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Carolyn Defrin was a waitress at Spiaggia before one of its regulars was the President of the United States. The long-limbed, slyly ethereal Northwestern drama grad could easily pick up a couple hundred bucks in an evening, and because the management was gracious enough—or Defrin was charming enough—the restaurant accommodated her constantly erratic, touch-and-go schedule.
On the nights the Massachusetts native wasn’t serving celebrity diners, she was dancing and acting in her friends’ plays inside a warehouse. And because the then-twentysomething artists incorporated enough 20th-century pop iconography into their cheap, rowdy plays to attract new theatergoers across multiple generations, Defrin’s nights away from Spiaggia became a significant part of Chicago-theater mythology.
Six months ago, and almost exactly six years after The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan, her first play with the House Theatre of Chicago, Carolyn Defrin turned 30. She also quit waiting tables.
“I think I shocked my managers,” Defrin says in her chilled-out, vaporous alto. “I just came in one night and told them I was done.”
If they were surprised by her present to herself, it’s because Defrin is the kind of woman who usually doesn’t walk out. From the first days of the House, when merely ten company members sat licking envelopes stuffed with letters soliciting donations to their nonprofit start-up from friends and family, Defrin has been an invaluable House go-to person both behind and in the scenes.
“Carolyn is the mom. She’s the rock of the company,” says Cliff Chamberlain, the charismatic House actor. “The reason she’s always speaking at events and putting together things like opening-night cast gifts is because she’s got the biggest heart, but she’s also the person who can get things done.” The resourceful Defrin once procured a $5,000 check from a generous Spiaggia customer who was an arts patron.
It was also Defrin who, after performing in a Lookingglass show, persuaded that company’s Laura Eason to check out Peter Pan. The House’s second outing and its first in the Viaduct, the outsize converted shed that shaped the group’s shabby/seductive aesthetic and image, impressed Eason sufficiently that she tipped off local newspaper critics who trekked out to the makeshift space by the Western and Belmont overpass and were thrilled by what they saw. And so began a blitz of media coverage that produced huge audiences—and ever-mounting pressure—for the House. Some found the troupe overrated; many more were entranced by it.
Defrin was roped into the House by honcho Nathan Allen, whom she met when the two studied in London. In the first few years, Defrin, along with the sportsmanlike Marika Mashburn, Maria McCullough and Lauren Vitz, took turns playing every female role the male-heavy company needed filled.
In 2007, Defrin became the face of The Sparrow, partly because it was her turn in the rotation. The play about the lonely small-town girl with superpowers launched the company out of the warehouse and into Steppenwolf’s Garage and the Apollo Theater and onto the home page of The New York Times website, where Defrin’s picture stayed for two days. (A sketch of her lithe body by Marvel Comics artist Chris Burnham also occupied ads and billboards.)
Though noticeably less daring in its story than previous House shows, the Midwestern fairy tale inarguably held mass appeal; The Sparrow eventually played in front of 20,000 people. Carrying the heavy show effortlessly on her back, Defrin never missed a performance, despite grueling dance work and nonunion labor conditions. (Fortunately, the insurance that came with the Apollo run enabled her to make a much-needed visit to a bone doctor.)
Her main income now comes primarily from teaching and performance. Also, as the House Theatre’s director of education, Defrin helped spearhead a ticket-purchasing program in which companies organize a night of theater for their employees, who buy one ticket for themselves and one for an underserved Chicago public-school student. More than 600 kids have scored tickets, about $15,000 worth.
This weekend, Defrin opens as the lead in Rose and the Rime at Wicker Park’s Chopin Theatre, several blocks and a pubescent world away from the early Viaduct shows. Despite a desperate, public series of fund-raising pleas, the House can afford to mount only two of its three originally announced shows for the season. April’s planned production of Alan Infinitum has been temporarily shelved, making this the House’s first subscription season without a third play. The kind of midlevel nonprofit the House so rapidly became—its mid-six-figures annual budget is neither guv’ment cheese nor caviar—can only go so far in a culture with such meagerly supported arts. That’s even with legitimate superheroes like Defrin giving it their all.
Rose and the Rime opens Sunday 22.