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Small Wonder

Don't even try to get a seat for Micheal Halberstam's Writers' Theatre.

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It's a half hour to curtain at Writers' Theatre Chicago, and Michael Halberstam, the Glencoe company's 30-ish artistic director, is greeting his patrons. Standing near the cash register that doubles as a box office, he smiles and bows slightly at everyone who passes, dapper in his vest and black velvet coat but also comic, slightly officious. He looks like the eager ambassador of a small country or a maitre d' greeting a high-tipping regular.

He rushes up to a well-dressed couple in their mid-60s, doctor so-and-so and his wife. "Hello, darlings," he says. "Did you have a good trip to London?" Delighted that he remembered their trip, they share a few observations about this or that show in the West End. Halberstam has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, but some people in Glencoe, especially those who frequent the theater, get weak-kneed at the sound of a British accent, and on occasions like this Halberstam turns up the volume.

He's clearly in his element. Before almost every performance he steps out onto the stage, bows slightly, points out the small improvements in the space--new seats, a new air-conditioning unit. He plugs the next show, pushes subscriptions to the new season, and reminds people to turn off their cell phones and pagers. And then, before stepping aside, he'll repeat one of his favorite witticisms from the British theater, his eyes glittering with mischief: "You know, John Gielgud once said the two great misfortunes for theater were heterosexuals and wrapped candy. Thank you very much, enjoy the show."

In recent seasons Halberstam's company has scored a number of artistic successes: a terrific Richard II, a killingly funny take on Noel Coward's Private Lives, a production of The Glass Menagerie that critics compared favorably to Steppenwolf's the same year. Every performance this season has sold out the little 50-seat theater, several of them--most notably its revival of Joe Orton's dark comedy Loot--before the run even began. Nixon's Nixon, about the president's last night in the White House, was so popular that it was revived this summer. And sold out again.

Halberstam has loved theater for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Nottingham, he performed in backyard plays with his three older sisters, then school productions. "We went to watch him in a little play his elementary school was doing," recalls his father, Heini Halberstam. "He was the King of the Rats. I was astonished--he really dominated the stage. He riveted attention. He was very calm. He was possessed by the role. That was when I realized he had talent in that direction."

Heini Halberstam taught mathematics at the University of Nottingham, but aside from counting the box office Michael has no interest in numbers. "All of that talent came from his mother's side. His mother sang rather well and she acted and she directed drama productions. His [maternal] grandfather was a natural. He had a very vaudevillian manner. He could dance, he could tell jokes. He could play the piano. He could write music. He was conductor of the Methodist choir in the north of England near Newcastle. He taught mathematics, but his life was in music."

Heini was descended from a long line of rabbis living near Prague. In 1939 he escaped the Nazis through the kindertransport, a prewar program that placed Jewish children from central Europe with British families.

"My grandmother was not so lucky," says Michael. But that real-life drama was never discussed around him. "I didn't even know I was part Jewish when we lived in England. My dad was Jewish, my mother was brought up Church of England. We were nondenominational. We just celebrated all the pagan holidays--Christmas, Easter." He chuckles. "There were no crucifixes around the house. Just fir trees and prezzies." At the age of five he survived an automobile accident that killed his mother. "I remember her singing to me, but not much else."

In 1980 his father accepted a job at the University of Illinois, and the family pulled up roots and moved to Champaign. Halberstam didn't expect Americans to be much different from the British: after all, they spoke the same language. He was used to being thought of as charming and witty, but in America he commited one faux pas after another. "England is a very caustic country," he explains. "Everyone has an ironic, verbal wit. You can look at someone and comment on what they are wearing and they will not be terribly offended. They will come back with something equally fiery. In England I would turn to the girl next to me and make a crack about her big nose and steel myself for a comment about my chin. Over here, there is a greater fragility of the psyche. You make a comment about someone's big nose and she's in therapy and maybe also planning a trip to the plastic surgeon."

His schoolwork took a nosedive, but his interest in theater never flagged. After graduating from the university's high school he enrolled in the theater program at U. of I., a course of study his father never discouraged. "I have suggested tentatively from time to time that I thought he should prepare himself for teaching drama at some university," admits the elder Halberstam. "But I think he has his own sense of his destiny." After completing his degree Michael wandered a bit in the profession. He took a job out of school performing in Colonial Williamsburg, the large-scale historical restoration in Virginia, but the experience wasn't a happy one.

