As his first play was going into production, Richard Engling exulted to a group of writer friends, "It's great to be back with actors again." A month later he came late to another meeting of the group, announcing as he entered, "I've just been through playwright's hell." He described what had become a fairly typical rehearsal while his anger faded. Then he looked around the room gratefully. "It's great to be back with writers again," he said.
The actors, meanwhile, cheerfully conceded that things were both sticky and going fine. Is this normal? Sure, they said. It's a good play, they said, and people are treating it like it matters.
It's a process, everyone told you, but then they stopped making sense. It's a process of making something from nothing, which results in nothing or art. Through an old friendship with Richard Engling, and fast friendships with a dozen constituents of the Chicago Actors Ensemble, I sat around watching and listening to the process that gave Richard's script a life of its own. It looked and sounded a lot like a six-week-long train wreck, but that process resulted in a single vision, which for several weeks large audiences were willing to spend ten dollars a person to share with the players onstage.
The most glorious conflicts came in the last two weeks of rehearsal, when the company took it upon itself to improve the end of the play. This felt to Richard like a grave breach of artistic etiquette, and he deeply resented the ants taking over his picnic. By the day of dress rehearsal, Richard and director Rick Helweg were ensconced in the box office shouting at each other at show time--"technical difficulties" were announced to the preview audience--and the actors backstage were praising Richard's professionalism in staying so restrained. So it wasn't foreordained that on opening night Richard would buy the company a case of champagne and gleefully toast their common success. This is the story of how and why that happened.
Richard Engling and the Chicago Actors Ensemble first came together at the Off-Off Loop Theatre Festival last spring. The CAE was the festival's standout company, drawing strong notices and overflow houses to its staging of Heiner Muller's Bronx cheer to the 20th century, Hamletmachine. Richard was even more excited by the players than by the play. A former actor and high school drama teacher, dark-bearded and soft-spoken, Richard had been writing fiction for more than a decade, and had recently completed the script for a thriller play with tragic undertones called Ghost Watch.
"It's a story about responsibility, and insensitivity to what you know," he told me. "The ghosts are a catalyst, just like the gods are in Greek tragedy, but there's no tragedy if the people aren't responsible for what happens."
Richard had been theatergoing for several months with an eye toward casting this play, and in CAE Richard saw for the first time actors who looked right for almost every part in his script. After the Hamletmachine performance he went backstage to meet them, and told them about his play. The actors got excited. That night Richard sent the ensemble his script.
Soon, by the first unanimous vote in their four-year history, the Chicago Actors Ensemble put Ghost Watch at the head of their fall calendar.
CAE is a coming company. They've doubled their audiences in each of the last two years, garnered very strong reviews for almost every production--and had the good judgment to close their one weak production on opening night. Grants are piling up, the business office is learning its business, and the ensemble faces the wonderful small-theater problem of outgrowing its space by leaps and bounds.
Rick Helweg has been artistic director of the ensemble from the beginning. He's quite tall, blond and bearded, and his face often tips slightly backward as he talks, as if he's looking down from great heights and is farsighted. He's a founding member of the company, from the days when a floating collection of actor friends first decided to put an end to the "endless heartbreak of auditioning" by mounting their own productions.
They rented a succession of spaces--at Stormfield Theatre, CrossCurrents, and Victory Gardens--and started evolving what Rick calls "this artistic philosophy of individual choice: letting the artists be as creative as they can possibly be, not leading them by the nose." From a continuing combination of critical success and financial catastrophe they learned a lot, while, in the words of Rick's long-suffering wife, they continued to "pound money down a rat hole" to pay for these lessons. Chronically in debt to stage owners--and to anyone else who would take their checks--they realized they would have to do business as well as art to stay alive.
And they did. Rick remembers, "One of the guys who had just joined the group was president of a group called Opera House Inc. They were renovating an old vaudeville house in southern Indiana. Mitchell, Indiana, Gus Grissom's hometown. I dunno what the population is, four maybe. Very tiny town, a farm community, but a beautiful opera house.
"And it hadn't been an opera house or theater for 52 years. They were just completing renovation. So we signed a year contract to go down and do several shows for them."
