Drawing upon more than 300 interviews, Mark Larson’s Ensemble expresses the spirit of Chicago’s ensemble ethos—interweaving the voices of celebrities with stories from designers, composers, and others who have played a crucial role in making the city’s theater scene so unique.
Discover what Larson has to say about Chicago theater and the process of creating Ensemble below!
How did you first become interested in performing arts and theater production?
I have been interested in theater since I was a child, and I grew up assuming it would be my career. I was in plays in high school, and I majored in theater in college. In the early 1970s when I was in my 20s, the Chicago storefront scene was just beginning to burgeon—Steppenwolf, Remains Theatre, St. Nicholas Theater and David Mamet, Wisdom Bridge. I tried to be a part of it. Victory Gardens, which was interested in new plays, produced a one-act I had written, and Second City did a children’s musical I co-wrote. I worked as Burr Tillstrom’s assistant when he took his Kukla, Fran, and Ollie revue to the Goodman and on television. When my wife and I started a family in the early 80s, I needed a steady job, and I went into education and loved it, but the moment I retired, I returned to the theater and started on this book.
What makes Chicago stand out as a viable place for writers and performers to experience the entertainment world? How does it compare to New York City or Los Angeles?
On a purely practical level, it can be less expensive to live in Chicago and to gain access to storefront property that can be converted into theater space. It’s also part of the spirit of Chicago theater that a group of like-minded artists can find a slice of the city with four walls, hang some coffee can lights, shove in some seats, and invite an audience.
Beyond the practical, though, there is an ethos here that permits audiences and artists to take risks together. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, a New Yorker, told me, “There is a ready and available audience [in Chicago] that is an extremely serious audience. It’s an educated theater audience, and it’s a discerning theater audience. They’re used to high-quality work because of so many homegrown local theaters that do extraordinary material, and so it’s one of the most cosmopolitan and demanding audiences that you can find.”
Actors who live in or have lived in either New York or LA tell me that you often can’t afford to take risks there because it is so costly, both in terms of dollars and your reputation. In Chicago, however, if you take a risk in a serious effort to reach for something fresh and blow it, the audience tends to say, “Well, that was terrible; let’s see what you’ll try next.”
Director and actor David Cromer, a Chicagoan turned New Yorker who received a 2018 Tony Award for his direction of The Band’s Visit, told me something he had heard director Gary Griffin say: “The difference is Chicago does not have a for-profit model. There really isn’t much of a commercial model. Once it’s a not-for-profit model, a failure is OK. Risk is OK because you’re not playing King of the Hill. There is not just one spot available, there’s many spots.” Cromer added that Chicago theater teacher, director, and icon Sheldon Patinkin was always talking about the notion of ensemble, by which he meant a sense of responsibility to the group and to a project. “It takes a lot of pressure off of the individual,” Cromer said, “and puts a lot of shared pressure on the group.”
I believe that that ethos is characteristic of the Chicago theater community and bonds its members around their shared project: building and sustaining the distinctiveness and excellence of theater in Chicago as well as fostering and preserving the singularity of the community itself.
This is a massive project, with over 300 interviews conducted. What went into planning and shaping Ensemble? When did you decide to turn the project into a book, and what was your first step?
I always envisioned this project as a book. I vividly remember the moment I conceived the idea. I was sitting in the house at Chicago Shakespeare Theater waiting for a show to begin. I was marveling at this beautiful theater, now an institution with an international reputation, that Barbara Gaines, Criss Henderson, and company had built out of an unassuming rooftop performance of Henry V at Red Lion Pub. I became curious about how that happens. I thought of all the other companies, like Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, Black Ensemble, and Writers Theatre, not to mention the growth of the now extensive and vital Chicago theater community itself. I wondered what I would learn if I investigated and told the story of how Chicago went from being what director Bob Sickinger in the 60s called a “theater desert” to the sprawling, multifaceted theater center where audiences can choose from 100 productions a night.
From that night at Chicago Shakes on, I never looked back. My first step was meeting with Lookingglass Theatre’s Andy White, a friend of mine since Lookingglass opened its permanent space on Michigan Avenue in 2003. I ran an idea by him for doing a book on just one Chicago theater company. He was interested and encouraging and introduced me to Scott Silberstein from HMS Media. The three of us met for lunch and generated a list of people I should talk to. Then I took the idea to Doug Seibold, president and publisher of Agate Publishing, whom I had interviewed for another project. He showed immediate interest and offered characteristically insightful ideas of his own. He and Scott played significant roles in both giving the project a thrust and in energizing the effort.
Before I could give this book a structure, I had to gather material, so I did two things simultaneously: I started reading books like Richard Christiansen’s A Theater of Our Own and Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away. At the same time, I dove into interviewing Chicago’s theater-makers, each of whom would lead me to others and expand my sense of the whole community and the elements that comprise the arc of its history.
I originally thought I’d start in the 70s when Organic Theater, Steppenwolf, Remains, St. Nicholas, Wisdom Bridge, and others were beginning to attract occasional national recognition, mostly in New York. But, fatefully, someone suggested I talk to the actor and teacher Joyce Piven. When she agreed to an interview, I read her book, In the Studio with Joyce Piven, which included an introduction in which she talked about her start at Playwrights Theatre Club in 1953. Her cohorts there included Paul Sills, Ed Asner, Fritz Weaver, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris, Sheldon Patinkin, and others. I sat with her for a long time, and as the sun set on our first conversation, I had gained a firm understanding that the book would need to begin in 1953.
Now I had a beginning point, and I began to piece together the chronology from ’53 to the present, conversation by conversation, book by book, archive by archive. One thing always led to a dozen others in a domino effect that I was always trying to keep up with.
