Blake Montgomery admits he's a fool. A year and a half ago the 34-year-old actor and director committed his life savings and an inheritance--roughly $300,000 total--to the Building Stage, a warehouse theater on the near west side where he wanted to present original "clown theater" for free. "I have no company, I've had no hit show, I have no reputation, I'm charging no admission, and I have a huge fixed overhead," he says. "And 'clown theater'--people have no idea what I'm talking about. It's all stupid."
Montgomery has spent the last decade studying and performing physical theater, but it was only three years ago that he started thinking about creating a clown laboratory for free workshop productions and fringy touring shows. At the time he was performing and directing with Redmoon Theater and trying to make ends meet as an electrician. On long drives home, a vacant warehouse at Kinzie and Carpenter kept catching his eye. "I knew that was the building," he says. "But the guy would never return my calls." He spent the next year and a half boning up on zoning codes and special-use permits and talking to attorneys, real estate agents, aldermen, and countless City Hall bureaucrats. "Everyone I spoke to said the same thing: 'You will not get zoning approval.'"
Local business owners were the toughest sell. "All the meatpackers down here are terrified of losing their control of this area," he says. "You know, you come out here at 2 AM, there's 40 or 50 huge refrigerated trucks just lined up everywhere. And that's how it's been for 50 years. They see audiences with cars as a problem." Eventually Montgomery had to promise the Randolph/Fulton Market Association that audiences would behave responsibly ("They're worried about drunk people pissing in the street"), that he'd never complain about industrial noise during performances, and--most frightening to him--that he'd maintain 20 parking spaces. Currently they're available gratis in the gravel lot beside his building. "But if some developer comes along and offers my landlord a good price--and I see the condos going up two blocks away--I can't compete with that. I'll be out."
In spring 2004 the city began considering the possibility of special-use permits for small performance venues in that area. "I was desperately waiting to see if this change would make it through the revision process," Montgomery says. "As soon as the new ordinance was finalized, I went into high gear." He signed a three-year lease on the bare-bones space in October 2004. He thought $50,000 would be enough to construct a stage, install lighting and sound systems, hang 3,400 square feet of black curtains, wall off a tiny office, buy folding chairs, and put up a shingle. He ended up paying twice that. His nest egg, which he'd hoped would bankroll the Building Stage for its entire three-year lease, would now last only a little more than two years.
Montgomery grew up in Wilmette and went to Middlebury College, where he became convinced he'd never be a mainstream actor. He wasn't interested in conventional acting, relying on sense memory and psychological naturalism, and didn't buy the notion that "if you're an actor, you're not allowed to have any thoughts about what the artistic process is. Since I had ideas, I was obviously a director." On something of a whim he enrolled at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California. "The first month studying clown theater changed my life," he says. "You're just up onstage, nothing prepared, no script, you're lost, it's absurd, what do you do? You know, Waiting for Godot. The rhythm of the world is tripping and falling. That's what my theater is about." After a year in California he spent 18 months in Minneapolis studying corporeal mime with the Margolis Brown company.
Then he headed off to Paris to attend the renowned International Theatre School Jacques Lecoq. "I did the first year of the two-year program," he says. Before he left, Lecoq himself grilled Montgomery. "He's asking me what I'm going to do. 'Well, start a company, do my own work.' 'Oh, you're too young, it's too soon, tu es un con.' It's slang for 'you are a fool,' but literally he called me a cunt. The last thing he did was call me a cunt, and now he's dead and can never take it back."
Montgomery came back to Chicago in 1998, produced a few original clown shows, which bombed, and eventually fell in with Redmoon as an artistic associate. Its artistic director, Jim Lasko, has been supportive, though he calls the Building Stage project "insane, at least as far as I can see. I admire that he wants to create a process for making theater that's removed from commercial concerns. You can paint in a studio, write in your room, but you need a space and an audience to make theater. Those things are expensive, so before you can practice your craft as a theater maker, you need to be spending money.
"What I like about Blake is that he's pushing the form, but he has a methodology, he has a system. He's not like many of us who attempt to be avant but are just winging it, groundless, untethered, hoping we can find something that will work."
Montgomery opened in October 2005 with a production of Hamlet because he "wanted to start with something from the canon and try to apply my clown sensibility to it." Though it was enthusiastically reviewed by the Reader and WBEZ, Montgomery felt that only some of his cast understood his minimalist, antipsychological method. Part of it, he says, was their lack of training, and part of it "actors who mull over their motivations endlessly. I don't care what your motivation is." Still, audiences showed up. "We started with 50 seats. By the last weekend we were up to 80. We made $4,000 in donations. We had a lot of college kids, a lot of old people, which we'll take care of when we stop doing Hamlet. And a lot of people treated it like television. You know, it's free."
Since then Montgomery's been paying the $3,000 monthly rent out of his savings. Next weekend his second show, Dust Bowl Gothic, opens. This droll, almost hallucinatory ensemble-created piece, complete with roving country western band, reimagines the couple in Grant Wood's painting American Gothic as tragic players during the Depression, with the wife taking off for parts unknown and the husband choosing to hunker down on his dying farm. "It's about the problem of moving on," Montgomery says, "how we cling to a barren landscape, to a once comfortable past, even if it's killing us." Like Hamlet, the show will be free. "I want this place to be as much a laboratory as a theater, and for people to invest in that process of development," he says. "I don't want this to be about product and consumption."
Montgomery knows he has to balance what he wants to do with what he has to do. For one thing, he'll have to get serious about grant writing, offering classes, and creating some sort of organization. But for now he won't consider the most economically viable plan: renting the space to other companies between his own shows. "Then, instead of building my dream place, I'd be just another off-Loop theater."
Dust Bowl Gothic
When: Previews Thu-Fri 4/13-4/14, 8 PM. Opens Sat 4/15, 8 PM, and runs through 5/20.
Where: Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.