R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Who Needs It!

Ben Winters, PerformInk
Published 12/22/00

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Who Needs It!

By Ben Winters, PerformInk 12/22/00

"Year in review? Oh, man. Reviewing a play is tricky enough - now I'm supposed to do a whole year?  Well, here it goes: It was a pretty good year.

Now I'll tell a little story.

A few weeks back, between trips to the preposerously sumptuous buffet at the "theatre  community party" to celebrate the fancy new Goodman, I had occasion to chat wit hone of my few acquaintances who neither makes theatre nor comments upon it for mone-just a regular guy who appreciates a good play and a well-stocked open bar.

"So what d oyou think of the join?" I aske dthis private citizen.

Like weveryone a the opening festivities, myself included, he though the joint was marevelous, a real swank piece of lobby design lovingly wrapped around two sages, each aquiver with possibilities.

But here's what he said nex: "I think its something for every theatre company to aspire to".

I nodded in agreement, sipping my third or fourth or possibly twelfth complimenary whiskey and Coke.  But by the time I got home and convinced the room to quit spinning, I wasn't so sure. Is the new Goodman - wit that entryway of "te xtured balck granite", the canted skylight, the 850-seat main stage with walls of Mankato limestone - what all the smaller theaters in town should be shooting for?

And here's whee I start to think about what makes Chicago theatre Chicago theatre.  And no offense to the Goodman, whom I love, and no offense to Steppenwolf, whom I love, and no offense to COurt, whom I love a little bit less after In The Penal Colony, which made my eyeballs hurt.

Of course these institutions are important; they are generous in their support of smaller companies and invaluable in drumming up excitement amoung potential threatre audiences.  But the idea that Chicago's younger companies are all on the same journey - form impoverished itinerancy through graudal reputation-building, with a jubilant climax on the day the workmen arrive to put in the skylight-doesn't quite ring true.

What's great about Chicago's small theatre companies, all one bazillion of them, is that they aren't on some sort of forced march towards respectability.

Imaagine a CHicago littered with 800-seat Goodman-esque theatres, all producing lavishly costumed Chekhov and Miller and Mamet for those who can afford to go.  First of all, parking would be a nightmare, but worse still would be a Chicago lacking that marvelous quality where you can disappear down some dark stairwell and emerge in a world, imagined by a group of strangers, that in some way shocks or elates or educates you.

TimeLine's Not About Nightingales turned the lobby of Baird Hall into a sort of dramaturgical museum, with newspaper clippings and short essays detailing the specific world in which the play was written.  We were seated at CollaborAction's Refuge to the sound of phat beats spun b a real live DJ, immersing us from the get-go in the play's pumped up, burned down youth cultural reality.  Different companies peel in and out of spaces like the Chopin - WNEP's super-intelligent Wise Blood, Plasticene's shadowy Come Like Shadows, Teatro Vista's magical realism history play Aurora's Motive - each remaking it how they see fit, tearing down the world and building it up again.

My advice, for what little it's worth, is to forget about respect entirely.

You don't want your patrons to respect you; you want them to enjoy you, to drink you in big lip-smacking gulps. Respect hangs a velvet rope between observer and observed.  A play isn't a Picasso or a dinosaur skeleton, to be silently taken in and then murmured about in the gift shop afterwards.  A play is something to be taken in with yes wide open and mouth agape: theater audiences should be in an atmosphere where they can laugh out loud,.."