Among Chicago's Theaters, The House Is on Fire The House Theatre of Chicago is a scrappy off-Loop company (that's Chicago-speak for "off-Broadway") specializing in high-energy shows made in small spaces. Some say they're the next Steppenwolf. Noah Adams looks into what the rave reviews are all about.
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Among Chicago's Theaters, The House Is on Fire

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Among Chicago's Theaters, The House Is on Fire

Among Chicago's Theaters, The House Is on Fire

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Contract talks between strike in Broadway stagehands and theater producers resumed today. Neither side will say whether they expect the curtains to rise soon. So if you want to be sure of seeing a show, try Off-Broadway - 800 miles off Broadway in Chicago.

NPR's Noah Adams takes us there.

NOAH ADAMS: Chicago Theater. The words fit together well, and they have ever since the first theatrical performances for 75 cents a ticket in 1837. The Isherwood and McKinzie Theater Company put on place in the Sauganash Hotel. These days, the Goodman Theater is famous downtown in the Loop. Steppenwolf is off Loop and legendary. Steppenwolf started in a church basement 30 years ago and brought forth actors like Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joan Allen.

Our story is about a six-year-old group called The House Theater of Chicago. Put together by college friends out of Texas, they wanted the supportive competition of the theater community in Chicago. They wanted to put on big, fun shows in small places. They wanted energy and laughter to bounce off the stage.

Here's what they sound like in a theater: Actors and crew warming up for a Sunday matinee. They are waking up, really, with an improvisation. And actors exercised that has dared goofy tribute to a rock and roll singer - Fred Schneider of the B-52's.

Unidentified Man #1: Ready?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Group: Hey, Fred Schneider, what are you doing?

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm eating pepperoni because I like it.

Unidentified Group: Hey, Fred Schneider, what are you doing?

Unidentified Man #3: I'm pressing my shirt then lighting them on fire.

ADAMS: They go around in a circle and make up stuff on the spot.

Unidentified Man #4: I'm shopping in Target. Hey, look, there's my CD.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: The people in the House - directors, designers, actors - are 25 to 30 years old. They've been called the House Kids. Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune said, they were Chicago's most exciting, young theater company.

Unidentified Woman #2: Uh.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Unintelligible)

ADAMS: The first show from House was October 2001. "Death & Harry Houdini" opened on Halloween in a borrowed store-front space across from the cemetery that would be off, off Loop. You could get in for 10 bucks. It was a sold-out underground hit. And then came "The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan," "A Wizard of Oz," "Curse of the Crying Heart," "Valentino and the Melancholy Kid," other shows, lots of dance and song, fighting and flying on stage, and outright shock - they killed both Tinkerbell and Toto.

At House Productions, the audience is almost inside the action and expected to make noise. Their theater home for five years was The Viaduct - a very small house, unairconditioned - so the audience was expected to join in the sweating. Somebody said, House does theater for 20-somethings looking for an unsubtle night-out.

Mr. NATHAN ALLEN (Artistic Director, House Theater of Chicago): A criticism of our work is that it is maybe unintellectual or something, which I don't think is true.

ADAMS: This is Nathan Allen, the artistic director. We're talking in his apartment along with House actor and staff member Carolyn Defrin.

Mr. ALLEN: But I think it's obvious that we're going for something emotional, that what we want is a shared Aristotelian catharsis where you can laugh and cry at something in public with people you love and with perfect strangers.

Ms. CAROLYN DEFRIN (Actor, House Theater of Chicago): And there are certain things I think we do that…

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. DEFRIN: You know what that is? That that's the group sales line.

Mr. ALLEN: Oh, nice, group sales.

Ms. DEFRIN: Isn't that exciting?

Mr. ALLEN: Here we go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEFRIN: In my bag, in my portable office that is in the bag. I will take that message later.

Mr. ALLEN: The group's still working off from cell phones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: The House people started with cell phones and working at their kitchen tables. There is a real office now, but not real salaries. If you have the talent to join the company - there are 28 members - you'll have to earn a living someplace else. The House has a big new production of "The Nutcracker" underway with comparatively good money for salaries for the performance run and six weeks of rehearsal. For all that, an actor gets a check for $1,000. That figures out to about 80 times somebody would have to get on a bike and show up someplace.

