Ronald Keaton has many fond memories of the time he spent living in Indianapolis from 1978 to 1986. While in Indy he appeared in productions at the Broad Ripple Playhouse, Civic Theatre, Edyvean Repertory Theatre, Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre and the Indiana Repertory Theatre, prior to moving to Chicago to advance his career as a professional actor. Now Keaton, who Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones called “One of Chicago’s top-tier theater veterans,” has reached the apex of his career with “Churchill,” his hit one-man show currently playing at the Greenhouse Theatre Center in Chicago for an extended run through Sept. 21.
Keaton also wrote the script for “Churchill” which is adapted from the writings of Winston Churchill and the teleplay “Winston Churchill” by Dr. James C. Humes. The play finds the former British Prime Minister in a state of discontent after he has been forced to retire following his devastating loss in the post-World War II election. But his mood changes after he receives an invitation by President Harry Truman to speak in the U.S. and he begins to reflect on his life and career. Considered a hero by the British for leading it through some of its most harrowing times, he shares not only his political and military history but also his weakness for the pleasures of the flesh.
This writer contacted Keaton by phone after noticing his Facebook posts regarding the show’s success with both critics and the sold out audiences that have packed the 192-seat Greenhouse to see it since it opened Aug. 1. Reached at his home, Keaton was giddy over the show’s good fortune. A regular performer on such Chicago stages as the Goodman, Marriott Lincolnshire, Chicago Shakespeare, Drury Lane Oakbrook, First Folio and more, Keaton was asked if he has ever enjoyed this current level of success. “No. Not to this level. This is a first for me. I have been inundated with press requests for interviews. It’s been both surprising and somewhat overwhelming. Being a character actor, you are always happy if someone notices and if something that you do is mentioned in any critique or whatever and as a side note. Any actor who tells you they don’t read reviews is lying to you. Because the only real reason for us to exist as actors is to share what we have and elicit a positive response from the people we do it for. As far as this level, I have never experienced this in my life.
“I wrote this piece simply to keep working. I wanted to create an opportunity for myself because the irony of working in the theater, especially, is that the older you get, the less likely you are to get hired on a regular basis. It’s a young person’s business and always will be. So you have to be willing to put your feet into the sand and say ‘This is who I am. I’m an actor. I am committed to this no matter what happens,’” said Keaton regarding why he wrote the play.
When asked why he thinks the show has resonated with audiences the way it has, Keaton said, “It’s two-fold. One, is the fact that there is a full length solo piece being offered in the summer where everyone is looking for something unique and different and something to enjoy. The other, I suppose, is a surprising interest in the subject matter itself. The show is very thick with history and intellectually driven while trying to maintain the integrity of the character and subject. And people have really responded in a positive way. Someday I will figure out why exactly it happened this way at this particular time but for now I am just going to take it and run. I just discovered in the past weekend we are breaking all kinds of box office records. My mouth is on the floor, every time I say it.”
As far as the Greenhouse, Keaton said, “They are basically presenters for smaller groups that can come in and offer their wares. I went through a playwriting process where they selected my show to be the first one that they wanted to produce. It became then a co-production between them and SoloChicago, an Equity-affiliated company for which I am the artistic director. I founded it to advance the opportunity and the cause of the actor. As our slogan says, ‘One actor at a time.’ I have had people coming out of the wood work saying to me ‘What can I do? Can I help put this together? Can I help you raise money?’ Can you imagine, someone walking up to you and saying ‘Can I help you raise money?’ That is what I am experiencing right now. So the Churchill project and SoloChicago are working hand in hand. Hopefully I will have a good path to work on the theater after Churchill closes next month.”
Keaton, who is “past 60”, said, “I made a promise to myself when the world was a bit younger that I would do what made me happy. I didn't care and still really don't care about money or being famous or anything of the kind. I got my first job in summer stock when I was 16 and have not looked back. I've worked as an actor every year since. There were some really great years, and some lean and challenging ones. But there are three things in my life that I value: doing a good job, having friends to share with and invest in and falling in love. This particular success right now, at this point in my life, is sweet, I admit it. But the fact that I've been able to work in my chosen profession for over 40 years is the real diamond. I've been so lucky. I’ve done some stupid things and some good things. But all in all, I am doing what I wish. And that makes me the luckiest man in town.”
Keaton hopes that “Churchill” has legs and that he’ll find opportunities to present it in other markets including Indianapolis where he has already reached out to potential co-presenters. For more information about SoloChicago visit solochicagotheatrecompany.com. To contact Keaton, write him at email@example.com.
For tickets and information about “Churchill” at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago Ill. 60614, visit greenhousetheater.org.
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