O-Issue 2013: Chicago Theater

Where to go for the shows, and all that jazz.

By Emma Broder

Seeking answers to a few big, to-be-or-not-to-be questions, the Maroon recently decided to e-mail two of the UChicago theater community’s leaders, Heidi Coleman (A.M. ’08) and Drew Dir (A.B. ’07), to get their opinions on how you should engage with Chicago’s legendary drama scene this fall. Coleman is the Director of University Theater and the Director of Undergraduate Studies for TAPS. Dir is the Resident Dramaturg at Court Theatre, the prizewinning professional theater on campus.

Chicago Maroon: Why were you initially attracted to Chicago’s theater scene, and how is it unique? How has that community sustained itself in the digital age?

Heidi Coleman: Chicago is the best city for those starting their careers or those wanting to develop new work. It’s filled with theater companies committed to risk-taking and to working collaboratively. There’s a range of performance, from circus to new plays, to burlesque to multi-media work. And there’s an embrasure of performance as an inclusively social experience. For me, it is a luxury to be able to bring so many of the theater practitioners to teach undergraduates.

Drew Dir: I did my undergrad work at University of Chicago and got to know the theater scene through my theater teachers, all of whom were some of the most interesting working artists in the city: Greg Allen, Sean Graney, 500 Clown, etc. When I graduated, I wanted to join that community as soon as I could.

The line on Chicago is that, because we’re not New York or Los Angeles, nobody’s here to get “discovered” and move to film and television. Everybody’s here because they care about the art of theater, and they care about ensemble—that is, they care about deep, long-term collaborative relationships with fellow actors or directors or playwrights. While there are exceptions to that, the spirit largely holds.

In the digital age, major regional theaters have been bleeding audience members as people spend less money on live entertainment, but Chicago has remained resilient. The city has a huge theatergoing audience, and there are many theater companies experimenting with how to redefine live performance for the digital age. Some really great companies like The New Colony and The Inconvenience are creating content that lives both online as well as on the stage.

CM: Which theaters’ seasons feel particularly fresh this fall and why?

HC: I can’t answer this question.… It’s not fair to play favorites. But, Court [Theatre]’s season is always fascinating, and An Iliad [November 13–December 8] is a particularly interesting performance of solo work. M. Butterfly [May 8–June 8] is a fantastic text, and the production will be epic with Charlie Newell directing.

DD: I’m excited about Steppenwolf’s season, which is really aggressively producing a whole slate of new plays, two of which [The Way West, The Qualms] are world premieres—it’s really great to see a major theater committed to new stories by playwrights who aren’t necessarily household names yet. The Hypocrites, as always, have a fascinating season—even when I’m not excited by the play titles, I’ll always go anyway because the way they interpret classic plays is so innovative and exciting.

CM: What has been your favorite show you’ve seen in Chicago and why?

HC: I’m most interested in watching ensembles/writers/directors develop work, so it is rare that a show in isolation that grabs me. But I do love watching companies evolve. We frequently develop new work with artists as a part of our program, and folks like New Colony or [Manual] Cinema. I’m very proud to share collaborations.

DD: Some of the most life-changing theater I’ve seen has been at the Museum of Contemporary Art [MCA], which sports an entire performance wing for experimental theater, music, and dance. When Young Jean Lee brought her show The Shipment to Chicago, it completely reinvigorated my love for live theater. It makes its own argument for why live theater is important.

CM: Where’s a good place for a UChicago first-year to start discovering Chicago theater?

HC: Ah, this is a great question and this fall, it’s easy. Court Theatre is literally a 10-minute walk for most of us, and [The] Mountaintop [September 5–October 13] and An Iliad are easy to see in the autumn quarter. There are student nights with free food, and the UChicago Arts Pass works there. Also, in the Logan Center, for the first four Fridays and Saturdays of the quarter, we are hosting a collaboration between New Colony and [The] Inconvenience of a 1960s-style sitcom that will be filmed before a live audience called B-Side. Definitely at least one night is worth it. After that, Too Much Light at the [Neo-Futurarium], a show at Second City, Steppenwolf, the MCA, and something at the Chopin Theatre by The House Theatre or The Hypocrites, [two companies]. That should get you through the first year.

DD: Court Theatre, where I work, is a great place to start—when I was an undergrad I lived just down the street at Max Palevsky West and yet it took me three years before I finally saw a show there. We have a one-man adaptation of Homer’s Iliad opening in November that is one of my favorite scripts in the world. Outside of Hyde Park, I recommend starting with Chicago’s improv theaters. iO Chicago, in Wrigleyville, is right off the Red Line, and I spent all my money there during my first year. I went during O-Week and was immediately hooked.

CM: Why is it important for college students to go to the theater?

HC: I think going to be a part of live performance is useful for everyone. A performance is an investigative conversation between the people involved in the creative process and those in the audience. Why college students in particular? These four years are ones of accelerated growth; it’s a hot house, in energizing ways. It’s also a time when existential questions hit hard. Performance is a highly social experience, simultaneously profound and just plain fun. Both qualities are important in countering despair or loneliness, which are sometimes byproducts of our questionings.

DD: First of all, never in your life will attending the theater be this cheap for you—between the UChicago Arts Pass and student discounts, theater is less expensive for college students than going to a restaurant downtown. More globally, though, live theater is important because it’s a way of consuming stories that brings you closer to your fellow humans—literally. Watching live human actors in the presence of other human audience members does actually cultivate a greater sense of citizenship and compassion for your fellow man than TV or film. There’s a reason the creation of drama went hand-in-hand with the birth of democracy in ancient Greece. Plus, there’s no better place to bring a date.