I have always been a theatre geek. I don’t just mean scripts and performance. I mean I’ve always been a geek for theatre spaces.
Like most of us, my first experience in a theatre was a high-school auditorium. It had green wooden seats and heavy green curtains. It was designed for small musical events, but it’s where I saw my first play, the Le Mars Community Theatre’s production of Light Up the Sky.
Because we moved around a lot when I was a kid, I saw a lot of different theatre spaces. In the Midwest there are still a lot of vaudeville and opera houses. They are huge spaces, seating several thousand people, and one of the first plays I ever did was a production of Finian’s Rainbow in one of these barns in Sioux Falls, SD. I was in the chorus and staring out into the house terrified me so much I couldn’t sing a note. The Des Moines Civic Center can only be described as a monstrosity. The Super Bowl could be played on the stage. Literally.
Early on I was exposed to alternative spaces. In one of the high schools I attended, Dimond High School in Anchorage AK, we did The Music Man in the student commons where the sets and action was played on risers around the audience seated in the middle. The Paroo house fell over during the performance.
But back in Le Mars, the Community Theatre took over the old local post office, and that’s where my theatrical imagination was ignited. Just a large room where an audience of about a hundred could be seated, the seating was movable, so that either a proscenium or thrust configuration was possible. The postmaster's walkway above functioned beautifully as the booth, where the coffee-can lights were run on household dimmer switches and sound cues were played on a stereo. For many, many years when I read a play for any reason, it was set at the Postal Playhouse in my mind.
At Drake, most of my work was done in what is now called The William S. E. Coleman Studio. Another black box that can seat up to about three hundred, I worked in thrust, in the round, and proscenium in that space. At the time we were all warned that it might be the most luxurious performance space we’d ever work in. None of us believed it, but as it turns out it might have been true. Also at Drake, I did a couple of productions in the music hall, officially named the Harmon Performing Arts Hall, but only ever referred to as PAH. That was easily the worst space I’ve ever performed in. I did everything from Macbeth to Godspell there, and while the work was quite good, working in that space is the stuff of nightmares.
But of course, the majority of my work has been in Chicago, which means most of it has been in alternative, storefront spaces. That means staging is often worked around random poles to background sounds of passing traffic and drug deals. I did a production of Orpheus Descending in a literal garage, where a full house was still outnumbered by the cast. I did a traumatizing musical in Evanston when The Coronet Theatre was reopened for live performances. After that production, the space went back to showing movies, then live performances, then torn down for condos. Just as well in that case. I’ve performed in shabby glamor at The Atheneum, and cutting-edge splendor at Steppenwolf.
The Lyric Opera House just wallows in history in a way almost nowhere else does simply because of the nature of the productions. In the nineteenth century, stars would travel with their productions and staged local actors around them as they stood as close to center stage as possible in the brightest light available and PERFORMED. The world of opera hasn’t really evolved that much and happens pretty much the same way.
When I go to New York, I tingle with the history of the Broadway houses. Ever since I was a kid pouring of The New York Times arts sections and dreaming of a Broadway career, I’ve felt like Midtown is sacred ground, and of the forty-one Broadway houses, I’ve been to about fifteen. While everyone else is reading the programs, I’m on my phone pouring over the theatre’s Wikipedia page and the list of previous productions. Of course, almost nothing of the original remains in those theatres except the walls, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve been in the same space where history happened. I've been dazzled speechless only twice. The first time was a production of Anything Goes at the old Guthrie. Thinking about the title number still gives me chills. The second time was at the Vivien Beaumont when Kelli O'Hara sailed into port for The King and I. When I die and an autopsy is performed, those images will be found seared into the flesh of my brain.
The Pandemic has briefly aborted my actual theatre-going routines, but I’ve still managed a trip to Broadway, and seen some local things. Most of my theatre addiction has been slaked by The National Theatre at Home streaming, and I now feel like I know The Olivier and The Lyttleton better than any spaces in Chicago. The Raven Theatre remains my favorite space in the city, with The Edge Off Broadway coming in a very close second, but these London houses I'll likely never see in person have snagged a small corner of my heart.
So, when Steppenwolf announced a new space, it was more than a cause for celebration for me. The fact that it was to be in-the-round thrilled me to almost obscene heights. And that the inaugural production would be a new translation of The Seagull not only seemed right, but divined.
The space does not disappoint! Like the first space, it’s intimate yet expansive. It has all the bells and whistles that I won’t spoil here. The acoustics are sublime. My heart still lives in the Raven space, but I’m going to admit here and now that I intend to be unfaithful with The Ensemble as many times as I possibly can.
You should too.