Bryan Wakefield as Bluntschli in Arms and the Man Credit: Paul Peterson

After 25 years, ShawChicago is going out the way it started—with a concert reading of The Doctor’s Dilemma, George Bernard Shaw’s 1906 “problem play” about rationed medical care. On February 20, the ShawChicago board of directors announced that the company would be shuttering permanently on June 30.

“Subscriptions had gone down fairly dramatically in the last few years—about 20 percent,” explains board member Tony Courier, who also served as ShawChicago managing director from 2002 until he retired in June 2018 (he was replaced by Luther Goins). And that was largely attributable to the age of our audience. We never were really successful at breaking into a younger market.”

The company formed originally in 1994 as a project through the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs (now the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events) and became a resident company at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts in 2003.

A larger issue than new audiences, however, was the October 2018 death of Robert Scogin, artistic director for ShawChicago for 23 years. Says Courier, “If Bob had been there, it would have been a challenge. But I don’t think it would have been as much of a challenge. Because he generally had some pretty good ideas of other things we could be doing to raise funds.”

Scogin, who had long been ill, trained most of the ensemble in the readers’ theater model, where actors perform facing the audience with music stands holding the script. Production values are minimal—there are some costumes and music and sound cues, but no sets or elaborate lighting.

For Christian Gray, who first performed with Scogin and ShawChicago in 1997’s Major Barbara, Scogin’s approach “was very much like you do Shakespeare. His whole concept was bringing the music of the language to the audience.” Shaw himself described his writing as “word-music,” and ShawChicago’s recent production of Arms and the Man, starring Gray, proved to be a delightful and absorbing example of how effective the readers’ theater model can be.

But, Courier notes, selling that model to newer audiences—even in an age when live-lit series are proliferating—wasn’t easy. “Shaw is hard to sell to start out with. I would get a phone call and they would say ‘I understand you’re a readers’ theater. Is that right?’ And I would say ‘yes.’ And they would say ‘Why would I want to come and see somebody read to me?’ And I would say very often, ‘Give it a shot. If you don’t like it, I will give you your money back.’ And I never in all those years ever had to give any money back.”

Scogin’s legacy may still live on, however. Barbara Zahora, a longtime ShawChicago associate who served as consulting artistic director for this final season, is exploring the possibility of starting a new classical company and posted a fund-raiser on Facebook to obtain funds to file for nonprofit status. Nearly $2,000 has been raised so far, out of a $10,000 goal.

Zahora cautions that the new company is still very much in the exploratory stage, and that if it does take off, it may not always hew to the readers’ theater model. But for productions that use it, she says, “[We will] stress to people that the reason we’re doing it isn’t necessarily because we’re lacking money or ability to do full productions. It’s a choice—an active and positive choice to show the musicality of that type of writing and linear humanist thinking that was happening back in the late 19th and early 20th century.”   v