We are “The City That Works.”
Chicago earned that impressive moniker during the tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley. While it originally referred to the powerful Daley political machine, the nickname has stuck. With 250 theatre companies, ranging from 50-seat storefronts to large institutions that produce seasons on multiple stages, Chicago theatre is a City-Within-The City That Works.
The 2018/19 season has seen new theatre spaces under construction, new companies forming, expansion of programming within existing theatres, changes in artistic leadership, devising work created by collectives, collaborations and co-productions between companies…and three different adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Last week I drove by Steppenwolf Theatre’s bustling complex on Halsted Street during a spring blizzard, and slowed down to stare. There were a dozen workers, bundled for the April freeze, drilling down through what was once a parking lot to construct a new 400 seat in-the-round theatre.
Steppenwolf is no stranger to groundbreaking work, whether it relates to its ever-expanding infrastructure or the provocative plays on its stages. This season’s offerings included the world premiere of Chicago playwright Isaac Gomez’s play, La Ruta, which tells the story of a community of women on the U.S./Mexico border, shattered by the abductions and murders of their friends and daughters. Gomez was the co-recipient of the Dramatists Guild’s 2018 Lanford Wilson Award, and this stunning play is part of a growing body of work that puts him in the mix with the powerful voices of a new generation of playwrights.
Downstate, by Bruce Norris, was a co-commission and co-production by Steppenwolf and the National Theatre of Great Britain. It debuted at Steppenwolf in the fall of 2018 and transferred to the National Theatre this spring. Steppenwolf’s season includes a third world premiere, Ms. Blakk for President, co- written by Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Three plays from Chicago playwright Ike Holter’s ambitious seven play cycle, Rightlynd, set in Chicago’s fictitious 51st Ward, debuted on Chicago stages this season. Rightlynd, the first play in the cycle, was produced at Victory Gardens Theater in November. Red Rex, the sixth play in the cycle, was produced at Steep Theatre in January, running nearly concurrently with the Goodman Theatre’s production of the seventh play, Lottery Day.
The Goodman Theatre also hosted “I AM…FEST, A celebration of Women of Color in Arts, Activism, and Leadership,” curated by Reginald Edmund and Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, the co-founders of Black Lives, Black Words. The Festival included an International Ten-Minute Play Showcase, which featured works by Nambi E. Kelley, Loy Webb, and others.
Reginald Edmund, Nambi E. Kelley, Loy Webb, and Isaac Gomez are all affiliated with Chicago Dramatists, Chicago’s only theatre dedicated exclusively to the development of new works and nurturing the playwrights who create them. The company welcomed a new Artistic Director, Carson Grace Becker, this spring. In addition to Chicago Dramatists’ Resident Playwright program, (both Reginald Edmund and Nambi E. Kelley are alumni, and Isaac Gomez is a current member), the company’s Tutterow Fellows include Loy Webb, whose play The Light premiered in Chicago in 2018, and was produced in New York at MCC Theatre this season. Chicago Dramatists Resident Playwright Sandra Delgado’s La Havana Madrid, will be co-produced by Teatro Vista and Collaboraction Theatre this spring. Resident Playwright Kristin Idaszak’s Second Skin had its world premiere at WildClaw Theatre in September, and her Strange Heart Beating will be produced at Cloudgate Theatre this summer. Resident Playwright Kristiana Rae Colón’s Tilikum was produced by Sideshow Theatre and received a nomination for the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work. Colón’s play Good Friday was produced by The Flea in NYC in February 2019. Resident Playwright Will Dunne’s The Red Door Ajar was produced by Artistic Home in their “Cut to the Chase” Festival, August 2018. This is a small cross-section of the work generated and produced by the company’s eighteen Resident Playwrights, twelve Tutterow Fellows, Resident Playwright Alumni, and the dozens of member playwrights who are part of the company’s network.
Silk Road Rising, under the artistic leadership of Dramatists Guild member Jamil Khoury and founding executive director Malik Gillani, presented the world premiere of the one man musical, Detour Guide, written and performed by Karim Nagi, and co-produced with Stage Left Theatre. Detour Guide takes the audience on a tour of the Arab World and Arab America, using lyrics, percussion, and an urban soundscape, and “extolling the virtues of revolution, immigration, and hummus along the way.”
