I asked for this interview after seeing Gary Houston’s performance in The Artistic Home’s production of Romulus Linney’s Unchanging Love. I’d never seen him act before that; I’d never even heard of him. But the ease and conviction of his work were striking. On Google I found a couple of articles from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s about avant garde productions Houston directed here during that fertile period of Chicago theatre history, but after that nothing. His IMDB entry on-line lists one or two film or television roles each year for the fifteen years. So I figured maybe he was a former Chicagoan living now in L.A. and back here for a nostalgic taste of applause and deep dish pizza.
He’s amused and somewhat flattered when I explain this over an iced tea in an Andersonville diner. In fact, his film/television work has mostly been cast and filmed here. He did have a small but rewarding scene in Fargo, but that was shot up in Minnesota. Otherwise he’s been working in Chicago theatre -- when not honorably unemployed -- for the past 35 years or so.
Houston came to the University of Chicago in 1968 to join the philosophy PhD program at the University of Chicago. He also took classes at the divinity school and worked on the Chicago Literary Review. But he “couldn’t help” auditioning for plays, too. In the end he didn’t finish his degree. “The war was going on. I was looking to avoid it. But I also knew that going to school was pointless, just wasting money, because I was too distracted to be a good student.”
Connections from work on the Chicago Literary Review while he was at U. of C. led to a job with Candid Press creating a “novelized” version of a soft core porn movie for a tabloid. He got fired from that job for taking off from work for the Vietnam moratorium day -- mercifully, as it turned out, since he moved on from Candid Press to a job with the Sun-Times as production coordinator for the Book Week section. That led to work on the Showcase section, which covered theatre. Its main competitor was Panorama at the Chicago Daily News, where Richard Christiansen was then covering theatre. “Christiansen came out first, on Saturday. Showcase came out Sunday. And theatre people like to read what he was doing more than they liked to read our sections. So we were a little jealous. There was always that‘we try harder’ kind of thing.”
Houston was also going to plays, acting and directing throughout this period, at theatres whose names evoke a different era: Kingston Mines, The Happy Medium, The Body Politic. He was the original Roger in Grease -- a show, as he remarks, that most Chicagoans have forgotten premiered here. (His wife, Hedda Lubin, was the original Frenchie.) He played in Bleacher Bums at what he calls “Stuart Gordon’s Organic Theater.” And his directing debut (putting aside a cut version of Marat Sade at a coffee house called Zeitgeist while he was in college in Ohio) was the Chicago premiere of Joseph Heller’s own dramatization of Catch 22 at Kingston Mines.
Houston recounts the opening night of Catch 22 with a grimace. “That was the winter of ‘72, early ‘71 maybe. Kingston Mines was an old trolley barn. We had elephantine furnaces spouting pathetic little gusts of warm air, while cold air poured through the dock doors. Grease played there too, but there were more bodies in the theatre because people actually wanted to see that. I had a cold, I didn’t have be on stage, I was drinking Romilar, drugged out of my mind. I didn’t have any idea if it was good or bad. By all accounts, it was probably an okay show.” For Kingston Mines, which was doing stuff like “the Godzilla Rainbow troupe’s gay theatre and a version of Faust created by this weird guy from Germany named Werner Krieglstein,” that was apparently a comparatively bourgeois night at the theatre.
Sometime after, Houston founded his own company, Pary Productions. “That put a little sand in my gears. Basically, it was a big mistake. I surrounded myself with conservatives, artistic conservatives. It happens with the enthusiasm of a show, when you’re young. You’re going to parties. ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Cool.” So you don’t use the best judgment sometimes. Also I hesitated to ask people to join the board because I always found that people said the same thing: ‘What you have to do is something commercial, and then you can do the experimental thing.’ Well they never mean that. They mean, ‘And then you can continue doing the commercial thing.’ It was conservative times. A lot of people conflate the ‘60s with the ‘70s. But the ‘70s was a conservative time in Chicago theatre. Things had cooled. The kind of people who would have gone to see The Serpent in 1968 weren’t interested in that avant garde stuff any more. Many of them even said, ‘We’re tired of that. That’s bullshit.’ So the conventional play, the well-made play, was making a come-back. And there was a return to naturalism instead of high voltage energy, that rock opera style you might associate with The Living Theater or the Open Theater, whose approach to theatre meant something else to them. Its purpose was beyond aesthetic quality. Its purpose was political, it was moving people towards taking the streets over, fucking the pigs and all that sort of thing. It was just a different thing.”
An aside: I ask him how he feels about that kind of theatre. “Oh, I wish it were back. I think we need it especially now. We need a resurgence of it. This administration is an administration of thugs. It’s the closest thing to fascism I’ve experienced in my lifetime in terms of the suppression of science, in terms of ideology, the ends justify the means, amorality. The whole country has been conned -- conned by the Neo-cons. But I don’t see any signs of political theatre coming back. I see people trying to push the envelope aesthetically but not politically.”