How did you find your interviewees?
I started, of course, with people I already knew. I asked them what they thought were key moments in this history and who I should talk to. I sat for a couple hours with Rick Kogan at Billy Goat Tavern, and he brainstormed a sizable list of people I should talk to and later gave me their contact info. Likewise, Tim Evans, who had been with Steppenwolf from the beginning and now is executive director at Northlight, knows the scene well and has many connections and the resp
ect of the community.
So I jumped in. I think my first recorded interview was with Bruce Sagan, longtime chair of the Steppenwolf board who oversaw the development of the new building. Finding people was not hard. I contacted them through their theater company websites, their friends, and often on Facebook. Almost every interview included a moment when the interviewee would ask, “Have you talked to . . . ? Oh, you must talk to her.” Frequently, they would volunteer to connect me. Each interviewee led me to two, three, or more others. Sometimes I would get a call later: “Hey, I just thought of somebody else you should talk to.”
I had seen theater companies post photographs on social media of their rehearsal process from the first table read to opening night, effectively bringing their public into the process. That fascinated me, so I decided early on to make the process of writing this book visible, with the hope of drawing people into it and making them feel a part of it.
After I conducted an interview, I would post a brief excerpt to Facebook and include the title of my book at the bottom of the post. It quickly began to feel like the members of the Chicago community were in on the project, and they often reached out to me with stories, artifacts, and more contacts. Facebook, for all its silliness and controversy, proved an invaluable tool that helped me quickly establish a network and a profile for myself that I needed but didn’t have at that time.
I was surprised by the openness and availability of the theater-makers of Chicago, including those who had moved away and/or achieved significant notoriety in the field. They seemed to relish the chance to talk about the early days of their careers. There were very few who turned down my interview requests. That was remarkable to me, but it gave me a good sense of the character of this community.
A lot of the interviews you conducted didn’t make it into the book—can you tell us about your plan for those other interviews?
I have developed a companion website (ensemblechicago.com) that is now home to some of the interviews and stories that do not appear in the book. On the website, I am able to expand on the interviews as much as I like, and I can disseminate stories widely and at will. This site is also where I plan to add interviews and stories about people and companies I have encountered since I finished the book.
How did you determine which artists and companies would be included in the book and which would not?
First, that’s a sore subject for me. I am pained when I think of the people who generously gave me their time and shared their story but who aren’t represented in the book. I know it is unavoidable, but it still hurts. Even with the book finished and printed, I lie awake nights wondering if I was wrong to exclude this or that company or artist. How is the story distorted or tilted by this omission? That is a question I had asked constantly throughout the four and a half years I worked on this book. It’s not easy to turn it off.
Early on, I felt I could not tell the story of Chicago theater by focusing on just six or seven different companies because there is so much variety. Jesse Green, commenting in the New York Times on the more than 200 theater companies in Chicago, observed that “because most of the 200 have specific missions with audiences to match, very few of the 100 feel like franchises.”
But I also could not tell the story of every company from its inception to the present (or to its demise). I made two key decisions that guided these difficult choices: one was to focus on the origin stories of the companies I examined rather than their whole history. In some cases, I also dealt with their closing if it was significant to the larger story. For example, the closings of Remains Theatre and St. Nicholas Theater are significant because they show how difficult it can be to keep a theater open when many of its key people find success in LA or New York and move away. By contrast, even though Steppenwolf’s three founders and most of its founding members now rarely perform in their own theater, it continues to grow exponentially and to both produce and attract major work and artists as an important, internationally renowned theater. So the book is focused on origin stories and pivot points of companies and works that played a unique role in shaping the Chicago theater movement.
How has working on this project changed or influenced you?
The stories of these persistent and resilient artists who were determined to “make the road by walking,” to do the work they believed mattered, to do it their way, and ultimately to build something lasting out of the stuff of their own stubbornness, audacity, and talent truly propelled me forward and kept me going.
I was also impressed by the graciousness and generosity of the companies and individuals I spent time with. Almost to a person, they believe that what is good for one company is good for the community, so they celebrate one another’s victories and help where they can. I found that heartening and a model to live by. This is not to say there isn’t friction. There is. And a lot of it. Sometimes they meet it head-on, as they did when a company’s long-standing history of sexual harassment finally led to a Chicago Reader exposé and then to the quick shutdown of the company. Questions of gender, racial, and ability equity on Chicago stages are constantly and vociferously discussed. It can get messy, fractious, and divisive, but I always sensed an underlying and abiding sense that this is the work and commitment of a community struggling to improve. Necessary battles. In these times, that gives me hope.
What do you hope readers will take away from Ensemble?
I hope Chicagoans who are not well acquainted with the theaters in their own town will gain a deeper appreciation for the scope and variety of remarkable work that is generated here and for its national and international influence. I hope that Chicago artists and their already loyal audiences will gain new insight into where they fit into this history and take pride in playing their part. I hope non-Chicagoans will come to see that so much of the work they are used to seeing on TV, at the movies, and in the theater came from and was influenced by the risks taken by Chicago artists. I’d love to see Chicago become even more of a hub or destination for theater artists and theater-seeking audiences. I hope that other theater communities in other cities will learn from seeing how this whole thing started small and modestly and grew in one lifetime into what it is today. And lastly, I hope young artists will be inspired by these stories of audacity, perseverance, and commitment.
What’s next for you?
I had set aside final revisions of a novel I had completed shortly before starting Ensemble. I’ll return to and finish that. And then I will start another oral history, but something more circumscribed. I have in mind the story of a famous working relationship, for example. The development of a single work of art also interests me. I would love to do an oral history of Veep.