To be proclaimed royalty is no ordinary distinction, but we doubt there’s a single person in the Chicago theatre community who wouldn’t happily bestow First Couple on Paula Scrofano and John Reeger. Having appeared in over 48 productions together over their decades-long careers (favorites include My Fair Lady and On the 20th Century), no other couple in Chicago has performed together more often.
The pair met and married at Northwestern University in their twenties (“a crazy thing for two people to do,” says Reeger), and are in their 43rd year as performers. Fresh out of college, Reeger credits the “off-Loop” theatre movement with cementing the decision to stay in the Chicago area. “It was an explosion of theatre,” He explains. “It was like the Off-Broadway movement in the ’50s. There just seemed to be work in Chicago for us.” In addition to the artistic freedom, the Windy City offered the Midwest life. In a city that rewards loyalty and cherishes local talent, the couple’s contributions to the community are famous both onstage and off.
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Scrofano and Reeger consistently earning raves and lend their reputations and credibility to any show they work on. Their next challenge is a production of D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game at Drury Lane Theatre, a two-hander that’ll have them trading lines and cards eight times a week, beginning June 22. They’re still surprising each other in rehearsals, and are delighting in the new challenge of being alone together onstage. “It’s just Paula and I, so if it isn’t any good, you know whose fault it is!” Reeger laughs.
When they’re not remembering notes while stuck in traffic or memorizing lines in pajamas over breakfast, the pair like to turn off the shop talk and relax by the TV. But when a big audition is coming up? “I don’t think I’ve ever gone to an audition where I’ve been asked to prepare a selection where I didn’t do it in front of Paula first,” Reeger says. Scrofano adds, “We just trust each other’s instincts. There’s an energy and a focus we share.” She says their shared priorities have helped them prosper together, rather than as individual performers. “We always ask, is this best for us? It’s always about the us. We’ve seen what separation does. We thrive best on doing plays together and being together.”
The partnership has been fruitful both personally and professionally, and in 2015, Scrofano and Reeger were honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from from the Jeff Awards. Showing off the infamous Midwestern humility, Reeger insists he doesn’t feel they have the “greatest careers of anyone in the world.” But, as Scrofano puts it, “There are very few who have done only this, got our kids through college, own our house, and don’t owe anybody any money!”
And on the subject of that Achievement Award, Scrofano has one specific memory that she calls the “icing on the cake.” “My mother said, "I had decided when you got your award, I was going to stand...but because of her age, she said, the whole house had already beaten her to it!"
Chicago provided an active and thriving theatre scene sans (what they perceived as) the crowded, impersonal and at-times cutthroat business in New York. Scrofano admits she did want “a house, a garden, and kids.” At the end of the day, though, her fellow Chicago thespians make it feel like home. “It’s a community,” Scrofano says, “If somebody called me for an audition and I’m not available, I’d call my [actor] friends and ask if they’ve been seen. We’re all supporting each other, we’re all helping each other try to do our best work. It’s all about the work.”