Bulgarian actor Yasen Peyankov says he didn't presume much when he moved to America nearly seven years ago. Back in Sofia he'd been a salaried player in a theater troupe sponsored by the communist government. Within his first five months here, he was cast in a play. Then he learned he'd be working for free.
"It was an independent company doing an original script," he recalls. "When I found out there wasn't any pay involved, I dropped out."
Five years ago, he and Dale Goulding, an English actor Peyanknov had met in Bulgaria, started their own theater—the European Repertory Company. Since then, they've held their share of lousy day jobs.
"I did all the odd jobs: dishwashing, window washing—all the things that included washing," Peyankov says. He got Goulding a job as a cashier—at a Lincoln Park car wash.
"It seemed like a microcosm of racial problems in America," Goulding says. "All the guys outside freezing their butts off were African-American or Hispanic. All the guys working inside were white, sitting in their nice comfortable offices. The temperature outside got so cold flesh would stick to cars."
Things came to a head one February afternoon, when a former employee walked in demanding back pay. He was brandishing a shotgun, threatening to "kill all the white motherfuckers." Luckily for Goulding another worker stepped in, saying, "Dale's cool. Leave him alone." The gunman took everyone's money and left. Goulding quit his job later that day.
While Goulding didn't know the robber—"he'd left before I started"—the motivations were clear. "It was about pride. There's not much dignity in a car wash. These guys weren't let inside, even when it was below zero. They wouldn't let them buy stuff from the machines or get coffee. But I let 'em. That's probably why I didn't get shot."
When Peyankov first arrived in Chicago, he was impressed to find so many theater companies. But he was also shocked by their poverty. "I couldn't understand why there were no subsidies, and there were only a handful of theater companies that would pay their actors. Most countries in eastern and western Europe have theater troupes where you're a resident actor in a salaried position all year long. They're subsidized by the state government or foundations or city councils. It totally baffled me that there was not one National Theater of America, you know, a permanent troupe totally subsidized by the government."
Peyankov and Goulding wanted to do serious theater—a lot of it—modeling their group on European companies that perform plays throughout the week in rotating repertory. In Bulgaria Peyankov's routine involved a morning rehearsal of the play to be performed that day, a run-through of another play that afternoon, and a performance in the evening. "We might do Brecht one night, Shakespeare another, Chekhov the third night, a contemporary Bulgarian play the next, and Italian commedia dell'arte the fifth night."
But in America, theaters must become commercial enterprises. Our culture is dominated by Hollywood, Peyankov says, because Hollywood has money—it pays its actors. Over the last five years European Repertory Company has battled the odds, earning a unique reputation among off-Loop theaters for its ambitious but uneven efforts (all financially supported in part by Goulding's and Peyankov's regular jobs). Now the group has come into its own, weathering hard times and negative reviews to claim a string of successes and one bona fide hit. Its expressionistic take on Steven Berkoff's Agamemnon has been running for nearly two years—quite a feat for a serious play, a story that's not about hairdressers, nuns, cabdrivers, or cannibal cheerleaders. With the show approaching its second anniversary, critic Lawrence Bommer marvels, "The success of Agamemnon is unprecedented in off-Loop theater. It's a demanding play. It shows young audiences are ready for the classics and new kinds of European theater if you can find the way to tell these stories."
For European Repertory Company, the show's success is a testament to tenacity. This season it had three plays running concurrently, and all three offerings—Agamemnon, Uncle Vanya, and Have You Anything to Declare?—received Jeff Award recommendations.
But while the success has been gratifying, this is still the non-Equity world. No one in the company has been able to quit his outside job. They don't own their building, and they have no season-ticket holders. Nevertheless, they've stuck it out, and in the process secured a place to practice the art they once dreamed of creating. They've found a way to keep working.
Dale Goulding, 36, grew up in Leicester, a decaying industrial city northwest of London. For 25 years his father worked for the National Transport. "He started out as a bus conductor, worked his way up to senior administrator for the whole of the Midlands, in charge of all the bus depots, hiring, and routes." Then he lost his job and abandoned his family. Goulding's mother had to hold down two jobs to support them. The children—Dale, his sister, and two brothers—looked out for themselves. They wore keys to their flat tied on cords around their necks.
The Gouldings lived in a public housing project. "Not only were the houses all exactly the same, the whole layout was the same. They'd come 'round and decorate your house for you, whether you liked it or not." He says the neighborhood was known as a "triple security zone," requiring three times the normal number of police for the area. But Goulding claims the police were there not to protect residents but to maintain the status quo. "When we were kids, we'd go up to the border of our district and look at the middle-class homes. If we had crossed over, the police would've picked us up."
As a boy Goulding's prospects looked dim. He was diagnosed as dyslexic, though he still did well in school, he says, at least "in every subject apart from English." He excelled at math and biology, but took a pass on the national exams—tests that could have bought a free ride to college. He says he felt it was useless—he was destined for one of the surrounding factories. It was expected. "You had a career adviser who'd take you around so you could see where you wanted to work. He took me to a factory where they manufactured socks. There was a guy at the end of a row of six machines. He was sitting there, reading a paper. A knitter, he earned 100 pounds a week. Every other factory, people were actually working, earning half that. I decided that was the job for me. So that's what I did." It was 1976, and Goulding was 16. He stayed at the factory for the next two years.
