A Clarendon Hills middle school student treks across war zones alongside an Academy Award nominee. A Glendale Heights native helps re-create one of the Civil War's pivotal battles at an intimate storefront theater. And a Larkin High School graduate takes on the role of a legendary activist. They are among the many suburban theater artists working on Chicago stages right now.
'There's always next time'
Emma Gordon likes to focus on the positive.
Even when things don't go the way the 11-year-old actress would like, the Clarendon Hills native stays upbeat.
"I always figured if I didn't get it (a part), it wasn't meant to be. There's always next time," Gordon said.
Gordon made her stage debut at age 5 playing a munchkin in the Hinsdale Community House production of "The Wizard of Oz." By 7, she had turned professional. She played Emily Cratchit in Goodman Theatre's 2011 "A Christmas Carol"; performed in "Annie" at Aurora's Paramount Theatre; played Madeline on NBC's "Chicago Fire" and lent her voice to national radio advertisements.
She currently plays The Girl opposite Joan Allen in Steppenwolf Theatre's American premiere of Zinnie Harris' "The Wheel."
The production marks Gordon's Steppenwolf debut.
"I'm excited about every show I get," she said. "But it's definitely an exciting thing being onstage with Joan Allen. She's super nice and talented."
While she admits to opening-night jitters, Gordon has not had to worry too much about stage fright.
"I just smile, take a deep breath and keep going," she says.
Eight performances a week don't leave the Clarendon Hills Middle School sixth grader a lot of free time. Most of it is taken up with dance and voice classes, school and homework.
"My teachers are very supportive," said Gordon, who keeps up with her classes despite having to sandwich coursework between scenes.
As for the future, she hopes to make acting a career even though she doesn't have any jobs lined up after "The Wheel" closes in November. But she is considering trying out for a show a little closer to home.
"There's a school play in the spring I would like to audition for," she said.
Steppenwolf Theatre's "The Wheel" runs through Nov. 10 at 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Tickets cost $20-$82. (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.
Actor embraces new artistic home
Christopher Hainsworth and the cast of Lifeline Theatre's "The Killer Angels" had a daunting task remounting Karen Tarjan's adaptation of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which the theater premiered in 2004.
"We certainly knew that a great show can come out of this," said the Glendale Heights native, who plays Union Army Brigadier General John Buford and General Robert E. Lee's aide-de-camp, Major Walter Taylor.
"So far the feedback has been positive," said Hainsworth.
He said the cast doesn't want to disappoint the book's fans. But, at the same time, he acknowledges the impossibility of reducing hundreds of pages of text to two hours of theater.
Adapting works for the stage is something Hainsworth, a Glenbard East High School graduate, understands all too well.
After graduating from Illinois State University in 1994, he interned at Steppenwolf Theatre and began acting in Chicago, joining the Strawdog Theatre ensemble in 2000. When writer Hank Boland established Strawdog's new works initiative in 2006, Hainsworth signed on and penned several audio plays.
In 2010, he joined Lifeline. Two years later, he adapted Elise Blackwell's "Hunger" for his new artistic home, a 31-year-old company known for its literary adaptations.
"The adaptation process at Lifeline is 90 percent writer-generated," said Hainsworth, an emeritus ensemble member at Strawdog. "Someone says; 'I read this book. I love it. I think we can do something with this onstage.'"
Ensemble members never ask how they could do something onstage, said Hainsworth, but why they would do it.
"It's a very collaborative process," he said. "All we want is to tell the best story in the best way possible."
That sometimes means "killing your darlings," said Hainsworth, who is currently adapting Terry Bratchett's "Monstrous Regiment" for a spring 2014 production. "Killing your darlings" means excising characters or scenes that you love as a reader in order to produce a coherent, workable theatrical work.
It isn't easy, but it has helped Hainsworth hone not just his writing skills but his ability to persuade.
"If I want to fight for something, I have to have a better reason than 'because,'" he said. "I have to know why it fits in the story and what I'm trying to say."
Lifeline Theatre's "The Killer Angels" runs through Oct. 27 at 6912 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. Tickets cost $20-$40. (773) 761-4477 or lifelinetheatre.com.
Volunteer finds career
If Bartlett native BrittneyLove Smith had not volunteered for her fifth-grade school play, her life might have gone in a different direction.
She might never have performed onstage at Larkin High School in Elgin, attended Columbia College Chicago or become an actress.
"My school did a show back in fifth grade and they took volunteers. I kind of thought, 'sure I'll do it,' and I was instantly hooked," said Smith, 24.
She is currently appearing in Theater Seven of Chicago's "Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 years of Extraordinary Chicago Women." The show is made up of eight short plays.
"This play tackles a lot of things," Smith said. "Relationships, poverty, class, identity and so much more. The women are the pillars that ground each individual time period or movement in that moment, but they all tie into the themes of equality, understanding and why women needed the right to vote and to be seen as equals."
Smith plays a fictional character named Melody as well as journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, a woman the actress considers a personal hero.
"It was intimidating at first," she said, "but it's been an honor and I've had a lot of fun."
Theatre Seven's production marks the first time the actress has played an historical figure, which only adds to the importance of the performance.
"I try to pick shows that speak to me," Smith said. "I definitely try to challenge myself and I'm really passionate about a women's perspective, the colored women's perspective, most things not told from the majority perspective, which is why I was drawn to this project."
Since graduating from Columbia College in 2011, Smith has appeared in other Chicago productions, including Crowded Tub's "Romeo and Juliet" where she played the Nurse. She performed in "Doubt" and "Agnes of God" at American Theatre Company and appeared in the salon-themed reality show "Chicagolicious" on the Style Network. Smith also did voice-over work for local radio station WBEZ, but she prefers live theater.
"There's more of a community, more of a trust when it comes to the stage," Smith said. "It feels like people addressing people on a human level, stripping the walls down in one intimate space."
Theater Seven of Chicago's "Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 years of Extraordinary Chicago Women" runs through Oct. 27 at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago. Tickets cost $16-$20. (773) 853-3158 or theatreseven.org.