There are people who are paid to write obituaries. I don’t mean the death notices that families write and funeral homes place in newspapers. I mean the obituaries that are considered news stories: about celebrities, politicians, etc.
One of the stories in my next book, Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle, looks at the Chicago theatre community. I moved to Chicago a year out of graduate school, to work in theater. It was the heyday of the Off-Loop Theatre movement. John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Dennis Farina, Bill Peterson and others were not yet famous. Steppenwolf Theatre did not send shows to Broadway, because they were operating out of church basement in the suburbs. It was an unbelievably creative period of time in the history of Chicago, and my life as well.
We were young, most of us, so death seemed too far away to consider. Old people died: not young ones, or even middle aged.
The past year has been difficult, to put it mildly, here in Chicago. The theatre community has lost about a dozen people now: some of them teachers and mentors to a generation of professionals, others working actors, directors and playwrights.
Yesterday, Chris Jones, who normally reviews plays produced in Chicago and elsewhere for the Chicago Tribune, wrote two obituaries instead: one for a beloved actress, Erin Myers, one for a pillar of the community, Russ Tutterow, nurturer of playwrights since 1986.
The people in the community he’s written about over the past few months were young and old, male and female, various ethnic groups, and held different positions at theatres. But all of them were familiar names and faces, people who worked in a demanding, sometimes thankless, ultimately rewarding profession.
The cast and crew of a theatre production become like a family: supportive, argumentative, generous, annoying. When a show closes, you know you can never duplicate that exact group, that exact feeling again. But if it’s a good one, you try your damnedest. That’s why you jump at the chance to work with certain people. They not only give their all, but they inspire you to do the same thing. That pretty much describes the people we’ve lost.
Jones didn’t become a theatre critic to write obituaries of his friends and colleagues. But the past year has sadly changed his job description. I was about to reach out, to tell him about my book, when I read the two latest obituaries. I decided to wait a bit until there’s a break in the notices, memorial services and tributes.
Yes, theatre people can be self-centered, ruthless and shallow; so can lawyers, politicians and hedge fund operators. But what they share on stage bonds them together like few things outside the profession.
I hope that Chris Jones can go back to just reviewing plays and musicals (even though I don’t always agree with his criticism). I’m pretty sure he’d be relieved to not write any more obituaries for a long time.