My buddy Nate posted a note on Facebook tonight about what he calls "The Only Thing Wrong With Chicago Theater." I won't link to it, since I don't know if his or your Facebook settings would allow you to read it, but the gist is this: Nate's remarkably young to have accomplished as much as he has in the theater, but he's worked on shows in a number of cities around the U.S., in a number of capacities, and on both commercial and non-profit productions. He's worked in Chicago on the independent commercial production of Gutenberg! The Musical!, the tour of Xanadu and on several productions by the local, non-profit company The New Colony (which is also run by folks I consider friends).
Nate's beef is against what he sees as a bias in the Chicago theater community against commercial theater producers, a job title that's one of (the many) credits he's working toward putting on his resume. To quote briefly:
I love Chicago, and Chicago theatre. I love (and have worked with) storefront theatres (when the shows are done well (companies who do nothing but rip off bad movies ILLEGALLY is not what I call done well).
What do I hate? Storefront elitism and attitude that commercial theatre is the enemy. Please. If anything commercial theatre (everything from Broadway In Chicago down to mid-sized shows that play the Mercury, Drury Lane, Royal George, etc) bring people in and puts Chicago on "the map" as a theatre city, opening the entire community up for more exposure. We're all (storefront, commercial, non profit, whatever) in the same community. Commercial Theatre is not the enemy.
I'd be interested to know what kind of criticisms he's been hearing on his end about commercial theater. I don't get the sense that there's a bias in the Chicago theater community against commercial theater per se, apart from the character that writes Don Hall's blog (no offense meant, Don, but I think of the "Don Hall" that writes Angry White Guy the same way I think of the "Stephen Colbert" who appears on The Colbert Report). For instance, I haven't heard of any local animus towards Million Dollar Quartet in the year or so it's been running here.
I think—and this is admittedly from my limited perspective both as a journalist looking in from the outside and as someone who's only been in Chicago for a little under a decade—that what bias exists against, say, Wicked and Jersey Boys is about the perception that the gorillas in the room get disproportionate attention from major tastemakers, from the Mayor's office to the Tribune Company. (This recent conversation about why the Tribune-owned ChicagoNow's theater blog is branded and run by major Tribune advertiser Broadway in Chicago, for instance, seems to me like a valid topic of discussion.)
I want to be clear about this: I do not think Broadway in Chicago is an inherently evil corporation, nor do I think exporting our work to New York is inherently bad. National media attention for Broadway productions of work by Keith Huff or the cast of Superior Donuts can do us good, and since I can't get to New York as often as I'd like I'm glad to get the tours of Spring Awakening and In the Heights, the pre-Broadway run of The Addams Family and a sit-down run of Billy Elliot. I love storefront theater—hence the title I gave this blog a few years back—but I love big commercial theater when it's good, too. Nor do I equate financial success, or at least achieving the financial solvency to pay artists a living wage, with selling out artistically.
But I do think that too often our local government and local media are going about it the wrong way. For the last few decades, at least, since the rise of Steppenwolf, Chicago's theatrical identity has been tied up in our homegrown, non-profit theaters. Rather than getting our validation from either sending our own work to New York to be patted on the head with cash and prizes, or from becoming an outpost for franchises of works originated there, we should be focusing on making Chicago a theater destination on its own, equal but separate from New York. Come see theater here not because it's a shorter drive from Columbus to see Jersey Boys, but because you can see Tracy Letts's follow-up to August: Osage County and Josh Schmidt's newest musical.
Instead of writing reviews saying that the next Steppenwolf production should go to Broadway, we can write reviews that say if you want to see the next play by Marisa Wegrzyn or Steve Spencer or Emily Schwartz or Justin Palmer, you have to come to Chicago, whether it's a nonprofit production or a commercial one. And you can see Billy Elliot while you're at it. And maybe that's the way to break this branch of our Second City complex.
Anyway. I started writing all of this as a response to Nate's Facebook note, before I realized I really wanted to hear what all of you might have to say. So please, pile on.