Chicago Theatre History in a Nutshell

Chicago Theatre History in a Nutshell
Photo by Neal Kharawala / Unsplash

Chicago has long been known as a hub for theatrical creativity and innovation, with a colorful history of groundbreaking performances and influential artists. One look through the Second City alumni list alone is enough to make your eyes widen, with big names like Bill Murray, Tina Fey, John Belushi, John Candy, Bob Odenkirk, and Barbara Harris to name a few. While many of Chicago’s theatrical accomplishments have come from the city's professional theaters and companies, there is still another rich tradition of theatrical production in Chicago that often goes overlooked, and that’s community theater. From early days in settlement houses and the melting pot of diverse communities to the primetime of the New Deal era (more on that later), community theater has molded the city’s cultural landscape significantly, and continues to be a powerhouse of influence in almost every neighborhood. It’s not uncommon to see plays in your local park during the warm seasons, and playwrights busy writing their next production throughout Chicago’s coffee shop during the winters. Although there was a slight decline in popularity during the postwar era, community theater has experienced a colorful revival in recent decades, with new enthusiastic groups emerging and established production houses continuing to churn out innovative, engaging, and relevant work. It’s my pleasure to point out that the main catalyst for Chicago’s theatre evolution and eventual theatre mecha status is due to the incredibly diverse waves of immigrants that first settled here.

While immigrants came to Chicago for a plethora of reasons not exclusive to theatre, Chicago's reputation as a hotbed of talent came as a natural byproduct of these new groups finding their economic footing and craving the arts in their native styles and languages. The idea of a ‘melting pot’ can’t be overstated, as diverse works came from the Irish, German, Polish, Italian, African American, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Indian communities to name just a few. One of the most helpful initiatives for this blossoming in Chicago was the rise of settlement houses and community centers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Settlement houses were reform institutions, with Hull House in Chicago being the best-known settlement in the US. These settlements were usually located in poorer immigrant areas of industrial cities, where middle class workers would live together and integrate with their neighbors by providing services and working to learn, educate, and foster community. The first settlement house in the world was Toynbee Hall in London, which opened in 1884 and was home to an Anglican clergyman, his wife, and several young men from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. America followed shortly after, when Stanton Coit opened the first settlement in 1886, Neighborhood Guild on the Lower East Side of New York. Chicago was a close second with Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr launching Hull House in 1889, which became the most well known settlement house in America and as a result inspired the creation of other settlements in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and in other areas of Chicago. By 1900, there were roughly 100 settlement houses in the US, Chicago being home to 15 of them. American settlements were usually in neighborhoods populated by recent European immigrants, and the first outreach was to mothers through day care nurseries, kindergartens, and public playgrounds. Could you imagine that this small spark to include local families kicked off Mother’s clubs, arts and crafts programs, and drama projects in these modest settlement houses? When the number of volunteers and members grew, the houses were able to incorporate and acquire funding to purchase larger buildings. As you might guess, these larger buildings became gymnasiums, auditoriums, classrooms, music halls, and communal living spaces for dozens of residents. Some of these houses developed country summer programs and a few with thriving music programs even became serious music schools (imagine if they had Fourth Wall Tickets to manage class attendance, they’d be unstoppable!). Since settlement house residents learned so much about the struggles of the local communities, they were able to use their newfound wisdom to propose subsequent changes in local government that would go on to benefit some of the most deprived pockets in the heart of the city for generations to come. These efforts snowballed into lobbying for state and federal legislation on social and economic problems faced by immigrants. Fortunately, settlement efforts won most of the reforms and established a National Federation of Settlements in 1911 (in 1979 the Federation changed its name to the United Neighborhood Centers of America, UNCA) to coordinate and enhance their impact on public policy further. Quite obviously, this early period in the history of Chicago community theater was marked by a spirit of experimentation and collaboration, as groups drew on a wide range of cultural and artistic influences to create new and exciting works that reflected the city's rich melting pot of ethnicities.

As cinema was replacing theatre for large audiences, the Little Theatre Movement formed in the US around 1912, and Chicago was arguably at the forefront. Mary Aldis was a playwright that opened a small theatre called the Aldis Playhouse just outside Chicago in 1910, which served to encourage experimental dramas that didn’t operate under normal production mechanisms. Other companies in Boston, Seattle, and Detroit formed to focus on this more intimate and non-profit centered entertainment (fun fact, Fourth Wall Tickets has absolutely no cost associated with managing free shows). So as the melodramas of the late 19th century were fading, more relatable narratives about social issues at the time were being produced by the Hull House and ‘Little Theatres’ in Chicago. Hull House directors were credited as the founders of the American Little Theatre Movement, with the Chicago Little Theatre forming in 1912 as the more official start of the movement. This inspired The Little Review, a Chicago periodical in 1914 written by the influential Margaret Anderson. The anti-commercialism movement grew to have children’s theatres and other eccentric groups such as the The Playwrights’ Theatre of Chicago in the 1920s to 1940s, with the Alice Gerstenberg Experimental Theatre Workshop in the 1950s and 1960s, among others. The freedom these types of ‘little’ theatres allowed created a rich array of acting styles, forms of drama, dialogue, and storytelling, from naturalism to provocative expressionism. The Little Theatre Movement is seen as the predecessor for the Off-Broadway movement in the 1950s. Because the production talent was typically young and chosen primarily by artistic merit, these venues provided a valuable springboard for up and coming playwright stars such as Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, and Maxwell Anderson.

