Chicago is no longer American theatre's second city

Kris Vire, The Guardian


"With a head count that hovers around 200 producing theatres in the city and its suburbs, Chicago has a thriving, collaborative theatre scene. But ever since the New Yorker's AJ Liebling dubbed us the "second city" in 1952, we've been suffering from a collective inferiority complex. Chicago's theatre community has a habit of worrying about Broadway's dominance of the national press, or openly grousing about New York producers' recent habit of plopping oxygen-sucking, multi-year runs of hits such as Wicked and Jersey Boys into our downtown theatres.

It might have something to do with that new president of ours, but the world's attention is newly focused – thus dousing our insecurities – on Chicago's wealth of cultural goodies. Granta's new Chicago issue puts us in the spotlight with works by local writers including Aleksandar Hemon, Sandra Cisneros and Roger Ebert; the Art Institute finally opened its gorgeous new Renzo Piano-designed modern wing; and the New York Times's Charles Isherwood recently labelled New York's theatre "the east side of Chicago".

Amid the cynical stage versions of movies (bankrolled by cynical movie studios) currently dotting New York's commercial theatre, Chicago's playwrights are making a big splash on the Great White Way with more original work. Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts opens this week in the same Broadway theatre where his August: Osage County has just closed; both started out at our Steppenwolf, the one-time bad-boy upstart that's now a pillar of Chicago's theatre establishment.

Also opening in New York this week is Keith Huff's A Steady Rain, which was nurtured here by the writers' garret Chicago Dramatists. Meanwhile, the revelatory off-Broadway revival of Our Town, which first came to life in the bohemian basement space of Chicago's Chopin Theatre, in a production by fringe stalwarts the Hypocrites, continues to draw sellout audiences. In addition to playing host to Chicago's best itinerant companies, the Chopin's husband-and-wife proprietors Zygmunt Dyrkacz and Lela Headd go to great lengths to bring eastern European artists to their Wicker Park establishment.

I don't mean to imply that outside validation is the ultimate goal for theatre artists here. On the contrary, most folks doing theatre in Chicago are genuinely psyched to serve their neighbourhood audiences, often crammed into shoebox-sized storefronts or other odd spaces. Consider the small-scale epics of the Edgewater neighbourhood's Steep Theatre, which, now that Chicago has discovered David Harrower via Victory Gardens's summer production of Blackbird, is about to put on his 1998 play Kill the Old, Torture Their Young.

Consider also the uplifting portraits of African-American icons produced by the Uptown district's Black Ensemble Theatre, run by one-woman gale force Jackie Taylor; the Gift theatre, which does astounding work in a 25-seat venue in working-class Jefferson Park and commits itself to capping ticket prices at $25; and the Spanish-language Aguijón theatre on the west side.

That the rest of the world is finally catching on to Chicago's theatrical breadth is just the icing on the cake".