Not coincidentally, that ensemble member who was president of Opera House Inc. came from Mitchell. His father was chairman of the opera house board. He also happened to be president of the town bank. The company thus had its first sustained experience of checks that didn't bounce.
"They wanted us to do a show that had originally been done there," Rick goes on, "way back in the heyday of vaudeville, the heyday of this opera house. The only script we could find that had been done there was a show called The New York Idea, which is the original version of The Philadelphia Story.
"But it's a terrible play. I mean, you can see why it was rewritten as The Philadelphia Story, because The New York Idea is a god-awful play.
"We did it anyway. Had a wonderful time doing it. Did a number of other shows down there, and eventually got our way out of debt. Only to plunge back into debt doing our third Chicago show."
It was soon after this last bath that a space opened up in the Peoples Church in Uptown. By now the ensemble had a wealth of dramatic and financial experience, and enthusiastic angels to help them with the initial bills. They had a committed core of actors willing to work. And they had a warehouse stuffed with old seats from the Mitchell opera house, seats that they'd been paid with on their last trip there. They needed to put the seats somewhere. They took the space.
Less than two years later they've outgrown it, and are busy rehabbing an extraordinary abandoned Masonic hall on the fourth floor of the Peoples Church.
There's an interesting institutional ecology at work in the church building, which was already an architectural oddity. It's a sort of neocolonial cross between an Old World temple and a New England bank, on a scale about five times larger than life. It isn't even formally a church any longer, although two churches meet in it every week. This huge building, which as the Peoples Church was the country's most famous temple of heterodoxy, has been rechristened the Preston Bradley Center, in homage to the pastor who built the huge church and its once huge congregation.
The sanctuary seats 1,700 souls. On a good Sunday, 70 now appear. Preston Bradley used to draw parishioners from across Chicagoland to his lite theology of idealism and love--he shared his altar with busts of Emerson and Lincoln--while millions more raced home from their local worship services to tune in his Sunday radio broadcasts. As one minuscule measure of Bradley's clout, it was he who, at the end of his 60-year ministry, led the movement to preserve the old downtown library. The Cultural Center's central hall is now named after him.
So history weighs heavy on the Peoples Church, one of the premier institutions left behind when middle-class America abandoned its cities after the war. The congregation today is a scattering in the vastness of peeling plaster and polished wood, thin and richly mottled. There's a line of lakefront ladies sitting in aisle seats during Sunday service. Several pockets of Asians and blacks, some old, some children, scattered among about as many whites. Here and there you see people whom you might, if you weren't in church with them, call bums.
The congregation actually resembles one of the looming relics from the glory days, a huge mural over the altar depicting, in the style of post office socialist realism, plutocrats, workers, doctors, mechanics, wives, humble blacks, even a full-dress Indian, all tastefully abasing themselves before Jesus.
In a day when many congregations cannot support their churches, this mammoth building actually supports its congregation, with rent from the service agencies that lease its space and from the Chicago Actors Ensemble under the eaves.
The Reverend Marguerite Voelkel, senior pastor of the Peoples Church, says the CAE ministers to the community, as do all the other services in the building. "In addition to their regular season," she says, "they do two months of free summer theater which is beamed at this community, in a successful way, and they have pulled the community in to enjoy theater. And we have just been impressed with the job they're doing. In addition to that, when we were negotiating around their coming in, we said you need to be working in the area of children."
She explains that the church already ran a summer day camp for poor children. "The CAE wrote a proposal, which was funded, and they took those kids for two weeks and worked with them around drama, helping them to express themselves. The kids wrote a play and put it on. The CAE does that as part of their ministry in this building."
This collaboration on behalf of God and art seems to please both partners enormously. Their trusting acceptance of each other's complementary missions makes a nice model for what actors and other artists have to do to realize a play.
It takes more than talent to rack up the Chicago Actors Ensemble's success in non-Equity theater, more than a cold eye for commerce, more than God rooting for you. It takes a troupe of actors who, smash or flop, will build the sets and sell the tickets, paint the walls, run the wiring, buy their own costumes, and sweep the floors night after night, show after show, and all the while stay excited about the prospect of rehabbing a derelict Masonic lodge, while working at what we think of as "real" jobs by day.
