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Who Was Brad Nelson Winters?

What the theater community lost with the murder of Terrapin's artistic director.


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When Jimmy Freund's cell phone rang on August 19, he didn't want to answer. Freund, the managing director of Terrapin Theatre, was in a meeting with the director of the company's next play, and he was pretty sure it was his girlfriend calling.

Freund was right. "She said this guy from Northwestern was trying to reach me," says Freund, "and then she dropped the bomb." Brad Nelson Winters, Terrapin's artistic director, had just been found dead in his apartment.

The new play was supposed to be workshopped that night at a studio near Clark and Foster. As the actors arrived they were told the event was canceled, and everyone headed over to Andies, a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. The group was in shock. "The police weren't telling us much," says Susan Shimer, a troupe founder, "but we thought if Brad had died of a heart attack or other natural causes, they would have told us that. We were beginning to think it was worse than maybe it was."

It turned out to be just as bad as anyone could imagine. After dinner, they were standing in a cluster out on the sidewalk when two of their cell phones rang. "It had just come on Fox News that Brad was murdered," says Pam Dickler, another founder. "The last piece we were holding on to was that at least Brad could have gone peacefully, not in the horrifying way that they were saying. It was very raw." Winters's body had been found in the sleeping alcove of his studio apartment in a courtyard building at 526 W. Belden. He was naked except for a pair of socks, and eight stab wounds were visible on his head, neck, right cheek, shoulder, and upper back. There was blood on his hands and blood all over the apartment.

The medical examiner would rule Brad Winters's death a homicide by stabbing, with strangulation a contributing factor. He was 38, a short, impish man with an alabaster complexion and strawberry blonde hair. He'd grown up on a dairy farm in Salesville, Ohio, but it was always obvious to his family that his heart was somewhere else. As a teenager he joined a drama program in Cambridge, a nearby town. "I realized he was good when he was in this play at Cambridge and he had to eat an apple," says his mother, Lathiel. "He did it very well. He hated apples."

Winters studied theater at Wright State University in Dayton and came to Chicago in 1992. By day he planned outings, parties, and shows for the elderly residents of the Hallmark, an assisted-living facility in Lakeview, and at night he took classes at Second City. Soon he began to act and direct around town. In 1997, when he was asked to direct a play for Terrapin, he jumped at the chance.

Terrapin had been founded in 1992 by Syracuse University graduates who migrated to Chicago to do theater. The company took its name from Terrapin Station, a Grateful Dead album.

Winters was drafted to direct Willy Russell's Stags and Hens, an acerbic romp about twentysomethings set in the adjoining men's and women's bathrooms of a Liverpool club. The play was such a hit that Terrapin actually made money, and Winters was invited to join the company as artistic director.

As Winters led Terrapin through its next few seasons, his ambitions grew. He dreamed of becoming an impresario on the order of Kenneth Branagh, whom he idolized. In 1996 Branagh came to Chicago to screen his Hamlet at a benefit. Winters and his friend Michelle Landes paid $75 each to attend the reception on Lake Shore Drive. Winters queried Branagh about stagecraft and offered the star a plain blue tie to autograph with a Sharpie. Winters treasured the signed tie, keeping it in a plastic box in his apartment near a Branagh poster.

Terrapin put on two plays a year on an annual budget that never exceeded $40,000. There was never enough money. In the spring of 2002 Winters directed Brimstone and Treacle, a dark family drama by his favorite playwright, Dennis Potter, who was famous for the Singing Detective TV series on the BBC. The actors didn't get along, and, worse, no one came to see the play. "There were nights when we felt we were really entertaining the folks--all three of them," cracks Sean Cooper, a cast member. Nearly broke at the end of the run, Terrapin axed its fall production.

But Susie Griffith, then the managing director, was already taking steps to save the company. She'd enlisted two marketing specialists from the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, a nonprofit that aids arts organizations, and these specialists were advising Terrapin to redefine its mission. Winters considered himself just the man for this job.

He'd quit the Hallmark by now and become a marketing assistant for a program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management that offers short courses to working executives. "Brad had a handle on all our programs and could explain them to anyone--and enthusiastically," says Erica Kantor, the assistant dean who supervised him. "This was his day job--he held it to bring food to his table--but he took things here to another level."

At Kellogg, Winters picked up a theory of strategic planning called SWOT analysis. Frequently applied to marketing and start-up problems, SWOT analysis forces a business to analyze its future in terms of four rubrics--strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

SWOT analysis revealed to Winters that Terrapin's inability to attract theatergoers and financial backers was due to a lack of identity. "Without clarity of purpose there can be little effectiveness in finding audience and identifying the way we serve our theater community," read a SWOT grid chart he presented to his Terrapin colleagues in April 2002. "A strong and specific mission is a must if we are to develop brand identity and a solid audience base." The chart concluded that Terrapin's mission should be to put on brand-new plays: "New works are more attractive to fund, there is nothing to compare them to and the opportunity for success reaches much further--if we work smart."

Several Terrapin members questioned this shift. "I just thought, this puts a whole new perspective on things," says Shimer, an early opponent. "So many companies want to go with the next big playwright. Steppenwolf does, and all of a sudden we'll have to compete with them. Here's poor old Terrapin, and we're going to have do a lot of reading--and kiss a lot of frogs--till we find something that's right." But Winters was forceful, he was charming, and he could speak the daunting language he picked up at Kellogg. Eventually even Shimer surrendered to his point of view. The August 2002 vote to go forward with new plays was unanimous. (Pam Dickler, who missed the vote, would leave Terrapin partly over the new mission. "For me, this was too limiting," she says.)

