Suburban actors thrive in Chicago storefronts
Anyone experienced with Chicago theater knows the talent pool is deep and wide. So wide it extends well past the city limits into the suburbs, which supply Chicago's thriving storefront scene with an invaluable resource. We caught up with several suburban-based actors — two veterans and a newcomer — currently appearing in Chicago to chat about their lives in theater.
When newcomer Akvavit Theatre premieres three one-acts by Norwegian writer Jon Fosse next week, they'll do so with the able assistance of Jan Sodaro, a veteran of the Chicago theater scene who plays the Older Woman in "A Summer's Day," about a woman unable to come to terms with a past loss.
"A Soldier's Play"
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. (773) 338-2177 or raventheatre.com
Time: 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through March 30
Admission: $36; $15 for veterans and students
Rating: For adults
"Winter," "Autumn Dream" and "A Summer's Day"
What: Three, one-act plays by Jon Fosse
Where: The Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago. (800) 595-4849 or akvavittheatre.org
Time: 7:30 p.m. Thursday ("A Summer's Day"/"Winter"); 7:30 p.m. Friday ("Winter"/ "Autumn Dream"); 7:30 p.m. Saturday ("Autumn Dream"/"A Summer's Day"); 3 p.m. Sunday (all three plays), through March 24
Admission: $15, Thursday to Saturday; $22 Sunday
Rating: For adults
An Elmhurst native who grew up in Batavia and St. Charles, Sodaro earned a theater degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and started acting in Chicago during the 1970s. While humming with possibility, Chicago theater wasn't the hotbed it is today.
"There weren't hundreds of little theaters like there are now. There were just a few," she said. "Now there are so many opportunities for young people to perform."
After a few years, Sodaro married, had a son and earned an MBA from Chicago's Loyola University, which led her down a different career path. After 20 years, she returned to her first love. "It was a midlife crisis," she joked about her return to acting in the late 1990s. "I really missed it."
She took an acting class with Kurt Naebig, a longtime member of Glen Ellyn's Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, and began auditioning.
Her first offer came from a nonequity production, which posed a problem for the longtime union member. In the end, art prevailed. Sodaro withdrew from the union and has worked steadily ever since, making her artistic home at Lifeline Theatre, a company known for its literary adaptations.
Having done lighter fare at Lifeline, the play by Fosse — whose work has been compared to Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter — is something of a departure for Sodaro. It has also proved to be a challenge.
"It's intense. The language Fosse uses is very poetic," she said. "It's very spare, (yet) emotions come out in this deceptively simple language."
Sodaro feels honored to help introduce audiences to a playwright largely unknown in the U.S. She believes Chicago audiences, adventurous as they are, will embrace his work.
"It's a lovely, sensitive piece," she said. "I think audiences will be inspired."
For an actor, Brian Keys is a pretty good musician.
A former candy store employee, Keys, 26, sang while making fudge at Aurora's now-shuttered Fudgery, whose employees routinely provided musical entertainment for their customers. He's also a multi-instrumentalist proficient in piano, bassoon, saxophone, trumpet, oboe and percussion. What Keys didn't play was the guitar, which is the instrument his character, Private C.J. Memphis, plays in Raven Theatre's revival of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier's Play."
Keys did what he has always done: He learned on the job. And within a month, he had added guitar to his repertoire. That's typical for this Oswego High School graduate whose mother told him he was not going to college to study the performing arts. If he wanted to learn theater, she said, he would have to learn on the job.
A native of Chicago's South Side who moved with his family to West Aurora, Keys developed a love of the arts as a child. He studied music and participated in his school's drama club before graduating to community theater.
He went on to Roosevelt University where he honored his mother's wishes and studied business and graphic arts. But he never lost his love of performing. He considers his role in Raven's revival as his first big theater break, and he describes working with director Michael Menendian and his well-established actors as a wonderful learning experience.
Keys is especially glad to be working on "A Soldier's Play" during Black History Month. It's an examination of racial tension under the guise of a murder investigation on a U.S. Army base in Louisiana in the '40s.
"Mike chose it because it's a great story. Although set in 1944, it brings out issues that are prevalent in today's society, which is still not perfect," Keys said. "To audiences, it's a classic whodunit. But at the same time, each individual character reflects some aspect of society."
Keys is enjoying his big break, but he's not resting on his laurels. Having experienced life as a "starving actor," he's working with a Chicago production company, auditioning for other shows and playing music.
"My friends say my work is never done, that I'm always working," he said. "For me it's a blessing."
Another actor in "A Soldier's Play." Schaumburg resident Tim Walsh, credits his father with instilling in him a love of theater. Beginning when Walsh was in grade school, his father, a longtime community theater actor and director, took his youngest to rehearsals, where the boy occasionally filled in for absent actors.
Walsh, a native of Glencoe, had his first taste of success in third grade, playing Santa in a school production. He continued acting in junior high and high school and, at 18, skipped college and acted professionally in Chicago.
Realizing he couldn't support a family on an actor's salary, he earned a degree in television production at Chicago's Columbia College and went to work for Fox TV in Chicago. He currently works for a production company.
Walsh returned to acting several years ago and is now playing Capt. Charles Taylor in "A Soldier's Play" at Raven, where he appeared last year in director Michael Menendian's revival of "Bang the Drum Slowly."
Things have changed since Walsh arrived on the scene nearly 30 years ago.
"Opportunities are much more plentiful now," he said. "One thing that hasn't changed is the desire of Chicago performers, producers and directors to dig down and find the most creative way to present their craft. They are just as hungry and just as eager as they have always been."
At 47, Walsh says he's still honing his craft.
"Every time I turn around I learn something new," he said.
As for playing Taylor — a racist white officer in charge of African-American soldiers — Walsh calls it his most challenging role in 25 years.
"It's been very difficult," admits Walsh, who says he peels off the uniform as quickly as possible after a performance and heads outside for a breath of fresh air.
"Every night I get a cold blast of air, breath it out, cleanse myself and get myself back to Tim-land," he said.
It helps that the play ends on a hopeful note, and that he plays opposite Frank Pete, who stars as Captain Richard Davenport, whose investigation into the murder of an African-American soldier under Taylor's command propels the story.
"I could not do it without Frank, who brings fire every night," he said.
Ultimately, Walsh says the play reminds us how much work we have left to do. We may have an African-American president, he says, but the struggle for racial tolerance and understanding continues.
"It takes time, determination and all of us as Americans working together," he said. "We need to recognize that we're not there yet, but we can do it."
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