For a few years in the 1980s, Ed Townley was one of the busiest people in Chicago theater. He worked at Wisdom Bridge, acted with the Practical Theater, and directed shows for Pegasus Players and Apple Tree. He wasn’t making a lot of money. “But I was comfortable,” he recalls.
Then Townley disappeared from the theater scene. When I recently mentioned his name to Pegasus director Arlene Crewdson, she exclaimed, “Whatever happened to Ed Townley?” She might be surprised to hear.
Intellectual, unathletic, and interested in the arts, Townley stood out in his hometown of Grove City, Pennsylvania, a place he describes as “close to nowhere, near the Ohio border, halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh.” His father was a steelworker, his mother a housewife. “They never had an inkling anyone could make a living doing the sort of thing I wanted to do.” They expected their son to become just like his father: get a job at the mill, join the union, marry and raise a family, retire on a pension.
Instead Townley excelled in school and got accepted into Princeton. Yet he felt as out of place at college as he did at home. He spent his time working on extracurricular plays–Princeton had no theater department–and he decided to drop out in his third year. A friend had taken him to a gay bar in Greenwich Village, and “a whole world opened up,” he says. “I had no idea there were places like this.”
He moved to Manhattan in 1968, where he got a job with Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Papp had just scored a big success, transferring the musical Hair to Broadway, and he purchased a building on Lafayette, where he opened the Public Theater.
“That was a wild time.” Townley says. “Papp attracted some of the most creative, exciting, talented people. You worked your ass off for him.” But Papp struggled to meet his payroll. “I remember you got paid on Thursday and you got there early and ran like hell to the bank.”
Townley spent long hours at the Public and filled his free time boozing. He began to miss work and often showed up late and hungover. Relying increasingly on temp jobs, he continued to hit the bars late at night. “For me being gay was so tied in with drugs and alcohol.” He moved in with a lover who drank as much as he did, and by the early 70s Townley couldn’t hold down a job. “I really went far down,” he says. “I was destitute.”
In 1974 his body gave out. “I just collapsed,” he says. “When you do nothing but drink, you quickly become a mess.” He was rushed to an emergency room on a particularly chaotic Friday night. Spread out on a gurney, he could hear every word from the doctors and nurses gathered around him, but he couldn’t respond. “I remember them talking about how I wasn’t going to make it.” The attending physician complained of being too busy, so he decided to fill out Townley’s form early: “He literally signed my death certificate and left it lying on my chest.
“I was like looking down at myself, and I really did have that life-after-life experience. I didn’t have that tunnel-of-light stuff, but I found myself surrounded by beings. And I felt very peaceful.
“Then, to everybody’s surprise, I recovered. And that was the beginning of my sobriety.”
Townley left his lover and joined AA, but “it’s not like I lived happily ever after. My recovery was almost as painful as my addiction. I never drank again, but it took me a long time to let go. It was a question of surrender.”
Once he was sober, Townley became determined to save his former lover. “He wasn’t interested in being rescued. He said, ‘I would rather die than give up drinking.'” Several years later, Townley learned his friend had been killed in a fire. “He had passed out with a lit cigarette in his hand.”
Townley thought he’d been cured, but whenever he was alone, anger and despair overwhelmed him. He began to have suicidal thoughts. “I finally reached the point where I turned myself in to the hospital, because I realized I was going to kill myself. I ended up in Manhattan State Hospital, which is on an island in the East River. It is where they send street people. It’s really a holding pen until they die.”
He met with a counselor who ended their first session by vowing it would be their last. “He told me, ‘My time is valuable and I need to spend it with people who are interested in getting well. All you are interested in doing is talking about what a victim you are. You can either live here, wear paper slippers, and eat with a spoon. Or you can deal with who you are and start getting well.’
“I left Manhattan State and got a furnished room on 32nd Street,” Townley says. He got a part-time job and went to AA meetings every day.
“My whole life was spent thinking I was different. I always felt like I didn’t know how to do anything and the most important thing was to keep people from finding out.”
He gave up theater–“I thought I would do something more practical”–and took a full-time job at a telecommunications company, where he planned presentations. “This was right after the AT&T breakup and nobody knew what to expect.”
The company went bust, and Townley decided to move to Michigan, where he had a friend. He started acting again, at Detroit’s Attic Theater, and after a year he landed in Chicago, where he became the marketing director for Wisdom Bridge. “My plan was to blend the practical and the creative.”
He worked as a freelance director, and in 1986 scored a hit with a late-night production of Christopher Durang’s A History of the American Film at the Huron Theater. After that, the jobs came to him. He even staged shows out of town–at the Melody Top in Milwaukee and the Red Barn Playhouse in Saugatuck–and within five years Townley had so much work he could turn down shows. “I thought when I reached that point I would feel successful. But I didn’t.”
Years before, he had attended services at a Unity church in New York. “I went because a cute guy asked me if I would come with him.” But he hadn’t gone since. Then one night he found himself in a Unity church in Old Town.
Founded in 1889 by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, Unity is considered one of the more liberal Protestant denominations. Raised in a conservative Catholic environment, Townley had always regarded religion as too restrictive, especially since he was gay. He was surprised to meet church people who were tolerant, he says, and open-minded. “The essence of Unity,” he explains, “is that there are universal spiritual principles but no one has a lock on the truth.”
He became an active member of the congregation, and one of the ministers was so impressed he ecouraged Townley to enter a seminary in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “I sent in the application but said to myself, ‘Even if I’m accepted it doesn’t mean I have to go.'”
Townley was accepted, but he felt he couldn’t leave Chicago–he had too much going on. “And then I went though like a series of reverse miracles. Everything in my life started shutting down. A production I was going to direct fell through because they couldn’t get financing. The lease on my place was not renewed because they decided to convert the building to condos.”
Eventually he had nothing scheduled for six months, so he went to Lee’s Summit. It was a tough decision. “I felt like I was giving up theater, giving up being gay, giving up being in Chicago–everything I loved.”
Overcoming these fears, he’s worked hard to meld the spiritual and the creative since being ordained in 1991. He was given his first church in Portland, Oregon, where he reformatted services to encourage worshippers to express themselves. He wanted to break down the wall between pastor and parishioner. He opened up the church for music and poetry readings, and soon he staged a small theater production.
Membership in his congregation ballooned, and after seven years he was transferred to Chicago, where he encouraged the founding of a theater company in his church in Rogers Park.
He wasted no time in staging concerts and poetry readings. And the theater company, Spirit Expressing, has mounted productions of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, and Townley’s own adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Christmas tale, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
“It took me a long time to see that it wasn’t about becoming someone different,” Townley says. “It was about applying my energies in a different
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.