To the editors:

Although I realize the implication of admitting a close relationship with the subject of controversy, I simply cannot sit idly by and not react to John Bliss’s unthinking January 15 letter (“Playing at Theater”) about the Chicago Actors Ensemble.

First let me make clear that my link with this group is a strong one–though I am not an Ensemble member, I am currently performing with them in Despoiled Shore/Medeamaterial/Landscape With Argonauts and have known several of the Ensemble members for a number of years. I am both happy and proud to admit this association. They are a vital, tenacious, caring group of people determined not simply “to do good plays,” but to challenge themselves and their audience.

They are not, Mr. Bliss, “a group of actors who cannot otherwise get jobs.” They are rather, a group of young artists (many of them direct and design as well–and all scrub floors and paint lobbies) who made the same intelligent choice that many fine companies, including the others whose names you soiled, have made: to create a home of their own where they can be assured of work and therefore of growth and learning and risk-taking, even while doing the occasional job outside.

What begins to make me worry about Mr. Bliss as a playwright (“young,” no less, like the members of CAE) is his complete lack of empathy for such a decision. Mr. Bliss, you can write masterpieces to your heart’s content, but to what avail if no one will ever hear them? Just as playwrights need somewhere to present their work, actors cannot even begin to act unless provided such a place. What’s more, we must be provided the opportunity–something for which we must work very hard and sometimes wait very long. And a very painful part of the process is realizing that the best actor does not always get the part, even at such lofty places as the Goodman or the Guthrie. If you lack even this understanding of your fellow “young” artists’ situation, I worry greatly about your ability to write plays for the people who will perform them, let alone for the people who will see them.

Lastly, Mr. Bliss, I must return unabashedly to my relationship with this company. I think what excites me, and more and more people in both the theater community and the community at large, about them entails two things. One is the aforementioned commitment to taking risks (such as doing first plays by virgin playwrights). The second is their unique commitment to their community. Holed up on the fifth floor of a building in the poorest part of the north side of Chicago, well off the beaten track of the theater circuit, they remain utterly faithful to their community. Beyond their healthy relationship with the Preston Bradley Center, they have extended a generous hand to the people of Uptown with free theater all summer, children’s theater workshops, benefits for the homeless, and now free nights at the theater for local homes for the elderly. They have not only taken on the challenge of performing effective theater in an isolated place, they have also created a greatly appreciated relationship with the people there. In other words, for my money, these people are doing theater for the right reasons.

And yes, Mr. Bliss, you may, as well, suggest that my friendship “would be better served by offering them clear criticism of their work, somewhat less tainted by personal affection,” but rest assured that I find time to do that as well. In the meantime, I will happily support their efforts and will anticipate yours “with pity and fear.”

Stephen West

N. Wilton