Street View of the Chicago Theater

Behind the Curtain: The Rich History of Chicago’s Theater Scene

Chicago, known for its iconic architecture, world-class museums, and delectable cuisine, also boasts a vibrant and diverse cultural landscape. The city is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, and there’s no better way to experience this richness than by exploring Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods and attending its lively cultural festivals. In this short guide, we’ll take you on a journey through some of the city’s most fascinating cultural hubs and events, showcasing the beauty of diversity in the Windy City.

Chicago, a city renowned for its stunning architecture and gusty winds, boasts a theater scene that is equally captivating and influential. With a history that spans over a century, Chicago has nurtured generations of talented performers, playwrights, and directors, and has given rise to iconic venues and groundbreaking theater companies. In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating history of Chicago’s theater scene and how it has shaped the city’s cultural identity, leaving a lasting impact on American theater as a whole.

A Promising Beginning

The origins of Chicago’s theater scene can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when the city’s first permanent theater, Rice’s Theatre, opened its doors in 1847. This modest yet significant venue laid the foundation for Chicago’s theatrical landscape, hosting a range of entertainment from dramatic plays to variety shows. As the city rapidly grew, so did the demand for entertainment, and soon, more venues like McVicker’s Theatre, the Haymarket Opera House, and Hooley’s Opera House emerged, catering to the diverse tastes of Chicago’s burgeoning population.

Tragedy struck in 1871 when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed many of the city’s theaters. However, the resilient spirit of Chicago ensured that these establishments would rise from the ashes and thrive once more. New venues, such as the Central Music Hall and the Grand Opera House, were constructed, signaling a new era in the city’s theater history.

The Birth of a Theater District

The Early 20th Century The early 20th century saw the rise of Chicago’s theater district, with magnificent venues such as the Chicago Theatre (1921), the Oriental Theatre (1926) (now the James M. Nederlander Theatre), and the Palace Theatre (1926) (now the Cadillac Palace Theatre) gracing the cityscape. These grand playhouses, known for their opulent designs and lavish interiors, were a testament to the architectural prowess of the time, with many structures designed by renowned architects like Rapp and Rapp, and Marshall and Fox.

These theaters hosted a variety of performances, including vaudeville, musicals, and dramas, attracting both local and national talent. The popularity of the theater district made it a cultural hub for the city, with restaurants, bars, and hotels springing up in the surrounding areas to cater to theatergoers.

The Emergence of the Off-Loop Movement

The 1950s and 1960s In the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago’s theater scene experienced a transformative shift with the emergence of the Off-Loop movement. Small, experimental theater companies began to pop up in neighborhoods away from the downtown theater district, offering more intimate, daring, and thought-provoking productions. This movement was inspired by the off-Broadway scene in New York City, which also sought to provide an alternative to more commercial, mainstream productions.

The renowned Second City, founded in 1959, revolutionized improvisational comedy and became a launching pad for some of the industry’s most prominent comedic talents, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Tina Fey. Other influential Off-Loop theaters included the Hull House Theater, which championed socially relevant works, and the Organic Theater Company, which fostered the development of new plays and nurtured local playwrights.

A Golden Era of Chicago Theater

The 1970s and 1980s The 1970s and 1980s marked a golden era for Chicago theater, with the birth of groundbreaking companies such as Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Goodman Theatre, and Victory Gardens Theater. This period saw a surge of creativity and artistic innovation that would come to define the city’s theater scene for years to come.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, founded in 1974 by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, and Jeff Perry, emerged as a driving force in Chicago theater. The company’s focus on ensemble-driven performances and daring, provocative material quickly garnered critical acclaim and attention from audiences. Steppenwolf’s bold approach to theater transformed the landscape of American drama, with productions such as Sam Shepard’s “True West” (1980) and Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” (1980) receiving widespread praise.

Many of Steppenwolf’s original ensemble members, including John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, and Joan Allen, went on to achieve successful careers in film and television, further cementing the company’s reputation as a breeding ground for exceptional talent.

The Goodman Theatre, founded in 1925 as a part of the Art Institute of Chicago, experienced a renaissance during the 1970s and 1980s under the leadership of artistic director Gregory Mosher. Mosher’s tenure saw the premiere of numerous important works, including David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1982) and the development of the annual Latino Theatre Festival, which showcased the work of Latino playwrights and performers.

Victory Gardens Theater, founded in 1974, also played a significant role in shaping the Chicago theater scene during this period. The company focused on producing new plays by contemporary American playwrights, giving voice to diverse stories and perspectives. Victory Gardens became a vital incubator for new talent, fostering the careers of playwrights such as John Logan, James Sherman, and Steve Carter.

Other notable companies that emerged during this golden era include the Court Theatre, founded in 1955, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, founded in 1986. These institutions further enriched the city’s theatrical offerings, providing audiences with a broad range of experiences, from classic works to avant-garde productions.

The impact of this golden era extended beyond Chicago, as the city’s innovative theater practices began to influence the broader American theater landscape. The ensemble-driven approach championed by Steppenwolf and other Chicago companies inspired similar collectives across the country, leading to a more collaborative, artist-centered model for theater-making.

In addition to fostering a wealth of talent and groundbreaking productions, the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago theater also saw the growth of theater education programs and community outreach initiatives. These efforts ensured that the next generation of theater artists and audiences would be engaged, diverse, and well-prepared to continue the city’s theatrical legacy.

In conclusion, the golden era of Chicago theater in the 1970s and 1980s played a crucial role in establishing the city as a national and international leader in the performing arts. The groundbreaking work of companies like Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre, and Victory Gardens Theater not only transformed the city’s cultural landscape but also left a lasting impact on the wider world of theater.

A Legacy of Innovation and Excellence

The Modern Chicago Theater Scene Today, Chicago’s theater scene remains a vibrant and dynamic force, with over 200 theater companies offering a diverse array of productions, from Broadway-bound musicals to cutting-edge dramas. With the establishment of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier and the expansion of smaller storefront theaters, the city continues to nurture emerging talents and push the boundaries of theatrical storytelling.