As part of this story, we sent a few questions to leaders of the theater community in Chicago and received about forty written responses. Here are excerpts from some of their answers. The full text will also soon be published online.
Any observations or thoughts about Chicago theater in the last decade?
“When one theater has a hit show, its not just a hit for that show, it’s a hit for Chicago.”
—Deb Clapp, Executive Director, League of Chicago Theatres
“I love the shake-ups that are happening as a result of management changes, economic pressures, and influx of new artists. It’s exciting to see the landscape shifting so dramatically, the new work that is being created as a result, and the new artists and management teams that are getting a chance at bat.”
— Kevin Mayes, Executive Director, Bailiwick Chicago
“The first SKETCHBOOK was produced in January 2000 and has gone on to create 135 world premiere short plays with over 1000 different artists for over 30,000 audience members and launching numerous careers.”
— Anthony Moseley, Executive and Artistic Director, Collaboraction
“On Sunday, April 9, 2006, we bid a fond farewell to our theater at 2851 North Halsted. This building had been a theater for tirty-one years beginning with the remount of the original production of “American Buffalo.” This address was also the first Chicago home of Steppenwolf, housed the Organic/Touchstone theater and many independent productions before becoming the home of ComedySportz for nearly five years. At the top of the wall of the stage manager’s booth was written “The Wall of Tears.” Below that was the title of every show beginning with Steppenwolf that had been in the space and check marks for how many performances each show received. We also found a “time capsule” that Steppenwolf had left in the theater that contained empty beer cans and a note of good luck.
— Greg Werstler, Managing Partner, The ComedySportz Theatre
“There seem to be so many more companies that have sprung up it’s hard to keep track of them all and the coverage by qualified theater critics is sorely lacking. We are now in a position where anyone with a website who decides they want to be a theater critic can post horribly written, under-researched reviews and some companies feel compelled to treat them like real press because they are not going to get a big paper like the Sun-Times to come and see their show.”
—David Cerda, Artistic Director, Hell in a Handbag Productions
“I am very excited about the first Chicago Fringe Festival that’s coming in 2010.”
— Josh Zagoren, Artistic Director, Hobo Junction
“I’m also excited to see the number of strong young women in our scene at present, and hope that that’s indicative of emerging equality of gender in positions of artistic leadership in the years to come.”
— Jessica Hutchinson, Artistic Director, New Leaf Theatre
“The extent to which there is a reawakening of the community spirit and, aided by social media and Web 2.0, the likelihood that this latest iteration will stick. While there have always been small enclaves of companies that share members and resources, there seems to be a real renaissance of Chicago theater in an infrastructure sense as well (the League, the TCG conference, the Storefront Summit, etc) with the goal of making something lasting out of it.”
— Adam Webster, Artistic Director, the side project
“I’m excited about the recession, in a way. I think it has the opportunity to force companies to really focus on in what makes them special—telling their story, doing their work, keeping what elements of that are essential and jettisoning the rest. I think it ought to push companies to become more efficient and more creative—those are both good things.”
— Brian Golden, Artistic Director, Theatre Seven
“Every week it seems there is a new artist in town, a new company forming and a new play opening. So there is always the possibility of anything happening. That is the thing that has always been so appealing about working in Chicago—there are possibilities! A company like TimeLine can be started by six people throwing $50 into the hat to get started and twelve years later it’s a thriving organization with more than forty shows to its credit.”
— PJ Powers, Artistic Director, TimeLine Theatre Company
“Very exciting beginning of the decade, with theater community forming through small theater groups, their uncompromising and risky work supported by both Chicago audience, larger theaters, and relevant critics; and very disappointing end of the decade with even bigger presence of the commercial Broadway-wanna-be productions again supported by both audience, larger theaters, and relevant critics.”
— Zeljko Djukic, Artistic Director, TUTA Theatre Chicago
As Broadway in Chicago has grown into the giant multiplex of the Loop, Off Loop companies have either emulated BIC’s artistic track (playing for the tourist crowd and generating more in terms of escapist entertainment) or Steppenwolf’s (a continued focus on new work and fostering the littler companies for mutual gains). Those on the Fringe have become more fringey, pushing boundaries aesthetically and experimenting for those crowds less enticed by the big-ticket shows.
