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The Rascally Early Days of Chicago Theater

Just how influential was the local theater scene in the 1970s and ’80s? A new book goes behind the scenes.

Photo: Pbarrosse58/Wikimedia Commons

1 From Howard Street to SNL

In 1981, a troupe of Northwestern drama students rented a storefront on Howard Street and decorated it by dipping their naked asses in paint and pressing them against a pillar, writes Mark Larson in Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater (out August 13). Their improv revue was so popular that in 1982 they moved to Piper’s Alley, where producers from Saturday Night Live discovered them. It was the first big break for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who joined the cast along with Gary Kroeger and her future husband, Brad Hall.

2 Steppenwolf’s first film credit

The theater company’s second home was the basement of a church in Highland Park. When director Robert Altman came to nearby Lake Bluff to film A Wedding at the old Armour estate, he was looking for extras. Several members of the troupe appeared in the movie — but not John Malkovich. Eccentric even then, he showed up, got into costume, then disappeared into a third-floor bedroom to read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

3 Killer Joe slays a theater board

Unsurprisingly, Tracy Letts had a hard time finding a company to stage his first play, which featured a bare-bottomed actress and a rape with a chicken bone. Finally, Next Theatre agreed to put it on — but most of the board resigned after reading the script, with one member declaring, “There’s no way I’m supporting a theater who’s presenting this filth!” The play ran for eight months and launched Letts’s career.

4 From Led Zeppelin to “Greased Lightnin’ ”

One night in 1969, Jim Jacobs was throwing a cast party in his apartment. By 3 in the morning, everyone was lying on the floor, zonked on weed. Tired of listening to “Led Zeppelin or whatever the hell was on the suitcase stereo,” Jacobs recounts, he pulled his old Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry 45s out of the closet. “How come there’s never been a Broadway show with rock ’n’ roll for the music instead of that Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff?” Jacobs asked fellow actor Warren Casey. Together, they wrote Grease.

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