SR Digest: (A) Year of Chicago Theater

Issue #23—November 21, 2019

Eric Gerard in Jackalope Theatre’s P.Y.G., which you should get tickets to while you still can. Photograph by Reed Carson

Storefront theater, her impact!

You may have seen that a study was released yesterday by the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, looking at the impact of Chicago’s storefront theaters.

Well, “study” may be too strong of a word. The Chicago-based Donnelley Foundation, among its other good works, awards unrestricted operating grants to Chicago theaters with annual budgets under $1 million. Despite the flashy headlines on the Tribune’s write-up and on the press release that hit my inbox several hours after the Tribune’s write-up, the study is actually a rather modest survey of 41 of the foundation’s theater grantees.

Performink republished the key points from the press release, as well as the full list of theaters that responded to the survey, so I won’t copy and paste the whole thing here. But let’s look at some of those findings.

Approximately 267,400 people attended performances by these theaters last season.

That’s a fine number, but it almost certainly doesn’t equate to 267,400 separate individuals. There’s no accounting for how many Lifeline Theatre patrons might have also seen a show at the Gift Theatre, or how many times Raven or Porchlight counted visits by their season subscribers.

Of the 170+ productions staged by the theaters last season, 39 percent were world premieres.

Truly awesome. Of course now I want to know how many of those world premieres have gone on to a second production elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem to have been asked.

“100% of the surveyed companies are dedicated to addressing issues of accessibility, diversity and inclusion - through their mission, selection of productions, community engagement initiatives, educational programs and/or day-to-day operations.”

Y’all. Come on. What theater in their right mind is going to say “no” when asked if they’re dedicated to addressing accessibility, diversity and inclusion, in any of a mix-and-match selection of broad categories? This line item tells us absolutely nothing of use.

This was the point at which I requested a copy of the full study, so I could drill down into the deeper findings. The response I got was that the press release includes all findings from the study.

No wonder the Tribune, given first dibs on this announcement, felt compelled to extrapolate its own speculative numbers in search of a sexier headline.

I’m not trying to drag the Donnelley Foundation, whose four– and five-figure grants to small-budget theaters are hitting a spot that too many grantmakers aren’t interested in. As Rivendell’s Tara Mallen said in the Sun-Times article I linked to above, “Most grant organizations won’t even look at you if you’re under $250,000.” No one wants more new insights into the wacky ecosystem that is Chicago theater than I do—which is why I’m disappointed this study underdelivered.

But I’ll echo American Theatre’s Diep Tran, who wrote yesterday about the Donnelley findings alongside a much more in-depth study from the NYC mayor’s office about New York’s small theaters (defined as 499 seats or less, LOL). As Diep concludes:

These studies should serve as reminders to funders and donors that small theatres are as much worth supporting as larger ones—possibly moreso, as larger institutions currently receive a majority of public and private philanthropy. Among other things, support for small theatres is an investment in innovation.

Maybe next time I’m thumbing through 20 pages of acknowledgements of foundations, corporations and private donors in my program at the Goodman or Chicago Shakes, I’ll pick a few names to call up and ask: “Have you seen any storefront theater?”


Storefront Rebellion is one year old this week.

And I can’t thank you enough for being part of it.

Last November, after far too little thought about strategy (as with most of my major life decisions), I decided to announce this newsletter project. Beyond a few conversations with close friends, I had no idea if people would even like the idea of getting me in their inbox. Less than 12 hours after I posted on Twitter and Facebook that first day, we’d reached 150 signups. So thank you to all of you who were part of that first wave, and to everyone who’s signed up since.

To mark the occasion, I’m offering a special deal for any of you who are currently on the free list and might want to consider upgrading—or if you’re a first-timer reading this on the web or via a forwarded email. Now through December 1, use the button below to subscribe as a supporter and you’ll get 20 percent off your first year.

