By Nick Green
John Corwin was scared and confused after graduating from college in 1992. That condition may not sound unusual for a recent graduate, but Corwin's paralysis was aggravated by the fact that his degree was in theater. Frustrated by the audition process, he considered settling into his job as a data-entry clerk for the Chicago & North Western Railway.
"I never had stage fright until I came to Chicago," says Corwin, who grew up comfortably middle-class in Park Forest and Flossmoor. "I had my security blanket ripped away from me and I was really freaked-out about the whole thing. At one point, I auditioned for something at the Goodman, and I was terrified by the experience. I was an absolute wreck. And after that, I knew if I tried to continue acting I'd have an explosive colon."
Corwin wasn't interested in joining the crowded pool of hopeful directors, and Wax Lips, the theater company he'd founded at Illinois State University with classmates Brendan Hunt and Carla DeLio, was on temporary hiatus while Hunt finished his degree. Soured on performing, Corwin was searching for other ways to satisfy his love of theater. So he started writing plays, though not particularly well. "I had no idea of what the hell I was doing, and when I realized that I might be in over my head I decided to go back to school to learn structure and discipline."
One Northwestern playwriting class later, Corwin began work on his first play, Slim Just Left Town, a story about the breakup of six mismatched couples, told in a series of 36 vignettes. When Hunt returned a few months later, Wax Lips regrouped and staged the play in the basement of the now-defunct Voltaire, on Clark Street. Encouraged by favorable reviews, Corwin "went insane over a two-week period in Omaha, Nebraska," and returned with Navy Pier, an exquisitely constructed patchwork of intercut monologues that deals with an egomaniacal writer's unlikely rise to prominence and how that affects his best friend. If theatergoers are masochists who take perverse pleasure from watching their own foibles played out onstage, then Navy Pier gave audiences their money's worth--its characters are slowly dragged down by their own bitterness and self-absorption. Wax Lips' production enjoyed extended runs at the Strawdog and Live Bait theaters in 1997 and '98.
What Does It Mean?, a trio of loosely connected one-acts that Wax Lips staged at Angel Island this summer, shared the same dark, cynical worldview of its predecessors. Corwin insists, however, that his characters' frustrations are not drawn from his personal experiences. "I can't write a happy ending to save my life," he says. "I don't set out to write anything dark. I think, for whatever reason, that's just what winds up interesting me for the length of time it takes to write a play. Believe me, I've tried to write happy little numbers, and they either turn out to be complete crap or I lose interest--they're just too boring."
Corwin has no reason to be gloomy--he's just hit his stride. Gone Home, his fourth full-length play in four years, is set to open this weekend at Strawdog Theatre. And at the same time, Wax Lips is preparing Navy Pier for a coproduction with London's Soho Theatre, which produced early works by playwrights Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker. Though Soho had initially slotted Corwin's play as the inaugural production for its new $16 million theater last month, construction delays have set the company's opening back by a couple months. Navy Pier will now likely receive its overseas premiere this spring.
Corwin still works a day job as a business analyst at a bank, but now he thinks he might have another career ahead of him. "Like many people involved in theater, I'd very much like it to be a full-time thing. I don't know if that will ever happen. Then again, I have no idea what would have happened if I didn't start writing. Even if I never make a dime off of it, I'll still be doing it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.