It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to start a new theater company in a city that might be considered saturated with storefronts. But Ron Keaton and Kurt Johns think they have a new genre of theater to offer to Chicago’s rabid theater fans.
The genre is solo performances of plays with heart and history, “stories that need to be heard by the people who need to tell them.”
SoloChicago Theatre started with Churchill. Veteran Chicago actor Keaton researched and wrote a script that embodied World War II history, its challenges to the English people, and the feisty, prickly personality of England’s World War II leader, Winston Churchill. Churchill was a huge hit in Chicago, went to New York for an off-Broadway run and Keaton has since performed it around the country.
SoloChicago’s most recent production was The Unfortunates, written by Aoise Stratford. It’s the story of a young woman who worked the streets of London because she had no other means of support.
We interviewed Keaton and Johns recently to talk about the challenges of launching a new theater company. Both are multitalented, versatile theater people.
Keaton has performed in virtually every Chicago theater over the last 30 years as well as acting, as his biography says, “as a stage manager, a director, a playwright, a fundraiser, a lyricist and composer, and a singer at jazz and cabaret venues.”
Johns, who started in New York as a musical theater performer (yes, a song and dance man), is also a writer and director, as well as a theater technology expert and consultant. He still spends part of his time on his company, Artztek LLC, which provides tech and internet services for large theaters in Chicago, LA and New York as well as for smaller companies. He worked for the former Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park for some years before its 2009 demise.
Ron, you’re one of those Chicago journeymen actors who has played many roles, mostly supporting roles, large and small, and occasionally a leading role. Did you decide to create Churchill to enlarge your stage presence?
KEATON. Truthfully, no. I wrote Churchill because I needed a job. I’d been through a rough patch. But any actor likes to stretch his legs and do something new. And it just happened that this one struck lightning. Because of Churchill, I suppose I’m the luckiest actor in town.
How did you prepare to play the great man? Did you watch newsreels of him, listen to his radio addresses?
KEATON. I didn’t watch anything. I did listen to some of his speeches and radio addresses for dialect. I did a lot of research on Churchill. But I didn’t want to do a caricature, an imitation. I wanted to be true to the man and to myself as an actor. His speaking style and his dialect were very distinctive. He had Irish in his voice, he had some Yorkshire in his voice, three or four different things that a good dialectician could hear.
JOHNS. it also had to do with the rhythm of his speech, and its lilt and cadence. The voice you remember from his public pronouncements wasn’t one that could be sustained for 90 minutes. And the play was about Churchill as a man, about his family, about what he was thinking during the war years.
You produced Churchill under the name of SoloChicago Theatre. Were you thinking of it as a new theater company at the time?
KEATON. Not really. I did Churchill first at First Folio in Oak Brook; they gave me a shot for a week in 2014 and then the folks at the Greenhouse Theater came in. They were closing a show and they needed someone to come in in a hurry. They said, how soon you could mount Churchill here? And we said, how soon do you need it?
The Greenhouse said what do you need to do it. And the first thing I said was I need a director. And I knew Kurt and he was available.
JOHNS. We cobbled together an artistic staff on the spur of the moment.
And The Unfortunates, directed by Johns, just closed at Theater Wit. That was your second production.
JOHNS. That is a challenging solo play about the woman who was probably the last victim of Jack the Ripper. Gail Rastorfer played the character as a strong, vibrant woman, not a victim. Mary Jane Kelly tells her own story. She’s a passionate human being who is surviving against society’s odds.
The set for The Unfortunates really seemed like an authentic London pub. Yet you must have a limited budget for set design.
JOHNS. Exactly. We rented the bar from another theater company. The windows came from Churchill. The tables and chairs from Milwaukee Rep.
Talk a little more about the kind of material you want to stage.
JOHNS: The material that we consider using is a lot to ask for an actor. Like Churchill and The Unfortunates. Those are very demanding roles and they need an experienced actor. We’re interested in and committed to doing theatrical narratives … real stories about real people. Mary Jane Kelly was a real person, so was Churchill.
Not that we’re against doing fiction, mind you. But we want to present characters that live in a real environment and we want to recreate that environment as well as recreating the life going on outside the room the story is in.
