When he was a kid growing up in Milwaukee, Eric Simonson recalls, "my dad came home one day with a cowboy hat and a pickup truck." Simonson's father, a real estate agent, announced that he'd had enough of city life. "He moved us to a farm in Eagle, Wisconsin, where he raised pigs. It was a culture shock. I'd been a city boy till that time. But I'm glad we did it. I got to see another side of life."
That same impulsive, open-minded spirit served Simonson well when he moved to Chicago in 1982, at age 22, hoping to work in the city's off-Loop theater scene. "I went to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, for a liberal arts training," says the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, whose new play Fake opens at Steppenwolf September 20. "I declared theater as my major in my junior year, but I was pretty much all over the map, studying whatever interested me. I didn't get theater training per se, like you'd get at Northwestern. So coming to Chicago was probably not a very reasonable decision. I thought, 'I'll just try it out, and if it doesn't work I'll go on to something else.'"
Simonson's first five years here were spent "learning by doing. I directed dark-nights, late-nights, staged readings. If someone asked me to act in a show, I did it. Chicago was my crash course in the craft of theater."
He hooked up with fledgling Lifeline Theatre, running lights for their 1983 debut, Split, and later directing their world premiere production of Til the Fat Lady Sings by Scott McPherson, who went on to write Marvin's Room. Other early directing assignments included Waiting for Godot at Bailiwick Repertory, Kiss of the Spider Woman at Pegasus Players, and the local premiere of Larry Kramer's AIDS drama The Normal Heart at Evanston's Next Theatre. His efforts were appreciated: "I'm beginning to suspect that Simonson casts some sort of spell over any play he stages," wrote Reader critic Tom Valeo, reviewing Simonson's 1987 rendition of Design for Living at Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park.
By 1988, though, Simonson was tired of working day jobs to support his theater habit. He'd already decided to leave Chicago ("I probably would've taken a year off and traveled," he says) when Steppenwolf invited him to audition for Frank Galati's stage adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Playing multiple roles, Simonson didn't exactly stand out in the 31-member ensemble, but the show—which went to Broadway in 1990—helped cement his relationship with Steppenwolf.
He directed an acclaimed production of David Hare's The Secret Rapture for the troupe, and then The Song of Jacob Zulu, a musical drama about apartheid-era South Africa featuring the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The 1992 show—which I reviewed for the Reader, calling it "a tragedy of both grand and intimate dimensions"—made the leap to Broadway, winning Simonson a Tony nomination for best direction and leading to two more directing projects.
One, Paul Simon's The Capeman, was a fiasco from which Simonson was fired before its brief 1998 Broadway run. The other project was On Tiptoe, a documentary film about Ladysmith Black Mambazo that received an Oscar nomination and opened the door to a movie and TV directing career. A 2002 indie feature, Topa Topa Bluffs, never made it past the film-fest circuit, but Simonson also directed a Hallmark Channel version of Hamlet starring Campbell Scott, and his short documentary A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, a profile of the World War II broadcast journalist, won its category at the 2006 Oscars.
Just nine months after the win, Simonson's wife of two years, producer Susan Raab, died of breast cancer. Now he lives in LA with their four-year-old son, Henry, but is frequently on the road directing for regional theater and opera companies.
Fake, which Simonson is also directing, is based on the "Piltdown Man" hoax. Unearthed in England in 1912, the Piltdown "fossil" was thought to be the remains of an evolutionary missing link between apes and humans—until 1953, when it was exposed as a modern human skull tricked out with the jaw of an orangutan. The play was commissioned, developed, then dropped by the Manhattan Theatre Club, so Simonson brought it to Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey, who thought it a good fit for the company's belief-themed 2009-'10 season. "In the Piltdown Man, Eric has discovered a potent symbol by which to test our convictions about belief/authenticity/science/the spiritual," she writes in an essay published on Steppenwolf's Web site.
Simonson also directed Honest, another play he wrote about a hoax, for Steppenwolf's First Look Repertory of New Work this summer. Given that he's done only two other productions at the theater in the last 13 years, that's a major commitment, and Simonson's happy to be back. "This is where I cut my teeth," he says. "If you had to ask me what my theater training was, I'd say Chicago."