Then one day he gave a friend a lift to an audition. When they arrived at the theater, Goulding was asked—"urged, actually"—to audition as well. He discovered acting was better than working in a factory, so he agreed to become a member of the Herrick Theatre Company, a Marxist troupe. It would tour the communist states of central and eastern Europe, performing Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. "The politics of the company were more a guise than anything else," Goulding says. "Certainly the director was a Marxist. But apart from being socially aware, most of the people had never read Marx in their life. Yet that's probably how we got into Russia. We received a grant from a local council—the Leicester County Council—as a Marxist theater company to travel the Soviet Union."
In those days, Goulding counted on gut instinct when he climbed onstage. "I figured all it can be is just a flow of emotions, and if I can find the emotional changes within the text—play the right emotions to the right line—that must be it." Then he discovered the writings of Polish theater artist Jerzy Grotowski, who stressed that acting was a matter of discipline—performers should become the masters of their bodies and voices. Grotowski is perhaps best known in this country for his influence on the English director Peter Brook (as well as on Andre Gregory, who discusses Grotowski in the film My Dinner With Andre). In an introduction to Grotowski's collection of essays, Towards a Poor Theatre, Brook writes, "No one else in the world, to my knowledge, no one since Stanislavsky, has investigated the nature of acting, its phenomenon, its meaning, the nature and science of its mental-physical-emotional processes as deeply and completely as Grotowski." Advocating a theater stripped of all that is inessential—such as scenery, costumes, lighting, and music—Grotowski favored the bare stage. Under his influence, Brook found "the acceptance of poverty in theater . . . revealed to us not only the backbone of the medium, but also the deep riches that lie in the very nature of the art form."
In 1989 the Herrick Theatre Company landed in Bulgaria, with Goulding as MacDuff in a Grotowski-influenced production of Macbeth. Yasen Peyankov saw the play at the Theatre of the Armed Forces in Sofia, and approached Goulding after the show. Peyankov was a professional actor who hated the social realist fare at his country's state-sponsored theaters. "Propaganda plays—you can't do much with the material," he says. Peyankov's goals and complaints struck a chord with Goulding. The two discussed the idea of starting a theater, and soon a plan began to take shape. Peyankov would apply for a visa, ostensibly to study theater in England. Then if his visa were approved, he and Goulding would start a company, grounded in Grotowski's "poor theater" aesthetic.
"It sort of clicked," Peyankov says. "But nothing came of it at the time."
Yasen Peyankov, 32, was the only child in a comfortably middle-class family. "My mom was an accountant. Dad did a lot of things. He was in advertising, sales. He managed a bread-manufacturing company." When his father died in 1985, Peyankov was 21 years old and in the military, a time he describes as "the darkest period of my life. They took two years and wasted them. Mom wanted me to become a navy officer. She almost had a heart attack when she learned I wanted to be an actor."
After his discharge, Peyankov was admitted to the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. It's the only drama school in Bulgaria, so competition is fierce. You can't act without a diploma—it's your only ticket to a life in the theater. "The auditioning process takes a month," Peyankov says. "There are five callbacks. It starts with 2,000 applicants, going down to 40."
Peyankov studied with the national theater's artistic director, Krikor Azaryan. "He would actually take us on in some of the shows he was directing." The parts would be small—"You get to carry a coffin in the first act"—but it was a chance to "brush with the biggest names in Bulgarian theater." Peyankov eventually joined the Sofia Traveling Theatre, where he collected a regular paycheck. "The theater in Bulgaria had a very high level of professionalism," Peyankov says. "And the government was putting a lot of money into building new theaters—state-of-the-art, with rotating stages, computer lighting, flying flats, dressing rooms like the Hyatt Regency. Very upscale."
Communism was crumbling in central and eastern Europe, and in June 1990 Bulgaria would have its first free elections in two generations. "For 45 years we had been ruled by communists. Everybody was very hopeful. It was like the air was just charged with the anticipation of change."
Then the communists won the election. "I felt betrayed," Peyankov says. "I felt humiliated to be part of the society. Everywhere in the world people were rejecting communism, and Bulgaria and Romania were the only countries that did not."
In reaction, he decided to stage Friedrich Dürrenmatt's sardonic Hercules and the Stables of King Augeus. Legend holds that Hercules cleaned up 30 years' worth of manure from the Augean stables. In Dürrenmatt's play, Peyankov says, "all these senators are debating whether cleaning the stables is the right thing to do.
"'Shit is warm and cozy,' they say.
"'We grew up in it.'
"'We love it.'
"'We're gonna miss it.'
"'But we're drowning in it.'
"'Yes, but it's warm and cozy.'
"The comrades closed Hercules after six performances. The changes of perestroika were happening. You could get away with some things, but not everything."