Back to Houston’s biography. Because his associates at Pary Productions weren’t enthusiastic about avant garde work, he also worked with other companies. In 1976, he was at Goodman directing Kaspar by Peter Handke , which Houston says is described as “anti-theatrical.” I press him on what that means. “’Anti-theatrical’ means he tries to overturn just about any expectations about what conventionally makes sense on the stage. It goes along the idea that a theatre piece is a piece of art, like a symphony or a sculpture. No one every asked what a symphony is about, no one ever asked what a sculpture is about. Why should literary work be different?” Here he cites Susan Sontag. The next year, he directed Steppenwolf’s Our Late Night by Wallace Shawn in 1977 for their first season, with a cast that included John Malkovich, Terry Kinney, Laurie Metcalf and Joan Allen. “I knew at the time they were really good. To the point that I didn’t know how to direct them. They were just too much ahead of me all the time.”
In the late ‘70s, work as a director began to dry up. “I never really understood the politics of it, but I always thought there was a little bit of resentment about the fact that if I had a show, my boss at the Sun-Times said, ‘So long as it’s not a puff piece, so long as it’s interesting, go ahead and write an advance piece.’ I think I made a lot of enemies. I think I was becoming a better and better director but I couldn’t get any one to give me a job. And I wasn’t the only one. I remember there were some other directors couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get hired. It wasn’t politics, just cliqueism.”
So starting in the early ‘80s, Houston concentrated increasingly on acting. He did well, although being an intellectual -- and having directed shows -- may have been a liability for him as an actor. “Watching me in rehearsal for Bleacher Bums, Stuart Gordon said, ‘I get the feeling you’re sitting out in the theatre directing yourself.” He could see that I was responding to my head instead of my gut. My performance was cerebral. I indicated the character, instead of living it.”
The conversation moseys on, with some layovers because Houston can’t stand to be vague about facts: if a production comes up, he has to chase down the exact dates, the correct names, even spellings -- no hand-waving will do. His memory is prodigious and his urge to be precise is compulsive.
We circle back to Unchanging Love, in which Houston convincingly plays a 75-year-old. Face to face, he is obviously very much younger than he played -- at least fifteen years younger, I would guess. I’m impressed by the illusion he was able to create, since he was barely three feet away from me in the tiny space at Artistic Home, and didn’t wear make-up in the inadequately air-conditioned space: “it would have been dripping off my face every night.”
There’s something characteristic about that remark. It sounds like someone who’s been around the block. (I promised not to call him a “veteran”. As Houston tells me, “I hate being identified as a Chicago veteran actor. ‘Veteran’ always suggests, ‘he never really made it.’ Conjoined with Chicago, it means ‘he’s still here, didn’t go anywhere.’”) In a similar vein, he often makes negative observations about himself, not with any false modesty or expectation of contradiction: just stating the facts. About his first role in Chicago, in The White Devil: “I was pretty terrible.” About his direction of Catch 22, “I made a lot of mistakes.” About Pary Productions: “It did better after I left it, by the way.”
But he does admit to feeling jaundiced sometimes. “There are times of wondering if I’m good enough to connect with the audience. Of noticing that no one who reviewed a show had a word to say about me. That happened with the last show I did. I thought I was doing good work. You get childish. You want recognition with every thing you do. I can remember a time when even if I played a small part there was something about me on stage that made me notable. It stopped happening. It may have stopped because I’m just not young and sexy anymore. Presuming I was once young and sexy. But there can be a terrible feeling of maybe having worn out your welcome. ‘We’ve seen enough of him’. You begin to think, maybe a different city. You’d have a refreshing start, you’d be different from what they’d seen already.”
But right now Houston is loving what he does, though he takes little credit for the critical success of his work in Unchanging Love. “I just had a couple of good notices. Yes, I’m getting a little bit of a sense that it’s a successful performance for me. But I used to say, ‘Yeah, I’m getting better.’ Now I don’t know if I’m getting better. I’ve gone through shows feeling, “Whoo boy, now you’re coming into your own.” And other shows where I felt just so crappy; ‘You’re not coming into anything.’ But I lucked into a good part here. I’ve played much bigger parts and failed. But this character has a kind of power. It’s like what they said about the godfather, the role of Don Corleone -- he dominates scenes he’s not even in. So that probably means this is a good part for a lot of people. There are roles like that, that make anyone look good."
Personally, I think there’s more to it. Qualities like perseverance, experience, precision, selflessness, clear-sightedness, and commitment to a point of view. Oh yeah -- and a really good memory. And, personally, I hope he doesn’t leave Chicago any time soon.
Anne Nicholson Weber
|Theatre In Chicago News Contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw "Jack and the Beanstalk" at the Goodman Children's Theater and has loved the theatre ever since. She is a Chicago writer and the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age|