From our print archive: Student actors and directors vie for performance space in a thriving theater scene—thereby repeating history.
“You are a bubble floating in the water. You can’t feel anything except the sensation of floating. You can’t do anything except float with the waves. All you can see is the open sea, the open sky, and the endless depths of the water.”
As she talks, at a quarter after seven on an October evening, Joan Polner is lying on the stage of the Reynolds Club first floor theater. Around her, also lying on the floor, are six other student actors whom she is instructing. Looking alarmingly like dead bodies strewn across the stage, the group is engaged in warm-up exercises to prepare themselves for the evening’s performance, the dress rehearsal of Tango, by Polish playwright Sławomir Mrożek. A few minutes before, under Polner’s direction, they had bounced up and down on the stage in a set of fast-paced physical exercises.
“Feel the warm wetness of the water,” whispers Polner, a senior in the College. “Feel yourself floating.”
If these actors can be persuaded to believe, however briefly, in something this far removed from reality, they will more easily become people unlike themselves—namely, the characters they will create on stage in less than an hour.
Meanwhile their director, Justyna Frank, sitting in the house, keeps one eye on her cast lying prone on the stage while she repeatedly tries to fire a gun. Frank, who is working simultaneously on bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the Department of English Language and Literature, appears to be a little frustrated. The previous night the plastic toy gun used in rehearsal shattered to pieces when one of the actors threw it across the stage. The replacement for tonight’s dress rehearsal, a starter’s pistol which fires blanks, won’t break as easily—but then, neither will it work as well.
“I don’t have an AD [assistant director], I don’t have a TD [technical director], but I have a wonderful cast,” Frank says as she relaxes after rehearsal. That fact, for a director of any skill or means, can make up for a lot. “They’re perfect.”
Left: Student director Justyna Frank gives instructions to the cast of Tango by Polish playwright Sławomir Mrożek. The director did her own translation of the play for the 1986 UT production. (Photography by J. Bradley Burgess); right: Charles W. Paltzer, AB 1906, JD 1909, appeared as a chorus girl in The Passing of Pahli Khan, the first Blackfriars production, in 1904. (University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center)
From the beginning of the University’s history, Chicago students like Justyna Frank and Joan Polner have not felt content to let Shakespeare or Ionesco sit on the library shelf only to be read. At least a dozen drama groups have existed on campus at one time or another, serving a range of thespian interests from musical comedy to acrobatic theater.
In the past four years, moreover, the University has enjoyed something of a renaissance in student theater. In this period of renewed interest it has been typical that, for most weekends in the academic quarter, a student group has offered a live production. Such has been the demand for campus theater space that the University Theater (UT) Board, the faculty/staff body which oversees this very active extra-curricular activity, has had to juggle play production proposals each quarter to make things fit.
Last quarter’s schedule required no less juggling. In addition to Justyna Frank’s production of Tango, students this past autumn directed, designed, and acted in productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Sisterly Feelings, Dracula (an adaptation of the novel}, and Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra.
This ambitious season testifies to a diversity among students’ tastes in drama, but of necessity it also requires a kind of unity. At a university where students’ time is precious (during a production, actors and technicians must struggle to squeeze schoolwork into their schedules) and resources of money and space are just as limited, it seemed mutually beneficial last year that the students rally around their common interest in theater in order for it to remain vital on the Chicago campus. To that end, three of the University’s four student theater groups agreed to merge last spring.
“This is a major reorganization of the way theater is done here,” according to Steve Schroer, X’80, managing director of UT. Under the new system, Schroer and UT technical director Bob James serve on the UT Committee with seven students from the three groups. The committee has taken over the task of scheduling each quarter’s season of productions from the UT Board, which will nonetheless continue its supervisory function in student theater here. The responsibility to fund student shows, once the domain of the student government, now also lies with the UT Committee. Its subcommittees, moreover, provide assistance with specific aspects of a production, such as publicity and technical work.
Before the merger a would-be student director spent much of his time searching out money and manpower for his production; now the merger has pooled together the resources available to student theater here. Students who propose to direct a play can rely on the UT Committee and its subcommittees for support.
“Anyone who’s directing has ended up in the last few years doing everything,” said Dan Siemer, a fourth-year student in the College. “You wind up with miserable grades and nervous breakdowns. This way there will be a large body of people you could go to screaming for help.”
No matter how much help one gets, however, theater productions always seem to require some last-minute attention. It is Thursday: at one hour before the opening night curtain Ned Hale and Paul Reubens, junior and senior in the College, respectively, practice their tango for Tango.
“One and two and tan—go switch!”
Offstage, Joan Polner watches Hale and Reubens intently, checking their timing—Hale bows to Reubens, Reubens clamps the stem of a rose between his teeth, and they yield to the Latin rhythm.
“You know why Joan’s so nervous,” says Frank. “She’s listed in the program as choreographer.”
“That looks pretty good, guys,” calls Polner.
The brief dance lesson will have to do. It’s time to get ready for the show.
A 1925 chorus line of women as “the men of campus,” from the first Mirror Revue. (Cap and Gown, 1926)
This idea of a student theater union has played other, older stages at Chicago. Today’s unified body takes its name from the original University Theatre, which formed in 1946—also from a number of separate student groups and from the need to combine and strengthen. Before that, in 1923, a “Dramatic Association” established itself as an umbrella organization for what would become three drama sub-groups.
The leader of the 1923 reorganization effort was an undergraduate whom the 1923 Cap and Gown described as having “rather long hair” and a “terrific stalk;” “his eye, his voice,” according to the yearbook staff, “were awesome things.” The late Will Geer, SB’24, left Chicago to pursue a long, successful career on Broadway and in film and television, and became well-known in the 1970s as the grandfather character on the long-running TV series, The Waltons. In 1923, however, the man who would play wry, kindly Grandpa Walton gave a different first impression to his fellow thespians.” … [He] reminded them of pirates and gave them to shiver,” noted the Cap and Gown.
What William Ghere (he phonetically simplified the spelling of his name for the stage) had actually helped accomplish was to pick up the pieces from the University’s first organized student theater group, the Dramatic Club, which since its founding in 1895 had figured as the most active company on campus.
The Dramatic Club sought out new plays from student authors: it held an annual playwriting contest and presented a bill of the winning one-act plays every June on “Academic Day,” later “Junior Day.” It also produced the work of a well-known author every autumn or winter quarter. On the evening of January 14, 1904, for instance, William Butler Yeats sat in the audience of one of these winter productions, the club’s rendition of his plays The Duenna and The Land o’ Heart’s Desire. From his seat in the Reynolds Club third-floor theater he responded to cries of “Author!” by complimenting the cast on their interpretation of his writing.
By the early 1920s, however, the Dramatic Club suffered from financial difficulties and internal division; this was the club Geer helped to reorganize. In 1924 the new Dramatic Association consisted of three branches: the Tower Players, a men’s dramatic group; the Mirror, an annual women’s musical revue; and the Gargoyles, the controlling board of the Association.
At that point there existed one theater group, the Blackfriars, which did not find it necessary to reorganize under Will Geer’s leadership. Taking their name from the old monastic order, the Blackfriars had organized some twenty years earlier in 1904 to produce original, student-written musical comedies with all-male casts. While other clubs waxed and waned, the ‘Friars enjoyed success after success with their annual spring shows.
In 1918 the world war took many of the Blackfriars “chorines” out of their kick lines and into the trenches, so that year saw no Blackfriars show in Mandel Hall; in 1941, World War II also necessitated a pause in the annual routine. This time, the Blackfriars stage remained dark for thirteen years. Other groups lapsed as well. The formation of UT in 1946 took up the work of the then defunct Dramatic Association, and not until 1955 did the Blackfriars re-register as a recognized student organization.
