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Barbara Gaines

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director, 72, on the Bard, fear, and past lives

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

You don’t work in Chicago because you want to be famous internationally. You work here because you really love what you’re doing.

I wasn’t a great student at Northwestern. I didn’t believe in myself as a writer, because they all told me I couldn’t write. One professor said, “I’ll pass you only if you promise never to take one of my writing classes again.” It forced me to do other things, like be a better communicator through talking.

I don’t miss acting. It’s a muscle that atrophied. I miss being in dressing rooms with actors, because I laughed. I have never laughed more consistently than I did when I was getting ready for a show.

I never wanted to be a director. This part of my life is a complete surprise.

When I came back to Chicago after acting in New York, I couldn’t walk. I had this surgery on my knee, and it took a year and a half to heal. I didn’t know how I was going to eat, and I was afraid I’d have to give my dogs away. I had panic attacks. For months and months, I couldn’t sleep. I was so scared that some of my friends just left me because they couldn’t take it. I don’t blame them. I was down to my last thousand dollars and desperate for a job. I was coaching actors in my apartment. This actress said, “You should teach a class. You’re a really good teacher.” And I said, “I’m thinking of starting a Shakespeare class for actors. Are you interested?” She said, “Yeah, count me in.” Until that moment, I had never thought of it. It just popped out of my mouth.

When something comes too easily, I’m not interested in it.

No matter how fertile a director’s imagination is, if you don’t have people who can go onstage eight times a week, who can be truthful and exciting and entertaining, you don’t have anything.

You should never have to read a Shakespeare play to go see Shakespeare. If it’s done well, you should get caught up in the first 30 seconds and be leaning forward. Otherwise, I have not done my job.

Shakespeare is this great humanizing influence, because through his language and through his humanity, we become more caring. If you really get into him, you go, Man, he never judged. Even the mass murderers, he just presented them.

I was so well loved as a child. My parents said to me, “You will make your own luck. We believe in you.” It was really remarkable. If you don’t have that well of love that I was lucky enough to receive, the world is a terribly frightening place. That fear becomes such a factor in your life, it closes you down.

Make one person smile when you feel like hell, and you will feel better. It boomerangs back on you.

Since I was 5, I’ve felt that I’ve lived before. When I was in my 30s, I met a psychic in New York at a cocktail party. He was from India and apparently very well known. He looked at my palm and said, “You are a very, very old soul.” My knees buckled, because I remembered my first day of kindergarten. I was waiting for my mother to come out of the house. My shoes were circled with green grass, and I looked up at the sky. It was very blue. And I said to myself, Oh no, here I go again — I’ve been through so many schools in so many lifetimes. Meeting this man triggered that memory, which was as real to me then as it is now.

I love to laugh more than anything, which is why I keep animals around. They’re comic relief.

I’ve made mistakes a number of times. People have been hurt, and I have serious regrets. But I’ve learned much more from when I’ve failed than when I’ve succeeded.

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