Wednesday, September 23, 2009


First: The Ever-Linkable Kris Vire.

Now. I'm not really sure this is a "Chicago Theater" problem. This strikes me as a contemporary problem. Who likes the band with a number one song, anymore? What's hilarious about this kind of "elitism," is that it has the privilege of parading as populism, making it harder to criticize. But certainly: it's elitism. And certainly: it's silly.

Commercial Theater, I think, is a euphemism for at different times any of the following four things: Broadway, Broadway in Chicago, For-Profit theater of any kind, and large non-profit theater like The Goodman. Are any of these bad for Chicago Theater? Nope. Not one, not at all.

There are though, I agree, two dangers hidden in here to the Chicago storefront theaters. The first is forcing the (I hate this word, but) paradigm of Broadway (and Off-Broadway) on Chicago. This is colonialism, it's irritating, and it's fundamentally flawed. Our theater scene doesn't work like that. You don't move to Chicago hoping to be in the next production of Wicked at the Oriental. You don't dream of sweet sweet Randolph Avenue all night with your tap shoes still on. You just don't. You wonder how you're going to con your way into the Neo-Futurists and if the boss at your temp job notices you're blogging (ahem). As I commented on Rob Kozlowski's post on the new Chicago Now thing, you can call Storefront theater "Off-Broadway in Chicago (tm)" as soon as you invest millions in building theaters and shopping districts down on Chicago's 42nd St. Until then, we are our own beast. How delightful. Worse? Better? Neither? Who cares? It doesn't matter. What matters is: different.

The second danger is that in attaching too much importance to the commercial theater that we all recognize as good for Chicago, good for Theater, we lose what makes Chicago unique - not by an invading force, but by our own entropy. I've heard rumblings from my favorite unbridled genius of the storefront about creating Chicago theater tours that make it easy for people coming from out of town to see storefront and commercial shows in an approachable way. The problem with "3oo etc." theater companies is that it makes a completely dizzying marketplace. So a family visits Chicago, aware of its repuation as a great place to see theater but can't make any goddamn sense out of all the plays and companies sprawled out in every inaccessible corner of the city. So, still in all good faith, they go see Jersey Boys downtown near their hotel, and believe they've done the Chicago Theater Thing.

Then, the powers that be see that people are coming to Chicago to go to Jersey Boys, and that's when the cycle starts to crush us. Because then it becomes more and more important to advertise, support, and replicate Jersey Boys rather than give people what they want which is excellence and authentic experiences for audiences, and audiences for artists.

So an anxiety about "commercial theater" makes sense, but what this should do is inspire creative solutions for competing rather than a vague sense of superiority and entitlement. If it works the other way, that people come to Chicago to see Jersey Boys and stick around to see The Man Who Was Thursday everyone wins. We play different games, but, we're somehow on the same team.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So, you're saying I had my tap shoes on all this time, Francis, ready to star in "Wicked" at a moment's notice, and it was never to be from the start?


Seriously - great post, man.

I do think our theatre is almost too broad for the average theatre-goer. Rather than research what's available and seeing if it's of interest (and it does take some research), they'll just stick with the tried-and-true.

How do we "brand" Chicago's highly unique storefront theatre scene in a way that's meaningful to people?