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What Makes Chicago Theatre Different?


Upstaged- Anne Nicholson Weber

The question reminds me of an amusing book title I saw once:† Why Women Are Different.† But since New York is still undeniably the standard against which all U.S. theatre is measured, the implied question -- ďWhat makes Chicago theatre different from New York theatre?Ē -- is maybe not so silly.†† It certainly has very real repercussions in the lives of theatre artists.† The unique culture of Chicago theatre is what brings young actors, directors, playwrights and designers here in the first place, what continues to influence their work throughout their careers, and what keeps them here -- or not.†

When I was conducting interviews for a book on quite a different topic (how the cultural dominance of film and television affects live theatre) the Chicagoans I talked to -- Martha Lavey, Artistic Director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Linda Emond, now a leading New York stage actor who spent the early years of her career in Chicago; and Bob Falls, Artistic Director of the Goodman Theatre -- each had a something to say about what makes Chicago theatre different.† Here are some of their thoughts, excerpted from the book, Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age.

Martha Lavey

I am utterly chauvinistic; I like Chicago acting a lot better than I like New York acting.† To me, New York acting is extroverted in a way that just doesnít feel true.† There is almost a presentational quality to the performance that serves the heightened ego of the audience because, if Iím winking at you while I am performing, then I am saying, ďIím not forgetting you, Iím doing this for you.Ē††

The other extreme is Malkovich, who is famous for performing with his back to the audience.† And that comes out of a feeling that we have our life on stage:† I am paying attention to you, my fellow actor,† rather than to whatís going on out there.†

The original Steppenwolf members will say that their ideals of acting were formed by film, and specifically the films of John Cassavetes.† Remember, the late 1970s was a really fantastic period in American filmmaking; Hollywood was making movies for grown-ups with real acting.† And that was what the founders here wanted to be able to do on stage -- to achieve that level of daring and bravado and realism, and just take the gloves off.† They felt that the only place they really saw that was on film and they wanted to do it in the room with the audience.†

The people who started this theatre, who created its heartbeat, are still involved and keep us true to the original impulse.† Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, Terry Kinney --† I talk to those guys daily.† They are still passionate about the theatre, and they work here as artists and they help to sustain the legacy of the place.† There is that amazing continuation.†

Linda Emond

There is something different about Chicago.† Careers are not necessarily made or broken in Chicago.† Careers are made and broken here in New York, and that can affect how people treat their work.† You hear about actors' performances changing during the Tony voting period -- becoming showier.† And, of course, people will be more nervous because they feel there is so much more at stake.† For better or worse, there is!

The shadows of Hollywood and stardom donít loom nearly so large in Chicago; it all seems very far away.† Thereís so little celebrity there and such a strong non-equity scene, and some of that Midwestern work ethic is also very much a part of the theatre scene -- all that creates an energy that supports everything else.† It creates a straightforward, unglamorous, feet-on-the-ground, let-me -do-the-job-and-try-to-do-it-well kind of culture thatís bred into the people who work there.† It was the theatre environment I knew.† And I'm so grateful for that, because the experiences there taught me well.

Bob Falls

In Chicago, I did [Long Dayís Journey Into Night] with one star, Brian Dennehy, who also happens to be an actor I work with all the time, and two Chicago actors and a New York actress and I thought it was pretty terrific.† But nobody wanted to see that version in New York.† And that angered me, until I finally got it that New York is really about seeing four stars.† Chicago isn't.† Chicago is about doing the play.† New York is about seeing four stars.† Broadway is, for sure.†

Thatís the wonderful thing about Chicago; people are just doing the plays.† It's impossible in Chicago to become a star or a failure.† You just do the play.† If it works, if it's a hit, thatís great and maybe that furthers your career a little bit, but not that much.† And if it's a bomb, it doesn't hurt that much either.† In New York, a smash hit could be career-making; and a huge flop could be quite devastating.

Of course, as a result, Chicago is a way station for young actors.† Young actors are ambitious and, if they're really talented, they want to have the largest sea to swim in.† But look at Steppenwolf.†† The great news about Steppenwolf is some of the actors do come back.† They created a system where, yes, they do go away but they also come back, and I think that's the more noteworthy fact.† ††

Anne Nicholson Weber
Theatre In Chicago News Contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw "Jack and the Beanstalk" at the Goodman Children's Theater and has loved the theatre ever since.† She is a Chicago writer and the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age

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