I didn’t meet the revered Chicago Tribune theater critic, Richard Christiansen, until 2016 when I started interviewing him for my book Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. He was 84 years old and living at The Selfhelp Home, an assisted living facility for older Jewish adults where a caregiver he particularly liked would sit with him to watch old films on TCM. His short-term memory could be fickle, but with a little help from his friends, we could pull back the curtain between present and past to reveal a vast cache of long-term memories.
Margaret Sheridan, whom he had known since they both worked at the Tribune, and Jane Nicholl Sahlins, who cofounded the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, would sit with me when I met with Richard. They had spent countless hours over the decades with Richard at social gatherings, seeing shows, and traveling. When memory stalled during our conversations, Margaret and Jane could offer the briefest of prompts that would set his memories loose again.
He would tell his stories, sing a song, do a bit, remember favorite films, and speak about the burgeoning Chicago theater scene. With the pride of a parent, he would talk about the young talent who were just beginning their careers when he was writing criticism, like David Mamet, the Steppenwolf ensemble, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, William Petersen, Tracy Letts, Harry Lennix, and countless others. I’d speak a name, and Richard would respond with a tight paragraph about who they were and what they had done. He often asked what they were up to now.
“There are people in theater now who don’t know who Richard was,” said Tim Evans, executive director at Northlight Theatre since 2007, who had been Steppenwolf’s first managing director. “So, I think it’s ours to tell them.”
To that end, here is a small sampling of the reminiscences of some of Richard’s colleagues, friends, and beneficiaries, if you’ll forgive the redundancy in terms.
He showed up
Kelly Leonard (The Second City, 1988–): Here’s the thing: I don’t think you end up with what the Chicago theater community has become without Richard Christiansen. He represented us to the rest of the world, not just Chicago. He was constantly making this case, backed up by reality, for all the young talent here. That’s everything from Mamet to Second City to Steppenwolf to Lookingglass to House Theatre. Richard was a megaphone for the richness that we now have in Chicago.
Linda Winer (Chicago Tribune theater and dance critic, 1969-1980): The director Peter Sellars [once] exclaimed to me, with genuine awe, “You were in Chicago in the 70s?” “Yes,” I half-joked, “and we didn’t even know it.” In retrospect, somehow, I think Richard knew it before it was altogether true—and became a historic force in making it happen.
Leonard: He narrated the story. He traced back lineage. He knew the connection points. He found themes, like ensemble and invention and original work.
You know we got our name, The Second City, from a [New York] journalist [A.J. Liebling] who was putting us down. A lot had to change to change that narrative. And I think Christiansen was chief among those storytellers.
Albert Williams (chief theater critic, Chicago Reader, 1991-2002 / currently critic): It’s now baked into our DNA, that sense of grassroots theater in Chicago, and it being neighborhood-based. When Richard started as the editor for The Daily News’s Panorama section in 1963, it was the year that [director] Robert Sickinger came to Chicago to take over the theater program at Hull House, the social service agency, and had decided to decentralize operations into centers around the city.
Christiansen did two pages in Panorama, talking about Sickinger’s vision for Chicago theater as a place where community theater could become more professional and could become more community-based, more grassroots, and not just pale imitations of downtown shows or park district performances. Hull House developed original work and was offering Chicago audiences a taste of what was going on in experimental theater, both in Europe and off- and off-off-Broadway.
It’s sort of a cliche, but it really is true. Richard was the right person at the right place at the right time.
Tim Evans: Besides his reviews, he wrote stories that spoke to the uniqueness of what was happening in Chicago. I think that was the journalist in him. He was a great journalist.
Sid Smith (friend / Chicago Tribune theater and dance critic, 1988-2008): He had come from that world of scrappy Chicago journalists at City News Bureau where we both worked. When you were at City News, you covered fires, police stories, murders. I worked on the John Wayne Gacy case, for example, and the DC-10 crash out at O’Hare. It was in the late 70s. We weren’t talking about theater or the arts at that time. So, he was a newspaperman first and foremost who wound up doing what he did. He didn’t come from a Juilliard to start as a theater critic, if you know what I mean.
