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Chicago nurtures reputation for quality stage productions

The second city of theater

Sunday, August 18, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

CHICAGO -- You can go on thinking of it as the city of brawny shoulders, hog butcher to the world and fiefdom of Al Capone, but that's all long ago. Boss Daley is still around, but in a kinder, gentler model. The dark, brawny past still reverberates; the golden Jordan years are not forgotten; the Cubs will be hapless forever. But on the whole, this is an optimistic, bustling city that moves forward. And the most vivid emblem of Chicago these days is art.

Most visibly, that means public art, whether cows or Picassos. Music rules, too, led by the great Chicago Symphony. But ranking very high in the new Chicago's self-image is theater. Two of the leading professional companies have just built expensive new homes, although the greatest strength is in small companies and their constant regeneration -- professional theaters of all sizes number nearly 200. Gradually, it all feeds the big companies, where there's enough energy to export theatrical product to Broadway.

That's the inescapably upbeat message you pick up on a five-day Chicago visit. Since I was one of about 100 members of the American Theatre Critics Association and their guests, theatrical Chicago was out in force to tell its happy tale. But even close questioning of former Pittsburghers couldn't dig up any horror stories. And Chicagoans who make theater say it's never been better.

This theatrical self-esteem was particularly evident in early June, when New York's Tony Awards kept mentioning Chicago as the home base of shows as diverse as "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (produced there), Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" (created and staged at the Lookingglass Theatre), "Sweet Smell of Success" (tried out there) and even the apparently quintessential off-off-Broadway "Urinetown" -- actually written by two transplanted Chicagoans.

Those aren't just anomalies: The previous year, "The Producers" started its campaign of conquest in Chicago, and this year's marquee preview is "Movin' Out," the new Twyla Tharp-Billy Joel musical. In fact, Chicago really arrived on the national theater map with a small, off-Loop musical way back in 1972 -- "Grease" -- then with "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" in 1979.

But "Metamorphoses" aside, those are all commercial musicals. In that realm, no one ever competes with New York, they just help to feed the Broadway beast. It's in supplying talent that Chicago shines, and that talent is honed in all those nonprofit companies.

As a striking emblem of this success, there's the Tony Award for best regional theater. Chicago has won three -- fittingly, for companies that feature, respectively, directors (Goodman Theatre), actors (Steppenwolf) and playwrights (Victory Gardens).

Those first two and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre are the city's nonprofit big three, totaling about 65,000 subscribers. Add in the big, for-profit Marriott Lincolnshire on the North Shore, and the total is about 100,000. And that's before counting subscriptions at the downtown road houses.

All those big companies have a lot to do with the nearly 200 smaller companies. "They created a theater-going community," said one local booster. "Chicago is a friendly theater town." "Here, theater is not just a part of the fabric of the city," says another: "It IS the fabric."

The scene

Support starts at the top, with a mayor and a first lady who are said to genuinely love the arts. In fact, Mayor Daley actually goes to the theater, and not just to touring musicals, but to see August Wilson or Joanne Akalaitis.

Daley's Department of Cultural Affairs is led by Lois Weisberg, who commands a staff of 250. They coordinate public art, too -- all those Chicago cows and lots of music on the streets -- and they connect with the Convention and Tourism Bureau, which gives them clout. The city's office of special events, which Weisberg led under the previous mayor, has another 250 workers. The city considers theater one of its chief selling points. The city even owns a restaurant -- how cool is that? -- used to hobnob with visiting cultural consumers like critics.

Historically, though, theater began at the bottom, in cellars and storefronts. One hallmark group is Second City (1959), which has nurtured many famous names, from Nichols and May and Ed Asner to Bill Murray and George Wendt. Hull House was an incubator in the '60s; then Body Politic and Paul Sills' seminal Story Theatre; then the Organic Theater (1970); suddenly there was critical mass. The city encouraged storefront theaters. When David Mamet made a big splash in the early '70s, Chicago theater had a style: tough, smart, inventive, gritty.

Chicago names started to be known nationally: Goodman and Steppenwolf; directors Greg Mosher and Robert Falls; guru Frank Galati; actor-directors Gary Sinese and John Malkovich; actors William H. Macy, Joan Allen and John Mahoney. Steppenwolf's "True West" (1982) was its first New York sensation; then it won a Tony with Galati's "Grapes of Wrath." The Goodman won Tonys with "Death of a Salesman."

