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."
Of course, the door includes the names of the Famous Door ensemble members, who now number 21, made up principally of actors but also including one playwright, one scenic designer, one lighting designer, and three directors (of whom Kessler is one). Kessler herself joined the ensemble just 19 months ago, although she had worked with Famous Door before that. She was named artistic director last September, succeeding other ensemble members in the post.
The latest ensemble addition is director Gary Griffin, an always-working multiple-Jeff Award-winner who's also affiliated with the Apple Tree Theatre in north suburban Highland Park. Griffin directed The Homecoming, the first Famous Door show to be cast completely from within its own ensemble.
In a company as small and as tightly-knit as Famous Door, the grunt work is done by the ensemble members. Thus, co-founder Rivkin is both an actor and executive director, and actor Larry Neumann, Jr. also fills the post of managing director.
Artistically, Famous Door always has been adventurous, committed to presenting premieres and little-known or seldom-produced works. The company's range is quite broad, and has included both American and European work in styles ranging from realism to absurdism to neo-classical. The repertory has included works by Brecht, Simon Grey, Vaclav Havel, verse dramatist Christopher Fry, Mike Leigh (long before he became famous as a film director), Howard Brenton, and Anthony Clarvoe, plus a dozen world premieres by various writers, including the current playwright ensemble member Carson Grace Becker.
Subjects have ranged from the London Plague of 1668 to baseball to a gay coming-of-age story. The last-mentioned, Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey, became the first Famous Door show to transfer to New York, enjoying an Off-Broadway run last year that was rapturously received by many critics.
Under Kessler, Famous Door's artistic program may be shifting slightly. After all, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming hardly qualifies either as unknown or seldom-produced. Kessler admits that the current Pinter show "doesn't fit within our mission statement." Nonetheless, it represents a splendid opportunity for the ensemble, offering roles in a variety of age ranges. Besides, Kessler adds, "We're definitely evolving. Whenever you have a transition in leadership, you're going to have changes and explore different thinking."
Next up at Famous Door is This Lime Tree Bower by Irish author Conor McPherson, opening April 24 under Kessler direction. Famous Door is located at Theatre Building, 1225 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago (except for Hell Cab, which is performed at the Ivanhoe Theatre, 750 West Wellington). For information or tickets, call 773-327-5252, or click here to check out Famous Door online. Any troupe with three hits running must be doing something right.