Ensemble theaters reward this kind of commitment with regular acting work--which means that in an open casting call, outsiders without the sawdust on their knees will have to not just outperform ensemble members but blow them out of the water to receive a part. Time and again members will tell you they joined a company to put an end to "the heartbreak of audition."
Yet few shows are cast entirely within a company--the universe is simply too diverse, and so is the art that imitates it. Most ensemble productions have to cast both insiders and outsiders, no matter how tilted the selection process, and thus is created a fruitful source of conflict.
A few weeks into rehearsals such a conflict boiled over. One of the actresses in Ghost Watch--not an ensemble member--was playing her role very dour and angry, yet her character was the love interest of the two male leads. What were they supposed to see in her? Whatever her attraction, it was not visible to the other players. Company members chattered endlessly about the problem, and the actors who were supposed to be in love with her experimented fitfully with accommodations. But Rick Helweg is committed to helping actors find their own characters rather than prescribing them--so the actress was alone with her ailing role. Coming from outside the company, as a foreigner to the local folkways, she didn't know how to ask the other actors for help. Backbiting flourished in the corridors, and nasty rumors started finding their way back to Rick.
He had several talks with the actress, urged her to relax, and finally said a radical change was in order. "I said do something drastic," Rick recalls. "I don't care what decision you make, just make a decision and go with it. Just show me something else." He pauses. "Nothing."
After that last chance, Rick asked the actress and the two male leads to stay over after rehearsal. Separately, he told them he'd decided to cut her. The other cast members were in a flutter at this news--Who's gonna replace her? Will he cut me next?--and in a series of excited discussions and phone conversations over a period of hours a consensus blossomed that this was for the best.
And it was. The cut actress was replaced by the company's Mary Derbyshire, who had herself been cut from the play weeks earlier.
But how could that have happened--a member of the ensemble cut while an outsider stayed in? As ever, it's complicated. Another of the principals hadn't auditioned for the play, despite her desire to be in it, because she had a feeling that Rick didn't want to cast her, and so she waited for Rick to ask her to try out. Rick cast the show from the people who auditioned. Afterward, as Rick remembers it, "I came in the office and she was sitting like this." He slumps glumly in his chair. "'What's wrong?' I say. 'Nothing.'
"I'm not gonna press it. If she's not gonna tell me what's wrong she's not gonna tell me what's wrong. I got in the elevator, she ran up, she got in the elevator behind me. As soon as the door closed she--waaa! she started crying. 'What the hell is wrong?' 'I really wanted to do the show.' 'Why didn't you tell me?' 'Because when I told you I didn't have time to do it you seemed like it was OK and that you really didn't want me for the show anyway.' And I said 'You didn't audition!'
"Oh god," Rick remembers thinking, "what am I gonna do now?" He'd just run into the outside actress and had told her that she was cast. But no company members had seen his cast list yet. "Well, I had already cast Mary in a major role. She's playing Medea [in the next CAE production]. And Mary was out of town. That made it easier at the moment to do it." He replaced Mary with the actress who had felt unwanted.
"So Mary calls. 'What's the cast?' I say "Well, I cast you as Medea!' She says 'What's the cast of Ghost Watch?' I told her what it was, and there's a real long silence.
"So Mary was really upset. I said 'Look, I could tell [the noncompany member] that I made a mistake in casting.' And Mary says 'No no, you can't do that, you can't do that.'"
So Mary was out. And it stood that way for several weeks, until Mary came back in. Then--lest you think these stories ever have endings--no sooner had Mary swept in as a replacement than the Ghost Watch assistant director stormed out, leaving the company, because she felt that she was next in line for any such casting change, and was hurt at not being consulted.
But when Mary Derbyshire came into the cast the palpable conflict of vision onstage evaporated, and for the first time the play's love triangle made sense. Watching the process, I felt art in a way I hadn't before, as the resolution of conflict. It was Mary's entrance, in fact, that healed an awful--and entirely one-sided--conflict I had been having with another actor.
