Chicago theater: second to none

WHEN local playwright David Mamet wrote those lines, first performed on stage in 1977 in a tiny Chicago theater called the St. Nicholas, he could not have known how prophetic they would be. Although the St. Nicholas no longer stands and Mr. Mamet's success has squired away this favorite son to Hollywood and New York, Chicago's resident theaters have risen to unprecedented national prominence. After years of serving as a stop for third-rate touring companies and laboring under The New Yorker's infamous nomenclature of ``The Second City,'' Chicago and its theaters are now second to none. ``Chicago is the hottest theater town in America right now,'' Peter Sellars, artistic director of the American National Theater, said last summer.

Indeed, what began in the late 1950s with a small group of local acting students devoted to improvisation has today blossomed into a citywide, grass-roots theater movement with nationwide impact. The signs are abundant:

In the past six years, the number of resident Chicago theaters has increased fivefold, from 22 in 1979 to more than 110 in 1985. Chicago theater audiences now outnumber those in every city in the country except New York.

In 1984, Chicago's oldest resident theater, the Goodman Theatre, produced the two most important plays of the year -- Mamet's ``Glengarry Glen Ross'' and David Rabe's star-studded Broadway hit, ``Hurlyburly.''

The 10-year-old Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which blitzkrieged the Off Broadway theater scene in New York with four critically acclaimed productions in three years, won this year's Tony Award for regional theater excellence and is widely regarded as the finest acting company in the country. Several members -- Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, and Academy Award nominee John Malkovich -- are now in hot demand.

The Wisdom Bridge Theatre, another respected Off Loop theater, this year sent its production of ``In the Belly of the Beast'' on a critically acclaimed tour to London and Glasgow. The production was also seen in Washington.

Mr. Sellars, in conjunction with AT&T, brought four Chicago productions to national attention last summer with special performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

``Chicago has always been a tough town, in which theater was never taken seriously as industry until the past five years,'' says Robert Falls, outgoing director of the Wisdom Bridge and newly appointed artistic director of the Goodman. ``Now it's recognized as an industry we can all harness.'' INDEED, Chicago's preeminence on the boards is not only boosting the nation's nonprofit theater movement but is also stimulating its commercial counterpart. Already, two new Chicago shows, Steppenwolf's revival of Harold Pinter's ``Caretaker'' and the Victory Gardens Theater's ``God of Isaac,'' are slated for New York openings.

In seeking an explanation for such singular success, critics point to a unique production style -- an invigorating blend of youthful energy and hip theatricality, which marries rock-and-roll rhythms with controversial topics and a no-holds-barred acting technique. Wisdom Bridge's recent high-tech production of ``Hamlet,'' and many Steppenwolf productions, including the current Off Broadway hit ``Orphans,'' encapsulate this approach.

Local observers, however, are less sanguine. ``People in Chicago have seen that work, but they've never labeled it a `Chicago style,' '' says Mr. Sinise, a Steppenwolf actor and artistic director. ``It's just something different than Manhattan was used to seeing.''

``There is a Chicago style, but I don't think it's all that easily definable,'' says Mr. Falls. ``It has to do with a sort of immediacy and unpretentiousness. In New York you see people who are scared for their careers most of the time . . . . In Chicago, it's just fun. Chicago theater doesn't take itself all that seriously.''

Indeed, if anything defines a Chicago theater style, it is what goes on behind the scenes. Interviews with actors, playwrights, and artistic directors here reveal that the two most prized commodities within the Chicago theater scene are a sense of community and the opportunity to take artistic risks.

``One of the extraordinary things about Chicago is that it has provided a chance to fail as well as succeed, which is the only way that work ever gets better, that work ever gets risky, that work ever gets creative,'' Falls says.

In this context, Chicago's geographic isolation and nontheater tradition -- ``theatergoing in Chicago has traditionally been elitist,'' says Susan Trevelyan-Syke, board president of the Chicago Shakespeare Company -- were turned to good advantage by a wave of Chicago artists determined to forge a theatrical identity in the nation's heartland.

In the late 1960s, encouraged by the growing national reputations of Mamet and the Second City's improvisational theater, several groups of local actors coincidentally but simultaneously formed a series of exotically named storefront theaters across the city's northern fringes. Above hardware stores and in former restaurants, these tiny theaters -- Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge, Body Politic, and the Organic, among others -- were born out of a new artistic concept and several rows of folding chairs.

``What changed wasn't a new demand for more theaters,'' says Brian Finn, artistic director of the Next Theatre Company, a small Off Loop theater. ``What changed was the artists' need to work [in Chicago].''

The Off Loop theaters were buoyed by an unusually enthusiastic local press. ``The critics have witnessed the growth of Chicago theater as a hometown force and have been very supportive,'' one director explains. Also helpful were Chicago's relatively benign real estate rates. ``At $500 a month for a storefront [there was] no problem paying rent, even with a disas trous box office,'' another director says. As a result, the fledgling Off Loop theaters were afforded the greatest of artistic luxuries -- the

opportunity to experiment.

