If you think it’s a long way from the Chicago to the South Pacific, then you haven’t watched Lawrence E. DiStasi making magic on stage. And magic isn’t too strong a word: As a founding member of Lookingglass Theatre, DiStasi helped conjure from thin air a theater company that has become a Chicago gem. And it’s with that troupe that he took to the stage as Long John Silver.
To pirate from Shakespeare, it was a question of to argh, or not to argh. Here’s why: For the production, which ran through Jan. 31, DiStasi did his digging to find out whether pirates were really like.
“I wanted to find out why the stereotypical pirate character and voice that everyone imitates so often exists,” says DiStasi, an Evanston resident who traces his paternal roots to Telese, Italy near Naples. (DiStasi’s mother was Irish.) With the help of dialect coach Eva Breneman, he decided “to embrace the pirate stereotypes, since ‘Treasure Island’ is where they all began. But I’ve tried to walk the line between the stereotypical pirate cartoon character with a gravelly West Country English accent and something multi-leveled and real. It’s been challenging but also a lot of fun.”
And in fact, it’s been an improbable but incredible journey since DiStasi and seven other Northwestern University students started Lookingglass in 1988. One of those was David Schwimmer, who went on to stardom in the long-running TV sitcom “Friends.”
After a very successful trip where the collegiate actors sent themselves to the Edinburgh, Scotland theater festival, Schwimmer came up with the idea for a theater company while DiStasi was a senior. “We spent our early 20s creating original works of theatre … and then moving around from space to space for 15 years,” he recalls. “We studied gymnastics, dance, music and more to make our particular brand of storytelling as exciting as possible. And we were lucky to have some big successes and critical acclaim in those early years.”
Those successes include 62 world premieres, 101 Joseph Jefferson awards and nominations, and a move to Chicago’s landmark Water Tower Water Works in June 2003. Through it all, DiStasi has maintained passionate dedication to his craft — one that has seen him stretch his body and talents to the limit.
“I guess I’ve learned that big risks pay off,” DiStasi says. “I’ve spent the past 10 years taking physical risks — with circus arts and acrobatics as a significant part of my theatrical work — and emotional and character risks.” This includes DiStasi’s decision to sing in the Lookingglass musical production “Eastland,” “even though I’m not a trained singer.” What’s more, the part demanded that he deliver the goods in a grinding, Tom Waits-style voice.
“But amazingly I’ve gotten away with many of these risks so far,” DiStasi notes. “I knock on wood as I say this and hope the risk taking will continue to pay off for me as I approach my 50th birthday.” That adds up to more than half his life as an anchor at Lookingglass — and if DiStasi looks in the mirror, he has every reason to be proud.