This site documents and interprets the growth of theater in Chicago from 1950 to the present.
In this site you will find:
1) the names of as many Chicago theater producing organizations, past and present, as can be reliably verified;
2) The years of their beginnings and, if applicable, endings;
3) The name(s) of and brief biographical information about their founders;
4) The addresses of their performance spaces and/or administrative offices, if they are not members of the League of Chicago Theatres; and
5) Links to maps showing the growth of Chicago theatres and concentration of most on the near North side.
This site first serves the needs and interests of theatre historians and theater educators. Theater professionals, especially those with extensive experience in Chicago theater, are enthusiastically invited to contribute information and opinions that will help make the site accurate, comprehensive, and useful.
I am particularly interested in biographical information about the founders of theaters, especially their educations from pre-school to the start of their professional careers, and the names and backgrounds of their theatrical teachers, coaches, and mentors.
You are invited to send corrections, additions, suggestions, and questions to the site's managing editor, Arvid F. Sponberg, Professor of English, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana, USA, at email@example.com.
The Uniqueness of Chicago Theater
Theater goers and scholars, hearing praise for Chicago theater, may ask "How is theater in Chicago different from theater anywhere else?" The question sounds simple enough but good answers are complex. We have to know about the history of theater generally as well as locally. Then we have to know about why writers, directors, designers, and actors choose to work in Chicago rather than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Finally, we have to know about the nature of Chicago as a community and the ways of living chosen by its citizens. These are large subjects but this prologue, though small, points to some key ideas.
As an art form, theater lives on passion, story, and, when it's excellent, an almost mystical connection between performers and audience. Recalling that Baudelaire compared the theater to "a crystal chandelier," the playwright A.R. Gurney, writes, "When we go to the theater, and take our seats, the chandelier above us illuminates the social world around us, showing where we are, whom we're with and, if we read our program, what we're in for. Even when it dims and the lights rise on the stage, we are reminded by the living presence of the actors, the laughter, the applause, the perceptible hushes, by the very artificiality of the dramatic form, that we have come to a mysteriously significant place." ("A Sacred Place," as reprinted in A. R. Gurney: A Casebook, Routledge, 2004, p. 173)
Many Chicago theaters possess such chandeliers or other impressive lighting systems. The old Goodman theater comes to mind and newer spaces like Court, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, the new Goodman, and Victory Gardens' new space at the Biograph. In the last thirty years, however, most Chicago theater companies achieved significance without chandeliers and the sense of social occasion that they imply. In fact, the far greater portion of theatrical energy in Chicago has been harnessed in spaces which lack fancy electrical illumination. Though they have been poor theaters indeed in their lack of resources, they have not been poor in spirit. Chicago theater companies focus on the inner light provided by the writing, direction and acting.
The origins of theatre also take us back to sacred spaces. Histories of Europe reckon Greece as the birthplace of drama and religious ritual as the midwife. Chicago theater in the last half of the 20th century took nourishment from local universities that acknowledged their debts to European civilization. At a couple of key moments, James Shifflett, an ordained Christian minister, founded a theater company, The Body Politic, and helped others to do the same. He seemed to be immunized against his religion's long and deep distrust of the theater by the theater games of Viola Spolin and her son, Paul Sills. He enrolled his children in Spolin's classes and, as Richard Christiansen writes, " quickly determined that the games, which taught their players to trust and rely on one another, could be used as an instrument of social action and co-operation." (A Theater of Our Own, Northwestern University Press, 2004, p. 149-50).
Perhaps without even being aware of it, Spolin, Sills, and Shifflett were working a vein of theatrical social activism that had been pioneered by Jane Addams and her Hull House theater in the first decades of the 20th century. Christiansen quotes Addams, "Nevertheless, the theater, such as it was, appeared to be the one agency which freed the boys and girls from that destructive isolation of those who drag themselves up to maturity by themselves, and it gave them a glimpse of that order and beauty into which even the poorest drama endeavors to restore the bewildering facts of life. The most prosaic young people bear testimony to this overmastering desire." (A Theater of Our Own, p. 47). And Addams also saw a purpose to theater beyond instructing the young; it could test the prevailing orthodoxies of the age. She wrote: "I have come to believe . . . that the stage may do more than teach, that much of our current moral instruction will not endure the test of being cast into a lifelike mold, and when presented in dramatic form will reveal itself as platitudinous and effete. That which may have sounded like a righteous teaching when it was remote and wordy, will be challenged afresh when it is obliged to simulate life itself." It came to her with "overwhelming force" that the "function of the stage [is] as a reconstructing and reorganizing agent of accepted moral truths." (Twenty Years at Hull House, Bedford/St. Martins, 1999, p. 187-8).
