'Equus' actor Ian McCabe streaks into Chicago

November 2, 2010

By day, Ian McCabe slings sliced meats at Potbelly. By night, he auditions, takes classes, and generally gets up onstage whenever he can. Just like hordes of other young theater wannabes who move to the city. But McCabe, 22, has hit the ground running. And naked.

Ian McCabe (photo by Eric Futran)

He scored his first role—horse devotee Alan Strang in “Equus”—soon after moving here in mid-August. Ludicrous Theatre’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Tony-winning drama, running at the tiny Heartland Studio through Saturday, flew under the radar of most publications. But writers who saw it called McCabe’s performance “phenomenal,” “taut,” and “chilling.”

I thought his physicality and spot-on physical instincts were what gave this creepy character power and nuance. “The audience reads your body language, sees what you’re doing physically,” McCabe says, “before they ever hear a line of dialogue.” Next he’s getting a chance to prove himself in comedy, in the plummy role of Brother Brightbee in “The Book of Liz.” Revived this fall by Chemically Imbalanced with most of its 2007 cast intact, Amy and David Sedaris’s play is being remounted with brand-new actors in January 2011. McCabe takes over the role of Liz’s comic nemesis from the acclaimed Brian Kash. Good thing he thrives under pressure.

Most of what McCabe knows about theater he learned by getting thrown in the deep end. He got his first break at 19, as a student at Hanover College in his native Indiana. Appearing in an evening of short student-directed plays, he got noticed by the school’s retired longtime theater head, Tom Evans (whose most famous former student is Woody Harrelson). Evans enlisted McCabe on the spot to work in his summer stock company—the Kaleidoscope Players at New Mexico’s Shuler Theater—and later with the South Carolina Repertory Company. “I can’t emphasize enough how important that was for me, working with experienced, extremely talented people,” McCabe says. “The director I’ve worked with most, Tom, is 77 now, and the wealth of knowledge of a man that age, and his views on theater, are so wonderful.”

McCabe has also performed with Evans’s wife, Barbara Farrar, and J. Michael Craig—“both of them much older than myself,” he says. “You’re 19, and you’ve gotta play on their level. It is such a huge learning curve, and such a supportive environment at the same time. I got to work with them on play after play after play, just watching what they do. You’ll be in rehearsal, and you’ll totally drop a line because you’re so busy watching how J. Michael held his hands, or how Barbara turned her head to get a laugh. “What most people getting into acting these days really miss out on, very early on, is the chance to work with people who exceed them. You have to be ... it’s scary, but you have to be the low head on the totem pole. There’s no better way to learn.”

McCabe, who clearly likes a challenge, is also taking classes at Second City and the I.O.. What is it about improv that appeals to him? “What doesn’t?” he says. “It’s such a wildly visceral experience. And it’s so simple. You just have to lay everything out on the line. You have to be completely unafraid. Even when you fail, it’s like, at least I did it, I put myself out there. “And I’ve always been sort of a ham. I love making people laugh. It’s a terrible, terrible habit.”