Chicago theaters head into train wreck weekend or, the woes of a theater critic

September 13, 2011

Peoples' eyes widen and light up when they hear what I do for a living. "You're a theater critic!? Wow! You get to see all the shows!" is the typical reaction.

I think they have a vision that defies reality of tuxedoed opening nights, champagne parties and hanging out with Patti LuPone and Malkovich and Sondheim.

The reality is . . . well, the reality is the month of September when the traditional theater year begins its nine-month season spread between two calendar years. Just like the school year, the theater season is a relic of an earlier time and different circumstances. In the case of theater, it was the absence of air conditioning and the fact that social elites had summer homes away from the hot city centers.

Relic or not, the season still begins in September, with the exception of a handful of eager beavers who get rolling in August. The math works out this way: 30 days hath September but there are 50 theater openings. I kid you not: I have precisely 50 shows listed on the master calendar I make for each month of the year. Actually, there are considerably more than 50 shows opening but I don't include kids’ shows, late-night shows, sketch comedy shows or shows running less than three weeks.

Now remember, there's only one of me. And god-like being that I am, even I have not mastered the art of being in two theaters at the same time. If I had the stomach for it, I could see a show every night of the month. However, I don't have the stomach for that sort of masochism, and actually there isn't a show every night of the month, odd as it seems. The biggest companies have one or two dark nights each week, while Chicago Off-Loop and storefront theater companies typically perform only Thursday-Sunday or Friday-Sunday.

This results in a clustering of performances and, especially in September, a clustering of opening nights. Aw, hell, it ain't no "clustering," it's a pile-up, a train wreck, an utter disaster and totally impossible situation not only for poor me (the not-so-humble theater critic) but also for the theater companies themselves.

Between tomorrow (Wednesday, Sept. 14) and next Monday (Sept. 19) there are 19 shows opening on my calendar. There are three on Wednesday, six on Thursday, only one on Friday, five on Saturday, one on Sunday, three on Monday.

Obviously, I can't see them all. But I could see as many as nine in six days if I added late-night shows and matinees, and gave up any opportunity to do the laundry, pick up the dry cleaning, prepare my taxes, see the dentist, have a family night, see a movie, cook dinner at home (let alone enjoy a restaurant meal), get together with friends, veg-out in front of the TV or have sex (except, of course, for all the young actors/actresses theater critics sleep with). I could do that every week of September and most of October and still miss more than half of everything.

The other side of the coin is that all those shows I didn't see miss out on any reviews or publicity I might have given them via Chicago Public Media or other outlets for which I write. Most of them are shows presented by small and smaller Off-Loop theaters which desperately need all the attention they can get.

Alas, it's very, very apparent that most theaters make no effort to communicate with each other, precisely to AVOID the kind of let's-shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot train wreck that exists year after year. The League of Chicago Theatres used to keep an opening night calendar so that theaters could see what they might be up against. Perhaps the calendar still is kept--in theory, even non-League members could reference it--but if it still exists either it's not kept well or simply not consulted enough.

What the theaters need to do, and almost never do, is think outside the box when they schedule an opening or even when they select their playing dates. Those who own and manage the rental spaces where many theater troupes perform certainly do little to assist in creating a reasonable and orderly flow of opening performances. Mostly, the concern of management is booking the space. The managers of rental spaces, especially those offering two or more playhouses for rent, need to create and keep their own calendar and offer potential renters some flexibility and assistance.

As for me, Mr. or Ms. Wide-Eyed says "Wow! You get to see all the shows!" And I reply, sadly, "Yessssss. I get to see ALL the shows."

As for LuPone, Sondheim and Malkovich, yeah, I’ve hung out with them. I had brunch with LuPone when she ended up arguing about union politics. I was at a party with Sondheim at which another celebrity became offensively drunk and even Sondheim wouldn’t shut him up. And I had a beer with Johnny Malkovich back when he was a twentysomething, unknown Chicago actor. I paid.

Hi-ho, the glamorous life.