Court Theatre’s season concludes with David Auburn’s world premiere adaptation of Saul Bellow’s novel, The Adventures of Augie March. There are multiple meaningful connections between this project and the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago in which Court is located: Court Theatre is the professional theatre of the University of Chicago, Saul Bellow was a professor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn (Proof) is an alumnus of the University. Court Theatre also presented the world premiere of Frankenstein by Manuel Cinema, adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley, and devised by Drew Dir, Sara Fornace, and Julia Miller, with music by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman.
Lookingglass Theatre is presenting another adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this spring, written and directed by founding ensemble member and former artistic director David Catlin. The company presented two other world premieres: Kareem Bandealy’s Act(s) of God, and David Kersnar and Steve Pickering’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The third Frankenstein to grace Chicago’s stages this season was an adaptation by Robert Kauzlaric staged at Lifeline Theatre. In January, the dynamo Ilesa Duncan became the new Artistic Director of Lifeline, which, in addition to Frankenstein, produced The Man Who Was Thursday, adapted from the G.K. Chesteron novel by Bilal Dardai, and Emma, adapted by Phil Timberlake, as well as a Kids’ Series, a Solo Series and a concert reading series. Duncan is also the Artistic Director of Pegasus Theatre, which produced its 32nd Young Playwrights Festival this season.
Teatro Vista, producing at Victory Gardens Theater, presented the world premiere of The Abuelas, by Stephanie Alison Walker, and as part of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance’s 2nd International Latino Theater Festival, “Destinos,” produced American Jornalero by Ed Cardona, Jr.
It’s impossible to capture all of the inventive, original work that happens in Chicago’s robust storefront theatre scene. What follows is just a sample of the many world premieres offered by the “Off Loop” theaters.
Jackalope Theatre presented both In the Canyon by Calamity West, and Life on Paper by Kenneth Lin. Broken Nose Theatre presented Spenser Davis’s Plainclothes. Strawdog Theatre presented Masque Macabre, an inventive, immersive theatrical experience based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by ensemble member Aly Greaves Amidei, John Henry Roberts, and Cara Beth Heath. City Lit Theatre presented a translation of Prometheus Bound by Nicholas Rudall, featuring original music composed and arranged by Kingsley Day.
Underscore Theatre named a new Artistic Director this season, Whitney Rhodes. The company presented its fifth annual Chicago Music Theatre Festival, featuring Ryan Martin’s The Incredible Six Thousand Foot Ladder to Heaven, J. Linn Allen’s Cancerman, Barton Kuebler’s Moonshiner, A Musical Fabulism, Sarah Frasco’s Lucky, A Musical, Rachael Migler’s Brooke Astor’s Last Affair, Adina Kruskal’s Unison, Jamie Lee Bartschi’s My Dear Watson, Evan Cullinan’s An Artist and the Ember: A Self-Love Story, and Alex Syiek’s Oh Hi, Johnny: The Room-sical Parody.
The theatre scene on Chicago’s dynamic suburban stages includes major institutions, like Writer’s Theatre, which presented the world premiere of Jen Silverman’s Witch in September. Northlight Theatre in Skokie offered the world premiere of Mansfield Park by Kate Hamill. The Paramount Theatre in Aurora will present the world premiere musical August Rush, by Glen Berger and Mark Macina with additional music by Dave Metzger, directed by John Doyle. Gary McGowan’s Scatter the Pigeons received its premiere production at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles.
16th Street Theater in Berwyn presented three world premiere plays by Chicago authors this season: Steven Strafford’s Small Jokes about Monsters, Julia Ganey’s Good Enough, and His Shadow by Loy Webb. 16th Street will also move into a spacious new home inside a repurposed VFW building, supported by the North Berwyn Park District.
In response to my call to Chicago Region members for news of their world premieres for this article, I heard from Wisconsin member Nick Schweitzer, whose Star Wars: The Panto Strikes Back was produced at the Bartell Theater in Madison. Other notable new works produced in Wisconsin include Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh, which was supported by the John D. Lewis New Play Development Program.
Poet Carl Sandburg named Chicago “The City of Big Shoulders.” In this community of playwrights, we stand on the shoulders of many great playwrights like Gloria Bond Clunie, Lydia Diamond, Rebecca Gilman, Tracy Letts, and David Mamet. Even with so many accomplished writers working within our community, Chicago theatres and audiences continue to make room for more. That’s part of the thrill of living in The City That Works: there is an endless variety of new work to suit almost any palate, including Frankenstein, Three Ways.