After they closed the show, Peyankov says, "I was seriously concerned about my well-being." He and his wife decided to leave the country. "She had relatives in Chicago. She came first. They wouldn't have let us both leave at the same time. A month later—in July of 1990—I joined her.
"It was a very sad feeling, going into exile. That's how I felt. I was going into exile."
Goulding's tour of the communist world was cut short after China canceled the Herrick Theatre's appearance there in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. He was soon unemployed and back in London. He decided, "If I'm going to be an actor, I might as well find out if I have any ability." He spotted an ad for the British American Drama Academy. At the time he thought the place sounded impressive. He auditioned and won a full scholarship. "I was the novelty poor person."
Though his tuition was paid, he was still on welfare. That meant he had to live on the equivalent of three dollars a day. "I was able to sneak into the dining hall and eat well for a while, until I got caught. After that some of the teachers would sneak food out to me, until they got caught. Then I found a cheap place that would sell you rice with bits of meat."
Goulding was surrounded by well-to-do classmates. "My favorite story: we had to do a method-acting exercise where you had to relive the worst experience of your life. One girl told of having a fit, shouting at her father, 'I want to study in Paris. You just bought another plane. Why can't I study in Paris?'" Another classmate described the trauma of going through an entire rehearsal with smudged lipstick—no one told her about it. When his turn came, Goulding said, "You really don't want to go there. Let's just leave that."
Though he felt a bit out of place at BADA, he now admits he was lucky. "It was my good fortune to train with the best people in the world." The school brought in actors like Derek Jacobi and Jeremy Irons and such directors as Adrian Noble of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Oleg Tabakov of the Moscow Art Theatre. "John Gielgud taught Shakespeare."
Goulding also gained practical experience that would later prove to be invaluable in non-Equity theater: he worked on a tech crew at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where the setups were often seat-of-the-pants arrangements. "We'd drive up from Leicester, 650 miles. Arrive at 10:30 at night, stay up all night, build the theater for the next day—do the seating, build the light tower, hang all the lights. We did six shows a day, with 30-minute turnaround times. We'd be striking the set as the cast was taking their bows. We'd be finishing the next set as the audience was coming in." The following two years "I went as an actor. Much easier."
While at BADA Goulding met and married an American. He also befriended two American students, Lou Anders and Eric Spitznagel, who encouraged him to follow them to Chicago. Goulding had stayed in touch with Peyankov, who wrote encouraging news about the city's theater scene.
After graduation, Goulding auditioned for a part in Hamlet, which was being staged by Wales's prestigious Theatre Clwyd. It was the first part Goulding auditioned for that he didn't get. The result, he says with a laugh, was that "I got upset and fled the country."
Hoping to link up with Peyankov to pursue their dream of a Grotowski-inspired theater, Goulding and his wife came to Chicago in January 1992. He arrived suffering from malnutrition and tuberculosis. "Ten years on welfare will do that to you." It took him six months to recover. In the meantime he eked out a living "shoveling snow on the streets for a housing maintenance company."
Critic Jack Helbig says he noticed the pair's arrival almost immediately. "The first time I saw Dale and Yasen perform was in some insane spy play late at night at the Playwright's Center," he recalls. The show was The Raccoon Agenda by Lou Anders and Brendan Baber. "I was the bad eastern-European dude," Peyankov says. "Dale was the spy, playing a James Bond-type of character."
"The production itself was pretty spotty, wretched actually," Helbig says. "But some of the individual performers were strong, like Yasen and Dale. I liked their work a lot. I told them, 'Next time you're doing a show, give me a call.' Two months later, Dale phoned. They were doing Macbeth in the basement of Cafe Voltaire."
Since opening its basement theater in November 1989, Voltaire has allowed fledgling companies to put on shows with minuscule budgets, offering several plays each night by different troupes. Back then, the cafe demanded only a percentage of ticket sales rather than money up front. In the summer of 1992 Goulding and Peyankov staged Macbeth as the European Repertory Company. They both felt there was a lot riding on the show. "How this production is received will help form the long-term plans of the company," Goulding told the theater newspaper PerformInk. He announced their mission was to mount serious European plays that were ignored in America and to provide a venue for themselves and others trained in European acting schools. "We will quickly learn whether or not there's a gap in the market for classical European theater or whether it's a black hole that we're going to disappear into."
Peyankov directed, Goulding took the lead. "We were the first Shakespeare done at Voltaire, and the largest cast the cafe has ever had," Peyankov says. "The stone walls there worked very well. We used a lot of the original lighting notes from Shakespeare—a lot of candles." He says he approached the play as a romance. "I always look for the love, even in the darkest plays," so he directed Macbeth "like Romeo and Juliet, had they lived—and what happens when they get swamped by power. Dictators work the same way. Macbeth was a great warrior, saved his country, but once he took the throne he became no better than all his predecessors."
For his cast Peyankov called on some of the actors he knew from the year or two he'd been performing in Chicago. He and Goulding also placed an ad in PerformInk: "European Repertory Company seeks three women performance artists to play the witches in Macbeth. The performance will celebrate femininity with the focus on shock and blasphemy. If you would revel in the chance to publicly attack male icons and deride machismo call. There is no pay."
