Playwright has deep roots in local theater

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By Doug Deuchler

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Author, actor, musician and playwright Jon Steinhagen is talking about his play Blizzard '67 which opens this week at 16th Street Theater, 6420 W. 16th St., in Berwyn — exactly 50 years after the January 1967 Great Chicago Blizzard.

"This is a human story, not just a historical story," said Steinhagen, a longtime Brookfield resident. "It's set in a very tight time period — during the big blizzard of early 1967. But it focuses on four human beings, businessmen who carpool, and foolishly attempt to drive home from downtown. It's about their relationships. The play focuses on these gentlemen and their different stresses and choices."

For 16th Street Theater's 10th season, whose theme is "The Journey," Steinhagen was chosen as resident playwright. They are now mounting his Blizzard '67, which was first performed at Chicago Dramatists in 2012.

"I did a lot of interviews before I actually started writing," Steinhagen said. "So I heard lots of stories. I was not born in 1967, so I have no memories of the event. But I got a lot of wonderful material. I have dedicated this play to my mom and dad."

 Steinhagen, a prolific freelance artist, grew up in Brookfield, went to high school at Fenwick, and worked on his early shows in Oak Park and Forest Park's Circle Theatre.

Down through the years, Steinhagen has been constant, gifted figure in local theater and beyond. His plays and musicals have been produced nationally. His short fiction is published widely, in literary journals and in books as well as online. 

 He's an actor of great depth and skill, playing leading roles like Felix in The Odd Couple, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, Mack Sennett in Mack and Mabel, and Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner

Steinhagen recently portrayed Judy Garland's pianist in Studio 773's End of the Rainbow for which he had to play piano, lead the band and also act. 

"This was a very intense but exhilarating process," he recalled.

Steinhagen has won four Joseph Jefferson Awards, and his work has been performed from Chicago to New York, from Los Angeles to various festivals across the country.

 Among his many honors and awards, he won the Julie Harris Playwriting Award for his comedy The Analytical Machine. He seems especially attracted to historical topics. 

His musical The Teapot Scandals (for which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics) was set in the early 1920s during the corrupt Warren G. Harding presidency. The show, produced by Porchlight Music Theater, was nominated for a Jeff Award in the Best New Work category. He also received an After Dark Award (Best New Work) for The Teapot Scandals. He received a producer-author initiative grant from the National Alliance for Musical Theater. 

"Writing for the theater definitely influences one's acting," Steinhagen said. "And acting clearly influences one's insight into the writing process. They both affect one another."

 In 2008, Steinhagen was chosen as the resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists.

More recently, Steinhagen has been developing a series of plays set in 19th-century Chicago history. 

"It will be a cycle generated out of Chicago's forgotten past," he said. "I have begun with a play set in 1837 when Chicago was just chartered as a city. … This series of plays will cover the period of the 1800s but will stop at 1900 — about the time when the Chicago River was reversed so that the water would be pure and not polluted."  

Years ago, Jon and I worked together on two local shows at the storefront theater level. I wrote the dialogue and Jon wrote the music.  

First we did Kick Up Your Heels about Grace Hayward, who ran her own theater company in early 20th-century Oak Park at the Warrington Opera House. The show played at Village Players in 1990. Next we did a musical, kind of a "film noir" spoof, called Vendetta at Circle Theatre — a comedy mystery set in Hollywood during the mid-century 'Red Scare.' Each night the audience would select the person they thought was the murderer. So Jon prepared an appropriate ending for each of our characters.

"I was always making things up," Steinhagen recalled. "When I was a child in elementary school, I wrote a little piece of poetry called 'Toast' and won an award for it. I was reading a lot and went to the library all the time. We had an old Carnegie Library in Brookfield in those days. I loved it."

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