This story is part of a package of stories on Chicago theatre. For more, go here.
In trying to keep tabs on the U.S. theatre scene, both its larger trends and its granular particulars, this New York City-based magazine has always relied on correspondents and sources from nearly every state in the union over the years. And with each monthly issue we now put our focus on a different theme or subject: sound design a few issues back, for instance, or the state of Black theatre earlier this year, or training for arts administrators in January.
But we’ve seldom threaded these two strains together—that is, turned our monthly focus to a particular city or region. In training our attention on the justly legendary theatre town of Chicago in several stories in this issue, we are not only taking the opportunity to hone in on specific local stories (like politics, all theatre is local). We also recognize in the Windy City’s teeming, multi-generational theatrical abundance a rich, telling portrait of the American nonprofit theatre at a millennial crossroads, poised between indie scrap and institutional stability, creative ferment and political activism, critical discourse and social justice. To put it another way: The biggest questions the theatre field faces are being asked, and many of the most compelling answers given, in Chicago. (That 2019 also happens to be the locally designated Year of Chicago Theatre is a happy, even synchronistic coincidence.)
In these pages we strive to take a second look at many of the received notions about the city’s native theatre styles, which supposedly run in a narrow band from swaggering stage naturalism to anarchic improv, from Organic to Second City, Mamet to Sills. And we check in on its rep as a “company town,” where troupes of young theatremakers can purportedly make their way in found spaces, a la Steppenwolf or the Neo-Futurists. Are these still the facts on the ground? The stories in this issue show that, yes, countless small theatres still spring up to make work that wouldn’t otherwise get made, and the city’s deep-rooted ensemble ethos is still going strong, not to mention branching out beyond kitchen-sink realism. You will also see that the city’s theatres, like most of its institutions, have been shaped by legacies of urban segregation and white supremacy.
The cover story by Kerry Reid offers what may be a genuinely new angle (we owe the idea to director Lisa Portes, who heads DePaul’s directing program). It is based on this observation: While almost all of New York’s nonprofit theatres, and increasingly many of the nation’s major resident theatres, are led by artistic producers with gifts for curation, dramaturgy, recruitment, and fund-raising, Chicago’s theatres, big and small, are still almost exclusively helmed by working directors who regularly mount plays on their own stages. No shade intended on the artistic producer model, but Chicago’s uniquely robust directorial leadership seems to speak to a kind of integral, intensely local sense of artistic ownership. Add to that the roster of strong directors who’ve emerged from Chicago over the years—David Cromer, Mary Zimmerman, Sean Graney, Kimberly Senior, Rachel Rockwell, Gary Griffin, and Lili-Anne Brown, just for starters. Perhaps Chicago’s fame as an acting-ensemble-driven town, not to mention as the cradle of distinctive writing, doesn’t tell the whole story.
This issue can’t possibly tell the whole story, either. Like most cities, Chicago contains multitudes. What sets it apart, though, is how much of that civic bounty, with all its complications and contradictions, makes it onto its stages—and makes for world-beating theatre.