On making Chicago America’s ‘theater capital’

Time Out Chicago’s theater editor Kris Vire has a few things to say about transfers of Chicago theater productions to NYC:

A number of out-of-town critics have praised Chicago as America’s real theater capital over the last several years. What if, instead of continuing to export our stuff elsewhere for praise and dollars, we embraced what London’s Michael Billington, Toronto’s Richard Ouzounian, New York’s Terry Teachout and others have written and sell ourselves, not New York, as said theater capital?


So what if, instead of continuing the New York–centric 20th-century model, we make our city a theater tourism destination? With others so willing to call Chicago the real theater destination of North America, wouldn’t it be great if we embraced that label ourselves? What if theater audiences actually had to come to Chicago to see Chicago-style theater?

I really like this idea, but there are some practical hurdles we need to overcome in becoming a Theater Capital, mainly in our approach to catering to those out-of-towners who may make the mecca to the midwest to see what we got goin’ on up in here:

  • Most theatre productions in the city last around a month. By the time the average person finally hears the buzz of a certain production, it’s probably gone in a week or two. Hell, I live here and I’ve missed some highly praised shows that I’d every intention to visit due to time constraints, etc. So, a tourist planning a Chicago theatre trip to see the hot new show has to basically be ready to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. Or hope it extends, which is always a crap shoot.
  • This production of Streetcar everyone’s panting over isn’t even in Chicago — it’s in Glencoe. I don’t even know how you go about getting to Glencoe* — let alone a NYC tourist coming to check out the Theater Capital of America. They’d have to rent a car or study up on the Metra system.
  • An extension of the above point: theatre is all over this sprawling city — not contained within a few blocks or even an area of town like Manhattan. We’ll have to do a much better job of mapping out where to find the various shows and theatres should we want to start promoting ourselves as a Theatre Capital to out-of-towners. There are many create ways we could do this, but we need to start thinking about it. (And who would own this Herculean effort?) It could even be a selling point — explore the various eclectic neighborhoods, dine at the world-class local establishments, and then see a show.
  • We’ll need to get people prepared for the “Chicago theatre experience.” Specifically the storefront scene, which most consider the soul of Chicago theatre. I’ve recommended a few storefront shows to recent Chicago transplants, and they came back to me noting how shocked they were at the shady appearance of the venue. They admitted they never would have stepped in the place if I hadn’t prepped them for what to expect beforehand and assured them the performance was worth it (which it was). Most Chicago theatre is pretty raw. Expectations will need to be set.

At any rate, I do like the idea of promoting this city as a — or the — theatre destination. These are just some top-of-mind thoughts to help get us there. I’m sure I’m missing some major big-picture stuff that comes before all these specifics. I’d be interested to hear what you have to add to this list!

*A half lie. I got there once by car to see “A Minister’s Wife,” but my GPS was entirely responsible.

EDIT: You’ll note that I’m flipping between using “theatre” and “theater” in this post. It represents my internal conflict with the two spellings. I’m finding out “theater” is the more appropriate use. Sadly, my URL and screen image, etc., are married to the other way. Ugh.

5 thoughts on “On making Chicago America’s ‘theater capital’

  1. Chicago oozes with talented actors, writer, directors and designers. It’d be nice if they could actually make a living entertaining Chicago and the world. Instead they squeeze a 6 week run in between working 2 jobs to pay the rent.

    1. You raise an interesting point — one that I’m not too familiar with as I don’t have many actor friends. From my understanding, Chicago is a city where you can act / do your work / have your work seen / gain experience, but getting paid is another matter.

  2. I’m an out-of-towner and I found my way to Glencoe by having a car and GPS (but Metra has trains that stop within just a couple blocks of the theatre).

    My only real disappointment in going to Glencoe was that there are precious few restaurants to be found in its quaint downtown. But that STREETCAR is something to behold.

    1. I seem to recall having that same problem when I went to Writers’ Theatre — we had some time to kill, and we ended up finding a book sale going on. And…that was it.

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