Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

End of the Zeroes: Theater in Chicago, 2000-2009

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Photo: Samuel Adams

The Addams Family at The Oriental/Photo: Samuel Adams

By Brian Hieggelke

As the wind blows the snow sideways this December evening, the weatherman is telling Chicagoans to stay bunkered; the deserted downtown streets reflect their obedience. All save the sidewalk near the intersection of State and Randolph, as TV crews jockey for faces on the red carpet in front of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre, where more than 2,000 patrons, including a who’s who of backstage Broadway, are gathering for the world premiere of a new musical featuring a AAA list of talent, onstage and off. “The Addams Family,” with multiple Tony winners Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in its leads, a book from the librettists of “Jersey Boys” and so on, is certainly Broadway bound, but tonight—tonight—Chicago is the center of theater in the world.

That’s the story of Chicago theater in the zeroes: the decade in which it grew up and got big. Whether it’s the launch and monumental success of Broadway In Chicago, the maturation and astonishing quality of a remarkable number of small and mid-sized companies or the increasing demand for Chicago product and Chicago talent on Broadway, Chicago theater has fully come into its own.

That’s not to say all is well, though. We’ve seen our share of flops, of the surprising demise of once-promising companies, of others fighting for their lives in a decade bookended by tremendous financial strife, especially for mid-sized nonprofits. And comfort always threatens to beget complacency, the enemy of art.

Real Estatists might even say the story of theater in this decade is simply the story of space: this is the decade in which the Goodman moved into its deluxe North Loop location, Chicago Shakespeare situated itself on Navy Pier, Lookingglass occupied the Water Tower Works, Victory Gardens took over the Biograph, Writers’ Theatre took a second, larger space better matched to its talents, ambitions and now $3.2 million budget. Raven Theatre moved into a impressive space up on the Far North Side. In fact, without the late-nineties rehabs of the masterpiece Oriental and the Palace theaters in the Loop, there could be no Broadway in Chicago. What real estate bringeth, it sometimes taketh: Bailiwick Repertory dissolved under the weight of its rent payments; Victory Gardens spent as much of its creative energy fending off board machinations related to real estate issues. The Theater Building broke its heart with tussles over its stewardship. The Athenauem Theatre broke all our hearts when its gentle impresario, Fred Solari, suddenly died in 2006. Live Bait, Lunar Cabaret, The Ivanhoe Theater—all gone. So, too, the legendary Hull House Theater, where Bob Sickinger invented Off-Loop Theater in the early sixties, and a young David Mamet discovered part of his muse. At decade’s end, this story continues, as the relatively lesser-known Theater Wit prepares a $1.2 million rehab of the old Bailiwick Center, opening next spring, with co-inhabitants to include Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Shattered Globe Theatre and Stage Left Theatre.

Roche_Schulfer

Goodman Executive Director Roche Schulfer

When it comes to real estate, few perches match Roche Schulfer’s, both literally and figuratively. The longtime executive director of the Goodman Theatre, where he’s worked his entire career since starting off in the box office in 1973, Schulfer deserves a substantial share of the credit for the successful creation of the Chicago Theatre District in the North Loop. Not only did he plan and oversee the Goodman’s 2000 move out of its original home in the Art Institute into a state-of-the-art facility at 170 North Dearborn, thus bringing critical credibility and a powerful local connection to what could have otherwise become little more than a ghost town of marquees populated by occasional Broadway carpet-baggers, but as founder and a longtime leader of the League of Chicago Theatres board, he played a pivotal role in bridging the common cause of theater makers of all shapes and sizes, from the large-scale commercial enterprise that is Broadway In Chicago, to the tiny new nonprofit storefronts like Red Tape Theatre and, in doing so, helped foster an extraordinarily collegial coalition between these seemingly disparate interests. (“Everyone’s at the table at the same time,” Schulfer says. “Everybody’s successes benefit everyone else.”) Throw in thirty-plus years of producing theater at the highest level, with the stage’s biggest talents, and you’d not be surprised to find a hint of hubris, some well-earned egotism emanating from his office at the Goodman—except there’s none of it. A polished, cordial, carefully spoken man, even Schulfer’s office, spacious but not ostentatious, with a good view but not a masters-of-the-universe vantage, reflects his self-effacing style. The walls are lined with framed posters of Goodman shows of past and more recent vintage, and there is a distinct subtext of baseball. A bowl of baseballs, in fact, sits upon his coffeetable, and a smattering of White Sox memorabilia adorns his workspace, including his prized framed collection of the starting lineup of the 1959 Go-Go White Sox baseball cards, cards he says he bought himself as a lifelong fan.

