Chicago is a fantastic theater town. There are many big theaters but there are also great small theaters performing in church basements and storefronts. There are performances where you could reach out and touch the actors. There are over 200 theaters producing great innovative work for almost every taste. Most of them are listed at the League of Chicago Theatres website.
Here is my basic quick guide to Chicago theaters and tips for seeing theater on the cheap.
Reviews appear in the Sun Times, Tribune, Chicago Reader and TimeOut Chicago and a number of theater blogs, which given how much newspaper space for reviews has been cut can be a great place to look for information on shows. Chicago Theater Blog, Stead Style Chicago and Theatre in Chicago and Chicago Critic all have reviews.
The Chicago theater awards are known as the Jeffs (short of the Joseph Jefferson Award) so if you see a play has been Jeff nominated or Jeff Citation nominated then it means a panel of fellow Chicago theater artists think it is good.
Movement Based Theater
Check out: The Building Stage (I saw an amazing adaptation of Moby Dick here where different actors played Ishmael and Ahab) Redmoon (known for their annual spectacles and puppet, The House, TUTA (The Utopian Theatre Asylum- the first play I saw there was an adaptation of a Peter Handke novel and performed without speaking), Lookingglass (they are particularly known for their Lookingglass Alice- expect to see someone dangle from a rope), 500 Clown (you haven’t seen Macbeth until you’ve seen it done by three actors with comedia dell’arte and clown training), or Plasticene.
Chicago Dramatists, New Leaf, Theatre Oobleck (always free if you’re broke and amazing writing) Curious Theater Branch, Victory Gardens Theatre (where Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity debuted last year) or Collaboraction (which hosts an annual sketchbook).
Plays with a literary bent or literary adaptations
Lifeline (the specialize in literary adaptations), Caffeine (focuses on poetic works and was founded by a MAPH Alum!), Remy Bumppo, or Writer’s (although you have to make the trip to Glencoe and the ticket price is steep).
Specialized Theatrical Missions
Eclipse does a season of one playwright, TimeLine does plays in set history that resonate with current social issues (full disclosure – I am an associate artist there), Silk Road does plays that focus on the countries along the silk road and their Diaspora communities. Rasaka has a South Asian ensemble, Black Ensemble Theatre and Congo Square have African American Ensembles, Teatro Vista has a Latino ensemble, About Face focuses on plays that speak to the GLBT community, Trap Door does plays Eastern European playwrights.
The Big Theaters
These companies have big theaters and budgets to produce plays on a large scale. However many of them have those small theater roots. Steppenwolf started in a church basement and Chicago Shakespeare on the roof of a bar. Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, The Goodman, Northlight, The Court (on the U of C campus you have no excuse not to go).
Other theaters downtown like the Chicago and the Oriental feature touring shows but I stress this is not Chicago-grown theater, but if you need to see Billy Elliot right now this is where you should go.
Best of Theater
The Department of Cultural Affairs Theater houses various Chicago theaters throughout the year and Theater on the Lake remounts some of the best small theater productions of the previous year during the summer so if you miss plays all year you can still see some in the summer.
“Yes, but I am a poor graduate student,” you say? There are many opportunities to see Chicago theater on for less.
You are a student. Be sure to ask or look for the student rate. Most theaters offer substantially reduced ticket prices to students. Plus your student ID functions as your Arts Pass and gets you in to free or discounted shows at many museums theaters and other arts organizations. Here is a full list of Arts Pass partner organizations.
Hottix has discounted tickets to most shows playing in Chicago and you can now buy on line rather than go to their limited ticket locations.
Preview performances happen the week before a play opens and the tickets are often much cheaper than later in the run. Some companies also ask for feedback on the play so you can help them develop a production.
Industry nights are designed for poor actors but they are often open to poor students on an off night of the week like a Wednesday or when the press is coming and they would like a full house be sure to ask for
Papering the house
Most theaters want a full house on a night when a reviewer is coming. If you sign up for the email list or Facebook pages you’ll receive notices of cheap tickets and papering opportunities.
You can see many performances for free if you volunteer. The Saints in Chicago is an organization that ushers in exchange for tickets. Many great dance and performance pieces happen at Links Hall, the home of Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum and they rely heavily on volunteers. If you have a favorite company email them to see if they need help. You could see a show for free and get valuable experience.