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History of Chicago Theater Takes Center Stage at Levy Lecture Series

On Feb. 2, Evanston author, retired Evanston Township High School teacher, and Golden Apple Award winner Mark Larson discussed his book, “Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater,” as the featured speaker for that week’s virtual Levy Lecture. More than 300 people waited eagerly to hear and watch clips from interviews with celebrities like Ed Asner, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Sinise, Alan Arkin, and many others.

Mr. Larson has always loved theater. One of his first professional jobs was working as a special assistant to Burr Tillstrom, creator of and puppeteer for, the 1950s television program Kukla, Fran and Ollie. He recognized that his talents were better suited behind the scenes rather than before an audience, and promised himself he would return to the theater later in his career, or after he retired. “Ensemble” is the realization of that promise.

The idea for the book stemmed from Mr. Larson’s observation that in the span of a typical person’s lifetime, the theater scene in Chicago had gone from almost nothing in the early 1950s to an explosion of options in 2015. What was once a “theater desert,” sated only by community theater, summer stock, and touring companies of Broadway shows, was now a beehive of activity and productions from more than 250 working theaters.

Almost any night of the week it was possible to find interesting, original, affordable live theater within Chicagoland. This stupendous growth begged the question, “How did this happen?”

Mr. Larson wanted the book to be based on oral histories, to get information first-hand from the people who lived it, most of whom were still alive and willing to talk to him. The starting point for Ensemble was 1953, the year Playwrights Theatre Club was founded by Paul Sills and David Shepard. Company members included Ed Asner, Byrne Piven, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Joyce Hiller [Piven], and several others, all of whom had a connection to the University of Chicago. Joyce Piven recalls, “I think it’s the birthplace, it’s where it all started. All of it.”

The Levy Lecture presentation includes many photographs and clips of Mr. Larson’s interviews with actors, directors, theater producers, and other professionals.

The interviews are linked by four “dispositions” that Mr. Larson believes unite the Chicago theater community.

The first disposition is “Create your own opportunity.” Whether that means founding a theater company, writing original, creating sketches that highlight one’s strengths, or taking creative control, the Chicago theater community makes its own luck.

The second disposition is almost an ethos, “The Ensemble Way.” The company was more important than any one person’s success. It was a feeling of family, or as Alan Arkin describes it, a sense of “us against the world.” Laurie Metcalf recalls, “It was about the work. How are we going to make this the best thing possible? It was a collaborative from the beginning. We wanted to make an impression not individually, but as a group. We had energy, we had passion, we had a shared sense of humor. We wanted the group to succeed.”

The Chicago theater community encourages risk-taking, which is the third disposition. Risk-taking means theater companies sharing such things as resources, equipment, costumes, sets, and theater spaces and helping one another. It is OK to fail here – the stakes are not as high – nor is the real estate as expensive or the media scrutiny as cutting as in New York. The final disposition is, “Chicago is home.” There is something different here that does not exist anywhere else, certainly not in New York (Broadway) or Los Angeles (Hollywood). The actors who got their start here have an intense loyalty to Chicago even if they have residences in other cities.

Mr. Larson’s presentation was like an appetizer to whet one’s appetite for the rest of the meal. Ensemble” is 700+ pages and packed with poignant, funny, heartfelt conversations from boldfaced names and behind-the-scenes experts alike, woven together as if each chapter was the best cocktail party or book group discussion imaginable.

The Levy Lecture crowd loved hearing his stories and responded enthusiastically. A tape of the presentation is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.

By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.


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