Winer: When the Daily News folded in 1978 [where Richard worked after City News Bureau], the Tribune hired him. I was still the theater critic there at that time, and he became a critic at large. After I left, he became sort of the voice of the Chicago Tribune, which is great, which he deserved.
He was out there covering the movement as nobody else was. He was in his Volkswagen Beetle, trundling along the roads, going to everything and checking it out. He is, I think, as responsible as any nonartist for the rise and the heartiness and the self-confidence of Chicago theater.
Evans: He built an audience for all of us. He loved the fact that theaters were popping up in storefronts all over the place. He’d go anywhere. He’d go anywhere to see a play.
Chuck Smith (resident director, Goodman Theatre since 1992): He was always bringing up all these dirty, funky places, talking about sitting in chairs with gum and shit on them. [Laughs] Having the time of his life. He really got off on that.
Paul Barrosse (Practical Theatre Company, founded 1978): Christiansen understood and seemed to love the process and understood the very real challenges of, especially, the small, underfunded theaters. He understood the sacrifices that were being made by the performers who gave their all in the little spaces just as much as in the big ones.
[In 1981] we had our first real season in our 42-seat theater, the John Lennon Auditorium, which we’d made from a former wig shop on Howard in Evanston. Richard came to three of our four productions and gave very nice reviews. But just that he gave us space in the Chicago Tribune! We had 42 seats on Howard Street! And he came three times. I could not believe it. We thought we’d be lucky if the Pioneer Press came, but you know what? He showed up.
This is the first thing he wrote about the first show that he came to see: “The new Practical Theatre Company at 703 Howard Street just across the street from Hi Neighbor Food and Liquor Mart, is a very small house. And its new production, Subnormal by Paul Barrosse and Brad Hall, is barely a play. Still, they’re both open for business and not without their charms.” [Laughs]
The Practical Theater Co. would include Rush Pearson, Victoria Zielinski, Gary Kroeger, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, among others. Kroeger, Louis-Dreyfus, Barrosse, and Hall would catch the attention of then Saturday Night Live producer, Dick Ebersol, when he saw a Practical show during a visit to Chicago and, in the blink of an eye, all four found themselves in New York working for SNL.
C. Smith: Richard Christiansen kind of jumpstarted my career. Early on, in the 70s, when I directed my very first Equity show, which was Eden by Steve Carter at the Victory Gardens, he wrote a really, I mean, a really glowing review. He said it was the first all-Black production by a Black south-side director. “And it looks like a blooming hit.” So, from that point on people had an idea who Chuck Smith was.
And then, a few years later, when I started the Chicago Theatre Company on the south side, Richard wrote wonderful things about the shows. And the next thing I knew there were white people coming in from the north side to see us, and that helped a great deal in terms of getting my theater company moving in the right direction and making me secure in my career.
One of the things we discovered was that if the Sun-Times gave us a good review, well, that’s a good thing because the African Americans, that’s what they will read and so that would increase our audiences. Now, if Richard Christiansen and the Tribune gave us a review, well, that’s the review that you can use for funders, for the money. That’s how it worked for us. I would imagine it worked for a lot of other theater companies that way.
All of this, though, did wonders for my self-confidence. [Laughs]
Evans: Richard found ways to make everybody feel like they should keep moving forward, reminding them that they would have successes and failures, but not to give up and to keep doing what they’re doing and build on the community.
Barbara Gaines (artistic director and founder, Chicago Shakespeare Theater): When I was very young and had so little experience in a major city as an actress, Richard told me, “You have to stay in this business.” That’s what he said: “You need to stay in this business.” I will tell you, Richard was one of the reasons Chicago Shakespeare Theater is here.
Eddie Torres (cofounder with Henry Godinez of Teatro Vista and artistic director until 2013): After one of our first openings [in the early 90s], Richard said to me, “Congratulations on Teatro Vista. Keep moving forward because it’s going to be a big part of the Chicago theater landscape.” I was blown away by that. I never left that thought.
