People mostly associate Chicago with cold weather. Snow drifts, winds that knock you horizontal on the street, cold that threatens to make your ears crack if you put your hat on too abruptly.
But I’m here to tell you that summer in Chicago can be enough to make you yearn for the gentle embrace of its winter. I’m seeing puddles on the sidewalk I suspect are the remnants of melted people.
I’m back in Chicago this week to mark my return to professional performing for the first time since I was eleven.
I was briefly a child actor. There used to be an acting school for kids in the Loop called Jack and Jill Studios where I learned how to play various animals and storybook characters. An agent who attended one of the performances called my parents and said he thought he could get me some work.
So I auditioned for a TV show called Light Time. And I’m not remotely surprised you have never heard of it. It was a fifteen-minute series produced by a Lutheran organization. It was aimed at kids. The star was Jimmy Stewart. No, not the cinema icon James Stewart. Jimmy Stewart, a local children’s TV personality who hosted an after-school show featuring puppets called the Glovables. I suppose the Lutherans thought that Stewart’s fan base would follow him on Sunday mornings to watch him deliver homilies about moral behavior.
I dimly remember being in two episodes. In one called “Revenge” I played a bully who jumped on someone who played a practical joke on me. The fact that I played a bully suggests either that I had astonishing acting chops at that age (given that I regularly had my glasses snapped in half by the real bullies in my school) or that the people who cast the show were knowingly casting against type. In the episode, Jim broke up the fight and told us that revenge was a bad thing.
In the other episode, which I think had the theme of brotherhood, I played a cave boy. I think I was the cave boy with dark hair who encountered a cave boy with blonde hair. I believe that what should have been the beginning of a friendship between two cave boys was blasted by the curse of my intolerance of people with different colored hair. We’re talking some hard-hitting themes here. (This was at the same time that the civil rights movement was in full swing, but I don’t think it occurred to the producers to actually use, say, a young black actor to play my part.)
I had scored two parts with two auditions and my parents were suddenly terrified that I might actually be so encouraged as to try to become an actor. So they called my agent and told him not to send me up for anything again. (It wasn’t until a number of years later that they told me that they did this. At the time I wondered what I had done that I was no longer employable.)
The shows were shot in the Fred Niles Studio west of the Loop. I long wondered what became of that space. A quick look online informs me that someone named Oprah Winfrey took it over.
So, it’s quite a few years later and I’m preparing to face an audience for the first time as a professional performer after years of writing and sometimes directing shows. I’m doing a solo piece called You Only Shoot the Ones You Love as part of the Fillet of Solo Festival at a terrific space called the Lifeline Theatre on Chicago’s North Side.
I just finished a run-through of my piece. I do the show somewhat in the manner of Mike Daisey or the late Spalding Gray in that I have file cards handy and I improvise from moment to moment the points listed there. My plan is to change the cards during laughs. I did the run-through in front of an audience of one, though, and she nodded and smiled, so I didn’t have the cover I hoped for during which I planned to change those cards. At the end, I looked at her a little sheepishly and she said, “No, you’re in fine shape.” She just isn’t a laugher. Especially when she’s the only one in the audience.
Well, Friday night is the first performance. If you’re in Chicago and you want to leave your air-conditioned home to slog through the heat to another air-conditioned locale and take a look, you can find the schedule here.