If it is true that you can take the boy out of the small town but you can’t take the small-town out of the boy, then we have a lot to be thankful for in Chicago when it comes to the artistic achievements of Rob Lindley over the last few decades. That small-town nature is embodied in his brilliant performances, whether he is acting in a mainstage production, vocalizing in a cabaret show or directing, Lindley has a unique style that elevates the performance of everyone around him.
Since moving to Chicago, Lindley has established an impressive performance career as an award-winning actor, vocalist and a much-in-demand director for theatre, cabaret and the Chicago Humanities Festival. Most recently, Lindley performed in Fun Home at Victory Gardens Theater. Other shows include: The Tempermentals at About Face Theatre, Funnyman with George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky at Northlight Theatre; Candide at Goodman Theatre and numerous productions at Court Theatre including The Secret Garden, James Joyce's The Dead, Angels in America: Parts One & Two, Carousel, Caroline or Change, and The Wild Duck, Cabaret at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace and many other stops along the way at Mercury Theater, Apple Tree and Ravinia.
Lindley’s directing credits at Porchlight Music Theatre include Far From Heaven, How To Succeed in Business and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and his performance in the Writers Theatre production Oh, Coward! earned the 2010 Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actor in a Revue. Lindley has appeared in regional theatrical productions of My Fair Lady at Asolo Rep, Candide at Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. and Carousel at Long Wharf Theatre. And this summer, he embarks on a year-long US Tour of Phantom of the Opera.
Rob Lindley joined the CONVERSATION to talk about the tour and the upcoming show at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre on Saturday and Sunday July 14th and 15th with his long-time musical partners Anne Sheridan Smith and Allison Bazarko Kirk. Dark Café Days: Foiled Again Sings Joni Mitchell is an updated version of the show that received the 2003 After Dark Award for Outstanding Cabaret Performance. PODCAST
Back in the day… “Twenty years ago I was working at Navy Pier as a member of an acapella singing group called the Navy Pier Players. We performed in the family pavilion primarily… we were roving entertainers and I was singing first tenor and there were two beautiful women singing alto. We started talking a lot about music that we loved and all three of us cited Joni Mitchell as our favorite. At the time I was doing solo cabaret shows at Davenport's, and Davenport's approached me to put together a holiday show. Back then I didn't have a big following and the pressure to get people in the seats was real. So, I thought to myself, what if I asked two other people to sing with me and if I can bring 10 people and they bring 10 people each, that's a good-sized group to have. So, that's why it started just to get butts in the seats. But I said to the two women - Ann Sheridan Smith and Allison Bazarko (now Kirk) - that we should call ourselves something in case we like doing this. Let's come up with a name for our group just in case we enjoy doing this and that's how that musical collaboration started. And we've had a lot of fun. Seeing each other through a lot of chapters of our lives and a lot of really cool shows. So, the show we have coming up at Steppenwolf is a return to our first love… some of the old favorites, a lot of new songs. And we're part of the LookOut series at Steppenwolf. Super excited to be there.”
Distinctive solo voices… The three of us have very similar ranges. We have very distinctive solo voices, but there's something magical that happens when we sing together. … When we first started, it was a group consensus kind of thing. We'd put on a Christmas song and just start up harmonies. All three of us have a background in singing either in church or in folk things or even just in high school choir and we can make things up pretty well. So, the first few shows we did that and then Allison stepped to the forefront and said, “Hey, I'd really like to take a crack at doing this." And so now she does almost all of our arrangements.”
Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre Space … “It is a fantastic space. I jokingly call it the old Ethan Allen. If you're a long-time Chicagoan, you might remember the Ethan Allen store that used to be just north of Steppenwolf. Well, that is now part of Steppenwolf and connected to their mainstage space and a fantastic bar called Front Bar because it's in the front of the theater. They do small plates and great cocktails that you can bring into the venue. And the venue is really committed to doing experimental things. I have participated in live storytelling there with ‘You're Being Ridiculous’ and I've seen several different friends do musical acts, bands or cabarets … some readings of new shows, some workshops. It's a great space where a Steppenwolf subscriber gets a chance to have a richer experience … the producers at Steppenwolf have been amazing to work with and they're really committed to doing cool, edgy, diverse programming.”
Small-town upbringing…“one of the things that my small-town upbringing and my fantastic parents really placed on me from a very early age is that not everybody gets to do what you know how to do. That was something that I've always grown up with. So, I feel a lot of times like a weird responsibility, especially growing up gay and seeing the world through a unique filter from an early age. I now feel a very strong responsibility to tell my story and hopefully help somebody else who might be having anything that's even remotely similar to the kind of experience I had. I think that's how we create empathy - sitting and talking, and, more importantly, listening.”
