Charles Likar's great contribution to Chicago theater was a piece of alchemy: he turned spirit into ink. To the cheek, grit, and yearning of our dramatic world he added the printed word. In 1987 the monthly magazine New Plays & Playwrights quietly appeared, and last fall there was another, Take Stage! Both pubs consist of interviews for the most part, and Likar's strategy is elegantly simple: send it in and he'll run it.
We asked Likar about this approach, which you don't find everywhere. "First of all, it saves me some time in writing," he observed. "This is an extremely time-consuming thing, and although things that are turned in may be poorly written, I do edit and rewrite them and therefore they meet a certain standard."
Well, it works; and one reason is that in his milieu of writers, actors, and directors who at best are up-and-coming, everyone has something to say. "The interviews are basically what people have done to achieve a certain amount of success, and they [his readers] can learn by example. They're turned on by success," Likar told us. "They can see, this playwright is not Edward Albee. This playwright is not August Wilson. This playwright is not David Mamet--"
No, this playwright is more apt to be a woman in Boston who drove a bus and wrote a play about it, then produced it herself and brashly sent Likar an interview she had someone do with her. It reached Chicago just ahead of the deadline for the latest New Plays & Playwrights, and Likar shoved it in.
"--This playwright," Likar went on, "is someone like me. And if they can do it, so can I."
Likar says theater people like New Plays & Playwrights because it's chatty and unpretentious. "A playwright told me, 'It's just there. It is what it is.'" Take Stage! is no different, although officially it is edited by someone else. "Keith Cameron is a fellow I met who's a bartender on Amtrak, and he was interested in participating in this newsletter because he wants to be in theater as soon as he gets enough tip money," Likar explained. "So I said, you can be editor, and he said, sure."
Likar makes shrewd use of his staff. In a recent issue of Take Stage! editor Cameron grills publisher Likar on the subject of stage managing.
"Cameron: I think we'd better start out by telling people that you yourself requested this interview about stage management for publication in your newsletter.
"Likar: I've been meaning to write a column of some sort on the subject, but I never got around to it. I thought it would be easier this way. Let you do the work of writing it up."
New Plays & Playwrights was just there, floating around Scenes coffee shop, for a long time before we had any idea who this guy Likar was. Our picture of him is still pretty sketchy. He's 47, lives out in LaGrange Park, and at one time or another has acted, directed, and stage-managed. "I stage-managed a Broadway show," he told us. "It was called The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake--it starred Jean Arthur. Now that was 1967. It never officially opened. We had three preview performances."
Likar told us he has never waited on tables, or made any "earned income" from anything but theater since 1963. "I wouldn't know how." He's certainly not making a penny in theater at the moment. His magazines carry not a line of advertising. Moreover, one year ago next week (July 5), Likar purchased the Summerdale Moose Lodge on Foster (60 years ago it was the original Heinemann's bakery; the Heinemanns lived next door on the third floor) and opened the Chicago Playwrighting Resource and Developmental Center. He told not-for-profit companies that his five rehearsal spaces were theirs for the asking, rent free. (Profit-making groups he charges.) About 20 companies have taken Likar up on the offer--he's lost count--and one of them, Absolute, stayed for four months, rehearsing The Three Musketeers five or six days a week and sometimes taking over every square inch of the building.
"God knows how many hours we were in there," artistic director Warner Crocker told us when we asked how much rent Likar had saved him. "At least $6,000, I would think. How he manages it, I don't know. The Three Musketeers wouldn't have been possible if not for him."
"Let's just put it this way," says Likar. "A number of years ago I hired an actor out of Northwestern who never made it in the business and became a broker and called me up one day to solicit my account, and I said I don't have anything to invest. So I went to various investment seminars so I could talk to him as an equal and I met a gentleman who was retired and interested in investing and I took numerous night-school courses and learned enough about investing to be able to advise this gentleman, who, because he had quite a lot of money, made a great deal more money because of some of the things we had talked about and in gratitude he bequeathed some money to me. So I don't work for a living now."
New Plays & Playwrights is now a quarterly: Likar ships a thousand copies on a mailing list that reaches far beyond Chicago (Boston is a hotbed of interest, for some reason), and he leaves a thousand more at Scenes and Act I bookstore. Between editions, he brings out the New Plays & Playwrights Newsletter and Take Stage!, which are both strictly local.
Three months ago Likar was close to killing off his magazines. He wanted to get more involved in play creation on Foster Avenue and there was no time. Fortunately he discovered a director from Memphis named William Endsley who "is going to be actualizing certain projects I am conceiving." Likar intends to develop and "audition" (hold staged readings of) new plays and channel the good ones to producers.
So the magazines were saved. In fact, Likar has just bought himself an offset printing press and installed it on Foster Avenue so he can print them himself. "Take Stage! ran into difficulty," he explains. "I had a printer's contract for 1,300 of those and the demand exceeded my supply. So I've had to make rearrangements."
Likar observes "tremendous commercial activity" in Chicago theater, but he is pessimistic about the not-for-profits. "These things run in cycles," he said, "and the cycle peaked in 1985."
In '85, we reminded him, there was no Charles Likar prodding Chicago theater on at pen point.
"We're talking about a very large theatrical community," he said, "and my publications are not at this point sufficiently powerful to do that. The publication that is in my head may very well be. But that remains to be seen . . ."
What does? we said.
"I just can't discuss it at the moment," said Likar, "other than to say it's going to be a publication that will tie together the theatrical community with the business community." He wants it to "increase audience awareness through the corporate structures in metropolitan Chicago."
Project X will be a radical departure in at least one regard. Likar wants it to make money. "It hopefully will provide sufficient income to support the others."
With a Little Help From Their Friends
When the note came in the mail alerting us to Pegasus Players' tenth-anniversary celebration this week (June 26), our thoughts wandered back to the early days, when this newspaper gave a bunch of stagestruck kids their first big break.
It is so easy to live and die unnoticed in Chicago. Starved for attention, Pegasus appealed to us in 1981 for a review of its new production, Rain. Critic Bury St. Edmund responded, and the two-year-old company would never be the same again.
"Now Pegasus, like two or three masochistic theaters a week who contact the Reader demanding to be reviewed, insists on making believe it's a professional theater group doing professional-quality work," wrote St. Edmund, by way of introducing the eager young troupe to our readership. He went on, "I know of few other areas where the level of self-delusion runs as high as it does in theater."
Then St. Edmund rang out a note of unambiguous praise. "The play, a major Broadway hit in 1922, is still remarkably sturdy," he reported. "Its intentions and possibilities are still discernible despite this production's boneheaded direction, incompetent acting, and wretched designs, displayed in a small, stuffy theater with poor sight lines . . ."
Our critic observed that many of the actors "speak their lines in the typical amateur declamatory singsong that sounds like someone reading a Golden Book to the village idiot."
Overnight, Pegasus was on the map!
We spoke with Pegasus's oft-laureled artistic director the other day. We asked her if she remembered our Rain review.
"It's ingrained in my psyche," said Arlene Crewdson.
We congratulated her on Pegasus's anniversary and on the way her company swept this month's non-Equity theater awards. Pegasus garnered five Jeff citations for Anyone Can Whistle, five more for Noises Off--the two productions that were chosen best of the season--and another for its outreach programs in Uptown. Noises Off has been running for eight months.
Was the review wrong? we asked her.
"I don't know," she said. "The sight lines being bad was terribly wrong."
She said, "That was like the first or second review we'd ever had and it wasn't constructive. It was vicious. I don't see it doing anything for us except making us batten down the hatches and not expect anything after that. It made us tougher."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Merideth.