On Monday, below the fold on the front page of the New York Times Arts section was a review of Superior Doughnuts at the Steppenwolf Theatre. It would make sense that the review was featured this prominently; it was Tracy Letts' first play since August: Osage County won just about every theatrical award known to man.
Charles Isherwood's review of the new play was decidedly mixed, cautiously recommending the play despite considering it "insubstantial and sweet, with virtually no nutritional value" (for what it's worth, Isherwood was not a fan of Letts' more risqué pre-August work such as Killer Joe and Bug). But what the review actually said was insubstantial. What was more important was that the New York Times, the paper of record, particularly for the theater press, was strongly emphasizing a play from Chicago in the same position it normally places Broadway or prominent off-Broadway plays. That would have been virtually impossible four years ago.
When I was considering colleges, I knew I needed to have theater in my life. My trust in Chicago theater was built not by front page reviews of individual shows, but by annual features about Chicago's lively theater scene that usually crammed 20 plays into 1000 words. When I got to Chicago, I finally saw some of those plays that had previously been nothing more than paragraphs in my mind. My first plays in Chicago were the Second City revue Red Scare, the Neo-Futurists' legendary Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, a production of Equus by the Hypocrites Theatre Company, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Court Theatre. I would later build connections at all four of those theater companies.
I quickly realized that compared to New York, the production values were laughable, especially in some of the smaller theaters. Yet, I also learned that theater need not follow the Broadway, Off-Broadway, and all-the-rest model. In Chicago, anyone can put on a play at virtually any time, be it in a squatters residence in Pilsen that's lucky to get six people a night, a converted art gallery where opening night is canceled because of paint fumes, or in an early 20th century lakeside parlor with the worst acoustics imaginable.
None of this should sound unfamiliar to anyone conversant with either or both cities' theater cultures. Yet, as those who have followed American theater over the past year or so know, the disparity between the two is shrinking. Chicago paradoxically used to be the most segregated major segment of American theater. While its grassroots model of theater was an inspiration, there was also virtually no interaction between Chicago theater and the rest of America. Today, all you need to do is look at some of the more heralded productions in New York of late (August, Orson's Shadow, The Adding Machine, the plays of Chicago native Sarah Ruhl), to see that Chicago's role in American theater is as prominent as it has been since the late 70s and early 80s, when Goodman Theatre product David Mamet and the Steppenwolf both first emerged.
It's not just a one-way relationship either. Most successful New York productions are now invariably given major treatment in Chicago. True, most transfers have been immense disappointments (the worst possibly being the Steppenwolf's version of The Pillowman, which featured none other than Tracy Letts and Jim True-Frost in its cast). In other cases, however, the Chicago productions did more with less than would ever be possible in New York theater. My frustration at missing the Broadway revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer was alleviated by a superb production of the play by Uma Productions. Not only did that production feature a nearly flawless if less-heralded cast, it also made the experience more real by directing you to the patched-together basement space—like the space where a "real" faith healer would perform.
In some cases, Chicago performed what equates to a miracle in the theatrical world: reviving the fortunes of a play that failed on its first run in New York City. InFusion Theatre Company's production of Kate Robin's Intrigue with Faye featured a sparser set and a markedly less famous cast, but its actors had something that Benjamin Bratt and Julianna Margulies lacked: chemistry.
In the summer of 2006, Wicked's run on Broadway in Chicago had reached what was supposed to be its closing point. Its producers then decided to forgo the bigger media market in Los Angeles and stay in Chicago because of the show's overwhelming popularity. Broadway in Chicago was finally a success. This fact had many Chicago theater enthusiasts, myself included, in a frenzy. The fear was that this would create a top-down theater model like New York and kill the grassroots spirit of Chicago. That fear ignored the fact that when you can rent a theater space for under $1000 a month, anything can happen with the right people. It's that kind of open-mindedness that has blasted Chicago into New York's staler theater scene, and has seen both cities reap the rewards.
There's still no place like New York for American theater. Less than 48 hours after graduating from the University of Chicago, I found myself attending Ensemble Studio Theater's one-act Marathon, with work by playwrights no less prominent than Neil LaBute and actors whose credentials topped those found in most elite Chicago theater companies. And this was in a theater on the second floor across from the Police Athletic League and hidden behind a virtually abandoned car repair shop in Hell's Kitchen.
From whichever perspective you take, however, the creation of even the slightest cultural diffusion between the two scenes has dramatically improved both cities—and American theater in general. Some New York theatergoers seem impressed by how many good plays are coming from Chicago. I'm more impressed by how good American theater has gotten overall, whichever world I was considering at the time.