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David Cromer: In Chicago, You Could Keep Trying

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Actor and Director, David Cromer

Photo: Chicago Tribune

[Chicago] really is most notable for the health and variety of its smaller theaters,

making it possible for directors like David Cromer, and scads of talented actors,

to forge careers—perhaps more artistically rewarding than financially remunerative— without leaving town.

Charles Isherwood, New York Times, November 7, 2008

[Cromer] is a slight man with a gentle demeanor, possessing that Midwestern affinity for speaking in paragraphs without saying anything specific—conversation as a warm bath. Then suddenly, he’ll deliver two pointed sentences that are very, very smart or very, very funny.

Alex Witchel, New York Times, February 14, 2010

David Cromer grew up in Skokie, a suburb north of Chicago. He dropped out of high school in his junior year, after being placed first in a remedial class, then night school. Soon, he says, “I just stopped going to that, too. I never officially said I'm outta here, man, I was just kind of ... What's the word I want? It just atrophied to the point where I was no longer in school. Later, I got a GED.”

Today, Cromer is a director and actor who received Obie Awards for his direction of The Adding Machine in 2008 and Our Town in 2009. In 2010, he was named a MacArthur Fellow and in 2018, he received a Tony Award for his direction of The Band’s Visit. As an actor, he appeared with Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery in 2018 and 2019.

“I just stumbled into it.”

My dad had taught a film writing class at Columbia College in the '70s, so I knew that Columbia College was there. I got a catalog, and I found out it was an art school or something. In the fall of '82, I registered there. No research about the college. No nothing. They had a theater department, but I didn't know anything about theater at all. That department, turns out, was tailor-made for my immersion in Chicago theater, a way to be educated in the theater without any pre-knowledge. I've always felt that there are people who were either culturally prepped by their upbringing or were personally disciplined enough to seek that out or find their own way to it. I just stumbled into it. And the way that program was laid out allowed someone like me who didn't know what the hell they were doing to slowly figure out what the hell they were doing without too much pressure, except the pressure they were putting on themselves.

The reason that so many of us got connected to theater in the city really early was Sheldon Patinkin [Chair, Columbia College Theater Department, 1980-2009] hired all these actors to teach. I had, as instructors, Tom Irwin and Jeff Perry and Rondi Reed, and all those [Steppenwolf] people who, in one way or another, later gave me jobs. Sheldon gave me acting jobs in real shows while I was there as a student. So yeah, Columbia College changed my little life.

The thing that defined the Columbia experience for me was a student production. The Tribune would sometimes come and review the college shows in those days because they had guest artists in them. That may have had to do with the desire to build up the idea of a “Chicago theater [scene].” The show I was in was successful and got moved to the Hull House, so all these 20-year-olds had a paying job. I remember Sheldon said to us at the all-school meeting, “Don't get used to this. This isn't going to happen all the time,” in case we were under the impression that, “Oh, you do a good show at school and it gets produced.”

I don't think I had any inkling towards directing at that point. I wanted to be an actor very badly. Then I took my first directing class, which was a requirement for acting majors. I took it about midway through my Columbia career. And I really liked it. I directed a scene from Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. It was a scene called “The Young Hack and His Girl.” It's this really beautiful scene about a young man and a woman who are on a date, and they're discussing getting married. They realize that because of the taxi strike they can't afford to get married. Even though they love each other very much, they both have financial responsibilities. So they break up for no reason other than financial circumstances. It's a really sad scene.

I directed it with two great actors of my era, Brian Shaw and Donna Pieroni. It was thrilling. I really dug it. I had this idea there'd be a pool of light. And there would be a chair in the middle of the pool of light, and a record player. This was based on the stage directions of the play, which say there are supposed to be pools of light. I had [the actors] moving in and out of the light. At one point I had her sitting in the light while he had a monologue and circled around her in the darkness. So you watched her listen.

I think we were reading the stage directions without being literal about them, trying to obey the spirit of them and expanding on them, which is something I [would do in my work] later. I was interested in fooling around with perceptions, with what the audience was looking at versus what they were hearing. Or at least in looking at something non-traditionally. A lot of it was a bit pretentious, but I was really proud of it. The reason I detail on this for you now is that those were relatively formative experiences for me.

I would’ve thought I would start a directing career right there. But I got savaged in notes by Sheldon and Caroline Latta. No one ever got savaged in that class. But they said things like, “There are people in the next room, the characters wouldn't be talking that loud.” And Caroline said, “You can't impose an expressionistic technique on a naturalistic play.” Which, bless her heart, is a), not true and b), it's not a naturalistic play. But she’s actually wonderful, and I know I make pronouncements like that all the time that are wrong. So I don't fault anyone for that. But all that stung me, and I was very hurt. I must say it's interesting that it got me so upset.