Schulfer heaps the credit for the North Loop theater district on another stalwart White Sox fan, Mayor Richard Daley, who he credits with not only the original idea, but also the commitment to seeing through downtown arts projects of various genres, from the refurbishing of the Lyric Opera and Symphony Center to the development of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing to the theater district aligned along Randolph Street. “The concentration of cultural activity in the Loop is phenomenal,” he says. “I’m pretty sure you won’t find this kind of cultural concentration anywhere else in the country.” Roche notes that the payoff to the city—increased activity and spending downtown in restaurants, in shopping nearby, in parking fees—is tangible and meaningful.

The payoff for the Goodman hasn’t been too bad either. The budget’s almost doubled, from just over $10 million to $17.5 million dollars and attendance is up about 25 percent since the move. But Schulfer’s a theater producer—he seems much more excited about the opportunities for certain kinds of shows, for certain kinds of collaborations that the new facility has afforded, specifically mentioning Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince and Tommy Tune as folks they could not have worked with before, not to mention their ability to work collaboratively with Off-Loop companies in the smaller Owen theater.

Schulfer’s seen a lot in his unprecedented run at the Goodman, but he’s not ready to sit back and bask in all that he, and Chicago theater in general, have accomplished. “We’re too busy trying to put plays on,” he says.

Putting plays on has been the core accomplishment of Broadway In Chicago, which didn’t even exist in the nineties. Formed as a joint venture between Live Nation and the powerhouse Broadway producer the Nederlander Organization, now wholly owned by Nederlander, BIC presents a subscription series of touring Broadway shows, ranging from recent Tony-winning blockbusters like “Spring Awakening,” “In the Heights” and “Billy Elliott” to occasional will-it-never-end chestnuts like “Rent,” “Mamma Mia” and “Cats.” In doing so, it keeps the bright and shiny renovated theaters in its domain—the Oriental, the Palace and the Bank of America (formerly the Shubert)—lit up much of the time. This was not the case before their arrival, when the theaters relied on an uneven flow of rentals, and very rare longer runs, to stay out of the dark.

But no one really noticed how much had changed till Febuary, 2001, when “The Producers, the New Mel Brooks Musical” had its world premiere at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on its way to Broadway and fifteen Tony nominations. Starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, it was the hottest ticket in town while it was here, and the local critical raves presaged its success in New York. Though pre-Broadway tryouts were not a new thing to Chicago, few had ever had such an immediate impact. Broadway In Chicago was established.

If “The Producers” put it on the map, “Wicked” put it in the pink. Before “Wicked,” shows usually spent a few weeks at most in town. “Lou Raizin [Broadway in Chicago’s president] working to convince David Stone and the other producers to make ‘Wicked’ a sit-down production in Chicago changed the whole perception of Chicago as a theater market from the producers’ perspective,” Schulfer notes. And a wicked success it was, from the day it opened, in June 2005 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, through its closing, three-and-a-half years later, breaking all kinds of records for Chicago: the longest-running Broadway musical in Chicago’s theater history; the highest-weekly gross in Chicago history, $1,764,428 for the week ending January 4, 2009, and a total attendance of 2.9 million. It didn’t take BIC long to find another candidate for a sit-down production in Chicago, when “Jersey Boys” decamped at the Bank of America Theatre (then called the LaSalle Bank Theatre) in September 2007. More than a million tickets later, it closes on January 10.

For several decades before all this, Off-Loop theater in Chicago had built itself up into the most thriving, vital theater community in the country. Now, at last, it actually has a Loop theater scene to serve as its mainstream counterpoint. In a strange reversal, the rebellion preceded the establishment.

In its earliest, most combustible years, Chicago theater seemed like something of a zero-sum game. For every Steppenwolf success, there was a Remains failure, for every Victory Gardens, there was a Body Politic, for every Northlight, there was a Wisdom Bridge, and so on. Chicago theater seemed to be a get-big-or-get-out place. In this decade, however, something started changing. Small and medium-sized companies started marking twentieth, even thirtieth anniversaries. And they were all over the stylistic map, from the classic Chicago storefront ensemble of Strawdog and Mary-Arrchie, to the meta-theatrics of the Neo-Futurists to the brainy avant-garde of Theater Oobleck. Raven, City Lit, Stage Left, Curious Theatre Branch, Next Theatre, and so on, all turning twenty, thirty. Maybe not thriving, except artistically, but surviving. And most of them were growing, slow but steady, from decade to decade. And once in a while, lightning struck.

