Chicago Theater Guide (now with more theaters)

Okay so you’ve all survived your first week and you have six novels , two film screenings and Hegel to read over the weekend and MAPH Central keeps telling you to leave Hyde Park.  So if you don’t think you can squeeze in a play on this dreary rain-filled weekend save this post for some future night when you have an evening free and are wondering what you can do for $10.  Some of you are in an arts reviewing class so seeing performances is homework.

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 (although the actors won’t like that). There are roughly 300 theaters producing work for almost every taste.  Most of them are listed at the League of Chicago Theatres website.

Theater Seats

However, the League won’t group them by style of theater and give you tips for seeing things cheaply. My updated guide to Chicago theaters and tips for seeing theater on the cheap is after the jump.

What to see?

With so many choices it can be hard to decide what to see. If you don’t feel like stopping through the MAPH office and asking me for recommendations or just picking a play because you like the title you can read the reviews (or if you are in the arts reviewing class you can compare the review to the reality).

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. With continuing cuts to newspapers many reviews have moved to blogs Chicago Theater Blog, Stead Style Chicago, Theatre in Chicago and Chicago Critic all have blogger reviewers who may be covering shows at smaller theaters.

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, and ) Redmoon (known for their annual spectacles and amazing puppetry, circus arts and crazy props), 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 hanging dangerously from a ladder), or Plasticene (I saw a great performance where they did an autopsy on a body made of vegetables and ballistics grade gelatin).

New Plays

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) or Collaboraction (which hosts an annual sketchbook for those of you who might be looking for a place to debut some new work).

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).


Sure you can go to The Second City and they are great, but try Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (60 plays in 60 minutes) at the NeoFuturists or IO or ComedySportz. They are all cheaper options for seeing improv.


New Tuners, Porchlight, Light Opera Works specialize in musicals but other theaters do them too.

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 produces work by 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).

Touring shows

Other theaters downtown like the Chicago and the Oriental feature touring shows but I stress this is NOT (I repeat NOT) Chicago-grown theater, but if you need to see Wicked or Mama Mia 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.

Student Discounts

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.  Really, these deals are great and you can get some really cheap tickets to see theater.


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.  If you sign up on their mailing list (I know more emails, ugh.) You will get a weekly email of discounted tickets


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

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 if there is an industry night or if you like a certain theater get on the email list or Facebook page and they will notify you about ticket deals.

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.

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