By the end of our first season, three full productions were presented at the café, and we kept selling out shows while finding our way. We also explored unique ways of staging in the café. Odd play choices and experimenting with space became common themes as we would later learn.
After the Ives/Shepard opening experiment, that summer we turned to the early work of Peter Shaffer. These two one-act plays required set pieces, props, costumes and stage hands. It was still primitive, but we decided if we wanted to be considered “legitimate” we had to add more elements.
Learning how things work
The first act was “The Private Ear” about a reclusive young man (myself) in love with art and classical music, but awkward with people. His friend (Joe Schuman) sets up a date for him with a fine young girl (Lania Dowers) that begins with promise and ends in despair. This piece mixed slapstick humor with some moments of real drama. We worked all over the café, ironing clothes, making meals, dancing. The second act featured “The Public Eye” with Rob Scharlow, Heather Miller and Michael Fisher. Another clever story with some real sharp dialogue and strong acting. The whole evening was a huge leap forward from our earlier efforts, even though it was long at more than two hours. Still, these plays where well-made and well-received.
By the fall, we produced some short works from the theater of the absurd, this time from John Guare, A.R. Gurney and Elliott Hayes. These shows had people scratching their heads.
Gurney’s “The Golden Fleece” was a clever retelling of the Medea myth, only this time we had Betty (Konnie Kay) and Bill (Joe Schuman) as the chorus. They were like an old vaudeville couple, dancing and joking, while Medea’s story happens offstage. It was cute until we learned that Medea just killed her kids. That silenced the crowd. Guare’s “The Loveliest Afternoon of Year” featured a young couple (myself and Katie Mayberry) in a big city park. He sings and serenades her while trying to navigate the dangers of the city and his own private fears. The other short piece by Hayes was about adultery that played like Harold Pinter – so many intense…some would say…deadening…pauses. I recall the frustration of trying to make this program work and getting irritated by the erratic response from the audience. Full houses would stare at us and small groups would laugh outrageously. It was quite strange, and it was because of the odd plays I was picking.
In many ways, starting a theater company was like attending graduate school, where you conducted extensive research by investigating the history and impact of your subject, and then openly tested out your theories. In this case, we were learning how to produce, present, and sell these shows. At least people were paying for our efforts.
We were lucky, because downtown Arlington Heights was fairly quiet back then. This was before the influx of development came in and changed everything. The streets were filled with family owned businesses, like Vail Street Café, Drummer and Thumbs Bookstore, and Regina’s restaurant. The Janus Theatre was new and cheap ($8 a ticket), so people took a chance on us. But they didn’t have to laugh if they didn’t want to, so we learned the hard way.
It quickly became clear that no matter how excited we were about a play or an idea about how to stage that play, the audience was the final measure of its success. This was the beginning of our push/pull relationship between artistic goals and audience satisfaction.
We ended ’99 with money in our pockets. Actors had been paid. The shows were successful. Local media attention was huge and disproportionate to a modest group of our small size. It was going well even though I felt at sea most of the time. And a familiar phrase from the audience after every show was: “What’s next?” Well, it was time for me to direct something. But what?