”I’m not from here,” Michael Patrick Thornton said at the beginning of Title and Deed. “I guess I never will be. That’s how being from somewhere works.” Unlike the unnamed traveler he played in that solo piece by Will Eno with Lookingglass Theatre Company last spring, Thornton is from here—specifically Jefferson Park, where he planted his own company, the Gift Theatre, in 2001.
Thornton’s performance in Title and Deed earned him your vote as best actor in our inaugural Theater Awards. We talked with Thornton about that show and his two big projects this season: directing Good for Otto, a world premiere by Tony-winning playwright David Rabe, at the Gift’s Jeff Park storefront space; and playing the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III for director Jessica Thebus—a project they had underway at Evanston’s Next Theatre when it abruptly closed its doors last fall. That show will now be produced by the Gift at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre, where our conversation took place.
A world premiere by David Rabe is a huge coup for the Gift. How did your relationship with him come about? Largely thanks to the School at Steppenwolf. There’s a buddy that I went through the school with named Jeremy Strong, and Jeremy knows Lily [Rabe, the playwright’s daughter] quite well. So for our 10-year anniversary, we asked playwrights we had produced if they would create a world-premiere, 10-minute play. So Jeremy hooked me up with David’s email address; I told him that we had already done Hurlyburly and Streamers and that we would love for him to consider our request, and he agreed. He’s written a 10-minute play for us every year since.
A 10-minute play is one thing; getting to debut a new full-length play by a 75-year-old Tony winner is another. Yeah. With Good for Otto, he said, “I wrote a thing for a fund-raiser in the late ’90s; I think I might want to turn this into something bigger.” That began a, what, three-year process of talking about it. [When] he had a full draft, we did a Google Hangout read with him—which is kind of terrifying, knowing that this hero of yours is on the other end of the screen. [Eventually] he said, “If you guys want to do this, I’ll let you do it.” He could have gone to any other theater in the world, you know? It’s as bizarre and surreal as it sounds talking about it. This is a guy about whom I wrote a 100-page paper when I was at [the University of] Iowa. There are people on your bookshelf that you never believe you’ll have access to.
Later this season, you’re playing Richard III here at the Garage Theatre, a role you were supposed to have played last winter at Next. Yeah. The way the original production collapsed was maddening and unfortunate, to say the least. Tracy Letts reached out to us and was like, “This is terrible. Something should be done about this.” So Jessica and I sat down over a bottle of wine and talked about what that would look like, who would produce it. We had some long conversations with Erica Daniels and Martha Lavey, and they said, “If the Gift will produce it, we want to have you in our space.” We also have a major, major sponsorship from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, so Richard’s gonna look a little different from how he’s ever looked before.
Can you give any hints? There’s amazing technology being done these days with exoskeletons in terms of them helping paraplegics and quadriplegics to walk. It’s essentially a suit that you kind of wear. So the idea is that if this person was actually disabled, they would be relegated to the dampest, coldest part of the castle with a lot of time on their hands. And so, what does it look like if, kind of Iron Man–style, Richard created this thing, because he hates being disabled. That’s the amazing thing about an institution as global as RIC getting behind the play: They’re not afraid to talk about that side of disability. One point of view you’re never supposed to espouse is rage. Both Jessica and RIC were very interested in that energy being part of it, that it’s okay to say, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair”—and to have a Richard who’s played by an actually disabled actor and who is actively trying to get out of the chair.
Your work in Title and Deed seems to have had a particular impact. I hear people talk about it in awestruck ways, even months later. Has that kind of reaction gotten back to you? Yeah. A couple of people came up to me just the other day, in fact. There were emails that Andy [White, Lookingglass’s artistic director] was getting during the run, written by folks being like, “My brother just died of brain cancer, and I had tickets to this play, and I didn’t know if I should see it.” It seemed to be a magnet in some way for people who were questioning and hurting privately. [As an actor,] it was profoundly isolating, because you didn’t know—since people left the show in this kind of reverential quiet—you didn’t know if you’d shit the bed or if you’d done something good.
Good for Otto is at the Gift Theatre Oct 1–Nov 22. Richard III is at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre Mar 3–May 1.