Thursday, August 13, 2009

An Outsider Looking In On Chicago Theatre

UPDATE: Jamie DesRocher has recently written an excellent entry on her blog about working in the Chicago theatre scene that you should check out here. It gets into a lot of what a couple people in the comments section here have touched upon.

As previously threatened, I wanted to offer my scattershot first impressions of what I noticed about the theatre scene in Chicago.

Now I need to make a few things very, very clear. First off, here's what I really know about the Chicago theatre-scene: fuck all. I spent four days there, saw a grand total of three plays, and talked to a little over a dozen people in the theatre scene there. These are simply first impressions* from a guy who was there for a very short period of time, saw a very small number of shows and spoke very briefly to a very small number of people.

So, for all the Chicago theatre-makers reading this, if I grossly - or even slightly - misrepresent the scene in this entry...

(Which I absolutely will be. When you're writing in broad generalizations, even on a subject on which you're an expert, there will be some distorting of facts and figures. When you're doing as I'm doing, which is writing on a subject on which I'm a complete novice, there will be some major botching of facts and figures.)

...feel free to correct me and/or expand on what I'm blathering about here. Just bear in mind that you're correcting someone who freely admits he doesn't know what he's talking about, so try not to be a dick about it.

My immediate impression was, like I wrote earlier, Chicago seems to be the land of milk and fucking honey for DIY indie theatre. Rent for space is significantly cheaper in Chicago than it is in New York. I won't divulge numbers, but a few were given my way by some folks there, and holy balls, producing theatre in Chicago can be done very, very cheaply.

I could be wrong, but I got the impression that it's less expensive and much faster and easier to put on plays in Chicago than New York (not that Nosedive has had any problems in this regard, but then again, we've been around for [Good Lord] nearly 10 years).

I also got a very garage-bandy vibe from the folks I talked to in the Windy City. The idea of turning this into a day job is not a priority. It's about putting on a show, not necessarily about creating a career. (This in particular is pure speculation on my part; career-minded Chicago theatre-makers are welcome to correct me on this.)

Frankly, I found this element of the scene to be the most refreshing and exciting. That feeling of wanting the show to provide a major source of income, expand or move on (to Off-Broadway for many, Broadway for some) pervades the entire New York scene, even if you don't have any of those ambitions. I didn't get that talking to folks in Chicago.

The shoptalk didn't revolve around getting an "in" with a major Equity house. It was about having ideas, and finding ways to put those ideas on the stage in front of an audience.

This may also have to do with the fact that there seems to be a clear delineation between Equity and non-Equity theatres in the Windy City.

Which isn't to say that it's all garage band, DIY-style. I saw a show in a big Off-Broadway style theatre (the Goodman) with a clearly large budget. But here's the thing: the tickets were only $18. And hell, Bob Fisher (someone entrenched in the DIY camp) clearly knew the director of the show at the Goodman quite well (okay, so much for that "clear delineation").

Also, the Chicago theatre community seems much smaller and closer-knit than the one in New York. Although it's not a case where everyone knows everyone else on the scene, it's pretty close. There seemed to be only two degrees of separation (tops) from other companies or people.

Chicago also has the same potential for getting audiences for theatre as New York (and despite some recent complaints scattered throughout the NYC scene, I think the audience for NYC theatre is doing just fine: of the nearly 50 plays I've seen so far this year, almost all of them enjoyed full to sold-out houses when I was in attendance). And hey, maybe I wasn't there long enough to hear them, but I also found it refreshing to not hear anyone complaining about not being able to get audiences, so that was pretty cool.

And yeah, this is one last thing that I could be very wrong about (and this could be due to only being there a short while, as opposed to New York, where I've lived for 10 years), but the fear and self-loathing talk among the theatre-makers I met was practically nonexistent (whereas it can get pretty pandemic in New York). Again, these conversations may be going on a lot in Chicago, and the folks I met preferred to put on their game face around me.

Anyway, those were some things I noticed off the top of my head while I was there.

In short, I dug what I saw of the scene.

And really, the above caveat aside, any Chicago theatre-makers reading this feel free to chime in with your thoughts, experiences, divergences and enhancements from my (myopic) assessment.

Buying tons of novelty junk at the O'Hare gift shop,

James "Fascinated Tourist" Comtois

*Although I did see a play when I first - and last - visited Chicago, that was nine years ago and just one play, so I think it's safe to say that my experience this weekend represents my first impressions of the Chicago theatre scene.

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Blogger Aaron said...

As a board member of a small, DIY theatre company in Chicago, I'd like to see a little more hustle around revenue and making a career out of it for participants.

I'm sure this happens in NYC, too, but so many people here are forced out when they start to build a family. It's damn near impossible to have a day job and consistent work in theatre and a family.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Vince said...

I'd say this is a fairly accurate depiction. I happen to be fortunate enough to be able to work for one of the larger theaters and I donate my time to a smaller theater to get the artsy jones out. I feel this is how a lot of folks get their kicks here in the windy city. Of course, some folks aren't lucky enough to be acting consistently and getting paid for it, so, most of those guys have a day job. However, a lot of people manage to scrape a few paying gigs together to make it happen and then can finance their own projects in their free time.

One married couple I work with have a production job shooting commercials for an ad agency and then finance their productions using the money they've earned from the shoots. I guess all in all I'd say if you don't mind working 55+ hours a week trying to make great theater, then, Chicago is a wonderful town for it!

4:51 PM  

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