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Chicago by John Olson

A Theater of Our Own: A History and Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago, by Richard Christiansen

A Theater of Our OwnThough it lacks an iconic name like Broadway or Hollywood, the theatre scene in Chicago has for at least the past fifty years had its own unique and significant role in the dramatic arts of America. With the publication of A Theater of Our Own: A History and Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago, it finally has a concise, entertaining history and summary of the theatre community that gave the nation the likes of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, Bill Murray and John Belushi, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and David Mamet and Joe Mantegna, written by a man who had aisle seats to observe most of it first hand.

Richard Christiansen retired as chief drama critic for the Chicago Tribune in 2002 after a career of more than 40 years as an arts journalist with the old Daily News as well as the Trib. Accordingly, he's able to describe the productions and performers in such precise detail as to give the reader a strong feeling of being there. As he says in his introduction to the book, "Writing about theater, you quickly come to realize that the experience you're trying to describe already has vanished." With four decades of his own reviews to prompt his memory, he's the perfect writer to create this memoir.

Yet, he delivers on his promise to provide a history as well as a memoir and starts his narrative on Chicago theatre long before he was around to review it - in 1837, the year Chicago was incorporated as a city and the year in which Chicago's first legitimate theatre performance was given. Telling the first 120 years quite succinctly, in about as many pages, he shows how the history of a theatre community cannot be told without explaining the history of the community and the history of the theatre itself.

Beginning in pioneer times, when itinerant performers brought the only type of dramatic art then in existence to a rough and tumble frontier town, Chicago was for many decades in the shadow of the New York theatre community, though it did contribute some footnotes to theatre history. For example, the first stage production of The Wizard of Oz was performed in Chicago in 1902 - as a musical featuring lyrics by Chicagoan L. Frank Baum! A year later, the worst building fire in American history occurred when a fire in the new Iroquois Theatre took the lives of 600 theatregoers - just under one third of the audience at a family matinee on December 30, 1903. It's a story precursing that of the Titanic, in which greedy owners rushing to open the city's greatest, grandest theater in time for the holidays ignored basic safety standards and caused twice the number of deaths of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Another major moment in Chicago and American theatre history occurred in December 1944 when the powerful critic Claudia Cassidy wrote a glowing review of a new play called The Glass Menagerie that launched the career of Tennessee Williams.

Though he recounts this early history in fascinating detail, this reader could sense Christiansen's heart taking flight when he gets to the beginning of the era in which present-day Chicago theatre was born - and roughly coinciding with the beginning of his career as a theatre critic. Though Chicago theatre had an independent, socially conscious streak beginning with the theatre company associated with social worker Jane Addams' Hull House in the 1890s, Christiansen marks the beginning of the modern era with the founding of The Second City comedy theatre in December 1959. It was one of the first companies to produce new material and nurture new talent, many of whom would become major national celebrities. Directed by Paul Sills, sketches dealing with political satire, social commentary and family relationships were performed by cast members including Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein and later, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eugene Levy and Martin Short.

From here, he begins to outline the factors that created a unique and vital theatre community. A new theatre company founded in 1963 by the Hull House organization (now located on Chicago's north side) began the tradition of independent, serious theatre away from the downtown Loop scene. Christiansen notes, "[the city's theatre culture] was to grow organically, from the bottom up, in homes converted from former warehouses, bowling alleys, laundries and bakeries. These theatres, founded by youthful, ambitious and poor artists, would spring up away from downtown without lavish facilities, without big budgets and without (at first) much official support." By the latter 1960s, numerous small independent companies emerged, many of them socially conscious, perhaps as an outgrowth of 1960s activism.

Without governmental sponsorship or a big civic performing arts center, such as New York's Lincoln Center, Chicago artists began to form "theaters of their own." These companies included Chicago City Players, Free Street Theater and Victory Gardens, among others. With several major University theatre programs nearby, including Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola and the Illinois State in Normal, Illinois, there was, as now, a steady flow of ambitious young artists ready for a chance to work. Lacking the immediate opportunities for better paying work in TV or films that they might find in New York or LA, they had little distraction from a focus on the work of their small, independent companies.

An explosion of the Chicago off-Loop theatre scene began in the 1970s, when groups like Stuart Gordon's Organic Theater were founded. Organic introduced to Chicago playwright David Mamet's first full-length play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and created the enduring hit Bleacher Bums, written and featuring Joe Mantegna, in which a group of eccentric Chicago Cubs fans wait for a pennant as dutifully as Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot. Other companies to be founded during this decade included Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge, Victory Gardens, Northlight and St. Nicholas, which introduced the likes of John Malkovich, Joan Allen, William L. Petersen, Robert Falls, Frank Galati and William H. Macy. This era also featured the re-establishment of the Goodman as a professional resident theatre after 38 years as a student theatre, and in the 1970s it introduced much of Mamet's early work.

As the list of recognizable theatre, film and TV names will attest, many of these Chicago artists went on to great success. In fact, one of the most popular and durable successes of the past thirty years, the musical Grease, was written and first produced (in 1971) by members of the community. The quintessential upstart theatre company, however, (and inspiration to hundreds of young artists since then) has been the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Founded in a suburban church school basement in 1974 by recent college grads Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry, Steppenwolf gradually added to its company performers including John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Terry Kinney and Laurie Metcalf. Steppenwolf moved to the city in 1980, where they made a reputation for themselves with Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead two years before their production of Sam Shepard's True West, featuring Malkovich and Perry, transferred to New York's Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre.

In addition to dedicated chapters on the best-known Chicago companies of the era (including Second City, Steppenwolf, Goodman, Victory Gardens, and Organic), Christiansen surveys dozens of other companies that have produced significant work. Before he summarizes his thesis in the final chapter, we're already convinced. What makes Chicago theatre what it is? Largely it's dedication to "the work," a term Christiansen says is heard frequently here. It's also the constant influx of young, ambitious talent anxious to perform the work. It's access to the large audience pool afforded by a major metropolitan area of over six million, a place where young talent has a chance to grow and be supported by enthusiastic audiences and supportive reviewers like Richard Christiansen. Reading his book made me sorry I missed so many of the productions that created this community, but it gave me a strong feeling of what the experiences must have been like.

A Theater of Our Own, Northwestern University Press, 300 pp., $29.95. Beginning November 16th, the book will be on sale at The League of Chicago Theaters three Hot Tix locations: 78 W. Randolph, 163 E. Pearson (in the Water Works Visitor Center on Michigan Avenue), and at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., in Skokie and on-line via the League of Chicago Theatres' web site, http://www.chicagoplays.com. It will be available from other online and traditional retailers, like Amazon.com in November.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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