The return of live performance after being dark for so many months created a natural inflection point for the American theater. Would we go back to the way things were or forge a new path forward? Broadway is more expensive than ever, recovering from the closures with smaller audiences is an uphill battle, and the calls to action for an anti-racist American theater were big in 2020. (Emphasis on the “were big.”) So, what now? Have we found our footing in a new era of theater?
While it’s hard to discern a distinct national movement at this point, many of our city’s theatrical leaders agree that Chicago is at the forefront of defining the future of the American theater.
“This is an easy one-hundred-percent yes,” says Teatro Vista co-artistic directors Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo. “The new leadership at many theater institutions in Chicago has the right idea when it comes to boundary-pushing, intentional collaboration and artistic expression.” Diaz and Mateo say that the produced shows could be braver, however, as incredible minds are out there just waiting to be used to “wow” audiences.
Artistic director of Theater Wit Jeremy Wechsler agrees: Chicago theater is where the future of the country’s scene needs to look for inspiration. “Chicago’s theater scene is defter and more passionate than any other city. We are and will remain a model about integrating artists and community into a cohesive whole.”
Wechsler also acknowledges that theaters are struggling in the pandemic life shift to know what audiences are looking for. That need for a variety in content is part of what makes Chicago’s diverse theater world so unique.
“Chicago is the vibrant heart and soul of American [theater],” says Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell. “What sets us apart is the astonishing range and depth of diversity of our theater companies. Before the pandemic, there were over 200 theater companies here; though that number was greatly reduced during the shutdown, we’re all building back together.”
Charles Askenaizer, artistic director of Invictus Theatre Company, sees Chicago as a place that can “create theater at almost any level.” It’s no secret that Chicago is the place for storefront theater and, as we head into a new era, we must make a concerted effort as a community to protect those spaces.
Year after year, Chicago plays dominate the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, which has honored new work since 1977. That’s in addition to myriad other awards. Court Theatre’s recent Regional Tony win is a prime example.
But in spite of this, theater criticism in Chicago is struggling more than it did before. With no full-time theater critics in The Windy City now that Chris Jones is doing double duty as the editorial page editor at the Chicago Tribune, how can we possibly do justice to the work being done here?
And Chicago theaters are far from out of the woods yet. The House Theatre of Chicago recently announced its closure after twenty-one years. It was a shocking development given the theater’s profile as one Chicago’s biggest twenty-first-century success stories, and its recruitment of new artistic leadership just over a year ago, with the arrival of Lanise Antoine Shelley. Shelley had just one show under her belt when the decision was made.
I asked theater leaders to rate Chicago theaters’ health on a scale of one-to-ten. Essentially, how do things compare to a pre-pandemic world? Despite the difficulty of the ask, folks seem to be on the same page.
“If [we] had to give it a number, [we’d] say six?” say Diaz and Mateo. “It would be difficult to give this a rating because [we] believe we are coming back in a slow-but-steady way. It is promising to see so many theaters using this opportunity of a forced slowdown to take a look at their practices and how they’d like to operate moving forward. Mostly because the old way of operating, pre-pandemic, was not sustainable and was leading to burnout. Investing in the mental health and well-being of their people will do more for theaters in the long run. When you invest in people, people invest in you.”
Citing the caution still prevalent with audiences, Askenaizer acknowledges that the rating is hard to give but gave a six or seven. “Some companies have closed permanently, and some new ones have sprung up,” he says. “COVID protocols still factor into the decision-making process at an administrative level, but most people have accepted that masks and vaccination cards are a part of the process for seeing theater at this time. Creatively, some really spectacular work is being produced.”
Wechsler divided up the rating between how theaters as a community are doing (6.5) and how audiences are returning to see shows (five). The Chicago theaters are still pulling through from a significant financial downturn and that stress has taken its toll, he says. Wechsler added that several artists have left Chicago altogether.
The theatrical experience has had to expand even more because the pandemic forced artists to pivot. Recognizing the physical barrier to entry was actually a big moment for theaters to become more accessible. Seeing how theater can be presented virtually without losing its magic was something theaters uncovered when there were no live audiences, according to Newell.
“One of the things we learned during the pandemic is that our physical theaters can be barriers to reaching the widest possible audience,” he says. “Digital productions and programming are every bit as intimate and powerful as the productions we do in our building. We learned that innovation, beyond the work on stage, can make a huge difference. Many of us were pressed to reckon with the racial inequality built into the structures of the American [theater] and we took the time to map out those structures and created a plan to undo them.”
Building an anti-racist theater movement out of the pandemic pause is another sentiment shared by theater makers. Doing so would build Chicago’s theater back with its best foot forward—breaking out of harmful practices of the past.
“I think there is [a] fresh and tremendous opportunity for the immediacy and human scale of the art to really impact Chicago theatergoers,” Wechsler says. “Sharing performance and breath in person is the balm that can re-knit us together as interconnected citizens. I also think we’re looking at a more diverse theater. Producing organizations have taken the hard lessons of BLM and We See You, White American Theater to heart and are beginning a sincere attempt to begin rectifying the structural racism that has infected the arts community. I believe this will be an accelerating curve in Chicago, particularly as people recognize the tremendous opportunities that the city can offer and come back as arts practitioners.”