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.