Mary's boyfriend in the show was played by Bob Pries, who is 26, almost ludicrously handsome, and works as a Lettuce Entertain You waiter by day. Bob had adapted to Mary's sullen predecessor in a way that drove me crazy. "I felt like I had to be an entertainer for her, and had to be all laughy and jokey and lighthearted," he explains, "because she always seemed to be so down and withdrawn." So, in my unconsulted opinion, he minced around like a grinning idiot, ignoring her when he wasn't blithering and simpering at her. I wasn't wild about the woman either, but it was Bob who gave me fits.
Then Mary Derbyshire replaced her. Suddenly this mincing idiot became an actor. As Bob experienced it, "It probably brought out a lot more in terms of depth of character, because it was almost one-track early on, because I didn't have anyone challenging me. The relationship became more equal." As I experienced it offstage, he became a character, a suddenly interesting one.
It's a theme that comes up again and again. Actors create not only their own roles but each other's, in the stage interactions that define character. Mary's new embodiment of a supposedly familiar character immediately changed Bob's character, into the man who would be with her. He became less smug and gooney, more thoughtful. He interacted now. And suddenly I could remember why until recently I'd thought Bob was such a good actor.
Good as the change was, it wasn't easy. Bob recalls, "I found myself a lot of times wanting to do what I had done before, and couldn't do it. I thought, oh no no no no, everything's different. This relationship's changed. It means I have basically gotta change too, and things have to be on a more equal basis. I found myself a lot of times wanting to do what I had done before, and couldn't do it. And that was very difficult."
Mary felt the difficulty too. She's also 26, slight, with a dancer's grace in her movements and a soft precision to her voice. She and Bob virtually renegotiated the onstage relationship. "For instance," she says, "he was getting more pissy at me about the money situation, in the first scene. And I said 'Bob, I'm not playing this like a miser or anything, I'm just talking about it as if I'm a little concerned about money'"--her voice becomes careful and halting as she talks, reluctant to offend even in the memory--"'and money is a concern of mine.' But I'm glib and flippant."
These two actors were actually negotiating reality for roughly four people. The characters that each of them played were extensions and discoveries of themselves, motivated by their own understandings and egos. Actors, when they analyze character motivations, don't talk about "him" or "her"; they talk about me. Their egos are so assimilated into the egos of their characters that the characters cannot be separated from the cast.
Nor could the playwright be separated from the play. Actors uncomfortable with lines had found Richard Engling very amenable to line changes and edits; after several weeks of rehearsal, though, they felt constricted by his presence. They couldn't tell me why, just that he made them self-conscious. Then, one Sunday afternoon when Richard was out of the way (he was skipping that rehearsal to rewire the theater for his special effects), the actors and director experimented with a new ending for the play. They loved the innovation, and Richard didn't.
In fact, Richard was incensed. "I miss one rehearsal, to do their own damn wiring for them, and what happens!" To the uninvolved eye the issue wasn't seismic, but its repercussions went deep.
Ghost Watch ended in a sort of dirge, with a couple of surviving characters wandering dazed among the dead, struggling to come to grips with both death and survival. This was a traditional tragic ending: think of Shakespeare, for instance, who mops up his gory tragedies with a sort of epilogue of mediocrity at the end, in which all those still standing--because they weren't glorious enough to be doomed--mop up the mess while deriving what minor lessons their meager intelligences can draw from the ruin of their betters. This is what tragedies are structured to achieve. As our superiors topple, we survivors and gapers feel a concussive ripple of recognition at the forces that bring them down. We acquire a small bit of the wisdom they earned at great price.
In the ensemble's new version the words hadn't changed. But now Mary walked out the door at the end, instead of staying by the bodies and with her lover. Walking out evolved the character, signifying that she was leaving her boyfriend Bob, whose blind ambition had enabled the deaths to happen. More fundamentally, it signified "I don't have to deal with this"; it suggested that she could turn her back on the tragedy and all its lessons, just split for California and refuse to learn anything.
