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Charles Newell is on an amazing theatrical roll at Court Theatre

By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune reporter

10:08 AM CDT, April 6, 2012

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Charles Newell's office is spotless. Unnervingly tidy. Standing in it makes you feel as though you have intruded on a magazine photo shoot about anal-retentive work environments. His desk, which looks out onto 55th Street in Hyde Park, gleams: There's not a stray folder, staple or scrap in sight. At the center of the room is a long wooden meeting table that is even shinier than his desk. And as for the carpet, it appears as though it has been vacuumed and washed daily by particularly dutiful elves. I can count the crumbs. There are precisely three.

The other thing you notice about Charles Newell's office, tucked into the Court Theatre's administrative space, is that Charles Newell has been on a roll. He's the artistic director of the Court, and glancing around at the posters on his walls, you're reminded of some of the most celebrated, popular Chicago productions in recent memory, many directed by Newell himself: There's a poster of the 2008 production of Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," for a while the most successful musical in the theater's 57-year history. There's a framed handbill from its 2011 blockbuster,"Porgy and Bess" (which surpassed "Caroline," becoming the Court's most financially successful musical). And there's an image from "An Iliad," the bold one-man retelling of Homer staged to great acclaim last fall by Newell and actor Timothy Edward Kane.

Playwright Christopher McElroen told me it was "one of the 10 most memorable theatrical experiences I've ever had." Which is serendipitous, because there's also a handbill in Newell's office from "Invisible Man," the Court adaptation of the 1952 Ralph Ellison classic that McElroen directed just after "An Iliad" closed. McElroen's play, the first theatrical staging of the novel, has become the highest-grossing work in Court history.

Of course, there are personal artifacts in his office too: a photo of his wife, actress Kate Collins; photos of their two sons; a poster from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where Newell worked before the Court; a poster of the Goodman Theatre's 2009 production of Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'N' Roll," which Newell directed. And taped to the door frame, a small reminder of Newell's ambition — a postcard for the Court's latest production, a revival of Kushner's era-defining, two-part masterwork, "Angels in America," opening April 14.

But there's also something less tangible here, a palpable feeling that Newell's fastidiousness and the Court's remarkable consistency is no coincidence, a sensation that, despite a long history and decades of appreciation within the Chicago theater community, the Court may be on the verge of a wider recognition — of becoming a household name to casual theatergoers, like a Goodman, Steppenwolf or Victory Gardens.

You might even say what's striking is what's not found in that office — a Tony for best regional theater.

Said Kushner, who has worked with Newell on three Court productions (and is quietly planning others with the Chicago director, both originals and adaptations neither will discuss): "I couldn't begin to tell you what makes a regional Tony winner. But I can say the Court is developing a spectacular reputation as one of the most important theaters in the country. And that's tied to Charlie. His interpretations don't compete with the original texts. But you also don't want a director who just listens to your ideas and takes dictation from you. And Charlie doesn't. He asks, he listens, he brings a sensitive response — but he is unflappable."

Said Doug Peck, Newell's musical director: "Charlie is the reason I stayed in Chicago for theater. I saw 'In the Penal Colony' with Joanne Akalaitis at the Court (in 2000, written by Philip Glass), and that's all the convincing I needed. And Charlie didn't even direct 'Penal Colony.' But it spoke so well of his choices: When I work with him now, I feel he's smarter than me, more invested. And whether or not that's actually true, it's a good thing to feel — to know someone's there, no matter what, who can remain unwaveringly committed."

Indeed, there's a rigorousness about Newell that ...

"Let's get real, the man is probably OCD," said actress E. Faye Butler, who played the title role in "Caroline, or Change." "He has a tendency to seem uptight and come off closed and stuffy to people. But I think he's a very warm guy who's just kind of cerebral. Like, I ask him a simple question, he'll go into this long, scholarly explanation, until I'll finally say 'Charlie! Do I go left or do I go right?' But the thing is, he's like that's because he wants you as a collaborator. I've had actors call: 'Why does Charlie want to meet with me for 20 minutes?' They thought they were an extra. I tell them, 'There are no small roles or small details to Charlie.'"

On my way out of the Court administrative offices, I mentioned to a secretary how clean Newell's office is. She said, "Well, Charlie's not here a whole lot at the moment, because of 'Angels' and everything." Of course, I said. No one could keep an office that clean all the time.

"Oh, no," she said. "It's always like that."