The end of September is always the most exciting time of the year in theater, as all the major ensembles kick off new seasons full of promise and wonder, and this year was no different, except for one major difference. For the most exciting spot in Chicago theater at the end of this September was in New York, on Broadway, where Steppenwolf’s production of the new Tracy Letts play, “Superior Donuts,” opened at the Music Box Theatre, right where his previous play, the Pulitzer and Tony-winning “August: Osage County,” left off. Of course, even before “August: Osage County,” Steppenwolf was no stranger to Broadway. In this decade alone, their remounting of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” collected the 2001 Tony Award for Best Revival. But what was especially unusual about this end of September on Broadway was what opened just two days earlier, across the street at the Schoenfeld Theatre. “A Steady Rain,” a two-hander starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, was opening en route to selling out its limited-engagement three-month run (it closed last week), generating more than fifteen million dollars in box office, and setting the Broadway record for a single week for a non-musical. Though this was a new production for Broadway, the play had been developed and premiered in Chicago, not at the likes of Goodman or Steppenwolf, but at the tiny Chicago Dramatists, where its creator, Keith Huff, had long been a resident playwright.

Brian Loevner and Russ Tutterow

Brian Loevner and Russ Tutterow

About a mile due northwest from the Goodman Theatre, Chicago Dramatists is entering its thirty-first year as a unique, and uniquely important, part of the Chicago theater world. Dramatists is both a development center for playwriting, for which it offers classes year-round, weekly staged readings of new works, and a playwrights network. It also produces its own shows, like “A Steady Rain,” in its modest theater. Classes, taught by accomplished, regularly produced local playwrights, are held in a ramshackle basement. Its artistic director for most of those years, Russ Tutterow, is a gentle teddy bear who’s helped shepherd the careers of the likes of Tina Fey, Rick Cleveland, Rebecca Gilman, Sarah Ruhl and Huff, all of whom spent at least some part of their development days at Dramatists. Tutterow was joined in this decade by managing director Brian Loevner, a veteran of the Off-Loop scene, who’s committed to building the entity into a size commensurate with its reputation. A board member of the League of Chicago Theatres, Loevner brings strong fiscal discipline to complement Tutterow’s artistic leanings. In spite of the challenges imposed by the recent economic crisis, they’re both quite optimistic about the opportunities for new theater in Chicago or, as Tutterow describes it, “This melting pot, this salad bowl is not diminishing; it’s growing.” Tutterow, especially cheered by the embracing, at last, of new works by Chicago theaters, which, according to the League, produced more than 110 world-premiere productions and adaptations during the 2007-08 season, says this was not always the case. “In the eighties, a new play was a play that had not played Chicago yet.” He credits Goodman and Steppenwolf with leading the way in the nineties by hiring new-play developers and literary managers, signalling the importance of new work. Although “A Steady Rain”‘s Broadway manna won’t be directly raining on Dramatists, since it was a new production, Loevner expects to capitalize on its success nonetheless. However, he’s realistic about the challenges, saying that “it’s getting harder to move from mid-size to larger, because there are so many mid-size companies now.”

Loevner’s concern about the evolving economics of theater is echoed by PJ Powers, artistic director of TimeLine Theatre Company, in a survey we conducted about the state of Chicago theater at the end of the decade. “There is an ever-widening gap between large and small theaters, and very few small theatres are growing into mid-sized theatres (and by mid-sized I mean in the $1 million-$4 million budget range),” he wrote. “The majority of mid-sized theaters in Chicago have been mid-sized theaters for many years (i.e. Court, Northlight, Victory Gardens) and perhaps companies like Lookingglass and Writers’ are the only ones who moved into that tier in the last decade.” Ironically, it is Powers’ company, TimeLine, that is the new company (founded in 1997) most often cited as likely to make that next move into the mid-sized range.

Others express concern about growing barriers to entry on the low end, like The Hyporcrites’ artistic director Sean Graney, who writes: “I think that the major change Chicago has undergone in this decade is the cost to make theater has grown incredibly. There are very few cheap spaces for performance and rehearsal. I think this price increase has created a sincere barrier to many talented young artists that come from low or middle income backgrounds. They graduate from college with insane student loans, and they can’t afford to drop $10,000 for a show, as opposed to $750 that it cost The Hypocrites to produce their first show. It makes me sad because this cripples the spectrum of Chicago theater tremendously.” But somehow, they seem to keep starting up, including, in this decade, the side project, TUTA, Theatre Seven, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble and, most famously, The House Theatre of Chicago.

