Greg Kotis Accepts His Fate

By Jack Helbig

Most temps work hard in hopes of snagging a permanent position. Not actor and playwright Greg Kotis. He takes jobs where he can work as little as possible. As soon as someone needs some typing done he starts acting crazy, lowering his eyebrows like Oscar the Grouch and glaring at everyone. “I try to give them those vibes,” Kotis says. “Don’t give me work. I’ll answer the phones, sure, a couple times, but mostly I want to write.”

Kotis, who recently returned to Chicago after a two-year run of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in New York, wrote nearly all of his contributions to that show–up to five short plays a week–at temp jobs. He completed his first full-length play while fending off work at an ad agency. That play, Jobey and Katherine, opened last week at the Neo-Futurarium.

This is not the career Kotis dreamed about. “I wanted nothing to do with theater,” he says. “My mother was a portrait photographer in New York. She would do headshots of people like Jason Robards and Jean Stapleton. She had all these crazy artist friends, and as a kid I didn’t like them. I thought they were flaky and they didn’t have their act together.” His father was a documentary filmmaker who had worked on the “Why We Fight” series during the war. But by the mid-70s he couldn’t find work. “Video took over film, and he was this wonderful man who was marooned in his profession.” The family was reduced to living off whatever Kotis’s mother could earn selling funky posters and orange-crate labels at flea markets and in a little storefront she rented in Cape Cod.

“It was like a Chekhovian drama of fallen gentry,” Kotis says. “What I learned growing up was that a creative life was a life of ruin and misery. Don’t go there. Look what happens. Look at all the artists. Are they happy? No. Even successful actors, are they happy? No.”

Nevertheless, Kotis excelled at acting in high school and won roles in all the school plays. But when it came time to pick a college, he intentionally chose a school without a film or drama department so he would be forced to do something more practical with his life. “I went to the University of Chicago to wean myself from theater.”

But then a campus production would come along and Kotis would try out for it. “Just as something to do. To meet people.” And when that show closed he would do the next one. And then the one after that.

After college he was invited to join the north-side improv troupe Cardiff Giant. Though initially indistinguishable from all the other improv troupes performing Second City-style comedy revues, the company began to experiment with ways of using improv in rehearsal to create complete, well-made plays.

In 1989 Kotis directed Cardiff Giant’s LBJFKKK, a dark, hilariously mean-spirited slash at neighborhood-watch programs. In a comment on the often racist undertone of such programs, the company cast the one black actor in the troupe, John Hildreth, as the program’s fascist leader. In less talented hands, the show could have drifted into cliche. But Cardiff Giant eschewed the shallow sitcom stereotypes that populate most improv-based shows. That, and the level of political anger in their work, set them apart.

Three years later Kotis joined the the Neo-Futurists on their cult late-night hit Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, in which new material, written by the cast, is added each week. There Kotis met and fell in love with fellow cast member Ayun Halliday. The two went on a six-month journey through India and Southeast Asia, and upon his return to Chicago in 1993, Kotis began to feel it was time to move on. Since several Neo-Futurists were already living in New York, he and Halliday cooked up a plan to open a Manhattan branch of Too Much Light. Though the company had performed a short run in New York several years before, receiving a snotty review in the Village Voice from a critic who believed he was watching another Second City-style improv troupe, they were undeterred.

“Everyone jokingly called it Jamestown,” Kotis remembers, “a colony started in the harsh wilderness.”

Initial reviews of the New York edition were not great either. Word of mouth was good, however, and soon they were filling the theater. The show could have stayed longer than two years, Kotis says, but he and Halliday, who were responsible for most of the administrative work–and a lot of the writing–needed a break. Halliday, now Kotis’s wife, was also pregnant. In June they put the show on hiatus.

“It was great fun,” Kotis says. “But I think I aged ten years during the run.”

Now Kotis, Halliday, and their new baby, India, are back in Chicago, living out of suitcases and sleeping on couches and floors while Kotis directs Halliday in Jobey and Katherine.

“I read somewhere that there are basically two plots: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town,” Kotis says. “I put the two together in one play. Jobey and Katherine is the story of a man who comes back….He’s been out to sea for a number of years and everyone assumed he died in a shipwreck. But he’s returned to pursue his love.”

When I point out that Kotis is living the life he feared in high school, he says it was inevitable. “You can’t fight your fate. That’s the theme of my play.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Greg Kotis photo by Eugene Zakusilo.