Terrapin committed itself to mounting The Go, a new play by Chicagoan Brett Neveu about an alcoholic father and his daughter, whose lives unravel after they become involved with an amphetamine-addicted ex-convict. As the daughter, Winters cast Melissa Sienicki, a homeschooled teenager from Merrillville, Indiana. He worked with her on her monologues "like an English teacher would," says Sienicki--forcing her to diagram the sentences. "If I was talking about shivering," says Sienicki, "Brad wanted me to visualize how cold the character was, and why."

The Go opened in May at the Athenaeum. At the reception afterward, Winters "was giddy as a schoolboy," says Freund. A day or two later, Terrapin was notified that The Go had been recommended for a citation by the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee. It was Terrapin's first-ever Jeff recommendation.

Winters liked to spend his spare time and even his holidays with his friends and colleagues, for whom he'd spin long, animated stories. "He had this farm background, and he'd tell about taking cows to the county fair, with all these little-known facts about cows thrown in," says Shimer. "He was so entertaining. He could turn a trip to the grocery store or his morning el ride into an absolutely riveting tale."

Winters, who was gay, felt especially comfortable with Dianne Collins, who'd been his assistant at Hallmark. Together, they visited gay bars along Halsted Street. "He might get somebody's phone number, and that was exciting to him," says Collins. "When we talked during the week, he'd say he'd gone for coffee with this one or that one. He had people off and on, but nobody regular."

"He would voice his frustration about being unable to meet someone special," says Sean Cooper, "and I would give him a pep talk. He was somebody who had insecurities about his lovability. I would tell him to get over it. 'There's somebody for everyone,' I told him. But he never found that person, as far as I know."

Otherwise, things were breaking well for Winters. He'd shaved his head, which gave him a dramatic look he liked, and his bosses at Kellogg were talking about a promotion. "Brad was happy and healthy, at the top of his game," says Carrie Chantler, a friend from Terrapin and Second City.

Last spring he took in a cat that Cooper had found in an alley. Winters named it Go Go. "It was love at first sight between Brad and that cat," says Cooper. "He bought all this kitten stuff, and he made sure Go Go had his shots. He would go on and on about him. He'd call me and ask, 'How high is a cat supposed to jump?' Or, 'He's coughing up fur balls--is that normal?'"

"I'm a father now," Winters told Susie Griffith.

On Sunday, August 17, Collins joined Winters for some barhopping on Halsted. They ended up at Little Jim's tavern. "There were two older queens sitting at the bar arguing about the merits of Barbra Streisand," Collins recalls. "I said to Brad, 'That's going to be us in 20 years.' And he said, 'Yes, it is.'" At about 11 o'clock Winters helped Collins flag a cab. They promised to talk the next day, and he headed back inside.

Winters left sometime after midnight and apparently alone, says Little Jim's manager Jef Morgan. The occupant of the apartment next to Winters's studio recalls hearing a noise sometime around 3 or 4 AM. "It was a kind of shout. I heard a person say 'somebody,' and maybe 'help.' I'm not sure. It lasted for two or three seconds. I thought it was coming from downstairs. In the back of your mind you think, 'Oh my God, what is this?' Then you dismiss it as a bunch of college kids walking by off Clark Street." This neighbor, who asked not to be named, says he got up but heard nothing more--no creaking in the stairwell or any other sound--and eventually went back to sleep. The neighbor also says a woman in an apartment across the alley reported hearing a cry of "Help me!" come from Winters's studio at around the same time. Police wouldn't confirm or deny this.

Winters failed to show up for work Monday at Kellogg. On Tuesday a worried coworker called hospitals to see if anyone matching his description had been brought in. Finally the coworker contacted Winters's landlord. Around 12:30, the building manager unlocked the studio and discovered the body.

Police found nothing to indicate forced entry and nothing to suggest sexual activity, says Bob Jellen, an Area Three detective. But the back door was open, and there were signs of a struggle inside the apartment. Winters's wallet and cell phone were missing, a Terrapin member adds.

Told that Winters was dead, his coworker at Kellogg started trying to reach Jimmy Freund by phone.

That Wednesday, Kellogg held a memorial gathering, and a few Terrapin members attended. "I looked over at one point and saw women from the laundry service standing there," says Erica Kantor. "These are women where English is not their first language, and I wondered why they were there. I was told by their manager that Brad was well loved among them, and that they had lit a candle for him in their work space."

The theater community said its own good-byes on September 29 at Steppenwolf. "Brad's death hurts bad, but the best thing to do is to share the pain," said Freund, the master of ceremonies. There was a video tribute. One speaker read a message from Kenneth Branagh acquired through Branagh's assistant in London. "I was very touched and humbled to hear of his admiration for my work," wrote Branagh. "Having heard a little of his work among you all, it's clear that he was a special artist and a remarkable man."

The murder remains unsolved, and Detective Jellen says the trail is cold. "He was single, unattached," says Jellen. "He socialized in the evening hours. What he was looking for I can't say. I didn't know the man. But I do know we need a break."

By a vote of nine to two, Terrapin members elected to go forward with their autumn play, Disgruntled Employees, an arch comedy by Second City veteran Kevin Crowley. The piece is set in the sorting room of a post office, and Winters was supposed to play the branch supervisor--the only character who isn't killed. Disgruntled Employees debuted on October 25 to poor reviews.

"Brad was a friend we loved like a brother, and our leader in the trenches," says Carrie Chantler. "Terrapin is not as before. Nothing is as before. But everybody has looked up, gotten off their hands and knees, and moved forward. That's very powerful. We're still here. We're not going away."


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