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And as the newsletter moves into its second year, I’m thinking hard about how to refine and improve it. I’d love to hear your feedback on how I can better help you keep up with theater in Chicago: Feel free to reply to this email if it’s in your inbox, or you can reach me directly at kris@krisvire.com.


New reviews

Christina Hall in Always… Patsy Cline. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Paid subscribers already received my review of Firebrand Theatre’s Always… Patsy Cline on Wednesday morning, but if you missed it, check it out here.

At the Sun-Times, I reviewed Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s return to Steppenwolf in Lindiwe. Read the review here.

Also at the Sun-Times, I wrote about Kathleen Turner’s cabaret-memoir act, Finding My Voice. Read it here.


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Questions or feedback for me? Reply to this email, or if you’re reading this on the web, hit me at kris@krisvire.com or find me on Twitter @krisvire. You can also leave public comments on the web version of the newsletter; click the headline above or the links at the bottom of this post.

SR Digest: Liminal (theater) spaces

Issue #22—November 14, 2019

Welcome to the free edition of Storefront Rebellion! This newsletter brings Chicago theater news and reviews from me, longtime critic and journalist Kris Vire, right to your inbox. If you’re enjoying it, please tell your friends. Word of mouth is our best advertising. (I borrowed that from a few thousand post-curtain-call speeches.)

Storefront Rebellion is ad-free and supported entirely by readers. If you appreciate my perspective on theater in Chicago, please consider supporting at $6 per month or $60 per year.

I also very much want to hear your feedback: Reply to this email, or if you’re reading this on the web, hit me at kris@krisvire.com or find me on Twitter @krisvire. You can also leave public comments on the web version of the newsletter; click the headline above or the links at the bottom of this post.

Last week’s news that Strawdog Theatre Company was about to lose its lease for the second time in three years has me thinking about how it’s not just our theater productions that are ephemeral—in Chicago, it’s the theaters themselves that might fade into memory.

Strawdog moved into its current building at 1802 West Berenice in North Center in the spring of 2017. The company had been displaced from its home of a quarter-century in East Lakeview by a condo megadevelopment that actually managed to take out three longstanding theaters on the same block: In addition to Strawdog, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. around the corner decided to call it quits, while Oracle Productions, which was a few doors south of Strawdog, was briefly the first to move into the Berenice building before its board decided to dissolve just months later. (The developer of course made sure to preserve the Starbucks on the corner, because priorities.)

Strawdog happily swooped in to take over from Oracle, but the building had been in use by a string of theater companies for years. Signal Ensemble Theatre had preceded Oracle, producing there for several years before that company hit the wall, but I remember going to auditions in the same space (back in the early aughts when that was still a thing I did) when it was occupied by the now long-defunct Breadline Theatre Group. It looks like this is the end of the line; it’s not entirely clear what will happen after Strawdog vacates at the end of March, but the company’s announcement noted that both the building and the lot are being sold, which smells like condos to me.

It’s not unusual in Chicago for a space like the Berenice building to be handed down from theater company to theater company as it was. TimeLine Theatre Company’s space inside the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, which it’s occupied for two decades, is officially known as Baird Hall, and it’s played host to homegrown theater since the beginnings of the Off-Loop theater movement in the 1960s. Back then it was home to a troupe known as the Chicago City Players; in later years it was used by groups like Magic Circle, Goat Island, and the European Repertory Company. Right before TimeLine moved in, it was the venue for the Journeymen’s storefront-scaled, David Cromer–directed production of Angels in America. I hope when TimeLine moves into their new Uptown home a couple of years down the line that Baird Hall gets to bless a new theater tenant.

But what about the theaters that didn’t survive? Now, I’m not talking about all the old proscenium-style Loop houses that advertised in the pages of The Chicagoan in the years before the stock-market crash (though it’s tempting to wonder how Chicago’s theater scene might have developed differently if more of those grand palaces had avoided the wrecking ball until we started producing our own output).

Theater listings and ads from the August 1, 1926 issue of The Chicagoan.