So you work in restaurants and teach music and drama, drives the Chicago Trolley and talk to the tourists. One actor in "Nutcracker" has an overnight shift as a hotel clerk. Two in the House Company are clowns at hospitals.

Okay. What is your official clown name here?

Mr. JAKE MINTON (Member, The House Theater of Chicago): My official clown name in most days is Dr. Cowboy. I wear a big cowboy hat. And today, I'm being Nurse Boink(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: We are in the hallway of La Rabida Children's Hospital on the lakefront in Chicago, walking to the emergency room with Jake Minthon.

Mr. METHON: These people are following us around with microphones. They're - I don't know who they are. They work for the government, I think.

ADAMS: Jake Mithon came from Dallas as an original member of the House. He works in hospital 10 hours a week as a clown. It's good pay, he says, for having fun with kids and a rubber chicken.

(Soundbite of imitated chicken clucking)

Mr. METHON: This chicken has a bellybutton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. METHON: Works every time.

ADAMS: During a break from his role as Nurse Boink, Jake Minthon gave us a preview glimpse of "The Nutcracker." He and a partner wrote an original script. It brings voice to the characters and the toys in the classic Tchaikovsky fairytale ballet.

One change: the mice become rats - a flood of rats. There is a rat king and a song.

Mr. METHON: (Singing) No. You should have stayed home, should have stayed in your beds. He's got razor-sharp teeth in each of his heads. I hate to have to tell you but you have to be told the last lunch that he ate was an 8-year-old.

And they keep talking about how scary the rat king is. So it's a lovely little Christmas carol.

(Soundbite of "The Nutcracker" rehearsal)

Unidentified Man: (As character) Look inside that bowl…

ADAMS: A rehearsal for "The Nutcracker." The show is onstage at Steppenwolf. The House's visiting company in a smaller upstairs theater. But for sure, it's "The Nutcracker" done the House way with Clara's brother, a U.S. Marine, a Medal of Honor winner, killed in action. Then there's all that business with the rats and Clara's clumsy toy friends who come to life.

(Soundbite of "The Nutcracker" rehearsal)

Mr. NATHAN ALLEN (Artistic Director, "The Nutcracker"): Poom(ph), poom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: That's the joke. Keep it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: All right, guys. Let's just read through the scene in our feet once and then we will just jump right on it.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Martha) Clara, you've got to stop talking like this. Do you realize what you sound like?

Unidentified Woman #2: (As Clara) I know you don't believe me, but Uncle Sauzmeyer(ph)…

Unidentified Man #1: (As David) I don't think your uncle really understands what you're going through, sweetheart.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As Clara) He's the only one who does.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Martha) This is a terrible mess.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As Clara) I know. I'm sorry. But my troops needed to eat and then we were training. It's important. There's not much time. The rats are already here.

Unidentified Man #1: (As David) Clara, we have talked about this. There are no rats.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As Clara) They've ruined Christmas last year, and they're going to do it again this year. They're going to take me away. Is that what you want?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Martha) Clara…

Mr. ALLEN: Just remember that we can't get mad at Clara yet. Just play the love and the worry…

Unidentified Woman #1: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ALLEN: …so much harder.

(Soundbite of noise)

Unidentified Man #2: (As Character) I'm going in.

(Soundbite of noise)

Unidentified Woman #3: (As Character) No…

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: The House Theater is still listed in Time Out Chicago in the fringe and storefront section of the week's events, but they are edging up to big success - two shows running now, "The Sparrow," a drama which has been seen by 20,000 people, and "The Nutcracker."

Nathan Allen, artistic director, says the annual budget may soon reach $500,000.

Mr. ALLEN: It's everything we talk about right now. So what's going to happen when we're actually getting paid enough to live?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And it's not such an emergency. Or when we have babies or something, and the company is not the most important thing in our lives, which, you know, I want babies at some point. And so maybe that means that we become a $3-million operation and that's what we can sustain. And so hopefully, we make the step and we figure out how to sort of institutionalize these values that we care for. Maybe that means convincing people that what they love about the House is that 150-seat space and that $20 ticket and that experience with that young and fun, rowdy crowd.

ADAMS: Nathan Allen of the House Theater of Chicago. Their production of "The Nutcracker" has its premiere tonight at Steppenwolf.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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