Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Alex Gelman
Alex Gelman


Chicago’s Organic Theater provides
repertory experience for NIU alums

April 28, 2008

by Mark McGowan

Stanislavsky, the father of actor training and theater-making in the western world, prescribed three levels of the actor’s development: school, studio and theater.

The school is a place to learn. The studio is a place to practice. The theater is a place to work professionally.

NIU’s School of Theatre and Dance long has provided a world-class experience in school and also in studio, most notably through SummerNITE, the school’s resident professional equity company that is dedicated to developing and producing new works by established and emerging playwrights.

But Alex Gelman, director of the school, felt “a real need” to complete the circle by affording professional theater opportunities to alumni.

With the blessing and encouragement of Harold Kafer, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Gelman began searching for a night job in the industry. Two years ago, he was hired as producing artistic director for Chicago’s 40-year-old Organic Theater Company.

Now the company of 10 NIU alums is in the midst of its 2008 season, presenting six shows in four weeks. There are multiple plays and performances each weekend, and some in the small ensemble have roles in all of them.

The stage managers and designers also have connections to NIU, whether as alums or as members of the faculty of the School of Theatre and Dance.

“Alex has taken on a huge challenge that has dual opportunities. Renewing the vitality of the Organic will be a real contribution to the theater landscape of Chicago,” Kafer said. “At the same time, creating a professional company around alumni is a great opportunity to raise the profile or an already nationally recognized program within the college.”

For the actors involved, the repertory system stretches their wings, strengthens their muscles and sharpens their chops. There is no time to fall into ruts or to repeat themselves, Gelman said. Immediacy is mandatory. “Being in two different plays in two different nights feeds the richness of the acting,” he said.

For Gelman, it occasionally means a day in the office providing leadership to the school and its programs followed by a fight with rush hour traffic to Chicago for rehearsals and returning home around midnight.

But it’s an exhaustion he welcomes.

“The work is its own reward. That’s the key to it. I continue to be inspired. I am profoundly proud of the work our alums are doing. They’re very well trained. They’re gifted. They’re passionate,” he said.

New plays in the repertory this season are Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” slated for May 3 and 11, and Friedrich Durenmatt’s “Play Strindberg,” scheduled May 3 and 10.

Returning from the existing repertory for one-weekend engagements are Mark Twain’s “The $30,000 Bequest” and Eugene Ionesco’s “Man with Bags.” Kunio Shimizu’s “The Dressing Room” was staged April 19 and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” was presented April 26 and 27.

This year’s performances are held at La Costa Theatre Company Stage, 3931 N. Elston Ave. in Chicago. For more information, including show times, ticket prices and other promotions, visit

All of the works “represent a powerful body of theater” that provide “an examination of the human condition in a larger sense.”

“A great play astounds you each time you come up to it,” Gelman said. “You discover something you didn’t see before.”

Of the four plays from last season, only two roles required different actors. The familiarity of the cast members among themselves, and to Gelman, benefits the selection process.

“You pick the plays for the people you’re working with: What challenges do they need? What are they ready for? Who needs a sharper spotlight?” Gelman said. “Second, is it something that speaks to you? I think, ‘She would be phenomenal in this, he would be amazing in this, and I can’t put this piece down.’ ”

Gelman’s role with the Organic provides a powerful recruiting incentive for NIU’s theater program. Students entering the program that that they will have the opportunity to be considered for the Organic when they graduate

Joining the Organic company also allows the actors to live and work in the Windy City.

Chicago is home to about 250 theater companies similar to the Organic, Gelman said, including names such as Steppenwolf, the Goodman and the Lookingglass. Other major U.S. cities can claim only a few, he said.

“Chicago is, in my opinion, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, the most exciting theater city in the United States – and there is such a thing as a ‘Chicago actor.’ The sheer numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “If we were one of five companies in Chicago, we’d be beating the audiences away with a stick. As one of 250, we have to break through the noise.”

The Organic’s actors spend much of the year rehearsing the spring repertory of plays but also take roles with other companies throughout Chicago. Their craft demands it, Gelman said.

“We have passions, demons, obsessions, fascinations, and we hope there are other people who share those with us,” he said. “We believe in the art. We believe that what we have to say is worth saying as an artist.”