I’m talking about the storefronts and community centers that helped incubate Chicago theater over the last 50 years, where the ghosts of our theater have been evicted by gentrification.

The most egregious case in my mind—probably because I lived just down the block from it when it came to the end of its life—is the Hull House Theater in the Jane Addams Center at 3212 North Broadway. In 1963, Bob Sickinger converted what had been a bowling alley inside the building into a space where he essentially introduced Chicago to intimate, avant-garde theater. It was one of the first places you could see Mike Nussbaum onstage. Later it became Steppenwolf’s first home in the city limits, where it staged Balm in Gilead; Bailiwick Repertory and About Face Theatre were among the later tenants. The building is now occupied by an athletic club, with a rock-climbing wall facing the street.

Another Hull House outpost, on Beacon Street in Uptown, contained a basement theater that was home to the Organic Theater and later to Black Ensemble Theater. It’s where Warp! and Bleacher Bums were born; it’s where I first met and interviewed Jackie Taylor a decade and a half ago. Five years ago, it was sold and torn down for condos.

Steppenwolf’s second Chicago home was a 200-seat theater at 2851 North Halsted that they took over from the St. Nicholas Theatre. Steppenwolf was there for almost a decade before moving into its current, dedicated building 12 blocks south. 2851 was still there when I arrived in Chicago; ComedySportz was its last occupant, performing there until early 2006, when they were evicted so it could be torn down for—you guessed it—condos.

St. Nicholas moved to the Ivanhoe Theatre, which is now a Binny’s Beverage Depot. Organic ended up in the Buckingham Theatre, an old one-screen movie theater that it converted for live performance; it’s now condos. Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s Rogers Park space, where Bob Falls made his name and Aidan Quinn spray-painted “to be or not to be” on the wall every night as Hamlet, was torn down a decade ago; it’s now, still, a vacant lot.

There are more examples I could name; these are just off the top of my head. It isn’t as if most of these were architectural gems; Wisdom Bridge, by pretty much all accounts, was a shithole. And I’m not sentimental enough to think that these were sacred spaces. But still, they’re gone. No one will ever be able to walk into the Broadway Hull House to see a play and think of the decades of theater history hanging in the air. But maybe if they read this newsletter, they can think about it while they wait for their Zumba class to start. If this city’s practice of building theater in neighborhood storefronts and found spaces has a flip side, it’s that you never know when the market will want to snatch those spaces back.


Sam Hubbard and Daniella Pereira in The Effect. Photograph: Jesus J. Montero

Strawdog’s current production of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect runs through November 23. Paid supporters can read my review here.

Other recent reviews for paid-tier subscribers:

Hoodoo Love at Raven Theatre

My Life Is a Country Song at New American Folk Theatre

Eric Gerard in P.Y.G. Photograph by Reed Carson

Even if you’re on the free list, you should have received my review last week of P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Bell at Jackalope Theatre, but if you missed it, check it out here. And get a damn ticket.


Questions or feedback for me? Reply to this email, or if you’re reading this on the web, hit me at kris@krisvire.com or find me on Twitter @krisvire. You can also leave public comments on the web version of the newsletter; click the headline above or the links at the bottom of this post.

SR review: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle”

Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s satire skewers pop-cultural appropriation in a deft and dazzling Jackalope Theatre production

Theater review by Kris Vire

Tevion Devin Lanier, Garrett Young and Eric Gerard in P.Y.G.

Some years back, I opened my glowing review of Sigrid Gilmer’s satire Harry & the Thief by calling it “the MTV's The Real World of Harriet Tubman comedies.” (R.I.P., Pavement Group.)

So let’s try this on for size: Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle is the Harry & the Thief of The Real World satires. Okay, fine, that’s not the kind of blurb that would sell a lot of tickets in a Jackalope e-blast. But I stand by it, as P.Y.G. checks all of the following boxes:

  • It is, among other things, an astute parody of the reality-show formula that MTV pioneered, confessional-room asides and all;

  • It’s a raucous, irreverent but well-informed satire of the current pop-cultural conversation around race that gleefully colors outside the lines of polite theater;

  • It’s blessed here with a remarkably committed cast and an inventive, ideally matched director.

