A feature on Chicago magic by Nancy Banks from the October 8, 1971, issue of the Reader

I tell this story all the time, so forgive me if you’ve already heard it. But when I moved from Chicago in late 1993 to San Francisco (where I spent the next seven years), the first thing I did was pick up the alt-weeklies there: the SF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, both of which are now sadly defunct. (Well, officially the former is on “indefinite hiatus.”)

And when I eagerly flipped to the theater section to find out what was happening in my new city, especially in fringe theater, I was flummoxed. These papers apparently only had one critic covering a handful of shows a week. What the hell?!?! Didn’t every alt-weekly have a team of ten to 12 critics out every week, covering every damn show in town?

Spoiler alert: No. No, they didn’t. That was only the Reader. And while the Reader may not have been the primary factor driving the growth of off- and off-off-Loop theater in the last 50 years, it’s hard to argue that the paper isn’t the primary repository of its history. (If a show fell, er, opened in Chicago and a Reader critic didn’t cover it, did it actually happen?) Given the ephemerality of live performance, those archives serve as touchstones for the unique and enduring history of the performing arts in Chicago, especially for grassroots companies who were coming into their own right around the time the Reader started.

Which isn’t to say that we always got the history right. (See Albert Williams’s article about the problems with the very first review to run in the Reader.) The Reader has had many of the same issues with lack of diversity (especially racial diversity) in its critics that can historically be found in the cultural coverage of almost all media outlets; work created by BIPOC artists has seldom been reviewed by critics of color. As Coya Paz Brownrigg noted in a Reader editorial almost three years ago, “In Chicago, as elsewhere, our arts critics are not yet covering the full breadth of cultural production, largely excluding work by people of color, or work that challenges a white, middle-class narrative.”

But it’s inarguable that the Reader has consistently covered far more onstage—theater, dance, improv and sketch comedy, performance art, and other work that falls into its own hard-to-define realm—than any other local publication. (The second issue of the Reader included a circus review and a feature on Chicago-style magic—a harbinger of the eclectic nature of the paper’s performing arts coverage over the years.)

And by consistently using all those dozens of freelancers over the years, we’ve avoided the pitfall of one person’s voice and tastes being the primary yardstick through which all work is measured for decades at a time.

What follows are the thoughts and memories of three editors and writers who helped shape and guide that coverage for much of the Reader’s history.

“Get everywhere, go everywhere as much as possible.”

Tony Adler wasn’t with the Reader from the very beginning. But as a freelancer-turned-assigning editor/arts editor during two different periods in the paper’s history, he had a front-row seat to both the burgeoning theater community and the growth of the Reader itself. Adler was coordinating coverage in the rich period in the late 1980s and early ’90s that many Chicago theater Gen Xers like myself view as our golden age, an outgrowth of (and sometimes a counterpoint to) the late 60s and early 70s off-Loop flowering of companies like Victory Gardens, Body Politic, and Organic. 

During those years, companies like Theater Oobleck, Prop, Lookingglass, Curious Theatre Branch, Cardiff Giant, igLoo, Redmoon, Goat Island, Upright Citizens Brigade, the Neo-Futurists, and many more were creating truly original work at a seemingly breakneck pace. And the Reader was most often where we went to find out about what they were doing. (As Lisa Buscani, a former Neo-Futurist and solo performer, told me many years ago, getting a “Critic’s Choice” in the Reader in those years practically guaranteed that a show would sell out, no matter how late at night it happened or how out-of-the-way the venue might be.)

Adler took a break from the Reader in the 90s, during which time he helped found the Actors Gymnasium. He returned to freelancing in the aughts, and eventually became the assigning editor again until leaving the paper in 2018. Particularly in the early days, Adler notes that the attitude of the top editors and owners was hands-off.

“As far as the expectations of the editors, I was pretty much left alone. My intent was to get everywhere, go everywhere, as much as possible. This became especially important after Richard Christiansen left the Tribune. And there was really nobody; I mean, all the usual places were covered, but the coverage of the dailies became more and more constricted.”

As has been noted in our 50th anniversary coverage elsewhere, the goal for the Reader from the beginning was to let writers dive into what interested them, and Adler’s approach to covering theater and dance was the same. 

“The people that I wanted for critics were people who had a sense of discovery,” Adler says. “They were writing—I know it sounds cliché, but they were writing essentially for themselves and what happened to them when they were there, and how they processed the experience.” 

