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A Year of Living Dangerously

Good things happen when theaters--and donors--take risks.

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In a theater scene that prides itself on being "homegrown," it's significant that three of the best shows of the year were created with the key involvement of guest artists from out of town--not to mention out of the country. Goodman Theatre's studio show Wings and Steppenwolf's The Song of Jacob Zulu, both world premieres, were written by non-Chicagoans and developed here in workshops; Remains Theatre's Once in Doubt, pretested in New York and LA runs, was directed by its bicoastal author. All three productions bear witness to the fact that for the city's arts scene to flourish it must keep itself open to new influences.

I'm not talking about importing Broadway and movie stars to titillate the Sarah Siddons Society types. Wings, Jacob Zulu, and Once in Doubt didn't involve big names to assure preopening sales; indeed, what's significant about these shows is how risky they were. A musical about a stroke victim? A musical about a South African terrorist? A comedy about an artist who slashes his wrist and paints with his own blood? These aren't exactly surefire concepts. It cost money to import Wings authors Jeffrey Lunden and Arthur Perlman, Once in Doubt writer-director Raymond J. Barry, and Jacob Zulu collaborators Tug Yourgrau (the Boston-based playwright) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (the South African singing group that created the show's music). In recessionary times especially, conventional commercial wisdom calls for Annie Warbucks, not Jacob Zulu. Luckily, not everyone thinks conventionally. Chicago got three brilliant and popular productions this year because a few theaters--and donors--went out on a limb.

The issue here is long-term investment and long-range vision. Over years of failure and triumph, with financial support from individual, foundation, and corporate donors as well as public agencies, Chicago theater has matured to the level where it can attract the special talents of gifted artists from outside the city. Again, I'm not talking here about established stars, but about creatively ambitious people who work out of the commercial mainstream. Chicago now has the resources to stimulate such people--all the stages and technical facilities and actors and directors and musicians they require to express themselves. Now we need new money to get the most out of them.

Wings's Lunden and Perlman are pros at their craft but by no means proven; their work came to the Goodman's attention not because of trade-paper hype but through personal referral from Louis Rosen (coauthor of another Goodman original, Book of the Night). Director Michael Maggio liked the material on paper, but he knew he needed to see it before Goodman would commit to it. That meant an exploratory workshop--which, considering airfare, hotels, and per diems as well as regular salaries and expenses, meant about $30,000. Just to see if the show was worth doing.

To such ends, Goodman under the leadership of Robert Falls and Roche Schulfer has aggressively worked at building into its budget funds specifically earmarked for developing new works. Part of Falls's success as an artistic director lies in his shrewd understanding of image--his job involves schmoozing as well as staging, and he's good at the game, as for the most part is producing director Schulfer. It took them several years to win the backing of donor-goddess Hope Abelson for a research and development fund that led to the creation of Marvin's Room (a major triumph), the not-so-great Book of the Night, and others (including several shows that never got to the Goodman stage). The Abelson grant, now expired, set a precedent built upon by the Joyce and Andrew W. Mellon foundations, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Goodman's own recently established Discovery Board: these groups contributed to the fund that supported the workshopping of Wings, one of the best shows Chicago has seen in many years.

Jacob Zulu, which came Steppenwolf's way in incomplete form in response to a national contest, went through three workshops. The first was paid for with already contributed money from the Joyce Foundation; Steppenwolf's Steve Eich went to the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation to scare up funds for the next two. The reason for the protracted process was that author Tug Yourgrau, a TV documentary writer, had never done a stage play before, nor had Ladysmith (whose members didn't even speak much English). The result was built through direct collaboration between artists from very different cultures--requiring patience as well as talent on all sides, but resulting in a greater richness and a wider accessibility than a purely imported or completely Chicago-made work would have had.

When Remains actor William Petersen and managing director R.P. Sekon, both familiar with Ray Barry's work from their stints in Hollywood, decided they wanted to do Once in Doubt, their main money concern was putting Barry up. Less well endowed than the Goodman and Steppenwolf, Remains lacks ongoing access to play-development money; its specially honed skill is convincing top-flight hotels to donate lodgings in return for "official" sponsor status. (Maybe that's why Petersen makes his face so available to hotel- and airline-industry magazine covers.)

Petersen and Sekon also had to exert considerable pressure on Barry himself. A veteran of the off-off-Broadway avant-garde and not the most career-minded guy in the world, Barry had a deep-seated reluctance to releasing his play, which he had written for himself, to another actor--even (perhaps especially) with Barry himself in the director's seat. But the volatile Barry made a lasting impact on the city with his staging, which prodded enormous technical and emotional growth in the actors he worked with.

None of this is to suggest that legitimacy somehow comes from out of town. It's interesting, and rather sad, to see the hype being generated now over the likelihood that Wings and Jacob Zulu will play New York--as if that somehow gave the shows a credibility they otherwise lacked. The real significance of the works is that they played here, with the involvement of gifted, nonmainstream artists who brought Chicago new ideas while finding nurturance here provided nowhere else.

Not all risks succeed, and that's OK too. The Goodman also gave us two of the year's biggest bombs, also with the involvement of outside artists: British director Neil Bartlett's half-baked, gender-bent Twelfth Night and playwright Steve Tesich's shallow existentialist exercise On the Open Road. Perhaps with more time and better-focused attention, Bartlett might have made Twelfth Night work on the big Goodman stage; but not even a skillful production could save Tesich's play, a world premiere, from sinking under the weight of its own pretensions. Significantly, On the Open Road was not workshopped as Wings was--closer preproduction scrutiny might have helped everyone involved.

But these failures don't diminish the worth of Goodman's or anyone else's developmental efforts. Risk is only risk when failure is a possibility. And Chicago theater has only gotten as far as it has by taking risks.

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