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The Play's the Thing

Storefront Theaters Lead The Way


The Chicago storefront theatre, a phenomenon without which I wouldn't have much of a career, has always been a leader in the production of new work for the stage. From my first interaction with its dissident magnificence in the dim basement of Caf? Voltaire 12 years ago, its by-the-seat-of-your-pants vibe and its passionate searching for theatrical beauty quickly had me hooked. In those places I found comfort (and during a few frustratingly terrible productions a need for angry analysis), which solidified my reasons for why I wanted to live and work in Chicago. New work was allowed to breathe on those stages--the stakes were low, random press might show up, and actors who performed there were willing to try nearly anything.

These days it seems like many of the folks who hunkered down in those makeshift control booths and closet-sized backstages have moved on to bigger and more established Chicago playhouses. It occurs to me, however, that these once 'produce in the street if you have to' purveyors of fine theatre haven't lost what it was that drew them into those dark and dusty former bakeries and hardware stores in the first place. The longing for new voices, coupled with an intriguing dramatic vision, didn't evaporate with a jump in the ranks. In fact, this longing grew.

This longing fosters Chicago theatre's interest in new work, such as Timeline Theatre Company's Hannah and Martin by Kate Fodor, Steppenwolf's entire 2005-2006 season of new work, along with their own First Look Repertory of New Work, and The Goodman's upcoming New Play Fest. Theatres large and small are realizing the value of risk-taking. John Patrick Shanley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt, said in a recent New York Times interview, "Playwrighting is the last great bastion of the individual writer." This statement sheds a keen light on why more new plays are popping up. Audiences, hungry for voices not filtered by networks, movie studios or focus groups, come to the theatre hoping for a fresh perspective and a newly formed vehicle for participation. Tied to this hunger and participation is the trust the audience places in the producer's willingness to support these voices. This, in turn, assists in defining the producer (and the company at large) as one who believes new work should be given a public forum to discuss its ideas, first time out of the box.

Beginning with the success of Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living at the small Circle Theatre in Forest Park in 1998, Chicago theatres have become increasingly enamored with producing original work. If a new play is a success, there is often "local angle" coverage in the press, and if the play turns out to be an over-the-top hit (as was The Glory of Living), the theatre becomes known as the place where the play was nurtured and discovered. Few circumstances are better for a small theatre (or a large one, for that matter, especially in the case of Ms. Gilman's next effort, The Goodman's absorbing production of Spinning into Butter in 2000). Attention sells tickets, and a company that gains attention holding the title of "original cast" has an excellent chance of prospering.

Will this current interest toward new plays continue? With the national profile of organizations such as Chicago Dramatists--a play development group--as well as smaller theatres that focus on new work, one can only hope that there will continue to be a wave of talented people supporting newly minted scripts. Attesting to this, a few weeks ago I saw a production of Julian Sheppard's new play Buicks, produced locally by The Precious Mettle Theatre Company. The show was being presented at The Side Project in Rogers Park, which has a tiny 30-seat house squeezed between the "L" tracks and a convenience store. David Parkes (recently in One Arm at Steppenwolf and in my own play, American Dead, at American Theatre Company) and I noted as I read my program that even in this small venue, the actors, director and designers were all some of Chicago's best. As I watched the performance, I saw each of them giving themselves over to this new work and believing wholly in its power. This belief undoubtedly paid off--that night's show was completely sold out. o

Brett Neveu is the author of Eric LaRue, 4 Murders and the upcoming Heritage, which will be presented by the American Theatre Company in the spring. He's also an ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theatre.

Published: October 01, 2005
Issue: November 2005