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On Stage: fireman in a crowded theater

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Almost every actor needs a day job to fall back on, a paying gig to balance the budget. It can be waiting tables, teaching, answering phones, fighting fires . . .

Fighting fires? An occupation like that isn't usually on the resume of most show folk. But actor Guy Van Swearingen divides his time between the firehouse and the theater. Cofounder and artistic director of A Red Orchid Theatre, Van Swearingen is both an ensemble member and producer for the troupe's current production, Victims of Duty--except when he's on call at the Edgewater firehouse, where he's scheduled for 24-hour shifts that alternate with 48-hour breaks.

"It's a job," he says. "I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing. And I'm able to balance it with the theater. It wouldn't be possible to do either if they didn't support each other."

Small and wiry, the 32-year-old Van Swearingen hardly fits the Hollywood image of the heroic, hunky firefighter. "It's what I do for a living--but I don't think I could get cast as a fireman," Van Swearingen says.

A lifelong Chicagoan (and Senn High School dropout), Van Swearingen studied theater before entering the firefighters' academy in 1987. Once settled in his full-time job, he turned his attention back to the stage. His schedule made it unlikely that he'd get cast in other people's shows, so he helped start the Rare Terra theater company, which made its debut with Athol Fugard's "Master Harold" . . . and the Boys. Van Swearingen played a white teenager in this drama about South African race relations--and the show got panned. "It was a bad choice for us," he admits--but a good learning experience for his next attempt at running a theater.

In 1992 Van Swearingen and his friend Ted May founded A Red Orchid Theatre to present The Connection, Jack Gelber's gritty drama about drug addicts. They rented a commercial space in Old Town that has a long, open room and heavy timber ceilings. "It's comfortably intimate," he says. "That excites me. I want the audience close--it really puts you under a microscope. You can't turn upstage and get back into character; if you lose it, they know it."

The theater's name comes from a passage in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. "He's describing this guy shooting up, drawing blood back into the works to mix it with the heroin," says Van Swearingen. "He says it looks like a red orchid. Not that we're junkies! But it seemed to fit The Connection--it was a junk play, beat in nature."

During the three years since its debut, A Red Orchid has alternated between producing its own shows--including a solid rendition of Terry Curtis Fox's police melodrama Cops and the surprise hit Born Guilty, a powerful study of contemporary descendants of Nazi war criminals--and renting the space to other producers, not all of whom have paid their bills. The company survives on ticket sales and private donations--including $20,000 to $30,000 from Van Swearingen's own pocket.

A Red Orchid's Victims of Duty, which opened last week, is a rarely done script by the absurdist master Eugene Ionesco. "I play Choubert, a bourgeois Joe Shmo who is a dreamer but tied to the duties of human existence," Van Swearingen says. "A detective arrives at his flat and sends him on a journey to find the previous tenant, Mallot. Metaphorically speaking it's a journey to find himself. . . . At least that's my interpretation. But it's all very subjective." The production--the troupe's first in almost a year--is a make-or-break project, Van Swearingen admits. Many people in that situation would have chosen easy, familiar material, but Van Swearingen is drawn to risks.

"Fighting fires and acting to me are very similar," he reflects. "There's a certain risk factor. When you're onstage it's like an affirmation of your existence. And when you're fighting a fire it's the same thing: you're hot, you're sweaty, you're excited, you're emotionally charged. Of course, the stakes are higher--life and death, in fact. I have been burned by hot embers at different times, and I fell out with heat exhaustion one year. I don't know. Maybe I can't get enough of a good thing."

Victims of Duty runs through November 11 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. For more information, call 943-8722.

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

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