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Caffeine Theatre Thinks You're Smart

Under Milk Wood

In 2006 Caffeine Theatre's artistic director Jennifer Shook approached the board with a proposal. "I told them I wanted to do T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party and that it might be the last show we ever do.  That I didn't think anyone would come, and that I wasn't even sure I understood it."  The board looked at the financial state of the company and agreed to do the show, accepting the fact that it might force the company to close.

It became one of the biggest commercial successes in Caffeine Theatre's history.  And confirmed a few points for the company in moving forward.  Most broadly, as a company dedicated to performing poetic and intellectual plays, the success of Eliot's challenging work validated their own beliefs about theatre. 

Shook admits, "There's a really fine line between giving our audiences permission to be intelligent and coming off like intellectual snobs ourselves, but I fervently believe that theater and poetry could appeal to anyone." 

With further successes under their belt like the just closed Under Milk Wood Caffeine Theatre can be confident that it is doing something right. "We've made a name for ourselves doing plays people don't do," says Shook, "We're not afraid of the word intellectual." 

Caffeine Theatre, which takes its name from the mythical coffee house of passionate conversation, artists, intelligentsia, and social debate, emphasizes the social position of theater as a public, if not a political, forum.  "It's not that we want our audiences to walk out of the theatre and into the picket line, but we want them to leaving the theatre thinking, ‘Huh, I never thought about it that way.'"

For this reason Shook describes the theater as seeking to tackle, "Issues that are so large you barely even think of them as issues."  As an example, Shook sees the recent Under Milk Wood, presented at the DCA Theatre in the Loop, as raising the question, "How can you interact with your crazy neighbor?"  Dylan Thomas' sensitive depiction of small town Wales, then, has much more to say about urban life in Chicago than one might expect.  As Shook puts it, "poetry has a history of trying to engage people in a thoughtful, ethical way"

Does Caffeine Theatre worry this message might be lost on its audience? "We know you're smart.  It's ok to be smart."

To learn more about Caffeine Theatre check out their website, follow their blog, follow them on Twitter, or become a fan on Facebook.

Benno Nelson

You can read more of Theatre In Chicago contributor Benno Nelson's writing at The@er (

Full Storefrontal

Read the other articles in Benno Nelson's "Full Storefrontal" series that focuses on small theatre companies around Chicago on the Full Storefrontal page.

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