Chicago: America's theater capital? 

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Surely no words ever written by any theater critic stirred more local buzz than Michael Billington's 2004 observation in London's Guardian that "Chicago . . . [is] the current theatre capital of America." It came like manna from heaven to the denizens of this no longer even second city, and they seized upon it. At last the flyover on the prairie—home to more bustling, inventive, hardscrabble theater than anyplace on earth—was getting its due.

In the years since Billington penned that magic phrase, it's never been far from the lips or minds of the Chicago theater community, which adopted it as both vindication and slogan. Now Columbia College is convening an "international congress of theater scholars and practitioners," a four-day symposium that'll take a serious look at all of its implications. "Chicago: Theatre Capital of America—Past, Present, Future" runs May 18 through May 21, with 70 sessions and, as of press time, 180 speakers from 68 theaters and 28 colleges. Open to anyone who pays the $95 registration fee ($60 for students), it'll offer the equivalent of a couple of exceptional graduate seminars for, say, the price of a single ticket to a Broadway in Chicago show.

But at least one of the seminar's luminaries—wading bravely into blasphemy—has doubts about the Billington mantra. Skokie native Todd London, an award-winning critic, author, and longtime artistic director of New Dramatists, the New York-based national support and advocacy group for playwrights, says he finds the concept ridiculous. Chicago may have 250 theater companies and 800 productions a year, but "America is too motley" to have a single theater capital, he says. And while "Chicago has defined itself as a really powerful center for theater, New York is still mythic." Take, for example, he says, "this notion of moving plays [from Chicago] to New York. Why does that happen if Chicago is the theater capital?" London said last week he's expecting that question to come up in the "Tony panel," a discussion he'll moderate among the heads of "the four theaters that have won Tony awards in Chicago." Later that day, the panel had to be expanded: Lookingglass Theatre had snagged another regional Tony, bringing Chicago's total to an unprecedented five.

Two years ago London made a little stir of his own, as the coauthor of Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play. Based on a multiyear national study he directed, it drew a sobering picture of the not-for-profit world that, since Broadway pretty much dropped out, is the primary home for new work. Using data from 250 professional playwrights (those who "have successfully gained entrée into the field"), Outrageous Fortune concluded that playwriting is "a profession without an economic base": you can't make a living at it, production doesn't pay, and most playwrights earn only 3 percent of their very modest incomes from royalties.

London's head is now in his new book, however—a historical look at the "founding visions" of American theater to be published next spring by Theatre Communications Group. In a speech scheduled for Friday, May 20, at 9:30 AM, he'll outline "at least four really important theater visions that have come out of Chicago," starting with the multicultural community theater that was part of Hull House in the late 19th century.

"Most people think that multiculturalism is something that we were led to in the 1980s, when we woke up to the fact that our demographics were changing, but it's not. We're steeped in it."

Chicago was also home to the first art theater in the country, the Chicago Little Theatre, founded at the Fine Arts Building in 1912. A band of hyperdedicated amateurs performing in a former storage room, they produced art for art's sake in a nation that until then, London says, only really knew "star-based commercial work out of New York."

"And there's nothing more Chicago to the rest of the world than improvisation," London says, citing the "whole strain" that started with Viola Spolin's theater games and grew into her son Paul Sills's work at the Compass and Second City. And then there's Steppenwolf, which "more than any theater in my lifetime, has defined ensemble. The incredible happenstance that those kids in the church happened to be some of the most talented theater artists in our country," and the fact that they've maintained the ensemble all these years, "has captivated the world and helped us define Chicago as a place where ensembles happen," he says.

"These four: Hull House, the Little Theatre, Second City, and Steppenwolf—they're idealistic guideposts of what the theater can be. Together, they create the mythic Chicago theater. And there aren't really other towns in this country that have a mythic theater profile," London says. "With the exception of New York."

E-mail Deanna Isaacs at disaacs@chicagoreader.com.

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