"They told me I could see the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was cycling distance from the sea, and they would help me find a place to live. All I had to do was do a little improvised show for 20 minutes every hour. I got there and it was 100 degrees, the Blue Ridge Mountains turned out to be just tall hills, and the ocean was two and a half hours away by car." His employers placed him in the Elizabethan section of town, playing "this sort of 'bring out the dead' character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They gave me no costume, so I made my own. I went to a little joke shop and I bought a rubber hand. Then I got an old shirt and stuffed the shirt with straw and sewed the rubber hand into the shirt. I ended up spending the summer chasing little children around for the act. It got old pretty fast."

Eventually he found work with the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, touring the state. At the end of the summer he moved to Chicago, where he landed a role in the Wisdom Bridge production of Kabuki Othello and performed with a number of non-Equity companies. He appeared with the Chicago Shakespeare Company, narrated Bailiwick Repertory's Animal Farm, and did some work for David Darlow at the Festival Theatre in Oak Park.

During this period he attended an est-like seminar for actors that Darlow was moderating and was teamed with Marilyn Campbell, who'd recently returned to Chicago with her children from New York. Since 1975 she'd been working with the Writers Theatre, an off-off-Broadway company formed by a group of writers and actors to stage new work. "That was the heyday of new plays and playwrights," she recalls. "It was a wonderful time for theater in New York. We existed for 15 years, and then the company dissolved and most of the members went into television. I came back to Chicago because I was the only one in the group who had kids, and I was tired of trying to raise them in New York City." By the end of the intensive weekend, she and Halberstam had become good friends, and eventually he roomed with her and her children.

Halberstam was intrigued by Campbell's stories about the New York company, and he'd begun to realize that he had a flair for producing. In 1990 and 1991 the Chicago Associates of the Stratford Festival had sponsored him as a member of the festival's young actors company, and during his tenure there he took charge of the festival's weekly cabaret series. "Actors would come in on their days off, play a guitar, read some poetry, put together a band. Just to blow off steam. We would raise money for the Canadian version of the actor's fund. Usually they raise like two and half thousand dollars over the summer. While I was producing there they managed to raise eleven and a half thousand dollars. So I thought, all right, I have skills here beyond being on stage."

When Halberstam returned to Chicago in fall 1991, he and Campbell set out to create their own company. The original members of the Writers Theatre in New York gave them permission to appropriate the name, and Halberstam would call the company's old artistic director, Linda Laundra, for advice. A friend told him and Campbell about a bookstore opening in Glencoe; the proprietor was looking for someone to turn its back room into a performance space that might attract customers with periodic readings and shows. The space was perfect for their needs. "We contacted a hundred of our most intimate friends," says Halberstam, "raised $5,000, and put on our first season."

The off-Loop movement was based on the premise that you could turn anything into a theater: an old storefront, an abandoned warehouse, a Chinese restaurant. Saint Nicholas Theatre, a space later used by Steppenwolf and the Organic, was originally a bakery, and the Body Politic, later acquired by Victory Gardens, has been a bowling alley. Crammed into the back room of Books on Vernon, Writers' Theatre has no lobby or backstage and performs on a platform smaller than the spaces Goodman and Steppenwolf allot to concessions. But the bookstore makes a wonderful place to browse during intermission, and its emphasis on literature, history, and the arts--the fiction section is particularly impressive--underscores the theater company's mission to produce works with a strong literary bent.

One of the company's first shows adapted three stories by Chekhov and Gogol's "Diary of a Madman" under the title Love & Lunacy, and soon after that they performed Campbell's adaptation of Anne Sexton. An evening of beat writings sampled Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, and Ferlinghetti, all of whom were represented in the store. More recently the company has presented lesser-known works by American and British masters: Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy, George Bernard Shaw's Village Wooing and The Man of Destiny. Falling chandeliers and landing helicopters are hard to re-create in a tiny space, but thanks to Halberstam's charm and the company's growing reputation, Writers' Theatre has lured to its little theater many of Chicago's best Equity and non-Equity actors: people like Larry Yando, William Brown, Annabel Armour, Scott Parkinson, and David Cromer, who know how to make strong literary language sing.

The new season is fast approaching: Spite for Spite, a 17th-century verse play by Agustin Moreto translated by Dakin Matthews, opens August 29, and already Halberstam is having trouble finding seats for all of the people who want tickets. "We are clearly in a massive transitional period," he says. "We have several plans on the table. We've had two architects do sketches for us. We potentially could expand the theater. There is a little back lot behind the theater that has been sitting vacant. If we built out, that could be our performing space, and our current stage could be a lobby."

The company is also looking at other spaces, though its subscriber base will probably keep it rooted to the North Shore. "I don't want to go more than 150 seats," he says. "What we have to make sure is that our first row is the lip of the stage. A lot of our patrons want the front-row experience." There will be no orchestra pit and no rise. "Just a stage and the audience." For Michael Halberstam those two elements mark the parameters of his life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.

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