“Chicago may get a resident theatre company.”
It may be hard to believe, but, according to producer Albert Poland, this was once the cover headline on the Chicago Daily News. Imagine a city so excited about the prospect of a theatre making its home there that it was the top story on the front page.
The company in question was an itinerant troupe called the American Conservatory Theater, for which Poland was then serving as press agent. Yes, the company ended up in San Francisco, but for a chunk of 1966 and ’67, the Chicago media was captured by the tantalizing prospect that ACT would be based in Chicago.
As it happens, though, Chicago losing its chance to host ACT may have been a stroke of luck.
At the time, I was a theatre-mad 16-year-old living in Evanston, just north of the city. To be theatre-mad in that area in those days was to live on a pretty thin diet. There were a couple dinner-theatre operations; Bob Sickinger was attempting some edgy fare with non-Equity actors at Hull House; and Second City, which had opened in 1959, was solidifying its reputation as the country’s premier improvisational theatre.
Otherwise, theatregoers were at the mercy of what was booked into Chicago’s downtown auditoriums on tour. Some of it was creditable: Dane Clark starred in a snappy production of Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, Dorothy Loudon romped through Luv with Tom Bosley, Luther Adler was a moving Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and genuine Fosse goddess Chita Rivera languorously stretched her legs in the title role in Sweet Charity.
On the other hand, I also remember a production of Bill Manhoff’s two-character play The Owl and the Pussycat, starring Pat Suzuki and Richard Vath. I wanted to experience the glamour of an opening night, so I bought a ticket in the balcony, hoping to get a glimpse of Chicago’s fashionable set. As it happens, that night Vath was indisposed. The stage manager, Joseph DePauw, went on for him carrying the script. Critic William Leonard of the Chicago Tribune gave DePauw a better review than Suzuki. I can’t help but imagine how the conversation between the producers behind the scenes must have gone. “We’re going to put the stage manager on? Reading from the book, for opening night?!” “Who cares? It’s just Chicago.”
It was this kind of attitude that infuriated Claudia Cassidy, who for more than 20 years was the Tribune’s chief drama critic. In Bigger, Brighter, Louder (an addictive collection of reviews assembled by current Tribune critic Chris Jones from the paper’s archive), Cassidy is quoted again and again on two themes: her rage at the shabby quality of many of the touring productions and her desire to see a first-class resident company in her town.
A piece in the Tribune by William Leonard on June 5, 1966, with the headline “Repertory at Ravinia Promises Excitement,” suggested that at least the first of Cassidy’s complaints might be addressed. Leonard called the scheduled opening of ACT on August 23 “one of the most intriguing [steps into the drama] that has been tried anywhere in Chicago territory in a decade or two.”
The company had begun in 1965 with money from the Rockefeller Foundation as a shared project of the Pittsburgh Playhouse and what was then called Carnegie Tech, many of whose alumni were in the initial ensemble. ACT was conceived as both a training and a producing organization. William Ball, a graduate of Carnegie who had made a name for himself directing classical productions in New York and around the country, became the general director and supervised an initial six-month season in Pittsburgh, which, by all accounts, was well-received.
Why, after the initial success in Pittsburgh, ACT didn’t take up residence there is not known for certain. René Auberjonois, who was part of the inaugural company, says there were rumors that Ball ran afoul of the local power elite because of “quote-unquote sexual misbehavior.” (One unverified story concerned a liaison between Ball and the son of a donor.) At any rate, the company started booking dates elsewhere to stay alive while looking for a new base.
After brief engagements in Connecticut at the Westport Playhouse and Goodspeed Opera House, a run was secured in 1966 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. San Francisco had just lost the Jules Irving-–Herbert Blau Actors Workshop when Irving and Blau moved to take over the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center in NYC. Auberjonois recalls, “The Chamber of Commerce and all the bigwigs from San Francisco chartered a bus to the Stanford campus to see the opening night. We blew them away.” Talks began immediately about finding ACT a home in downtown San Francisco.
In the meantime, the company turned their eyes to their next gig, a four-week run scheduled Aug. 23–Sept. 18, 1966 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill. The plan was to fly the company east to Chicago and continue rehearsals for the productions scheduled to play there. An airline strike intervened. So much for the plan. The company was booked into sleepers on a train.
Austin Pendleton remembers, “Almost all of the shows at Ravinia were going to be things we had already played. But we had to work on Charley’s Aunt with René, so we rehearsed it in the lounge car in the afternoon as we traveled through the great West. We would be working out farcical business and the train, up in the Rockies, would suddenly go around a curve and….” He leaves the resulting chaos undescribed. “Then we’d have dinner in the dining car with the passengers. And then you’d go between cars and there would be different people in the company making out on the way to their berths. There were a lot of short romances. I think the trip went on like this for maybe three days. I’m probably idealizing it, but it was heaven.”
In the meantime, Albert Poland was in Chicago stirring up an audience. “I was 23 and I had never had one second of experience as a press agent,” he says, laughing at the memory of the nerve he mustered. “I went there two months in advance and talked to everybody—radio, television, the newspapers. They were all totally receptive and interested. Bernie Sahlins at Second City, Chuck Booth of the Ivanhoe Theatre, Bob Sickinger of Hull House—they were all wonderful to me. They gave me advice and stuffed their programs with our flyers.”