The Significance of Chicago Theater
The growth of Chicago's theatrical creativity is well-known within the professional and academic theater communities. and is often mentioned in reporting on cultural trends. Richard Christiansen's memoir, A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago (Northwestern University Press, 2004) provides a fascinating, readable introduction to this important story. This site gratefully acknowledges Mr. Christiansen's contributions to both the living theater of Chicago and the scholarship that Chicago theater rightly deserves. For theater historians, however, many angles to the story remain to be explored. Despite Mr. Christiansen's best efforts, important additional data are often incomplete, vague, and inconvenient to find. Basic facts - for example, the years theater companies were founded and expired; the names and backgrounds of founders - are less easily available than one would think in the so-called internet age. When data are available, they lack context based on understanding the relationships among people who created Chicago theaters and converging philosophical, religious, political, economic, and ethnic circumstances that allowed theaters to be created.
A clear understanding of these relationships is a matter of more than local interest. Chicago's recent theater history has national and international implications.
To understand those implications, historians must bear in mind that almost all the theater companies listed on this site are incorporated as non-profit organizations. That is, they satisfy the requirements of section 501-c-3 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code which exempts organizations with educational and charitable objectives from paying tax on the money those activities generate. A condition of the exemption is that all revenues earned will return to the organization to advance program objectives. Consequently, and in contrast with commercial organizations, at the end of each fiscal year, there are no "profits" to be divided among shareholders. Hence the label, "non-profit".
The dividing of American theater into two classes - commercial and non-profit - began spottily early in the 20th century, accelerated between 1945 and 1970 and exploded between 1970 and the present. It is the single most important development in U.S. theater history and one of the most important developments in providing access to theater in the 2500-year history of the art form. While evidence for increased access to theatre by audiences can be found in all large - and many smaller - U.S. cities and towns, the process seems to work especially well in Chicago.
On the other hand, it is equally clear that neither class of theater has succeeded in assuring theater artists the means to make a living in theater. It is no accident that almost all the theater companies listed on this site were organized by persons in their late teens and early twenties. Theater growth is sustained by young people with enough energy to work at low-paying, temporary, flexible jobs outside the theater so that they can create, rehearse, and perform inside the theater on evenings and weekends. One of the points this site intends to establish is the extent of the "cost-of-living" attrition inflicted on Chicago theater by the present configuration of philosophical, political, and economic forces.
In the main, then, the growth of Chicago theater is strongly influenced by U.S. tax policy that passively "encourages" people who are so moved to establish charitable and educational organizations. Donations to these organizations, by persons and other organizations, are deductible from federal, state, and local taxes. However, as we shall see, passive encouragement of theatre and the other arts is about as far as political and fiscal strategists will go. Why? What causes wariness of the arts?
A second goal of this site, therefore, is to provide a finer-grained analysis of Chicago's theater history, illuminating the motives and practices that promote the growth of theaters while failing to achieve full-fledged commitment to a role for the theater in the general welfare of the city. The research behind this site will seek the connections among theaters in Chicago and elsewhere and to other kinds of arts organizations.
Until the mid-20th century, orthodox U.S. political theory did not contemplate a role for the arts in the life of the community. Americans - particularly Americans who control budgets - on the whole treat the arts as commodities in the marketplace rather than as public services necessary for a thriving community. Unlike the legal system, fire protection, public health, schools, roads, water systems, and the structure of government itself, theater companies and other arts organizations such as orchestras, museums, opera companies, and dance companies, have merited only token support from the public treasury. In most American communities, funding for the arts, even in the schools, remains on the margins of public planning, if it's present at all. When cuts must be made to a budget, the arts are usually among the first "line items" that managers "zero out". The work of the National Endowment for the Arts, founded in 1965, and of its daughter state arts councils, has barely changed these attitudes. Indeed, the fights in Congress to sustain NEA funding provide some of the best evidence of our confusion and anxiety about the arts. Except for the passive "encouragement" of our tax policy, our national arts policy is, in effect, to not have a policy. In the arts, as in so many others areas of our national life, the U.S. defines itself differently than almost all other nations at comparable levels of social development.
Consequently, all successful U.S. arts organizations - both commercial and non-profit - must compete for and capture private sector resources. Competitive strategies generally take two forms that theaters use simultaneously.