To Richard, Mary's new gesture undercut the tragic recognition that the last scene--indeed, the whole play--was built for. The deaths seemed to signify nothing to her now, and therefore would signify nothing to the audience. The ensemble argued that the gesture made the scene even more tragic, because it showed the depth of Mary's depression, and this logic drove Richard to raptures of rage. "All this ten-o'clock-news definition of tragedy," he would lament. "Anyway, it stinks."
But the ensemble knew Richard was wrong. They believed in these characters they had created, and felt comfortable playing them until the very last scene. But there, at the play's culmination, the action now felt unmotivated and slow. Never having entirely comprehended Richard's intentions, and feeling their own emerge with force and logic, the actors damn well intended to end their characters' story with the bang it deserved.
Hell, look at all the bodies, they said. It's still tragic, right?
It was a dialogue of the deaf.
If you're wondering, there's a simple difference between what's tragic and what's simply sad: Tragic characters bring their disasters upon themselves, because of character traits that are simultaneously admirable and disastrous. Sad things, on the other hand, just happen, and getting bummed out about them doesn't constitute tragic recognition. If anyone ever made this distinction clear in the course of the debate, no one heard it. Anyway, by opening night nothing was left of Richard's tragic intent, and except for Richard, no one missed it.
At the height of the controversy over the last scene I went into the theater one morning to interview Rick Helweg, thinking I'd inject a little reason into the debate. Within ten minutes Rick and I were shouting at each other.
The understood convention is that playwrights have final say on line changes, but directors have final say on blocking, which is to say the walking around and arm-flailing. Rick threatened, "If he wants a tragedy, I'll give him a tragedy!" meaning that he would mire the blocking in so much tedious Greek hoo-ha that the audience might be expected to expire even before the tragic heroes. I pressed the case for authorial intent, and Rick made it eminently clear that I was an idiot not to keep my mouth shut.
I probably made a few things eminently clear right back. Then we had an amiable interview.
Rather than guess how anyone else felt, let me tell you how I feel, mired in a conflict of artistic vision. I'm right and you're wrong until the improbable moment that one of us is convinced otherwise, or until we forget that we're disagreeing. A play shot through with conflicting visions is always "weird" for the actors, because no one can understand where the other side is coming from, and no one can relax and go with the flow. As it becomes clear that I, say, don't accept Rick's vision, what it means is that I don't trust Rick.
That lack of trust is what vision-conflict is all about: we don't trust the other person's judgment and we can't accept the other person's art. Because we're all people before we're artists, that other person seems weird and unpleasant to us--seems, to be precise, like an asshole. An asshole who has a corresponding opinion of us.
Here's what I mean:
My friend Richard the playwright was up against an irate mob of characters who insisted on acting out their parts. The actors animating those characters found them suddenly hard to play, in need of resolution, and the moment Richard stopped repressing their free expression--just by leaving for an afternoon--the characters took over and swept Richard's play before them. The actors knew they were right, they could feel it. Their characters, which weren't necessarily the ones Richard had written, were now running the play.
The next week's rehearsals were a sad and lonely spectacle for anyone empathic with Richard. Rehearsals took place in the splendidly sad remains of the fourth-floor Masonic lodge, a huge room, not at all rehabbed yet, and rimmed with rubble piled against the walls. Old lumber, scraps of things, a few old toilets, a bathtub, a fire door. In the middle of the room a few box lights were clamped to freestanding poles and aimed at the rippled floor, on which tape marked the outlines of a new stage. A half-dozen people sat on folding chairs in darkness behind the lights, while two actors went through their paces in brightness. Forty-foot ceilings loomed darkly over murals of pyramids, pharaohs, and wide river valleys; the ceiling sagged and peeled high over buckets scattered on the floor under leaks. On the walls, electric conduits and fat air ducts appeared and disappeared importantly, leading off to other parts of the building where life went on. The Reverend Marguerite Voelkel says the lodges were closed for some sort of zoning violation early in the history of the church, and this room has been a sort of subbasement in the sky ever since. It will make a magnificent theater.
