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Meet Me in Chicago 

Birth of a Theater Company Conceived in Bulgaria, Intended for London, and Influenced by Events in Tiananmen Square

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British expatriate Dale Goulding never intended to go into theater. "If I'd had a job," he snickers, "I wouldn't have gone into acting." And he certainly never dreamed he would wind up cofounding a theater company with a Bulgarian director in Chicago.

Goulding was one of six kids raised in a three-room flat in the decaying industrial city of Leicester, a little more than a hundred miles northwest of London. His father was a frequently unemployed factory worker, and Goulding had no reason to expect he would ever escape his hometown. "Leicester is famous for the likes of Richard III, the Elephant Man, and very little else," he says dryly. "Local man made good was the Elephant Man, which shows you the kind of place it was."

One day Goulding gave a friend a lift to an audition. "They asked me to improvise something. They liked what I did and asked me to join the troupe. We rehearsed, and I said to myself, 'My God, this is better than working in a factory.'" He worked with the company for two years, eventually going to London to perform in Critical Paranoid Self-Analysis, or Work in Progress. Directed by a member of the Grotowski Theatre Laboratorium, the show did fairly well in London's West End, in part because this working-class critique of Thatcher's England proved popular with the well-to-do.

After that show closed Goulding played MacDuff in a Grotowski-influenced production of Macbeth that toured Eastern Europe in early 1990. During a stop in Sofia, Bulgaria, Goulding met Yasen Peyankov.

A tall, thin, dark-haired man with a long face, Peyankov, who'd just spent a year touring his country in a small company, was tired of the "imaginary social realist" aesthetics of the state-sponsored, state-run, increasingly unpopular theater. Goulding took his artistic complaints seriously. The two met a number of times in a coffee shop attached to the Theatre of the Armed Forces, where Goulding was performing, and slowly hatched a plan: Peyankov would travel to London, officially to study English theater, but really to cofound a theater company with Goulding that would put on shows in the tradition of Grotowski's "poor theater."

After Goulding's company left Bulgaria, Peyankov applied for a visa and was promptly refused. "They thought if I left I'd never come back," he explains. "Which you wouldn't have," Goulding adds, laughing.

The refusal only strengthened Peyankov's desire to leave, and he continued corresponding with Goulding, hoping an opportunity to leave would somehow present itself.

Meanwhile things were changing across Eastern Europe. Following the examples of Czechoslovakia and East Germany, prodemocracy forces brought down Bulgaria's communist government and scheduled free elections, the first in two generations. Peyankov's visa was also granted, but he chose to remain and participate in the election.

A vocal opponent of the Communist Party, Peyankov was outraged when the people returned it to power. He voiced his anger by directing a production of Friedrich Durrenmatt's bitter drama Hercules and the Stables of King Augeus, which recounts Hercules' struggle to clean 30 years' worth of manure out of King Augeus's stables. In the original fable Hercules is praised for his work and sent on his way. In Durrenmatt's version the people discover they were more comfortable living in manure, and Hercules receives only jeers for his labors.

Peyankov's message was only too clear, and the new government closed his show down. "It was a little close to home," he says, his eyes shining with amusement.

Then he was arrested during a prodemocracy demonstration, and the police suggested it was risky for him to stay in Bulgaria. "So I left," he says. He sought asylum in the only place outside Bulgaria where he had relatives: Chicago.

Meanwhile, Goulding found himself back in England earlier than expected after the People's Republic of China abruptly canceled his theater's tour through the Chinese provinces. "All because of some students in Tiananmen Square."

Again unemployed, Goulding flipped through the newspapers and decided to audition at what sounded like the most prestigious acting school this side of the Royal Academy, the British American Drama Academy. Primarily a school for rich American college students keen on a year abroad, BADA proudly boasted of classes taught by the likes of Sir John Gielgud, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and Jeremy Irons.

Goulding auditioned, won a full scholarship, and suddenly found himself surrounded by Brits and Americans richer than his wildest dreams. "I was like the novelty poor person. I was in class with the daughter of the guy who owns Harrod's."

While he was there Goulding met an actress and director from Sarah Lawrence named Nancy Normile, and they subsequently married. He also met two American students, Lou Anders and Eric Spitz-Nagel, who encouraged him to do what they were planning to do--move to Chicago. A move Peyankov, now writing from there, also encouraged.

"I didn't know anything about America when I moved to Chicago," Peyankov admits. "But when I got here I quickly realized I'd made the best choice when I saw that Chicago had a tremendously rich theater community." Soon after, Goulding and Peyankov formed their long-deferred theater group: the European Repertory Company.

Their first production--a stark, stripped-down version of Macbeth--opened to good reviews on October 24 in Cafe Voltaire's dark, musty basement. (It runs through November 28.) Peyankov, who directed, calls their production the meeting of the Western mind and the Slavic soul. "Western style of acting has a more inward energy, while the Slavs have more explosive natures. I was really curious to see what would happen if you united the two in a single production."

"Basically," Goulding adds, "we draw on the works of Grotowski, the 'poor theater.' The Cafe Voltaire performance space is the poor theater. We fell in love with the space--it's perfect. Shakespeare started performing in bars. His plays were written to be performed in bars to drunken, working-class people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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