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The players

While trodding the boards at storefronts and stages, they make us laugh, cry and think.
By TOC Staff Photographs by Chris Strong |

Martha Lavey

Artistic director

A few years back, when we were writing a story about Steppenwolf, we asked Lavey, the actor-producer who’s run that company since 1995, what all the women of that fabled ensemble have in common. After a heightened, foreboding pause, Lavey narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and said in a dour, almost menacing voice, “Sense of humor.” She’s right, of course; there’s no way a 41-member group of artists as unruly as Steppenwolf—the old stories of thrown chairs in meetings are the stuff of legend—could have survived 30-plus years without the ability to laugh at itself. And since Lavey has made Steppenwolf a 21st-century boys’ club run by chicks, it’s a good thing she and the rest of the ladies can take a joke.—Christopher Piatt

Steppenwolf’s Kafka on the Shore is in previews, opening Saturday 27.

Steppenwolf players Martha Lavey, Tracy Letts and John Mahoney discuss their quintessential Chicago moments.


Charna Halpern

Improv theater top banana

Halpern could talk for hours about the celebrities she knows. As a coach at and owner of Wrigleyville’s iO, she’s helped nurture comedy greats such as Chris Farley, Tina Fey and Mike Myers from young pups to big industry dogs. Hell, it’s an (endearing) inside joke that she’ll bend your ear with tales of the big shots at the drop of a hat. It’s not surprising, then, that Halpern has tremendous respect for the way Chicago treats its locally grown stars. “There’s so many celebrities who live in Chicago who want to stay in Chicago,” she says. “I think it’s so cool to be able to walk down the street and see any one of them and be able to stop and talk like regular down-to-earth people.”—Steve Heisler

Halpern offers this Chicago joke: “What’s the difference between a White Sox fan and a Cubs fan? A White Sox fan will get drunk, burp, fart and give you the finger. A Cubs fan can do all this while peeing on the hood of your car.”


Jackie Taylor


We defy anybody who’s talked smack about jukebox musicals to attend the Black Ensemble Theater and not have a religious experience. That’s because founder Taylor, the Cabrini-Green–raised actor who dropped out of the ’70s blaxploitation movie scene to create something positive, casts her musical tribute–revues of African-American artists like Jackie Wilson and Etta James with talented singers and musicians who redefine soul revival. (“Comin’ to the Black Ensemble is just like comin’ to church,” Taylor tells the audience at the end of every show. “There’s a donation box at the door!”) These days, a $20 million capital campaign is helping Taylor create a new theater space and community-outreach center. Tweak the title of an Aretha tune and you could call it “The House that Jackie Built.”—Christopher Piatt

I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass) runs through Sunday 28 at Black Ensemble.


Andrew Alexander and Kelly Leonard

Comedic powerhouses

Alexander and Leonard—executive producer and vice president, respectively—typically operate behind the scenes. Alexander steers the behemoth that is The Second City, including its corporate comedy division; Leonard oversees the local stages, non–Chicago outposts and touring companies. When they do make it to the front of the house to see a show, their faces beam with palpable pride. But the pair’s most humbling Chicago moment came while watching the face of another notable guest. “There was an evening where [Barack Obama] was going to see an abbreviated version of the show [Between Barack and a Hard Place] as a fund-raiser,” Leonard recounts. “Watching his face watching Second City do its thing on him was probably one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. And he was such a good sport about it; he went backstage and hung out with the cast. This was one of those moments when you’re envisioning your satire all come to life. It was a little bit intimidating, difficult and awesome.”—Steve Heisler

A Chicago joke from Leonard: “In Chicago, how do you keep bears out of your backyard? Put up goalposts.”

No Country for Old White Men and Campaign Supernova! are running at Second City through mid-October.

Tracy Letts

Playwright, actor

While driving in Rogers Park, Letts was pulled over by a police officer. When Letts asked why he’d been stopped, the cop said, “Well, to tell you the truth, sir, you look a little crafty.” We’re with the cop: Letts is crafty. Last year, the Steppenwolf ensemble member unleashed his riotous pop melodrama August: Osage County on the city, and shortly thereafter, the world. Along the way, he picked up a Pulitzer and a Tony and conquered Broadway, taking a score of gifted-but-heretofore-nonfamous Chicago actors with him. On second thought, let’s go with master craftsman.—Christopher Piatt

Letts is working on a screen adaptation of August: Osage County.

Steppenwolf players Martha Lavey, Tracy Letts and John Mahoney discuss their quintessential Chicago moments.


Mick Napier


For more than 20 years, Annoyance cofounder Mick Napier and his loyal disciples have gone balls-out to bring the most grotesque, risqué comedy imaginable to light. No topic is off-limits, be it prison rape or donkey rape. But today’s veritable improv indie rocker was first inspired by the courageousness of Martin DeMaat, a longtime Second City teacher. “He got away with so much,” Napier recalls. “We’d walk into a restaurant and there’d be, you know, a pretty waitress. And he would just be like, ‘I need to tell you something right now. You have beautiful breasts. Is that okay?’ ” Sure, you can question DeMaat’s teaching methods, but the results are right there in Uptown.—Steve Heisler

Napier directs Co-Ed Prison Sluts through October 31.


John Mahoney


He achieved the height of his fame playing Frasier’s dad, but the British-born actor got his big break in the late ’70s at Steppenwolf, where he remains an ensemble member. He’s also recognizable in any number of character roles (Ione Skye’s overweening father in Say Anything…, the Faulkneresque writer in Barton Fink). He still makes Chicago home, bucking the celebrity trend of living out West. “Kelsey [Grammer] and David [Hyde Pierce] came to a benefit [in Chicago] to help me out with a charity,” he says. “I remember them being so flabbergasted at the beauty of the city and just saying, ‘My God, it’s no wonder you don’t want to live in L.A.—this is just magnificent.’ ”—Ben Kenigsberg

Mahoney stars in The Seafarer, opening at Steppenwolf in December.

Steppenwolf players Martha Lavey, Tracy Letts and John Mahoney discuss their quintessential Chicago moments.


Harold Ramis

Actor, writer and director

Everyone’s favorite Ghostbuster describes himself as “half Egon and half the idiot from Stripes.” A lifelong Chicagoan, he’s shot parts of his films here (Groundhog Day, Stuart Saves His Family), although he wonders whether anyone has made the definitive Chicago movie yet. He has, however, held two of the definitive Chicago jobs. During a stretch in the late ’60s, he simultaneously worked as an editor for Playboy and performed eight shows a week at Second City. Ramis recalls one night at the Playboy Mansion—then still in Chicago—when the cast of Hair was naked in the pool, singing “Let the Sunshine In.” “That was quite a moment,” he says. “It was a great Chicago moment, it was a great late-’60s moment, it was a great personal moment.”—Ben Kenigsberg

Ramis’s next film as director, Year One, is scheduled for release in June.


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