Back in 2007, The New York Times declared the Chicago theater scene "the country's most vibrant dramatic capital after New York." Now, I'm sure the journalist meant well. But I've lived in both New York City and Chicago, I've attended shows in both cites, and I think the Times got it wrong, and not only because New York imports Chicago productions featuring Chicago actors, such as Steppenwolf Theatre's August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer Prize and several Tony Awards.
Chicago theater ensembles like The Hypocrites and the crew at The Artistic Home may have small budgets and smaller performance spaces, but their talent, inventiveness, and honesty leave you feeling intensely alive, and also grateful, and not simply because the walls didn't explode from pressure and emotional heat.
From nationally known theater companies like Steppenwolf to exciting and explosive performances at The Artistic Home--the next Steppenwolf--Chicago offers a profusion of choices for theater lovers, and unlike New York, much of it is actually affordable.
To enhance your theater-going experience and to learn more about Chicago theater, check out these resources at the library.
A great starting place for fans of Chicago theater and novices alike is A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago. As former theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, author Richard Christiansen had access to some of Chicago's most important theater figures, including John Malkovich and David Mamet, whose comments enliven this already lively history of Chicago theater from the 1830s to the current century. A couple of my favorite things: Claudia Cassidy's review of then unknown playwright Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie, which launched his career; and a picture of the "Steppenwolf Kids" in 1978, looking extremely young and endearingly geeky. And in plaid, too! Who knew John Malkovich could look cuddly?!
For a more glamorous look at Chicago's most famous theater export, check out photographer Victor Skrebneski's Steppenwolf: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Twenty-Five Years of an Actor's Theatre. This glossy, coffee-table book contains portraits of Steppenwolf ensemble members by the legendary Skrebneski, as well as production shots and essays by writers including Kurt Vonnegut and Sam Shepard.
Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater also has star essayists including Dan Akroyd, Alan Arkin and Jim Belushi. Written by one of Second City's first directors, Sheldon Patinkin, this glossy but information-packed, oversized book is filled with quotes, interviews and anecdotes from Second City's many famous alumni and others. Appropriately, the book comes with two CDs featuring performances by alumni like John Belushi and Tina Fey. One of the best is "Football Comes to the University of Chicago."
The Oxford Companion to American Theatre is national rather than local in scope, but an essential A to Z dictionary with over 2,600 entries on everything from Arthur Miller to performance art to Chicago's own Victory Gardens Theater.
To see what's playing in Chicago, my favorite resource is Time Out Chicago, available online or in our magazine collection on the 3rd floor. This weekly magazine has a theater section with a complete list of Chicago area shows. Listings include ticket price, running time, and much appreciated public transportation information to the venues. Capsule reviews accompany many listings, and there are feature reviews and articles, too.
Finally, before you call a theater to purchase tickets, check out Seats Chicago: 120 Seating Plans to Chicago & Milwaukee Metro Area Theaters, Concert Halls and Sports Stadiums. With seating charts to many Chicago area venues, you can see just where your tickets are located before shelling out for seats so far to the side they might as well be at the bar next door.