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Theater People: the view from the sidelines

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Fresh out of Columbia University with a BA in French literature, David Divita landed a job that most aspiring journalists would kill for. On the basis of a friendly reference and a good interview, the personable young man was hired by the New York Times to work in one of the paper's most important departments. Not the metro or arts section, not the Washington bureau or the op-ed pages--the promising 23-year-old had snared a spot in society news, writing the wedding announcements that run in the paper's hefty Sunday edition.

"I was what they call a news assistant," says Divita. "In the old days we were the people who might have started as copyboys." His task was to plow through stacks of announcements, calling to verify and clarify every bit of information before rewriting them to conform to the Times's famously stodgy style. "It wasn't strictly formula," he says. "You have about a two-millimeter margin for creative writing....You gotta call the bride and the groom and usually both sets of parents--or all four sets in the case of stepparents. Sometimes they'd say, 'Why can't you just print what we wrote?' But you don't presume something is true just because it's in an announcement." His questions ranged from "Are you going to keep your name?" and "Is this your first marriage?" to whether a person had graduated from a prestigious Ivy League school magna cum laude or merely cum laude. "People take that kind of thing very seriously," Divita says.

And why not? After all, wedding announcements are portraits of people at what are often the happiest, most hopeful moments in their lives--which made Divita all the more aware of his own less-than-settled situation. There he was, a single gay man in his early 20s with a mere bachelor's degree to his credit, assigned to chronicle the connubial couplings of ambitious, accomplished fast-trackers the same age as or just a little older than himself--MBAs and PhDs, bankers and brokers, lawyers and designers. "I was at a point in my life where I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says. "These people were making life commitments, and I didn't even have a boyfriend."

For a would-be reporter, the job was a perfect stepping-stone--but Divita wanted to be an actor. In college he'd performed with Six Milks, an improv group made up of students from Columbia and Barnard College, and he was studying acting with the great Uta Hagen at her H.B. Studio in Greenwich Village. "I think the most important thing she gave me was the importance of being aware that you're making choices every moment," Divita says. Maybe that helped him make them in his own life. In 1997, after working at the Times for two and a half years, he moved to Chicago, drawn by the city's reputation as an affordable, creative theater center. "I'd always heard Chicago was a good place to be," he says. "There was also the adventure factor of going someplace new." He soon found a niche for himself in the improv and fringe-theater scenes, appearing in productions by Trap Door Theatre and the Thirteenth Tribe and enrolling at the ImprovOlympic training center. But after about a year, he says, "I decided improv wasn't what I wanted to do. I had done it for six years, and I had felt an obligation to make it work for me--but I finally realized I kind of hated it."

Instead, he began working on a one-man show. Society Blues is about his experiences as a single gay man writing wedding announcements for the Times. Directed by a fellow New York-to-Chicago transplant, Carolyn Cohagan, Society Blues is a collection of comic monologues and vignettes that combine Divita's observations of his job and its absurdities ("I finally get to exploit all these characters I had to deal with on a daily basis") with memories of his own personal crisis at the time, what he calls "feeling paralyzed by all my possibilities. I deal a lot with the issue of loneliness--what do you do when you're single and surrounded by people who are in love and prepared to commit to each other for the rest of their lives?"

One thing Divita says he chose not to deal with is the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage--not because he's afraid of the topic but because it's not in his sphere of personal concerns right now. "I don't have a political agenda with this show," he says. "But I do address the tension between older and younger members of the gay community--between the people who had to fight and yell and scream to change things and we who benefit from those changes. The older generation says we take things for granted. That's not the way we look at it. We accept the circumstances that have been given to us, but there's been no watershed in our lives."

Divita supports himself by teaching French part-time in Harold Washington College's continuing education division. "The French literature degree finally came in handy," he says. Actually, he admits, "I've always wanted to be a waiter. But no one hires me. I'm not cool enough, I guess."

Society Blues runs February 4 through 27 at O Bar & Cafe, 3343 N. Clark, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM. Tickets are $10; call 773-665-7300.

--Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Divita photo by J.B. Spector.

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