Chicago: Theater capital of America - past, present and future?

March 14, 2011

It’s easier to look back on an historical moment than to realize that you’re living in one.  What if the past fifty years of Chicago theater have been not just fun and exciting but actually constitute the equivalent of Elizabethan England or post-Civil War New York–that is, an instance of the ultimate flowering of the art form?

That’s precisely the theory behind Columbia College Chicago’s decision to host a scholarly symposium on what we’re all right in the middle of.  “Chicago: Theatre Capital of America–Past, Present, Future,” scheduled for May 18-21, will bring together scholars from across the country to debate how the Chicago theater renaissance got its start in the late 1950s, what factors caused it to flourish, how influential Chicago theater has been on the art as practiced around the world, and what will be necessary to keep it alive and well and living in our back yard.

The scholars–from Harvard, the University of British Columbia and the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in London, among many others–will share panels with Chicago theater practitioners. 

The presenters’ roster is a who’s who of Chicago theater, from Martha Lavey of Steppenwolf to Terry McCabe of City Lit to Paul Barosse and other members of the late lamented Practical Theatre Company, which dissolved when its players were swept en masse onto Saturday Night Live.

Panels will address the question whether Chicago’s legacy of African-American theater actually outstrips that of the Harlem Renaissance; the role of various training entities, from Second City to Hull House; the varying experiences of playwrights, directors, performers and critics; and on and on. 

Says planning committee chair Albert Williams, a Columbia College faculty member and long-time chief theater critic of the Reader, “There will be discussions of the economics of the industry–Valuing the Art, People First, with [Writers Theatre Artistic Director] Michael Halberstam, [is] also known as Pay Your Actors a Decent Wage.  And [there’s] another panel called Patron Experience, because you’re not just doing [theater] for yourselves but for people who paid money to be there.”

Williams stresses that the symposium is open to the public.  “Presuming that people love theater as fans, they will learn a whole lot more about Chicago theater.  They will get to rub elbows with leading theater practitioners in Chicago, and also former Chicago theater professionals who may be coming back.” 

The conference is awaiting confirmation of participation by Chicago veterans such as Joe Mantegna, Regina Taylor and Terry Kinney.  “[Mantegna] said he’d love to do it if it works with his schedule,” said Williams.

Further details to come.

Updated at 9:23pm on 3/14/11 to reflect chances in ticketing to the event.