As a former Chicago theatre person (artistic and then executive director of Free Street Theater, from 1991 to 2003), I was glad to see American Theatre devote an article to the wonderful ensemble scene in Chicago (“Stronger Together,” AT, Nov. ’19). But I found it “curious” that the writer neglected to mention perhaps Chicago’s oldest functioning theatre ensemble, Curious Theatre Branch. Curious has been devoted to new work for more than 30 years, having produced Rhinofest long before the first “Fringe” for most of that time, featuring hundreds and hundreds of new works. Curious has given wings to hundreds if not thousands of younger theatre fledglings, and has championed theatre as an art form and collective management and decision-making throughout. And all this without an academic shelter, such as Northwestern or DePaul, or a big-bucks board or a trust fund member or a “star.”
So many theatre collectives throughout the country died when the glow of the 1960s wore off. Storefront theatres were lost to gentrification, founding members hit the big time or joined a theatre hierarchy to make a living. But amid the corporatization of everything over the last 30 years, Curious has hung onto its values, its mission, its process, and its brilliance. It’s hard to think of a theatre collective that has operated that long anywhere in the U.S. and that has been as productive, selfless, and influential in championing new work and taking artistic chances. Props to Jenny Magnus and Beau O’Reilly and the ensemble for a great long run.
In short, Curious deserves to be mentioned in any overview of Chicago theatre. And speaking of props, what about Curious’s cousin Prop Thtr? That’s another ensemble and collective, dedicated to new work, functioning for nearly 30 years. Ah, but that’s next week’s letter.
I love American Theatre and Diep Tran’s excellent article, “Off-Off-Broadway: Freedom Isn’t Free” (AT, Oct. ’19), as well as the seminal Caffe Cino, so I hope you don’t mind if I nitpick one sentence. First, if any publication should spell the name of the venue correctly, isn’t it this one? And next, although Off-Off Broadway may have been established at the Cino, can’t its birth be traced back further? I’m not sure credit is being given where it’s due. Maybe Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theatre is lost somewhere between Off and Off-Off, but many consider them the parents of OOB, because they were putting on shows prior to 1958.
But really, didn’t Julie Bavasso’s Tempo Playhouse on St. Mark’s Place give birth to OOB with the 1955 production of The Maids, so eloquently reviewed by Jerry Tallmer months before the Village Voice’s first Obie Awards? Certainly there were others, and “gay artists” of the Cino nurtured this movement, no doubt, but shouldn’t the credit for birthing Off-Off-Broadway go to women like Bavasso or Malina?
Peculiar Works Project
New York City
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