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

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 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.