Celebrating a classic: Court Theatre’s 60th anniversary

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In the beginning, and that was 1954, there was a courtyard on the campus of the University of Chicago. It was a lovely outdoor space surrounded by towering elm trees (since destroyed by Dutch elm disease), and each summer it was transformed into a rudimentary stage for community theater, where the audience sat on the grass and watched productions of classic plays.

“It was a communal project,” recalled Nicholas Rudall, who would later serve as artistic director of the indoor stage we now know as Court Theatre. “Not unlike the Compass Players, the forerunner of The Second City, it was a fusion of faculty, local hospital employees and some students, a good number of whom were on the GI Bill. By the time I got there in 1966 to join the faculty it had grown into something really wonderful. And two years after I arrived I was asked to direct my first show, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,’ with a cast that included James O’Reilly, Pauline Brailsford, my then-wife, Diane Rudall, and a young actor, just out of school, by the name of Kevin Kline.”

The productions remained a summertime-only operation until the mid 1970s, when, as Rudall recalled: “Midway Airport began ramping up operations, the noise became terrible, we had no microphones, and people wanted air conditioning. So we arranged to move inside to a 120-seat space on the first floor of Reynolds Hall, where we staged such shows as ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and ‘Butley.’ By that time the University was ready to have a professional company, though it was clear it would remain semi-independent and we would have to raise the money for a permanent home.”

“The University gave us the land for what would become the current Court Theatre, but did so reluctantly because it was the site of a Nobel Prize-winning project — the first crop of genetically engineered corn. We raised $4.5 million, with Hope Abelson putting us over the top with the additional $600,000 we needed. Harry Weese was already on board as our architect, and the building opened in 1981.”

“Remember, this was the age of Stuart Gordon [who founded the Organic Theatre], and David Mamet, and the Goodman Theatre, and it was before Steppenwolf fully bloomed,” said Rudall. “We saw ourselves as filling a niche with the production of ancient and modern classics, though that repertory — Ibsen, Chekhov, Beckett, Pinter — also set us apart in a dangerous way. Some viewed us as too academic, others said we were too modern. We also introduced plays by Athol Fugard, and a Caribbean version of ‘Playboy of the Western World,” originally staged in London. And we spent many years raising the money to assure our survival.”

Nevertheless, the theater thrived, Rudall was taught the importance of subscriptions by the master of the form, Danny Newman, and audience attitudes began to change.

“One of the greatest things that happened was the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, which began in 1986, and really opened people’s mind and perspectives about all forms of theater,” said Rudall. “And one of my own proudest achievements was when Bernie Sahlins and I staged ‘The Mystery Cycle: The Creation and The Passion,’ the medieval plays performed in the campus’ Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.”

Charles Newell, a young director who had worked at the Guthrie Theatre and Arena Stage, was initially brought on board as an associate artistic director in 1993, and as he put it: “The stars aligned and I got lucky, and when Nick Rudall decided to step down the board asked me to become Court’s artistic director. The theater was just coming off of its huge success with ‘The Mystery Plays’ and other productions.”

“I also realized I would have the opportunity to work with university scholars and elevate the theater’s national reputation. And I had this sweet, intimate space — a 240-seat thrust theater with a surprisingly large stage. So I was deeply dramaturgically fired up, and knew I wanted to present the Greeks [including the one-man show, ‘An Iliad,’ a major recent success, in photo below], and the plays of Tom Stoppard, as well as new takes on classic musicals [including an early knockout, “My Fair Lady,” as well as “Caroline, or Change” and the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess”]. I also wanted to commission new adaptations of classic American novels.”

Newell was determined to fire up a largely untapped audience, too — drawing in the African American community that lived in the immediate area of Hyde Park, Kenwood and other parts of the South Side. And to help him in the process he turned to director Ron OJ Parson, whose production of August Wilson’s “Fences” became a major hit for Court. Parson has since staged many of Wilson’s plays, including “Seven Guitars,” in addition to Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop.” And he will direct an all black “Waiting for Godot” later this season.

“Ron operates from a very instinctual and spiritual place, and he has taught me to work less from my head and more from my heart,” said Newell.

For Parson, the change in Court’s audience in recent seasons is his greatest reward.

“It’s not just the racial diversity, although we now have 30% people of color as opposed to the earlier 5%. But you can see a big mix of ages and cultures you just didn’t see earlier on. One of my goals with ‘Godot’ is to let this newer audience know they don’t have to be afraid of Beckett. I also hope to stage adaptations of many of the great works of literature in the African American diaspora.”

In 2010, Newell formalized Court’s connection with the University of Chicago with the establishment of The Center for Classic Theatre, a program “dedicated to the curation of large-scale, interdisciplinary theatrical experiences [and exploring] a new way of approaching what it means for a professional theatre to be in residence at a major university.”

As for dreams of the future, Newell said: “We’ve got an artistic staff of about 2 1/2 people, so it would be great to see that grow, and I’d also like to have better rehearsal facilities. But I think our 60th season is my ideal — from our opener, Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of ‘Native Son,’ which played to full houses, to Nick Rudall’s translation of Euripides’ ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’ [Nov. 6-Dec. 7], the first in a trilogy I will direct; Ron’s staging of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ [Jan. 15-Feb. 15, 2015]; the world premiere of ‘The Good Book’ [March 19-April 19, 2015], a riff on the Bible written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare; and ‘The Secret Garden’ [May 21-June 21, 2015], the musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon.”

“Meanwhile, we’ve been talking to David Auburn [‘Proof’] about a stage adaptation of Saul Bellow’s ‘The Adventures of Augie March’,” said Rudall. “And if anyone has a million dollars they’d like to put to good use, I would love to produce Stoppard’s three-part ‘The Coast of Utopia’.”

[Court Theatre is located at 5535 S. Ellis. Tickets: (773) 753-4472 or visit http://www.CourtTheatre.org.]

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A Brief List of Some Favorite Court Theatre Productions:

± “Seven Guitars,” by August Wilson (2014).

± “An Iliad,” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare (2011 and 2013).

± “Proof,” by David Auburn (2013).

± “James Joyce’s The Dead,” by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey (2012).

± “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (2011),

± “My Fair Lady,” by Lerner and Loewe (2002, off site).

± “The Invention of Love,” by Tom Stoppard (2001).

± “The Little Foxes,” by Lillian Hellman (1999).

± “The Mystery Cycle: The Creation and The Passion” (1992).

± “Candide,” by Leonard Bernstein, with various lyricists (1991).

± “Fuente Ovejuna,” by Lope de Vega (1991).

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