Richard Cotovsky never did any theater when he was at Senn High School or Niles North, where he graduated. And he had nothing to do with theater at college, first at Southern Illinois, and then at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was a guitar-toting pharmacy major. But in his senior year, in 1976, perusing a course list and in need of an elective, his eye fell on Introduction to Theater.
"This ought to be an easy A," Cotovsky remembers thinking when he signed up for it.
On June 3, at the 40th annual non-Equity Jeff Awards ceremony, Cotovsky, longtime artistic director at Mary-Arrchie Theatre, will receive a special award honoring his "cutting edge contributions to Non-Equity Theatre over the past four decades."
Last week, sitting in the dark in the funky, man-cave lobby of Angel Island, the red-walled walk-up above a Lakeview liquor store that's been Mary-Arrchie's home for nearly 25 years, Cotovsky recalled exactly what it was about that class that set the course for the rest of his life.
It got him into the audience for the Saint Nicholas Theatre production of David Mamet's American Buffalo, with William H. Macy, J.J. Johnston, and Mike Nussbaum. "It was an eye-opener," Cotovsky says. Like the rock 'n' roll he loved, Mamet's explosive dialogue "was fast and loud, and every beat came down right on time." He saw it a second time. And the next term at school, he signed up for two more theater classes.
Then he was out, a pharmacist working for an uncle who'd filled a few too many controlled substance prescriptions. He took a road trip to LA to give Hollywood a whirl, but was back after eight weeks, "distracted," Cotovsky says, by his companion on the trip, "a woman I wanted to have a relationship with," who told him three days into it that she wanted to marry someone else.
And so it would go: over the next seven or eight years, he worked the bread-and-butter job he'd trained for and took improv classes at Second City and ImprovOlympic, where he says the "ego and competition" turned him off. Cast in a Theater on the Lake production of The Heiress, with "six lines onstage, and six lines off," he said to himself, "This is where I belong." After that he studied at Wisdom Bridge and Columbia College (picking up a second bachelor's degree), was part of the Blackbird and Americana theater ensembles, and started an informal workshop.
"I'm an enabler. I let people do things nobody else will let them do. And then, when the work is good, they might start to think they can do it without me." Richard Cotovsky, artistic director of Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.
In 1986, Cotovsky and workshop regulars formed an ad hoc company they christened Mary-Arrchie. The name—hyphenated monikers of company member JoAnn DeAngelo's parents—came from advice Cotovsky had passed on in his workshop: "If you go up on your lines," he said, "just start talking to Mary, talk to Arrchie. Keep talking, and it'll all come back."
Mary-Arrchie's first production was two Sam Shepard one-acts, one directed by DeAngelo. Then they did Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, which was slated to run in the back of a bar with a live sheep in the cast. When the bar went out of business hours before curtain time, Cotovsky picked the show up, sheep included, and moved it to another joint. Original company member James Venturini says that when he thinks of Cotovsky, "tenacity" and "forward motion" are the words that come to mind—"damn whatever is in your way."
Venturini found the Angel Island space, and when Mary-Arrchie moved there at the start of 1989, he brought in some associates, mostly fellow students from Columbia College. They pitched in on renovations and worked on the first shows—a production of Mamet's Edmund, and the inaugural Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins festival, Mary-Arrchie's annual performing arts tribute to Woodstock (named by critic Kerry Reid, then a member of the group). But the arrangement lasted less than a year. "They had their own ideas," Cotovsky recalls. "They weren't that interested in having me involved." There was a power struggle, and the people who left formed a new company, the Splinter Group. At about the same time, DeAngelo also left. "It still pains me," she says, "because this company was named after my parents."
"I'm an enabler," Cotovsky says. "I let people do things nobody else will let them do. And then, when the work is good, they might start to think they can do it without me. They have to move on, and you have to let them go."
Since then, Cotovsky has performed in or directed more than 50 productions at Mary-Arrchie and other theaters, along with the occasional film, television, and commercial gig. Among his favorites: a record-setting run as the Hellcab cabbie and the role of Arthur in Mary-Arrchie's 2012 production of Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts, a part he believes was written for him and which he workshopped and understudied at Steppenwolf. Now 59, he's never married, has no children, and says the theater is his family. Through it all, the other constant has been the day job: you can still find him behind a pharmacy counter in Rogers Park.
And Mary-Arrchie, which has collected a number of Jeff nominations and awards over the years, is on a roll. Cotovsky says he has his strongest ensemble ever, including producing director Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and actor-director Hans Fleischmann, whose acclaimed production of The Glass Menagerie is being remounted by Mary-Arrchie at Theater Wit this month. Austin Pendleton's Uncle Bob opens at Angel Island on June 13, with Cotovsky in a leading role.
Silhouetted against the lobby window, Cotovsky—whose long, curly hair and full beard allow him to channel Abbie Hoffman—listed the handful of shows that shaped his vision. "I saw Balm in Gilead at Steppenwolf—three times," he says. Also Sam Shepard's Tooth of Crime at Remains, his True West at Steppenwolf, and of course Mamet's American Buffalo. "I keep that in my mind as I work here. That's the level I put the bar at. Those are shows that really opened up Chicago. I was fortunate to see it develop."
That night, 15 minutes into a mind-blowing performance of The Brig—a mid-20th-century piece of experimental theater directed by Jennifer Markowitz—the lights had gone out. All the lights. After a pause to see if the problem might be just a fuse, staffers booked return dates and handed out refunds, and the audience of 16 people and a cast of about the same size departed. Nobody was rattled.
"This happened once before," Cotovsky said—during a performance of Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore, with David Cromer directing. That time, "we brought out candles and carried on."