"The only difference between us right now is I know how this is going to end happily."
In Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, two people who meet by chance discover that they were meant to be together. So Backstage sent Artistic Assistant Dan Granata out to ask ensemble members about the series of unpredictable accidents, chance meetings, and unlikely partnerships that brought them into one of the longest–standing, most successful relationships in the American Theater — Steppenwolf.
When I first got to Illinois State University, I thought there was no way I'd be foolish enough to end up with a Theater degree. The practical side of me tried to find something else to major in: German, communications, anthropology. Then I met the group that would go on to start Steppenwolf and got hooked.
At the time, nobody knew it would last past the summer. We had meetings in our apartment, decided to put on two performances, and Jeff Perry and I were cast in The Lover. We looked like two 15–year–olds trying to play a very sophisticated British couple with a gigantic sexual fantasy life. Our solution to that — besides playing dress–up — was for Jeff to glue on a really bad fake mustache. I don't know what people thought we were trying to do, but we squeaked through for the summer and thought, "Let's do it again."
I always felt comfortable on stage with that group, I just never thought I could make a living at it. It was always something fun we did at night after our day jobs. Only later, when people's day jobs began to fall away, did it become clear that this could be a career. But that took years.
I graduated from Northwestern University in Theater in 1979. I got the requisite waitress job, and I started taking acting classes. The first class I signed up for was a scene study class with John Malkovich at the Jane Adams Hull House. We became friends, and John asked me to be in a show called Savages, a play by Christopher Hampton that we did back in 1981. It's a notorious production in Steppenwolf history; while it's a really thoughtful play, I think the fact that the South American Indians were played by a bunch of white college students in war paint simply strained credulity.
In those years, I was auditioning for things as an actor and working with two performance ensembles, and we would create performances and perform them at places like Randolph Street Gallery and Crosscurrents. Somewhere along in there I went back to school, and ultimately got my doctorate. Right at that point in 1993, I was cast in Steppenwolf's Ghost in the Machine, directed by Jim True. And I was asked to become an ensemble member.
Before I even met them myself, I saw a Steppenwolf show called Say Goodnight, Gracie, in 1979. I just looked at that and said, "That's the kind of acting that I want to be a part of." And also, "I wish I could ever be that good."
I went to the only theater school in Bulgaria — the National Academy of Theatre and Film Art in Sophia. In 1990, the Communists won the free elections and the political climate changed. I had an opportunity to emigrate to America and I took it. I moved to Chicago because I had family here. I wasn't sure I'd ever act again.
I spent the next several years performing at Off–Loop theaters and producing shows out of my own pocket before getting a call for Time to Burn. There was a lot of pressure auditioning for Steppenwolf, and the callbacks weren't for another month. But Tina Landau put me completely at ease, and the next day I got cast. After that, I was an understudy in Space, and then I was in The Berlin Circle. Frank Galati saw that show, and asked Tina to see "the old gentleman" read for Greenspan in Morning Star. They eventually figured out he was talking about me.
Two weeks after the close of The Time of Your Life, Martha Lavey called me in for "a talk." At that point I'd done six shows at Steppenwolf. When she asked me to be in the ensemble, I went into a little bit of a haze. She said, "You don't have to answer right away," and I said, "Oh no, Martha, I've thought about it long and hard." And then I asked, "What now? Do I get a badge, or a T–shirt?"
Up until the mid–nineties Steppenwolf was still a far–off, mysterious entity. One night in 1996 after a performance of Floyd Collins, a musical I wrote and directed in New York, I came out of the theater to see this big, handsome, warm, burly man named Frank Galati. I had never met him, but remembered his work in Grapes of Wrath. He told me how beautiful Floyd was, and that Martha Lavey would have to come out and see it.
I was in Seattle working when Martha called me, and in the fifteen minute conversation we had she said more insightful, constructive things about the piece than I had heard in the six years I had been working on it. She invited me to come and direct Time to Burn. After that we decided on a piece I had sitting in a drawer, which ended up being called Space. It was right after it opened, Martha pulled me aside at a party and said Gary Sinise had seen the show, and they wanted to know if I wanted to join the ensemble. I spent the next ten minutes trying to convince her that there must be some mistake. I was so blown away and honored that I couldn't let in the reality that this dream was coming true, of having a home and an artistic family, a place where throughout my career the doors are open and work can evolve.
When I finished school, my sister — who was a war–bride — brought me over from England. I initially planned to be an English teacher, so after three years in the army I went to school on the GI Bill. But after I got my Masters, I thought, "This isn't really what I want to do." I had worked my way through college as an orderly in a hospital, so when I moved to Chicago in 1970, I got a job as an editor for a medical journal. Then at 37, I didn't like that anymore.
As a child I had belonged to a company in Manchester called the Stratford Children's Theatre – I played Polonius when I was 11 — and I remembered how thrilling it was. So I enrolled in an acting class at the St. Nicholas Theatre which had just been opened by W.H. Macy and David Mamet, and David cast me from class in The Water Engine, which was my professional debut. I met John Malkovich during another show there called Ashes, and when somebody dropped out of Philadelphia, Here I Come, he called me.
I went into that first rehearsal at Steppenwolf, and everyone made me feel very comfortable. Then we started working, and I felt very uncomfortable. I thought, "I'm going to have to work my ass off." What I still love about it is that we don't spend hours contemplating our navels or discussing philosophies of acting. We just get out there and do it and have fun, and then go have a drink afterward.