Friday, October 2, 2009

Why I Think Court Theatre is So Smart

Court Theatre has a special place in my heart. One reason worth getting out of the way is that it's in Hyde Park, where in my experience a boy, if he's trying very hard, can become a man.

More importantly, they have made two decisions which, combined, are the smartest acts of self-awareness and future-building that I've ever seen an established arts organization undertake.

1) Their firm commitment to African American theater. As a purveyor of "classic plays" by their own branding, their reliable inclusion of the classics of African American playwrights proves they're not using "classic" to mean by dead white men, but to mean "really good." The right choice. Also, let's be honest, Chicago is still a segregated city and the Court is the most prominent theater as far on the South Side as it is. Actively including plays by African American authors is an honest representation of its community - something we're always claiming theater can do without knowing how to do it.

2) Their use of the MCA. Again, as a South Side theater, the Court may feel a million miles away from a lot of the tiny storefronts peppering the North Side. By doing shows at the MCA they trim away a possible excuse for audiences to not see what the Court has to offer, banking on the fact that when people see a Court show, they'll want to see more. Also the MCA just has amazing programming and becoming a part of that was an insanely good idea. We're talking about a company that HAS A SPACE. How many theater companies in Chicago spend their whole sputtering existences dreaming of a space? The Court has one, and still takes up residence somewhere else when the opportunity is great. That's thinking big.

I've teased Court productions before, and I'll do it again. My admiration of their big ideas won't cloud my reception of an individual piece. But what I think we can really learn from the Court is how important it is, as a theater, to know: who you are, who you're talking to, who you want to be, and who you want to talk to. What these two decisions really come down to is inclusion. Inclusion in an artistic way - diversifying the canon, experimenting with space - and inclusion in an institutional way - actively seeking new audiences. The unification of these creative and administrative goals is what, hopefully, can keep the arts in business.


James said...

Amen. I also enjoy the fact that they do these things without these things being their 'hook' or their whole identity.

Zev Valancy said...

In addition to the consistent inclusion of African-American plays, which is indeed a very important and wonderful thing, I was thrilled when I heard they were doing "Irma Vep" this season. First because I think it's completely hilarious. Second because it shows a definition that is wide, but not too wide. Yes, it's high camp, but it's exceptionally well-written and funny high camp, and undoubtedly theatrical. Ludlam's plays absolutely deserve inclusion among the classics. I can only contrast this to the "classical theatre" in my hometown of Cleveland, which this season is producing both "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and "Bat Boy," neither of which can be justified as classics--or even very good.

Jack said...

Thanks for this, Benno. After more than 3 years on staff, it's become difficult for me to tease out whether I work for Court because I love the plays, or I love the plays because I work here. Anyway, I agree with everything you say. In terms of sheer numbers, our commitment to African-American classics and our interest in the MCA space have provided truly mixed results (not code for "not good enough" --actually very up and down). But everyone here--staff, Trustees, major funders, and I think a majority of our audience base--understands that that work is important regardless of how it shakes out in the ticket sales short-term. And, for me personally as a theater lover, shows like CYRANO and THE FIRST BREEZE OF SUMMER have been some of the most richly rewarding that Court has done since I started seeing the work.

But there is another vital and unique strand to our work that you haven't mentioned (actually a couple, including musicals which--since that's been some of our most successful with press and audience--I won't go into): Plays like THYESTES, RADIO MACBETH, TITUS ANDRONICUS, and WHAT THE BUTLER SAW. Plays that, quite frankly, have alienated some of our traditional audience (whose history with Court goes back decades). These are productions that didn't push the definition of "classic play" by their inclusion in the season, but rather pushed the conventional wisdom around how one is supposed to approach a classic text. These are productions which were in active dialogue--sometimes even disagreement--with their base texts; productions that were after something more immediate, more provocative, and more intellectual. I think this work is utterly vital, and it would not have been possible without Court's unique position in residence at the University of Chicago. Not only the basic "we're not going to go under if a play doesn't do well" support of a large institution, but the environment of relentless inquiry practically demands that we approach our work in this way.

Getting a "traditional" Chicago arts audience--particularly an avant-garde audience--to Hyde Park is a struggle. Sometimes it seems Sisyphean. And that's not even considering the challenge of encouraging the widely disparate communities within Hyde Park to come in the door. But I believe that it's possible. Thanks for noticing.