In their reconstitution the Blackfriars allowed women to join the order, and thus filled the void created by the wartime dissolution of the Dramatic Association’s Mirror Revue. (Like the Blackfriars, the Mirror presented a popular spring musical show which recruited from one gender—in the Mirror’s case, the women of the University—and then cross-dressed some of its cast to provide characters of the opposite sex.) With men and women united, the Blackfriars continued. In the years since, original student-written shows have become rarer, but the Blackfriars nonetheless maintained their musical comedy tradition at Chicago.
When Dan Biemer and his fellow Blackfriars met in the merger negotiations last winter and spring, they found it a difficult tradition to forsake. ‘The tradition was so strong that it was not conceivable to many people that anyone could do a musical besides Blackfriars,” said Biemer, who supported the movement to merge. As it happened, the students reached a compromise: all musicals under the new plan will bear the credit “a UT/Blackfriars production.” Said Biemer, “That sort of preserves the tradition.”
Biemer knows what it takes to preserve a Blackfriars tradition. When his musical comedy ’Til the End of the World played to full houses in autumn quarter 1985, it was the first original show the order had produced in more than three years, only the third in the last decade, and perhaps the sole example of a Blackfriars musical for which one student wrote everything-book, lyrics, and music.
“I did it mostly on breaks,” he explained. “I’d come home and spend two or three weeks just at the typewriter or at the piano.” The process of putting his work on stage taught him some valuable practical lessons (“I’ve got a whole book full of notes for revisions”) which will help him complete his next show, a rock opera called Rick Cosmos and the Green Things From Mars.
Justyna Frank preserved quite another kind of tradition, that of her native language and literature, with her production of Tango. She had read the play in one of her undergraduate English courses and had liked it. The translation she used in class, however, disappointed her—especially when she went back to read the original Polish.
Frank, who emigrated with her parents from Poland in the late 1970s, sensed that something about the translation did not ring true. “The language seemed artificial,” she said. “They [the translators of the published version] missed all the nuances. It seemed to me that they were not Polish—that Polish wasn’t their first language.”
She decided to translate the play herself. Like Biemer, she found the production process invaluable toward the development of her work. Any director or playwright knows that his or her work hasn’t finished once the opening night curtain goes up. Justyna Frank sat through all five performances of Tango—sometimes to check the fluidity of her translation, and—every night in the first act—to run backstage and slam a chair against the floor.
“The gun never did work,” explained Joe Walsh, whose character, Stomil, fires a pistol in the play’s first act. The starter’s pistol which Frank tried to fix on the night of dress rehearsal worked in rehearsal but the blanks would never fire in performance. Frank simulated the sound with the slam of the chair.
Mike Nichols, X’53, presents an episode from the “Living News” at the Compass in 1955. The Compass Players’ use of improvisation paved the way for The Second City theater group and, eventually, Saturday Night Live and similar efforts in nightclubs, onstage, and on television.
Walsh, on leave of absence from the College, has had experience with guns that don’t work and with the dozens of other things which can go wrong in the theater. He has acted in, directed, and assisted with student theater productions since his first year in the College. In all that time he has seen the opportunities for student theater at Chicago improve greatly.
“When I started, there were just Court Studio and Blackfriars,” recalled Walsh. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Court Studio served as a small, experimental offshoot of Court Theatre, the University-supported professional theater. By the time Walsh came to campus as a freshman in 1980, the original UT had long since withered away, and Court Studio provided the only campus forum for non-musical theater.
In 1982 Walsh became involved with a new student theater group, which soon gained a reputation for productions of avant-garde plays with well-designed sets, costumes, and lights. The group, Concrete Gothic Theatre, inspired the formation of several other student theater organizations over the next four years. This proliferation of groups helped create the need to unite which the new UT satisfied last year.
Court Theatre phased out its Court Studio as students began to channel their theatrical activities through student groups, but it continues to offer University students opportunities for experience in theater.
