Ensemble is the first gossip-free oral history of Chicago theater | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Ensemble is the first gossip-free oral history of Chicago theater 

Mark Larson explains how he created his 700-page behemoth.

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For the past few years followers of Chicago author Mark Larson on Facebook have been teased with little snippets about Chicago theater, tiny samples from his ongoing interviews with leading lights of Chicago's theater scene, first glimpses into his still-to-be-published epic oral history of Chicago theater. Now Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater (Midway Books) is out, and it is a behemoth, nearly 700 pages of interviews chronicling Chicago's theater movement starting with the founding of the city's first off-Loop theater, the Playwrights Theatre Club in Old Town 1953. In late July I interviewed the interviewer about his experiences assembling his book.

How long have you been working on Ensemble?

Four and a half years. I mark the start of it in January of 2015. That's when I sat down with Andy White [founding member of Lookingglass]. I conducted interviews with about 316 individuals, not counting follow-ups. 

What sparked the idea for the book?

Initially I was going to do an oral history of one theater [Lookingglass Theatre Company]. I pitched the idea to Lookingglass [over the phone in a conference call]. I am not good over the phone. I don't like conference calls. And I think I did a crappy job of it. They were not interested. 

So the idea of the book expanded to focusing on six or seven emblematic theaters to tell the story of Chicago theater, but when I tried to figure out which theaters to focus on it became clear that Chicago theater is so eclectic, and so various, and its history spans so much time, that six or seven theaters wouldn't cover it . . . so the book got deeper and broader.

The title Ensemble has a double meaning. It is an ensemble of people talking about ensembles.

That's the idea. I wanted Ensemble to be a book where the medium is the message. The book works two ways. One is that in the book people talk about these theaters that were ensembles: Steppenwolf, the Black Ensemble, Lookingglass, Gift Theatre, A Red Orchid. But there was also this sense that I was getting that the whole city works as an ensemble. 

Nathan Allen of House Theatre [of Chicago] told me this story. When House first came to town, their first play was Death & Harry Houdini [in 2001]. And Laura Eason, who was then artistic director of Lookingglass, called the next day [after she saw their show] and said, "Hey, the work you do is kind of like the work we do. Do you want to have coffee?" Here he was, brand-new to town, just a kid, and Laura Eason introduced him to Martha Lavey [artistic director at Steppenwolf]. And Martha Lavey just talks and talks and talks, asking him what his work is, what do they want to achieve, and she then takes Nathan and his group under her wing. Later on he talked to Curt Columbus, who was also then at Steppenwolf [currently he's artistic director at Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, Rhode Island], and Allen asked, "Why are you guys so nice to us?" And Curt said, "Because it's the rule." And I think there is something about that here.

click to enlarge Mark Larson - SARAH ELIZABETH LARSON
  • Mark Larson
  • Sarah Elizabeth Larson

You dedicated the book to Studs Terkel.

Yes, Terkel influenced my interview style. He interviewed me several times for books of his. [Larson appears, under a pseudonym, in the book Race.] What I was struck by was how few questions he asked. His way of listening was what drew you out. He was also so egalitarian. I wanted to follow that same ethos in my book. I didn't want the book to be just about the famous people. It is about everybody who participates.

You also dedicated the book to Joyce Piven.

Yes, Joyce Piven pierced my heart. I was going to start the book in the 70s with Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens. But then I read Joyce Piven's book [In the StudioWith Joyce Piven] and I read all about Playwrights Theatre Club [precursor to the Compass Players and Second City]. When I interviewed her she told me, "People think the history of theater in Chicago starts with Second City because that's where we started having videotapes. But it's really Playwrights. But because we don't have tape, people don't know about it."

Was there a conscious decision not to focus on drama? Because theater is full of gossip and drama. But there is not much of it in your book. 

I didn't consciously avoid that. Doug Seibold's theory is that it is not in my nature. [Seibold is Larson's publisher.] When I was doing interviews there was a lot of [an interview subject saying] "Hey, can you turn that off?" 

Oh. (Starts to turn off the recorder.)

No, that's what they would say. See what I mean?

Ohhhhh.

Yeah. 

And then they would tell a story off the record.  

Yeah. (Laughs.)

There are some people who are not in the book. Did you interview David Mamet at all?
Most people I was able to reach directly. And Mamet, I could not get ahold of him, so I sent him a hard-copy letter. It went to his assistant, who contacted me and said, "David doesn't do interviews anymore. But if you send him questions he will respond to them." So I sent him like 20 questions. And the assistant said, "This is too long. Send us 10, or five, and no follow-ups." And when he responded, his responses were . . . Mametian. I wrote one question that was something like "Joe Mantegna said he was one of the first to read American Buffalo out loud because you wanted to hear it. Do you remember how you felt about it when you heard it out loud for the first time?" His answer: "I liked it." The only line by Mamet in the whole book is "I liked it."   v

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