As grass-roots ferment suggests, Chicago is an ensemble town. The big names from Steppenwolf return to do company work. Black theater developed (there are now five pro companies), but multiculturalism is alive on other stages, too. The Chicago Reader, the main alternative weekly, lists 180-240 plays per week and employs more than a dozen critics to review virtually every show.

The legendary Richard Christiansen, who has just retired as lead critic for The Chicago Tribune, was supportive from the start. Theater people give a lot of credit for Chicago's success to the press: There's none of "that desire to revel in failure," says Goodman executive director Roche Schulfer. Nor is Chicago mesmerized by the media, he says: "There's no risk of being lionized when successful or attacked if you fail."

In fact, "Chicago theater has been shaped by the permission to fail," says Albert Williams, the Reader's award-winning critic -- a freedom notoriously lacking in New York. In Chicago, you can fail and still find work.

The League of Chicago Theatres also takes a proactive role, forcing companies to talk and cooperate with annual meetings, retreats and networking. They come together, for example, on marketing initiatives for winter, when it's difficult to get audiences. And everybody does benefits that unite theaters big and small.

Community is important: Big theaters don't seem to fear supporting small new theaters. Companies share spaces. Actors' Equity has negotiated many different, flexible contracts at different levels, allowing even the biggest companies to use some non-Equity actors. Chicago also boasts lots of colleges with good drama programs, so there's a steady supply of young talent, some of whom start new companies as soon as they graduate. The city's high national profile attracts talent, and there's a strong funding community.

Chicago really seems to have established itself as a muscular alternative to New York, its density of success pulling in more talent than it loses to the gravitational pull of the coasts.

Goodman Theatre

The Goodman became fully professional in 1969, the year the new Joseph Jefferson Awards were started, marking Chicago's growth in self-esteem. Its home in the Kenneth Sawyer Goodman Theatre at the Art Institute was a boxy, 683-seat space. "As charming as it was for audience members, it had huge problems," says Schulfer -- no fly space, for example, and a "sound-sucking dome."

The company moved into its new $46 million home in the heart of the Loop in October 2000 -- $18 million of that put up by the city. Its 856-seat main hall, the Albert Goodman, is a straight proscenium theater, but on three levels -- very handsome, with intimacy relative to its size. The smaller Owen Goodman is a flexible 200-450-seat space with a balcony around three sides that reminds everyone of the National Theatre's flexible Cottlesloe, its rough finish a conscious homage to the off-Loop "found-space esthetic." The two theaters paired up last year for the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's simultaneous plays, "House" and "Garden."

Robert Falls, artistic director for 16 years, leads a full-time staff of 75, with an annual budget of about $15 million -- up from $10 million in just two years, the growth allowing bigger plays. Schulfer says Chicago denies the "starving artist romance," insisting that "well-fed actors perform better than those who are starving."

This is the big leagues. Director/writers Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman and playwrights August Wilson and Rebecca Gilman ("Spinning into Butter") are regulars. Recently, Hal Prince came to stage "The Visit," the new Kander and Ebb musical with Chita Rivera; last year it was Sondheim's new musical, "Wise Guys." The Goodman is proud it does 50 percent American premieres.

The play I saw was certainly ambitious, the world premiere of "Galileo Galilei," an opera by Philip Glass with libretto and direction by the inventive Zimmerman. It starts in 1642, with Galileo old and blind, then works backward in 10 scenes through his troubles with the Inquisition to his great discoveries, arriving finally at little Galileo watching an astrological opera.

Steppenwolf

The company that to many defines the hard-edged "Chicago style" started in a basement in 1976. By 1985, it won its Regional Theater Tony and, in 1991, it moved into a new/old building with a 510-seat main house, a 190-seat studio and an experimental space just enlarged to hold 90. Five shows a year appear on the main stage, usually four in the studio and three or four in the third space, where ensemble member actors often direct. There's a one-night, interdisciplinary performance series, and the company has turned an old bank into offices and rehearsal space.

Mighty though it is, Steppenwolf is not above collaborating with small companies. Next year, there's a joint production planned with Congo Square, a 3-year-old African-American company co-founded by two emigrants from Pittsburgh, Javon Johnson and Derrick Sanders.

Steppenwolf is justly proud of its 33-person ensemble, now including directors Frank Galati and Tina Landau and such actors as Allen, Mahoney, Glenne Headley, Austin Pendleton and Lois Smith. Founders John Malkovich and Gary Sinese return to work. The current budget is $10 million, doubled in six years; there are 25,000 subscribers; and a campaign is under way to raise a $21 million endowment.

