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What a Difference a Play Makes

A Boyish Jock from the Suburbs Helps the Homeless Find New Life in the Theater

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After four years as a ward of the state, Alberto Rendon embraced freedom and wealth at the age of 18. He collected $57,000 from his deceased mother's life insurance policy and opened a bar that catered to all his friends just across the Mexican border from his home in Laredo, Texas. He vacationed in Cancun, Guadalajara, and parts of the tropical United States, "never knowing the value of a dollar" but knowing the power of spending it. "I was used to having so many people around me," he says. "I felt real strong. I had a high self-esteem."

Within a year, the money was gone. The 19-year-old, too embarrassed to tell his sister and grandparents in Texas that he'd spent his inheritance, became homeless. In February 1991 he jumped a freight train to California, where he thought he could make a good living picking cherries. The train, however, was headed in the opposite direction, and took him to Little Rock, Arkansas. From there, he was told, the quickest train route to California stopped in Chicago.

Around the same time, Willie Robinson was waiting eagerly to return to Chicago. He was in Logan Correctional Center in downstate Illinois, finishing up the last few months of a two-and-a-half-year sentence. He had been in and out of jail for 12 years--mostly for committing robberies to support his crack habit. His dependency on drugs stemmed from childhood--Robinson says an older brother often got him high to entertain friends; he tried to get professional help, he says, but was turned away from various treatment centers because he didn't have insurance.

But by the time he was released from prison last summer, his relationship with his wife had changed. They separated, and without a job lined up or a family willing to take him in, Robinson, 33, became homeless--a common plight for people deinstitutionalized in the United States. Despite his homelessness, and despite his experience with the criminal-justice system--a system, according to government statistics, that involves 23 percent of the young black male population on any given day (as opposed to only 6.2 percent of young white men)--he wears a "Proud to Be American" pin.

It's late September, and Robinson has been in Chicago for a month. Rendon passed up cherry picking in California and is enrolled in a data processing program--paid for by a church group--at Malcolm X Learning Center. Though their paths cross often, they barely recognize each other one evening when they walk together into the Sousa Shelter, at 225 S. Aberdeen. They and eight of the shelter's other residents have been given a special off-hours entry privilege, and a man behind the front desk sarcastically cracks, "Hey, hey, is this the Hollywood group?" Robinson, Rendon, and the others are here for a play rehearsal; together they'll launch Off the Streets, a homeless theater group, into its second season.

They shuffle past the guard, still wondering what to make of their new status as actors. Glamorous they are not, though they appear no more disheveled than most people on a Sunday afternoon. Homeless and unemployed they are, though they have begun to do something about it. In their hands they carry a copy of Larry Shue's The Nerd, a script that 26-year-old Brad Hauter, founder of OTS, promises can get them lots of laughs, some money, and, possibly, out of their predicaments.

Hauter will pay them for their rehearsal time, and they'll divide up any profits the show makes. They'll also be doing something constructive with their time, and learning how to work with other people again. But they are skeptical. It's not just that Hauter is a white, boyish-looking guy from the suburbs; they don't trust anybody. Vulnerability clashes with their fine-tuned survival skills. And the same "everyone's out for themselves" street mentality that has them doubting Hauter's intentions has also kept them virtual strangers though they stay at the same shelter.

Together--but very much alone--they follow a similar, Ping-Pong-like schedule on what they call "the trail." Along with the 135 other people who have been lucky enough to get a bed at Sousa Shelter, they must follow a regimented daily routine just to fulfill their basic needs. They wake up at 5:30 AM, eat breakfast, leave the shelter by 6:30, and spend the rest of the day traveling the two blocks between the Sousa and Olive Branch shelters, hanging out to guarantee their space in the noon lunch line, the 4:30 PM dinner line, and finally the 8 PM bed line. At 9 they shower, and by 10 a typical day on the trail is over and the lights at the Sousa Shelter go out.

"Being on the trail, you get to be a loner," 34-year-old cast member Gregory Kelsor would later explain to impressed audiences, during the question-and-answer period that follows OTS's shows. "But this came along and I met other people that have positive goals like I do. And we're a family now. . . . If one of us falls, the others are there to pick him up. On the trail if you fall, you just lay there."

The cast's suspicions of Hauter are quelled at a rehearsal early in the season, when they meet OTS veterans Jim Hansen and Greg Turner--living proof that Hauter is true to his word when he says acting can be a way off the streets. They have both volunteered to help out OTS in any way they can; if nothing else, they'll serve as a constant reminder of what is possible.

