WHEN a visit to the Windy City coincides with the Joseph Jefferson Awards, Chicago's equivalent of the Tonys, it provides an opportunity to understand in an instant why this bustling metropolis has become one of the most active theater capitals of the world.
It is estimated that there are over 135 professional companies operating at least some part of the year. Audiences here simply love theater. And opera: the Lyric Opera's season is 95 percent sold out in advance, unprecedented for any opera house in this country.
Frank Galati's presence at the awards ceremony in the Chicago Hilton Ballroom is appropriate: After all, this man has won nine Jefferson Awards, or Jeffs, as they are affectionately called; five for directing, three for writing or adapting, and one for acting.
Greeting him in person the next day in an Evanston, Ill. coffee shop, it is hard to believe that this tall, bearish, unassuming man is a pivotal figure in the evolution of theater in any stage-struck city. His open, friendly face sports a pair of rimless glasses atop a strong nose, while his cheerful grin and trimmed white beard only heighten the impression of a disarming individual without pretension or affectation.
An active teacher who should have no time for lunch, let alone reminiscences of the past, he is relaxed, at ease, and ready to converse on a dozen subjects.
His career, he insists, is something of a fluke. It evolved only after he secured a PhD from Northwestern University and found, much to his astonishment, that he could not get a job. He became an actor, then later, an adaptor, and eventually a director.
He generously acknowledges his debt to two exceptional teachers; the first, a ``very gifted'' high school teacher in Northbrook, Ill., named Ralph Lane, who later went on to teach at Illinois State University, where his students included John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf.
The second is Robert Breen, a Northwestern college professor who taught ``fiction through performance ... a genius who said `let's put these big, sprawling books on the stage, not change them into a so-called play.' What I learned from Breen led directly to `The Grapes of Wrath.' ''
When Galati adapted some Gertrude Stein short stories for the local Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Opera Theatre came to see them and offered him a production of Gertrude Stein's opera ``The Mother of Us All.'' After that, he says, his career in opera was ``launched.''
``The first thing I did in the city was an adaptation of Nathaniel West's ``Miss Lonelyhearts'' at a place called Actors Coop, in a church.'' Later, he joined Steppenwolf, initially operating out of a basement in Highland Park, the Chicago suburb in which he was born.
When he was finally offered a job at his alma mater, replacing one of his former professors, he was surprised to find that ``a very enlightened dean said `Go ahead and work downtown, be evaluated by your peers ... instead of having to publish. We will evaluate your tenure based on your body of work as an actor.' ''
Galati has never been part of Northwestern's well-known Theater Department, but rather the Department of Oral Interpretation started by the legendary Alvina Krause. (In recent years, the department has changed its name to the Department of Performance Studies.)
Galati teaches the adaptation and staging of fiction, as well as the solo performance of fiction, believing that an understanding of narrative is essential to all media, including film. (He earned an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of ``The Accidental Tourist'' and is presently working on ``A Confederacy of Dunces'' for producer Scott Rudin.) ``My real angle was always narrative,'' he says. ``My getting involved in opera came directly from this.''
Galati also gives seminars in individual writers (such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein), as well as Introductory Performance Esthetics.
Galati views the opera ``Tosca'' (see review, left) as an ideal vehicle to highlight the fact that both church and state engage in elaborate rituals of performance, intended to ``intimidate and control the populace.... Against this background, we have an opera singer, who rehearses her lover how to handle false bullets. But they are real bullets. Of course, in performance, we use film bullets so the whole thing is an elaborate game of illusion and reality. But politics and the church are just as much an illusion as the canvas Caravadossi is painting of the Marchesa.''
When asked why Chicago has spawned so much theater activity, his answer is simple: Encouragement from the press. ``We could never have had the renaissance without them. First, there was Claudia Cassidy. Even when she retired from the Chicago Tribune, we'd listen to her on WFTM Sunday mornings, and it was like listening to the voice of God. Then her successor at the Tribune, William Chistiansen, lasted close to 36 years. His importance cannot be overestimated. Sidney Jay Harris at the Daily News, a paper that's gone now, was also important, and Hedy Wells at the Sun-Times. But since the mid-1970s, the tabloid free paper called The Reader also means a great deal. Through the years, these critics went to basements and churches and raved about us ... and the public took notice.''
Galati's modesty stands in striking contrast to the definite stamp he puts on his productions for opera or the theater. He does not superimpose an intrusive style to make a statement, but wants us to see characters in context and understand the forces that influence them. He is both gentle puppeteer and sociologist, inspiring students, actors, and audiences alike.