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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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.