Graney is in the minority when it comes to even modest pessimism about the state of Chicago theater among his peers at other companies. In spite of a decade bookended by crippling economic crises brought on by the twin terrors of suicide bombers and suicide bankers, spirits are high across the spectrum. For in spite of the occasional star flight into or out of town, our theaters are about the work. And work they do, with more than 200 producing theater companies, according to the League, turning out more than 800 total annual productions, or more than two openings every single night of the year. By comparison, New York City hosts 221 professional theater companies, according to Playbill’s directory, meaning Chicago’s breadth and output is now on a par with the nation’s long-running theater capital.

Steppenwolf artistic director, right, with John Procaccino in "Good Boys and True"/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey, right, with John Procaccino in "Good Boys and True"/Photo: Michael Brosilow

With so much, is there a definable Chicago style anymore? A decade or two ago, when Chicago theater was in its relative infancy, a prevailing notion was that our style was best defined by a visceral, physical style of acting, epitomized by Steppenwolf circa “True West” and “Balm in Gilead.” While we still have plenty of that, artistic directors are virtually unanimous in their belief that this no longer defines Chicago, that the defining style is now yet another attribute connected to Steppenwolf, that of the collaborative ensemble. Actors, writers and directors, alongside the various technical crafts like lighting and scenic design, work like some hybrid of family and team, complete with the occasional dysfunction, most recently manifest in this year’s messy breakup of American Theater Company’s management and its ensemble, who left to re-form American Blues. The ensemble approach, which in part enables the startup of new companies by any group willing to share a vision and toil for little or nothing or less, is by its very nature an unstable organism as evidenced by the shards of short-lived highly creative ensembles littering American and Chicago theater history. What Chicago has done is figured out how to grow an ensemble up, gradually replacing labors of love with living wages, while mostly keeping the collegial collaborative spirit intact. These are rarely monogamous units, with incestuous cross-pollination of ensembles a cherished way of life (as Loevner at Chicago Dramatists points out, even at his small organization, nearly everyone who works there is a member of another even smaller ensemble; the relative stability of working at Dramatists affords them that risk), meaning that turf wars and animosity are a fairly rare occurrence in these parts. Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey sees it as evolution: “That Chicago style, coming out of Steppenwolf in the seventies and eighties—intense, psychologically urgent acting—still exists.” It is a natural outgrowth of an ensemble, though she notes the expansion of the theatrical vocablulary to include a vaster, more visual aesthetic being driven by the likes of Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman. “Overall, the Chicago style has grown very sophisticated,” she says, “but I don’t doubt that it remains anchored in the visceral, the loud.”

Chicago in this decade also became known as the city where even politicians loved the theater. The mayor crusaded on behalf of the downtown theater district, and even hosted a gaggle of his fellow city chieftans at a recent “Jersey Boys” outing. Barack Obama, America’s first black president, is also America’s first Chicago president, and his penchant for the theater, cultivated in his hometown, has been on display, from his celebrated “Broadway date night” with Michelle, to the recent performance of our own Redmoon ensemble at the White House. We can’t contemplate a theater-loving president of color without acknowledging the growing role of diversity in Chicago theater, from the early and still thriving vanguard of eta and Black Ensemble Theatre, to the somewhat more recent vintages of Teatro Vista, Teatro Luna, Silk Road Ensemble and Congo Square, not to mention the likes of sexual-identity explorers like About Face and Hell in a Handbag. Our major companies increasingly weave diversity into their fibers as well. Court Theatre, closely cloistered within the University of Chicago, increasingly flourishes by speaking to its African-American neighbors, as evidenced in its most successful production ever, last year’s “Caroline, Or Change.” But no one has made diversity so front and center as The Goodman. Schulfer says that commitment dates back to his earliest days, when Greg Mosher was artistic director. “We said if we want to be the leading theater in Chicago, we have to connect to all of its stories. Not just as a diversity project, but as part of the very fabric of the institution.” Goodman may have started with colorblind casting, but over time hired the likes of Chuck Smith, Regina Taylor and Henry Godinez as artistic leaders, and made a conscious effort to have people of color on its board. It shows.

