The modern history of Chicago theater frequently has been a case of The Little Engine That Could. A youthful improvisational comedy troupe called The Second City opened its doors in the basement of a Chinese laundry in 1959, and within five years had taken London and New York by storm and revolutionized American comedy. A guy who took five years to finish high school and two buddies started the Steppenwolf Theater Company in a suburban church basement in 1976, and nine years later won its first of three Tony Awards.
Famous Door Theatre Company is cut from the same cloth. Like Steppenwolf, it's an actor-based ensemble company that's won plenty of awards. This accomplished and respected 12-year-old troupe has won 22 Joseph Jefferson Awards and Citations for its 33 productions, frequently beating out much larger and better-heeled companies, including Steppenwolf.
Right now, Famous Door is the only theater company in town with three hits running simultaneously, as certified by both audiences and the critics: the English language premiere of Ghetto by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol (through May 6), a revival of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming by Will Kern, now in its 8th year and celebrating its 1,000th performance March 25.
All those hits make Famous Door sound like the Cameron Macintosh of Off-Loop theater (as Chicago's indigenous theater industry is called), which only makes the troupe's managers laugh. "Oh, sure," says co-founder and executive director Dan Rivkin, "that's why they pay me the big bucks." Actually, Famous Door remains small by design both physically and fiscally. The company's mission includes producing plays "at an affordable price" and "in an intimate environment." The three theaters housing the Famous Door hits seat only 150 people each, and the company budget for fiscal year 2000 is just $425,000. Both Famous Door and its audiences get a lot of bang for its bucks.
In a city where curious theater company names are the norm--TinFish, Thirteenth Tribe, Strawdog, greasy joan & company, Remy Bumppo--Famous Door has one of the more mysterious monikers. Artistic Director Karen Kessler explains that the name--and a fascinating ritual--derive from a New York jazz club, at which visiting musicians would carve their names on the door.
Company co-founders Rivkin and Marc Grapey are both jazz aficionados, and so took both the name and the custom when they set up shop in Chicago. "The night before a show opening, we swill cheap champagne out of the bottle, and those who haven't worked with us before sign the door, or etch their names into it," Kessler says. "We're on our third door. The first door was stolen, and one we lost."