Nothing thrills me more on this tour of WAR HORSE than to be back in Chicago for the holiday season. I love this town for many reasons and after almost decades of being away, I’m overcome to see its growth and success as a thriving metropolis. I cut my artistic teeth here and many long lasting lessons are ingrained in the very fiber of my being.
In 1983 I arrived in Chicago as a neophyte actor/director from Illinois State University aching to be a part the country’s most burgeoning theatre scene. Chicago made anything seem possible if you were diligent enough to sacrifice exclusively for your art with SACRIFICE being the operative word. Before long I found myself part of the Free Shakespeare Company based in a tiny Piper’s Alley Theatre behind Second City, with the legendary Joyce Sloan as our fairy Godmother landlady. I marveled at the brilliant work going on all over the city and was nurtured by the accessible talents and kindness in the likes of Sheldon Patinkin, Frank Farrell, Stuart Gordon, members of Steppenwolf, Bernie Sahlins and many other notables on a list to long to mention here. Unwittingly, I became the artistic director of my company and went on to work with other wonderful storefront companies where I went on to win a Jeff Citation for my work in the Absolute Theater’s A Cry of Players. It was there that Stuart Gordon saw me and offered me my Equity card in a three production contract at his Organic Theatre. Soon after that I auditioned and got the role of Leartes in Robert Falls’ acclaimed Hamlet in its extended version that was to be performed at the Civic Opera House in the brutally cold February of 1986.
All of the above mentioned is a lot for a young actor, but what is missing between the lines is the poverty and the slogging day jobs between these little artistic victories. It is at this juncture of my career that an event took place which has become my Christmas story for my children.
As I noted it was cold that winter and what made it worse for me was I found myself between dwellings during the holiday season. I had to move out of where I was staying and was relying on the kindness of friends couches until I could secure the funds for a new apartment. Warmth was essential and what better place to thaw out at that time than the Gaslight bar on Halstead? There I confessed my troubles to a guy who was on a renovation crew of an abandoned apartment building nearby and he gave me the keys to a unit that still had water and electricity but no heat. In short, I was destitute with only the promise of my Hamlet contract in early January. My pride was withering as I strolled the frozen streets. I was literally out of money completely and couldn’t think who else to borrow from and felt an overwhelming despair compounded by the opulence of the Christmas windows. I knew that moment what it was like to have nothing when a twenty dollar bill blowing across the sidewalk caught my downcast eyes. A miracle! A sign from above! I scooped it up and ran to Ann Sathers on Belmont and ordered the “hot roast of the day”! How I got through the remaining weeks has become a mystery to me because all I remember now was that God-sent twenty dollar bill.
I have played Bob Cratchit in too many productions of Christmas Carol but when Mrs. Cratchit is preparing that Christmas goose, you know where I drew my inspiration from.
- Andrew May