And experiment they did. Over the years, the Organic and Victory Gardens theaters gained a reputation for producing daring new work, while other companies, including the Steppenwolf and the Remains Theatre Ensemble, emerged as first-rate acting ensembles. While some of these theaters have soared to national prominence, others have encountered financial and artistic hard times. But each company has maintained a unique identity.

``The great thing about Chicago is, it's a place where one can forge out a theatrical identity -- you can put a company together, get reviewed, and learn your craft by actually doing it,'' says Falls. ``That there are so many emerging theaters is testament to that fact.''

A decade after that initial creative spurt, a second wave of Off Loop theaters, accompanied by a flurry of new improvisational groups, is cresting. Opening at the rate of two to three a month, according to the League of Chicago Theatres, these new nonprofit companies are renting out the storefronts, setting up their folding chairs, and hoping for some measure of recognition.

``In 1975 we saw what Wisdom Bridge and Body Politic and Victory Gardens did,'' says Next Theatre's Mr. Finn. ``Suddenly a lot of companies were saying, `Hey, let's put on a show.' ''

The new companies ``don't have very much patience. After six months they think they should be getting the reviews,'' says Rondi Reed, a Steppenwolf actor. ``They forget we worked very hard for 10 years, and they're not allowing time for their own growth.''

It is an attitude that illustrates the new priorities and problems associated with the rapidly growing Chicago theater scene. While the newer theaters are struggling to find and maintain an audience, many of the older Off Loop houses are building subscriber bases and boards of trustees. ``We need continuity and consistency so when the media spotlight shifts we're still doing our best,'' one director explains. Among the theaters there is a growing survival-of-the-fittest mentality.

``In the past three years 75 theaters have opened,'' says Diane Economos, director of the League of Chicago Theatres. ``It's ridiculous to think that 75 theaters are going to make it.''

``It's like a shark tank; we're all going for the same funding and same plays,'' says Michael Maggio, artistic director of the Northlight Theatre. ``There is market saturation, in terms of funding and talent and audience.''

``The interest in theater here has grown tremendously,'' says Roche Schulfer, managing director of the Goodman. ``But financial support is lagging behind. The reality of the situation is that most Off Loop theaters operate on a shoestring and can't pay their artists.''

A theatergoing audience that is static in size -- with the exception of Steppenwolf's soaring subscriber base -- and limited local corporate and foundation support have kept nearly every resident Chicago theater operating on the cheap. Of the 110 resident theaters, only one-third have attained Equity union status.

``The bottom line is, we have to start paying our people and educating local corporate sponsors,'' says the theater league's Mrs. Economos. ``Every theater is facing a potential deficit. We don't want to lose another St. Nicholas.''

To that end, the league is improving the theaters' marketing techniques. It has introduced public-service announcements on TV and a discount ticket booth. ``We're also encouraging more locally produced commercial plays so Steppenwolf doesn't have to take `Orphans' to New York to make money,'' Economos adds.

What is likely to characterize the next step for drama in Chicago is the development of new commercial theaters. With every nonprofit theater except the Goodman still operating with fewer than 300 seats, the opening of three new 300-plus-seat commercial theaters -- Briar Street Theatre and the under-construction Royal George Theater and Chicago Theatre Center -- is being greeted with enthusiasm.

``The big problem in Chicago now is the absence of an upper-end market,'' says Warner Crocker, artistic director of the Absolute Theatre. ``As it is now, there is no place to move or grow to. As artists, this is sorely needed.''

Maintaining a local atmosphere conducive to continued progress is a high priority among theater heads, who have witnessed the growing lure of New York and Hollywood for the more successful Chicago artists. Playwright Mamet, former Goodman artistic director Gregory Mosher, Organic artistic director Stuart Gordon, and several Steppenwolf and Remains actors have left Chicago. As one observer put it, ``We want to eliminate the talent drain.''

Beyond improving the financial opportunities within the city, artistic directors speak of pursuing additional artistic challenges, including the development of local playwrights, new play series, and different stage techniques.

``If Chicago is to go to the next step it needs to see new scripts coming out of here,'' says Rick Cleveland, a young local playwright. ``Right now, Chicago doesn't have one theatrical agent.'' Tom Riccio, newly appointed artistic director of the Organic Theater, says, ``The theaters opening up now are clones of Steppenwolf and Second City. There is a strong realistic and improvisation tradition here, but not much experimental. Chicago needs to grow up.''

Despite such growing pains, the local loyalties persist. ``This is where I belong,'' says Dennis Zacek, artistic director of the Victory Gardens Theater. ``No matter what, there's going to be one guy up on Lincoln Avenue still going. I'm devoted to Chicago, and I'm not alone.''

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