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?