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Chicago troupes hit road to spread good word

Publication: Chicago Tribune
Published: November 4, 2007
Client: Writers' Theatre

By Chris Jones

At the Joseph Jefferson Awards ceremony last Monday night in Skokie, the reading of an honoree's name was frequently followed by an awkward pause. A lot of the winners hadn't shown up.

But this wasn't a sudden lack of respect for the Chicago theater's equivalent of the Tony Awards. Two of the most-prized shows -- the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "August: Osage County" and the Lookingglass Theatre Company's "Argonautika" -- were in the throes of out-of-town remounts even as the statuettes were being dispensed to surrogates.

"August," Tracy Letts' searing drama of familial dysfunction, began Broadway previews Tuesday night at the Imperial Theatre in New York. And "Argonautika," Mary Zimmerman's beguiling tale of the troubled seeker of the Golden Fleece, is on a national tour of major American regional theaters, which began Friday night at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. This new proscenium-version of the hit Chicago show might well end its voyage on Broadway next spring.But while those two shows are the highest profile Chicago productions to move out of town this fall, they're by no means the only productions that will be seen elsewhere. On Wednesday, Writers Theatre of Glencoe opens its version of "Crime and Punishment" off-Broadway at New York's 59E59 Theaters. Michael Halberstam directs.

Small theaters too

And remarkably, even the smallest off-Loop theaters are taking their work east.

In December, 59E59 will host the Hypocrites' memorable production of Sean Graney's tragicomic drama "The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide," seen in 2004 at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago. And next February, probably at the Minetta Lane Theatre, the Chicago-loving New York producer Scott Morfee is expected to produce an off-Broadway version of the Next Theater Company of Evanston's acclaimed musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine."

It will be Next's first foray to New York. The Chicago director, David Cromer, and its star, Joel Hatch, are expected to go with the show.

As the New York-based Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout recently noted, "Chicago is hot."

Unusually hot. Maybe even hot without precedence.

"There's always been a lot of great stuff in Chicago," says David Catlin, the artistic director of the Lookingglass Theatre. "But I think the difference now is that we're better able to get people in from out of town to see it. More and more people are identifying Chicago as the place that generates work."

Certainly, non-profit shows have traveled from Chicago to New York in a steady stream for at least a generation. But in the 1980s and 1990s, they mostly originated at either the Steppenwolf or Goodman Theatres (and, less frequently, Victory Gardens). But the relatively new 59E59 Theaters complex -- there are three venues in the building at 59 E. 59th St. -- suddenly seems to have become a New York showcase for much smaller Chicago theaters.

In fact, the productions by Writers Theatre and the Hypocrites are part of a festival newly dubbed by the theater's booker as "Go Chicago!" That's an indication of the growing power of the city's theatrical brand outside its own metropolitan area.

"'Go Chicago' is to be an annual event," says Peter Tear, the British-born executive producer of 59E59 and a man who keeps a close eye on reviews and reports from Chicago. The first show in the "Go Chicago" festival this fall was "When the Messenger Is Hot," seen last summer at the Steppenwolf Theatre's First Look Festival.

A toast to Chicago

"We had a lot of success with our 'Brits Off Broadway' festival, so we thought we'd try and do the same thing with shows from Chicago," Tear says. "I think I was sitting at a bar when I heard about 'August' going to Broadway. I raised my glass and said, 'Go Chicago,' or something like that. And it stuck. We really hope this will be an ongoing thing. We're very picky, but we find the standard there to be incredibly high."

The Chicago theaters get a great deal. 59E59 is run by a non-profit operating foundation, so the rent is very low by New York standards. Better yet, the venue pays for all the advertising even though the renting theater gets all of the box-office receipts. Assuming things go reasonably well, the income potential should cover the costs of moving a small show to New York.

"We've sold more tickets in advance than any show in the history of that space," Halberstam says, speaking from New York. "If you are going to have a serious literary development program, you have to be able to show your playwrights that you can give them wide exposure. No matter how your show is received, its presence here in New York carries a weight."

Actors benefit too. The Writers production features the work of performers such as John Judd, Scott Parkinson and Susan Bennett, who have a history of work in Chicago. And, of course, the Steppenwolf's "August: Osage County" has moved with virtually its entire Chicago cast intact. No one was replaced with a celebrity name.

It remains challenging, of course, for off-Loop shows with bigger casts to find their way to New York -- that's mostly why the House Theatre of Chicago's version of "The Sparrow" has yet to make that move, despite a lot of interest.

And because Chicago can be a parochial town, theaters with their eye on New York also risk minor backlashes back home from those who argue they should just stay put in their own neighborhoods.

But as Catlin sees it, the presence of Chicago shows in New York or Berkeley also helps build audiences in Chicago. "It helps make Chicago a theater destination," he says.

And for the most part, Chicago theater professionals revel in the growing international reputation of Chicago theater and easily see the value of exports to New York. Even if they are not going themselves.

"This is a theater community where there is a history of theaters supporting each other," says Sandy Shinner, the associate artistic director of the Victory Gardens. "We're very happy when someone else goes to New York and succeeds."


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