Homeless just a year ago, Hansen now lives in Schaumburg, drives a truck for a living, keeps his money in a bank account, has cable TV, and wears $150 sweat suits. He attributes some of his success to OTS. "You cannot put on a play without learning how to be focused," he explains. "And being focused carries over in daily life."

Turner stands before the new cast in dress pants, a sweater, and an overcoat. He now lives in an apartment on the near west side and is program director for Inner Voice, a learning center geared toward helping people study for the high school equivalency test and acquire skills necessary for employment. "Last year, working this way was a dream. Now it's a reality. . . . Off the Streets is a way to get out of here. Put into it so you can get out of it," he advises them.

Hauter tells the cast that only one member from last year's group is still homeless, 85 percent of them have full-time jobs, and 50 percent of them have cars. The sooner they memorize the script, he says, the sooner they can perform, and subsequently the sooner they can make real money. He offers to throw a bonus into the next paycheck for those who know their lines by the end of October. Inspired by both his predecessors and the financial incentive, Robinson says to the others, "Any free time you get, pick up the script and read the shit out of it." They are just beginning to acknowledge the importance of working together, and the first spark of enthusiasm is born.

During the next four months, OTS rehearses three times a week at the Inner Voice office, 1600 W. Lake. Turner works late, keeping the building open after hours so the cast doesn't have to study on the el or practice lines silently in the library, like he did last year. Individual cast members stray from the trail daily to study together at Inner Voice. "It's an amazing commitment when you're not in control of your light switches and meals to learn a script and get to practice," Hauter says.

The rehearsals usually last around two hours. In late October it becomes clear that these guys are really capable of putting on a show when some of them begin rehearsing without scripts. Rendon, the first to know his lines, has scratched blue marker over them in his copy of the script. This challenges the rest of the cast members, who begin showing up at each practice with more and more of their parts memorized. "Where's your book, man?" Robinson asks a fellow cast member before one rehearsal. Sebastian looks at him proudly and taps his head. "Right up here," he replies. The cast members begin whispering cues for one another, complimenting one another's performances, and apologizing to the rest of the cast when they get a line wrong. In November Sebastian quits the play, and his understudy, Robert Johnson, admits he has been a bit of a slacker. He hadn't expected to stay with OTS for the entire season, but now, feeling the importance of his input, he promises his coworkers, "I'll try to do my best. I'll try not to let anyone down. . . . I'll try to be better."

For the actors, OTS provides employment, a stepping-stone to future opportunities, and a chance to regain the self-confidence that homelessness has destroyed. "Being homeless is a real kick to the self-esteem and to my manhood pride," says 33-year-old cast member Paul Campbell. "I feel I'm above all this lowness, this depression stage. But as long as I keep focusing with a positive mental attitude, I will survive. . . . Doing this play will provide something to take up time, instead of hanging in the street. It's a challenge for me. And who knows, maybe I'll get noticed."

OTS also helps shape the cast members' interpersonal skills. After a few months of rehearsals, Hauter says, "You can see hope in their eyes instead of distrust, and compassion instead of cold, empty stares."

The performance--and the personal contact afterward--also gives the audience some insight into homelessness, and proves that homeless people can be literate, eloquent, and goal-oriented. In the middle of OTS's first season, Hauter said, "I think we get a lot of people coming to us for curiosity, to see a freak show or as a goodwill gesture. And they leave entertained and surprised . . . and they leave happy because they did a good deed."

Besides the postshow question-and-answer session, cast members occasionally speak to high schools and religious groups about homelessness and drugs. "I would like the world to know what it's like being homeless," says 44-year-old Billy Lewis. "There are so many people who are disillusioned. There is a new homeless person out there. Not the alcoholic, drug user, raggedy type, but a lot of people who have lost everything."

Lewis became homeless in July 1991, when his older brother, with whom he lived in a senior citizen housing complex, died of cancer. Too young himself to be eligible for senior housing and without a steady income, Lewis moved in with one of his daughters in Saint Louis. When he began to feel guilty for relying on his daughter, he migrated back to Chicago to look for work. About a year before his brother died, he'd been fired from a job he held for ten years. He had been newly promoted to a management position while going through a divorce, and he says the time and energy he put into dating again adversely affected his job performance. He'd quickly found similar work with another company but got laid off. Back in Chicago and without a home, Lewis began staying at Sousa. "I never stay outdoors," he says. "I know how cold Chicago can be, the people as well as the weather."

