Theater with a window seat

Categories: Chicago Tribune

For one night a week, atop a Lincoln Park garage, the show must go on

By MARK GUARINO | Special to the Chicago Tribune

December 22, 2010

There may not be much in life more grim than the rush-hour commute. In the dead cold of a Chicago winter. On an “L” train. Crammed against the bodies of strangers.

But these uncomfortable realities can vanish, briefly, if you happen to be riding on a Brown Line train on a Wednesday between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. As the train heads north from downtown — making the S-curve at North Avenue and swinging across Halsted Street, then turning once again to journey farther north — there is the distinct possibility that out of the corner of your eye you’ll spy a wizard casting a spell, or dinosaurs engaged in battle, or Hamlet pondering his mortality while holding Yorick’s skull.

The quick-motion whimsy is created by CTA Theatre, the collective name of three young improvisational actors who perform weekly shows (currently using shadow puppets) on the roof of a parking garage in Lincoln Park. Their aim is to entertain rush-hour commuters at the end of their work days and, if they’re lucky, amuse themselves in the process.

“When we see someone on the train and they see us and smile, it just doesn’t get any better than that,” Mike, one of the actors, said during a recent performance.

As brittle winds whip through the garage, he and fellow actor Andrew wait for their cue — the rumble of a train as it approaches the curve. They position their shadow puppets (a tyrannosaurus rex versus a triceratops) to engage in battle against a floodlight that magnifies and projects the images onto a white bedsheet.

As the train barrels by, the actors manipulate their respective dinosaurs to enact a speedy battle to the death. In the few seconds it takes for the train to pass, the triceratops dies three times. Inside the train cars, bored and muted commuters stare into the distance, but a few notice the prehistoric smack down, smile and crane their necks. And then they’ve disappeared past the curve and the performance is over — for a few minutes, anyway, until it starts up again.

“There’s always a whole range of reactions, from people really laughing or even cheering to seeing people run down the length of the train to keep watching, which is incredibly gratifying,” says Andrew.

The three actors started CTA Theatre in March as a lark. Mike, who works nearby in the subscription office at Steppenwolf Theatre, used to end his days atop the garage watching the sunset. Complementing the view was the train, taking its long, lumbering turn every 10 minutes. Suddenly, it clicked: Instead of a conventional pedestrian setting, Mike envisioned a new form of street theater, complete with an elevated stage and captive audience below.

The troupe’s silent and stealthy approach to making theater is far from the fast-talking, in-your-face sensibility of improv, which all three perform at theaters around town, and at the Improv Olympic in Wrigleyville in particular. Studyingimprov is what motivated all three to move to Chicago from different pockets of the country: Andrew, 28, is from Napa, Calif., Mike, 26, is from Milwaukee and Thomas, 26, is from Knoxville, Tenn.

While improv remains their pursuit on the traditional stage, the garage performances have become a cherished moment of creativity each week, so much so that they don’t want to give their full names in order to preserve the mystery of their performances, which are fleeting, funny and, for commuters who may catch one for only a few seconds, very magical.

“What I like about it is the people don’t know what it is. If we are more anonymous, it’s more fun for us,” Mike says.

Andrew agrees: “Part of the fun for me is, it’s not explained.”

The trio has not skipped a Wednesday since starting up in March. In warmer weather, the performances were live-action, with the three actors using homemade costumes to present simple scenarios with enough visual impact to keep commuters intrigued. One week a wizard might be using his wand to make a construction worker dance against his will; another, a pair of cops could have been searching with binoculars for a robber one story below. There were weeks when a band conductor tried to keep rhythm as the instruments went berserk, a human-size birdcage beckoned a giant bird back home, a mad puppeteer manipulated two marionettes on strings or a bullfighter squared off against a bull.

Thomas says the group has compiled a repertoire of about 60 different skits. Which gets picked each week depends on what material or props they may have on hand, or what may seem particularly relevant at the time.

“We’re attracted to these outlandish characters like [ Frankenstein’s monster] or the bull and the matador. Figuring out how to actualize them — that’s where the fun starts,” he says.

The first real challenge of performing outside came this fall with the time change. No longer afforded daylight, the small troupe transitioned from actors to puppeteers using a combination of light, simple puppets and a white sheet to cast large shadows.

Then came the freezing temperatures. On this particularly Wednesday, there’s a lot of jumping up and down between trains to stay warm. Deciding when to call it a night, however, is difficult. Each time a decision is made to finish, there’s a pause before another train is heard in the distance and all three decide to give it a go one last time. Like any extreme sport, the players in this one are addicted.

With each drop in temperature, each troupe member says they’ll add another layer of clothing. For the time being, no matter how cold it gets, they vow to press on.

“It’s definitely an endurance test,” says Mike. “But we really, really want to keep going as long as we can bear it.”

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