Maséqua Myers (actor, producer, director, and former executive director for South Side Community Art Center, 2014-17): Meeting Richard in the late 70s was very special and not just because his creative critique of plays could at times be called poetic, like the one written for my one-woman show: “Myers’ formidable arsenal of talent is thrown into all-out war on her material. This is impressive.” He was a pioneer in critiquing Chicago Black south- and west-side plays earnestly, and I respected him for that.
Gaines: He gave us hope that we were something. “There’s a spark here. Let’s feed the spark with oxygen.” He fed the flame that is now Chicago theater. That’s it. That was the mission.
S. Smith: He had the most democratic spirit. Richard understood, unlike so many people, even critics, that just because it’s at Lincoln Center or is a famous playwright or whatever, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good or successful. Meanwhile, there’s this unheard-of person out there who, if you buy the ticket and take the time to go, can just stun you. To take one instance, he was very proud of the fact that when he saw the first David Mamet plays, he saw something no one else saw.
“David’s plays were quite shocking at the time,” Christiansen told me in Ensemble, “because they had lots of cusses and fucks and so on. ‘Fucking Ruthie, fucking Ruthie, fucking Ruthie.’ Claudia [Cassidy] wrote [about American Buffalo], something like ‘Do the producers really think that stringing together a series of foul language would make up a play?’ I wrote that it was ‘brilliant.’ I was the only one.”
S. Smith: David deeply appreciated that. He was just enormously fond of Richard and appreciated that he had played a big role for him. Even as David got bigger and bigger and bigger, he never forgot Richard.
Anthony Adler (theater critic, Chicago Reader 1980-2018): My sense of Richard was that because he was a journalist first, he went where the stories were. He knew that theater was changing, and he needed to go where it was being made. And he was bringing the willingness to go to these places.
I think it’s very valid to say that Richard gave the community a sense that it was a community by the accumulation of his work. When he saw Steppenwolf coming along, he understood that they were something. And when he saw Tracy Letts come along, he understood that Tracy Letts was somebody to know.
Tracy Letts (playwright/actor): The first review [of my play Killer Joe at Next Theater in 1993] was Hedy Weiss’s [in the Chicago Sun-Times]. She just eviscerated the show: “A carnival of brutality and degradation that leaves you feeling numb and dirty” [September 3, 1993]. It was just like, oh, shit. And then all the other reviews started coming out, and they were all just the same. They were all just terrible. They all panned it. But Christiansen championed it in the Tribune, and he really turned it into a hit. After the title of the play, he put, “Warning: Contains graphic depictions of violence and sex.” Something like that. Well, suddenly we were sold out. We ran for eight months. (Ensemble, p. 529-30).
Terry Kinney (actor/director/cofounder, Steppenwolf Theatre): Richard was so prominent in our success. I don’t know if anybody would have ever found us out there [in our basement in Highland Park] without him.
I can’t remember who it was amongst us, but someone—probably John [Malkovich] because he had beautiful handwriting—would write letters to people sometimes and beg them to just come see us. “Please come check us out. Give us a chance!” And Richard did. It was Richard and his visibility that made our entree into the city possible because people in Highland Park, they didn’t care about us very much. We languished there until he promoted us. And then the locals started coming to their own backyard, and people started coming from the city.
Steppenwolf founding member Laurie Metcalf told me in an interview that she believes their production of The Glass Menagerie in 1979 and Christiansen’s review of it played a significant role in putting them on the map. “I saw the show on a Sunday evening (Mother’s Day),” Christiansen wrote in the Tribune on May 18, 1979, “when there were only 20 customers in the troupe’s 90-seat basement at 770 Deerfield Rd., in Highland Park. It’s amazing, and depressing that this gifted troupe, consistently doing interesting work, was able to pull so few people into so fascinating a production.”
The cast consisted of Kinney, Metcalf, Anne Edwards, and Malkovich. It was directed by H.E. Baccus.
