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Julia Neary, multi-talented theater artist and teacher, dies at 50

There was something in the way she moved. But just as importantly, there was something in the way she could inspire others to move (and be moved) that made Julia Neary — the actress, dancer, choreographer, director, stage combat specialist, athlete and teacher — such a potent force on the Chicago theater scene.

An intensely creative spirit, Neary worked at such theaters as Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, Victory Gardens, Next, Plasticene, Teatro Vista, Chicago Dramatists, Lifeline, Strawdog, About Face, Running with Scissors and Collaboraction, and received a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Supporting Actress in Famous Door’s acclaimed 1999 production of Joshua Sobol’s “Ghetto,” which she also choreographed. She spent 10 years as an adjunct professor at the Theatre School at DePaul University before joining the faculty full-time in 2010 as an Assistant Professor of Acting and Movement.

Neary died early Saturday morning, just a few days after her 50th birthday, surrounded by her parents, Tom and Sally Neary, and her siblings Susan, Tom and Nancy. She had been receiving home hospice care at her family’s longtime vacation home on the Sister Lakes in Michigan, after waging a valiant battle against late-stage liver and colon cancer for about a year.

It was the role of a ventriloquist’s dummy in “Ghetto” that was among Neary’s most stunning achievements, with the actress convincing audiences she was made of wood and cloth by means of the most minimal gestures and body language. She turned in yet another extraordinary performance as the strong-willed estranged artist/mother of a grown daughter in Jaime Pachino’s “Waving Goodbye,” staged at the Steppenwolf Studio in 2001. And she also was hugely memorable in the 2004 About Face production of Patricia Kane’s noir drama “Pulp,” playing Terry Logan, the edgy member of WACS (Women’s Army Corps) who arrives at an underground lesbian bar in 1950s Chicago, and as one of the gonzo, wildly driven ensemble members in “Graphomania,” the paranoid thriller that was the final production of Plasticene Physical Theatre in 2012.

Early on Neary garnered great attention for her work on the 1993 Lifeline Theatre production of “Weetzie Bat,” which she co-adapted with director Ann Boyd, with whom she had been friends since the age of 7. Playing the title character — a princess of punk with platinum hair and a flair for mixing fishnet stockings with combat boots — Neary masterfully suggested the girl’s subtle transformation to maturity. Also at Lifeline she left her mark with her dreamy choreography for “Mrs. Caliban.”

According to her father, Tom, and sister, Susan Neary Elovitz, Neary, who grew up in Wilmette and attended New Trier High School, expressed little interest in theater until college, aside from asking for a puppet theater for Christmas at the age of 5. An enthusiastic athlete who played basketball and volleyball, Neary took some dance classes at New Trier, and her teacher told her mother that she was “the most beautiful natural, untrained dancer” she had ever seen. The athlete in her never wavered. She came in second in her age group in the 2013 triathlon held in Chicago. And this past spring, determined to compete despite the effects of her cancer treatments, she joined forces with her two sisters, Susan and Nancy, and ran more than 3 miles.

“The morning of the race she told us she might have to walk,” recalled Nancy. “But then suddenly she just took off like a shot. It was amazing.”

It was somewhere during her first year or so at DePauw University in Indiana that Neary announced to her parents that she wanted to audition for the Theatre School at DePaul.

“It came out of nowhere, but my mom told her, ‘Go with your heart,’ ” Nancy recalled. “And without any training or experience — just some private classes to coach her for the audition — she was one of the 50 students out of many hundreds of applicants who was accepted. At graduation she was honored by the Sarah Siddons Society.”

“Julia went to New York and was offered contracts by several agents,” said Neary’s father. “But she came home saying she wanted to learn everything possible about theater, and that it was not about success for her, but about the art.”

“Julia always took intense responsibility for everything she did as an artist, a teacher and a person,” said director and DePaul colleague Dexter Bullard, who first worked with Neary in a 1991 project at the Next Theatre’s Lab. “She had the same attitude toward her disease. She owned it, and she dealt with it. And I think the fact that she was an athlete first was the key to her fearlessness and her calm, to her sense of the economy of movement, and to the simplicity of intention in acting.”

In the midst of her performing career, Neary headed off to receive advanced training at the University of Utah in Integrated Movement Studies, a graduate level certification program in Laban/Bartenieff Studies. She also trained in Viewpoints and Suzuki with Ann Bogart and the SITI Company, and became a certified teacher of the Feldenkrais Method. She was a founding member of the Organic Theatre Collective, Powertap Productions, and Running With Scissors. Her television and film credits include “Early Edition,” “The Untouchables,” “The Break Up,” “Black Dogs,” and many others.​​

“In addition to the expertise Julia brought to her teaching, it was the humanity she brought to her work that set her apart,” said John Culbert, Dean of DePaul’s Theatre School. “She was always very disciplined and specific, but her strength was in the way she worked with each individual student as a full person and considered their different needs while also moving the class forward. She knew when to push and challenge, but she also had an instinct for knowing when support was most needed. She had a gift for helping her young students survive in a very intense program. And her own positive energy during the past year was unbelievable.”

Neary’s early collaborations with Ann Boyd (who now teaches theater at Columbia College Chicago) began when they choreographed their first dance together at New Trier, with a live band supplying accompaniment.

“I think we were kind of alike and kind of opposite at the same time, which created a really good balance of seriousness, tenderness and wackiness,” said Boyd. “Julia always wanted a certain level of playfulness, bawdiness, irreverence. And because our work was rooted in our friendship it just sprang from that level of love. In more recent years it was teaching that was our bond. Julia was the consummate teacher and saw teaching as a hugely creative process.”

“Julia’s performances were always fierce, heartbreaking and honest, and the same was true of her friendships” said Heather Hartley, executive director of Audience Architects and a former dancer who worked with Neary. Actor Frank Nall, who co-starred with Neary in “Ghetto,” recalled: “The first time I saw Julia, she was wearing red high heels and a bustier as she climbed on top of a rusted car in some play whose title I no longer remember. Her sheer energy and beauty were a sight to behold. Over the years, we worked together on many great projects and became the closest of friends, and I never once saw her lose her indomitable spirit.”

Neary, whose sister Susan described her as “eating vegetarian and doing everything organic long before it was fashionable,” willed her body to science and her eyes to an eye bank. In conjunction with DePaul University’s Theatre School, Neary’s family is establishing the Julia Neary Scholarship Fund, which will provide recognition and financial assistance to students enrolled or planning to enroll in the BFA or MFA Acting programs. Gifts can be made to the Theatre School, DePaul University, 2350 N. Racine, Chicago, 60614 (sent to the attention of John Culbert, dean, and noting it is for the Julia Neary Scholarship Fund). The public memorial service, originally scheduled for 10a.m. Jan. 24 at the Theatre School, has now now changed its location and starting time. It will be held the same morning, but at 9:30 a.m. (doors open at 9 a.m.) at a larger downtown venue — DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo (at Michigan Ave.).