Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why are there so many theaters in Chicago?

There are too many theater companies in Chicago. I don't think that there are many who are in this business who will disagree with that.

Now I do understand that Chicago is a wonderful place because there are so many theater companies. It provides the opportunity for experimentation and incubation. It allows for artists to tackle projects that would never be considered in a more restrictive market. And this is a good thing. Creativity and ideas flourish, but some would say that they run rampant like an un-weeded garden.

There are plenty of arguments to be made of why there should be fewer theater companies in Chicago. Less competition for resources. More work on a script to have it ready rather than it being only in workshop form by the time it got to performance. Higher standards so that you have to be good to perform - you can't just go and create a company that will cast you and your friends.

Why are there so many theater companies in Chicago? One can definitely point to the fact the cost of rentals and productions are much cheaper than they are in places like New York. But I am going to point the finger at a specific source, and it's a source that will implicate myself: Northwestern University

Anyone who has worked in Chicago knows that a major source of the new talent coming into the theater scene comes out of the prestigious university. It's not just a joke that Northwestern students graduate, move into the city, and form a new theater company - it's a fact. And this is a direct result of the culture on their Evanston campus. When I attended the school between 1999-2003, there was an average of 80 student shows per academic year. Think about that 80 shows over the course of 36 weeks. That doesn't even include the 12 or so department shows. That's roughly 2.5 shows a week - not taking into account the fact that early weeks of a quarter are generally used for rehearsal instead of performance. And I'm sure that this number has grown since I've left the school. And even though there are roughly 400 theater majors in the program, this over-abundance of shows means many students were working or performing in two or three shows a quarter. 

One of my fellow students once said that is we did just half as many shows and focused on making them good, not only would the shows themselves be better, but we would get so much more out of them.

It is this mentality of needing to do as many shows as possible that has bleed into the culture of this city and has been carried out by not only the Northwestern Alums, but the Columbia, DePaul, Millikan, and ISU grads as well. The word has got out and the local schools aren't the only ones. There are companies formed by groups of recent grads from all over the country. Chicago has a reputation as the land of (create your own) opportunity.

Now all of this would be fine except for the fact that most of these companies aren't paying their artists further lower the cost of production. Now companies can exist with operating budgets of less than $15,000 and sometimes even less than $5,000. Anyone can produce theater for that price - but the question remains about the quality of the theater that is being created as a result.

Join us next week as we continue to look at the issue and discuss if there is a way to raise the bar on the level of production going on in this city.

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