Chicago Journal - No rest for the living: Chopin Theatre

Timothy Inklebarger, Chicago Journal

For Chopin Theatre artistic director and founder Zygmunt Dyrkacz, running the Wicker Park playhouse is much like acting in a performance that never ends.

During a recent visit to the theater at 1543 W. Division, Dyrkacz, a Polish immigrant who opened Chopin in 1990, was still recovering from a week and a half of organizing its second annual European gala, I-Fest. The festival brings more than a dozen solo performances from Lithuania, Switzerland, Poland, Finland, Austria, Germany and Ukraine. Dyrkacz is 54, but after presenting roughly 500 shows and musical performances a year for the past 15 years, he says he feels more like 178.

"We don't go to bed before 1 a.m.," Dyrkacz says with a mischievous smile. Dyrkacz, along with his wife Lela Headd, picks the shows, makes arrangements for traveling performers, organizes receptions and helps build the sets. They make their home in a tiny apartment inside the theater, so work is never far from their thoughts. "It is like firefighters," he says of their responsibilities in keeping the theater running. "You just go to fix the problems and you don't have time to watch your life."

Though he spends most of his time keeping the tiny theater running, Dyrkacz has been active in the Wicker Park arts community since immigrating from Poland in 1980, helping to organize the first Around the Coyote Arts Festival in the late 1980s. Most of the time, though, he can be found at the Chopin Theatre.

Earlier this month, Dyrkacz found himself there in the middle of the night, painting the floor in one of the theater's two performance areas for a show scheduled for the next day. "Every day it is a crisis," he says, adding that he and set designers painted the floor blue several times for the performance "Windows or Must We Imagine Bill Gates as a Happy Man?" but the paint was not thick enough.

"I got up at 2 a.m. to paint the floor and the damn thing is not blue and it is not dry," he says, a vein bulging out of his temple as he relived the experience. Finally, after hours of re-painting the set, the color dried just in time for the performance. The one-man play about Gates, performed by German actor Clemens Schick, explores the inner workings of the world's richest man, according to Headd. "He has developed a new program that eliminates insecurity and fear," Headd says. "He becomes insecure and begins to have doubts if it is the right thing."

The gritty theater regularly presents performances like the Gates piece that aim to challenge the status quo and take an honest look at the human condition. It's a worldview that Dyrkacz incorporates into his daily life, as he struggles to keep his private theater running.

Dyrkacz believes theater plays an important role in society because it creates a venue for such intellectual pursuits. He also stresses that the hustle and bustle of work and responsibility leaves many Americans too tired to contemplate such heavy subject matter. "I do the same thing," he says. "My neighbor has a Ph.D. from Harvard and we call each other at 11 p.m. and we go to see silly action movies or a romantic comedy because it's just, you know, we don't have enough rest, so we go to see silly entertainment."

Dyrkacz says the city should do more to help small theaters that give people a "connection and a purpose in life." "[Small theater] also gives them a certain kind of voice because they will be able to fully discuss the matters of the day," he says.

He compared huge city projects such as the rehabbed Millennium Park to the pyramids, adding that when the city pays musicians and others to perform at the park for free, it makes it more difficult for smaller venues to attract attention.

Larger venues also make it impossible to delve into the darker issues of desire, lust and revenge, according to Dyrkacz. An upcoming performance at Chopin called "Bohemian Nights"-written by Dorothy Tristan and directed by filmmaker John Hancock-depicts a couple that ventures into the world of voyeuristic sexual desires. The performance runs from Dec. 6 through Feb. 18.

"It is about a husband who likes to watch his wife … she likes to sleep with other men, but they agree that there will be no orgasm," he says. "Now how would you play this in Millennium Park?"

In his spare time, Dyrkacz actively attends meetings of the newly-formed taxing authority known as the Wicker Park & Bucktown Special Service Area (SSA), and Headd serves as a commissioner on the SSA Board, which distributes some $650,000 in property taxes for neighborhood improvement projects.

Dyrkacz says the SSA should be used to make Wicker Park a true arts destination, although many artists in the area already have already left because of the lack of affordable housing. Rather than hanging decorative banners or using the SSA money for street cleaning or snow shoveling, the commissioners should focus on the arts, he says. Outdoor festivals and shows in the park will not draw a sophisticated or international crowd, Dyrkacz says.

"I try to change the perception of the fact that entertainment is not necessarily high art, and entertainment will not make us a destination" Dyrkacz says. "The fact that they want to close the street and have a band and sell beer-everybody can do that."

Dyrkacz says that the constant pressure of working in the U.S. and the propaganda perpetuated by the U.S. government, particularly concerning the war on terrorism, has caused him to consider closing up shop and moving to Canada. "I am fed up with this country, with this war propaganda," he says. "People are brainwashed."

But at the same time, Dyrkacz is working to increase the number of countries participating in I-Fest next year. Until then, though, Dyrkacz will continue fantasizing about a recent dream he had, where he is free from the responsibilities of the theater and the arts community.

"I am alone driving my convertible in Key West and I have no appointments, nothing to remember to fix and I just have a couple of books on the seat next to me and I can stop at any motel, sleep during the day and read during the night," he says. "And that is not a big deal but it is such a fucking luxury that I wake up and say there is a happiness someplace."