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Home Features Theatre Vire: The Spirit of Chicago
Vire: The Spirit of Chicago Print E-mail
Written by Kris Vire   
Thursday, 30 December 2010 11:03
As I write this, a few days before Christmas, what may turn out to be one of the year’s biggest stories is still fogged in uncertainty: the mass shifting of positions from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to the nonprofit Chicago Tourism Fund. Office of Budget and Management spokesperson Peter Coombs—the man to whom seemingly every press inquiry has been redirected—is staying on message that the DCA layoffs are a simple technicality and won’t affect programming.

We’ll see, but two aspects of the move strike me as ominous for the incredibly valuable DCA Theater program: the apparently permanent departure of longtime director of theatre Claire Geall Sutton (who’s remained tightlipped so far) and the symbolic connotation of the Tourism Fund umbrella. Is vital arts programming a service for Chicago’s citizens, or just a revenue stream for the tourism industry?

DCA Theater’s very programming model, as well as the upswell of concern among Chicago’s theatremakers when said program and staff seemed threatened, reinforce for me the all-ships-rise nature of Chicago theatre’s community spirit. That’s nothing new, of course, but with much of New York’s theatre industry apparently enjoying obsessive schadenfreude over the ongoing problems of the massively expensive spectacle Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—the latest of which, at this writing, involved severe injury to cast member and former Hubbard Street dancer Christopher Tierney—Chicago’s cooperative force is thrown into relief all over again.

That spirit was on display all over this year, most notably as we played host to TCG’s annual conference in June, showing off the way we do things ’round here via panel discussions, pop-up performances and get-togethers both formal and informal. It was also present in the form of innovative co-productions, such as Caffeine Theatre and Chicago Opera Vanguard’s U.S. premiere of the outstandingly odd Boojum! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll (at, ahem, the DCA’s Storefront Theater); in Broadway in Chicago’s fourth annual sponsorship of the League of Chicago Theatres’s Emerging Theatre Award, which went this year to the very deserving Steep Theatre; in August’s Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference, a local-scaled response to TCG spearheaded by Theater Wit’s Jeremy Wechsler; and in the welcome development of September’s first annual Chicago Fringe Festival.

My own participation in a panel at the Fringe calls to mind a significant online development of 2010: #2amt. Born last January as a series of organic, impromptu late-night Twitter discussions about theatrical practices and ideas, this tweet salon soon organized under the above hashtag (the name of which, I should note, I inadvertently inspired with an offhand tweet about all these 2am theatre conversations) and soon spawned a group blog. The ongoing conversation among theatre artists from across the continent (and a couple of others) was like Chicago’s collaborative spirit gone global.

Yet another example of that spirit was to be found last winter in Steppenwolf’s consolidation of its Visiting Company Initiative into the first annual Garage Rep. The mini-festival of productions by some of Chicago’s most interesting young companies, endorsed and enhanced by Big Daddy’s imprimatur, made for one of my favorite theatre marathons this year.

And a lot of marathons there were. For all the talk of contemporary playwrights’ predilection for 90-minute, intermissionless scripts—and I did see plenty of those too—much of the most exciting work on Chicago’s stages this year was multi-hour viewing: Tarell Alvin McCraney’s immersive triptych The Brother/Sister Plays; Blake Montgomery and Joanie Schultz’s four-act adaptation of The Ring Cycle; Chelsea Marcantel’s science/romance trilogy (a)Symmetry Cycle; and stellar revivals of three-act American classics A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers’ and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Steppenwolf.

The work on stage contained an embarrassment of riches this year, really, whether long or short, new work or revival. My Time Out Chicago colleague John Beer and I compiled a list for print of our 10 favorites, then an online list of 20 honorable mentions, and we still didn’t have enough slots to highlight all the worthy productions we loved.

And the unusual corollary: Looking back over the list of 150 or so plays I saw this year, I don’t feel a strong antipathy toward any of them. There were productions that were overblown or uninspired or ill-advised, but none that I resent in retrospect. That’s a victory.

No, the bad behavior this year was kept offstage, from Next Theatre Company’s now-former artistic director Jason Southerland’s seemingly blatant plagiarism to playwright Neil LaBute slapfight with commenters on Time Out contributor Caitlin Parrish’s review of his Taming of the Shrew adaptation. But let’s not dwell on the naughty.

Other milestones: The sale of Theatre Building Chicago to new management, who renamed it Stage 773 and plan major renovations next year; the opening next door of the handsome, newly renovated Theater Wit; the long-awaited groundbreaking for Black Ensemble Theater’s new facility; national recognition for Chicago artists Michael Halberstam (the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers’ Zelda Fichandler) and David Cromer (the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant); the announcement of Dennis Zacek’s impending retirement from Victory Gardens; and of course, that other big retirement announcement.

We can’t know yet who will replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, but we can hold the candidates’ feet to the fire to pledge they’ll support the arts as strongly as Mayor Daley has over his 22-year reign. Time Out started the ball rolling with a November survey of the announced candidates’ positions on cultural issues, and it was announced last week that the League of Chicago Theatres will partner with ABC-7 and seven other community organizations to stage a candidates’ debate, February 17 at the Oriental Theatre. Here’s to the work ahead.

Kris Vire is the theatre editor for Time Out Chicago.