Mary Kay Blaschke, a paralegal at Mayer Brown & Platt, read their ad, auditioned, and was cast as one of the weird sisters. In the program notes, she proclaimed, "I walk on both sides of the tracks: my corporate side administers estates for a large, high-status law firm. I also ride my Yamaha motorcycle and wear wigs with aplomb." She said she acted not only "to relieve my corporate angst, but to live other lives that I can't live in this life. I don't believe in reincarnation."
The witches rehearsed at Sheil Park on Southport, developing a collaborative process that would later prove important for Agamemnon. "We would have discussions before rehearsal," Blaschke says, "and we were supposed to bring back suggestions about how to show these different concepts at the next rehearsal." To her surprise, her ideas were listened to and frequently wound up in the final production. "They'd come back and show me their material," Peyankov says. "I'd touch it here and there and incorporate it into the show."
Goulding invited a representative from a witches' organization to provide tips for the actresses. "One of the things she taught us," Blaschke says, "was that a witch would never blow out a candle, because that was disrespectful to the fire. So we had to smother the flames with our hands. Sometimes it would really burn. So I found a large bottle cap, like from a juice jar, palmed it, and put out the flames with that."
Audiences responded favorably, and Macbeth sold out for the last two weeks of its run. "We wanted to extend, but there were so many shows scheduled at the cafe there wasn't room," Peyankov says. But at least the show made enough money for European Rep to mount another play. "We probably spent $1,000, and the show grossed $4,000," Goulding says. "That meant our next show had a budget of $3,000."
Goulding and Peyankov began their second season by taking a big risk. They rented their own theater. "It takes years for a young company to secure a space," Peyankov acknowledges. "Usually you do one, two shows, then move on, because it's a commitment. You have bills to pay. Rent is due every month. Even though we were not in a financial situation where we could jump into securing a home, Dale and I just looked at each other and said, "Let's do it.' And we did it."
Goulding figured they'd need to raise $1,000 every month to cover rent, utilities, and other expenses at Baird Hall, a brick building tucked behind the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, just west of Broadway. Its tiny upstairs theater had housed many performance groups over the years, including Halcyon, Goat Island, and the Lionheart Gay Theatre. Goulding and Peyankov found props and other artifacts left by previous tenants. There were programs from the 1960s in some old trunks, as well as rapiers they would use in their production of Twelfth Night later that season. The risk proved to be a shrewd move: by taking over Baird Hall they inherited a fully equipped theater, even if it was a bit shabby. The lighting board was a piece of plywood with some household dimmers mounted on it.
Albert Camus's Caligula was slated to be their first play in the new space. Goulding was set to direct. Meanwhile, recent DePaul graduate Carolyn Hoerdemann had experienced "an epiphany," realizing that she "had to direct that show." Friends suggested she audition instead. She won the role of Caesonia, the female lead, and soon found herself swept up in the passions of the new troupe. Sometimes things got carried away. Hoerdemann recalls getting choked by Peyankov, who as Caligula strangles Caesonia with a scarf. "You're supposed to keep your hands in between the scarf and your neck," she says. "One night in rehearsal the first wrap was tight, and I couldn't get my hand in. Yasen was actually pulling it tighter and tighter and really strangling me. He thought I was acting.
"I decided I wanted to stay and keep doing what they were trying to do. I had a feeling I'd be part of the company for a long time, even though they'd been in existence for only a year."
Then two weeks before the opening of Caligula, Goulding was forced to bow out. He says he became "particularly ill. I went through the doctors and a series of tests." He discovered he was suffering from rheumatic heart disease. "At one point they told me I'd probably be dead in two years. That was pretty dramatic." Today Goulding knows he will eventually require valve replacement surgery. But with no insurance, he's faced with the prospect of returning to England for treatment. For now, he says, "I'd sooner be working here."
Their next play was The Mayor of Zalamea, Pedro Calderon de la Barca's 17th-century critique of the relationship between the aristocracy and commoners. It was directed by Charley Sherman. In New City, critic Chris Jones called it "a thoroughly entertaining romp laced with many startlingly serious moments. This is as good a show as you would see at any of Chicago's large Equity theatres."
"It was work of quality, but the audience size wasn't good," Peyankov says. "We were unknown, struggling, producing like crazy. We felt like, 'We gotta make our mark. We gotta announce we're here.' Everything was driven by pure enthusiasm, and it was a wonderful ride. But when the season was over, we decided to take a break and see where we were at."
It was a period of readjustment—Peyankov's marriage had just ended in divorce, and Goulding's would soon end the same way. They decided to produce fewer shows in the future. "We figured we didn't have to do five shows in one season, because we were just gonna run ourselves down," Peyankov says. "It's like you get a new toy. You play with it till it breaks or you get bored with it. To prevent that, we decided to hold back."
