Suburban theater artists discuss their work and the community
With all due respect to my Daily Herald colleagues Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff and their "From Suburbs to Showbiz" column, Hollywood isn't the only Mecca enticing suburban talent.
Case in point: suburban theater artists -- natives and transplants alike -- who stay right here to create their own Mecca.
We caught up with a few of them to talk about where they came from, what they're working on and why they stay.
Jeff Award-winning singer/actress Cory Goodrich might not have become who she is if she had listened to her grade-school music teacher.
He told her she couldn't sing and denied her admission into the choir.
"I was devastated," said the Michigan native who now lives in Carol Stream. "I literally did not sing for two years."
Fortunately, her middle-school choir director recognized what the other teacher did not: Goodrich could indeed sing. Encouraged by middle and high school teachers, she performed in school plays and community theater and went on to study opera and then musical theater at Michigan State University.
Upon graduating, Goodrich and her now husband had a decision to make: New York or California? Unable to agree, they opted for Chicago.
In the 24 years since, Goodrich has become a formidable presence on the Chicago area musical theater scene, frequently appearing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Chicago's Mercury Theater where she currently co-stars with Gene Weygandt in the musical "Barnum," which she says boasts a praiseworthy score and great circus tricks.
A four-time Jeff Award-nominee -- who won the award in 2010 for her performance as Mother in Drury Lane's "Ragtime" -- Goodrich still appears in the chorus from time to time, most recently in Drury Lane's "Sunset Boulevard." She says it makes her a better performer.
She admits her ego sometimes got in the way when she was younger. Not anymore.
"Working in the chorus is one of the hardest things you can do," she said. "They dance. They sing. They have to be engaged and create a character without getting any of the glory,"
In between projects, Goodrich writes and performs original songs.
"I call myself the cicada of songwriting; I only write every 10 years," said Goodrich, who released her latest CD of holiday carols to benefit Season of Concern in November. "I need a long period when I'm unemployed and have nothing to do."
Having nothing to do is a luxury the mother of two daughters rarely enjoys. Like most working moms, Goodrich struggles to balance family and career.
"You are never off duty," said Goodrich, who laughs when she hears younger actresses complaining how tired they are.
"Honey, you have no idea what tired is," she says. Yet, "on a personal level, I believe my work is deeper because of them," she says of her children.
James Farruggio is so devoted to his craft, he spends three hours round-trip, traveling from his Lisle home to Chicago's Northwest side where he appears in The Gift Theatre's revival of Noah Haidle's "Vigils."
Actually, his commute takes longer than the show, but it's worth it to Farruggio, who, as a newcomer, nearly drowned in his own sweat during a performance of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." It still happens, he says, usually during previews. Farruggio gets past it now, but that wasn't always the case.
Shy as a child, Farruggio took a speech class his freshman year in high school to get over his phobia. It didn't work as he hoped. Too traumatized to give his final speech, he failed the class and had to take summer school.
He chose drama.
"I was painfully shy," he said, "but I had a vivid internal life and a very active imagination."
Acting offered him a way to express it.
"The great thing about acting is when you're doing it right, the audience thinks you're playing a character but really you're telling your own truths with the character as a buffer," he said.
After high school, he enrolled at Bradley University where he became a national speech champion. After graduating, he took an entry level sales job at the Peoria Journal Star and confined his acting to community theater. Fifteen years later, the paper was sold. The stock Farruggio owned quadrupled, leaving him a nice little nest egg.
"So I took the nest egg and decided to come back to Chicago and give it (acting) a shot," he said.
He moved around for a while until he saw The Gift Theatre's 2008 production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" featuring artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton and Paul D'Addario. Farruggio realized then he wanted to make The Gift his artistic home.
"I knew these were the kind of people I wanted to be around," he said. "It felt right."
A member of the Jefferson Park ensemble, Farruggio has also performed at Steppenwolf, Lookingglass and Victory Gardens. Last year, he was among about a half dozen actors who appeared in Lyric Opera's "Show Boat."
"I'll never forget it," he said. "I got to stand 10 feet away from Alyson Cambridge (who played Julie). No way should I be listening to this angelic voice every night.
"I've lived a charmed life."
But all the perks Farruggio experienced at Lyric -- a dresser, a makeup person, not having to work the box office -- pale in comparison to what The Gift provides. A storefront theater's limited finances mean ensemble members have to do more on their own, which in turn makes them more invested.
"There's something visceral about being hands-on about everything," he said.
"Something about a smaller theater, being involved from top to bottom," said Farruggio, "when you're onstage doing a play, it's all in your bones."
Acting is a beautiful and difficult art form, says director Marti Lyons, but it has a narrow focus. And Lyons is a big picture person.
That wasn't always the case for the Libertyvile native who credits her parents with piquing her interest in theater. After graduating from Libertyville High School, she entered Illinois Wesleyan University intending to focus on acting. After a semester studying in London, she shifted her focus to directing. And not because she craved control, because as a director you don't have any, she says.
