The Biography of a Fascination
Why I am Writing Ensemble

ACT ONE
The Chicago theater movement and I are the same age, if you mark its inception, as I do in this book, with the birth of the Playwrights’ Theater Club in the early 1950s. Prior to that, as director Bob Sickinger once observed, Chicago was a “theater desert.”  There were community theaters and the touring shows from New York, but Chicago was producing little original work of its own.  
 
By the time I was in high school in the mid-sixities, we had a bit more: Kingston Mines, Body Politic, Paul Sills' Story Theater, The Second City, and a few others, like Hull House Theater where Bob Sickinger was doing some quality work with amateur actors he’d find working in community theaters. I would take an “L” to Hull House on Broadway and usher there so I could get in free. I discovered I had a fascination for being there in the hour before the audience arrived. I still can picture Sickinger making changes right up to the moment we opened the doors.  When I witnessed those changes in performance, I thought, so that's how the magic is done!
 
I would go to see the big touring shows, too, like Sweet Charity and Black Comedy, and then walk backstage, just to be there. Although I have been achingly shy my whole life, something more powerful pulled at me. I remember even climbing onto the stage at the Blackstone to get to the wings. No one saw a need for security in those days, apparently, because I was never stopped. I met Chita Rivera that way and Jeremy Clyde (remember Chad and Jeremy?), Godfrey Cambridge, and even Simon and Garfunkle. There was something about the intimacy of backstage activity that had taken hold of me --  the way its deep shadows, ragged edges, and plain, muted tones contrasted with the vitality, volume and color of the activity on stage. I think what I was drawn to was theatre in the making and a curiosity about the lives of the people making it.
 
Wisdom Bridge Theater captured my imagination early on. It had been founded in 1974 by a man named David Beard.  He was 22 and so was I.  His scruffy, feisty little theater was perched at the top of narrow staircase on Howard Street. It was probably the first storefront theater I attended, and I was smitten. One morning, I climbed the stairs and visited the theater. I remember hearing a radio, laughter and hammers pounding behind the closed door to the  house. I blurted out to the first person I saw, “David is 22 and so am I. I’d love to talk to him some time.” My reasoning seemed airtight to me, but apparently not to the young woman I spoke to. I never met David. But the notion that a person, much less someone my age, could just make a theater was mind-altering for me.  
 
So, with some willing friends, I gave that a shot. I wrote and directed two-handers, mostly, that we performed in people’s living rooms, churches, a health food store, wherever they’d let us. I once met the actor, Stubby Kaye (Cat Balou). during one of my backstage invasions. When I told him what I did, he said, “Living rooms? If you’re going to do your plays in living rooms, do them in David Merrick’s living room!” I didn’t take his advice. Making a theater wasn’t in the cards for me, or, put another way, I possessed none of the skills, dispositions or knowledge required.
    
    

Photo: Jennifer Girard

 ACT TWO
After dropping out of college, I soon  met Jo Forsberg, an original member of Playwrights’ Theater Club, who was now leading The Second City Players Workshop. I gave her a tape of a three-person musical I had written with a friend in college, and she let me direct it at the Second City Children's Theater. George Wendt was in it before he hit the main stage, ricocheted off and landed on a barstool in a Boston bar called Cheers.
 
The best part of that period was being around Second City during the week. I’d show up almost every night and sneak in through the side door to the bathrooms as if I was returning to my seat. There was a church pew near that door, right behind Fred Kaz at the piano. I’d plant myself there as if I belonged. Because it was close to the stage door, sometimes cast members – I remember Bill Murray, in particular -- would come out and sit beside me to watch a scene or two. You could get a tan off the radiating energy of those performers. 
Victory Gardens produced one of my one-acts. Mary Gross was in that. Tom Tully directed. WIlliam Peterson was in the companion one-act. Linda Winer's review: "Not bad for an unknown Evanston writer."  We’d gather after each performance at the Gingerman, next door, and talk about theater. I found myself asking a lot of questions.

I was hired as a driver for Carol Channing while she was in town doing Hello Dolly! at the cavernous Arie Crown Theater. (I made $100 a week, which seemed extraordinary to me, then). I spent a lot of time backstage, sometimes in her dressing room, soaking in the life of the people who were making theatre – some in the shadows, and others who, moments after I was with them, would step into the lights and the gaze of some 4300 people. I cherished most the quiet ride in the dark, after the show, back to the apartment where Carol and her husband, Charles, were staying. I was her only audience. She spoke softly about that night’s show, the people who had visited her, what she might talk about on the Mike Douglas Show. I think I learned from that job how to be helpful and unobtrusive at the same time, and it would serve me well in my next job.  
In 1979, Goodman Theater hired me as a special assistant to Burr Tillstrom, creator of the 50’s television program, Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Each Christmas, from 1979-1983, he performed live in the Goodman Stage 2 space across the hall from the newly developed Christmas Carol. I also would assist him on three television specials for NBC, his appearance at the Kennedy Center (with Jim Henson, Shari Lewis and Bil Baird), several shows on the road and whatever else he needed, from cleaning out his attic to making reindeer antlers for Ollie. I was even a puppeteer for one of the TV specials. But to this day, the moments I treasure most are the conversations in the backs of cabs, in the wings before the shows, and sitting around

Back row (L-R) Cosmo White, Kukla,Tom Biscotto, Burr, Ollie, Mark. Front: Roche Schulfer, Greg Mosher , 1979

 his apartment wondering how to spend the afternoon. Sometimes we'd wander Oak Street to the bookstore where he knew the owners, then end up at Bon-Tons for a sandwich. I relished listening to him relive his golden days on television. 
 