Next year's is a typical main stage season: Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," a new play by Steven Jeffreys, "Wedding Band" by Alice Childress (the collaboration with Congo Square), a new Richard Greenberg play and Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul," with Kushner on hand to write further. But hip, flip artistic director Martha Lavey is also proud of other small-theater collaborations. More than most institutionalized theaters, Steppenwolf is able to keep reinventing itself.

The show I saw isn't what you expect of a company that made its name with Mamet and Shepard -- Kaufman and Ferber's comedy of theatrical royalty (based on the Barrymores), "The Royal Family." It showed off the lovely, curved semi-thrust proscenium theater (just what I wish the Pittsburgh Public had built) and the depth of the Chicago acting pool.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

In 1983, Barbara Gaines started giving workshops in Shakespeare, and out of that grew the third big Chicago nonprofit, now grown into a $9.5 million budget. With its new season not yet open, subscriptions are at 22,000. Most dramatically, in 1999 CST moved into a splashy new building on Navy Pier with a 65-foot-high marquee declaring "Shakespeare" in lights -- the Bard writ large among popcorn stands and strolling vacationers.

In addition to the gorgeous, courtyard thrust of its 512-seat mainstage, as lovely as it is intimate, there's a 200-seat black box where the company also collaborates with smaller companies and stages such Shakespearean spin-offs as the upcoming "Bomedy of Errors."

Gaines' "The Tempest" showed off the mainstage admirably. Neil Patel's set featured a long, convex oval platform of polished wood -- a globe on which magic was possible. Great cracks of thunder filled the theater, while a huge up-stage proscenium framed a rear wall of gold, green or silver in front of which three giant goddesses sang high in the air. There were lots of flying spirits and, down on earth, the most inventive Trinculo and Stephano I've ever seen -- rather like sweet versions of the tramps from "Waiting for Godot."

Broadway in Chicago

That's what they call their Broadway Series -- the same formula that Pittsburgh's new series has adopted, since it is owned by the same corporate giant, Clear Channel. Together with the Nederlander company, it owns three handsome theaters: the ornate Oriental, recently changed into the Ford Center; the Shubert; and the gilt and marble Cadillac Palace.

Marriott Lincolnshire

Here, however, is something we don't have at all -- top-of-the-line dinner theater. This commercial producer stages big musicals in a 882-seat, in-the-round theater at the production level of our CLO. Five musicals a year entertain more than 37,500 subscribers and nurture musical theater talents to complement the better-known Chicago companies.

Victory Gardens

You don't have to be big to be significant. The 2001 Regional Theater Tony gave a high profile to this smaller, off-Loop playwrights' theater, which features new work, much of it by its own 12-member playwrights ensemble (including Pittsburgh native Nicholas Patricca). Of 224 plays staged in 28 years, 129 were world premieres, 114 of them by Chicago authors.

The company owns its own building on Lincoln Avenue with two theaters, 193 and 60 seats, respectively, though it has plans to move to a larger space. The budget is about $1.6 million, with 5,000 subscribers. "A playwrights' ensemble might seem an oxymoron," says popular playwright James Sherman, but the ensemble clearly treasures its home.

The show I saw was "The Old Man's Friend" by Sherman, sometimes called "the Neil Simon of Lincoln Avenue." His 1989 "Beau Jest" is the most successful play in Victory Gardens' history.

Off-Loop

Where to begin? In just five days, I could barely hear about all the variety available, let alone see it. Fortunately, the League of Chicago Theatres offered critics "Critical Mass," a showcase of snippets by 12 companies, including some as well known as Lookingglass and Porchlight. The overall impression was of delicious variety, a wealth of different approaches and the performing talent to make them good. I was most impressed by Plasticene Physical Theatre, which turned furniture into antagonists and performed with a ferocious commitment reminiscent of avant-garde dance.

There are lots of comedy groups, too, as you'd expect of our second city. I slipped into downtown's Noble Fool theater to see "Flanagan's Wake," one of those interactive improv shows, schticky and (to my lowbrow taste) very funny, with real Guinness on tap.

Marj Halperin is executive director of the League, which enlists 130 Chicago companies as members. That may not be more companies than any other American city, but she's pretty sure they produce more plays each year. Chicago is certainly No. 2 on this continent. It is, as someone said, "a city where it's impossible to see everything -- even the things you really want to see."


Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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