First, each theater company seeks the support of individual members of the public through schemes of marketing and public relations. For established companies, these schemes can be highly complex and represent the latest state of the marketing arts. For a company starting out, the schemes may be as simple as staging a string of dinner parties for well-off friends. You can read an account of one company's efforts to raise money for its own space at . The primary goal of this strategy is to sell tickets to performances, preferably through subscriptions to an entire season of plays. Depending on the company, a "season" may range from as few as three plays to as many as a dozen or more. In the use of this strategy, historians should note, little distinguishes nonprofit from commercial theater.
Second, each company seeks support of private philanthropic foundations and public agencies. As the century waned the application processes became increasingly competitive as the number of both funders and theater companies increased. Historians should note as well that networks of personal relationships among theatre company and foundation staffers often buttress successful grant applications.
These strategic economic constraints profoundly affect U.S. theater as a whole as well as the special disciplines (writing, acting, directing, designing, managing) required to mount a show. More significantly, questions arise about the extent to which theater is helped or hobbled in performing one of its central functions: to "dissect, challenge, and revel in the American experiment," to quote the mission statement of the Shattered Globe theatre company.
Having a policy to not have a policy may be rational in a complex democracy that aims to promote individual creativity. If the arts are not personal, they are nothing. Because theater, music, dance, and imagery reflect private tastes so we try to avoid letting government choose among artists. De gustibus non est disputandum, said a couple of social scientists about the time Chicago theater was beginning to bloom, means that tastes are the "unchallengeable axioms" of our behavior. We "may be criticized for inefficiency in satisfying our desires but the desires themselves are data." (1) In the U.S. at all official levels, policy towards the arts resembles policy towards religious denominations - all are valid(except when they're not). Religious beliefs are good and preferred to atheism, but using the treasury to support specific religious acts and organizations fails a Constitutional test (except when it doesn't.)
However, policies have consequences, and so does having no policy. In Chicago, and nationally, major consequences include a lack of resources for growth, education, and experimentation. An "each-against-all" psychology typifies the artistic environment. Each theater competes against all other theatres for a pool of resources that often seems static or shrinking. Boards of directors and managers, battling to keep the doors open for the next production or the next season, suffer an impaired ability to plan strategically, and often lose the ability altogether. Because no existing theaters can afford to plant new "mission" theaters, theatrical "deserts" emerge, areas beyond the urban core where no opportunity exists to see professional theater. In the "deserts", knowledge of and interest in theater declines and may disappear almost completely. Theater not only becomes a "lost" art, but so does the "art" of attending theater, replaced by other activities, many of them resulting in widespread lack of interest and, therefore, lack of support for arts organizations. Taking these effects for causes, theater leaders because even And the cycle repeats.
One of the most pernicious effects of this systemic wilderness is confusion about leadership roles within each theater. The most obvious sign of this confusion is the persistent demand that each theater's artistic director spend many hours each year raising money. The absurd lengths to which this drives theatre managers is noted in a report on the state of the US non-profit theater published in the July/August 2006 issue of American Theatre, the magazine of the Theatre Communications Group, that quotes an artistic director: "My managing director thinks it would be great if I didn't direct any plays next year, if I just raised money." (p. 39)
1. George J. Stigler and Gary S. Becker, "De Gustibus non est disputandum," American Economic Review, Vol. 67, No. 2 (March, 1977), p. 76
In this site I collated information scattered among several sources. For information about existing theaters, I relied mainly on the websites of the individual theatres. These are most easily reached through the website of the League of Chicago Theaters www.chicagoplays.com. Another source was www.PerformInk.com, the site of Chicago's entertainment trade paper. Most theaters, but not all, are mentioned in Richard Christiansen's A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1001 Nights in Chicago (Northwestern University Press, 2004). Mr. Christiansen was the theater critic of the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune for 45 years until his retirment in 2002. In many instances, information derives from responses to my requests by e-mail and phone..
An * indicates that the theater's records are accessible in the archives of the Special Collections and Preservation Division of the Chicago Public Library: http://www.chipublib.org/008subject/012special/alpha.html. Personal materials of interest to theater historians also available in these archives include the papers of Claudia Allen, E. Eugene Baldwin, Warren Casey, Larry Hart, Pat Hart, Illinois Entertainer, Ellen Jones, Nicholas A. Patricca, Rick Paul, The Sarah Siddons Society, Ted Liss, . Also of interest is the Chicago Theater Videotape Collection, 1973-present.