Chicago-native Michael Patrick Thornton is a theater and television actor, director, playwright, and teacher. He portrayed Dr. Gabriel Fife in the ABC series ‘Private Practice’, and is co-founder and Artistic Director of the Gift Theatre in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. His acting honors include the prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for Solo Performance.
I first saw Michael on stage in a 2009 Gift production of “Ruby Sunrise” and then a few months later in “Suicide, Incorporated,” for which he earned a Jeff nomination. At the time I was new to the theater, but quickly became a subscriber. I was impressed with the quality of shows, given that they are staged in an intimate, 50-seat venue. Plus, the Gift is closer to my home than downtown’s Theatre District.
After attending a few events at the Gift (and participating in a trivia show inspired by one of their plays), I wanted to know more about the company, its people, and the ins-and-outs of running a storefront theater. And knowing that Michael grew up in Jefferson Park, I thought he’d have great insights about the neighborhood. Here’s what he had to say.
The idea for the Gift started when you were back in college. Tell us about the process of creating the theater and choosing the location.
I was doing a lot of physical theater back then, inspired by Jerzy Grotowski.* My teacher at the University of Iowa had studied with Grotowski and talked about being in Poland with him and doing exercises. It was a great class – a spiritual approach to acting, coupled with the idea of an ensemble, which we hear a lot about in Chicago. My buddy Will and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting, when we got back to Chicago, to find the people with whom we’d like to make work for the rest of our life and to train together on a regular basis, and then do the plays we love?”
We started out training together in weird, dirty rooms. Will is from a small town in Iowa, and Jefferson Park can often feel like a small town in Chicago. We realized pretty quickly that even though I was from “the big city” and Will was from “a small town,” our experience growing up was pretty similar – there weren’t a lot of artistic outlets to express oneself in. So we thought, “Wouldn’t it also be great to find a place, kind of like in the neighborhoods where we grew up in, and maybe leave those neighborhoods a little bit better for the next generation?”
That was all well and good, but we didn’t do that for the first 2-3 years [laughs]. We were just like any other theater company: we rented a space when it was available, did plays we liked, and then kind of… stopped the theater. We needed a space and our ensemble. We ended up finding this old shoe store, and then found a picture of my grandpa cuddling for warmth in the vestibule of the store, taken around 1964. So that was a good sign that we were on the right track. And we’ve been in Jefferson Park at this space since 2005.
*Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999) – Polish theater director and innovator of experimental theater
You were raised and still live in Jefferson Park. How did growing up there shape you into the person you are today?
I guess the jury is still out on that one… I come from a very strong family: Irish-Catholic, cops and firemen. I’d like to think it’s shaped me into a person who doesn’t just make art for one class of people. A person who understands that everybody has hopes, dreams, heartbreaks, wishes, and longings – and that theater should really be for everybody. I got a little tired of my mom and dad having to drive downtown to see me in a play and pay $20 for parking. They should have a theater of their own too.
I think Jefferson Park is a neighborhood that’s brutally honest and (hopefully) doesn’t take itself too seriously. That helps to keep you a little grounded to ride the waves of a “small town celebrity” or just being employed as an actor and then being unemployed. There’s a really hard work ethic here – and a loyalty and honesty that keep you moving forward.
Jefferson Park is not on most travelers’ Chicago itinerary. In your opinion, what are some unique things or places that should convince people to make the trip to the far northwest side?
A lot of people are going to be making the trek in the summer, because Jefferson Park is now home of the Chicago Fringe Festival. I think you’re missing out if you come to JP and you don’t check out some of the Polish bakeries – e.g. Ideal Pastry or Delightful Pastries – they’re just amazing. Gale Street Inn is a huge landmark of this neighborhood (and well-deserved), where everybody knows your name and where I feel are the best ribs in the city (full disclosure: the owner’s our chairman). Fischman Liquors and Tavern next to the Gift was written up in the Chicago Magazine as one of the top six craft beer bars in Chicago. You have the Windsor Tap south of there, which has a great beer garden. There’s also the rebooted Jefferson Park Arts & Music Festival and huge events at the Copernicus Center.
Jefferson Park used to be called “the gateway to Chicago” – the farmers market started at Higgins Avenue and then the farmers would bring their wares downtown – and I feel like in a lot of ways the neighborhood is a microcosm of everything about Chicago. We have Gale Street Inn as a nod to the meatpacking district; and the Gift is a nod to not just storefront theater, but the tradition of ensemble work in the city. And you do have a good blend of different ethnicities: Irish, Polish, Hispanic, and African-American.
What are your thoughts on the Chicago theater scene and what makes the Gift stand out?
My thoughts are… [laughs]. I think I would be thrilled if one day in my lifetime I could see us getting rid of this ridiculous f****** star system that exists in reviews. I don’t think most people are making their decisions based on how many stars a play got. Could we just get rid of this? People are smart enough to read an entire article and make up their mind whether they want to see something. But I think Chicago is the best city in the world for theater. At any moment there’s 250 non-equity theaters – it’s unlike any other city in the world.
