Chicago's reputation as a vital national center for theater has grown over the past 20 years largely on the strength of its actors. The "Steppenwolf-Second City syndrome," as some call it, has emphasized the performer's role. Most audiences are drawn primarily by their enjoyment of the people they see onstage, but that's not conducive to the development of a comparably strong base of writers. And a theater company is likely to find it much less risky to mount productions of scripts that have been tested elsewhere than to spend the time and money to nurture new playwrights here. As a result, only a handful of writers have chosen to stay in Chicago to develop their craft; and of that small group, very few have been able to build any consistent record of getting produced.
In this already select company, Douglas Post is apparently unique: a writer who not only produces a steady stream of work but who shifts easily from writing scripts to writing lyrics to writing music as the occasion demands. At 31, Post has authored more than a dozen works for stage and television, ranging from darkly Pinteresque mysteries to light musical comedy. He's also contributed music and lyrics to more than 25 local productions, including a Jefferson Award-winning score for Oak Park Festival Theatre's The Tempest in 1984.
But being prolific doesn't necessarily mean being profitable, as Post is the first to acknowledge.
"I have good years and I have bad years," says the slim young man, speaking during a rehearsal break. "About half this past year I had to survive by doing manual work--drywalling, maintenance, that sort of thing. But the other half I was able to earn my living from writing. It's getting better each year."
Not coincidentally, the growth in Post's income has been accompanied by a growing reputation outside Chicago. His trilogy of eerie one-act comedy-dramas, Longings and Belongings, was recently produced in New York by the off-off-Broadway 13th Street Repertory Theatre, His adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's children's fantasy The Wind in the Willows has been published by Dramatic Publishing and given regional productions in Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Francisco. And although it didnt earn him any money, Post was one of a select group of writers produced last summer at the 1988 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, which gave him invaluable national exposure.
Now, with his reputation established out of town, Post is finally receiving a well-financed major production locally. His Wind in the Willows opens this week at the Theatre Building. The show, which Post also directs, is the first venture of a new producing team: attorneys Jim Bagley, whose clientele includes several young local playwrights, and Robert Perkins, erstwhile candidate for alderman of the 43rd Ward.
Wind in the Willows was premiered in 1985 in the tiny Organic Lab Theater; it won immediate acclaim from critics and was received positively by those audiences who saw it. But limited marketing funds prevented it from making much of a dent in the local public's awareness. The same was only slightly less true the following year when the play was remounted at the Bailiwick Repertory. Post freely admits that the Theatre Building staging is his first chance to make any real income from the work here.
"It's taken me eight years to realize that 'not-for-profit' means not for profit," he says with a wry smile. "You come to a point where you realize you should make a living at this or do something else."
The production is also a boost for Chicago New Plays, an organization of nine local writers that supported the development of Wind in the Willows three years ago. Though in its early stages the group sought to produce work by local writers--its first Summer Shorts Festival premiered Post's Longings and Belongings, and it carried primary responsibility for the 1985 premiere of Wind in the Willows--Chicago New Plays has, under the direction of writer and teacher Nicholas Patricca, shifted its focus to the development of new material.
"Patricca's vision is pretty broad and far-reaching," Post says. "He wants CNP to be associated with other groups that are already producing. He also wants to form an alliance with other Chicago playwrights' groups--there are five--in order to boost all our fund-raising efforts."
Under CNP's auspices, Post will open a new, nonmusical play a week after Wind in the Willows opens. His contemporary comedy Suffering Fools premieres next week at the Commons Theatre as the centerpiece of "The Commons Theatre Presents Chicago New Plays," a monthlong program of staged readings, workshops, and full productions.
Suffering Fools, Post says, is a comedy about "seven lost souls"--young adults, all in love with each other--and a 17-year-old girl whose growth is gauged by her reactions to her elders. It's a very different piece from the whimsical Wind in the Willows, and the two productions will give local audiences a chance to sample different sides of a rising young writer.
Post notes that he came to Chicago eight years ago as an actor. "I did non-Equity work here till it got to be no fun, and then I stopped." What happened to the fun?
"I didn't like the plays I was doing," he says. "If you're doing a play you dont believe in, it takes three months out of your life--you rehearse for six weeks, then perform for six weeks. I decided I could make better use of that time writing the kind of thing I wanted to see on the stage."
The Wind in the Willows opens Wednesday, January 18, at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, on an open run. Tickets are $14 and $16; call 327-5252 for information. Suffering Fools starts previews Friday, January 20, and opens January 27 at the Commons Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, as part of "The Commons Theatre Presents Chicago New Plays." Suffering Fools runs through February 26; tickets are $2-$12. For more information, call 769-5009.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.