Friday, August 11, 2017

A Visit with Author Mark Larson: How the Chicago Theater Scene Came to Rock the World

I was introduced to Mark Larson via my Chicago connection to the theater/literary scene, Margie Marcus, who shared with me her story of being in on the ground floor with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater. Her enthusiasm for the arts is infectious, and over the years she's taken advantage of every opportunity she could afford to see her friends' evolving careers in theater and to hear authors talk about their projects.

A few years back Bill Payne, Dean of the College of Fine Arts here at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD) told me about how Chicago's theater scene took root and emerged to foster so many significant careers. Therefore, when Margie mentioned that Mark Larson was producing a book that excavated details and stories from the people who were part of this Chicago phenomenon, it seemed worth pursuing and sharing here.

One common denominator between Margie's story and Mark's is Studs Terkel. Here's a quick Mark Larson snapshot. And here's a little information about his new book which will be released sometime in 2018...

EN: How did Chicago become so influential in the arts?

Mark Larson: In 1953, when my narrative begins, Chicago had very little in the way of homegrown theater for audiences to see. Their choices were mostly touring shows from New York, summer stock and some community theater. But the convergence of such talents as Paul Sills, David Shepherd, Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Fritz Weaver, Barbara Harris, Joyce (Hiller) Piven, Byrne Piven and others, at the University of Chicago, began to change all that. They formed a company called Playwrights Theater Club, ambitiously mounting some two dozen classic plays in two years, and, in the process, discovering their own significant talent. By 1955, David Shepherd and some of the people who started Playwrights created an improv company called Compass Players that before the end of the decade birthed the now world famous Second City which continues to mass produce huge comedic and dramatic talents. A combination of factors made Chicago a fertile context to foment a creative movement that would eventually yield over 250 working theater companies. The sixties encouraged experimentation and dismissal of all the old rules, the Democratic Convention of ’68 gave creative hearts and minds something significant at which to aim their talents. Housing and performance space was reactively affordable, encouraging young artists to rent an abandoned storefront (which sometimes doubled as a domicile), slam in a stage and some chairs (usually scavenged) and test their talents in front of an audience that seemed willing and eager to see new works and talents in the making. That spirit of risk-taking and making do, and the conditions that encouraged modest beginnings continue today.

EN: Your upcoming book Ensemble Chicago is subtitled The Making of a Theater Town, An Oral History.  How long have you been interviewing the principle players in Chicago's theatre scene? 300 interviews is an impressive number. Who are some of the folks we'll be reading about in your book?

ML: As of the summer of 2016, I have been working on this book for 2.5 years. I have spoken to many artists that readers will have heard of, like Michael Shannon, William H. Macy, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, William Petersen, Jeff Perry, Laurie Metcalf, Brian Dennehy, Ed Asner, Jim Belushi, Amy Landecker, David Schwimmer, George Wendt and many more. But the premise of the book is that Chicago became the theater town it is because many talents converged, cooperated and built it together. So there are also interviews with artists, critics and administrators whose names readers will not know but who are no less significant to the story, like sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, stage manager Joe Drummond who just retired after 43 years at the venerable Goodman Theater, and architect, John Morris, who worked with theater companies to design buildings that reflected the aesthetic that brought them to prominence, like Steppenwolf Theater, Black Ensemble Theater and Lookingglass Theater among others.

EN: What have been your own biggest personal takeaways as a result of assembling this book?

ML: Personal takeaways: Memory is a precarious and adventurous ladder. Few people know they’re making history while they’re making it and rarely give it a moment’s thought; fewer still, have that as their intention. And only a handful, years later, are willing or able to admit, Yea, I guess we did do something that became part of history. Many of those who have achieved our traditional notions of success and/or fame still see themselves as the scruffy kids scrounging for a lunch a drink a fuck and a place to perform. Each generation has honored its responsibility to lift up and encourage the next and usually-- not always, but usually--delights in seeing their successors succeed beyond their own achievements. Because ticket prices are relatively low, compared to New York, Chicago audiences see a great deal more theater than most New Yorkers. Sometimes the artists who were cutting-edge, risk-taking, shatter-the-rules radicals of their day have become Luddites today who say things like, “I don’t trust that whole Internet thing.” Rarely do they hesitate to take a walk with me into their past and often stay longer than they originally said they had time for. Even the ones who have become household names wish they could (and sometimes do) perform on a little platform in a storefront with folding chairs and coffee can lights. It’s thrilling to remember that even the most venerable institutions that have changed the city’s figurative as well as literal landscape were once nothing more than an ambitious conversation over a drink in a bar or sitting at the lakefront or laying in a bed. Someone saying, “Know what I’ve been thinking…?”

EN: Though Studs Terkel was born in New York, he's associated with Chicago. Was he, in some way, an inspiration for your "Oral Biography" approach to this subject?

ML: Studs moved with his family to Chicago when he was eight years old, and Chicagoans consider him our guy. Studs was a major influence on my choosing this approach. I had read his books Working and Division Street when I was young and was deeply affected by the ways he honored all lives and many points of view making no distinction between the so-called celebrity and the average working (or non-working) man or woman. That ethos guided my own work, that and his potent ability to listen deeply. I was also privileged to be interviewed by him twice. Once for his book, Race, in which he gave me the false name, Peter Soderstum. He later interviewed me again for Hope Dies Last. While he ultimately did not use the latter interview, I did get to spend another three hours in his living room soaking up an up-close tutorial by the master. I also got to sit in on a live interview he did with Burr Tillstrom in the WFMT studio from which he broadcast live for years.

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Of our common connection, Mr. Larson had this to say: "I've known Margie a year or so. I was moderating an event for John Mayer who wrote a book on Steppenwolf, and Margie introduced herself afterward." That's how many good things begin, with an introduction.

Like Chicago itself, this book is big. To get a sense of its breadth visit the website,

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Thanks, Mark, for making time to share a piece of your story.

Photos: Sarah Elizabeth Larson Photography

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