There’s More to Theater Than Broadway, Part One: Chicago

Left, the Steppenwolf Theatre, home to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, one of Chicago’s most well known theatre companies.

The subtitle for “The Theater Loop,” the theater blog for the Chicago Tribune, proclaims that it is a blog with “News from America’s hottest theater city.”

Some people might be confused about this subtitle. Chicago is America’s hottest theater city? I thought New York was the mecca of theater in America. While most people associate theater in America with New York City and that subtitle is simply a claim since there are two other Chicago publications have more thorough coverage, to think that Chicago simply has the big Broadway in Chicago shows is a really sad and misinformed thought.

Maybe you could span the horizon a bit more. After all, Chicago is home to the Court Theatre and the Tony Award winning Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre, Victory Gardens Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare. But to quote the 2009 Not for Tourists Guide to Chicago, “You can’t swing Mrs. O’Leary’s cow without hitting a tiny, struggling off-Loop storefront theater.” (Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was the rumored cause of the Great Chicago Fire.)

According to the League of Chicago Theatres, there are more than 190 theater companies in Chicago. That number includes dance companies, college theater groups and children’s theater.

On top of that, in this coming New York theater season and in the past two seasons, there has been a strong presence from Chicago. “August: Osage County”? Came from the Steppenwolf. “Ruined”? Originated at the Goodman. The current production of “Our Town”? The Hypocrites. “The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide”? Also from The Hypocrites. Robert Falls revival of “Desire Under the Elms” that had an air borne house and didn’t do too well on Broadway? From the Goodman. In the upcoming season, there will be a production of “Superior Donuts.” That was done at the Steppenwolf. That show that Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig are supposed to be in originated in Chicago.

Looking at that list, it seems as though at least the “mecca” of American theater has a strong influence from Chicago. (Did I mention that a lot of David Mamet shows started off in Chicago?) It seems to me that Chicago has one of the most vibrant theater scenes in America. Presently, the list of plays I would like to see that are running in Chicago that I won’t be able to see. Although, I might be able to see Victory Gardens’ production of “Blackbird” or “Busman’s Honeymoon” at Lifeline Theater.

But Chicago seems to at least be the starting block for a lot of Chicago artists. I think that if theater in Chicago didn’t matter, there wouldn’t have been a profile on David Cromer on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times in November.

The opportunities that Chicago offers for theater are pretty much limitless. Want to see a non-traditional approach to “Oedipus”? You can see that Chicago. Want to see a big, splashy, bad musical? Well, you can see that on Broadway, but you can also see that in Chicago. I know some people genuinely like big, splashy, bad musicals, henceforth why I mentioned it.

If you have doubts about what to see, I recommend looking at the Chicago Reader or Time Out Chicago‘s theater sections. Those two publications seem to have the most expansive theater coverage. Too lazy to read? Why not try “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”? (which I admittedly haven’t seen yet, but I will once I move out there.)

Or, when there are college productions going on, you could always try a college play. Several colleges have excellent theater programs*. And on that same note, a lot of the smaller theaters have lower ticket prices.

Anyone who claims that the theater scene in Chicago doesn’t matter isn’t aware of what is occurring there. Chicago has an expansive and interesting theater scene that offers many different options to people of differing tastes.

*I would like to say that I am a bit biased towards DePaul University’s Theatre School. Although, DePaul’s Chicago Playworks production of “Alice in Wonderland” is the most brilliantly scary show I have ever seen.


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