Be yourself … I found myself when I turned 40 in a dry spell in my career, going through a divorce which felt very public because I was married to another person in the industry, Doug Peck, who I still love dearly - he's playing the Joni show - we're still dear friends. But it was a very public relationship. … So, I went through a real rough time. It was not fun. I felt bad. I felt back down in the trenches. I had enjoyed eight to ten years of working non-stop … And then, it's one of those moments that I think everyone goes through. You just get knocked down a little off your pedestal. So, I went back to creating me and my story, which is how I came to cabaret to begin with. I started doing cabaret in 1999 because I wasn't getting cast. So, it's one of those things where if your path isn't there artistically especially, I feel it's important that you just got to create it. And the thing is, I would get done with those cabaret shows and I had a binder full of 17 songs that I knew how to sing backwards and forwards. I knew all the lyrics. I knew all the acting beats of the dramatic ones and I knew all the punchlines of the comedy ones so I could go into any audition and never have a feeling I am cramming for this audition. … I think if you can stand in front of an audience and be yourself and be truly in your skin, it's a lot easier to go in and pretend you're somebody else.”
On playing Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home… “The thing I'm most proud of to date. … It is based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel and tells the story of her remembering her father and the often-fraught relationship she had with him after his passing. What she's realizing as she's looking back at his life is that they were more alike than they were not alike. And in fact, Alison is an out lesbian and her dad was a closeted gay man. And for whatever reason - it's a mystery and the show delves into that - Bruce took his own life or was in an accident and died about two months after she came out of the closet when she was in college. So, Fun Home is a look back at their relationship. It's called 'Fun Home' because he was a funeral director and it takes place in a funeral home, which the kids in the show lovingly call the 'Fun Home.' All real life. Bruce was a small-town guy who married a woman and did his best to live in that small town. I grew up in a small town. My parents were both United Methodist ministers. I did my best to be a straight man in that world. I was married to a woman in 1998 and tried my best to live that life and succeeded for two or three years. So, I connected to Bruce immediately. There was a lot of facade that Bruce had and a lot of rage, angst and a sensitivity that he had that fits me like a glove. I remember it well and I'm very thankful I'm not in the middle of that anymore. I wept openly, almost every performance. It makes me emotional now because I'm so grateful that I'm the happy ending version of Bruce. I think that's what let me go there all the way.”
The Fun Home Family… “the cast of the Chicago (Victory Gardens) Fun Home was a ‘Family’ with a capital “F” and still are. There were people in it that I'd never met before … a couple people cast who were old friends. McKinley Carter and I have known each other for many years. Danni Smith and I had known each other for many years. Danielle Davis and I had known each other for a number of years. And then, young Hannah Starr just kind of came in the room and slaughtered us at the table read. She starts singing, ‘Changing My Major’ and I'm kind of looking around the room, ‘Like what!?!” Both of the young Alison's were tremendous. Stella Hoyts’ mother, Megan, and I had known each other for 20 years. So, there was a lot of family already there and then it just kept getting tighter and tighter. And then the last two weeks of the run, McKinley, who was playing my wife, had moved on to another show and who should step in to do it but, Ann Sheridan Smith from Foiled Again. So, having these moments of screaming at each other, like husband and wife were like, ‘Oh boy! This feels familiar now.’ What a great opportunity to have someone I met 20 years ago at Navy Pier onstage with me and we're both grownups doing a grownup show.”
The 2018-19 US Tour - Phantom of the Opera… “I'm joining the US tour, which is the 25th-Anniversary production. …. I have my first performance a week from today (July 10th) in Salt Lake City and I'm over the moon! It is already a life-changing, tremendous experience. … I was in Toronto learning the show. I spent my days with the conductor of the tour and sometimes with his assistant. I'm learning the music. There is a resident director who travels with the show who makes sure that everything stays just so, and an associate director who oversees this tour, the Broadway show and also works on producer Cameron Mackintosh’s other properties. He oversees all of those things and he was in for a couple of days to give some notes and feedback and make sure that I'm doing the show that audiences will expect. … They're really good about identifying the blocking that is very specific. There's one moment in the show where they say, ‘When everybody exits, make sure you're on the upstage side of the door, give yourself about a ‘One-Mississippi’ and then you need to be in this spot because then the whole thing rotates, the wagon goes in three places, there's no light and you need to be safe.’ … It's already just amazing.”
Comments have been edited for content and clarity.
Rob Lindley Photo|Brandon Dahlquist Photography
STEPPENWOLF 1700 THEATRE SPACE
Dark Café Days: Foiled Again Sings Joni Mitchell
Allison Bazarko Kirk, Rob Lindley, and Anne Sheridan Smith with Doug Peck & Gavin Kirk
Saturday, July 14 & Sunday, July 15
2018-19 US TOUR - PHANTOM OF THE OPERA