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Lea Coco and His Kind of Town
by Andrew Davis

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About Face Theatre's production of The Little Dog Laughed—a scathing attack on Hollywood hypocrisy regarding life in and out of the closet—has received praise from many publications ( including this one ) .

One of the reasons for the nonstop plaudits is actor Lea Coco, who portrays Mitchell, who fights an attraction to a hustler named Alex—even though he is trying to land the role of a gay man in a movie. Coco recently talked with Windy City Times about Pittsburgh, the Chicago theater scene, his movies and, of course, The Little Dog Laughed.

Windy City Times: You graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University [ in Pittsburgh ] and acted in [ that city ] . What's your take on Pittsburgh, and its arts scene?

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Lea Coco: It's one of these cities that exists in a category similar to Chicago in that it's an industrial city. In my experience, a lot of the artists who grew up there tend to stay there; it's not of these towns that people come to. It's one of these towns where the artists—whether they're doing dance, theater or sculptures—tend to be very versed in a lot of different art forms.

My theory on [ why they're so well-versed ] is because they come from largely blue-collar backgrounds, and they have an intense working knowledge on how to create things from start to finish. All the theater artists I know in Pittsburgh can do everything; they direct, act, build sets, paint. And there's this amazing sense of collaboration and participation that crosses not only the boundaries of different art forms but also with theaters that are peripatetic—this is our theater is this is where we're doing our show; we're going to this warehouse, this graveyard, this barge.

That's one of the reasons I like Chicago. Its history is long and there's this functionality with the artists.

WCT: What about New York, another theater town?

LC: It is a theater town, but I've never felt like I fit in there. New York is a money town, and I feel like a lot of people there feel comfortable around big money.

WCT: Some people say that [ the move toward money ] is going on in Chicago as well, and that there is a disparity between certain big-money projects and the whole storefront scene.

LC: I honestly don't feel like either one is going to affect the other that much. The storefront scene is largely supported from within; I don't think tourists necessarily come to watch storefront [ productions ] . But that's one of the reasons I like Chicago—I feel like the city supports its theaters from within. I feel like a play in Chicago matters.

Also, I feel like if someone meets an actor from a show he sees, [ the two ] can have a totally sane conversation about it. There's none of this star shit, you know what I mean?

WCT: What do you think is the message of this production of The Little Dog Laughed?

LC: [ Pauses. ] I think this production, in particular, attempts to say that, in a world of hypocrisy and self-denial, there is the possibility of being free. I feel that that's what this production is focusing on. There is truth, and it's everybody's for the taking.

Also, there is a message that greed trumps goodness—in most cases.

WCT: Let's talk movies: One night a few months ago, I saw [ the 2004 film ] Dorian Blues on DVD, and it's a pretty well-crafted movie. [ Coco plays the brother of the title character, who is coming to terms with his sexuality. ] What drew you to that movie?

LC: Tennyson Bardwell was the director, and it was his first movie. What drew me to it was that Tennyson graduated from Carnegie-Mellon; [ also, ] two producers, the actress who plays my mothers, the actor who plays Dorian's boyfriend and Dorian—Michael McMillan, one of my best friends—all graduated from Carnegie-Mellon. The job felt like a gateway into the business, because I was surrounded by people who were similarly trained and we had a common language.

Then, the script—even on the page—was incredible. Having done a lot of work on TV and a couple movies since then, I see how plastic the language is in that medium; we change very quickly from what is written on the page. [ However, ] with [ Dorian Blues ] you see exactly what he had written in the script. It's a really beautiful story and every character is rich and complex.

WCT: You have a horror movie coming out called The Skeptic. What is that about?

LC: That's Tennyson's movie as well. It's his second movie, and he wrote a part for me. The movie is about a guy who's haunted by his past, and the hauntings start to become real. It's a mystery; there's a lot of intrigue. A woman dies, and this man goes on a journey [ as a result of the death ] that leads him to discover things about his childhood.

There are some good actors in it, [ including ] Tim Daly and Tom Arnold. Tom is very interesting to work with—very loud. I would say he is not acting in the majority of his movie roles. [ Laughs ]

WCT: What's your advice to someone who's breaking into the movie or theater business?

LC: Go to law school. [ Laughs ] Remember that the work is the reward—never forget that.

The Little Dog Laughed runs through Feb. 17 at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted. See www.aboutfacetheatre.com for more information.

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