By AARON GETTINGER
In a lovely excuse to enjoy a glass of wine at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, august actors Mike Nussbaum and Mary Ann Thebus, longtime figures in the Chicago theater scene with critic Hedy Weiss at the Montgomery Place retirement community, 5550 South Shore Dr., on April 18. They discussed their decades-long careers and reflected on the intersection of aging and the stage.
Before beginning her acting career, Thebus was a psychiatric social worker living in Turkey. Her experience as a prompter at the English language theater in İzmir however, moved her to rethink her career. She moved to Chicago in 1977 and premiered at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., performing in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Nussbaum was born and raised in Chicago. He wanted to go to drama school following his service in World War II but thought he could not support a family through acting. He became an exterminator instead with his brother-in-law: “For 20 years, we bathed in insectisides.”
Today, his brother-in-law is 99, and Nussbaum is 94.
He met playwright David Mamet at the avant garde Hull House theater, and starred in his “American Buffalo” shortly after its premier in 1977.
Weiss, the former Chicago Sun-Times reviewer and current arts critic at WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” asked the actors about their perceptions of Chicago theater’s evolution. Nussbaum talked about young artists starting their own theaters in the 1970s; Weiss tied Chicago’s ascendance to the international attention it received after the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.
When Weiss asked about acting as a profession at an advanced age, Thebus said there are fewer roles for older women than men and did not express much surprise about this. When talking about influences over her career, however, Thebus said, “I sort of think what I did—partially, anyway—was kind of indicate, ‘The character’s like this; I’ll be like that. I’ll figure out how to be how that character’s supposed to be.’ And I don’t do that anymore.”
“I pay attention to many aspects of character, but primarily the mission is how to use yourself in the service of the role. Whatever is there, you go this way and not that way—and eventually that way, of course. It makes an amazing difference, and when I look over the theater I can tell instantly who’s doing that who isn’t. The ones that aren’t might be good, but we all have everything in us. We have all the roles if we use ourselves,” she said, saying her psychiatric experience helped her in this process.
Nussbaum said he learned from watching other actors and directors but that Mamet has had a long-lasting influence. “He kept saying, ‘Trust the words.’” You could ask him what a line meant, and he would say, ‘Forget about what it means, just trust the words. Listen to the other actor. What does he or she want? See if you can give that to her.’”
“Essentially, it’s having trust in a play and the actors you’re working with,” Nussbaum said. He said he does a lot of research before portraying a real-life character but never watches video or listens to recordings of them.
Nussbaum also said that he longs to do “Waiting for Godot,” the Beckett tragicomedy wherein two tramps wait in a wasteland for the titular character who never comes. “And I would like to do it now, because, to me, the play would be more meaningful with two old guys waiting for death. Particularly if we could emphasize the comedy, it would be a great challenge.”
Thebus expressed admiration for the plays of Tennessee Williams: “He speaks to me. It’s not that I’m from the Deep South, but I’m from Maryland and it’s close enough. I get it. I just totally get it all.”
“I also like doing plays by women,” she said.
Weiss asked how the actors stay fit for eight performances a week. “I work out almost every day,” said Nussbaum. “I am still able to do 50 push-ups.” (Those in attendance applauded.) He said the question is not how he remember lines but how to recite them before a live audience. “To me, that is what is so stimulating and exciting and fun about live theater: the possibility that you may make mistakes and have to recover from them.”
“Truthfully and in character,” Thebus added. “I find it to be more difficult than it used to be. What was your question?” she hammed. “I don’t work out, but I take a nap.” Unrelated to aging, Thebus said she now fills out coloring books during the “tedious” task of learning lines. “It keeps me from being bored and agitated.”
When Weiss asked what the actors would have done had they not acted, Thebus said she would have raised children, which she did, and continued her social work.
Nussbaum’s response? “I’d be dead.”