Burr asked me to help him write his memoir. My task was to ask a lot of questions. He sometimes introduced me as Boswell, sometimes as his amanuensis. (I had to look it up). My girl friend, Mary, bought me a cassette recorder which would be my first device as an interviewer. I have many cassette tapes of Burr and me talking at his apartment on Lake Shore Drive and his rustic retreat in Saugatuck, Michigan. I watched a lot of old kinescopes on his 16 mm projector and leafed through his prodigious and meticulously preserved scrapbooks again and again, consuming the life he had lived.
 
One morning, I sat in a WFMT radio studio when he was interviewed by Studs Terkel for a live broadcast of The Studs Terkel Show. It was just the three of us in that room. The idea of talking to people about their work and lives, something I had always done as a way of being, seemed, for the first time, like an art form itself. The idea of doing it deliberately with an end result in mind probably took root in me during that interview. Burr died in 1985 before we could get the memoir off the ground. But after his death, with my dear friend, Jarry Glick, I co-wrote and –produced Kukla, Fran and Ollie: A Reminiscence with Fran Alison for NBC. It served as a local lead-in to Burr's induction into the Television Hall of Fame by Jim Henson. Jarry and I interviewed Fran on camera for an entire day, then edited the best bits together with clips from old shows. It was my first experience with stitching together a story using someone else’s words.
ACT THREE
By then, I had married Mary and was the father of twin daughters. I needed an actual job, so I'd gone back to college and become a high school English teacher. I had a rocky start as a teacher, during which time I crossed paths again with Studs. He interviewed me this time for his book Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession  (he changed my name to Peter Soderstrom). In time, I learned to do the work of teaching and grew to adore it as much as I loved theater. My life as an educator included 14 years at Evanston Township High School, a Golden Apple Award, two books, a four-year stint at the Field Museum, three years as Director of Education at Lincoln Park Zoo, and then ten years as professor of education at National Louis University. I retired from there in April 2015.

With Studs Terkel

EPILOGUE
Forty years have passed since I climbed the steps to Wisdom Bridge hoping for a conversation with David Beard about making a theater, making theatre. The Chicago theatrical scene has since exploded to some 300 theaters producing, on a regular basis, new works and artists of local, national and international significance.  My aim in writing this book is to capture, in first person accounts, the lifespan of this vital and vibrant community, so far.
 
But why am I doing this? I love the process. On a daily basis, I get to have intimate conversations with the people making theaters and making theatre, from the surviving members of Playwrights’ Theater Club,  like Joyce Piven, David Shepherd and Ed Asner, to the newest, youngest additions to the Chicago theater community. And by transforming that fascination into a book, I get to share what I hear and learn, which is the natural, irrepressible impulse of a teacher.
    

Agate Publishing

Amanda Steiger

HMS Media


Agate Publishing was founded in 2003 in Chicago and today is a diversified independent publishing company with five distinct imprints. In 2005, Agate started its Agate Development division, a learning content provider that creates materials for large education publishers, schools, associations, and other organizations.

In 2006, Agate acquired Surrey Books, a 25-year-old Chicago-based book publisher, which is now run as an imprint of Agate. In 2012, Agate established a partnership with the Chicago Tribune to publish titles created from Tribune content under its Agate Digital and Midway Books imprints.

In February 2012, Publishers Weekly identified Agate as the fastest-growing small press in America from 2009–2011. Among its authors are winners of the American Book Award, the James Beard Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

HMS Media has received 17 Emmys for broadcast specials featuring Steppenwolf Theatre, The Second City, The Joffrey Ballet, Broadway legend John Kander and many more.
 
HMS has created video content for more than two hundred Broadway shows and tours including Wicked, Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Fun Home, A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, Billy Elliot, Hairspray, The Producers, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera; resident companies including Steppenwolf, The Joffrey, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Lookingglass Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Guthrie, The Goodman, The Second City, Giordano Dance Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Roundabout; and with such notables as Tina Fey, Ben Vereen, Renee Fleming, Hugh Jackman, Sting, Daniel Radcliffe, David Schwimmer, Mary Zimmerman, Charles Randolph-Wright, Norm Lewis, Harvey Fierstein and Phil Collins.
 
HMS creatives serve as advisors to such groups as Arts Alliance Illinois, The League of Chicago Theaters, The Broadway League, Audience Architects, The House Theater, Giordano Dance Chicago and Lucky Plush Productions.


Amanda has been my transcriptionist since my first interview. 
 
She is the author of Mindwalker, published in 2015, by Knopf. She has a second novel underway.

Acknowlegements:
For kindness, wisdom and the generous gift of interest early in this process, thanks  to Doug Seibold at Agate Publishing  and Scott Silberstein at HMS Media Also: Mary, Sarah and Emily Larson, Andy White, Laurence Grimm, P. J. Powers, Timothy Evans, Rick Kogan, Chris Jones, Curt Crotty,  Jennifer Girard,  Steve Baron,  Jane Nicholl Sahlins, Margaret Sheridan,  Carole Dibo,  Jeff Sweet, George Wendt, Marla Seibold, Tina Nolan, Denny Lawton, Cynthia Kania, Susan Klonsky,  Tom Mula,  Lenny Kleinfeld, Kristin Hettich, Albert Williams, Alan Weider,  and Brandon Linden.