Adler: I think that people may have regarded him as a booster, when actually he was really empathetic. He would support a show or a company when he saw that there was something worthwhile there. But I also should say I read plenty of damning reviews by him.
Jeffrey Sweet (playwright): To get a compliment from Richard was pretty validating. And I don’t think he was unaware of it. I think he was very responsible in terms of how he offered his support and affection. You don’t see him having backed too many bad horses. You know what I mean? Pretty bloody good taste.
Victoria Zielinski (company member, Practical Theater Company): Every review he wrote was about the show; he didn’t infect it with his own political beliefs or a story about himself. It was all about what you’re going to see. And he had made himself emotionally available in a way that was really selfless.
Gaines: Richard never thought of himself before the play. He could put his ego away somewhere while he was working and literally just respond to what he had just seen. He was always: “Let’s see what this team has created.”
Why are you wearing a tie?
S. Smith: Richard had a classic, dignified, and professional demeanor. He wore a jacket and tie to everything. Sometimes I’d see him, even for lunch, and I’d say, “Richard, why are you wearing a tie?” He was very conscious of representing the Tribune and the profession. And he did it in a most dignified way.
But something people [who didn’t know him] probably didn’t know was that he was one of the most hilarious and delightful people to be around, whatever your relationship with him was. Everyone in our department and everyone in the nearby departments—fashion and food and the Tempo staff—they knew. He would walk around singing. He was a huge fan of musical theater, and he would walk to the restroom singing and walk back out still singing. One of the editors said, “Richard, I can always tell what musical you’ve recently reviewed!”
Margaret Sheridan (friend / food reporter at the Tribune 1978-1988): Richard sat in the entertainment area [at the Tribune] which was very close to the food section where I worked. So he would walk by and say, “You want some theater tonight?” Richard had rules when we did this. Like, there is no talking. There’s no questions. The next day I could ask questions after he’d written the review.
Jane Nicholl Sahlins (friend / cofounder and executive director, International Theatre Festival of Chicago, 1986-1996): I never discussed with him the performances we saw together. I was really tempted, but I didn’t. Like Margaret said, it was kind of forbidden. That’s why we’d sing all the songs from Bye Bye Birdie, or whatever, when we had a long drive back. [Laughs]
Sheridan: One time, we went to see A Chorus Line. At the time, I didn’t know Chorus Line from anything. OK, well, I’m crying during the performance. Especially that “What I Did for Love” song. So, Richard hands me a handkerchief. No words. And then, out of my left eye, I see him flick a tear off his cheek. We couldn’t talk in the cab ride after, so next day I run into him at the office, and I said, “How many times have you seen this show, Richard?” And he said, “Seven.” Seven! And he’s still wiping away a tear!
Kinney: After I moved to New York, he would come in and contact me, and I would be his plus-one quite often. And I got to sit in the critic seats, so it’s kind of nice. And at a matinee I got a free lunch on the Tribune. He had to be close to the vest about his reactions, so he chose his words very carefully, but you could see in his facial expressions, you could see in his eyes, just how much he reacted positively or negatively to something. But I saw him wipe away tears. Many times, many times.
A home in the theater
Chris Jones (theater critic, Chicago Tribune, since 2002): In 2002 Richard turned 70, and I guess he decided that it was the right time to retire. Traditionally, when someone left the Tribune, they would be clapped out of the newsroom. We were on the fifth floor in the features department. The editor of the paper came in. Everybody stopped work, hundreds of people, because at that time they had hundreds of people and everyone stood up. That was the tradition. But they also did something out of the ordinary.
[They] had arranged for [actor] Brian Dennehy to be there. He was hiding in the stairwell till the right moment. Of all actors I’ve ever known, Dennehy liked critics the most, not because they liked him, though, of course, we did mostly, but his dad was an editor for Associated Press, and Dennehy just got arts journalists in a way that very few actors do. And he really thought Richard was great. So Dennehy gave these moving comments about him. Richard didn’t like that kind of attention very much, so he deflected it, as he always did. But it was a very moving moment.