Lewis was one of 50 people who responded to the audition notices Hauter posted in Sousa Shelter late last August. While they recited lines from the script, Hauter looked for alcohol-free breath, charisma, the ability to read, and a genuine curiosity about OTS. He then interviewed the prospective cast members, asking why and for how long they had been homeless, details about the last job they held, and the date they last got high. "You have a feeling of whether or not they're bullshitting you," he says. Of course, this "feeling" is far from infallible. Last year Hauter ended up acting two parts himself, and this year only half of the original cast stayed wth OTS until the opening night in December. Some members' penchant for drugs led them away after the first paycheck, and others left abruptly without explanation. By the first performance, the cast had written out two characters and found two replacements.

Hauter pays each cast member $4 per rehearsal and fines them if they are late or take drugs. 'Don't smoke my money,' I tell them," he says. "You've got to stay clean to be in the play." He fined Robinson $100 for smoking crack once during the four-month rehearsal period. After a performance, Robinson unexpectedly and publicly apologized for negatively affecting the group.

The cast members also divvy up profits from the $5 tickets, the T-shirts they sell for $10, and donations. "It's difficult to give to an organization and not know where it goes," says Hauter. "Here, you see where your ticket dollars go, you meet where it goes. You don't give blindly." Last year each cast member made $2,600 during the performance season and an additional $1,500 for rehearsals. Hauter himself pays for many of the group's expenses, which in the first year and a half amounted to almost $40,000--money he saved throughout high school and college. "Sometimes I start thinking about what I could have done with that money," he admits. "My life-style has changed completely. I've had to get a cheaper car, I eat macaroni and cheese pretty regularly, and I haven't gone out. Well, I saw a movie in November." But someone always seems to donate when the bank account "gets down to zero."

This year, OTS received a grant for $1,100 from the city--the only grant OTS has received of the 153 for which Hauter has applied. "It lasted about one week," he says. Eventually, Hauter hopes to receive federal and corporate funding so OTS can employ cast members full-time with jobs like scheduling and selling tickets. With enough funding, he says, he'd like to rent a house for the cast members, so they can better focus on learning the script and so they can hold rehearsals without worrying about being in the Sousa bed line by 8 PM. He also hopes to turn OTS into a national traveling troupe in a few years; the group already has performances scheduled in Wisconsin and Indiana in the next month.

Hauter was first "slapped in the face by the reality of poverty" in January 1990, during an 18-and-a-half-hour train ride from Chicago to New York. He gazed out the Amtrak windows surprised and saddened as every town looked the same to him: kids kicking around tin cans, rotted, gutted buildings without windows, and torn-up fences. "There's got to be a way to help," he remembers thinking. "If the government isn't doing anything, something needs to be done in the private sector." Dissatisfied with what he calls the "egocentric" world of playing professional soccer for the Illinois Thunder and because he "missed feeling like he was doing something for people," Hauter--also co-owner of two soccer supply stores in Crystal Lake and Hoffman Estates--began toying with the idea of putting on a play to benefit the homeless.

While he was somewhat familiar with the homeless problem (in the past he had volunteered at a few shelters) he was less familiar with theater (he was onstage once in college). But he was determined to make a difference for people--even for only a handful of people. The people he's touched are also determined to make a difference for themselves; the cast members regard their homelessness as temporary, with or without Hauter. They don't see him so much as a savior but more as a friend, one who has pushed them a little farther than they may have pushed themselves and provided them with an opportunity to get off the streets a little sooner. Accepting Hauter's help and living in a shelter demonstrate their commitment to changing their circumstances.

These are people whose pride, not need, determines the amount of assistance they're willing to accept. For many of them--even at their lowest--taking refuge with a relative would be too humiliating. "I'm getting angry at myself for letting this happen," Kelsor says. "I feel depressed. It gets to the point where I want to call my mom and let her know what's happened. But I tell her I'm all right. I don't want her to worry. . . . It's no major super-duper problem I can't get out of." Lewis is also too ashamed to tell his family. His sense of self-respect keeps him from asking his grown children for help again. "If I told them that I am homeless, they'd pack up and come get me. I know they would, but I've been independent for a very long time," he says.

