If we're the theater capital, let's start acting like it
Note: I first posted this last night at my blog, Storefront Rebellion; at the request of TOC editor Frank Sennett and web editor John Dugan, I'm cross-posting it here.—KV
The second line of Chris Jones's two-line Theater Loop post yesterday morning, about the latest extension of David Cromer's outstanding A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers' Theatre (my review here), is quite the tease: "And given the critical acclaim enjoyed by the show, a remount somewhere other than Glencoe would hardly be a surprise."
Now maybe he meant a transfer into the Chicago city limits, which would be terrific. But given Chris's predilection for New York transfers of Chicago work—and Saturday's glowing review by Charles Isherwood of the New York Times—that's where my mind went. And I panicked.
As Writers' executive director Kate Lipuma tweeted to me yesterday afternoon, the company is "exploring everything" when it comes to a further life for Cromer's Streetcar. For the sake of argument, though, let's assume we are talking about New York. My feelings about New York transfers of Chicago shows are complicated.
I think there’s definite value in the cultural exchange between our cities’ theater scenes, which are quite different both practically and philosophically. At this year’s TCG conference, which just concluded here in Chicago on Saturday, the frighteningly smart Jonah Lehrer gave a keynote speech. One of his many complicated but well-illustrated points involved the higher creativity that’s been observed in cities, which may be attributable to the higher rate of random encounters—“bumping into people on the sidewalk.”
To borrow from something Tony Adams tweeted at me earlier, maybe there are sparks in the sidewalk-bumping theater artists do on the metaphorical highway between New York and here. As Kerry Reid’s recent PerformInk piece illustrates, it is possible for some theater folks to make a multi-locational life, and to find the impermanence enriching.
And I’m all for the positive attention that Chicago theater has received and that’s seemed to pile up in recent years, when such productions as August: Osage County, Adding Machine, Our Town, Graceland, A Steady Rain, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and Superior Donuts have made the move, with varying degrees of involvement from the Chicago artists with whom they started. Lots of nice things have been said about those Chicago artists in the New York and national press because they went there, which is lovely.
But when we send our artists, particularly our actors, to New York, oftentimes they don’t come back. I’m thinking here of Our Town’s Jennifer Grace, Superior Donuts’s James Vincent Meredith, Chad Deity’s Desmin Borges. That’s why I worry about the hypothetical prospect of transferring Cromer’s Streetcar—for which the high-profile reviews have all praised its strong, all-Chicago cast—moving there. Do I want Stacy Stoltz and Matt Hawkins to receive broader notice? Absolutely. Do I want that if it means I don’t get to see them on Chicago stages again anytime soon? Thank you, no.
A number of out-of-town critics have praised Chicago as America’s real theater capital over the last several years. What if, instead of continuing to export our stuff elsewhere for praise and dollars, we embraced what London’s Michael Billington, Toronto’s Richard Ouzounian, New York’s Terry Teachout and others have written and sell ourselves, not New York, as said theater capital?
If Cromer’s Streetcar deserves more viewers—and it surely does—why shouldn’t they come to Chicago to see it? Instead of courting the Scott Morfees and Jeffrey Richardses of New York, maybe Gigi Pritzker’s ready for another go at producing theater in Chicago after Million Dollar Quartet.
As Alan M. Berks notes in the first installment of his TCG report from the Twin Cities, one of the unofficial themes of Chicago's TCG conference was the awesome, non-hierarchical nature of Chicago's theater scene. Mayor Daley said a lot of great things to the nation's theatermakers Saturday morning, as he did to the city's press a couple of weeks prior when marking the tenth anniversary of the downtown theater district, in the presence of NEA chair Rocco Landesman, about the value of theater and other arts in building a world-class city.
So what if, instead of continuing the New York–centric 20th-century model, we make our city a theater tourism destination? With others so willing to call Chicago the real theater destination of North America, wouldn’t it be great if we embraced that label ourselves? What if theater audiences actually had to come to Chicago to see Chicago-style theater?