It is one of those strange-but-true tales that has turned out to be a blessing for at least two major Chicago theaters — the Goodman and Steppenwolf.
Here is how it goes: Roy Cockrum, now 58, a Northwestern University alum who spent more than two decades working as an actor and stage manager for theater and television, spent 6 years, beginning in 2003, at the Episcopal monestery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Mass., where he took the vow of poverty. Then, in July 2015, some years after he left the monastery, he purchased a jackpot-winning Powerball ticket at a Kroger’s supermarket in Tennessee, and decided to take the lump-sum payment of $153 million. Some might say the Lord works in mysterious ways. But that’s not all. Now, by way of The Roy Cockrum Foundation, headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn., he has become a major theater philanthropist whose first acts of grant-giving have assured grand-scale productions at both the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre.
The foundation’s mission is to “award grants to support world-class performing arts projects in not-for-profit professional American theaters, enabling them to reach beyond their normal scope of activities and undertake ambitious and creative productions.”
Indulging his passion for theater, Cockrum announced last week that he was giving the Goodman Theatre a large grant to underwrite “2666,” its five-hour epic stage adaptation of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s internationally-celebrated final novel, to be co-directed by Robert Falls and Seth Bockley.
On Friday, Steppenwolf became Cockrum’s second “by invitation only” beneficiary. His foundation will fund the 2016 Steppenwolf world premiere of Tracy Letts’ “Mary Page Marlowe.” Letts, of course, is the ensemble member who received the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for “August: Osage County.”
In a prepared statement Cockrum said: “I believe Tracy Letts is one of the great playwrights of our time. His voice is vital to the field and I am honored to help support the production of his next exceptional work. It is necessary that we as a society support our artists’ big dreams and financially enable our important theater companies such as Steppenwolf to create new contributions to the theatrical canon.”
“Mary Page Marlowe,” set to run March 31 – May 29, 2016, is about the life of an accountant from Ohio who has led an ordinary existence, “making the difficult decisions we all face as we try to figure out who we really are and what we really want” But, by revealing moments of Mary’s life that are both pivotal and mundane, a portrait of a surprisingly complicated woman emerges.”
“Roy [Cockrum] won the Powerball in July and very quickly and brilliantly organized his life, setting up the foundation and knowing exactly what he wanted to do with it,” said Robert Falls. “We got a call in October from Benita Hofstetter Koman, the woman he put in charge of the foundation [she is a freelance producer and event coordinator who has worked on such high-profile events as the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Torch Relay and the Holocaust Museum opening ceremonies for Remember the Children, as well as serving as an on-site coordinator for the National Endowment for the Arts], who both Roche [Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman] and I knew.”
What did he and Cockrum talk about?
“He described the kind of things he wanted to support, and said that he’d been inspired by several things he’d seen at London’s National Theatre, including Nicholas Hytner’s epic stage adaptation of ‘His Dark Materials,’ Philip Pullman’s bestselling trilogy, and also ‘War Horse’. And he came to see my remount of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which he loved, although by that time I think his decision had already been made.”
Cockrum had not heard of the Roberto Bolkano novel, but according to Falls, “He recognized that it was exactly the sort of project he was looking for. He came to Chicago and saw the Goodman productions that were running — ‘Smokefall’ and ‘The World of Extreme Happiness’ — and between shows we had dinner and he listened patiently to everything about ‘2666’.”
“I can certainly say that this sort of thing has been unheard of in my long years of talking to foundations, corporations or individuals,” said Falls, who said he has never purchased Powerball ticket himself, and is well aware that for many winners the whole thing turns into a disaster. “I’ve never been in a similar position — to encounter a person with such enthusiasm, and such an interest in a production of the size and scope we have planned. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
One of the conditions of the grants is that the amounts not be disclosed. They are sizable. And already there is chatter on the social media about how it might have been better to spread the wealth around, with smaller grants to companies with plenty of creativity but greater need. Of course you can’t blame Cockrum for wanting to make a big initial statement. And to be sure, plenty of money remains (and will clearly be well-invested), so future grants might take a different form.