The 1930s are considered the golden age of community theater in the United States, with the Federal Theatre Project being formed as one of the five Federal Number One projects that were part of the New Deal. For the uninitiated, the New Deal was the US government’s attempt to pull society out of the Great Depression through mass artist hirings for public work projects and regulation changes between 1933 and 1939. The Federal Theatre Project (or FTP) worked under the Works Progress Administration and was fortunate enough to receive $27M of the $4.88B allocated to the WPA. This funded the employment of musicians, artists, actors, writers, and other production crew, providing support and resources to theater groups across the country. Hallie Flanagan, the national director in charge of the FTP effort, helped create relevant theatre art that many people could afford to see for the first time in their lives (65% of the productions were available free of charge). Funny enough, the first few productions of the Living Newspaper plays (the first created by the FTP) pushed the envelope with hot issues at the time and even criticized the Supreme Court’s decisions in policy making, often with left-wing themes. The US government actually had to double back and mandate that the FTP not depict foreign heads of state, to avoid exacerbating geopolitical tensions. Although the productions were controversial, they garnered an audience and found a tolerable rhythm by the fourth release. During its almost four years of activity over 30 million people attended roughly 1,200 FTP productions nationwide across 200 theatres. All of this was done with $46 million, and you can believe more could have been done if they had Fourth Wall Tickets at the time. This era saw a blossoming of community theater in Chicago, as one of the five regional centers established by the FTP, with groups of all backgrounds and sizes contributing to a rich and varied theatre production pipeline. If you’ve heard of Triple-A Plowed Under, One-Third of a Nation, Power, Spirochete, Injunction Granted, or Living Newspaper, then you already know of an FTP production. The legacy of this period can still be felt in the city today, with many of the community theater groups that emerged during the New Deal era continuing to produce innovative and engaging work.

Despite the success and popularity of community theater in the first half of the 20th century, the post-war period saw a decline in interest and attendance for many groups. The FTP had been defunded by congress under paranoid accusations of Communist infiltration, and other factors related to the decline included the rise of television and other forms of entertainment, as well as a general shift in cultural priorities away from the arts. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, efforts to revive community theatre began to take hold, largely due to the National Endowment for the Arts being created in 1965. The agency has issued over 128,000 grants totaling more than five billion dollars between inception and 2008. Couple this powerhouse of an agency with all of the performance areas and warehouses becoming available due to a declining manufacturing sector and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for an arts revival. New groups representing black and female minorities emerged and established organizations finding new ways to connect with audiences. While NEA funding has been threatened multiple times throughout the decades, once by Ronal Reagan in 1981, again in 1989 by the American Family Association, US Supreme Court cases in 1993 (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley), congressional attacks by Newt Gingrich in 1995, and more recently Donald Trump in 2017, it has always survived and now boasts annual funding levels of $162M, close to the all-time high of $169.1M. Today, Chicago's community theater scene is thriving, with dozens of groups producing a wide range of works in venues across the city. It’s a hard market to break into for some, but for those dedicated enough, Chicago has been a fabulous training ground and venue hub. From small, experimental groups to larger, more established organizations, Chicago's community theater scene continues to be a vital and dynamic part of the city's cultural heritage, and a testament to the enduring power of theater to bring people together and inspire creativity and innovation.

One notable trend in Chicago's community theater scene in recent years has been a focus on unfettered diversity and inclusivity, with many groups actively seeking to create works that reflect the experiences and perspectives of underrepresented communities. I’m sure you’ve noticed that this inclusivity and experimentation has been a pattern in the history discussed so far. Recently this has included efforts to produce works in many foreign languages (vastly more than the list of ethnicities mentioned earlier), as well as a greater emphasis on works that center on issues of race, gender, sexuality, and other social justice themes. Many theatres pride themselves on their LGBT+ interoperations and work hard to provide an even playing field. In addition, many groups have sought to create opportunities for new and emerging artists, with programs constantly budding that provide training, mentorship, and performance opportunities for those who might not otherwise have access to the resources and support needed to pursue a career in theatre. These efforts have helped to broaden the scope and impact of community theater in Chicago, and ensure that it remains a vibrant and relevant part of the city's cultural scene for decades to come. I hope you’ve learned something about the extremely rich and beautiful history of Chicago theatres. Let us know if you think we’ve missed something that’s near and dear to Chicago’s heart as it pertains to community theatre, and share with us how the city has influenced your trope or theatre to grow and connect.