Theater directors, productions eye bigger stage

CHICAGO — Chicago directors Robert Falls, Mary Zimmerman and Frank Galati established high-profile careers by dividing their commitments between their home base and New York.

Last season, another group of helmers from the Windy City — led by Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) and David Cromer (“The Adding Machine”) — raised their profiles to the next level with respective Broadway and Off Broadway successes.

Now the balancing act begins as they seek to navigate a life in the nurturing environment of the Chi theater community with a national spotlight and more offers to leave their Midwest HQ.

Shapiro made the biggest splash, taking home the Tony for her work on “August: Osage County.” A Steppenwolf member and head of the directing program at Northwestern U., Shapiro’s work on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning drama possessed a sure-footedness with a large ensemble, and a keen sense of how to let dramatic tension rise and fall in a play that could have overdosed on intensity.

Shapiro will remount “August” in London in November with most of the original cast, and is already busy with preliminary work associated with the national tour of the show, which will start in fall 2009.

“It’s become a franchise that’s taken over my life,” says Shapiro, “but I’m just so proud to be associated with it.”

Shapiro has had some significant job opportunities emerge since “August” took off, including running a prominent regional theater, but ultimately she decided to stay put. “I think Chicago has, at its core, a balanced approach to life,” says the director. “My friends here are as excited about the new house we bought as they are about the Tony, and I like that.  I don’t find that anywhere else.”

Known as a new play specialist, this season Shapiro will direct preems at Steppenwolf (Bridget Carpenter’s “Up”) and the Goodman (Regina Taylor’s “Magnolia”).

Next though, she’ll team with Jessica Thebus — who made her Off Broadway helming debut last year with “When the Messenger Is Hot” — to co-direct Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” with Lookingglass, starting perfs in February. David Schwimmer stars as the romantic lead. “We’re interested,” explains Shapiro, “in bringing the older perspective to the younger experience.”

Oddly enough, a different production of “Our Town” was recently the hottest ticket in Chicago. That production, from a company called the Hypocrites, was directed by Cromer, who received the Off Broadway Lucille Lortel Award for helming tuner “Adding Machine,” another Chicago-initiated project that became an unlikely New York hit.

With “Adding Machine,” Cromer helped make the singing of Joshua Schmidt’s often atonal music feel like natural speech, and his approach to “Our Town” similarly dealt with finding a means to lend authenticity to the artificial. It started with the casting of Cromer himself as the Stage Manager.

“There have been a couple of times in the past when I almost played the Stage Manager,” says Cromer. “I always knew I wouldn’t walk around with a vest and a pipe, chuckling. I would just talk, conversationally.”

Cromer made a lot of friends and contacts while taking “Adding Machine” to New York, and ever since he has considered moving there. “There’s always this feeling,” he says, “I don’t want to abandon my home, where I’m from, or work in that environment. But do I want to never live anywhere else?”

For the next few months, at least, he can blame his busy workload for delaying the decision. He’s signed to direct “Celebrity Row” by Itamar Moses at Chicago’s American Theater Company, “The Glass Menagerie” at Kansas City Rep and “The Farnsworth Invention” at the Alley Theater in Houston.

Before that, however, he’ll restage “Our Town” at the same time he’s helming William Inge’s “Picnic” at Writers’ Theater in suburban Glencoe. That means he’ll be rehearsing all day and performing at night.

“He’s always doing stuff like that,” says Shapiro. “I’d be dead.”

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