For Adler, that meant that they could “look outside themselves and try to be as accurate as possible about what they’re seeing, but also look inside about what is happening to them. And then go another step to engage the question of why is this happening to them? I think that I saw reviews more as essays than as raves or pans. I didn’t care especially whether someone loved something or hated something as long as they had an engaging response to it.” (The Reader has never used a star rating system for theater, though we do have a “recommended” category that’s at the discretion of each critic.)

During Adler’s first tenure as assigning editor, all the performing arts reviews ran in the front section (the Reader for many years was a “long tabloid,” folded in half and in separate sections—first three, then four). Those reviews were usually about 1,000 words apiece. This continued until around 1996, when there were so many shows that several reviews first became shorter in the front section, then appeared as 250-word boxes in the theater listings section, rather than in section one. (The exhaustive theater listings were another way that the Reader helped the performing arts community, since virtually anything that was open to the public was included.)

Another hallmark for the Reader was that the lead review wasn’t necessarily always on a “big” show at the Goodman or Steppenwolf. I remember being in a 1989 production of David Mamet’s Edmond at now-defunct Mary-Arrchie Theatre that was reviewed by the Reader’s Tom Boeker. (Boeker has the distinction of probably being the most reviled critic in the paper’s history.) The review had pride of place as the first review in the front section—ahead of Penn & Teller, who were performing in one of the big downtown palaces.

“People ask me every so often, ‘How could you go to so many shows? Didn’t you see a lot of crap?'” says Adler. “I think that this special talent of at least the Reader critic is that you’re willing to go and see what happens. And if what happens is disappointing, I suppose that’s one way you can look at it, but again, you go back to, ‘Well, why was this disappointing?’ And that’s the engagement. It’s not deciding how many stars it should get.”

“The Reader was never trying to be where everybody else was.”

Albert Williams started his career as a critic reviewing for Gay Life before freelancing for the Reader. He eventually took over as assigning editor from Adler and was a staff writer for the paper for many years, in addition to teaching musical theater at Columbia College Chicago, where he is still on faculty. (Williams also still freelances for the Reader.) He won the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest honor for a theater critic in the United States, in 2000.

But before he was a critic, Williams was a performer with William Russo’s Free Theater (not to be confused with Free Street), and a reader of the Reader who, like a lot of artists over the last 50 years, took exception to what the critics wrote. 

“In the early years of the Reader—again, this was me looking at it from the point of view of somebody who was in the theater, rather than trying to write about the theater—they were snarky for the sake of being snarky. Some of those early critics were all about being Dorothy Parker for the 70s, as opposed to actually analyzing the work. And it really annoyed the hell out of me. I in fact do remember writing a nasty letter to the editor about the Reader’s reviews, where I said something was pretentious. They could be seen as being very hip, collegial, pretentious.”

Over the years, though, many of the Reader’s critics have also been theater practitioners. Lenny Kleinfeld, who wrote under the pseudonym “Bury St. Edmund” in the paper’s early years, also cowrote the groundbreaking Warp! sci-fi trilogy with the late Stuart Gordon for Organic. Critic Terry Curtis Fox wrote Cops, which premiered in 1976 at Organic with a cast of then-unknowns including Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, and Meshach Taylor. That tradition has continued into the present day: most recently, Reader contributor Sheri Flanders showed up in the WTTW “Chicago Stories” documentary Inventing Improv. (Flanders and her husband, fellow Reader contributor Josh Flanders, perform and teach improv regularly in Chicago and elsewhere.) Current chief dance writer Irene Hsiao also performs frequently around town.

Unlike most dailies, where being a practitioner of an art form disqualifies you from reviewing it on the grounds that you will lack objectivity, the Reader didn’t hold it against critics, as long as they were upfront about potential conflicts of interest.

“I always looked for critics who had been practitioners,” says Williams. “I had been an actor, and writer, and I knew what it was like to get reviewed. And I also knew that by coming out of the theater world, I brought a level of expertise and insight to the job of reviewing. And I will say that I had been very influenced in my thinking about this, without being aware that I was being influenced, when I lived in New York and I read the Soho Weekly News. Which was the alternative paper to the Village Voice. The Village Voice was the alternative to the New York Times. Soho News, they were all artists who were also writing about the arts. It was an artists’ paper, a community of arts lovers who were also artists, though not necessarily theater artists.”

