“I remember being genuinely disappointed when Steppenwolf told me I wasn’t allowed to pull garbage out of alleys” for a staged reading of a new play, Jonathan Berry says. Clearly, the rising talent has had a hard time getting the fringe out of his system.
In 2002, Berry was a typical knockabout storefront actor when he recommended that his pals at Mary-Arrchie Theatre, a mainstay, second-story hole-in-the wall in north Lakeview, produce Nicky Silver’s The Altruists. The company went for it, but just as the show was about to begin rehearsals, director Richard Cotovsky was cast in a play at Steppenwolf and had to drop out. In characteristically loose-cannon fashion, Off Loop shaman Cotovsky said, as Berry remembers it, “You suggested it, man. You want to direct it?”
Berry, who had never directed a play in Chicago, made a smart career move: He said yes. When Anna Shapiro, head of the Northwestern University directing program (though not yet a Tony winner for helming August: Osage County), saw the scrappy little show, she told Berry he didn’t need to worry about the program he’d applied for; she was taking him. “I was impressed by his commitment and willingness to learn,” Shapiro says, adding that, as a director, Berry “can take the most mundane situation and find in it its biggest possibility. And I love the guy.”
Everybody does, it seems. While pursuing his Northwestern master’s of fine arts, the soft-spoken workhorse and all-around mensch simultaneously became one of the most prolific, respected storefront directors in the city.
This week, Chicago theater commences, as it were, a Jonathan Berry year. Beginning with On the Shore of the Wide World, Simon Stephens’s 2006 Olivier-winning relationship play, which he’s directing for Griffin Theatre (where he’s a company member), Berry, 34, will helm four wildly different shows for four equally different theater companies.
Berry will direct Ranjit Bolt’s adaptation of The Marriage of Figaro for the classics-heavy Remy Bumppo Theatre in November (his first fully produced play on an Equity contract will star Mary Beth Fisher and Joe Dempsey); Justin D.M. Palmer’s time-bending rom-com Alan Infinitum for the House Theatre in the spring (marking the first time in its eight-year history that the clubhouse company has hired an outside director); and Howard Korder’s mean-spirited The Hollow Lands for tough-guy storefront Steep Theatre, which had its greatest critical acclaim to date when Berry stepped in to direct the ensemble in the dark and thrilling The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Each script makes its Chicago premiere, and each represents a different facet of a mercurial theater artist whose storefront work has been some of the most exciting in recent years.
Careful not to navel-gaze, Berry is more likely to praise his colleagues and mentors than talk about his own work. He counts Tina Landau’s sprawling 1998 Steppenwolf staging of The Berlin Circle and David Cromer’s tiny basement Our Town, revived this week, as the great bookends of his theater-going life and can explain at length how teacher Shapiro “disappears into a play” when directing it. About his own (often praised) projects, though, he’s all flummoxed modesty. (Only after our interview with him did he disclose via Facebook that his Mr. Hyde extrovert can be brought out solely by karaoke.)
Despite landing few roles in the University of Michigan’s musical-theater program—and after a scuttled poli-sci major, no less—Berry moved here after school and hooked into the Chicago arts establishment. (His Michigan family, particularly his mom, a former professional singer, never batted an eye at his career choice.) After a long period as an artistic intern at Steppenwolf, Berry was charged in 2000 with administrating the School at Steppenwolf, a gig he held onto for five years. Though it’s difficult to pinpoint a unifying factor in the scripts he takes on, plays like the Hitler allegory Arturo Ui and Time and the Conways, J.B. Priestley’s rarely revived look at a fractured postwar British family, which Berry tenderly revived for the Griffin in 2005, usually have a sense of purpose deeper than mere theatrical showboating. “I’m still a frustrated post–political science major,” Berry admits.
“I think Jonathan does know something other directors don’t, and that’s Jonathan,” Shapiro says. “A good director has to become a student of his own interests, and he gets that. He also knows how to play the piano, and he can stand with his foot placed parallel to the rest of his body like a tripod. I’ve never seen Cromer do either of those things.”
Berry unleashes his myriad talents on the whole Wide World Saturday 27.