As Poland relates in his book, Stages, he was also referred to Danny Newman, who was in charge of subscriptions for Chicago’s Lyric Opera. (In 1977, Newman would publish Subscribe Now!, a book that became a bible for performing arts marketers.) “Danny designed two mailing brochures for us. He suggested what mailing lists to use. By the time ACT opened, we were sold out.”
I don’t remember if I responded to one of Newman’s brochures, but I somehow raised the money to buy a subscription to all six of the plays offered at Ravinia. Poland remembers that advertisements bragged that the dusty, little-used venue in which they played was “air-cooled.” Asked how “air-cooled” differed from “air-conditioned,” Poland says his impression is that the former consisted of a fan positioned behind a big block of ice.
One right after another, like fireworks in the summer sky, the shows opened: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Charley’s Aunt, Misalliance, Uncle Vanya, Beyond the Fringe and Tiny Alice. I had seen a touring version of Beyond the Fringe, but all of the other plays were new to me. As Auberjonois says, “The reviews verged on hysteria, as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.” The engagement was soon extended and the repertory expanded by two more shows, Endgame and Under Milk Wood. I saw those, too. God knows what, from my perspective as a high school kid, I must have made of Endgame, not to mention Vanya and Alice. But I knew this was a different order of work than I had seen before.
Hope Abelson, who produced in New York but was based in Chicago, had been instrumental in ACT’s Ravinia run, and she tried to mobilize the community to offer a permanent residence downtown in the Civic Theatre on Michigan Avenue. The ongoing drama of offers and negotiations ran in the local press like a serial. Factor into the drama the wild card who was William Ball.
“Bill was quite crazy,” Auberjonois states flatly. “He was very much in thrall to Dr. Max Jacobson.” Known by the nicknames “Miracle Max” and “Doctor Feelgood,” Jacobson claimed to have invented a special cocktail of super vitamins he injected into a long list of celebrity patients, also including Tennessee Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mantle and President Kennedy. The “vitamins” were subsequently revealed to include amphetamines. Auberjonois reckons that this dosing did not improve Ball’s judgment. (Ball regularly accused members of the company of spying on him for arts agencies.)
The wonder is that, given his instability, Ball not only was able to put together an extraordinary company but to direct many of its signature offerings. Says Pendleton, “All these productions were like ballets. When I was put into his Tartuffe, I was taught every gesture and every line reading. I ordinarily hate that sort of thing, but in this case it was kind of thrilling, because the productions were so good, so inspired. It felt like what it must have been like with Orson Welles in the early days—that breathtaking theatrical imagination. It was a heightened version of legitimately understood human behavior, but taken one step further. And, if you were in the Equity company, you had classes in movement and voice, and so on. It was wonderful.”
So, if you were William Ball, a gay man in 1966, shooting up speed and given to wild fits of paranoia, and you had a choice between living in the Chicago of Mayor Daley (the first) and the laidback environs of San Francisco, how many nanoseconds would it take for you to figure out where you would feel more comfortable?
There was a Plan B: to have the company shuttle between the two cities. A story in the Sept. 15, 1966, Tribune told of a conference planned between principals from San Francisco and Chicago to work out logistics. The logistics didn’t work out. ACT made encore visits to Ravinia in 1967 and 1969, then left, never to return. (Some years later, Ball was dismissed from the troupe he had created. In 1991, he committed suicide.)
Says the Tribune’s Chris Jones, “It’s probably a good thing it didn’t work out.” Still, the short-lived ACT experiment left a hunger in its wake. Hope Abelson, who had been instrumental in bringing ACT to Chicago and had fought so hard to try to keep it there, shifted her attention to encouraging Chicago to grow its own. And the passion ACT had excited among Chicago theatregoers (this one among them) demonstrated that there was an appetite in a city that had long been underestimated as a cultural backwater, a place for gangsters and political chicanery—in poet Carl Sandberg’s famous phrase, “hog butcher for the world.” Indigenous companies started to spring up, and Abelson was there with her advice and her checkbook.
“Of course,” Jones points out, “the work these new theatres did turned out to be quite different than the classical model Claudia Cassidy had hoped to see.” In the vacuum left by William Ball came people like Stuart Gordon, who in 1969 created the exuberant and uninhibited Organic Theater Company in Madison, Wisc., then moved it to Chicago in 1970. Strongly influenced by comic books and genre movies, and featuring rock-and-roll, unapologetic vulgarity and frequent displays of skin, the Organic was in the vanguard of what came to be viewed as Chicago-style theatre, which would soon include the wall-slamming, take-no-prisoners approach of the early days of Steppenwolf, founded in 1974. Many other companies were launched around the same time, and by the late ’70s the renaissance was in full swing. It has barely paused for breath since.
As for me, I left Evanston in 1967 for New York. I remember thinking that if a ragtag group like ACT, using little more than spit and glue, could put up productions so potent, New York—with greater resources—would have to be even more dazzling. I was soon disabused.
Jeffrey Sweet is a writer based in New York.