Thursday, August 21, 2008

Broadway in Chicago

The Broadway tour is a wonderful thing. It give people across the country and across the world the chance to experience some of the best shows of Broadway in their hometowns. They are able to save on the money they would spend on travel and hotel and still get to see world class theatre. Chicago is no different – here we have several theatres dedicated to the tours one of which, Wicked, has dominated our theatre scene for the past several years.

But is it a good thing for Chicago?

Sure Wicked, Jersey Boys, and all the rest have generated thousands, if not millions, of dollars to the local economy in theatrical tourism. Hotel rooms, school groups, restaurants, cabs, and many other things all are side effects of the production. Chicago isn’t stupid either – there is a 15% occupancy tax on hotel rooms. We know where to take the money when we can. But what do these blockbuster New York productions do to our local theatre scene.

First off, Chicago’s Theatre District is located around State Street and Randolph Street in downtown. If you go for a stroll the theatres you will find are the Oriental Theatre and the Cadillac Palace Theatre (both part of Broadway in Chicago), the historic Chicago Theatre (which doesn’t produce plays) Goodman Theatre, and the Storefront Theatre as part of the Chicago Cultural Center. Chased out of the district because of high rent were Noble Fool and the Loop Theatre. There is not a lot of Chicago work going on in our theatre district.

Granted there are hundreds of other theatres scattered around the rest of the city, but few can compete with the for-profit productions that come through on tour. We have Tony Award winners in Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, and Victory Gardens, but they do not garnish the same theatrical tourism that Broadway in Chicago does; the audiences and mass appeal are simply too different.

If Chicago is going to call itself the “Second City” in America’s Theatre scene, I think they should do a better job at influencing the national theatre. Again, I am not discrediting the important work that is done here, but if you are going to call yourself a theatre city, don’t import your most successful shows. If there are three theatres (Chase Bank Theatre in addition to the two above) that are playing Broadway’s shows, have at least as many productions of Chicago developed productions of the same caliber that can have the same type of draw. This will lend legitimacy to the already fine work that the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and other companies are doing – and it will allow them to buy into the theatrical tourism as well.

Turn theatre into a self sustaining industry rather than something nice that we do on the side and give our donations to because it cannot afford to sustain itself. Make theatre a part of your mainstream entertainment experience and a part of your city’s cultural voice and identity.

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