According to Mark Tiarks, Court’s managing director, students participate in many parts of the production process: they serve internships in dramaturgy, directing, designing, management, and set construction. Even Court Theatre’s highly-acclaimed professional stage has held student actors who played non-Equity (non-union) roles. “I regularly go to the student shows and try to keep track of actors who might be interesting,” said Tiarks.
In addition to these professional opportunities, students also can earn credit for their work in theater. “There’s a little known fact that a student at the University of Chicago can graduate with a theater major,” asserted Frank Kinahan, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the College and chairman of the UT Board of faculty advisors. According to Kinahan, students may pursue a course of study with a theater concentration.
“There are three ways in which a student can get academic credit for practical work,” noted Kinahan: “One is through coursework.” Kinahan refers to the courses in acting, directing, and stage design which the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities has offered in the past three years. ‘Another is the Court Theatre internship program. A student can take the internship as a course within the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities, which is supervised by the person they’re immediately working with, and ultimately by me. Finally, you can gain academic credit for working in UT by registering for a reading course in the Committee on General Studies. You can direct, you can design, you can act.”
In addition to these options, students who major in English may pursue a theater concentration (with more of an emphasis on academic work) and/or choose to use theater work as the basis for their bachelor’s papers. In the case of Tango, Joan Polner used her role as Eleanor as the basis for her critical analysis of the play, and Justyna Frank submitted her finished translation to the English department.
For her part, Frank considers the translation a milestone in her life. Whereas she entered the College with the idea that she would study biochemistry, she leaves it this year with plans to make a career of writing and translating for the theater. “This is what I want to do,” she said of the experience, “and this was a way for me to see what it’s like. This was a turning point.”
Somehow, sans theater department, the University has provided a time and a place for the turning points.
Harry Morgan, X’34, first became famous on the 1960s TV police drama “Dragnet,” and then as Colonel Sherman T. Potter on one of television’s longest-running series, “M*A*S*H.” Interestingly enough, the Col. Potter character had a love for horses, which had stemmed from his days in the cavalry of the U.S. Army. As a student in the College, Morgan (then Bratsburg) took a class called “Hippology and Equitation”—in other words, the study of horses.
Celeste Holm, X’34, began her study of drama here; since then, her many professional honors have included Academy Award nominations for her work in the films Come to the Stable (1949) and All About Eve (1950), as well as the 1947 Oscar for best supporting actress in Gentleman’s Agreement.
Marilu Henner, X’74, left the College to begin her career in the touring company of the hit musical Grease. She eventually achieved stardom in the popular TV series Taxi.
In New York Mike Nichols, X’53, has won Antoinette Perry (Tony) awards as director for the Broadway plays Barefoot in the Park (1963), Luv (1964), The Odd Couple (1965), Plaza Suite (1968), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), and The Real Thing (1984); in Hollywood he won an Academy Award as best director for his film The Graduate (1967). In April 1951 Nichols directed his first play in the third floor theater of Ida Noyes Hall, a production of W. B. Yeats’ Purgatory.
Ed Asner, X’48, gets some help from Eugene Troobnick, X’53, in the Playwrights Theater 1954 production of The Bespoke Overcoat by Wolf Mankowitz. (Photo courtesy The Second City Archives)
On that play’s opening night the University audience saw one of Ed Asner’s, X’48, first performances as an actor. Asner became famous as the Lou Grant character in television’s Mary Tyler Moore Show and the spin-off titled Lou Grant; in both series the role won him a total of five of his seven Emmys. In 1947 he had come to the University intending to study political science. After a couple of years he found himself divested of what little academic ambition he had brought to Chicago, but in the process he discovered a new interest: acting. He dropped out of the College and began to take part in UT productions, in which he played such roles as Thomas a Becket in Murder in the Cathedral and Sir Pertinax Surly in The Alchemist.
Asner worked with other people who began to realize their talents in the theater, among them Paul Sills, X’52. “I can remember one time being so angry at him,” said Asner. “He put together a wonderful production of Peer Gynt … and I was playing a troll.
