Those who toil in Chicago's storefront theaters had two moments in the sun recently. One was anticipated: the non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards held at the Park West nightclub. The other was entirely unanticipated: the 2013 Tony Awards held Sunday at the Radio City Music Hall.
The Jeff Awards were held in front of fewer than 1,000 people, mostly involved in the Chicago theater or related to someone therein.
The second played out in front of about 7 million people, almost all of whom had never walked into a storefront theater in Chicago in their lives.
The first came courtesy of a long-standing volunteer committee. The second courtesy of Tracy Letts, winner of the Tony Award for best actor in a play for his performance as George in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
"I share this with the actors in Chicago and in storefronts," Letts said in his acceptance speech. "We are the ones who say it to their faces, and we have a unique responsibility."
Actually, the Tonys had a one-two punch. A few minutes earlier, Steppenwolf Theatre Company artistic director Martha Lavey had said this in accepting a Tony for the production: "A special nod to the Chicago community where Steppenwolf has had its home for the last 37 years."
Let us stipulate for a moment that the people who run and make up Steppenwolf are not perfect. They have their ego-driven moments, as we all do. They certainly like to control their brand. They can be prickly when challenged. Few know that better than me. But they are known, increasingly, for their determination to share their fame with the rest of the Chicago theater community. And there never was such a graphic demonstration of that commitment, which seems to be only deepening, than in what happened in New York on Sunday night.
Lavey and Letts did not have to do what they did. Letts could have chosen to associate himself with the upcoming movie of "August: Osage County" (which might well land him an Oscar) or any number of other projects and products, or gone on and on about his home theater company and its illustrious past. But, instead, he gave it up for the current work in the Chicago storefronts where his heart lies, if not his paychecks. Lavey is in the enviable position of being the artistic leader of the company that, to much of the outside world, is Chicago theater. That was brought home to me anew last week when I went to a university reunion in the United Kingdom and saw a bunch of arts professionals I'd not seen in decades.
"Chicago," many of them said, in some version or another. "That's a great city. It's the home of Steppenwolf, right?"
And at least 199 other theaters, I kept pointing out. But still, I got the message loud and clear. Steppenwolf is in a unique position among Chicago performance groups, especially from the perspective of international tourism.
Letts is proving to be an astonishingly generous ambassador for the Chicago theater. Plenty of Tony nominees say they are uncomfortable with the competitive nature of the awards. It's the standard thing to say. But when Letts remarked along those lines to me after his nomination, it was clear that he felt it far more deeply than most. Perhaps it's just the way he is. Maybe it's his disdain for showbiz games; maybe it's that his fame and fortune came later in his life, which is always best.
I don't know. But I do know that Letts, whom I thought would lose to Tom Hanks for "Lucky Guy" (and there would have been no indignity in that loss) is determined to stay married to the off-Loop, even if he also has asked his "Virginia Woolf" co-star Carrie Coon to marry him. He is, for sure, a very helpful spouse to have. The lovebirds have said they will live in Chicago.
But those were just a couple of gracious acceptance speeches, you might be thinking. That's all. But they mattered because they were being delivered not in some commercial, but in a moment of acknowledgment of excellence. Lavey and Letts actually did a great deal to increase the number of out-of-town tryouts in Chicago (the triumph of "Kinky Boots" also was helpful there), to make it a more attractive destination for curious stars, to burnish its image of truth, integrity and quality.
A popular story has been showing up on Facebook, involving Jon Steinhagen, a Chicago playwright whose agent in New York had shown no interest in some of his work, these plays being "too Chicago." He wrote that he got a call from that agent Monday suggesting that perhaps she'd acted in haste and that she would like to take a look, after all. If any of those shows hit, Steinhagen well knows he will have Lavey and Letts to thank.
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