About a week before previews begin for "Angels in America," Newell stood behind a table erected in Row D of the Court — which is a small theater, smaller than the Smart Museum of Art adjacent to it, smaller than the University of Chicago athletic complex across the street. It seats 251, and, considering the scale of "Angels in America" — considering it won the Pulitzer Prize, consists of two plays totaling seven hours, takes place in Manhattan, Utah, Antarctica and heaven, and its subjects include AIDS, religion, Ronald Reagan, Ethel Rosenberg, the ozone layer and real estate — the Court seems smaller still.

On his table in Row D, his home since rehearsals began in February, was a coffee cup stuffed with pens and markers, copies of the script clipped into binders, a stainless steel mug, a long pen light, a cup of yogurt, hand sanitizer. Behind him are rows of crew, their faces illuminated by laptop computers. This was the seventh week of seven weeks of rehearsals — "which is not nearly enough time for one play, let alone two," Kushner said. But Newell was a picture of calm. He does not slip easily into the classic, outsized portrait of a great theater director. He is 53 and resembles an especially tasteful, not particularly demonstrative high school football coach: bald, with a large forehead and a cool, efficient demeanor. His shirt is perfectly tucked in and his glasses hang rigidly from a chain around his neck.

On stage, actors were walking through a transition, from a character smelling the approach of snow in New York to the delusions of a character who imagines she's landed in the Antarctic. But the actors, who are reflecting on the snow scenes in"The Empire Strikes Back"as they wait for cues, seemed uncertain of the lighting. Newell never shouted toward the stage. He put his hands in his pockets, walked to the lip and said, more with matter-of-factness than impatience, "I don't think I've ever had a group of actors more responsive to lighting. We'll respond to you, OK?" Then he turned and walked back, taking small strides, his head down.

Over the next two hours, Newell asked, staring over the tops of his eyeglasses, if there's a snow guard on the footlights, if the "heaviness" of the snow can be controlled; if there can be an ocean sound inserted, if actress Mary Beth Fisher, dressed as a bag lady, can alter "the traffic pattern" of her shopping cart, if actress Hollis Resnik could carry that suitcase on her left, that suitcase on her right. He seems to relish the details, not the stop-start: "Charlie likes to hone in on the emotional story, on the meaning on the page," said Sean Graney, the Chicago playwright and director, who has worked on a handful of Court shows, "and he's so responsive to the ideas that you bring to the table, and how the audience responds. But Charlie is also a very strong personality, like a lot of directors, and likes things done a certain way, and some find that hard to deal with."

His sets, for instance.

Streamlined, to say the least. The "Angels" set, created by his longtime collaborator, scenic designer John Culbert, dean of The Theatre School at DePaul University, is beyond barren — two stories of dark steel centered around a chilly, tomblike bed. And that's all. It's not unlike Newell's set for "An Iliad," which resembled a sewer; or the set of "Three Tall Women," also centered on a single bed; or even the memorable set from "Porgy," a large white wooden square intended to recall the floor of an Outer Banks prayer house. "With 'Man of La Mancha,' Charlie wanted the audience so focused on the human story we never left the prison," Culbert recalled. "A lot of productions of 'La Mancha' have fantasy scenes that pull you out, but he had this great idea — that by not leaving the cell, you connect better with the emotional story."

Newell himself says, "The thing that always happens with my productions is, John asks if I am sure I can distill all this material to a single idea, and the actors think there's nothing there — 'Where are the chairs?' I hear all the time. But I want the audience to use their imagination, so we give them just enough to ignite it." There's a practical consideration behind that — the Court specializes in interpretations of classics. "So Charlie is often dealing with a feeling that, at this point, on a play like 'Porgy' or 'La Mancha,' we know a version of a version of a version," Peck said. "His challenge is, 'Can I make an audience feel they are seeing this for first time?' Rather than reinvent the wheel, he sets out to look for the initial impulse of the author."

If Newell has a signature talent, it's here: an ability to cut to the chase, to strip away the artifice built up around a classic and remind us why the play was important in the first place. To accomplish that, he told me, in his ironically ornate fashion: "I worm my way through the iconography and many iterations of a work. When I did 'Hamlet,' this took me three years. 'Porgy' felt like archaeology. Doug and I picked through layers, the original production, the original novel, the life of (co-author) DuBose Heyward, the Outer Banks of South Carolina that inspired him, the prayer houses that inspired (co-author) George Gershwin — constantly trying to arrive at the place of original inspiration, to what gave the artist the feeling he should do this. Then we translate those findings and bring them forward to where we are now, where the contemporary audience is. That jump forward can seem like we're just doing something to be different, but it's in the spirit of serving the original inspiration."

