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My Kind of Tone

Chicago-grown theater is a strange little cog that has the potential to make the whole mess go kerflewie if it's not manager correctly, and Chicago theater artisits are the last ones who ever want (or need) to be managed (street theater of the '60s and '70s is a prime example).

    I had only been living in Los Angeles for a month when I was
called back to Chicago. I had a reading of a new play called Gas For
Less at the Goodman Theatre as a part of their New Stages Series, and
I was staying downtown. It was actually hotter in Illinois than it
was in California, and it was also marathon weekend, so the streets
were jammed with runners training, tourists sweating and commuters
shuffling along in between. I felt out of sorts, as I had been
dealing with many non-theater-related things (post-move broken
furniture, baby with the croup, my wife interviewing for a new job),
so my mind took awhile to sink back into the vibe that is Chicago.
What I found after I began to sink (and think) was something I
hadn’t noticed before. What I found was the striking good and bad
that defines the joy and struggle of participating in Chicago’s off-
Loop (and Loop) theater scene.
    I had fallen in love with the weather in Los Angeles, like
everyone seems to, upon arrival. Heading back to Chicago, I felt the
weary combination of humidity and concrete with every step I took.
Either over-dressed or under-dressed, I was both cold and hot,
constantly feeling like hiding in a climate-controlled coffee shop
until I could get my mind straight. After walking all over downtown
and beyond (I refused, as a matter of principle, to rent a car), I
began to discover something that I hadn’t noticed in my decade-and-a-
half as a resident. Chicago is hard. How did I miss that before? Was
I delirious? I knew that most times the trains don’t do what you’d
like them to do, that construction is long in process and short in
    The thing I discovered, though, is that Chicago’s triple threat
of disappointment, anger and basic urban frustration actually work to
create a tone that helps to produce some of the most beautiful pieces
of theater in the country. Chicago’s own blasted state of being, its
get-outta-the-way-of-the-bus exhaustion, its need to both represent
our emotional state yet keep that state deeply covered makes for a
super-abrasive spark of conflict that can be found in no other place.
    New York lets artists be artists (and may even punish you
somehow if you’re not at least a third bohemian). Los Angeles
doesn’t care what you are as long as you’re there for the ride and
you can hang on for at least long enough to help out. Chicago makes
you prove that you can take it, that you mean business and you’re
not going to cave no matter the odds. In a city that works, the
constant question is: where in the workings does theater fit? Chicago-
grown theater is a strange little cog that has the potential to make
the whole mess go kerflewie if it’s not managed correctly, and
Chicago theater artists are the last ones who ever want (or need) to
be managed (street theater of the ‘60s and ‘70s is a prime
example). Chicago theater artists work independently of the system,
chugging along as the trains continue to semi-roll and the
politicians continue to back room deal.
    Pouring out their minds, souls and pocketbooks to produce
theater that charms, challenges and provokes, the majority of Chicago
theater artists are in it for the feel of the thing and that alone.
Whether it’s Steep Theatre’s production of Coronado by Dennis
Lehane or Hell in a Handbag’s production of The Birds, Chicago
theater is often up against a city that tells them they’re not good
enough, not strong enough and not interesting enough. Sometimes the
city is right, but more often the determination to bring vitality,
truth and life to the little storefronts as well as the big houses
serves the community well. These voices push back hard against the
notion that Chicago theater screams only into an empty void.
     Not wanting my train of thought to feel like a backhanded
compliment in some form or another, I must also point out it is true
that Chicago has nice weather on occasion, strong audience support
for new work and insightful remounts, plus a press that cares about
what’s happening in all sorts of venues. The main, down-and-dirty
bit of knowledge I concluded when I sat down for another PBR at the
Old Town Alehouse was this: the more the city denies its love of
artistic expression, the more strong and healthy the expression turns
out to be.

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07