papers that referred knowledgeably to the burgeoning Chicago theater scene: “One of the American groups that can rarely afford to come here, and are gracing the Assembly Rooms with a fine new play, is the Stormfield Theatre Company of Chicago. . . . This is one of several new set-ups that has helped transform Chicago over the past 10 years into one of America’s leading theatre towns.” The acting was “tough Chicago style at its best” and McCabe’s direction “brilliantly orchestrated.” “The play is not only a good history lesson,” the Financial Times concluded. “It explains much of a nation’s identity and its need to protect its heroes.”
Stormfield’s rise to success was captured by the Guardian, which began its review by observing that “word of mouth, that fallible early warning system for critics in search of the right sensation, has been pitching high for Chicago’s Stormfield Theatre production of Hauptmann and the assorted mouths are not wrong. . . . We need to see more of Hauptmann after Edinburgh.”
The Sunday Telegraph drew the inevitable comparison between the scrappy Festival Fringe and the more staid Edinburgh International Festival, which has presented, among other distinguished companies, the Gorky Theater of Leningrad, which was the first theater founded by the Soviet republic, and Germany’s renowned Berliner Ensemble. “The Fringe has produced two events quite as thrilling as anything in the official programme. The first of these is John Logan’s Hauptmann, presented by the Stormfield Theatre Company of Chicago . . .” Toting up the show’s minimalist elements, so typical of Chicago theater, the Sunday Telegraph concluded: “Seven actors, seven chairs, a bed and a metal grill: from these elements is created a whole world of tragedy, suspicion, brutality and prejudice. This is what theatre is truly about.” A second Telegraph article told Logan and Graham what they most want to hear:
“It will be a pity if this show doesn’t reach London.”
Wendy Lueker, who played Hauptmann’s wife Anna, sent me a postcard from Skye, a 50-mile-long island off the northern coast of Scotland, the perfect place to go, she later told me, after the frenzy of festival month. “It’s totally isolated, heightened, the colors are brighter,” she said. She traveled up to a fishing village at the northern tip of the island. A bus dropped her off a mile from the village and she hauled her luggage the rest of the way. “The best thing I did in Skye,” she said, “was, to get to this place where I wanted to take a cruise, I had to take the post office bus so I went along with the postman and delivered all the mail and the milk along the way.”
“It’s scary,” Wendy said of living out her dream. “I’ve never had anything come true like that, that was that big of a deal. It’s like, that’s the only one you’ll get. That was it, right?” Back in Chicago, her trip seemed unreal, still dreamlike. “Like it’s still August in Chicago and we never left. It’s a black hole.”
For many of us reality is a pale copy of our dreams; Wendy’s dream was a pale copy of reality. In her fantasy she saw herself performing in “any little basement,” of just being a part of it all. She never dreamed of appearing at the Assembly Rooms or winning the Fringe First award. “That was just icing on the cake,” she said.
John Logan and I were having dinner at the Melrose on the first of September. I’d stayed on about ten days after he left so I was filling him in on what he’d missed. He’d been the first to leave Edinburgh because he had to return to his day job at the Northwestern law library. When he got back, the library fired him. Office politics, he told me. If he had known, he could have stayed in Edinburgh an extra week and come home with Terry McCabe.
In Edinburgh, the festival had just ended and most of the cast were setting out on European vacations. In Chicago, Snow rehearsals were now proceeding reasonably well considering that its Lenin (Gary Brichetto), its Czar Nicholas (Thomas Carroll, who played a variety of roles in Hauptmann), its Rasputin (Nick Kusenko), and its Grand Duchess Olga Romanov (Donna Powers) were tooling about Europe. Stormfield is not an ensemble company but Terry McCabe, like most directors, casts many of the same actors repeatedly in his shows.
John Logan was not upset about losing his job. It is almost time for him to give up day jobs and become a full-time playwright anyway. As for his former employers, he said, “Success is the best revenge.” He is planning on having plenty of success. He was in the process of negotiating with Stephen Graham, who is now working in association with two other London producers, for the European rights to Hauptmann and Never the Sinner. The deal should give Logan enough money to live most of the winter on, and that does not include the royalties he will receive from any European productions.
London is the real prize–financially and in terms of Logan’s career. An Austrian production is a moneymaker but offers received and proposals tendered for London productions will be carefully analyzed to see which best advance his chances of making it to the West End. In any case, it appears that soon John Logan will be saying good-bye to Chicago–slightly miffed that he has not yet had an Equity production here–and moving to London. That’s where he’d like to live, that’s where he likes the theater the best, and that’s where he most wants to succeed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, courtesy Wendy Lueker and Gary Brichetto.