A History of Glass Apple Theatre
By Brian McKnight, artistic director
In one form or another, Glass Apple Theatre has been around since early 1992, though most of that time was spent in long periods of dormancy broken by quick flashes of inspiration.
As a young Gen X boy, some of my happiest memories in the early 80’s were tracking down all the Beatles’ (and solo) albums on vinyl, especially the ones released in the late 60’s and early 70’s on the Beatles’ own Apple Records label. At flea markets, second hand stores and garage sales, there was nothing like the exhilaration of finding a record – still in great shape – with that familiar apple on the record. As I grew up, that apple became a symbol of excellence for me – something to strive for as an artist.
In my late teens, while I was searching for the meaning of life – which I was sure I would find out before I was 17, but then don’t most 17-year-olds think that? – I was struck with the idea that the apple contains inside itself the (literal) seeds of its own immortality. The idea of reincarnation may be a bit of narcissism on the part of human beings as a species (how could the world possibly go on without me?), but there is such poetic beauty in the idea of a continually changing, evolving truth that even death can’t stop. What created that apple is there to create itself anew once the present cycle is done.
All of this was swirling somewhere in my unconscious when, in the summer of 1992, some friends of mine and I sat in a relatively empty cinema and saw the restoration of Orson Welles’ film of Shakespeare’s Othello. I was gobsmacked. Orson had been my topmost hero, my north star, for many years already. (Still is.) Beside me were my best friend Rhonda Lucas, and our friends Al & Julie Hidalgo. I had met Rhonda in high school six years before, but Al and Julie were relatively new friends that we had met while doing community theatre in Middletown, Ohio. I was 22. Leaving the cinema in a euphoric daze, we decided to start our very own theatre company, and to produce Othello ourselves. (Shades of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney!) Julie would play Desdemona, Al would play the Moor, Rhonda would play Aemelia and I would play the Moor’s villainous lieutenant, Iago. All we needed was a name.
I had carried around Glass Apple in my mind for years waiting for the moment when it would be necessary. Arty, teen-age, personal films made on a Panasonic Camcorder by me were credited to the mythical film studio, demos of songs I had written in my bedroom were “released” on cassettes with the Glass Apple imprint, and angsty poetry written while cutting grass or doing other household mundanity would someday be printed by Glass Apple Books – I just knew it. It was obvious that this would be the name of our theatre company. Glass Apple Theatre Company already existed, all we needed was an actual theatre company to use it.
We organized ourselves into a board – Al designed our logo and marketing, I was the president of the board – and together we produced three summer seasons of Shakespeare in the little town of Franklin, Ohio – Othello in 1993, The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1994 (both directed by me), and The Merchant of Venice in 1995 (directed by Al.) Our Othello was a big success, garnering some local awards, but by the time of Merry Wives and Merchant, I had begun studying acting at Wright State University, and all four of our lives were pulling in opposite directions. Glass Apple Theatre Company, version 1.0, went dormant for the first time almost as soon as it had begun.
After earning my BFA at Wright State University I moved to Chicago to earn my MFA from The Theatre School at DePaul University. Glass Apple, though asleep, was never far from my thoughts. I began developing a production of Hamlet with WSU and Chicago friends, and eventually a production of the three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI even before I had graduated. Neither came to fruition, but still Glass Apple tugged at my subconscious.
After graduating from DePaul in 2001, I returned to Ohio and taught at Sinclair Community College, helping to build one of the best theatre training ground in the country, receiving accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) – a rare feat for a junior college in the U.S. Throughout this period, I was simultaneously teaching back at my alma mater, WSU, as much for the paychecks as a way to relieve my boredom. I missed Chicago. I bought a house, and a car, and for a while tried to pretend that it was the fulfillment of the American Dream for me.
In 2009 I decided to revive Glass Apple and produce a play that combined the best of Sinclair, of Wright State and of the professional, regional theatre scene in Dayton, Ohio. I incorporated Glass Apple as a for-profit Limited Liability Company (LLC) and produced Erosion, a play I had written about gay lovers in 1969, just at the dawn of the Stonewall Riots. Inspired by James Baldwin’s haunting novella, Giovanni’s Room, Erosion was mildly successful, winning a few awards and earning a few positive comments from friends and family. My hero, the late Marsha Hanna – a founding member of The Human Race Theatre Company and the best director I’ve ever acted for – really disliked it, and it’s probably her thoughts about the play that make my own relationship with the work complicated to this day. Not the acting or design work, to be sure, but the work of its author and its director.
I had reached the end of my time in Dayton and I think Erosion was a subconscious love letter to the tempestuous relationship I had with the theatre community in Dayton and my own restless nature. I stopped paying my house payments in order to pay salaries for the people involved in the play. Not all of it was subconscious I guess. Something was not right in my life at the time, and writing, producing and directing Erosion ended with me crying for three days straight uncontrollably, and made me think I should probably check myself in to a hospital somewhere if it had continued to the fourth. A few months later I returned to Chicago, for what I thought was for forever, feeling triumphant but a little emotionally spent. I don’t think it’s very different from the emotional roller coaster every artistic director of a small company experiences. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
After about six months in Chicago, I found out what was wrong. I had cancer. Stage Four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. My mother (moms always know) is sure that I was sick even through Erosion, and I must admit that deep down I think about how good a death that would have been – the Wellesian protagonist sacrifices everything, lost his house, his money as well as his life, to produce his play. And then promptly dies after getting everyone paid. We have heard the Chimes at Midnight, Master Harry.
Lucky for me it didn’t work out that way.
After chemo and a three-year convalescence back in Ohio, I returned to Chicago, this time for good in 2013. Still Glass Apple hung around the back of my mind – unfinished business from my previous life. I began to mentally collect artists that I would like to hire at a new Glass Apple in the future – actors, directors, designers, stage managers – I was building a company again in my mind. Actors I have had the privilege of working with in a storefront theatre, actors I admired from the audience. Directors like Cody Estle who give me the chance to work with Marsha Hanna again, in spirit, anyway. Designers whose work takes my breath away without a syllable of dialog ever having been spoken. In 2018 Glass Apple Theatre Company, Ltd was finally, fully re-born.
This time, Glass Apple Theatre Ltd, is a non-profit business, recognized as tax-exempt 501(c)3, and ready to rock. First up for us is acting as the Fiscal Sponsor for Inglis Hall’s production of Edge of Life, a play about cancer and dying which is as personal to its author, a practicing surgeon, as Erosion was to me. There’s a symmetry to all of this that appeals to me, the show’s director. Does art imitate life? Or is it all just one big play?
In fact, it was this show that finally cemented for me that it was time for Glass Apple to do its phoenix act one more time. Al is still on hand, handling the logo and the marketing, but this feels entirely new this time. After a quarter of a century, after dying and being reborn myself, after aborted attempts at trying to give back to the theatre world all it has done for me, I still find myself gobsmacked at the power of this medium. Glass Apple will be a Chicago Storefront Theatre for the 21st Century.
I am so grateful to have you along for the ride.