They cut down to three productions that next year, opening the 1994-'95 season with Martin Sherman's Bent. Set in Nazi Germany—it ends in a concentration camp—the play describes the brutal psychological and physical torture endured by gays under Hitler. Bent was ensemble member Dan Cunningham's introduction to the company. "I remember back in February of 1994 coming for an audition," he says. "I was standing on the bus, about to pay my fare, when the bus got into an accident. I remember the driver of the ambulance holding my head and saying 'Turn right, turn left,' and asking me, 'You want to go to Cook County?' I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, I could make a mint out of this. I could be set for life.'" Then he recalled his audition—he was already an hour late. He went to the theater instead of the hospital. "I came out thinking I didn't do a very good job, because I was all scattered, all over the place, because of the accident. But you can never tell how you do." He was cast as an SS captain.
"The thing I remember most was sitting backstage and just listening to the play, because it's an excellent script." As he sat in the dark, some of the space's limitations became painfully apparent. "There was no carpeting backstage in the dressing room or window on the control booth. So you had to creep around backstage, and you could hear people hitting the play button on the cassette player up in the booth." Soon after the show closed—Reader critic Albert Williams called the production "well-meaning but wobbly"—Cunningham put a window in the control booth and carpeting backstage.
Because of the success of The Mayor of Zalamea, Goulding and Peyankov deferred to Charley Sherman, who wanted to direct The Maid's Tragedy, a Jacobean tale of revenge by Beaumont and Fletcher. In preparation for the production Goulding spent an afternoon with Sherman watching the entire George Romero trilogy—Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. "We had so much blood in the show," Peyankov says. "Stage blood pouring from everywhere, making me sick in my stomach."
It was Julia Neary's first time with the troupe. She recalls being soaked in stage blood by the end of each performance. It was difficult to clean it off, especially since the theater was "having trouble with the heating and plumbing." Most nights she wound up having to sponge herself off in a sink, which was "quite cold and uncomfortable. My body was stained red for days."
The company's final play of the 1994-'95 season was Bernard Marie Koltes's Roberto Zucco. Based on a true story about a serial killer, "it was the big risk," according to Peyankov, who directed. "It came with a lot of acclaim from Europe. Written only four, five years before, it had already premiered in about a dozen European countries, including Russia. We were doing the English-language premiere of the play in collaboration with the consulate general of France and a team of DePaul students who translated the play."
Peyankov says Goulding's sensitive portrayal of the killer offended too many people, but some audiences were just plain bored. Though it was the theater's biggest commercial success to date—grossing $5,000—Peyankov still views the show as a setback. "The critics were ruthless. They just hacked the whole thing to pieces."
Bommer says Roberto Zucco remains the group's "most spectacular failure," calling it "one of the most frustrating afternoons I ever spent in a theater. Even so, it was a daring enterprise. No one else would have come near that play."
"We got quite a lot of praise early on for the work we were doing," Goulding says. "I think what forced us to really step it up was when Zucco was universally trounced in the press. That was a wake-up call. We went back, regrouped, and came back even stronger," opening their fourth season with Agamemnon.
Goulding had packed a copy of Steven Berkoff's script when he emigrated to America in January 1992. Three and a half years later he finally got a chance to direct it. He now says the show was "the most risky production I've ever done." For one thing, "I denied the actors any emotional commitment to what they were doing. There's a belief in the school of naturalism that the closer the actor is to his emotions, the more the audience parallels that, feels that. But it's not what happens onstage." Goulding says the actor should instead focus on "the response you evoke in the audience. It doesn't matter if the actor feels emotion as long as the audience does. So in Agamemnon, the entire focus is on the audience, on evoking visceral images in the audience's imagination. What's happening on the stage is just a starting point, just a suggestion. When people speak about the show, the terms they use to describe what they saw do not relate to what happened onstage. They talk about violence. There isn't any, but they feel it."
Goulding's staging is highly stylized and rich in symbolism. At one point Agamemnon—threatened with losing his fleet—sacrifices his daughter to placate the gods. "To turn the wind, there must be a sacrifice." Two male chorus members bear a female counterpart—now become Iphigenia—on their hunched shoulders. Her prone body becomes the sacrificial altar. Her head falls back, exposing her throat. "It seemed to me there must be something attractive in violence to have kept wars running for at least 2,500 years," Goulding says. "I decided to concentrate on these attractive qualities, rather than show graphic scenes, and to make it very beautiful. Somehow, by doing that, it became even uglier, more chilling."
He says he tried to create a "noncritical environment" in rehearsals, encouraging actors to take the initiative. "Dale had a specific idea of what he wanted, then subtly guided us in that direction, allowing us the freedom to create," says Dan Cunningham. "He definitely had a vision, but we got there using group process." Goulding says he was following methods he learned in England from Anna Furse, a teacher who had worked with Grotowski. One-third of the students eventually dropped out of that class, he says, because "they couldn't work in a nonauthoritarian way." For those that remained, however, "it became very liberating."
To establish a collegial setting, Goulding started off his first rehearsal by having the cast run through the entire play. That sets a noncompetitive tone, he says, "because the actors know that expectations cannot be very high." Ensemble member Rick Frederick recalls being slightly taken aback. "Usually at first rehearsal you do table work—talk about the play, discuss the preliminary stuff of staging it. One thing you don't do is run through a play you don't know." But in retrospect, he thinks the day-one drill "loosened people up."
