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Chi Lives: boy preacher loses soul, founds theater

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As a 16-year-old touring Baptist minister, Steven Milford was in hot demand in the churches of the Bible Belt. Four years later he was bounced out of a Baptist college in Birmingham after rumors of his nascent homosexuality soaked the campus. Today, 26 and living in Chicago, his religion shed, Milford is co-owner and artistic director of the Rudely Elegant Theater and Gallery in Wicker Park.

Short, with one green eye and the other gray, with a shaved head and a mustache that pours down the sides of his mouth and collects in a narrow beard around his chin, Milford looks rather devilish. At Rudely Elegant he's currently directing an original improv-based camp play, Barbie the Fantasies.

"I love theater that deals in extremes of emotion, whether it's played seriously or exaggerated for laughs," Milford says. "I guess that goes back to my preacher days. I love to get the crowd worked up.

"In church the whole point was to push people to an emotional limit, to scare them into believing. We bought security with that technique. But in terms of making money, theater is much more risky. God plays on guilt and fear; in theater you're at the mercy of the audience. I still like to jolt people with certain things--like the idea of Barbie wearing a strap-on, for example." The ex-Baptist smiles. "I'm making fun of my preacher past, I suppose."

Milford and business partner/assistant director Lance Hunt--a thin young man with bleached white hair and a look of constant estrangement from sleep--have shoveled mounds of time, money, and hope into their loft space at 1934 W. North (above Urbus Orbis). The space was a hollow shell when they found it; the pair renovated and custom-designed it, financing the enterprise with credit-card cash advances.

"If this doesn't work I'll be broke for a very long time," Hunt says through a sneaky grin. "We're working with five credit cards, all in my name. Of course it's very risky, but cash advances were the only way we could get financing. We never would have gotten a bank loan for an independent theater. We figured, 'If we're going to do this we might as well go all the way.' I'd never want to look back and realize that skimping caused us to fall short of our goals. If we make it, we'll make it big; if we fail, we'll fail big."

They're young--Hunt is 28--and watching their rambling bold talk turn quickly into completed projects, as with the opening of the space itself, it's easy to imagine that they will succeed, if only through tenacity.

Milford and Hunt call their partnership Poison Nut Productions, a nod to the sickening buckeye nut made famous by Ohio State University, their alma mater. Poison Nut has big ambitions for Rudely Elegant. The space opened with an art show in early July, followed later in the month by the debut of Barbie. Plans have already been made for future productions, art openings, improv nights. After Barbie finishes its run, the theater will stage Angel City by Sam Shepard.

"One reason to do the Shepard play is to show people we're serious," Hunt says. "We don't want to alienate a big part of our audience with the perception that Rudely Elegant is just a camp theater. It's not. We appreciate that sense of humor and enjoy doing those shows, but we have other sides to ourselves."

In September they'll stage a "quantum theater." It'll be improv format, lasting 45 minutes to an hour and using a wheel of probability to determine the play's direction. It might land on GOOD LUCK, BAD KARMA, PLAY GOD, CATASTROPHE, or MIRACLE, and the actors have to adopt the circumstance.

Also in the works is an unabashedly gay improv project called The Boys in the Bathroom. "That one's my idea," laughs Milford. "It's a more vulgar version of what the Kids in the Hall are doing. We plan to open it here, then take it out to bars."

The Rudely Elegant loft is divided by a long corridor: on one side is the theater, with about 50 seats; on opposite ends of the other side are two bedrooms--one where Milford lives, the other home to Hunt and his girlfriend. The long central hall is where artworks are shown. Shows typically open every four to six weeks, featuring Wicker Park artists who are just starting out. A recent show by artist Christopher Jones included a sculpture called Tea for Two, in which twin amorphous puddles of plastic inflate at the flip of a switch into quivering, erect columns, each with a china cup bobbing on top

"This is a place where young, creative people can get a break," says Milford. "We're providing opportunities for others--and, frankly, for ourselves."

Hunt says he came to Chicago to write. "I played around with fiction for a while, wrote an awful novel, some short stories. I hit an unexpected stride with my work in the theater." He was executive script editor for Barbie the Fantasies; the plan is to have him hold that job for all of Rudely Elegant's improv-based plays. "In this forum, actors throw out ideas in improv rehearsal; meanwhile I'm out there feverishly taking notes. I then choose what to cut and what to embellish, smooth it all out and create a script. It's good for my creative thirst."

Self-definition through creative expression is a recurring theme for Milford and Hunt. "When I left the church I discovered myself," Milford says. "Now I set my own rules rather than following those of the church, and earn personal rewards rather than working for the glory of God."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chalres Eshelman.

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