Talking to Andy White from Lookingglass

Culturebot contributor Calamity West caught up with Lookingglass founding ensemble member Andy White to talk about the history of the company and its future under his watch as new Artistic Director.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Los Angeles, California until I was seventeen, but one of those years was spent in West Africa. My mother was doing her doctoral research and she brought the whole family to Ghana for a year. I was nine. My dad taught at the local university when we were there–American history, I think–while my mother did research (I might have this totally wrong) on the meat packing industry in Ghana. She worked in this very rural part of Northern Ghana where it was very hot and dry and worked with the local tribes people.  I remember going into these villages–actually, they weren’t even “villages”; they were compounds, these sort of family compounds, with dwelling places built from mud–and this little white family would go in…and they were extraordinarily gracious hosts and hopefully we were gracious guests. In retrospect, at nine, I’m not quite sure that I saw it this way at the time, but it was very world-view-changing. But it was great to have my world shaken up like that. And then we came back to LA and right back to fifth grade through high school and then I came to Northwestern for college.

And you’ve been in Chicago ever since?

With a few exceptions. I did some acting work in LA for a year, in 1989. I did a CBS series and then came back to Chicago and then went back to LA for pilot season and did a few spots on some things, but at the time I assumed that you could be a successful actor living in Chicago and still have a successful career in LA and everyone there was telling me, “no you really need to come out here and you have to stay here.” And I guess I just didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to live in LA. When I moved out there to do work, it was in a different part in LA. I didn’t grow up having anything to do with the industry. I had a couple of friends whose parents were in the industry but they lived in a very “normal” part of LA, very non-Hollywoodized.

But once, in my experience anyway, once you’re in the industry it’s very hard to escape. It’s all-consuming. You just can’t get away from it. The oil of the industry is always on you. Your waiter is a writer and wants to pitch you a script, I mean, all of those sorts of clichés are kind of true.

So not only was there Lookingglass to return to (which was a big part of it because it was starting to gel and become this theatre company and I felt both this responsibility to it and a desire to play my role in whatever it was going to become) and also mixed with “I’m not sure I want to live out here. That I want this to be 70% of my life,” you know? Consuming my brain, everyday.

What did you see in Chicago that you didn’t see Los Angeles or New York?

This may be entirely myth-making on my part, but there is this perception that pressure and the definition of success is more clearly defined in New York and LA. To succeed in LA you have to have this or that billing as a guest artist and you work this many days a year. And just like New York, there is a pressure to hit these marks. And in Chicago, that’s not really an issue, it’s not really a reality, because those marks don’t exist. Here.

In an exciting way there is enough of a playwriting industry that I think there are marks to hit, but the definition of success is much broader. And also as far as lifestyle or raising a family, not that I was ready to raise a family yet, but I had to think about how I really wanted to spend my day. Did I really want to worry about how I looked walking down Santa Monica Blvd? This is a fight I didn’t have to worry about in Chicago. Am I hanging out with the right circle of people? How do I leverage myself to get to this person or this spot? I think the definition of what feels sane and what success is, is way broader in Chicago than those places.

How has Chicago provided the obvious success of Lookingglass?

Because of that broader definition of individual success, it’s also broader for companies and organizations. No one is working here because their agent is coming to the show Thursday night and getting them a part on whatever. Of course we all want individual success and want to be seen as legitimate, but it’s not what the Chicago theatre scene is about.

Chicago also has a huge community of theatergoers, not just theatre artists; theatergoers who take pride and pleasure in this vast array of theatre offerings that the city continually pumps out. Year after year a new storefront comes out with “what if we did this?” and “this is what we think our manifesto is” and they try it for two or five or twenty years. What determines whether it’s two or twenty years? There are a lot of factors, but there’s an audience of people who are willing to see that kind of work.

And underneath that you have a large enough industrial base of founders that are dedicated to culture. So if you can get your stuff together and apply for those grants, you really can “make it” as a theatre company and that provides room for experimentation. So you can have companies doing risky and unusual work that may provide something other than commercial success to Chicago audiences.

You have an artist base. You have an audience base. You have the funding base. And then you have the intellectual capital of people whose strengths come in arts management (I think of Rachel Kraft who is our Executive Director here at Lookingglass) who, much like the actors, aren’t looking for the next project to catapult them into the next tier as a producer but genuinely care and are dedicated to the work.

Have you been an Artistic Director before?

I was the Artistic Director of the Lookingglass Theatre Company from 1990-1992. But that was an entirely different organization. The budget was something like $39,000 in 1990, or maybe by the end of 1992.