Carolyn Hoerdemann, who played Clytemnestra, recalls the first rehearsal had a playful aspect. "Dale gave us three tires and three sticks and told us to run the show. Some of the cast had no idea what to do, but eventually it became 101 Things to Do With Tires." In the play, these sticks—which are, in fact, long steel rods—variously stand in for handles, oars, swords, spears, and the bars of a cage. When the tires are smashed against the floor, they suggest the sound of artillery. After Agamemnon returns to Argos, they serve as thrones. In one of the more evocative sequences, the members of the chorus lie on the upright tires and roll back and forth, suggesting a storm at sea. The cast, Cunningham says, came up with that idea. They also tried to discard it. "Dale said, 'No, no, it seems like the roll of a ship. Keep that.'"
Much of Agamemnon resembles an elaborate dance performed with clocklike precision. As the play's movement coach, Rick Frederick would meet with Goulding then spend 90 minutes with his fellow chorus members prior to the regular 7 PM rehearsals. "We got to the place where I could put an idea on the plate. Somebody would complement it. It would grow. And I'd realize I didn't know where the idea began, whose input was what. The three of us were acting as one mind and one body. My professor in college used to say, 'It sounds like 60s crap but it's not.'"
Ensemble member Eve Moening puts it simply. "We built the chorus together. We built the show together. We were extensions of each other's bodies, different parts of a whole."
Shapes emerge from the gloom and start to slither. Actors are crawling on their backs. They hiss. One snaps a flashlight onto the face of Thyestes, brother of Atreus, the king of Mycenae. Thyestes is played by Tim Keough, who wears heavy white greasepaint that begins to crack as he starts the opening monologue. Thyestes tells of returning home after years in exile. He's greeted by a regal banquet thrown in his honor. Atreus appears to have forgiven Thyestes for plotting his assassination, even though Atreus's own son was killed in the attack.
During the main course, Thyestes bites down "on scrawny bone splintering hard." He explores his mouth and finds "the bone of no animal that I know." The horror of retribution sinks in. "I know it now. / Now I know. / I know where are my little ones / inside / sliding down my guts / along the lengthy grave of my intestines."
Chunks of greasepaint flake off his face, shimmering in the flashlight's beam before dropping into darkness. Thyestes forces himself to continue eating, vowing to "show them nothing. / Take another glass of wine / another forkful of my baby. / As vomit rises in throat / I'll force it down with more." Determined to get revenge, Thyestes plants a curse against his brother on that hot afternoon "when the earth seemed to halt / and the eyes were locked on the teeth of a fork."
Goulding says that monologue has provoked three people to flee the theater during Agamemnon's 19-month run. The critics must have stronger stomachs. They found it splendid.
Agamemnon was the first show Goulding directed from start to finish. In 1993 he'd taken over the staging of Harold Pinter's The Hothouse two weeks before it opened, and the following season he had to drop out of Caligula due to his illness. Goulding had spent years nurturing the theater, but he still felt nervous about actually directing a play. "Agamemnon scared the shit out of me, but I just decided to give it everything I had."
Hoerdemann recalls, "Dale told me he felt that it was his soul onstage, and that if people didn't get it then they were never gonna get what he had. So then it ends up as the show that got our most amazing reviews, which was all great. But it was a surprise. And the longer we kept going, it was always a surprise. We never expected it to keep going."
Steven Berkoff's Agamemnon filtered Aeschylus through a postnuclear, Vietnam-era sensibility. The company followed it up with another modern adaptation of a Greek classic—Jean Giraudoux's pre-World War II reworking of Euripides's Electra. Though both productions were well received, Peyankov and Goulding continued to look for paying gigs. Several months ago Peyankov took a leave of absence from his job as a social worker to join the cast of Charles L. Mee's Time to Burn at Steppenwolf. Goulding is directing elementary school children in a production of Alice in Wonderland. Occasionally he performs parodies of Shakespeare for diners at the restaurant Scoozi.
Peyankov chose Uncle Vanya as the company's first production this season. "I was getting nostalgic," he says. "I wanted to do something eastern European. I also wanted to do a love story, and Vanya is about the subtlety of relationships. It has everything—it's a story about broken promises, lost love, unanswered passions, betrayal." Before rehearsals started, Peyankov read the play in Russian. He was struck by "the mood and the easiness of the lines," a quality he found absent in the existing English translations. Of his two favorites, he says, one is a "word-by-word translation from the Russian, but it's very clumsy in English. The other is more up-to-date in spirit but too academic sounding."
So Peyankov teamed with Columbia College English professor Peter Christensen to cobble together a new script from the original and these two translations. "We started sentence by sentence, comparing a word from here, a word from there. Whatever didn't fit, I translated myself."
Peyankov and set designer Rob Whitaker decided on a simple black-box set as more of a practical solution than an artistic statement. They had to work around the standing Agamemnon set. "When you go rep, you can't do an extensive set," Whitaker explains. The space for two windows and a door were cut into black curtains. When the scene was supposed to be outdoors, a swing was lowered from the ceiling; when inside, the swing was raised and a table or two added.
