Northern Illinois University

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Christopher Markle
Christopher Markle

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

August 5, 2008

NIU joins theater world to mourn
death of Christopher Markle

DeKalb — Christopher Markle directed plays at some of America’s most prominent theaters, working with at least one true legend of the business and a number of genuine stars.

He was an actor himself who had earned a master’s degree in directing at Yale University during “the absolute heyday of the drama school” and a clever writer who adapted compelling stories for the stage. His collaborations with other actors, directors and playwrights spanned the globe.

But to his friends in the Northern Illinois University School of Theatre and Dance, Markle was more than just a colleague with a passion for his craft, a sharp sense of humor and an unquenchable curiosity about his world.

“Chris was a remarkable talent with tremendous vision, compassion and humanity. He was imaginative, quirky, insightful, human and playful,” said Alexander Gelman, director of the school. “He thought of theater as a holy art. He believed in its transformative power and its innate kindness, wisdom and playfulness.”

Markle died Monday, July 28, of a pulmonary embolism. He was 53.

Survivors include Markle’s wife, Sophia Varcados, a graphic designer in NIU Media Services, and their 10-year-old daughter, Zoe. A memorial service on campus will take place in the fall.

“It’s a big blow. It’s the loss of a family member,” said Gelman, who met Markle years ago in the New York City theater community before either came to DeKalb. “Chris was clearly an integral part of what we are and what we do – hugely important – but the toll is always more human than professional.”

“He was unpredictable in the best sense,” added Robert Schneider, a professor of theater history and criticism. “His enthusiasms could take him to completely unexplored territory.”

‘A generosity of spirit’

Born Dec. 16, 1954, in Gary, Ind., Markle earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in 1976 and a master’s of fine arts in directing from Yale in 1979.

He immediately became associated with The Acting Company, founded by John Houseman and Margot Harley. Markle later worked closely with Houseman to stage the New York and London revivals of “The Cradle Will Rock,” the national tour of which Markle directed.

In his first season with The Acting Company, Markle co-directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and began his long professional relationship with distinguished Romanian director Livui Ciulei. When Ciulei accepted an invitation to take over the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, he took Markle with him. Markle served as resident director at the Guthrie from 1980 to 1985.

After leaving Minnesota, Markle was a co-founder of DearKnows. The New York City-based company is known for innovative work with narrative texts, especially James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” in which Markle appeared in a variety of roles.

His professional credits include the Bob Hope Theatre, the Ohio Space, the Colonnades Theatre, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Shakespeare Festival/LA in Los Angeles, the HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art, the Virginia Theatre, the Arena Stage, the Whole Theatre, the ANTA Theatre Company, the Yale Dramat and the Sage Repertory Company.

Markle’s academic career began in 1984 when he served as a guest teacher and director in the graduate acting program of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. In 1985, he was on the faculty of the British-American Drama Academy.

Positions followed at the Lincoln Center Institute, the Colorado College Summer Festival of the Arts, the Moscow Art Theatre Studio-School, Bard College, Princeton University, Albuquerque Biological Park and Texas Tech University.

When he came to NIU in 1998, he was named artistic director of SummerNITE in addition to his teaching responsibilities. By 2004, he added the title of “head of performance” to his vita.

Keeping his toes planted firmly in the professional theater and academia was life-affirming.

“It’s the old Stanislavsky formula: the director is always a teacher. Chris had a generosity of spirit that could not be contained by one thing. He taught when he directed. He directed when he taught,” Gelman said. “As a director, he was profoundly committed to the process of discovery. He treated every production as a journey, and he loved to be astonished and surprised at everything that happened in rehearsal as much as anybody.”

‘A true artist’

Chris Jones was assistant chair of the NIU School of Theatre and Dance when Markle was hired. A faculty member from 1990 to 2000, Jones now is chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune.

“Chris struck me as an intensely intelligent guy and an unbelievably talented, creative artist. He never took an easy way out – he didn’t know how to take an easy way out – and his work was always fresh, innovative and maverick,” Jones said.

Jones remains impressed by Markle’s willingness to take chances, especially during his early days at NIU.

“Part of excellence in theater flows from ambition and a sense of scope, and that was something he brought to it that many don’t,” he said. “When you’re a relatively new professor, you do things you know you can succeed at, but he always went for it anyway, regardless of the cost. I’ve always admired that about him. It’s the mark of a true artist.”

Chief among those risks was the U.S. debut of “The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia,” which Markle staged at NIU in the spring of 2001.

The seven-and-a-half-hour play became the centerpiece of a theatre-in-context humanities festival that included lectures, concerts, symposiums, readings, art exhibitions and film screenings. Sihanouk’s half-brother attended the play.

“No theater school in the country would tackle that,” Gelman said, “but it is exactly what a theater school should be – challenging, and being just this side of in-over-our-heads. That was Chris in a nutshell.”

David Kaplan, who directed SummerNITE’s production of “The Day on Which a Man Dies” earlier this year, met Markle in 1976 when they were two of three students in a class at Yale’s MFA program for directing. Kaplan eventually served as best man at Markle’s wedding.

Markle’s passing leaves only a “few people in the American theater who had his level of expertise working internationally,” Kaplan said.

“He was, and continues to be, an inspiration to those who know him as an artist. His passion, intelligence, commitment and craft are rare in any field, and were greatly appreciated in the professional world,” he said.

“For Chris, theater was a way to express himself with grace and passion, and he acquired the skills and experience necessary to do that,” he added. “There aren’t many people in the United States who had his background, his passion and his level of craft who were willing to take the risks he was willing to take in order to investigate the personal meaning of a play.”

Exploring times, places, people

Chris Hibbard, a 2004 MFA graduate from NIU, regards his former professor as a friend.

The pair bonded in 2003 during the first of now annual summer trips of NIU theater students for classes at the Moscow Art Theatre School, founded by Stanislavsky a century earlier.

“The two of us would take our morning walks to the Moscow Art Theatre together. He taught me to be true to myself,” said Hibbard, now a professional actor in Chicago. “He appreciated simplicity – the simple things in almost anything – and he would teach you to be simple. But whenever he would analyze a simple moment, it would become totally complex with eons of thought processes. The two of us would just laugh.”

NIU colleague Schneider adored the kaleidoscope of interests and passions evident not only in Markle’s body of work but also in his “famously messy office.”

Schneider had caught part of a “Sihanouk” performance during his job interview on campus and quickly realized that if a restless and groundbreaking individualist like Markle could find a home at the NIU School of Theatre and Dance then so could he.

The two eventually collaborated on “The Flaubert Project,” which Schneider wrote and Markle directed. “Chris did a wonderful job on it. He brought much more out of the script than I imagined was there,” he said.

Markle offered that same deep and uncommon examination of theater to his students, Schneider said.

“It was not the traditional folklore about the limelight and the greasepaint and ‘knock ’em dead’ and ‘break a leg.’ Chris was a thinker, and he thought in the theater, using the theater as a means of exploring things that moved him intellectually and emotionally,” Schneider said. “I know we can find someone else to teach directing and do a workman-like job on productions, but I don’t know where we will find someone with his mind and his capacity for using the tools of theater to explore a time, a place and a people.”

“Chris was an inspirational teacher because of where he came from and his own personal commitment. He had the craft to accomplish what he could think about and feel deeply about,” Kaplan added. “As a teacher, that’s a nice thing to bring into the room, not just to inspire students with the happy idea of it but to inspire students with the example of it.”

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