Kushner said that, for the most part, "after 'Angels' went on its national tour (launched from Chicago's Royal George Theatre in 1994), I made the decision I wasn't going to watch it anymore." But he trusted Newell. "We had long conversations during the lead-up to 'Caroline,' and of course I have had conversations with directors of my work before, but with Charlie, when I saw the final play at the Court, I thought, 'Uh, wow, so this guy had actually listened to me.'"

Newell grew up on the northwest side of Washington, D.C, a young fan of the pioneering regional theater company Arena Stage. He understood "early on that you don't jump in and out of a local theater but settle in and make its community better through the arts," said Collins, his wife, whom Newell met when they were 12. His mother developed inner-city day care centers. His father, Philip Newell, a third-generation Presbyterian minister, was a prominent leader in the civil rights movement civil rights movement, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. When civil rights activist and "Black Power" advocate Stokely Carmichael was in town, he stayed with the Newells. "The FBI would follow Stokely to our house," Newell remembered, "then, when my parents had to go out, Stokely would baby-sit."

After studying at Wesleyan University, he set to serve as an apprentice. He did this for eight years, learning theater at the feet of greats, including directors Mark Lamos, Michael Kahn, Alan Schneider, John Houseman, Joanne Akalaitis and Garland Wright — for whom he served as resident director at the Guthrie Theater before coming to the Court in 1993. The Court, founded in 1955, was initially a student theater. Nicholas Rudall, a U. of C. classics professor, re-established it in 1971 as a professional theater. "But the place was definitely in a state of flux when we arrived," said Collins. "They didn't have the ability to maintain quality, partly because Nick was running the theater and serving as a full-time professor at the same time."

In less than a decade under Newell's direction, the Court became a regular presence at the local Jeff awards for theater (Newell's first Court show, 1993's "The Triumph of Love," won best play). A pair of its productions — Akalaitis' "In the Penal Colony" and "The Iphigenia Cycle" — went on to New York. The theater's annual budget went from $1.5 million to $3.1 million; and has since jumped to $4 million. Though perhaps most important, the Court under Newell broadened what had been a fairly conservative view of classic theater and, taking a cue from Arena Stage, wove itself more keenly into Hyde Park, drawing more frequently on African-American themed works.

That said, asked why the Court only recently started to connect with a broader audience — i.e., an audience willing to trek from the North Side to the South Side — Newell says that it's because, with the 2010 hiring of executive director Stephen Albert, it's only recently that he's had fewer administrative duties, which has allowed him to connect more emotionally with the productions, and develop more confidence.

Nearly two decades after arriving, it shows.

On a Sunday morning, five days before the first paying audience, Mary Beth Fisher, who plays the Angel (among several roles), swung above the Court stage, swaddled in a harness. "So I'm just going to swing, aren't I?" she asked no one in particular. It was an hour before the scheduled rehearsal. Newell looked up at her from Row D then looked down at his parfait, working the last crumbles of granola from the bottom. The theater was quiet. "Are you comfortable?" Newell asked, not raising his voice, not looking up. "Kind of comfortable," she replied.

When she came off the wires, Newell stepped into the aisle and said it's looking good, better. Culbert said, "I've noticed some of your most powerful movements are some of the most subtle. Which is true of most things, I suppose." Newell nodded and walked back to Row D. He seemed intense but at home, strangely relaxed, until you consider his reputation: He's become so infamous within theater circles for tinkering with a production far into the preview period that Fisher said later "you know he'll never really be done changing things until opening night anyway." A few days later, the night before previews began, he told me the first dress rehearsal was the roughest he had ever seen. He did not look at all worried or like a man about to direct two plays as he said this. Besides, next season, though it appears markedly less ambitious than the last few, he's directing four of the Court's six shows.

So, during that Sunday rehearsal, when the fake blood streaming down actor Larry Yando's arm seemed too bloody — as it pooled on the stage — Newell watched patiently, then left his row and found Culbert and asked about the thickness of the blood, the flow of the blood, how to stop the flow to a trickle. Then he walked to the stage and explained that the small amount of blood on Yando's arm is "enough to tell the story." Then he walked back to Culbert to explain this. Culbert nodded, his face unreadable in the dark theater. Newell walked away, then, remembering another detail of the hundreds left to attend to, he stopped, turned and walked back to Culbert, hands in his pockets. He rocked forward and rocked back and asked, "Is it true, a pillow is a pillow is a pillow?"

"Uh, no, Charlie. Some of the pillows are blue. Because that's what you said."

"Right," Newell said, "because that's what I said." And then he returned to his row, Row D.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli