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June 22, 2010


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Justin D.M. Palmer

Isn't one of the biggest things about tranferring your show to New York that you get paid well? Maybe people wouldn't go to New York or LA if they felt they didn't have to in order to make some serious cash.

Eric Ziegenhagen

Curious to know: is there any reason a commercial or extended production of Our Town hasn't opened in Chicago? Is it just the lack of commercial production of straight plays? Or do the numbers just not work here the way that they do there? Or is it that there isn't a proper space for it?

Mark Jeffries

A combination of all of the three, I expect--also, there may still be a leariness by producers to either try to put a non-Equity show in a commercial house or convert the show to Equity (as in New York's "Our Town"), not to mention a belief that moving to a Stage 773 (TBC) or Theater WIT or the Greenhouse is not a move at all (although those venues have spaces that would be more conducive to the show than the commercial houses here).

I will point out that the Hypocrites did remount "Our Town" for a brief run at the Chopin the fall before it moved to NY.


It would be awesome to see this happen for Chicago, but the reality is that New York continues to be the capital of commerce, marketing, and the launch-pad for all products to the international world. New York also has the money to define its niche and market. Chicago, at the moment, doesn't have that commercial juggernaut that can be defined as the designated "finish line" for any type of product, and that includes entertainment. New York continues to possess that cosmopolitan and bohemian banner, which Chicago has had a hell of a time to live up to. The reality is that New York trumps us in the level of international activity and until Chicago catches up as destination town in everything else outside of theater, I'm afraid labeling it as a "theater destination" is a fairly moot point. I think this explains why Chris Jones writes so much about transfers from Chicago to New York as I think his ultimate goal is for the big apple and the world to pay attn to where those gems started. But you know he can only do so much.


I hope not!. I am one of those theater tourists that has been coming to Chicago for years now. The thing I love about it is that it's always an intimate experience. I like the small(ish) theaters that are still open to taking risks and would really hate to see Chicago turn it's fantastic theater world into a new mass market outlet.

yes it's a problem that some talent seems to leave with the exported shows, but I think in the end most of them come back. Treasure your present theater culture, take risks with programming, keep the experience unique and export the plays that are up for it to the bigger houses in NY or London, we do not need another off-broadway in Chicago.

Stephen Ptacek

I agree with everything you've said here, but the first comment kindof nails the problem on the head. The most innovative theatre, the theatre that has given us our reputation (and your blog its name) simply doesn't pay. In order to earn a living wage working exclusively in theatre, we need to be working on seven shows at a time (or one real hit, if you're an actor) and that fact alone contributes to second city syndrome. New York will always be a "higher" destination for Chicago Artists as long as its shows pay or lead to exposure that can lead to higher pay.

If we want to start acting like the theatre capital, we have to learn to settle for what we've got and the slow rate of growth that comes after. We have to do it for the cred, and remember that while we're shelving books at Barnes & Noble.

Scott Walters

Kris -- This is an ironic turn of events. For how many years have as listened to Chicago bloggers deny the validity of doing theatre outside of New York/Los Angeles/Chicago because "everybody wants to play with the Big Boys," only to see Chicago artists bowing down to New York themselves! This centralized hierarchy is unhealthy for the arts in a country as large as ours.

And on a side note: Johah Lehrer may be smart, but bumping into people on the sidewalk is more likely to happen in a small town, not a metropolis. Furthermore, as the author of "Collaborative Circles" shows, it is ongoign interaction that causes creative growth, not accidental bumps.

Mark Jeffries

Which bloggers? Rob Kozlowski and Don Hall put down New York all the time.

Steve On Broadway (SOB)

Great post Kris.

I'm one of those out of towners who makes Chicago a regular weekend destination precisely because it offers some of the best stage theatre to be found anywhere in the world. Plus, I also frequently blog about it and advocate my readers make the worthwhile trip themselves.

But of course not everyone is able to make it to Chicago. Given that old Kander & Ebb tune about the Big Apple that notes "if you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere," it's not hard to understand why New York City continues beckoning the best and brightest from around the United States - including Chicago's finest - to potentially shine even brighter in the media capital of the world where it can reap added attention.

Ultimately, when Chicago's works shine in New York as we already know so many of them do, they reflect extraordinarily well on their hometown. As more and more Americans recognize that fact, the more likely they will seek out new works in Chicago like I do.

Arvid F. Sponberg

Chicago: Theatre Capital of America. Past. Present. Future.
May 18-22, 2011

Participate in this symposium. Propose a workshop, masterclass, demonstration, panel, or paper. Or just plan to attend the first-ever symposium devoted exclusively to Chicago theater.

Albert Williams

Regarding Kris Vire's comment -- "But when we send our artists, particularly our actors, to New York, oftentimes they don’t come back" -- the answer to that is: Why should they? They can't make a living here, because of low wages and limited opportunity, and New York is the national casting center. These people don't just relocate to NY in order to become Broadway stars; they're angling for jobs in the regional circuit.

And if actors can't even make a living when they work steadily at places like Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare, they sure as hell can't make a living working at the storefronts and trying to pay the bills by working at Barnes and Noble. At least in the storefronts they don't even expect to get paid, so it may be psychologically easier for them. At least for a while.

I have covered theater in Chicago for more than 30 years, and I can assure you that the number of Chicago actors who leave here and don't come back is dwarfed by the number of Chicago actors who, after a few years, just give up theater because they can't afford to do it any more or they simply burn out.

We talk about subsidizing the arts; in fact the biggest arts subsidy is given by the people who work in the arts and take sub-par or no wages.

Kris Vire

Attempting to address in one fell swoop the great comments from Justin, Eric, Marja, Albert and others: You all make extremely valid points. I don't begrudge the theater artists, actors in particular, who go to New York and stay because they have potential additional income streams from TV, commercials, etc. For just the last decade, theater actors in NY alone have been subsidized by work on soap operas, Law & Order, Sex and the City, and now shows like The Good Wife and Nurse Jackie. Aside from a single season of Prison Break, Chicago doesn't seem to have had anything like that to offer actors in terms of day-player and guest work since the heyday of Early Edition in the ’90s. As I told Jennifer Grace on Facebook earlier, I'm really pulling for this new Fox show, Ride-Along, to be the new Law & Order for Chicago actors.

That said, there are plenty of New York non-profit theaters working under the same limitations as Chicago theaters: the Public is closing its sold-out run of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson this weekend, Second Stage closed Chad Deity last weekend, Signature's already sold out its season passes for its upcoming Tony Kushner slate, and MTC and Roundabout regularly do limited runs as well. These theaters all have the same problem Chicago theaters do in terms of word-of-mouth and giving tourists a chance to plan visits around hit shows.

The difference, as far as I can tell, is that we don't have the infrastructure of commercial producers in place to bankroll transfers of real hit shows by theaters that are beholden to subscription schedules—which would, I hope, help provide sustainable wages to actors/directors/designers/crew and royalties to playwrights.

I know Don Hall will say he's happy doing the day job he loves at WBEZ and doing theater in his spare time, and there are plenty of others who feel the same way. But not everyone does, which is why as Albert notes we lose some great artists every year. Do we need to start cultivating a class of commercial producers to make Chicago a viable theater hub? And really, what separates commercial investors from non-profit donors?

Scott Walters

" Do we need to start cultivating a class of commercial producers to make Chicago a viable theater hub? And really, what separates commercial investors from non-profit donors?"

No, you need a different business model.

Mark Jeffries -- Dear DH used to make the argument all the time in favor of the hierarchy, he just put Chicago as an equal of NY and LA. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander -- if certain venues are regarded as more prestigious than others, that pyramid operates at the level of NYLACHI as well.

Don Hall

Scott -

I've never argued in favor of "the hierarchy." What a load.

I argued against the demonization of the urban centers of culture in this country. And I maintain that Chicago is every bit as viable a theater hub as NYC. I don't, however, equate viability with money or commercial success.

Betsy Morgan

I love this post. I have two potentially unrelated thoughts. One of the things I love about theatre, and that I think is lost in the product-selling model of New York theatre, but that Chicago has in spades is the magic. What I mean by that is theatre is way more magical, and creativity is way more fruitful when you have a limited supply of resources. An effect is much more impressive when an audience member thinks, "How in the hell did they do that?!" Instead of "How much did that cost?!" I'm thinking of the scene in Apollo 13 when they dump the box of items from the lunar module onto the table and have to make a CO2 filter using only what is in that box. That's what we do in Chicago theatre. We've got this much or no cash, this much stuff, and look what awesome things we do with it!
Thought 2: I wonder if one of the ways we could transition into seeing ourselves as a theatre capital if we were able to encourage our dayjob employers to see us as an asset to the community rather than a liability (i.e. "Actors flake, etc."). I suppose it's just a pipe dream, but it would be nice to get an (unpaid) leave of absence to do three weeks of rehearsals during the day. And before someone says, "Well I want a pony, but we don't always get what we want," there are companies that have similar programs to what I suggest: http://www.patagonia.com/web/eu/patagonia.go?slc=en_GB&sct=GB&&assetid=9153. How do we build a support system, that truly supports it's artists not so much financially, but socially?

Don Hall

How do we build a support system, that truly supports it's artists not so much financially, but socially?

Now THAT'S the best question asked so far.

Nunya Bidness

A) as an audience member I don't want to see the same actors over and over again.
B) to be even a chicago theatre heavy-weight is to struggle and live poor.
c) how are any of these actors theatres etc. to take their game to the next level if they do not let go of what "works well."
D) How are actors who are wonderfully talented but because of the Meredith's, Stoltz and Hawkins, cannot even get a shot at those projects.
Chicago is a great place to hone a work, but you can only go so far here. And keeping it to "ourselves" in a working class city where I see busloads of people pouring out of Ford theatre to see whatever the latest book/film turned musical is playing, doesn't exactly testify to the wide audiences Broadway theatres pull in.

James Peters

24 actors in the NYC production of OUR TOWN x $500/AEA salary per week = $12,000 WEEKLY in actors' salaries.

These are intimidating numbers, even in NYC. That adds up to nearly $50,000 a month just to pay actors. I'm not sure there yet exists a Chicago producer who would be willing to make that kind of investment without a guarantee of recouping, let alone even have the dough to keep a show running.

Betsy Morgan

I'd also like to add that the term "pipe dream" originated in Chicago. http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/July-2010/Top-40-Chicago-Words-Our-Contributions-to-the-English-Language/ Let's change it meaning! Now it can mean "entirely possible."

Kris Vire

Based on the discussion of this at Parabasis, I should clarify: I don't really give a shit about Chicago or any other city being crowned the "capital"—and nor am I sure that I really care for Chicago to become commercial enough to support theater tourism on a grand scale. But since folks like Billington and Teachout keep saying it, I'm using it to make the point that maybe we can stop looking to New York to validate our work.


My first real jobs in Chicago were working on commercial theater productions, so it is a little strange to see "I'm not sure there yet exists a Chicago producer who would be willing to make that kind of investment without a guarantee of recouping..." Yet, it is also telling that my commercial theater career didn't last all that long. The early 2000's recession delivered quite a setback, and sent me out looking for other sources of income.

People who work in storefront/nonprofit/residential theater in Chicago sometimes don't understand that there is, in fact, such a thing as for-profit theater in this town. Perhaps that's why the Jeff's classify any production in either a "residential" or "touring" category. I remember Bomb-itty of Errors winning in 2001 in the "touring" category, which was ludicrous, as it wasn't touring in any sense of the word at the time. But I digress.

Yes, there is such a thing as commercial theater in Chicago, and yes, there are commercial producers. But it is quite risky, and therefore few producers are up to it. Most productions close before recouping, and therefore lose their investment. Some producers, particularly the "angels" who don't understand the business, give up after a few failures. No, there is no such thing as guaranteed recoupment in theater. To be a professional commercial theater producer, you have to make sure that the 1 in 10 successes can pay for the other nine losses.

It says a lot about Chicago theater, perhaps, that there isn't enough risk-seeking theater producing capital in town to achieve a critical mass and be noticed. Maybe it's because there is so much low-cost theater here? This is coming from a guy who blatantly prefers tickets that cost $20 or less, by the way.

I'm willing to suggest that the great proliferation and diversity and high quality of Storefront theater makes commercial theater very, very difficult to sustain here. Audiences often can't tell the difference between the productions, because the only significant difference is that everybody gets paid more--product quality is often very similar. So, if you can't tell the productions apart as an audience member, why would you pay for the more expensive one?

If all creative theater artists in Chicago would like to get paid more without moving, here is my prescription. It will only work if you all agree to do it at the same time. Stop working for free, and stop founding new companies where you work for free. The product will dry up, and then commercial producers will eventually step in to meet the demand (assuming that doesn't dry up, too), and they will have to pay you, because you won't work for free for THEM. There will be less theater, less risk, less diversity, less character, and less of everything we seem to like about Chicago theater.

Aaron Andersen

Eric Ziegenhagen

What is Blue Man Group doing right?

The Briar Street Theater was briefly an offshoot of the Goodman, but after that became an intimate space for off-Broadway-ish commercial shows like Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants and Picasso at the Lapin Agile -- until the Blue Man Group opened shop there in 1997 and have stayed through the present day.

How did they crack the code of commercial production?

One answer, because I don't think "they've-been-on-TV" is the only one, is that they were very smart with their advertising and PR. The main description of the show is that it's indescribable. And then they have been smart enough to run this 16-second commercial:

I wonder how much that production has earned in the past 13 years.

John Pinckard

"Do we need to start cultivating a class of commercial producers to make Chicago a viable theater hub? And really, what separates commercial investors from non-profit donors?"

Speaking, as a NYC-based commercial producer, with obvious bias, I'd say "It would be a start."

To retain and cultivate the artists and productions that would make Chicago the national destination you visualize requires a commercial sector with the resources, taste, and savvy to extend and transfer those productions that capture a broad enough segment of the audience's imagination to warrant a longer run in a larger venue. And the difference between an investor and a donor is profound and very real: donors support institutions, not shows. They are motivated (speaking very broadly) by interest in a body of work, a mission, an artistic philosophy, and/or the prestige of being associated with a revered name. Investors (and the producers they back and sometimes are confused with) are motivated by an entrepreneurial spirit that seeks to make a buck by curating and creating work with staying power.

And therein perhaps lies the conundrum of the chimerical Chicago commercial producer: many of the distinctive characteristics of "Chicago theatre" appeal to an audience that seems to be rarely broad and deep enough to sustain a commercial run. Or perhaps the more accurate thing to say is that few if any people have a handle on who that elusive commercial Chicago audience is... or even more accurately, on how to convince them to go en masse to see the latest offering of the New Colony, not just Broadway in Chicago's Billy Elliot. I bet that if a producer or producers with that right kind of taste and sufficient resources were able to solve that equation, you'd suddenly find yourself in the middle of a lot of commercial "Chicago style" theatre in Chicago. (God knows I tried my hand at it and was utterly confounded, so I hope someone smarter than I am is able to crack it!)

Lastly, a word about theatre destination status: it don't come cheap, quick, or easy. After nearly a century of mythic status as the home of American Theatre, boasting legends like Williams, Miller, Bernstein, R&H, Sondheim, etc. as part of its legacy, Broadway in the 1990s almost went out of business. In response, the League of American Theatres and Producers--now the Broadway League--undertook an expensive and exhaustive campaign to *brand* Broadway. It took a decade and gazillions of dollars, but now people come to New York not to see a show, but to see a "Broadway show," and as a result we pump billions of dollars into the City economy every year.

To say that Chicago needs more commercial producers in order to become a national theatre destination probably belies the deeper issue; to become a national theatre destination, Chicago needs to start treating its theatre community as an industry sector...showbusiness. And I would worry that to do that would strip Chicago theatre of all the things that make it, in a word, awesome.


As an actor, I would surely love to get paid more for the roughly 175 or so hours of rehearsal and performance I give to a show.

As a managing director, I would love to pay my colleagues more for their work - including my colleagues who take time out from their own artistic pursuits to create a platform for others to pursue theirs.

But as a theatre historian and unabashed lover of Chicago theatre past, present and future, I think the key is to find a sustainable model for artists - one which probably means artists need to connect more with their neighborhoods and communities outside the theatre community - rather than a wholesale importation of the existing, somewhat broken model. If we find that - if we find a way to support intimate, innovative theatrical risk-taking without getting locked into the Regional Theatre "fundraise-bigger building-fundraise" cycle - I think Chicago becomes the center of a Neighborhood Theatre revolution that is the natural heir to the Regional Theatre revolution of the 60s, a model which can help small enterprises spring up all around the country.

It probably means we won't make our money in the "traditional way" (TV, films, commercials) - but my close friends in LA aren't doing that, either. It probably means its not enough to "just" be an actor anymore - which probably hasn't been true for a while, and is a myth that deserves busting. And it probably means we, as artists, need to be willing to take the administrative reigns as creatively and passionately as we do the artistic reigns. But the upshot is: we get to determine our own fates, rather than waiting for someone to come down and pave the way for us. And isn't that why we came here, instead of NY or LA?

See you out there!

Penny Penniston

What you are describing is a marketing problem. Marketing problems can be solved, but they require 1) money and 2) a unified voice. I've often dreamed of a Chicago theater marketing association- one that would market Chicago theater in the same way that the MLB markets baseball or the NFL markets football. There three different audiences that we need to market to: 1) Local residents. We need to make local residents aware of the depth and breath of the Chicago theater scene and to define theater-going as an essential part of the Chicago lifestyle. If you live here and you are not going to theater, you are missing out on what it means to be a Chicagoan. 2) Tourists: I want tourists to associate theater with Chicago in the same way that they associate blues clubs and Wrigley Field- it's one of the things you've got to see while you're here. It's an essential part of the Chicago experience. 3) Entertainment/Theater Industry People: Chicago is on the map, but it's amazing to me how it still stays off the radar. Regional Theaters select their seasons based on what's popular in New York. Films & commercials primarily cast out of New York and LA. Agents check NY Times reviews to scope out actors and writers. Why isn't more of that attention directed here? If more industry people tapped into this talent pool, then more writers, directors and actors would be able to make a living here.

As a side note: Broadway in Chicago has an excellent marketing organization. They're by far the most powerful Chicago Theater marketing force and the strongest national voice. It's tragic that they have a name which so undermines Chicago ability to claim its own theatrical identity. BROADWAY in Chicago? Is that what we want this city's theater scene to be known for? I have great respect for their work and the people they employ, but the name is terrible for us as a theatrical community.

We need our own marketing voice. Which requires money. And organization. As always...

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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