Chicago Part One

…And a warm welcome back to my blog on Sancho in the U.S. I arrived bleary eyed and braced by the cold air on the 15th. Everything I’d heard about Chicago lead me to believe that my saliva would freeze if I even opened my mouth to hail a cab here, but, no. Strange to say that Chicago is experiencing an unusually mild February. My usual London winter gear is all I’ll really need here. Good news.

I always thought they called it the Windy City because of the biting wind blowing off the immense Lake Michigan. Some well-informed local corrected my misconception: it was really because of the hot air spouting out of the mouth of the local politicians here. Who knows which one is true?

I was met at O’Hare Airport by Dan Hess, Company Manager, and his warm welcome extended to taking me to meet some of the leading lights at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the Navy Pier area. A marvellous location set on the frozen and immense Lake. Boats are locked in by the ice and it really does look like you could walk on water here! Barbara Gaines, Artistic Director here since 1986, was warm and welcoming. I felt, just as I have in all the theatres I’ve visited here, like I was coming to a place that both desired and actively encouraged innovative and original work. It was going to a great way to end this run.

Dan took me down to the main stage which is built on an exact model of the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. So exact is it that I had immediate flashbacks to my first stint at the RSC way back in 1990. Beautiful wooden circles rise three stories and overlook a thrusting, intimate stage. The Othello, directed by Brit, Jonathan Mumby, was being loaded in. I’m seeing it this afternoon and looking forward to that with great anticipation.

So, to my two massive highlights of the week so far… About 15 years ago, the late, great actor, Alex Giannini, had encouraged a group of actor friends to start an improvisation group. Having worked with founding member, the late Del Close, and using his book, Truth in Comedy, we began sessions at the Drill Hall in London. Private. No audiences. Just for us. Wonderful. We had little idea that a group of 6 actors would turn into 25. And I had no idea that it would be the start of me leading these workshops and changing the way I approached all my subsequent work. It was also the start of my teaching other folks the same techniques of spontaneity and freedom of thought. It was truly life-changing, and I have my late friend Alex to thank for that.

Alumni of the Second City Theatre, which has been going since 1959 include: Alan Alda, Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, Amy Poehler, John Candy, Shelley Long, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and the Belushi brothers, to name a very few... Second City troupes are regular contributors on Saturday Night Live, the seminal satirical show on U.S. TV. So it was with great excitement that having asked Dan if I could see a gig that night, I was given not only great seats but the whole VIP treatment. Peep Show is very popular amongst comedy folks here and that gave me a lot of kudos. Not only that, but I was asked to be part of the final, totally improvised set! You can read a little more about this on my facebook page Ignatius.Sancho. Those of you who’ve seen that post already know how high I was after that gig. Thank you, Second City and thank you, Alex G.

The next afternoon I had the flattest dress rehearsal ever. Where was the buzz of last night? Where were my co-improvisors? I felt like I would never want to go on stage on my own again… But…good old Doctor Theatre and good old MASSIVE EGO soon kicked in and the night’s performance was one of the most rewarding. Another smart, warm and emotional American audience. Is it weird that I get moved by seeing people in the audience being moved at the curtain call? I guess they’ve empathised with Sancho and I in turn must empathise with them. A beautiful, human transaction that keeps us social creatures together and, indeed, sane. The compact space at the top of the Shakespeare Theatre, seating around 200, helped to bring SANCHO down to an intimate level. It’s good to know that the play can take a 400 and a 100 seater venue. Right off to watch some jealousy and madness. Well, what else should one day on an afternoon off in Chi-Town?