We were just taking steps at that point as a non-profit organization with a business plan.

The board consisted of (the majority of the board, rather) ensemble members because we still wanted to make sure that we retained mechanisms to do what we wanted to do. The company was completely staffed by ensemble members. Of course we were much younger then so we working day jobs, rehearsing at night, putting on the show, handing out leaflets, doing everything and realizing “we can’t do this forever.” We needed to grow because we couldn’t exist on four hours of sleep.

How did this change come about?

A combination of things. We did good plays that were good enough to attract some notoriety and a following (of sorts). Figuring out who in the ensemble was good at what, administratively. And at the same time, writing grants and having the right people come see the work and come to our offices (which were in the basement of the Resurrection Lutheran Church for four or five years). So we were savvy enough to figure it out. And once we got grants, we were able to take those grants and pay someone outside of the company to do book keeping, etc.  We just spent a lot of time, a lot, a lot, a lot of time writing grants. And it paid off.

I think about from time to time, too: there was a period in the mid-nineties when almost everybody in the ensemble went to LA. At various times. Mid-to-late twenties, maybe early thirties, where all of us as actors felt like, “I should at least try LA and find out whether or not…because I’m pretty sure I could…” Laura Eason went. Tom Cox went. Schwimmer, of course, went and succeeded and that was part of the impulse for a lot of people to go. You know, “I’m a good actor too.” No resentment, of course, but, “I’m going to be so mad at myself in five years or ten years if I at least don’t give this a shot.”

So almost everyone took a turn at some point, with a few exceptions, like David Catlin and a few others.  But what that meant was that we had to allow each other time to rotate in and out. Like I said, Laura [Eason] went out there for a while but when she came back she took a turn as Artistic Director. We had to give each other enough latitude to do what we felt like we needed to do knowing that we could always return home, here, at Lookingglass.

So there was an interesting tension or combination of, “we have enough of a center here that this thing is going. Even if you guys go to New York or LA or whatever, this is moving, this Lookingglass thing is happening.” There was forward motion. There were a couple of years where things were…um, less successful, both artistically and financially. We were in the basement of that church and we did this show called “George” [he chuckles] and we thought, “we…might…not…”

I don’t remember what else happened that season but it was definitely a little weaker than most. But the momentum of the company was enough to keep us going. Someone always stepped forward saying, “I’ll keep this going here. You go.”

What did it feel like becoming Artistic Director this time around?

No one was running for the hills and shouting “good luck!” at all.  When I first began to think about doing it I made a big long list of things I was scared about and things I was excited about.

Can we get a glimpse of the list?

Let me find it… … okay. Things I’m afraid of:

I’ll never act again (first thing).

I’ll never act outside of Lookingglass.

I’ll be limited only to a Lookingglass identity.

I’m not creative artistically enough for the job. (This is so interesting.)

The company could die on my watch.

I’ll be frustrated by the conflicting needs and desires of my fellow ensemble members.

The job will be difficult to set parameters (as it has in the past).

Less time with my kids…okay enough of that.

Things you were/are excited about?

Things I’m excited about!

I think I would do a good job on the administrative front.

Possible areas for growth and change: communication, national representation, use of space, partnership with other companies and non-profits.

More opportunity with fellow ensemble members.

Sharing the experience with my wife and children.

It’s a great job.

I’ll learn a lot.

Partnering with other Artistic Directors.

I might like being a leader, emulating Barack Obama!

What do you want to bring to Lookingglass as the Artistic Director that hasn’t been there before?

I knew how to answer that question before you got to the “that hasn’t been there before” part. …If it hasn’t there before, it’s a function of where we are organizationally. My big priority is to increase artistic compensation. I feel like we are competitive in almost every regard to our peers with this exception. And by peers what do I mean? Steppenwolf? Chicago Shakes? They’re way huger! Victory Gardens is probably closer to our “peers”. It’s definitely an area of growth that I want to make a priority. And I know it has been for a long time now, I just think that we are more poised to make this happen presently.

How has your view on theatre evolved through your experiences as an actor and artistic director?

My first thought was that I have lost my patience. I have clearer criteria about what is working on stage and what is not. But the truth is, it just depends on what I see and where I see it. I may be more discerning at Steppenwolf, but if I see a production by Sideshow I’m more open to the experience because it feels more like my early years as a theatre creator. But honestly, I don’t think my view on theatre has changed. Though maybe that’s because I have no memory. I have no idea what I used to think. I only know what I know now.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: