The Chicago theater movement that has grown to more than 250 companies and garnered international recognition really started in Hyde Park, according to Mark Larson's recently published “Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater”.
The time was 1953. The place: The University of Chicago. That's where Paul Sills, whose mother Viola Spolin pioneered improvisational theater games, teamed up with David Shepherd to create Playwrights Theatre Club, a small repertory company dedicated to the classics. Though the university didn't have a theater department or offer theater classes, an eclectic group of talented young people and returning World War II vets admitted under the John Maynard Hutchins plan that involved only an exam and had no age requirements had found each other and were already putting on shows, mostly in the small third-floor Reynolds Club Theater.
The group included a third producer, Eugene Troobnick, and company members Ed Asner, Byrne Piven, Barbara Harris, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Joyce Hiller (Piven), Sheldon Patinkin, Fritz Weaver, Rolf Forsberg, Josephine Forsberg and Joann Shapiro. Bernie Sahlins became a producer after the first year. Their last show on campus was Bertolt Brecht's “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” after which they moved to the second floor of a Chinese restaurant at 1560 N. LaSalle St., constructed a 150-seat thrust-stage theater, and opened with the same play on May 23, 1953.
During the next two years, Playwrights Theatre Club, one of the city's first “storefront” theaters, rehearsed and presented 24 productions of classics. They had to call the theater a “club” to get not-for-profit status, and they sold “memberships” much the way theaters now sell subscriptions. After the first year, they had about 2,000 members.
But that was just the first act in Hyde Park's role as a crucible. “Originally I was going to begin in the 1970s with Steppenwolf Theatre Company,” Larson said in a telephone interview. “But then I talked to Joyce Piven of Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston and started digging. That's when I realized that everything went back to Playwrights—and was connected.”
Larson, who conducted more than 300 interviews with actors, designers, directors, critics, board members, and other people involved in Chicago theater, described assembling the 700-page book, which is organized more-or-less chronologically, as resembling doing a big jigsaw puzzle. “You have to piece it together and let it flow,” he explained. “I wanted to create the sense for readers that they're sitting at a table with these people who are talking about their experiences.”
The next piece of the puzzle for the neighborhood was the Compass Players, which grew out of the short-lived Playwrights and, initially called Enterprise, also gave its first performance in the Reynolds Club in 1955. The core group – Roger Bowen, Elaine May, David Shepherd, and Andrew Duncan – soon found a home of their own, converting the back room of a bar on 55th Street near the university, and Shepherd convinced Sills and Harris, now married, to join them Later, Nichols, Severn Darden, and Shelley Berman did, too.
Compass Players' initial format, constructed around improvisational principles, consisted of a curtain raiser, the Living Newspaper (about 20 minutes of material drawn from the day’s news), a
45-minute scenario (outlined but not scripted), and an improv set based on audience suggestions. The company offered a new show every week and performed five nights a week with two shows on Friday and three on Saturday. As Shepherd says in “Ensemble,” “It was not meant to be a revolution. I was into creating a theater that.... would give the audience some role other than sitting there after paying something....European theater reflected European life, but what about us? What about American life? I wanted to see the average person onstage.”
While Compass Players lasted less than two years, its influence was enormous because many of the same people formed The Second City in 1959. Others, among them Nichols and May and Shelley Berman, honed their skills and went on to comedy fame.
There also was an attempt to bring an offshoot of The Second City called The Second City Repertory to Hyde Park. Sills and Patinkin formed the company, which set up shop next door to The Second City's original Old Town location, but then staged a couple of shows at the Harper Theater. The first was Chekhov's “The Cherry Orchard” done without props and the second was Norman Mailer's “The Deer Park” that in the book Mike Nussbaum calls “absolutely the worst play ever written.” The production apparently was a disaster and ended the The Second City Repertory's South Side foray.
But all that was after Hyde Park Herald owner and publisher Bruce Sagan bought the Harper Theater building in 1961 because he needed space for the newspaper's offices (its old building was being torn down) and was interested in creating a small theater like those that were burgeoning in New York. Closing off the balcony, he renovated the space into a 300-seat thrust-stage theater and a coffee shop, including using fixtures from a 1911 drugstore that now are in the ice-cream parlor in the Main Street exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Sagan also developed the first 300-seat, off-Loop Equity union contract for actors in the city, rewriting the night club and cabaret contract so smaller Equity houses didn't have to adhere to the same stringent rules (resulting from the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903) as the big downtown theaters. The theater opened in 1964 with Luigi Pirandello's “Enrico IV” directed by Off-Broadway director Gene Frankel and starring Alvin Epstein. It also presented works by New York actor Joseph Buloff, Ann Jellicoe's “The Knack” directed by Brian Bedford, and Douglas Turner Ward's “Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence.” But ultimately, Sagan wasn't successful at building an audience for the kind of theater he wanted, and he and then-wife Judy switched to producing dance instead.
The other Hyde Park story in “Ensemble” is, of course, that of Court Theatre at the University of Chicago and how it evolved from presenting three productions each summer in the Reynolds Club courtyard beginning in 1955 (Sills directed Molière's “The Forced Marriage” that year) to a fully professional Equity theater. The key players are classics professor Nicholas Rudall, the artistic director from 1971 to 1994, who made the theater Equity in 1975 and took it inside after the courtyard elms were felled by Dutch elm disease, and Charles Newell, who took over as artistic director in 1994 and continues to expand the theater's audience and offerings.
Larson, who currently is working on an oral history about actor Ed Asner, said that the biggest challenges of “Ensemble” were the scope of the book and knowing when to stop, as well as figuring out the organizing principle. Most rewarding was how willing people were to talk and suggest others he should talk to. “There was a real community spirit, a sense that we're all in this together,” he said. “That's the broader meaning of 'ensemble' in the title.”