Chicago Actors Get Good Training Here, but Often Go Elsewhere

Article excerpt

Byline: Sandra Nygaard Medill News Service

"In Chicago, you don't talk about it, you don't analyze it, you just do it," actor Denis O'Hare says, explaining where he learned to free himself of inhibitions and respond in an honest, no-holds- barred way on stage.

"If the scene is going badly you definitely have the ability to do whatever you want."

This skill helped O'Hare advance his career in New York, and on Sunday it also helped him capture one of theater's most coveted honors, a Tony Award.

He and former Chicago actress Linda Emond were both nominated for best-performance Tony Awards for their roles in Broadway productions.

While they remain grateful to the town that helped them develop their craft, they have chosen to take their talents elsewhere. As many other local actors have found, balancing the economic and professional shortcomings of Chicago often makes it a challenging place to remain. Instead, some head to New York for careers in theater while others go to Los Angeles to work in movies or television.

Although Emond and O'Hare have been away from Chicago for several years, both agree that their time here was instrumental in shaping them into the actors they are today.

"I'm proud to have learned my acting in Chicago," says O'Hare, a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University. The actor worked at the now defunct Stormfield theater as well as The Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater before his Jeff Award-winning role in "Hauptmann" took him to New York in 1992.

Although the Chicago play wasn't as well-received in New York and quickly closed, O'Hare stayed on for the opportunities. A decade later, he has performed in television shows ("Law and Order") and on Broadway ("Cabaret," "Major Barbara") and in off- Broadway productions ("Helen," "The Devils") before landing his breakout role as business manager Mason Marzac in the quirky baseball play, "Take Me Out."

Emond, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in "Life (x) 3," spent half of the 1980s developing as an actor in Chicago. She worked in plays at major theaters around town, receiving the Best Actress Jeff Award for "Pygmalion" at the Court and a Jeff Award for supporting actress for "The Winters Tale" at the Goodman. She took her Chicago training to New York in 1996 and a year later made her Broadway debut as Abigail Adams in the play "1776."

"I feel incredibly lucky for my career in Chicago, for the people I worked with," Emond says. "I felt there was a feet-on-the- ground, hardworking ethic in the city itself that permeates the theater community."

Actors who continue to work in Chicago say this tradition of earnestness has not changed.

"I feel like we have a more truthful way of acting. I feel like you can pick out a Chicago actor," says Georgann Charuhas, a member of Chicago's The Artistic Home ensemble, who began her acting career five years ago. "It's all about being truly honest, following your gut and working moment to moment.

"Just like the Midwest is a good place to raise kids, it's also a great place to grow actors," says John Mossman, associate director of The Artistic Home theater ensemble and an actor for more than 20 years. He adds that local actors are hungry to reach artistic levels rarely found in Los Angeles, where he worked for five years before returning to act in Chicago.

O'Hare says his city of origin didn't immediately grant him entry into New York theater; Mossman found that the Los Angeles market was more impressed with his experience here.

"Chicago actors have a great reputation in L.A. because they're fanatical" about their dedication to their craft.

The success of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre has also been instrumental in granting the city's actors credibility elsewhere, said Craig Kinzer, an associate professor of theater at Northwestern University. "That rough realism and in-your-face energy has become synonymous with Chicago actors," he says. …