Now, as Richard gave his notes after rehearsals, the actors looked glum, often blocking their eyes or staring off at the dim, distant ceiling. His suggestions were followed by an "I don't know" from an actor, a "But don't you think?" from the director, and when the meeting broke up into pockets of conversation and leave-takings, everyone eddied away from the playwright until he was gone. Everyone knew that Richard could veto the changes they cared most passionately for, and knew too that only an asshole would do that. The company had reconceived Richard's hybrid tragedy as a mainstream thriller, reconceived the play in the process of bringing it to life, without theatrical discussion or debate. They felt the thriller in their bones. And in their bones they felt that Richard had become an adversary who didn't share their vision.
When Richard described his playwright's nightmare at the next meeting of our writers' group, he got the sympathetic ear he expected and deserved. Our group has perfected the mutual slathering of sympathy in our eight years together--it's the key to our success.
We met in the living room of our group's first home owner, on a quiet street in Rogers Park. The men in the group tend to be thin and bearded, like Richard, in their mid-to-late 30s. The women are a little younger, and tend to have more secure jobs. As we age some of us have drifted away from writing and daydreaming, and gotten into supporting ourselves; others have avoided normal life for so long that we no longer believe it owns us. Richard is our standout straddler of the two worlds. He's worked essentially full-time on his writing for more than ten years, but he's learned to support himself comfortably as a free-lance industrial advertising writer. A week after his first play went into production, Richard sold a novel to New American Library. He was doing something right, and all of us in the group knew it.
But not only did we and Richard share a vision, originally a hallucination, of ourselves as writers, not only had we read and criticized Richard's play act by act from its inception; half of us, Richard included, were also former actors who for various reasons had come around to the other side of the pen. We could see and sympathize with all sides in the conflict. And while understanding Richard's pain, we told him to let go of his baby.
He'd looked dazed as he told his story. A member of the group who had acted and directed across the midwest, and who now writes detective stories, tried to put things in their true perspective. "Remember," he said, "the difference between actors and writers is the difference between gnats and flies." That seemed to cheer Richard up, but not for long.
They just didn't get what he was trying to do. "Let go of it," we said. "They never will. They're the ones giving it life now, and you can only interfere. Let it go."
They're kidnapping my script, God damn it!
"It's got a life of its own now. You've done your part," we said. Richard was unconvinced. Ultimately he knew we were right, that he couldn't fight them and he couldn't win. But how it caught in his craw! Now that his vision was finally fulfilled it wasn't his vision at all; it was the vision of a bunch of stage-barnacles who thought tragedy was a train wreck.
The next night's rehearsal was unusually tense. They worked through a couple of earlier scenes, gave notes, discussed motives. They came to the last scene of the play, and the rehearsal bustle stopped dead. All eyes, briefly, turned to Richard.
"Do what you like," he said.
Now that the ants were running the picnic, they had their own way with the food. Richard began wondering why he came to rehearsals at all, the courtesies had worn so thin. Actors were dropping lines, changing motivations, and ignoring suggestions just as if it were their play. They were constantly thinking, discussing, brooding on what still wasn't quite right about the ending, especially now that they'd blown off Richard.
An actor lying in a pool of stage blood at the final blackout said he'd been thinking, "This sucks. I'm dead and this sucks." An actress in the final scene had felt the same way and flashed on what to do about it. Two other ensemble members had run into each other on the el, and it turned out they had the same idea. One of them--Patti Hannon, the oldest and most experienced member of the cast--wrote up a two-page treatment amplifying her suggestion and showed it to Rick before the dress rehearsal. Now Rick told her to try it, and she directed the final scene.
The actors were relieved and thrilled. Rick loved it. Richard didn't.
Patti had pushed the play further from tragedy to melodrama, in order to end it with a bang. Her change, like the last one, was deceptively simple: Now, when Mary went for the door it slammed shut in front of her, trapping her with the man she'd just rejected, in the room where her two friends had just been killed. The curtain dropped on her shocked glance back at Bob, who was glaring murderously at her.
With this change it became clear that the room itself possessed the last two people who'd killed and died, just as it was now possessing Bob, who had no reason to murder his girlfriend. This ending sent a shiver down your spine to leave the theater with, and you had to wonder whether Mary was fish bait.