“He irritated me backstage about something and I brought the anger on stage. In my entrance as a troll, I came in and I swung off a beam. I guess I secretly knew karate, which I didn’t know, because I came swinging on the beam and I flacked down on the stage with my bare feet. I broke the two-by-four or whatever we were landing on with my heel. So, naturally Paul was the two-byfour, but it really got it out of my system. That’s the only time I can remember being mad at him.”
Ed Asner played a troll?
“Oh, I was great as a troll,” claimed Asner. “I was fantastic.”
Sills, Asner’s momentary two-by-four, directed several student theater productions at the University. He found himself surrounded by a remarkable pool of talent. Nichols, Asner, Susan Sontag, AB’51, and Fritz Weaver, among others, all acted in student productions at the University during Sills’ time in the College.
Paul Sills, X’52; Charles Jacobs, AB’53, JD’56; Joyce Hiller Piven, X’50; Estelle Luttrell, AB’53; and Eugene Troobnick, X’53, in a 1955 UT publicity still. (University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center)
Partly resulting from this confluence of talent, a group established itself in the autumn of 1950 as the avant garde complement to UT. Called Tonight at 8:30, it proceeded to reflect on stage the intensely creative atmosphere Hyde Park maintained in the early 1950s. “It was the same raw energy that was occurring off Broadway in New York (or about to), in which the moribund stage was brought to life by young people—young people who perhaps did not bring jaded technique, but who brought energy,” recalled Asner. “And [there was] nobody to say ‘No, it’s not done that way.”’
The way they did do it was revolutionary. That group of young people and their association at the University formed the basis for what would become The Second City. In 1953 they left the University and reunited in a company called the Playwrights Theater Club. In 1955, after two years and some two dozen plays produced there, the club lost its North Side theater through fire code violations. Later that year, however, Sills and David Shepherd started an improvisational theater, the Compass Players, in a bar at the corner of 55th Street and University Avenue.
Until 1957 audiences crowded in, five nights a week, to see some inspired chaos. Using improvisational techniques which Sills’ mother, Viola Spolin, had developed, the Compass Players acted not from scripts but from either audience suggestions or their own brief story outlines. The troupe, consisting mostly of UT and Tonight at 8:30 alumni, created a delightful rapport with their audiences and each other.
The chemistry between Nichols and Elaine May, for instance, launched them to national prominence in the late 1950s when they left Chicago. With scenes they had improvised together at the Compass as their act, they found almost immediate success. An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, their two-person show on Broadway, enjoyed great popularity, as did their record albums and their radio and television appearances.
The story is told that they had started their famous collaboration as May waited in one of the downtown Illinois Central stations for a train to Hyde Park. Nichols approached the bench where she sat. “May I sit down?” he intoned in a German accent. “If you weesh,” she replied. They proceeded to improvise a conversation between two secret agents.
Andrew Duncan, X’55, (left, above) as a French couturier; Barbara Harris as a French model; and David Shepherd as Christian Dior, in a Compass Players “Living News” satire in 1955. The skit was a take-off on a column in the Chicago Daily News on Christian Dior. (Photo courtesy David Shepherd)
They ended their unique partnership in order to pursue their separate careers, but until they did, one of their producers was Bernie Sahlins, AB’ 43. Sahlins knew as well as Nichols and May that the Compass’ new ideas held great potential for the theater. With Sills and Howard Alk, he helped start a new nightclub, The Second City, at 1842 North Wells Street. Sahlins acted as business manager, Sills as director, and Alk as actor in a cast which also included Roger Bowen, X’ 55, Severn Darden, X’50, Andrew Duncan, X’55, Eugene Troobnick, X’53, Barbara Harris, and Mina Kolb. Like the Nichols and May routines the cast generated its material, a satirical revue of songs and sketches, from improvisation in rehearsal and performance. Also like Nichols and May, they met with success.
