Actress Molly Hagan has a very clear memory of the first show she did for director Terry McCabe.
"It was when I stopped shaving my legs and under my arms," she says. "We were doing The Trojan Women, and I was one of the chorus. Terry's idea was that these women had been through, what? Ten, twenty years? How long was the Trojan War? Anyway, they hadn't shaved since the war started. And he wanted the audience to see this--which they could. We were doing it in this little black box in a garage on Benson Street in Evanston--there was more space for the actors than the audience."
That was a decade ago, when Hagan and McCabe were students at Northwestern University. McCabe was studying for an MFA in directing, and the Greek tragedy was his thesis project; Hagan was working toward a BS in speech and theater. Hagan came to the Chicago area in 1979 to study at Northwestern, where her mother had studied creative dramatics. "I only applied to Yale and Northwestern," recalls the 31-year-old Hagan, a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana. "Since I spelled interpretation wrong seven times on my Yale application essay, Yale turned me down. So I came to Northwestern--thank God!" There she studied acting with David Downs, interpretation with Frank Galati, and Shakespeare with Paul Edwards, meanwhile teaming up with fellow student John Logan in a freshman acting company that toured the community-center circuit.
"We did readers' theater and chamber theater," she says. "I had my most embarrassing acting moment in that group. We were doing a program of Appalachian folklore at an old people's home. One of the stories I gave alone--it was a ghost story. I had this really bad Appalachian accent. There Ah wuz, weavin' this tale, and all of a sudden a woman in the back of the room said, very loud, 'Oy vay!' Then she got up and walked out. All my friends on the stage were cracking up while I had to go on with the story. Afterward the director told me not to worry about it. She said, 'I think she was really scared.'" And Hagan lets loose with a rowdy laugh at her own humiliation.
Hagan was still a student when she landed her first professional acting job. The director was Terry McCabe; he had started a non-Equity company, Stormfield Theatre, and hired Hagan for its debut production, Sixty Feet, Six Inches. "When I met her, when she was 18, she was clearly the best actor in her class," says McCabe. "She had a good classical-theater intelligence, and really sharp, shrewd comic instincts." Several other off-Loop shows followed in 1983 and '84; in reminiscing about them, Hagan's conversation is filled with references to actors who no longer act and theater companies (including Stormfield) that no longer exist. The Chicago theater scene is infamously unstable, as Hagan was aware when she took her agent's advice and headed to Hollywood.
"I went out to visit and immediately landed a ton of auditions for movies and TV shows. I said, "I think the possibilities of working in LA are greater than in Chicago,'" she says. "I came back to Chicago to pack--and while I was here I got an audition for a film."
The movie was Code of Silence, a Chuck Norris action melodrama that employed numerous Chicago locations and actors. Cast as Norris's love interest, Hagan spent the film's climax hanging by her wrists from the ceiling of a warehouse while her rescuer Norris blasted away at bad guys from behind the control panel of an armored robot. "It was wholesale acting," says Hagan; but it led to plenty of other work.
Now Hagan has steady work playing one of four voices inside the brain of a corporate drone named Herman on Fox Television's Herman's Head. Three of the four are male; Hagan plays Angel, Herman's compassionate and reasonable feminine side, whom she portrays with a warmth nicely tempered by her steely, slightly sarcastic delivery. She won the role despite a hugely misguided audition in which she impersonated Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch.
"They kept asking me to try different things, and I said, 'I've got an idea,' and they said, 'Show us.' So I did my Billie Burke imitation"--a holdover from Hagan's eighth-grade performance in The Wizard of Oz. "I thought it worked fabulously. They loved it--they roared with laughter. Then they said, 'It's too on the nose.' I don't know what that meant. But they never wanted to see me again." A pushy agent and a more intelligent reaudition won her a spot on the show: "I learned later on that maybe you should develop your own characters."
Having finished taping this season's episodes, Hagan admits she's unsure of Herman's Head's future: "They don't have to let us know till June. But everyone keeps saying, 'Don't worry.' Don't worry? I have a mortgage!"
In the meantime, she's back in Chicago at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, where Showbiz premieres next week. The director is, once again, McCabe, and her Northwestern pal John Logan is the play's author. The cast also includes her husband, Todd Kimsey, whom she met through a Herman's Head colleague; and another NU friend, Denis O'Hare, stars as a manipulative, egomaniacal director named Julian. Hagan plays a glamorous actress who's starring in Julian's latest play; Julian may be a monster--but at least he lets Hagan shave.
Previews for Showbiz run through April 28 at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, 1559 W. Howard. The play opens April 29 and is set to run through May 23; for more information, call 743-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.