Chisholm’s conceit: Dorian Belle (Garrett Young), a young white pop star from Toronto (and a very thinly veiled avatar for Justin Bieber), has decided he’s ready to add some edge to his Non-Threatening Boys Magazine image. His management and the programmers at “NTV” pair him with Petty Young Goons, a “bad-boy” hip-hop duo from Chicago (or…thereabouts) for a Real World–style reality show. In front of the ever-present cameras, P.Y.G. will make Dorian presentable for a new audience—not by sanding down his nonexistent rough spots but by teaching Dorian, in his own tone-deaf words, “how to be black.”

Eric Gerard in P.Y.G.

P.Y.G.’s members, the hard-edged Blacky Blackerson (Eric Gerard) and cerebral Alexand Da Great (Tevion Devin Lanier), are quick to shut that suggestion down. But on some level, they both suspect that’s a part of what they’ve been hired to do: to lend a veneer of authenticity to an act of cultural tourism.

Yet Dorian insists his love of hip-hop is genuine, and Black, to his own surprise, finds himself starting to be won over—by Dorian, by the money, by the proximity to fame, and by access to the trappings of whiteness (skiing! arugula!).

Thus proceeds an examination of pop-cultural appropriation that’s sometimes brash, sometimes nuanced, and often unexpectedly disconcerting. A fraught series of exchanges about the connotations and complications of the N-word, for example, eventually results in Black adopting a buzzer from the board game Taboo to use in place of speaking it himself.

Eric Gerard, Garrett Young and Tevion Devin Lanier in P.Y.G.

Chisholm embraces the reality-TV frame to the point of interspersing commercial-break parodies reflecting the “woke” economy, represented in Lili-Anne Brown’s sharp staging by video interstitials that add another dozen or so Chicago-fave actors to the three talents onstage. 

Both Chisholm’s commentary and Jackalope’s production are so savvy and so engaged with the broader cultural moment that P.Y.G. is the kind of theater you want to bring non-theater people to see. That’s why I’m making this review free for everyone to read and share. Because I want you to see P.Y.G. and I want you to bring someone who doesn’t think they like theater. Let’s start a Mis-Edumacation campaign.


P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle

Jackalope Theatre at Broadway Armory Park (5917 N Broadway). By Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown.

Cast: Tevion Devin Lanier (Alexand Da Great), Eric Gerard (Blacky Blackerson), Garrett Young (Dorian Belle).

Designers: Lauren M. Nichols (scenic), Stefani Azores-Gococo (costumes), Jared Gooding (lighting), Paul Deziel (projections), Emily Hartig (props), Aaron Stephenson (sound and original music). Assistant director: Kirby Gibson. Casting director: Catherine Miller. Stage manager: Devonte E. Washington.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission. Through December 21. Tickets ($10–$35) at jackalopetheatre.org.

Photographs by Reed Carson.


Paid supporters of Storefront Rebellion have received two additional reviews from me this week.

Martasia Jones and Shariba Rivers in Hoodoo Love. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Hoodoo Love at Raven Theatre: Director Wardell Julius Clark and an able cast work some Memphis magic with this early piece from playwright Katori Hall

Kelly Combs, Lena Dudley and Charlie Irving in My Life Is a Country Song. Photograph: Joseph Ramski Photography

My Life Is a Country Song at New American Folk Theatre: The heartache’s right but the songs are wrong in this lightly sketched concert-musical hybrid


Questions or feedback for me? Reply to this email, or if you’re reading this on the web, hit me at kris@krisvire.com or find me on Twitter @krisvire. You can also leave public comments on the web version of the newsletter; click the headline above or the links at the bottom of this post.

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