The Second City has since become a national institution of comedy. When in the mid-1970s Saturday Night Live became the hit of late-night television, Second City could claim credit both as the training ground for many of its comedians and as the prototype for its irreverent satire. Through the John Belushis and the Bill Murrays, Sahlins has produced and/ or directed the semi-annual Second City revues for their entire twenty-seven-year history in Chicago.
Sahlins returned to campus this past October—back to where it ultimately began for the revolution in American theater—to teach students what he has done so successfully and well at The Second City. The Committee on General Studies in the Humanities sponsored his course, “The Short Comic Scene,” which Sahlins made available to students by audition only. From the approximately 120 who tried out for him last spring, Sahlins chose twenty students for registration in the autumn quarter class.
Improvisation is back on campus. Bernard Sahlins, AB’43, (above, right) a co-founder of The Second City, taught a course on “The Short Comic Scene” in fall 1986. Above he directs graduate student Ellen Nerenberg, AM’86, and fourth-year Matt Denckla. (Photography by J. Bradley Burgess)
“I came back to campus because of the kind of student at Chicago,” said Sahlins. “I want my actors to play at the top of their intelligence. Eventually, they will get to the point that they become self-sufficient. I want to be able to leave here having created an on-going thing.” This spring in the Cloister Club at Ida Noyes Hall the students will perform their castwritten revue, which for an unusual class like this may well serve as the final exam.
While most of the students Sahlins directed have no experience in improvisation, some have studied the technique already under Steve Schroer. Schroer reinstated the study of improvisational theater at the University: for the last three years he has conducted workshops in improvisation and in 1985 he began Avant-Garfielde, a weekly show of live improvisation at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. As they once did at Compass (whose building stood half a block west of Jimmy’s) Hyde Parkers fill the room, drink beer, and throw out suggestions for scenes to the troupe.
Paul Sills, who directed those earlier improvisers at the Compass, said, “One of the reasons Chicago had such an impact on theater, if you want to know the truth, is that it never had a drama department. Well, I don’t know why. It’s sort of a paradox. Everybody that was in it that was interested in theater had a chance through the University or through Tonight at 8:30 to make their own forms. We had the energy to do that. Whereas if we had been trained by Mr. This or Mr. That, working in classes, I doubt we’d have had that same energy or that same ability to keep working. We just did what we did, and learned thereby.”
At 10:30 on this Thursday night, the theater doors open. Tango’s opening night audience straggles into the Reynolds Club stair hall and begins to mingle with the cast.
Oblivious to the excitement around him, Paul Reubens looks at his makeup-stained costume, a black full-cut tuxedo, and sighs, “This definitely needs to be dry-cleaned.”
Frank makes her way through the groups of well-wishers and embraces Reubens, tuxedo and all. “The dance worked!”
She’s happy because tonight the elements of her play—except for the gun—have come together for the first time. People have come together: Frank’s mother and father from the northwest side of Chicago watch her as she accepts from friends the congratulations her work has earned. Concepts have come together.
“The people in this play are just like some people in Poland,” says Frank. Her mother and father agree—they saw political relevance in the playwright Mrożek’s work. “I didn’t see it until tonight,” Frank says, a little amazed.
“Being in theater at UT,” remembered Ed Asner, “you were forced to learn about things other than theater.”
Like many who have contributed to the vitality of student theater here, what Justyna Frank learned had to do with those other things.
Mark Ray Hollmann, AB’85, is a staff writer for the Magazine. As a student in the College, he directed and acted in student theater productions, in 1985 winning a Louis J. Sudler Prize in the Performing and Creative Arts. He now appears regularly with the improvisational theater group Avant-Garfielde at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap in Chicago.
Editor’s note: We spell it “theater.” Theatrical groups, over the years, have spelled it “theatre.” We respect the difference. The X after a person’s name indicates an alumnus/a who matriculated but did not graduate. The numerals indicate the last year in which he/she was on campus.