Cover art for the book Makeshift Chicago Stages
Credit: Courtesy Northwestern University Press

To cover Chicago theater is to carry a ghost map in one’s head of all the lost spaces. Some buildings are gone (or nearly gone) altogether, like the original Goodman Theatre at the Art Institute, or the Jane Addams Hull House Center on Broadway at Belmont, which at various points housed Steppenwolf, Bailiwick Repertory, Famous Door, and About Face. (It was gutted and replaced by a health club; the Hull House space in Uptown, which once housed Organic and Black Ensemble Theater, was completely demolished.) Some are so transformed as to bear no resemblance to their old theatrical roots. Every time I step into the Brown Elephant on North Clark, I remember when it was the drafty Calo Theatre, where friends produced James Joyce’s Exiles in the early 90s with what one waggish cast member called “authentic Irish heating.”

But ephemerality is the nature of the beast in theater and real estate. A new book, Makeshift Chicago Stages: A Century of Theater and Performance, makes a cogent and compelling case that transience and a DIY ethos have defined Chicago theater from the beginning—for good and sometimes not-so-good.

Edited by Megan E. Geigner, Stuart J. Hecht, and Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud, the collection of ten essays grew out of various presentations and panels over the years, particularly at the May 2011 symposium at Columbia College Chicago, “Chicago: Theatre Capital of America—Past, Present, Future,” put together by Reader contributor Albert Williams, former Columbia theater department chair John Green, and the late Arvid “Gus” Sponberg, a professor at Valparaiso University and founder of the Chicago Theater History Project.

But despite its clear academic origins, the contributors here (much like the artists and companies they anatomize) know how to plant their flags in the liminal space between history and theory, popular entertainment and experimentalism. Arranged in chronological order, the book begins with Rosemarie K. Bank’s exploration of the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Bank argues that, while racist cultural exploitation was certainly woven throughout many of the exhibits, the Plaisance offered “a place of transgression and border crossing, an alternative to the power narratives of the White City,” and “the central place from which these discourses speak their history.”

One of the aftereffects of the 1893 fair was the creation of an artists’ colony on 57th Street, which Hecht identifies as the beginnings of both the “little theater” movement in Chicago and the actual Chicago Little Theatre, founded by husband and wife Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg in Hyde Park. (The latter soon moved downtown to the Fine Arts Building and carved out an experimental space there, as described in a chapter by Shannon Epplett.)

The artists who called this stretch of live/work spaces home not only created art—they created salons about art that anticipated the ways theaters now practice “community engagement” with talkbacks, panels, and other ancillary programs. Hecht also identifies schism as a force for change: the Players’ Workshop, formed in 1916, came about when several women involved with the Chicago Little Theatre grew disgruntled with Browne’s leadership and started their own troupe, focused exclusively on Chicago playwrights.

Makeshift Chicago Stages: A Century of Theater and Performance, published July 2021 by Northwestern University Press, 344 pages, $34.95 paperback.

What’s most impressive in Makeshift Chicago Stages is the manner in which all the contributors resist the lazy David vs. Goliath narratives that sometimes permeate discourse about Chicago theater. Geigner, for example, lays out a persuasive case for the Goodman in its earliest days as a theater that provided “equitable exchange between immigrant and community theater and the largest and oldest regional theater in Chicago.”

Chicago’s history of racism and segregation cannot be ignored, however. Aaron Krall’s chapter on Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog traces the fascinating history of a groundbreaking 1938 play about a Black family from Mississippi struggling to make it in Chicago’s “Black Belt.” Ironically, the play itself did well when presented under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project in the Loop, but failed to find audiences when it moved to the south side.

The Lincoln Avenue off-Loop movement of the late 60s and early 70s, the rise of iO, the birth of Teatro Vista (and other Latinx companies), and the boundary-crossing work of Theaster Gates all get their own chapters, and all of them focus on the struggle to change the definition of what a theater space can be. (The Lincoln Avenue companies, as Cat Gleason recounts in her chapter, famously had to fight City Hall to get fire codes that dated back to the Iroquois Theatre disaster updated for the new storefront models that were emerging.) 

The book concludes with Mahmoud’s interviews with the founders of the Chicago Home Theater Festival (including Meida McNeal, who is also a lead coordinator for the Cultural Asset Mapping Project; see Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel’s feature this issue.) 

Inspired by Philip Huang’s 2010 International Home Theater Festival in the Bay Area, the Chicago festival brought people around the city into neighborhoods like East Garfield Park for walking tours, followed by a visit to private homes for meals, performances, and discussions. As McNeal puts it, “We need to find ways and reasons to be in each other’s neighborhoods and spaces and to allow interactions to happen, through which we might not know what will happen.” An epilogue addresses the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests against systemic racism and police violence and how theater might “survive, grow, and change in reflection of these crises.”

Makeshift Chicago Stages joins a growing line of thoughtful and nuanced books (including Mark Larson’s oral history Ensemble) about how Chicago theater has carved out its own places time and again. There may be a ghost map of venues, but the ideas and experimentation born from those places live on.


2022 Fall Theater & Arts Preview

A fall edition

A note from the Reader’s culture editor who focuses on film, media, food, and drink on our Fall Theater & Arts Preview issue.