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 NIU 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.”
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.”
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.”
Provost Raymond Alden has tapped five veteran university faculty members to fill top-level administrative posts at NIU.
“I’m very happy with the people who have agreed to accept these appointments,” Alden said. “When a good person leaves a position, it’s always a challenge to find a comparable replacement, and I think we’ve found very good people to serve in these various roles. They have a lot of experience at NIU and not only possess corporate memory but also hold the respect of faculty, staff and the campus community as well.”
The new appointments, which have already taken effect, are as follows.
NIU can take more than a little pride in Fermilab’s announcement last week of a major discovery.
NIU physicists are among the scientists participating in Fermilab’s DZero collaboration, which announced the observation of pairs of Z bosons – force-carrying particles produced in proton-antiproton collisions at the Tevatron, the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator.
The properties of the ZZ diboson make its discovery an essential prelude to finding or excluding the Higgs boson at the Tevatron. The Higgs boson is considered by some to be the holy grail of particle physics.
“Discovery of ZZ production is an interesting result in its own right,” said NIU Distinguished Research Professor Gerald Blazey, a former co-spokesperson for the DZero collaboration.
Blazey is currently serving in an Intergovernmental Personnel Assignment with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, where he is participating in program planning for the Office of High Energy Physics and is program manager for International Linear Collider research and development.
“Extraction of the signal shows that the Tevatron experiments and collider are well prepared for the increasingly intense hunt for the Higgs particle,” Blazey said.
Blazey and NIU Distinguished Research Professor David Hedin, also a longtime member of DZero, both took part in DZero’s internal review of the ZZ diboson results process.
“NIU was very much involved in aspects of DZero leading to this result,” Hedin said. “The Zs in the event either decay to 2 muons, to 2 electrons or to 2 neutrinos. NIU helped build the muon detector, including writing the reconstruction software. And Mike Eads, a 2005 graduate of NIU, is now co-coordinator of the group which verifies the muon identification tools used by the people that produced the result.”
The Standard Model of particle physics – the best explanation scientists have of the origins of the universe – predicts the existence of the Higgs boson. Its detection would confirm the existence of the Higgs field, which is thought to permeate the universe. When particles interact with this field, they gain mass. Without mass, all particles would travel at the speed of light, never sticking together, and only these tiny mass-less particles would populate the universe.
The observation of the ZZ connects to the search for the Higgs boson in several ways.
The process of producing the ZZ is very rare and hence difficult to detect. The rarest diboson processes after ZZ are those involving the Higgs boson, so seeing ZZ is an essential step in demonstrating the ability of the experimenters to see the Higgs.
The signature for pairs of Z bosons can also mimic the Higgs signature for large values of the Higgs mass. For lower Higgs masses, the production of a Z boson and a Higgs boson together, a ZH, makes a major contribution to Higgs search sensitivity, and the ZZ shares important characteristics and signatures with ZH.
The ZZ is the latest in a series of observations of pairs of the so-called gauge bosons, or force-carrying particles, by DZero and its sister Tevatron experiment, CDF. Earlier this year, CDF found evidence for ZZ production; the new DZero results for the first time showed sufficient significance, well above five standard deviations, to rank as a discovery of ZZ production.
DZero searched for ZZ production in nearly 200 trillion proton-antiproton collisions delivered by the Tevatron.
DZero is an international experiment conducted by about 600 physicists from 90 institutions in 18 countries. Funding for the DZero experiment comes from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation and a number of international funding agencies.
While most college students have spent the summer working jobs and seeing old friends, NIU students Edward Nissen and Jim Younkin have had a decidedly different experience.
They met top students in physics from around the world and hobnobbed with Nobel Laureates.
The U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation sponsored Nissen and Younkin, respectively, to take part in the 58th Annual Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates and Students.
In all, 60 top graduate students from across the United States participated, along with about 500 international students and 25 Nobel Laureates.
The meeting was held from June 29 to July 4 in Lindau, Germany. Lindau is a historic medieval island city located at the common border of Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
Since 1951, Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics and medicine have convened annually at Lindau to meet with student researchers. The meetings rotate by discipline each year, with this year’s event focusing on physics.
Nissen and Younkin, who are both Ph.D. candidates in physics at NIU, were honored to be selected.
“My grandmother told me that I should write everything down so I don’t forget because it’s such a unique experience,” said Nissen, a 25-year-old from Lake Bluff who also has won $20,000 in scholarships over the past two years from the Directed Energy Professional Society.
Each morning, the Nobel Prize winners lectured on cutting-edge topics in physics. Students then joined the Laureates for informal roundtable sessions and for lunches and dinners. For closing ceremonies, they traveled by ferry to the Isle of Mainau and convened at the baroque Mainau Castle, the residence of Swedish patron Count Lennart Bernadotte, who began the Lindau meetings decades ago.
“I met and interacted personally with quite a few Nobel Laureates,” said Younkin, a 26-year-old from Spartanburg, S.C., who is specializing in high energy theory. “It was an amazing experience.”
Younkin recalled that the American and Chinese delegations had lunch together one day at a Lindau cafe, where he met a student with the same research interests.
“It turned out that we were working in exactly the same area, studying particles in bound states, so we had a really interesting discussion,” Younkin said. “We traded contact information, and I'll be learning more about what her group is doing and possibly advance my own research. Making those kinds of contacts was the best part of the conference.”
NIU, which also sent a student to the 2004 Lindau meeting, was the only Illinois university with two participants at the 2008 meeting.
“It is a competitive process,” said David Hedin, a distinguished research professor of physics at NIU. “Having two students selected this year indicates the strength of our doctoral program.”
The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) administers the U.S.-portion of the Lindau Meeting. For more information, see www.orau.org/lindau/.
Two NIU professors are asking professors and departments to donate used textbooks and research journals to a university in Kenya.
Jane Rose Njue, from NIU’s School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences, and Moses Mutuku, from the Department of Teaching and Learning, are collecting the books to ship to Kenyatta University. Kenyatta’s professors and students, who cannot afford to buy text books often and who do not have much access to journals, will find great value in the donation.
Donations are needed quickly, however: Olive Mugenda, chancellor of Kenyatta University, will visit NIU next week from Monday, Aug. 11, through Wednesday, Aug. 13.
“It would be good for her to be presented with books that NIU community has donated,” Njue said. “Kenyatta University pays for the shipment of books.”
FCNS Chair Laura Smart is providing space to store the books before they are transported Aug. 13. Donations can be taken to Wirtz 122.
NIU faculty members have collaborated in recent years with colleagues from Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota and Hamline University to donate books to Kenya through Books for Africa.
Based in St. Paul, Minn., the non-profit organization established in 1988 is the largest shipper of donated books to African countries.
The organization believes that the greatest equalizer is to give individuals access to an education whether self taught or in a school to all people. Its staff works with organizations throughout Africa and the United States to end the country’s “book famine” by transporting more books and educational materials to areas in need.
After 27 years on the job, Leroy Mitchell will retire as director of the CHANCE program.
All are welcome to an open house celebration from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 28, in the Duke Ellington Ballroom of the Holmes Student Center.