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The Shows Will Go On (LATER): Chicago Theaters Recall Setbacks While Seeking Solutions to Current Obstructive Circumstances


Theatre Will Go On AgainDuring the period in English history known as the Interregnum, when the Puritans ruled under Oliver Cromwell, London playhouses were shuttered for a record EIGHTEEN YEARS!!! You heard that right—from 1642 to 1660, all public performances of plays were declared illegal, and miscreants subject to a fine.

Of course, this didn't mean theater disappeared altogether: plays were still studied in the schools as "dramatic literature" and play readings provided entertainment in private homes (the latter now known to us as "chamber theater"). Permission was secured by William Davenant in 1656 to present British audiences with their country's first native-composed opera, while small companies like the Cockpit and Red Bull defied the edict and cheerfully accepted the financial penalties. Playwrights and actors followed the example of their ancestors-in-art and took their talents on the road, bringing the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries to European audiences.

Never has there been a time when live performance has not confronted unexpected obstacles: Gary Houston recollects how the January blizzard of 1979—a snowfall so severe as to end the political career of then-Mayor Michael Bilandic, whose tardiness in clearing the streets lost him the next election—forced the abrupt cancellation "within a week of its opening, due to the impassable snow citywide" of Organic Theater's production of Campaign, a high-profile fable of the advertising business authored by Leo Burnett employee Richard Harris.

High temperatures can be disruptive, too. David Zak remembers power failures during the sweltering summer of 1995 that plunged the north side of Belmont Avenue in darkness while theaters across the street remained unimpaired, but outdoor stages suffer the most in inclement weather.

Kevin Theis recalls—not without irony—that same freakish summer failing to drive audiences away from Oak Park Festival's production of The Tempest. "Even on the worst days, when it was 115 in the shade, people still showed up! There was an air-conditioned movie house around the corner, but no, they walked into [Austin Gardens], set up their little blankets, opened a bottle of wine and they demanded Shakespeare!" (Such luck couldn't last forever. By 2013 the festival's opening of Twelfth Night suffered almost a week's delay as the troupe impatiently waited for the "elements to show some pity on us when it would. Not. Stop. Raining.")

Injuries can derail the best-laid plans as well. Rick Peeples recounts how the now-disbanded Famous Door theatre company was preparing to extend its hit 1992 production of Conquest of the South Pole, with Troy West replacing Philip E. Johnson in a major role. West's choreography included a thrilling slide down a wire over the heads of the audience, a descent ending in his dropping to his knees upon landing ("a stunt that lawyers would probably prohibit nowadays, but we were young...." says Peeples). At the first performance, however, a nail protruding from the floor punctured West's kneecap, halting the show in mid-performance that night and the remainder of the run soon after.

All right, so sometimes the show does NOT go on—an experience described by those undergoing it as "dislocating, like being cut adrift and rudderless." What do actors do when disaster strikes? "We went to the L & L bar and got drunk!" Peeples recalls, "Oh, and I think we all got our stipends for the week."

Theater WitThe interruption in 2020, though, prohibits communal commiseration as an option, the adversary this time being an invisible contagion and solitary endurance the battle plan. Taking a hint from the in-home performances of old, Theater Wit mustered its technical resources to tape a final preview of Mike Lew's revisionist Richard III —impishly titled Teenage Dick—which the company then proceeded to make available on live-stream to virtual ticketholders (with the legal blessing of the Actors Union). Berwyn's 16th Street Theatre remount of the solo show Methtacular! soon did likewise, utilizing author/performer Steve Strafford's personal archive video. Northlight Theatre set up a website displaying a picture-book version of their now-postponed revival of Lynn Nottage's romantic Intimate Apparel (assembled from photographs and title-cards).

Throughout history, theater has marshaled its creativity to implement stratagems aimed at curtailing unfavorable conditions. As today's playhouses raid their scene shops and storage facilities for respirator masks, rubber gloves and eye-protection goggles usually employed in spray-painting or latex sculpture, but suitable for re-purposing by hospitals and convalescent facilities, their determination signals an end to this latest round of hardships.

Teenage Dick continues through April 19 . More information at www.theaterwit.org

Methtacular! continues through April 4. Information at www.16thstreettheater.org

To view Intimate Apparel, see "gallery" at www.northlight.org

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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