We get a lot of submissions that are not like that. We’re not interested in doing cabaret or standup. Many of those shows can do done anywhere. John Leguizamo can do Ghetto Klown any place at any time. It’s just him, a mic and a light.
KEATON. We want to tell stories about real life issues. We want be able to tell any kind of real life narrative on its own path to some kind of ending of a story that people can relate to. And we want to give the actor the full theatrical realm. That’s why we have costumes, props, sound effects, projections. They’re things that are designed for that production, to help that actor tell that story.
How do the economics of solo performance differ from a play with a traditional cast?
JOHNS. In terms of weekly costs, it’s pretty much the same backstage. The savings is that you don’t have a large cast with all the pension, healthcare benefits, paymaster expenses and the Equity bond (union expenses). That’s a huge savings when you have only one actor. And we’re committed to using union actors, since Ron and I are both union actors.
Given those economics, how did your first two shows do financially? Were they successful financially as well as critically?
JOHNS. Churchill, yes. The Unfortunates, not even close. We lost some funding at the last minute and weren’t able to put as much into marketing as we would have liked.
What is your next production? Do you see yourself having a full season?
KEATON. The Unfortunates was only our second play. And we’ve been able to achieve great success with those two productions. We have all kinds of aspirations. A full season. Our own theater home would be great. The aspirations are there but we’re taking it as it comes. To me that’s the most logical way to do it.
JOHNS. We want to produce things when we find something that speaks to us and will speak to our audience. We’re chasing the license right now for a one-woman musical about a famous person in history. We’re adapting a novel for the stage too, about a young Asian woman, very contemporary. I’m working on that with Gail Rastorfer.
We’re working on several other things too. Like a play about a man of color who’s very comfortable in drag. There’s a Christmas show we’re dying to do. It’s a story about the Christmas truce of 1914. We’re looking for something that could be our Christmas Carol, our Nutcracker.
How are you doing with funding for SoloChicago?
JOHNS. As far as the state of Illinois is concerned, we’re a nonprofit. But as far as the IRS is concerned, we’re not.
So if I gave you a check, it wouldn’t be tax-deductible?
JOHNS. You could do it through Fractured Atlas, which is an umbrella organization formed for the specific purpose of helping organizations that operate as nonprofits but don’t have IRS approval yet. Fractured Atlas is an instant way for organizations to accept donations, completely tax deductible for the donor, and we get almost all the money. They’re affiliated with Indiegogo so you can do an Indiegogo campaign and the money goes thru your Fractured Atlas account and everyone who donates can take a tax deduction
How do you do your other fundraising?
KEATON. Once we had the “New York pedigree,” for Churchill, we started to get bookings around the country and some here in Chicago. We’ve done theatrical presentations of the play and presentations for companies and organizations that can vary in length. I can do a 15-minute Churchill or a 30-minute Churchill. All I need on stage is me and a painting easel. It’s sort of another version of the story. Me on the stage, talking to the audience, talking about Churchill.
JOHNS. He has enough anecdotes about Churchill that he really doesn’t even need a script.
What are the next strategy and management goals for SoloChicago Theatre?
KEATON. The next thing for us is a regrouping on our own, forming a direction for our organization … and we’ve found out how difficult that is.
JOHNS. We really need a development person. Someone to work with us on a volunteer basis to help us regroup. Ron and I can talk the ears off people, but we also need a development pro to actually bring in the funding. Perhaps a part-time person.
KEATON. We need to develop a board, made up of people with different skills. You’re looking at the whole organization right now.
We want to build on the idea that people say it looks like we’ve created a new genre, as a Jeff committee member told me right after a show.
I can tell you this. We now have a de facto kind of staff who want to work with us any time we’re doing something. Props, designers, a projection designer, our stage manager. We don’t know how it happened, but they want to work with us.
JOHNS. It’s important to both of us to do work of great quality. There are so many different levels of theater here and when you buy a ticket, you don’t know what you’re going to get. We don’t want there to be any doubt about SoloChicago productions.
We’re looking forward to seeing the next SoloChicago production. Thank you for your time and candor.