John Mahoney has advice for actors working at Northlight Theatre for the first time.
"Don't try any shortcuts. Don't try to fool anybody. Be as honest as you possibly can," says the Tony Award winner, who appeared there earlier this year in the world premiere of Christian O'Reilly's "Chapatti."
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It's difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of Northlight audiences, said the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member and co-star of TV's long-running "Frasier."
"They're smart," he says. "They know good theater."
And they should. They've had 40 years of it.
A beacon in the 'burbs, Northlight has produced 208 plays (40 of them world premieres) to become the area's fourth largest theater with about 6,100 subscribers and annual audiences of about 60,000.
The theater, now in Skokie, traces its roots back to the Evanston Theatre Company, which actor Mike Nussbaum, director Frank Galati and then Northwestern University doctoral candidate Greg Kandel founded in 1974. Within a few years, they changed the name to Northlight, a subtle reference to an artist's ideal light, and the company's North Shore address.
Kandel said the company was conceived as the theater equivalent of a teaching hospital, where young practitioners could learn their craft under the guidance of more experienced artists. He credits Galati (who directed the company's inaugural production, Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers") and Nussbaum, Northlight's first artistic director, with the company's early success.
"He (Nussbaum) knew so many people and was so beloved and respected. The rest of us were nobodies," said Kandel of the original ensemble, which also included BJ Jones, Barry Cullison and future Tony Award winner Judith Ivey.
The theatrical landscape looked different then, but Northlight wasn't exactly the lone voice, said Kandel, co-founder of the League of Chicago Theatres. In Chicago, Goodman Theatre was a mainstay. The Body Politic, which debuted in 1969, heralded the off-Loop movement, which also included Wisdom Bridge, founded in 1973 in Rogers Park. In the south suburbs, Drury Lane Evergreen Park and the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse thrived.
Times were changing, however. Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens theaters debuted in 1974, the same year as Northlight. Marriott Theatre bowed the following year in Lincolnshire.
Companies beget other companies, making it "clear to us this would be a special theater community," Kandel said.
Northlight called Kingsley Elementary School on Green Bay Road home until 1990. The company moved to the Coronet Theatre in Evanston, but after four years became itinerant. Never straying far from its suburban base, Northlight took up residence in 1997 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Subscriptions doubled the first year, said Jones, who took over as artistic director in 1998.
"That's when I knew we were on the right track," said Jones, who has directed numerous Northlight shows. "The competition continues to grow and we still maintain an 85 percent renewal among our subscriber base."
"The moral of the story is listen to your audience. If you're connected with them ... they will respond," said Jones, referring to the 200 subscribers who last month signed up for a season that includes two world and a regional premiere.
"That indicates a level of trust," he said. And it dispels the myth that suburban audiences shy away from new works.
As for Northlight's achievements, Jones points to Interplay, its new play development program which attracts upward of 200 patrons to staged readings of in-development works. Recent successes include: "Better Late" by the late Larry Gelbart and Craig Wright and Bruce Graham's "The Outgoing Tide" (featuring Mahoney and fellow Steppenwolf member Rondi Reed).
Of Northlight's 29 commissions, 25 have had other productions, said Jones, including Wright's "Grace." The play premiered at Northlight in 2005 and opened on Broadway in 2012, with Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon reprising his role.
Jones also speaks fondly of Jason Robert Brown's chamber musical, "The Last Five Years," a 2001 Northlight premiere. Impressed with his music, Jones asked Brown if he had a "vest-pocket musical" Northlight could produce. Brown said he had one about his marriage. It took all of two songs to convince Jones to stage the show at Northlight.
The theater's relationship with Graham unfolded similarly when Jones, a longtime friend, asked if he had anything suitable for Mahoney and Reed, a Chicago theater vet who stars as the acerbic Peggy on the CBS sitcom "Mike & Molly."
The result was the Jeff Award-winning "The Outgoing Tide," about a man suffering from early stage Alzheimer's reconciling with his family. The first draft was terrible, says Graham. It got better at Northlight, which later remounted the play at the Galway International Arts Festival.
"They make me look good," laughed Graham, whose "White Guy on the Bus" premieres at Northlight next year.
But commitment to new works and subscriber loyalty are only part of the equation. Northlight's success also stems from the talent it attracts, both onstage and behind the scenes. That includes Mahoney, who counts himself among Northlight's admirers.
"You feel like you're accomplishing something there," said Mahoney, who named Jones as the reason he returns.
"I truly admire his critical acumen," Mahoney said. "He delves deeper than most directors. I feel I do my best work when I'm working with BJ. He won't settle for what he's seen you do a thousand times. He makes sure you use every weapon in your arsenal."
As for Jones, he points to Northlight's contribution to its community, its ability to weather economic downturns and its enduring commitment to its audience.
"We provided 10,000 nights of theatrical joy to our audience," he said. "We're making theater together."