Williams also stresses that he saw the Reader’s mission as being an alternative to the coverage in the dailies. “This goes back to [cofounder] Bob Roth. The Reader was never trying to be where everybody else was. ‘We have to review such and such because it’s the big ticket.’ That was Roth’s vision of everything. We are the people who are going to write about the thing that isn’t the hot ticket.”

But the Reader’s tendency to wait for writers (including critics) to come to them, rather than actively seeking out more diverse voices, also meant that, as Williams acknowledges, theater critics tended to be “very heavily slanted white and upper-middle-class and college educated. So that was just a different world than we’re in now, not only in terms of awareness, but in terms of who was available and who was asking to be available, who was banging at the door. I brought in more women than had been there before. I know that’s for sure.” (Full disclosure: I started my reviewing career at the Reader under Williams.) 

Another distinction I saw between the Reader and alt-weeklies in the Bay Area was that improv was reviewed regularly in the Reader, rather than being treated as something outside the bounds of conventional criticism. Williams notes, “In Chicago we took improv seriously because of Second City, and then because of ImprovOlympic. [Later known as iO.] I remember I reviewed ImprovOlympic very early in their existence. Tony assigned me and of course the thing with improv is, how do you review a process that’s going to change every time? The show I see is not the show anybody who reads the paper will see. But the answer to that is you write about the process. And so you’re educating people about the process, not reviewing that ‘this is good or this is bad.’”

“The small companies were just off the wall and were a lot more fun.”

Laura Molzahn started her editorial career at the Reader, a position she held for many years. (She was the chief copy editor for the theater reviews and other coverage, and eventually took over as arts editor before leaving the Reader in 2008 and working for a few years as the freelance dance critic for the Tribune.) But as the chief dance critic for the Reader for around 20 years, she witnessed the explosion of new dance troupes that grew up around the same time as the storefront theater scene in Chicago. 

(Anne Schultz wrote the first dance review I could find in the Reader archives: a review of work by Jacques d’Amboise, a onetime principal dancer for the New York City Ballet and founder of the National Dance Institute, which ran on October 22, 1971. Entitled “To Dance Is Not To Talk,” Schultz took d’Amboise to task for what she called his transformation from “the excellent dancer whose ballon I had remembered into a second-rate comedian whose unfortunate humor I would like to forget.”)

The Reader’s philosophy of having writers cover what most interested them sparked a lot of Molzahn’s own writing. “I have to say that I always found the smaller companies, smaller dance companies, more creative. You know, they didn’t have a lot to lose. If it was the Joffrey or even Hubbard Street, after a certain period of time, they had to kind of toe the line and do what was expected, but the small companies were just off the wall and were a lot more fun.” 

The lack of space limitations also helped develop writers’ voices, including Molzahn’s. “Especially at the time when I started writing, they were desperate to have enough editorial to balance out all the ads. And so I regularly wrote 1,000-word reviews partly just because that was kind of expected. And everybody did that, you know? It was such a different time. It’s just hard to comprehend how much things have changed.”

Molzahn, like many Reader critics over the years, also wrote arts features, including a long cover story in 1990 on Hubbard Street, who were then collaborating with Twyla Tharp. 

“I went to rehearsals for like the whole summer and sat on the floor and took notes,” says Molzahn. “It was super, super long and I could never publish that at another paper.” She adds, “The other thing for me was that that was in many ways my education on what it’s like to be a professional dancer. I was sitting there with these great dancers. They had this famous choreographer, and watching all the corrections and all the interactions—there was one time that a dancer fell and she hurt her head. It just was this intimate look at the dance world, which I would never have had otherwise because I was in no way a professional dancer.”

But when the cover story ran, Molzahn recalls that sections of it got mixed up in the paste-up process. “It made dancers sound like they were saying something they weren’t,” notes Molzahn. In another instance of “That would never happen now,” Mike Lenehan, then the editor in chief, agreed to run Molzahn’s article again, in the correct order, in the next week’s edition (though not, obviously, on the cover again). 

I spent some time going through the physical archives of the Reader in preparation for this piece, and it was a surprisingly emotional experience remembering the artists and companies that had their moment and are now gone. The Reader itself has changed a lot, but I hope that somehow, we’ll still be keeping the stories of performing artists—the unsung, the not-yet-famous, and the gone-for-good—alive for another 50 years.

Reader 50