If you went to the theater a lot in the late 80s and early 90s, you probably saw Jenny Bacon at Remains, Lookingglass, and the Goodman, rising from small parts like a milkmaid in Puntila and His Hired Man to starring roles in The Arabian Nights and Dancing at Lughnasa. But as a student at the University of Chicago's Lab School in the 70s, Bacon was so terrified of attention she would do everything she could to blend into the background.
"I was extremely shy as a little girl," she says. "My teachers would have trouble getting me to engage." The only time she really felt connected in class was when she was chosen to read aloud. Then in the seventh grade she discovered theater. "It was a big relief to suddenly have it scripted, what I was going to say," she says, "and then to know what the other people were going to say. That provided the safety net that allowed my fears to be assuaged."
Bacon threw herself into acting, and in her senior year she began to audition for parts at the University of Chicago's student-run University Theater. "The U. of C., maybe because there was no theater department, was very open. It was all student generated and that made it, like, if you're willing to spend the time and work on it, by all means come play."
Her last year of high school was crowded with productions at the university, yet when Bacon graduated she never seriously considered having a go as a professional actress. "Theater? What kind of career can you have in the theater?" she remembers asking herself. "I thought I was going to be practical...practical and serious."
Bacon enrolled at Columbia University in 1987 with a major in Russian. But after a year she dropped out and moved back home. "My brother dropped out of high school the same year. My mother was extremely patient with both of us. I was working in a restaurant and I was going, 'What am I doing? What am I doing?' And my mother said, 'You'll figure it out. Just take your time.'"
Bacon began taking acting classes and landed a small part in a show at Remains. Someone gave her a transcript of a speech that had been given at a retreat of the League of Chicago Theatres. "It was one of the most incredible speeches, about theater and life and what it is we seek to do when we do theater," she says. When she found out it was by director Frank Galati, a professor at Northwestern, she applied to the school's theater department and was accepted.
There she met a graduate student named Mary Zimmerman, who cast her as Penelope in an adaptation of The Odyssey. That production was the beginning of a fruitful relationship that would culminate in Bacon's appearance in 1992 as Scheherezade in Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights, a show that was later remounted in New York.
Today Bacon lives in New York, but she returns to Chicago every once in a while. A year ago she came back to act in Steppenwolf's production of Morning Star, and now she's directing her first play here, Diana Son's work about two shy women whose relationship blossoms into love, Stop Kiss.
It's an appropriate choice for a former wallflower. How does she feel about directing? "It is nice to be the one who's talking."
Stop Kiss, presented by the Naked Eye Theatre Company, opens Sunday at 7 at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, and runs through February 7. Call 773-327-5252 for tickets.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.