1981. Do you remember what you were doing that year? I learnt to walk, talk and eat with a spoon. Yep, it was a big year for me. It was also a big year for Stefan Brun and Scott Vehill because that’s when Prop Thtr mounted its first production. And just sit on this for a moment: Prop Thtr is still here. They are not only in performance with their latest production, Viral Kitty, written by Paul Carr, but hosting Rhinofest, Chicago’s longest running fringe festival.
What makes Prop’s endurance even more impressive is that the work they produce is what my teenage brother would describe as “weird.” More accurately, they produce a lot of work of the post-modern and avant-garde variety that deals with social and political issues, from the blurring realities of the online world to terrorism, from media ethics to broken relationships. Unsurprisingly — since Brun trained with the late German playwright Heiner Muller — they produce a great deal of work by Bertolt Brecht. The company also seeks to support and produce new work, hence its support of ventures like Rhinofest. Prop is also the only Chicago theatre company that is a core member — and co-founder — of the National New Play Network.
Don Schroeder, a man who describes himself as “not really an artsy-fartsy guy” and a “lunch-pail actor,” has been part of Prop Thtr since it’s inception. He gleefully shares that he wasn’t just in the first production, but he made the first sound:
Boom! And that’s the first noise of the Prop — me collapsing on the floor.
At this anecdote, everyone in the ensemble laughs. Of course, it is hilarious, and Schroeder is a gifted storyteller. But what strikes me is that they aren’t faking it: their laughs possess crinkly eyes and thrown-back heads. They are authentic laughs even though it’s story I’m sure they’ve heard countless times. It is in these moments that I see that not only do these people like each other, they really listen to each other, despite fitting in the opposite slices of many a pie graph. Their ensemble includes a younger set: vivacious high school student Bailey Boyle; the equally passionate Sidonie Greenberg; and Jeremy Campbell, who tells me with a lilting Missouri accent that he’s the guy who acts and “builds stuff.” At the more mature end: Brun, the artistic director, whose unassuming and gentle disposition belies great strength of vision; the aforementioned and charismatic Schroeder; actor Andy Somma; actor-playwright Carr, and Diane Hamm, the “Managing Director-slash-costume chick.”
These people and their joy in community underlies everything Prop Thtr does, including their rehearsal process. While each person describes it differently, the key adjectives are shared: education, freedom, authenticity. Schroeder describes Prop Thtr as an “actor’s theatre” because of their freedom to take risks. Somma discusses how their work and process have been influenced by the rich improv culture of Chicago pre-Second City, at which Boyle exclaims that it’s the richness of Chicago that makes their work “magical,” despite Prop’s perennial lack of resources. Hamm affirms that they do have magic: “We have a DIY black light stuck together with duct tape!” Again the room bubbles with laughter. Campbell relishes it all:
to be as raw as Chicago is…I get a chance to be a bit of that gritty cockiness, I get a chance to bleed in my projects, to sweat…
Stefan interjects: “We do have a first aid kit.” Again, laughter. There is no pretentiousness here, just people who like and respect each other, making art about important things.
Prop Thtr incubates new work and new workers. It’s a place to try the nontraditional, to say something, to be free. Boyle bluntly declares: “It’s not about the money, it’s about the art.”
And while, thanks to Brun’s steadfast vision, this idea has carried the group since it’s inception, the way they approach their finances has, in fact, changed. When they first started as an “underground” theatre, they told me they scoffed at the idea of nonprofit status, grant-writing and business licenses. It was, one of them told me, “theatre by the seat of your pants.”
Then they realized what they were doing was not just for themselves, but for a broader community — and that meant pursuing the means for financial sustainability. While fundraising through cabaret performances, something called Catzilla (yes, with real cats performing on stage), and grant writing are the main sources of Prop’s income, Brun emphasizes that “people working like crazy” is still their greatest resource. Prop, unlike many theatres, has given a percentage of its box-office to the actors from the beginning. If he is now older and wiser, Brun is no less passionate about what Prop does — and how it does it. He appears content with their current financial support system and, after hearing Boyle’s statement, says: “It allows Bailey to say that and be right!”
As one of Chicago’s oldest Storefront theatre companies, Prop Thtr is a tapestry of experience, knowledge and life. It has inhabited many spaces, and sometimes none, yet remains true to its original vision. With admiration for Brun in his voice, Campbell says their theatre is “a lot like jazz — we’re gonna take it as far as we can go until we’re completely lost and then find our way back.” It may be an apt metaphor for a production, but I have an inkling that it is not too far from the journey that Prop has made since they made their first sound in Chicago: boom!