What is “Chicago-style” Theater?

I realize it might be my ignorance because I stopped seeing four plays a week more than a year-and-a-half ago, but I have no clue what the term “Chicago-style” theater means. I know what Chicago-style pizza and Chicago-style hotdogs are, but “Chicago-style” theater is beyond my comprehension.

The term started appearing in press releases I received a few months ago and I recently noticed it in some reviews. So after a question asked by Denise Schneider, publicity director of the Goodman, I thought I’d try to explore this phrase.

I do see a lot of theater compared to the average person, even though I went a few months without seeing a play this year. While I’m also now seeing theater in Milwaukee and have spent most of my life seeing theater in Iowa, I still see a lot of theater in Chicago compared to the average person. I have seen Broadway musicals getting their out-of-town tryout, plays performed in spaces smaller than my apartment, plays and musicals at the largest theaters in the city, shows at well established and fairly new off-Loop theaters. Maybe this is why I’m confused by the term, not to mention that my mind immediately thinks of food.

Does Chicago-style refer to a certain aesthetic seen in Chicago theater? This doesn’t make sense to me since aesthetic can change depending on what the play is and where it’s being performed, mostly due to space. Does it mean a play with a Chicago director and a cast made up entirely of Chicago actors? It would be nice if all theaters could use local actors, but that doesn’t happen in Chicago. Furthermore, it wouldn’t make sense since the phrase was used in a review of Chicago Shakespeare’s Follies, which did not use an all-Chicago cast. Since “Chicago-style” has been applied to large Equity productions, it couldn’t be a synonym for “small” or “storefront.” The best I can come up with on my own is ensemble-driven or based theater, but then that doesn’t make sense since some of the press releases I’ve seen have not been for theater companies with ensembles.

The closest thing I’ve gotten to a close idea of what a Chicago-style production is came from a tweet Schneider sent me last night after I was kvetching over the use of the term. She tweeted “Couldn’t Mamet be a singular exception?” This in many ways makes sense to me since Mamet has a distinct way of writing and directing style, not to mention I think he’s associated with Chicago theater, but I could be wrong about this.

Does anyone have any suggestions for what Chicago-style theater means? Or is this a term as confusing to others as it is to me?

6 thoughts on “What is “Chicago-style” Theater?

  1. This phrase drives me crazy. I understand that in the earlier days of Steppenwolf, it referred to theatre that was visceral, physically intense, an uncompromisingly realistic. The ensemble tradition was certainly a major factor as well. I just don’t know if that really defines the city’s scene anymore. It’s a major factor, and plenty of intimate, physical, realistic ensemble theatres are in the city. But I’d argue that plenty of places don’t fit that tradition and are still awesome–Court is rarely realistic, Remy Bumppo and Writers’ tend to focus on more language-based plays, Trap Door does mostly European work, Goodman and Chicago Shakes often embrace size and spectacle, even Steppenwolf is doing “Penelope”, which from what I can tell is pretty far from the style of, say, Sam Shepard. All of these companies do fantastic work, and it doesn’t make them any less “Chicago” that they do it in a variety of traditions and styles. Now the term seems to be a catch-all for “full of emotional truth”, but emotional truth is hardly exclusive to Cook County. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful term anymore–the city’s theatre is too varied for it to mean any one thing.

    As for Mamet, it’s been a long time since he lived in, worked in, or generally wrote about Chicago, so I feel like his “represents the city” card may be a little out of date.

  2. While I still see a lot of companies with ensembles, it doesn’t seem to really define Chicago theater, so I agree with you on that. If we go with the definition you gave of early Steppenwolf productions, I don’t know if you can apply that to, say, Follies. (I’m not picking on that show, I just remember seeing it used in a review.) I’d like to think all theater should be “full of emotional truth,” so it shouldn’t be exclusive to Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, or the Midwest.

    I honestly don’t know if people still associate Mamet with Chicago theater. Last I knew, people outside of Chicago now associate Tracy Letts with Chicago theater.

  3. There are probably more ensemble theatres in Chicago than in most cities, so I’m fine with that being seen as part of the city’s identity.

    And Letts actually fits the old “Chicago-Style” type pretty well. It’s not that plays with those attributes aren’t done here, just that the term is far too narrow to describe the city now.

  4. True, but there might be more theaters in Chicago than in maybe any American city other than New York, so it seems to make sense that there are a lot of ensemble theaters.

    I was going to mention that Letts seems to fit the old idea of “Chicago-Style” well, as does Bruce Norris. That isn’t a term I’d use for all Chicago playwrights since two new plays that have opened in New York or are going to New York—Chinglish and A Twist of Water—don’t fit all three of ideas you mentioned for the old “Chicago-Style.”

  5. Here’s a point made on Facebook when I posted this. The person who wrote this tried posting it to here, but it didn’t save.

    “[I]t [the style] is about the style of acting that defines ‘Chicago-style’ theatre. Where the actor talking doesn’t steal the show but highlights the other characters onstage.”

    Any ideas on this?

  6. It’s like Chicago style pizza. It’s some deep shit, but in the middle it’s a little cheesy. And to top it all off, there’s some sauciness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s