And what you are getting with the Gift is a true ensemble, and by that I mean a group of people who have gone through so much in the last 11 years with each other: marriages, divorces, births, deaths, and catastrophic illnesses. It’s a group of wildly divergent people from very different backgrounds, with very different aesthetic inclinations and proclivities, who choose to work with each other. And when we do, something quite magical happens.
I think Chicago’s storefront theater has a history of male characters in an undershirt, drunk, breaking furniture, and a lot of swearing, a lot of sex. We try to tease a little bit – tease out what you can possibly do in a storefront by doing plays that are more about forgiveness and love. Emotional stories that, no matter how hard they are to watch, hopefully at the end of the day underline that it is (no pun intended) a gift to be alive. I think we put a hopeful spin on the experience of being a human being.
And the intimacy of the space is something that we need to take for granted as the ensemble. You really feel like you are inside the play. It’s such a unique space – 11ft deep by 24ft wide.
The Gift has done many world premieres. How do you discover so many new playwrights?
We’re really thrilled that we were recently asked to be an associate member of the National New Play Network. That brings our ensemble members around the country to new works and play development festivals at the undergraduate and graduate level. So that’s one avenue.
We also comb what’s recently published and acquired by places like Dramatist Play Service, the usual things you do. But a lot of it is really perfectly Chicago [laughs] – having a beer with someone who’s like, “You really should read this guy’s stuff. I just saw a reading of it in Philadelphia.” And you never would have known it if you weren’t talking about it with someone. Good things happen over beers sometimes.
You know, it’s really funny that we’ve gotten this rap now as this place for new plays, because it wasn’t part of the mission. But by virtue of about 85% of our plays having been premieres, we get works submitted every day.
Tell us about the programs the Gift runs – e.g. giftLIT – are there plans to expand to acting or writing classes, poetry readings, etc.?
We’ll always be in Jefferson Park, we’ll always have the storefront. It bothers me as the Artistic Director that the relationship with our audience ends after the play is over, unless we run into them at Gale Street or Fishman’s. I feel like a quintessentially Gift space would be one that would have a lounge area and a pub area where we could mix and mingle with the audience afterwards.
I was in Ireland on a trip when I was 19, and my uncle said that we were going to go to the Abbey one night. I asked, “Well, what’s playing?” He replied, “It doesn’t matter what’s playing. It’s the Abbey, we’re subscribers.” It took me probably ten years to see how powerful a statement that was. This institution had conveyed such a sense of fraternity and belonging that it didn’t matter what the play was, it was just the fact that it was going to be a great night out. I really would love to see us moving in that direction.
With giftLIT, it absolutely opens it up for poetry readings and book signings. There’s too many circles of brilliance in the city culturally – from fiction and non-fiction writers, through musicians, dancers, improvisers, to “straight” actors – and I would like to see those circles talking to each other a lot more and overlapping a lot more.
Perhaps there could be collaboration with a major brewery and a famous chef. They could create a dish and a beer inspired by of the plays of the Gift season. It would be for people who are foodies and adventurous eaters, not just theater people. I think theater companies are cannibalizing each other, trying to talk to the same people. And the Gift is just so far outside that game that we don’t play that game. We talk to our neighbors.
The Gift recently celebrated 11 years. What has been your favorite memory from this time?
We did a reading of a new play by our co-founder William Nedved. And we did it in our office – we have a new office space around the corner, in which we have our first-ever employee. The look on Will’s face, having just gotten off the plane from Los Angeles and walking into our OFFICE was a real highlight. That look showed me that things have changed and we’ve grown up a bit.
Moving our production of ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” to the Victory Gardens I thought was a big moment for our company. It was a very special play. Also, getting a chance to get back on stage in 2006, which is the first thing I did after I got sick. That was a very special memory too. And the look on every ensemble member’s face when they get asked to join the ensemble is something you don’t forget.
Besides what we talked about, what do you have in store for the theater?
I think all those programs are going to grow, but I’m also interested to see what happens with giftFILM. We have a couple ensemble members who live in Los Angeles and they’re not moving back to Chicago anytime soon. And I feel like while the physical space of our theater is small, the ideological walls have to be elastic enough to accommodate the growth of our ensemble members.
I’m very interested in seeing if there’s a right way to turn stage plays into independent films, with the original cast and shot in Chicago. It’s a model that nobody really does. It’s been attempted a few times, but the go-to model is “we gotta get a movie star.” And if we’re really about the ensemble, then I feel like people should see the actors who did 200 performances of the play.
You have written, directed, starred on TV, among other endeavors. What plans do you have for yourself?
You know, that’s a great question… If you’re a freelance person, you have to work on your own career. It’s hard for me sometimes to parse to what level I’m being good, proactive, and to what level I’m just kind of panicking. I honestly don’t know for the first time in two years what my next job is. And I’m trying to really enjoy that and not panic about it [laughs].
Getting there & points of interest:
4802 N. Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60630