"(Directing) is less about having actual control than it is about getting really good people, getting them to 'buy in' and being flexible enough to create a collective vision and driving force," said Lyons, who directs Sideshow Theatre Company's Chicago area premiere of Jason Grote's "Maria/Stuart," a farcical, slightly absurdist, dysfunctional family comedy that premiered in 2008 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C.
Praising Sideshow's "incredibly cool aesthetic" and its interest in "the quirky, the new, the off-balance" Lyons speaks admiringly of the company members who tackle plays challenging in their structure, scope and content -- sometimes all three at once.
"The plays they produce would only be produced in Steppenwolf's garage," she said.
It's a good fit for Lyons, Lookingglass Theatre's literary manager and dramaturg, who has a keen interest in new play development. In that role, she works alongside the writer and director during workshops and rehearsals advocating not for the playwright, but for the play itself and for the clarity of its storytelling.
It's all about protecting the work, says Lyons, a former Steppenwolf Theatre literary apprentice, who also worked as a casting intern at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and spent several summers in New York City at the Lincoln Center Director's Lab.
At one point, Lyons considered leaving the city she calls home. Arriving here after college, she initially thought of Chicago as a "jumping off point." Now she can't imagine leaving.
"I love it here," Lyons said. "I love the community of artists I'm maturing with."
"There is a wealth of opportunity," she said, "and a bunch of people who hit the pavement hard, working day jobs, who come together at night to grow and make really good art."
Steve Schine owes his career, at least in part, to a savvy educator.
An artistic associate with A Red Orchid Theatre and star of Lifeline Theatre's film noir-inspired "The City and The City," Schine had problems at Lakeview Junior High School, in Downers Grove. Those problems came in the form of bullies. And they followed him to Downers Grove South High School where Schine cut speech class to escape his tormentors. His grades slipped, until a savvy English teacher noticed and intervened. The late John M. Hires -- who earned accolades for producing some of the state's winningest speech teams -- made Schine an offer: extra credit in exchange for him trying out for the freshman play.
Schine accepted the offer, got the part and joined Hires' speech team. He participated in high school forensic tournaments at Illinois State University -- alma mater to several original Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members.
After graduating from ISU, Schine headed straight for Chicago. He waited tables and worked temp jobs while he pursued a career as an actor. He started getting roles, he worked with fantastic people and he didn't have to try to be something he wasn't.
"I fell in love with it," he said. "I didn't think about fame or money. If you want fame or money, you go to New York or L.A., you don't go to Chicago."
Working with director Karen Kessler and actors Michael Shannon, John Judd and Guy Van Swearingen on A Red Orchid's "Gagarin Way" confirmed he made the right choice.
"This is what I want to do for the rest of my life ... this show," recalled Schine who called the experience the equivalent of a master's degree in acting.
His credits include Famous Door Theater's award-winning "The Cider House Rules, part 1 and 2," the world premiere of Brett Neveu's bloody sibling drama "The Earl" and Goodman Theatre's "King Lear."
No longer waiting tables, Schine makes his living doing voice-overs -- he was Filbert the Hazelnut in the Fisher Nuts commercials -- which he does from his home computer. And he does theater.
"John Judd told me 'when you're considering a role, consider the three Ps: people, part, pay. If you get two out of three, do it,'" Schine joked.
Describing "The City and The City" -- an alternative reality detective tale adapted from the novel by British writer China Mieville -- as a unique and daring work, Schine says it's "one of those shows you can't be passive about."
Kind of like Chicago theater.
Andy Herren got into improv on a whim.
After graduating from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana with bachelors and masters degrees in media and communication, he took an improvisation class at The Second City.
"I loved it," says the Aurora native who teaches public speaking at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
Invited to participate last year in Second City's "Blender" improv showcase, Herren was "thrown into the deep end" with experienced improvisers.
Among them was director and Second City veteran John Hildreth. After noting Herren's skill at musical improv, Hildreth invited him to join his cast of "The Improvised Musical La Ronde," part of Street Tempo Theatre's adults-only "The La Ronde Project," comprised of three scripted plays and an improv, all inspired by Arthur Schnitzler's 19th century sexual farce.
"Being responsible for improvising an entire song is scary at first," said Herren, who currently studies at iO Chicago.
Fortunately, hard work and a little confidence goes a long way.
Like he tells his students: "Fake it until you make it."
These days, Herren's not faking.
Where: The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. (773) 325-1700 or mercurytheaterchicago.com
When: Through June 16
Where: Sideshow Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 975-8150 or sideshowtheatre.org
When: Through May 5
Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. (773) 283-7071 or thegifttheatre.org
When: Through April 21
"The City and The City"
Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. (773) 761-4477 or lifelinetheatre.com
When: Through April 7
Tickets: $40, $30
"The La Ronde Project"
Where: Street Tempo Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, (773) 327-5252 or stage773.com
When: Through April 14
Tickets: $28 for each play; $60 for all three plays; $10 for "Improvised Musical La Ronde"