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Tar Beaches And Asphalt Parks: Outdoor Theatergoing During the Shutdown

Drive in Theatre in ChicagoSome blamed the ambience: cozy low-ceilinged, windowless rooms, accessed by narrow entrances and closely-spaced seats suddenly perceived as microbe-congested cells. Others faulted the intended market—hadn't we been repeatedly warned that elderly people were especially vulnerable to respiratory infections? Or were playgoers of all ages simply wary of making plans, after months of disappointment at one cancellation notice after another?

Whatever the reasons, the Greenhouse Center's attempt to lure patrons into its first-floor mainstage for a musical revue replicating Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli's 1964 London Palladium concert found itself impeded at the very outset by slow box office sales and protests from trade unions. As the summer of the Long Intermission continued, however, crossover entertainment concepts suggested that perhaps space—or perception thereof—might have been the deciding factor.

Performance venues based in regions populated by families and retirees asked themselves whether households isolating together in the relative safety of immunity bestowed by shared DNA might feel likewise secure nested in their own snugly-sealed cars. Glenview's Oil Lamp Theater was among the first companies to propose taking advantage of the empty parking lots adjoining shuttered churches and schools to inaugurate seating arrangements modeled on the open-air stadiums proliferating in sun-belt regions during the automobile boom of the last century.

Oil Lamp executive director Jay Pastucha describes his company's initial foray into behind-the-wheel entertainment. "Our individual spaces are measured out with over nine feet between them, so there are no distance issues as to size of vehicle or number of passengers. The lot we used is flanked on all four sides by buildings or foliage, and the check-in station monitors people coming onto the property to prevent walk-ins." Concerns over the availability of public restrooms during the shutdown were resolved by the proximity of the parking acreage to Oil Lamp's playhouse facility. Furthermore, adds Pastucha, "Our first show was only ninety minutes long."

A car-based viewing experience still presupposes an environment steeped in car culture, but just recently, Hell In A Handbag Productions introduced an architectural arrangement combining features of motor courts and backyard decks: for its "Under The Stars With Handbags" Festival—featuring highlights from their repertoire of camp-drag parodies (including the ever-popular Bewildered)—at the Red Box Workshop in the North Park district, admission entitles up to four customers real estate sufficient for stabling a four-wheeled conveyance, or alternatively, a self-transported suite of lawn chairs, ground-cushions, coolers and other patio furnishings.

"The individual socially-distant bays are set up for both regular cars and SUVS—patrons will have to specify which type they have when purchasing tickets," explains publicist David Rosenberg, "This way, larger vehicles can be assigned parking behind the smaller ones to assure everyone good visibility."

Old-timers with nostalgic recollections of authentic drive-in movies should not arrive expecting vintage museum replicas. Light-based projections still mandate surrounding darkness, to be sure, but the dozens of miniature remote speakers that drivers once clipped to their car window, require more assembly than short-run theater events have at their disposal. Neighboring residents, too, may object to the prospect of concert-sized screens and eleven-on-the-dial amplifiers abutting their back yards.

"Our screens are comparable to those used in Times Square," says Pastucha, "With this technology, we are able to generate clear images as early as 6 pm, while the audio feed is supplied by FM frequency. Cell phone apps won't pick it up, but car and portable radios have no problem doing so."

The sweater-and-parka season is just around the corner, but theater companies are giving increasing consideration to extending this entertainment model into Autumn. Could playgoers someday road-excursion to a play in an SUV, fire up the Weber and enjoy a pre-curtain tailgate feast of grilled kabobs and hot cider? Pastucha does not rule out the possibility.

"LED screens are designed to operate outdoors in all but the most extreme weathers," he assures me, "so [virtual shows] are certainly an option as we move forward. When the cold weather starts up, people will need relief from cabin fever."

Under the Stars With Handbag: A Drive-In Festival runs at the Red Box Workshop through September 19. Tickets/Info:

Tickets/info on future shows at Oil Lamp Theater:

Coming later in the Fall: Drive-In Theatre: Beatrix Potter and Friends from October 1-18. Tickets/Info:

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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