Here's how things usually go in Chicago's off-Loop scene. Friends who studied theater together decide to form their own Chicago theater company. They do their shows, but they also tend to their own careers. If the group is talented, things go well and the friends enjoy some of the happiest days of their creative lives. Critics sniff around and start writing about them, which brings out-of-town attention. Then one of them gets lucky and lands a movie or a hit TV show, which brings their theater company welcome attention, and maybe resources, but also issues.
The newly minted star, now in sunny Los Angeles, misses his or her friends and creative autonomy — but struggles to find a way to come back to Chicago to do the little shows that his or her agent regards as career-derailing, money-losing indulgences. Plus that carefully crafted egalitarian ethos is hard to maintain, now that some members of the theater are hobnobbing with the rich and powerful and others, of equal talent, are still bartending or bagging groceries.
The star give an interview for the newspaper, wherein he or she insists that he or she maintains a connection to those Chicago roots, loves Chicago theater and really plans to come back and do a show, or at least show up for a fundraiser. But it gets harder as time goes on.
Some version of that scenario has played out with David Schwimmer and the Lookingglass Theatre, Michael Shannon and A Red Orchid Theatre, and Lucas Neff and Jackalope Theatre, among many others (although in all three of those particular cases, the lucky ensemble member really has remained committed to his theater company).
But in the case of The Collective Theatre Company, a brand new Chicago theater company, founded by friends from Thornridge High School in south suburban Dolton, the model has been turned on its head.
One of the founding ensemble members, indeed the director of the fledgling company's first show, "HooDoo Love" by Katori Hall, already is a TV star with a hit show: Nelsan Ellis, who is best known for playing the role of Lafayette on the campy HBO vampire drama, "True Blood," now in its fifth season and with a deal already in place for a sixth.
Ellis, who plays an openly gay cook in the show's Louisiana bar and restaurant, is a much-loved fixture on the show. That explains why the Juilliard graduate could be seen this week hyping the Collective Theatre Company on "Windy City Live" on WLS-Ch. 7, a promotional opportunity not generally afforded most unknown theater companies operating in studio spaces at the Athenaeum Theatre, where the likes of "Windy City Live" generally do not venture.
So what are Mr. Ellis' intentions with Chicago, exactly?
"I really am committed to this theater company," he said Tuesday. "I understand that you have to sacrifice other work that you might be paid a lot of money to do in order to do that which gives you artistic satisfaction."
And what do his agents and managers think of that?
"You can imagine," Ellis said, dryly. "Lafayette catapulted me in a huge way. I went from unknown to having no anonymity. Most directors and casting directors know who I am. And if they don't, their daughters do."
Would it not have been more convenient to have done this in LA?
"Sure. But Chicago is where we learned the basis of good theater," Ellis said. "It's stressful, and it is fun. We're all sweeping floors and doing everything. Everyone is pitching in. We've got the most dynamic group of actors."
The co-founders of The Collective Theatre group — Francois Battiste, Veronda Carey, Le'Mil Eiland, Metra Gilliard, Jasond Jones and Ellis — all happen to be African-Americans. But Ellis said that they do not intend to be a black theater company, if that refers to a particular kind of specific work. "Francois and I went to Juilliard," he says. "We want to do Shakespeare, Chekhov, Asian plays, all types of theater."
"Over the years, despite time, distance and our individual pursuits, we've remained united by friendship and inspired by the power of live theater, which so profoundly impacted each of our lives," said Gilliard, another of the former members of the Thornridge Speech and Theatre Guild." We are all fueled by our love of theater and commitment to the community. We will use this to do whatever it takes to ensure The Collective Theatre moves forward."
"We are all," Ellis said, "in this for the long haul."
The debut production of the Collective Theatre, a name honestly meant, opens Tuesday.
When:Saturday through Oct. 21
Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Tickets: $32 at 773-935-6875 and athenaeumtheatre.org