Editor’s note: This is just one of our stories looking at and elevating Evanston authors and artists.
Adam Langer is kind of from Evanston and kind of from Chicago.
As a kid growing up in the Chicago area, he lived in Rogers Park, but he went to the Baker Demonstration School in Evanston before attending Evanston Township High School.
“My father viewed himself as an Evanston taxpayer, if not an actual resident of Evanston,” Langer said. “Possibly, many years later, this would have been a problem for us. But at the time, it felt quasi-legal. Whether it was [legal] or not, I was a teenager. I didn’t check.”
Despite the initial awkwardness of being “the kid from Chicago” at ETHS, Langer said he always viewed Rogers Park as an extension of Evanston, rather than a separate city. He spent many summers going to Lighthouse Beach, and some of his closest friends to this day are the people he met in high school.
“It really was not my actual home, but pretty much feels like a hometown,” he said.
He and his family wound up on the North Side of Chicago after his grandparents immigrated from eastern Europe to a Jewish neighborhood on the West Side in the 1920s. Interestingly enough, while growing up on a quiet, tight-knit street of Jewish families in Rogers Park, he actually thought of Evanston as the big, exciting city he couldn’t wait to explore.
After ETHS, Langer went to Vassar College in New York before returning to Chicago and weaving his way through some of the city’s most renowned media organizations and radio stations, including The Chicago Reader, WBEZ, WBBM and WXRT. Eventually, he moved to New York City, where he became a novelist and executive editor of The Forward, a nonprofit Jewish news organization.
Langer has written seven books, and his most recent novel, Cyclorama, dives into the experiences and lives of the actors in a theater program at a fictional high school in central Evanston. The story is derived from Langer’s own memories of ETHS and his time working on theater productions there.
“I wanted to tell the stories of these characters and where they wound up, and it made sense to put them in a world I knew very well. It’s 1982, the North Side of Chicago and the northern suburbs of Chicago, Evanston and Wilmette and Skokie,” he said. “And I was writing from memory, not to say that everything in this [book] actually happened. But I was writing in a world I could recall, which made it easier to write about and to bring to life.”
The book also features a rather abrasive and abusive drama teacher and theater program director. As many Evanstonians will know and some remember, dozens of former students have made allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct against former longtime ETHS drama teacher Bruce Siewerth.
Just a few years ago, the school settled a lawsuit against Siewerth for $100,000. Langer himself actually acted in high school productions directed by Siewerth many decades ago. Siewerth was, in fact, someone Langer thought about while writing the book, but he also wanted to use that story as an example of a larger trend of abusive authority figures.
“The early ’80s was a time of heinous boundary crossing by adult authority figures. It’s not just one guy who ran a dictatorial and abusive theater program at Evanston Township High School,” he said. “There are legions of these stories. And since writing this book, I’ve had people reaching out to me from not only Chicago and its northern suburbs, but all over the country, saying ‘This reminds me of that experience I had, I had a coach like that, a director like that, I experienced that.'”
Although Langer has not lived in Evanston or Chicago for many years, he still speaks about his time here with great admiration and nostalgia. With so many talented and engaging people concentrated in one place, he said he finds it surprising that more novels, movies and TV shows are not set in Evanston.
“Evanston is interesting in that it’s a microcosm of an urban experience in a very condensed sort of place, and the high school is kind of a microcosm of the microcosm,” Langer said.
“It was very diverse, very vibrant, very intellectually engaged, very creative … To be in this energetic environment surrounded by an incredibly talented group of people who are on the forefront of many fields as we speak right now, was intoxicating in a way.”