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In return to Goodman, actor David Cale recounts his ‘drama-filled’ childhood

Actor-director David Cale is starring in his newest one-man show, "We're Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time" at the Goodman Theatre.

Actor-director David Cale is starring in his newest one-man show, "We're Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time" at the Goodman Theatre. | Eliza Davidson/Chicago Sun-Times

For many theater artists, their own personal stories serve as rich inspiration early on in their careers. For actor-singer David Cale, nearly four decades would pass before he felt ready to dive into his family history.

During those years, Cale left his English hometown for New York, where he honed his singing-songwriting-acting in solo shows, six of which debuted at the Goodman Theatre. Among these were “The Redthroats,” “Smooch Music” and “Lillian,” plus his play “Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky.”

Now Cale returns to the Goodman, after a 10-year absence, with the debut of “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time,” a new solo work, which mines his childhood and his parent’s fraught marriage in what he calls “my most ambitious piece yet.”

‘We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time’
When: To Oct. 21
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25-$70
Info: goodmantheatre.org

“I’m not exactly sure what took me so long to get to this,” Cale says. “I knew I wanted to write about my childhood in England, and at first I thought of it as a four-person opera. But as I started writing it, it became clear, to me at least, that I should tell it and play everybody in it.”

“We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” was part of the Goodman’s 2017 New Stages Festival, where artistic director Robert Falls first saw it and immediately knew he wanted to stage a full production.

“David has done really, really beautiful work in the past, but I think this is sort of his masterwork in a way,” Falls says. “While it is deeply personal, so often with this type of piece it ends up being universal and moving an audience in a way that other works may not.”

The soft-spoken Cale describes the work as “very emotional, very raw and very musical.” He has a talent for digging deep into the individual personalities of his characters and bringing them to vivid life on stage.

David Cale performs "Switch Music" in 1989, one of many shows he has launched at the Goodman Theatre.

David Cale performs “Smooch Music” in 1989, one of many shows he has launched at the Goodman Theatre. | PROVIDED PHOTO

Cale grew up in Luton, an industrial town, 30 miles north of London, which at the time had the highest crime rate in the country.

“My childhood in this rough town was turbulent and drama-filled,” he says. “The center of the show is my mother, who was extremely misunderstood and abused and who ultimately had a very tragic life.”

Cale says his mother was a naturally gifted, artistic woman who was “miscast in her own life.” It was a time when girls’ ambitions were never encouraged in any way. You came out of school and you got a job in factory. Period.

Yet in the hat factory where his mother worked, she found encouragement for her design talents. That flicker of creativity was quashed when she married and went to work in her husband’s family factory. Cale recalls his parent’s marriage as “very, very volatile and ultimately very tragic.” It was a situation that propelled him to leave home at 17.

“My mother is a particularly tragic figure, and I wanted on some level to right the wrong with her,” says Cale, who portrays all the characters in the show, including his mother. “I do find it very peculiar to memorize your own life in this form. It’s odd and quite a trip.”

Cale’s past shows have always had a musical element, but here music really comes to the forefront. The memoir has song lyrics by Cale and music composed by Cale and Matthew Dean Marsh, who also performs live each night with a quintet of musicians.

“The music is unlike anything I’ve heard before in theater,” Cale says.

Adds Marsh: “The music is dark and it’s full of soul, but its also very romantic and lush. There’s this sort of cross section of folk, soul, romantic and cinematic sounds.”

Billy Crudup starred in the one-man show "Harry Clarke," by David Cale, off Broadway.

Billy Crudup starred in the one-man show “Harry Clarke,” by David Cale, off Broadway. | PROVIDED PHOTO

Another recent success for Cale was the off-Broadway production of “Harry Clarke,” a rare solo show he penned but didn’t star in, handing the role instead to actor Billy Crudup.

“David’s work has expanded and deepened,” Falls says. “’Harry Clarke’ was a big step forward for him. And in his current show at the Goodman, you see a lot of themes seen in previous work but it just becomes very deep and very real here.”

Cale, who came of age with Spaulding Gray and Eric Bogosian, knows the life of a solo artist can be a fickle one. He calls his association with the Goodman “the backbone of my artistic life.”

“I’ve been working for a long time and I’ve had good periods and I’ve had bad periods but they’ve consistently stuck by me. I don’t know that I would have endured this long. I can’t imagine what my artistic life would be without the Goodman.”