— Don Hall, Founding Director, WNEP Theater
“Theater in Chicago has extended far beyond the metaphorical walls of our city. The significant number of productions moving to or being restaged in New York and/or London (PACIFIC OVERTURES, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, ADDING MACHINE, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, A STEADY RAIN, OUR TOWN, SUPERIOR DONUTS) have helped draw great attention to the fact that Chicago is an amazingly prolific and adventurous dramatic center. Furthermore, the success of individual artists who have made their home here (David Cromer, Gary Griffin, Tracy Letts, Michael Shannon, Josh Schmidt, Keith Huff) and who are now enjoying national acclaim has further deepened the respect with which our community is held elsewhere. We continue to lag behind major city centers in terms of artistic compensation, certainly for designers and certainly given that our artists have diminished opportunities to make commercial money in film and television as compared to London and New York. We continue to battle between the need to diversify our creative pool by importing talent for specific projects and ensuring that we nurture and support those who have chosen to build their careers here and dedicate their lives to our community. However, we have unquestionably proved our worth as a major force on the world’s stages and despite the failed Olympics bid, the theater can still prove to be a major and long-term tourist draw. Should we manage to market ourselves as a destination theater city to the same degree that London and New York have done, we might prove an even greater asset to the economic health of our city than we are currently (which by the way is considerable).”
— Michael Halberstam, Artistic Director and Kathryn Lipuma, Executive Director, Writers’ Theatre
Is there a “Chicago style” anymore (if there ever was) and has it changed? What, today, distinguishes Chicago theater from anywhere else?
“I also think a different style has emerged—one that is driven by highly imaginative directorial vision.”
—Kathy Scambiatterra, Artistic Director, The Artistic Home
“In the eighties, the Chicago Style consisted of a play about two men intensely tormenting a third man. (Storefront version, the man is beaten to death at the end.) Sometimes there would be a naked woman who either didn’t speak or swore a lot. This would have been a semi-obscure play from off-Broadway by a New York playwright.
In the nineties, the Chicago Style was typified by adaptations of novels by once-celebrated but now obscure European novelists, epic in scope, with dozens of characters all performed by three actors. (Storefront version, a cast of twenty.) The adapters were directors.
Today, the Chicago Style is exemplified by original world premieres, developed through hundreds of readings around the country and written by actual playwrights, many of whom are Chicagoans.”
—Russ Tutterow, Artistic Director, Chicago Dramatists
“These days, the lie has been put to the stereotype of the Chicago school of gritty realism. That work is still being produced by companies of all sizes with a high degree of quality, but the diversity of performance styles and aesthetic priorities is greater than ever before. The integration of disciplines such as clown, circus arts, live music, large-scale spectacle, puppet and toy theater, Butoh, etc. into the work of theater companies and producers at all experience levels has become, to me, the hallmark of Chicago theater: productions with an immensely wide theatrical vocabulary and frame of reference.”
—Charles Newell, Artistic Director, Court Theatre
“Love, passion, theater and ball-sack jokes… that’s Chicago Style.”
— Carrie J. Sullivan, Executive Director, The Factory Theater
“There are so many companies roughing it—creating these masterpieces in shoeboxes—and doing it on a dime. It’s pretty amazing, really. I love going into a theater and having to tuck my feet under my chair so the actors don’t trip in the dark.
—Genevieve Thompson, member and, 2001-mid-2009 Artistic Director, of Infamous Commonwealth Theatre
“I think the way our talent pool functions like a giant repertory company. Artists work repeatedly with each, but at different theaters. Makes for great work at a variety of theaters.”
— Bridget McDonough, General Manager, Light Opera Works
“It’s fifty seats, tiny budgets and boundless passion”
— Ronan Marra, Co-Artistic Director, Signal Ensemble Theatre
It’s not just the acting, it’s the way we make theater too: All or nothing. We love this stuff and it shows. The way we’re willing to participate and have a conversation about this artform; not only to criticize, or to throw around knowledge in an elitist way, but to really get to the root of something, THAT is what I love about this city.
— Tanya Saracho, Founding Artistic Director, Teatro Luna
“There has always been a Chicago style of pizza and it has not changed. Chicago has no style in anything else. Our theater makers, however, are distinguished by their willingness to work for pizza of any style.”
— Mickle Maher, co-founder, Theater Oobleck