It might seem that Chicago theater has filled in every niche, every opportunity, whether it’s constituent-based, stylistic or even genre-defined companies (we have comedy theaters, of course, but we also have puppeteers and horror theaters), but we still seem to have one fairly gaping hole. Our theater mostly comes from Chicago or New York, with very little exposure to what’s being practiced outside our borders, outside our language and customs. Chicago Shakespeare has an acclaimed “World’s Stage” series, and Goodman included both European and Latin American theater companies in its O’Neill festival earlier this year to astonishing effect, but we actually saw more global theater in the late-eighties/early nineties when the biannual International Theatre Festival was bringing in the best of the world as a matter of practice. This is a not a trivial issue in a world increasingly defined by its globalization, and seems to be a problem fairly unique to theater. Chicagoans are routinely exposed to musicians, dancers and visual artists from countries around the globe.

We may be lousy importers, but we’re getting to be pretty good exporters, as Chicago productions and Chicago talent increasingly makes itself known in New York and London. And where it once was nearly the exclusive purview of Goodman and Steppenwolf, who still travel comfortably in those spaces, now it’s some of our small companies making the big splashes, like Next Theatre’s “Adding Machine” and The Hyprocrites production of “Our Town” that helped make David Cromer a hot commodity in New York, even if his Broadway dalliance with Neil Simon cooled things off a bit. Writers’ Theatre, arguably the success story of the decade, rocketing from a small company at the end of the nineties to a substantial operation today, set theater records in New York with its production of “Crime and Punishment” in 2007 and is in the process of preparing to move “A Minister’s Wife,” its musical version of Shaw’s “Candida,” to New York. Chicago on Broadway? It’s almost not news anymore.

As Steppenwolf’s Lavey puts it, “Chicago theater is in a very good moment right now, with national attention as the site for new plays, new artists. Chicago artists are very proud to be from here.” That ability to stay here and still “make it big” has a profound effect on the talent pool in Chicago, as does the blockbuster success of Broadway In Chicago, for the more financially rewarding work that can be had, coupled with the opportunity to find fame and fortune without moving to the coasts, the more talent will arrive and stay. And, increasingly, come back. William Peterson was a major force in Chicago theater’s golden age in the seventies and eighties, but eventually ended up in Hollywood, most recently as the star and producer of the top-rated “CSI.” He famously left that show at its peak to return to Chicago in 2008, where he joined the Steppenwolf ensemble and has occupied himself on their stage as well as Victory Gardens since. One of the first things actor Michael Shannon did after his Academy Award nomination for “Revolutionary Road” was to return to his home base at A Red Orchid Theatre and star in “Mistakes Were Made.” Cromer, fresh off Broadway, is returning for a show at Writers’ in the spring, one of his regular haunts, but is also taking a turn at the tiny stalwart Mary-Arrchie Theatre. The work, the collaborations, have reached mythical status.

American Buffalo then and now:  J.J. Johnson, Mike Nussbaum and William H. Macy in the Goodman's 1975/76 production

American Buffalo then and now: J.J. Johnson, Mike Nussbaum and William H. Macy in the Goodman's 1975/76 production

Francis Guinan and Tracy Letts in Steppenwolf's current production/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Francis Guinan and Tracy Letts in Steppenwolf's current production/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Three days after “The Addams Family” brought the bright lights to Randolph Street, the place it all began, The Second City—Mamet swept here!—celebrated its fiftieth birthday with a weekend of events that featured a who’s who of American comedy, most of whom eventually left town to find their fame and fortune. At the same time, “American Buffalo” opened at Steppenwolf in a whirl of what is now living Chicago theater history. Amy Morton, originally of the legendary Remains ensemble and later of Steppenwolf, directs. Tracy Letts, fresh off his back-to-back Broadway runs as a playwright, delivers a tour de force performance as the livewire Teach. Francis Guinan, perhaps the consummate Steppenwolf ensemble actor, plays Don, the junkshop owner. Back in 1975, when “American Buffalo” had its world premiere in a Goodman Stage 2 production, Schulfer was instrumental in getting it on stage, even tracking down the Ruth Page facility that would give it its first home. Patricia Cox was one of playwright David Mamet’s partners in founding the St. Nicholas Theatre Company that would take over with “American Buffalo” when the Goodman left off. Cox is now chair of the Goodman board. A polarizing, controversial work of theater when it premiered, now widely considered one of Mamet’s finest works, “American Buffalo” is a Chicago classic, and this production flows with Chicago theater’s founding blood. But as fine as it is, it’s nothing new.

The raw spirit that all these patriots once unleashed on Chicago, and the world, still exists, perhaps in a future generation. Will we know it when it happens? Maybe not, if Sean Graney’s right. “I would love a young company just to come out and knock audiences on their asses, and not worry about longevity, financial success, or getting good reviews,” he writes. “But that’s not going to happen.”

Ah, disillusionment. The seed corn of great art.

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