And that was all you had to think about. When the room itself became the murderer, the murderous motives of the characters in the room no longer mattered. This one change suddenly showed that the characters hadn't brought anything on themselves, they'd just showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time. You no longer had a tragedy at all, you had a well-produced "too bad."
Sure, it's good melodrama, Richard groused. Yeah yeah, it's snappier theater than what I wrote. But it undercut his whole blasted design, and he'd been jerked around long enough. The curtain was about to go up on the dress rehearsal; the invited audience of friends and hangers-on had assembled in the theater; and the actors and techies were all in place. The playwright and director were not.
Technically, Richard still had the right of approval, although it's a right honored primarily in the breach. Now, for the first time, Richard exploded. Retiring with the director into the box office, he dumped on him all his anger and frustration at the professional discourtesy, the lack of communication, the bad faith . . . And Rick gave back as good as he got, lowering his voice whenever someone came up to buy a ticket for the show. But these "technical difficulties" postponed the show only a few minutes--the real battle had been all over but the shouting days before.
Richard came out of the ticket booth a purged and happier man, despite OK'ing every change. And that evening, for the first time since the battle was joined, he finally let his baby go. He actually enjoyed the end of the show for what it was. Everyone else loved it.
I was downtown one day while these battles were raging, wondering what to make of them. A woman on State Street slapped an advertising flier into my hand as I passed. She gave me two fliers in fact. I glanced at her, ready to hand one back, but she cocked her head at me in a friendly way. It clicked--she was inviting me to conspire with her. I kept both fliers and threw them in the garbage, just as she'd asked me to.
Recognition rippled through me as I noticed a garbage can that was sprinkled with her fliers. We're just passing on what we've accepted, I thought . . . I tossed my fliers in. It's in such little complicities as these that our realities interweave.
What do we pass on? What do we accept?
I started thinking about the Chicago Actors Ensemble's success in a new way. Joyce Sloan, the Second City producer, had given the ensemble free rehearsal space early on, and even donated a couple of thousand dollars of her own money. What was she passing on? It was more than money.
At times when the ensemble had to doubt its own reality, a thousand-dollar check--which, carefully kited, could cover a whole winter's rent--was strong medicine. It confirmed not just existence, but a right to exist as artists; it made authoritative proof that whatever they were doing was working.
A whole culture of more and less affluent Chicagoans has sprouted up in the last ten years, composed of people who give money away to starving theater groups! They're an indispensable reason for Chicago's rich theater scene. What are they passing on? What do they accept?
What do we accept? Acceptance creates big realities, like growing theater companies and abandoned churches, no less than the smaller realities onstage. The actors must accept each other in order to create a vision to share. Next, the audience has to accept the vision.
Spectators undergo "the willing suspension of disbelief," said Aristotle, in order to experience art. But Aristotle didn't make it plain that actors undergo that same process among themselves before they give to their audiences, or that all of us, in our selections of what we see and participate in, do the same thing every minute of our lives.
Art comes from wherever life comes from, and takes forms as bizarre as life. As another actor I talked to says, "When you're being creative, you're creating a life. Not necessarily a physical life, you're creating something that stands on its own. And when you are able to separate yourself from that thing, it becomes bigger than you are."
It might even reject you, as Richard's play did, or take you over--Richard's first novel concerns a Method actor whose stage character bleeds through to his offstage life, ultimately overwhelming him. That's not a literary conceit. Actors routinely think and talk about the characters they're playing in the same way they discuss other people. They can draw energy and life from someone they become onstage just as they can from a patron.
Try to count the number of stories you've heard of actors who sign autographs with their current characters' names. It's a state of mind almost too banal, yet deep, to talk about; but the boyfriend of a cast member has been thinking and talking about it since he started in the theater.
Brian Spivey is a small, cheerful black man in his mid-20s who's been in Actors Equity--and thus ineligible to act with the CAE--from the time he graduated from the DePaul Goodman school of drama two years ago. Young, black, male Equity actors have a lot of free time in which to meditate on their craft, Brian admits ruefully, and he is more evocative about his than anyone else I've met. "People talk about reincarnation," he says. "How every incarnation you're supposed to learn something, and your spirit becomes more wise when you get closer to God.