By far OTS's biggest challenge this season came two days before opening night, when the only woman cast member quit. On December 19 they were practicing in the basement of Inner Voice. As Lewis, Robinson, and Rendon rehearsed the first act, Hauter jotted down memorandums about stage direction and voice projection and searched his brain for last-minute ideas to polish the overall performance. The actors offstage buzzed with nervous excitement and folded OTS programs in preparation for their debut at the Prairie Center for the Arts in Schaumburg. The room suddenly grew quiet, however, when Brenda walked briskly past her fellow cast members and headed upstairs without saying a word. Almost instinctively, Hauter followed. In the 20 or so minutes they were gone, a rumor circulated that she was angry because she hadn't wanted her name in the program. "Why should I have to suffer because of her," one cast member blurted out. "It's not fair to us and it's not fair to Brad," another said. In the distance, Hauter's raging voice was muffled by what sounded like chairs being thrown against the wall.

When they came back downstairs, Hauter asked Brenda to do her "own dirty work." She confirmed the rumor, saying she was quitting because Hauter had included her name in the program against her wishes. Rendon, on his knees before her, pleaded, "We need you, please don't leave us." They begged her to stay for the opening show and promised to tear up the programs. Then Turner asked her if she had stage fright. Reluctantly, she admitted she did.

The cast members felt the money from the 130 presold tickets for Saturday's performance slipping away. Hauter stood to lose the hundreds of dollars with which he rented the stage and bought insurance. "I've been depressed," said Lewis, "but I've never been hurt and depressed until today." Brenda walked out of the room, and there was dead silence as the cast saw how drained Hauter had become. But before Hauter could say anything, Kelsor spoke for the whole group. "We're still ready to go, with or without her." Hauter broke down and cried, encircled by homeless men hugging him.

Later, when the financial burden had reached the point where Hauter contemplated "tossing it all in," he would conjure up memories of December 19. "After the way they rallied around me, it's too tough to say I can't keep it going." When Hauter could no longer exude motivation, the cast members had found it within themselves.

Mary Kwasny, a Streamwood youth minister who'd been watching the rehearsal that night, volunteered to take over Brenda's part and opened with them two nights later, carrying her script onstage inside a cookbook, which became her character's distinctive prop. Kwasny joined a motley group of students, fathers, ex-convicts, a musician, a chef, and a truck driver with college education--none of them with any acting experience.

Thirty-three-year-old Johnson, a pianist, has been homeless on and off for 11 years, since his house on the south side burned down.

There's Campbell, who after attending Lewis University in Romeoville for five years took a job driving trucks because he thought his past problems with the law would impede his chance at getting a job in criminal justice, his field of study. He moved to California in 1989, got caught up in drugs, and returned jobless to Chicago last year to escape his drug-ridden environment.

And there's Kelsor, who grew up in Chicago, quit high school, and moved to Ohio to work as an orderly and part-time chef in his aunt's nursing home. More than five years later, he attended culinary school, began work as a kitchen steward, and was transferred--at his request to be near his daughter--to Chicago. His hours were cut soon after his arrival, and Kelsor found he could no longer pay his hotel rent.

Today, five months after the first OTS rehearsal, three of the cast members have jobs and three are living in apartments--better statistics than last year's group at this time, Hauter says. "But it's amazing the things we've had to go through this year," he adds.

Johnson, who has a black eye after a run-in with a gang, is pending a court appearance for what he believes was the cops' racially based assumption that he was robbing an overturned taxicab.

Kelsor, with 20 stitches in his forehead after being mugged by a man with a baseball bat, has been studying for his GED. He wants to pass the test before looking for a job. He and Lewis are looking for an apartment together. Lewis stays with a friend, but still considers himself homeless because he's not paying the bills.

Robinson lives in an apartment in Algonquin. Because of the crack-smoking incident, however, his being a cast member is contingent upon his enrolling in a drug treatment program and speaking to children about drug use.

Rendon dropped out of the data-processing school at Malcolm X the week before finals to take a $6.25-an-hour job using his Spanish skills, handing out pamphlets in front of the federal building directing immigrants to a passport photo shop. After working for about a month, he was given a raise. He's been thrown in jail a few times for being too assertive with potential customers, but the pay has enabled him to rent an apartment.

Many of the cast members admit they still have a long way to go. But the despondency that once went hand-in-hand with their routine walks along the trail has vanished. They have a new optimism; they can see within reach a life in which they eat when they choose, hold a full-time job, and know with certainty where they will sleep at night.

The next Off the Streets performances in the Chicago area will be March 15 at 3 PM at Holy Family Catholic Church, 2515 W. Palatine Road in Inverness; March 22 at Southminster Presbyterian Church, 916 E. Central Road in Arlington Heights, at a time to be announced; and March 29 at 3 PM at Saint Paul of the Cross Church, 320 S. Washington in Park Ridge. For more information write Off the Streets, 1035 W. Golf Road, Hoffman Estates, Illinois 60195.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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