Is Wicker Park Pushing out Chopin?

Anitra Rowe, Pioneer Local

Zygmunt Dyrkacz wants to see you in his theater, but he knows what he's up against. "People are too busy to be sophisticated," says Dyrkacz, owner of Chopin Theatre at 1543 W. Division St. in Wicker Park. The electic interior of the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., has been drawing audiences since owner Zygmunt Dyrkacz, above, opened the avant-garde venue in 1990. –

We all work long hours to pay the bills, Dyrkacz says, and get too few vacation breaks. Then when we finally find time to unwind, Dyrkacz says, we turn on our flat-screen televisions to watch a game or a romantic comedy. "We work hard, and when we need to relax, we go for the fluff," Dyrkacz says. Dyrkacz said he, too, has leisure loves, including travel and sports.

But, for the most part, little is as important to Dyrkacz as being socially and politically informed and relevant. Chopin Theatre reflects this passion. To Dyrkacz, a Polish emigre, theater has no intellectual equal. "Theater is the idea, text, movement and action," Dyrkacz said.

Dyrkacz opened Chopin Theatre in 1990, and the house stages about 500 theatrical, film, poetry and music events each year. Chopin has hosted Pulitzer Prize-winners Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa and Studs Terkel, actors John Cusack and Jeremy Piven, and many famous writers, poets and musicians.

Critics laud Chopin Theatre's productions, many of which are avant-garde, as visceral, challenging, experimental and impassioned. "We deal with almost every idea," Dyrkacz said. Dyrkacz said his audiences appreciate the effort that goes into making each Chopin show an "artistic experience."

Audiences who see the current Chopin show "Faith Healer" -- which runs through Feb. 10 -- and enter the theater through the alley will pass through complete darkness in the building's basement before discovering the bright interior of a chapel, constructed specifically for the show. Staged by Uma Productions, the play follows an Irish faith healer, his long-time lover and his devoted manager as they tour from town to town until their fateful return to Ireland. Dyrkacz said his audiences don't "just come and sit and watch." "We do that extra," Dyrkacz said.

Those who have entered the romantic and eclectic interior of Chopin to see a show probably can't imagine Wicker Park without the gem. But Dyrkacz, who also started the Around the Coyote festival years ago, said he isn't sure he wants to be in Wicker Park anymore. Dyrkacz said Wicker Park, with its growing number of bars, restaurants and boutiques, is "turning into Rush Street."

Tongue-in-cheek, Dyrkacz also said he'd gladly go to jail for several years for blowing up some of the shoddy construction that's been built in recent years.

The building that houses Chopin Theatre was constructed in 1918. It operated as a theater under several owners before closing. The theater was vacant and slated for demolition when Dyrkacz bought it in 1986 and invested thousands into rehabbing the facade. He said all people live for the beauty of the world around them, and that "historically, great art never grows in sterilized neighborhoods."

As rich as America is, Dyrkacz said, it can afford greatness. "We should have a Paris around us," Dyrkacz said. Dyrkacz said the downtown theater district, and well-funded theaters like Steppenwolf and The Goodman, "quietly compete" with Chopin.

But to ensure stable financial backing, Dyrkacz said, these theaters often must make creative compromises and offer more predictable programming. That's not what Chopin is about, he said. "Cultural cleansing" has the power to kill neighborhoods and countries alike, he said.

For more information about Chopin Theatre, call (773) 278-1500, or visit