"I feel like every time I'm in a play, that's sort of like an incarnation. I dictate my portions of that world. If theater were a pure art form as opposed to a business applied to an art form, the ideal thing would be, you only take roles that you're going to learn something from, that challenge you, and bring you some revelation of life and make you grow."
That's part of the thrill of acting, the chance to experience, even to lose yourself in, very different lives. Brian's closest friends in Ghost Watch both were drawn to their characters--even though wary of them--because the characters seemed to embody lessons that the actors wanted to learn. Brian's girlfriend Nancy Kresin played a decisive, assertive woman whom Nancy herself could take a few cues from--and Nancy played her chillingly, so she must have been learning a lot. Paul Dillon played an actor with a sudden, savage temper such as Paul sometimes shows, and going through his character's pain seemed like a way of learning to avoid it offstage.
Brian says that conflict is an integral part of the creative process, and that the unresolved conflicts within actors are an important goad to art and life. He picks up on an idea in Shirley MacLaine's book Dancing in the Light. "She says dissolving conflict is the reason we're here on earth. In resolving conflicts we clear up and work out our karma, and become closer to the God-force.
"Working on something in a creative manner is just working on life, one way or another. Conflict is an integral part of working on events and yourself, it's how you work out unresolved differences. The way you resolve that conflict is not only a learning process but a creative process."
He points out how the conflict between Richard and the ensemble was resolved by having the character central to the controversy--Mary Derbyshire's--take a decisive action, as the ensemble wanted, and also stay put, as Richard wanted. But it wasn't a compromise, it was a synthesis. "They had to do it the hard way, which is sometimes best. Pound it out. Pound it out." There was no other way past their egos to resolution.
"Trust is the most important thing," Brian says. "I so fucking firmly believe that. The first thing any acting class I've ever taken, any rehearsal process I've ever gone to where it's an ensemble situation where you're working with other people--before you start script work you do trust exercises.
"It's things that are geared to make you trust the people you're around. Things like, you stand on top of a ladder. Everyone else stands below you in two lines, with their arms out. You let yourself fall off the ladder into their arms. We ended up doing it off of something that was ten feet high. In order to do that you learn to trust those people, and in the process you form a bond. Because you suddenly let down your ego.
"And if you're not gonna trust somebody, you're not gonna let down your ego. M. Scott Peck's book, The Road Less Traveled, that was the textbook for my senior-year acting class. And he says loving is the act of letting down your ego boundaries. Before you do that, you've got to trust somebody. Then you can let your armor down."
Did Richard really have to give up his baby, which he loved so much, in order for it to grow? I don't know. When the most important review of Ghost Watch came out, here in the Reader, Tony Adler praised the production and pooh-poohed the script. He said "its lurid apparitions and sudden shocks, its escalating series of sharply conceived and well-executed gimmicks" all generated "a classic horror-show anxiety." He enjoyed the show.
But he found the script incoherent. "Clearly, male violence is the essential subject of Ghost Watch. And yet, rather than face that subject, Engling tries to push it away. To bury it. . . . Ghost Watch doesn't have to be such a mess of contradictory impulses and evasions. It could be--in its imaginative heart, it already is--a devastating piece of work, depicting male violence as a kind of contagion of the soul that we acquire by breathing in the sickness of generations. But Engling's still got to let it fulfill itself."
After reading the review, Richard complained, not for the first time, "I get the feeling everyone thinks this would be a better play if I would just get out of the way of it. But who's supposed to write it?"
When a troupe of actors has reconceived a playwright's characters, changed their relationships, and thrown out the ending that the characters were written for--and still calls it tragic! Richard would add--must the playwright take the rap for incoherence? I don't know. I think it was a wonderful show.
And I watched it work in the flux of all sorts of things becoming other things. Richard's marriage was rocky while he wrote Ghost Watch, and he and his wife were separated for a year. While Ghost Watch was in production they started to reconcile, and they're reconciling still. I've wondered whether it's more accurate to say that the play got out of the way of Richard.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.