The scene may have been terrible, it doesn't matter. I saw in it what might have worked. Or was going to eventually work. So I was mad that they didn't see that. To everyone else it's like “this is a piece of shit.” Yeah, it may have just been pretentious and terrible, but it led to some other stuff for me, later. But at the time, I didn't do any directing for a couple of years. I went right back to acting.

Later, though, I found a play I really liked. I had gone to Scenes Bookstore on Clark Street, and read this collection of new Harold Pinter plays called Other Places. And in it was a play called Family Voices, which is a strange one act about letters between a mother, her son, and a father and none of them read the letters. They're all calling out into the wilderness to each other. It's really beautiful. And I loved it; I loved it so much. I was shaken by it and thrilled by it. I didn't want to be in it, so I thought maybe I wanted to direct it. But by then I had drifted out of school and all the tuition money had dried up.

Sheldon Patinkin in his Columbia College Office. Photo: Columbia College

Hopefully you'll use this because it's an important Sheldon story. I went to Sheldon and said, “Well, I found this play, and I think I want to try directing again, even though, you know, I got a chill by you.” He said, “Yeah, you should try directing again.” I said, “How would I go about doing that?” Meaning, what should I do? Should I start a theater company, or what? And he said, “Why don't you just come and take the directing class?” “Sheldon, I don't have any money left, I can't come back to the school.” And Sheldon did something he did all the time, which is he said, “Just come to class.”

There's a generosity in that guy which was automatic: if you needed something and he had it, he gave it to you. He could never understand why, if somebody wanted something and you could help them, you wouldn’t just do it. He wasn't gooey about it, and he wasn't sweet about it. You know, good is different than nice. He wasn't always nice, but he was always good.

Cromer would direct for theaters throughout Chicago, including Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre, Hypocrites, and American Theater Company. In 2005, a production Cromer directed of Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow for Steppenwolf was transferred to off-Broadway where it played at the Barrow Street Theater. Three years later, a musical adaptation of The Adding Machine also moved to off-Broadway for which he received a 2008 Obie for direction. In 2009, he moved to New York. In 2010, Cromer was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. In 2017, he directed The Band’s Visit on Broadway for which he received a Tony Award.

The Difference Between Working in Chicago

and Working in New York

In Chicago, for years, we used to sit and bitch about how they'd bring in actors from New York. We'd go, “What the fuck? We have actors here, man.”

I'm like, well, what makes someone a Chicago actor? Do they have to be from there? Do they have to live there a certain number of years? You know? What if you just got out of school, and just got there, are you a Chicago actor?

And, in New York, whenever good projects come from Chicago, people get huffy, like, “Well, why are they bringing all this shit from Chicago in? Chicago is Chicago, they're all in an ensemble.” Then, “And why are we importing all these fucking shows from London?” And in London they’re like, “Fuck America.” So it's like the grass is always greener.

I was on a panel once about 10 years ago, and there's always a lot of New York-versus-Chicago posturing at these things. Gary Griffin said something really wonderful. He said, in effect, You know, I don't want this to turn into a bunch of New York bashing because New York is great. I love New York. New York is sexy and it's exciting. The difference is Chicago does not have a for-profit model. There really isn't much of a commercial model. We have some but not much. It is mostly a not-for-profit model. Once it's a not-for-profit model, a failure is OK. Risk is OK because you're not playing King of the Hill. There is not just one spot available, there's many spots. Whether it’s doing a play with your friends in a rented phone booth or working some place big and glamorous like the Goodman.

Now I’ve run out of Gary's quote, I'm just kind of extemporizing what I thought he meant. But, there is no other city in which there are that many theater companies. That's unheard of. There is the opportunity for an enormous amount of work so if you really were going to go try to do it you could do it. So automatically there’s the value of, “Well, let's try this, and see what it is.” And New York is a for-profit model so there's an enormous amount of money at stake and space is limited in every conceivable sense. In Chicago, you could keep trying. It was a marathon not a sprint, as they say.

And the other big difference is something Sheldon always talked about and was passionate about: the ensemble idea. I'm not overly romantic about the idea that if you start a theater company with ten actors, that's automatically a great theater company just because it's an ensemble. I don't agree to the false narrative that the acting ensemble is, by its nature, inherently better. Sheldon wasn’t talking about ensemble as a romantic notion; it was ensemble as a responsibility. It was kind of a socialist thing. You know? It was a responsibility to a group and to the project. It takes a lot of pressure off of the ego. It takes a lot of pressure off of the individual and puts a lot of shared pressure on the group.

I wish that all this didn't sound as boilerplate Chicago as I think it does. But I think maybe it's boilerplate because it's true. It's not as lonely there.


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