The biggest initial challenge was finding actors old enough to play the roles. "Working non-Equity makes it hard to find older actors," Peyankov says. No longer willing to work for free, they've "either gone Equity or switched careers." A week before rehearsals were to begin, Peyankov was still searching for an actor to play Vanya. Ina Marlowe, the artistic director of the Organic Touchstone Theatre, suggested he approach Bob Kallus.
Kallus was in his 50s. He'd left acting some 15 years earlier because "I was an only child with aging parents and no immediate prospects on the horizon." Eventually he started his own printing business. In recent years he began to wade back into acting, though he claims he had "no intention" of appearing in non-Equity productions. He met with Peyankov anyway, auditioned, and accepted the role.
The cast rehearsed for eight weeks, five days a week, a long time considering that many commercial productions have only four weeks to get it together. "Rehearsals at first were very relaxed," Kallus said. "We read quite a bit and spent a lot of time talking about the scenes before we actually got on our feet. The initial idea seemed to be to clarify the nature of Chekhov's world and the world of Uncle Vanya, so that we all understood the play removed from l990s America."
Peyankov says, "There was extensive table rehearsal, which is often done in Europe. You'd spend a month around the table, reading and talking about the characters, the environment and the politics, talking about the history—all of this acts as a bridge to create a truthful environment."
In Agamemnon, Goulding wanted the actors to approach the play at an aesthetic distance from their roles. Here, Peyankov returned to a more naturalistic method rooted in Stanislavsky. Each actor was expected to create a credible performance by identifying with the character. In An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky says, "To play truly means . . . to think, strive, feel, and act in unison with your role."
To flesh out Vanya, Kallus began to look for "a few nuggets of gold that would shed light on the essence of the character." In his autobiography, My Life in Art, Stanislavsky reveals how one tiny detail in Chekhov's script led to his reevaluation of the main character. He was directing the Moscow Art Theatre's premiere. Chekhov sat in on rehearsals, but refused to talk about the work. His standard reply was, "I wrote it down; it is all there." Early on the company decided Vanya should look the part of a landed gentleman: "High boots, a cap, sometimes a horsewhip, for it is taken for granted that he rides horseback a great deal." Chekhov was "terribly indignant," accusing them of "not having read his play with sufficient care." They returned to the script, but the only reference to Vanya's appearance was that he wore a silk tie. "Of course," Chekhov said, "he is an elegant, cultured man." Stanislavsky wrote, "From that time on, Uncle Vanya became for us a cultured, soft, elegant, poetic, fine type of man."
In trying to understand Vanya, Kallus says, "the real breakthrough occurred during rehearsals for the scene between me and Dr. Astrov, just after the top of act four. I've tried to shoot my brother, and I'm contemplating suicide." It was late, and Peyankov and his assistant director Luda Lopatina could see Kallus was having trouble.
"Luda was from Saint Petersburg, so it was like two Slavic people working on the sensitivity of these relationships, trying to stay true to the Russian mood of the play," Peyankov says. "I'd known Luda for two years. We'd been involved in a brief attempt to create a Russian-language theater. Unfortunately it didn't fly, but we discovered each other as artists as well as friends. She heard I was doing Vanya and volunteered to help. She became my artistic consultant. She did wonderful work on specific details, tiny things with the actors that made their performances crisp. Like she would say, 'Russian women would hold their hands this way or run their fingers through their hair.' Sometimes it would only be a gesture, but it would bring a whole new view of the character. Also, she's very critical. She kept poking me, never letting me settle for anything less—she knows the potential and goes after it fiercely."
"That night Yasen and Luda would not let up," Kallus recalls. "They were slave drivers, miserable, insisting on pushing and breaking through to find the truth of the scene. That required me—not as Vanya, but as myself—to touch some emotional part in my own character, which I'd been avoiding. I had to own up to my own fears, my own feelings of failure and lack of accomplishment. Only then was I able to identify with Vanya."
"The very best that can happen is to have the actor completely carried away by the play," Stanislavsky was told as a student. "Then regardless of his own will he lives the part, not noticing how he feels, not thinking about what he does, and it all moves of its own accord, subconsciously and intuitively."
"When does theater begin?" Peyankov asks. "When two people talk—like you and me sitting here having drinks—there's no theater. You go to the bathroom. I put something in your glass. This is theater, because there's a secret. The audience knows something one character doesn't know. That's when theater starts. When there's a secret."
"In every Chekhov piece, there are secrets that get unveiled during the process. It's like an exquisite piece of music, so perfectly composed. In the first act, you get all the people, the characters. You get hints of what's going to happen, who's going to end up with whom. In the second act, you realize who's attracted to whom, who hates who, who thinks what about what. The characters start being slowly revealed. In the third act everything explodes. People start shooting at each other. Pretensions and appearances go. We tell each other what we really think. The fourth act, it's back to the status quo. Let's forget—we love each other."
Secrets are one of the reasons Peyankov's drawn to Chekhov. "It's so much fun discovering the secrets. His plays are like a chest with so many drawers. Opening those drawers, closing them again, opening this drawer, that one, trying to get the right key. I won't say that we opened all the drawers, but at least we tried. I don't think anybody's capable of opening all the drawers."
Two years ago, European Repertory became an official company. The cast and crew of Agamemnon were invited to join. After that, new members would have to work on at least three productions and be unanimously elected by existing members. "It's a very tight environment," Goulding says. "If it's not unanimous, you're inviting disarray and conflict."
There are now 15 members, including Goulding and Peyankov. No one in the troupe is paid yet. But late last year the company realized its founders' dream of having an actual repertory theater. Three plays were running concurrently. While its first two offerings, Agamemnon and Uncle Vanya, were well received, the third production, the broad 18th-century French farce Have You Anything to Declare?, was universally panned.
Mounting this third play presented more logistical problems. Squeezing a new set into the relatively small space was an accomplishment in itself. According to designer Rob Whitaker, you couldn't use lighting to make up for missing components in Declare's set, and it required more space—the stage had to be roughly ten feet deeper than for the other productions. In large theaters, the flats can be hauled up to the ceiling. But in Baird Hall the ceiling is only a foot above Agamemnon's 17-foot-high set. There was no free space. While working on the tech crew, Tim Keough came up with a solution—put sections of the Agamemnon set on hinges so that they could be pushed back. "We figured out how to throw the Declare set together with duct tape and wire and hinges," Whitaker says. "We took the Zucco walls that had become the Agamemnon walls—the ricketiest damn things in the world—reinforced them, and added hinges that allowed them to open up to create the depth that we needed. It worked, and it was efficient."
Have You Anything to Declare? had to overcome another handicap—the script, a dated, leering look at impotence and infidelity. "It was a failure, but I think it was a very interesting failure," Jack Helbig says. "I used to be much harsher about what a failure meant. I've come to realize that it's as much a part of the growth process as a success. I've seen enough shows to know that a bad show indicates absolutely nothing about the next show. A shocking number of times I've seen bad shows come out of companies that have had good shows, and vice versa."
As the end of the season approaches, European Rep finds itself at a turning point. To top Agamemnon, it may require more money. Goulding had to cancel plans to mount John Gay's The Beggar's Opera as this season's final offering because they couldn't pay the two musicians they needed. But funding isn't the only problem—it's manpower. Though Goulding's the artistic director, he's still on hand for every set-building session and every set changeover. This season's Friday, Saturday, and Sunday performance schedule required some fancy footwork. It took four hours to strike the set for Declare and to prepare for Vanya. Another couple of hours were then needed to get ready for Agamemnon. As Carolyn Hoerdemann says, she'll feel the company has finally arrived once it can mount a production without having "Dale up on a ladder."
It's Saturday night, and people are filing in for Agamemnon. Outside in the stairwell, Peyankov leans against a counter and keeps track of reservations in a white notepad. Finding a parking space has always been a challenge in Lakeview, but the situation has worsened with the arrival of residential permits. Peyankov says the neighborhood gets particularly crowded on Saturday night; patrons often turn back home in despair of finding a place to park. There are at least ten no-shows tonight—that's $150. It's nine minutes past curtain time, but Peyankov is holding out for late arrivals.
A slightly incoherent man wanders in, stops suddenly, and stands still on the cracked linoleum floor. He's looking for a homeless shelter. Peyankov politely tells him it closed two years ago. The man turns back to the street, and Peyankov decides it's showtime.
By early February Agamemnon had grossed $42,000. According to Goulding, that equals "the cost of all the shows we've done so far. Everything we've done has been on the back of Agamemnon—the seats, the computer, the smoke machine." It's only been possible because the non-Equity system "creates a cycle of poverty," Goulding says. "People are willing to act for nothing, so they don't get paid."
In order to act Hoerdemann waits tables five days a week, doing lunchtime shifts at an upscale Near North restaurant. "I'm not ashamed of what I do for free," she says. "I don't have the passion to do anything else. But it's a pride thing. I wish people would know, would understand. We're not a company of capitalists, but we're living in a country of capitalists who don't understand.
"I live hand-to-mouth. I would rather buy thrift clothes than new clothes anyway. But I've never been able to have my own apartment. And I'd love to be able to go out and buy a piece of furniture, something that wasn't given to me or bought at a second-hand store. Obviously, those things are not nearly as important as what I want to do. But it is really hard, the life."
Bob Kallus says the hardships made him quit acting. "I let it go for a long time, about ten years." But he felt compelled to return. "If I don't do it, I'm dead inside. I feel like this is where I live. When I walk into the theater, I feel I'm walking into my home."
"Theater is the only thing I've done in my life that anybody told me I was any good at," Goulding says. "It's the only thing I've ever done that's given something back to me. Everything else is just work or welfare. Neither of those are rewarding or satisfying."
"There was a certain moment when I came here, my life was going in a different direction, probably splitting away from theater," Peyankov says. "But I've since realized this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. People say 'never say never,' but this is my life."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Yasen Peyankov and Dale Goulding, "Agamemnon", E.R.C., etc, by Jim Alexander Newberry.