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The Chicago Theatre Recipe

May 22, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Community Building

A few nights ago Dan Granata and the Chicago Artists Resource threw a little Chicago Theatre history lesson over at the DCA storefront space (“Do it myself: Five Decades of Theatre that Works“) featuring three veterans of the storefront movement: Steve Scott of the Goodman, Jackie Taylor of Black Ensemble Theatre, and Sharon Phillips, Managing Director of the legendary Body Politic.

The whole event was taped and I’m sure a bunch of us who were there will be posting the full video once it’s out there. For theatre nerds and folks who want to someday produce in Chicago, it’s a concentrated dose of both the sense of family and interconnectedness that exists in the Chicago theatre community. At the same time, it’s a timely reminder that the essentially young, DIY spirit of Chicago leads to a lot of history repeating itself.

One thing that Sharon Phillips said really stuck and clarified for me the core components of the ingredients of a thriving theatre company in Chicago, which frankly could be applied anywhere. These ingredients are so simple as to be a bit of a “no duh” but the revelation of them was more of a “awesome, so the rest of the noise can be let go.”

There are three things every theatre company needs to thrive:

1) Heart.
You can call this what you want. Passion, Love, a “Fuck you I’m doing this” attitude. It’s the force that makes a company move to this town with an axe and Meisner training to grind. It’s the force that makes that company drop $6k on their credit card to put up a show in a hole in the wall. It’s the force that then makes that same company five years later confident enough to make the claim “No freaking way am I dropping $6k of my own money on this anymore. People need to PAY for this work.” If you don’t have enough of it, you close. And yes, it makes you look crazy.

Heart is the primary fuel of all theatres in Chicago, in that when a company doesn’t have enough of it any more, shuttering the theatre is not long behind. This life cycle is in some ways a bittersweet gift: if a theatre loses its heart, better to close before the integrity of the theatre is lost than to keep it alive beyond its usefulness with more artificial business practices. Unmanaged heart is often in direct competition with a stable, well-incomed lifestyle.

2) Close cooperation between artistic collectives
If nothing else, this is the factor that has made Chicago a unique theatre town. Having this level of cooperation is the one benchmark that determines if Chicago is the best place in the world to generate new work and new artists. I should add that I don’t think that Chicago owns the core principle of cooperation, and if another city comes along with the same level of city-wide collaborative culture then THAT will be the best place in the world to make theatre.

After learning a lot more of the historical context of the last thirty years from Steve, Jackie and Sharon, it’s clear that there was a surge of this kind of cross-border cooperation during the early seventies that supported the massive success of Steppenwolf and David Mamet. Just from the example of Black Ensemble Theatre and the Goodman of the time, there was all kinds of cooperation happening in those years from casting to emergency venue maintenance to business development to fundraising. Sharon Phillips told a story where Body Politic had run out of money for the last show of their season, and all the other theatres in town put an envelope for $1.50 donations to Body Politic in their programs, effectively saving the theatre through community support.

At some point, the level of cooperation began to peter off in the 90 and 00s, decades which saw the number of theatre companies in Chicago rise from around 120 to 300. Cooperation is harder when there are more relationships to manage. The existing relationships ossified within the older theatres, and it became harder for a new, small company to find a place in the market. After several 5-year lifecycles of small theatres, the community effectively ceased to remember itself and began to trade in legends of the Steppenwolf rehearsal church basement in extravagant, hushed tones rather than the remarkable, yes, but human-sized spaces and events that they actually were. The three panelists and much of the audience noted a change in the air in the last few years, however – a sense that the community is coming together again. Maybe it’s simply that economic crises breed more cooperative theatre, but I hope this means that we can learn to cooperate on the more fundamental level that existed in the 70s. That will require one thing of us: that we know, care, and invest in each other. Which leads to the final ingredient.

3) A deep, lasting connection with a unique audience
This is the final, elusive ingredient that becomes very challenging in a 300-theatre town, and I think it’s the area where most of Chicago’s theatres have to improve or face destruction. There are a handful of theatres that have have incredible success with the connections to their audience, connections which have developed after years of consistent excellence and resulted in passionate, sometimes rabid support from their fans. In particular: Court Theatre has the strongest geographic connection with its audience, the in many ways isolated neighborhood of Hyde Park, and its programming matches the demographics and intellectual tenor of the neighborhood closely. Having sat in on several of their talkbacks in the last year (in full disclosure, I’m about to open a show there tonight) I can say with confidence that Court has one of if not THE most enviably engaged audience a theatre could have. Talkbacks have become a point of empowerment for the audience, and over years many patrons have gotten used to seeing their feedback and perspectives during previews result in changes in the work itself. It makes those talkbacks very well attended.

But not every theatre gets to be the only game in a neighborhood like Hyde Park, and for the glut of theatres that operate on the north side of Chicago, uniqueness comes not with pure geography but with stylistic and thematic uniqueness. Sometimes that uniqueness comes in the form of investing in the aesthetics of individual genius – like the Hypocrites’ Sean Graney, or the Organic’s Stuart Gordon before him. Sometimes a collective of artists can articulate an aesthetic beyond the vision of one individual: Timeline Theatre is another theatre that marries a reputation for quality with a narrow focus on programming inspired by history. That flexible focus on history as touchstone for the core audience is important to keep in mind. While many other theatres excel at storytelling – hundreds of them, in fact – that touchstone trains the audience to keep engaged with the specific theatre company rather than the shows they happen to be doing at that particular moment.

My own theatre, New Leaf, as we close our ninth season operating in Chicago (Curse of the Starving Class closes tonight), is at a crossroads with this final piece of the puzzle.

We have found a way to articulate and be proud of our passion.

We have created a way, somehow, to create consistently excellent work. I can call it what it is because of that heart.

We have forged incredible connections with the rest of the artistic community, and are fed by those connections on a daily basis. New Leaf’s artistic friends are incredible supporters – from the guest artists on our stages, to companies we collaborate with like Backstage, Theatre Seven, The Side Project, the Goodman, WNEP, TUTA, The Plagiarists, Strawdog, Will Act For Food, the League of Chicago Theatres, and the ongoing Storefront Summit.

What we have not done is found that unique touchstone that will allow us to make theatre for a unique group of people, an audience that shares not just our passion for the theatre and storytelling but a passion for this kind of theatre – theatre that celebrates and renews and reinvents the space in which it is made.

Maybe I need to invite a bunch of architects to the show.

The recipe is simple: Figure out the people that you do this for. Do it well for them. Keep doing it well for them.

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2 Comments to “The Chicago Theatre Recipe”


  1. Thanks, Nick. Aren’t we so lucky not only to live in this new period of collaboration, but also to have talented “connectors” like you to bring it all together.

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  2. Thanks for this post, Nick; this is a great snapshot of the pervasive and exciting energy in Chicago, and poses interesting questions about how a company defines itself. Good luck to New Leaf at that intersection of mission and branding!

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