And then, there were lots and lots of other celebrations. I remember one at Steppenwolf that Martha Lavey put together, and there was something at the Goodman, and there was something at the [Harold Washington] Library.
Linda Bergstrom, an editor at the Tribune, came up with the idea of [Richard doing] a series of goodbye Sunday specials as a multipart series of the history of Chicago theater, as seen by Richard Christiansen. And that ended up as the source for his book [A Theater of Our Own]. I think somebody at Northwestern University Press probably read the articles and approached him about it.
Sahlins: I actually think it was hard for Richard to be retired at first and working on the book was a great help.
Dennis Začek (artistic director, Victory Gardens Theater, 1977-2011): Not only is it true that Jeffrey Sweet suggested that we name the studio theater [at Victory Gardens] for Richard, he brought the idea to me several times a year!
Finally, I just thought it was the right time to honor him. I met with Richard at the Arts Club, which is often where we met (and it was on his dime because he was a member). We were having lunch, and I said to Richard, “I have something to talk to you about.” And he said, “You have my undivided attention.” I told him that I was planning on naming the studio theater in his honor. And he wept. He wept at the Arts Club. Now Jeffrey has said he had a tear in his eye. OK. He wept. You can use it or not use it. I’m just telling you, that’s the truth.
I spoke [at the dedication] and Billy Petersen spoke and Rick Cleveland spoke. Chris Jones.
Rick Cleveland (playwright and television writer, including Nurse Jackie and Six Feet Under): I looked around the room and everybody there that night had been a patron of mine as a young writer: Joyce Sloane, Bernie Sahlins, Harold Ramis. We all just told stories.
Jones: A lot of the Steppenwolf crew was there. I think they saw themselves as having come out of Richard’s left thigh, sort of thing. They were always very appreciative. A lot of people just had enormous respect for him.
Also present for the dedication in 2010: actors John Mahoney, Tim Kazurinsky, and Deanna Dunagan; artistic directors Robert Falls, Gaines, Michael Halberstam, B.J. Jones, and former Goodman Theatre artistic director Gregory Mosher; and fellow journalists Weiss, Janet Davies, Rick Kogan, and Lawrence DeVine.
Cleveland: In my remarks, I talked about how Richard had reviewed my first play, which was called Buffalo Boys. It was at Chicago Dramatists Workshop in the old Organic Theater space on Clark Street. We were not an Equity production, but we got as much space in Richard’s column as we would have if we were Steppenwolf or the Goodman. It was remarkable to be treated as young professionals, especially at that time, 1983, ‘84.
In the review, he described me as “a young writer at home in the theater.” And I talked about that that night because I had come from a pretty abusive childhood, and we were very low on the economic ladder. I hadn’t even finished college. I said, “Richard, you welcomed me to a home, and before that I didn’t have a home. You welcomed me to a home in the theater in Chicago, and that saved my life.”
Sweet: Richard would insist, “Hey, I’m not of the theater. I’m writing about the theater, but I’m not in the theater.” Well, I think that by naming a theater after him, we finally made him in the theater.
I asked Richard once whether, given his prominence, he’d ever been tempted to leave Chicago for other opportunities. “No one ever asked me to leave Chicago for another job elsewhere,” he said, “but I was never tempted to leave. I was working at a time that was wonderful; we saw the possibilities that were opening up. You knew something was going on; something big was being hatched. The talent was here. What I did was I turned a light on in dark corners that people hadn’t explored, yet.
“I look back on that time with such fondness because there’s something about being in on the beginning, watching it start and develop and become a full-fledged operation. And that’s what I got to see happen.”
On the evening of February 9, 2022, Chris Jones arranged for a small group of Richard’s friends to gather at Petterino’s and share stories. “It was like an Irish wake,” Jones told me. “A lot of love for the man. [It] reflected his singular good humor.”
Journalist and longtime friend Rick Kogan read a tribute by David Mamet.
Then they stepped outside to the corner of Randolph and Dearborn where they could see the marquee lights of the Goodman, the Nederlander, and Cadillac Palace dim briefly in Richard’s honor.