When Windy City Playhouse first opened on Irving Park Road in 2015, the company won nearly as much attention for its comfortable audience perks (swivel seats and food and beverage service, like a luxe movie theater) as it did for its programming, which for the most part focused on contemporary plays like Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days and Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy. But when cofounder and artistic director Amy Rubenstein found herself increasingly drawn to immersive theater, like New York productions of Sleep No More and Then She Fell, a light bulb clicked on in her imagination.
Though arguably all theater is immersive, the term generally has come to mean any production in which the story unfolds all around and within the audience, who often move from room to room, sometimes as a group following a linear story, sometimes in a “choose your own adventure” format. In Rubenstein’s case, a soapy play by Leslie Liautaud called Southern Gothic, set at an increasingly boozy and fraught Georgia birthday party in 1961 (think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with more guests and southern accents), sparked the idea for what became Windy City Playhouse’s most enduring hit. As Rubenstein told Reader contributor Mark Larson in 2020, “This play is about a party and all this drama that goes on at the party, right? I thought, the audience has to be literally inside of it. Forget these swivel chairs that aren’t allowing us to get inside of it. They’re keeping us in one place.”
Southern Gothic opened to rave reviews in 2018 at Windy City Playhouse. Limited to 30 audience members per night, the show (adapted by Rubenstein and Carl Menninger from Liautaud’s script and directed by David Bell) allowed guests to choose which room of the house (designed by Scott Bell, with props by Eleanor Kahn) we would wander through as secrets were revealed, old grudges were unearthed, and every character got really, really toasted. (The audience got a little taste of cocktails during the performance as well, and the comfortable lobby bar offered specialty preshow concoctions.)
Eventually, Windy City Playhouse moved Southern Gothic to a second space in the South Loop. They had just opened a well-received revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (another play about a birthday party loaded with recriminations) in their Irving Park space when the COVID-19 shutdown hit.
Late last month, as initially reported by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune, the Irving Park venue went on the market. When I caught up with Rubenstein this week, she made it clear that the company (which operates as a nonprofit on an Actors’ Equity contract) isn’t shutting down. But, she acknowledges, coming back from COVID has proved fiscally challenging.
“It just started to feel like this wasn’t the right time for us to be producing,” Rubenstein says. “And so we decided to take a pause. And in the meantime, we just don’t want that space to sit unactivated.”
After the COVID shutdown, Windy City Playhouse produced two shows downstairs at Club Petterino’s (in the basement of Petterino’s restaurant, next door to the Goodman). Their collaboration with Rick Bayless, A Recipe for Disaster, opened in fall 2021 and played for several months, and they also remounted Southern Gothic there in September 2022. But Rubenstein notes that their production of Sons of Hollywood, created by Menninger and Barry Ball and directed by Bell, despite generally good reviews, didn’t draw much audience at their original home on Irving Park Road. “I thought it was one of our best shows we’ve ever produced,” says Rubenstein.
According to Rubenstein, Club Petterino’s venue also proved tricky. “What we thought was a great location of being downtown ended up being a terrible location because there was a lot of crime going on in the Loop, and people were really scared to be down there. So it was like we finally got our prime location and it was no longer prime.”
I ask Rubenstein if she had discussions about crime with other producers downtown, such as the Goodman and the Teatro ZinZanni (now Cabaret ZaZou) at the Cambria Hotel around the corner, both of which are still obviously producing. She mentions talking to the Goodman and Broadway in Chicago about security concerns. (The latter canceled a performance of the touring production of Moulin Rouge! in May 2022 at the Nederlander Theatre after two men were shot in an alley near the venue.) Rubenstein notes, “They’re bigger organizations. They had more of a reserve than we did.”
The fact that Windy City Playhouse operated far more on box office receipts than donations or grants was also a factor in the decision to let the Irving Park venue go. (Rubenstein estimates that around 80 percent of their revenues came from ticket sales.)
But, says Rubenstein, they’re continuing to plan immersive productions, with another one already in the works with Bayless. (She and Menninger will also cowrite the script.)
“The general themes are really trying to explore emotions through the senses. It is generally about a woman who finds a cookbook, and this cookbook unlocks a portal into an alternate world where she meets a man who’s on an emotional quest. We are teaming up again with the Bayless team because we are really trying to focus on a show that really hits all fences. And so the sense of taste and smell is where we bring in the Bayless team.”
She adds, “And we wanted to work with different types of visual artists. And so we are starting to talk to options like museums or galleries that would have a great representation of diverse artists to team up with. We just finished a draft, and now we’re starting to work with who would be the ideal partners as far as visual artists.”
Rubenstein hopes that the Irving Park venue will remain a performance space in some capacity, and she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Windy City Playhouse even using it again themselves someday. “We would like to see it activated. It’s not good for the neighborhood to sit there vacant.”
Links Hall Co-MISSION kicks off
Links Hall’s Co-MISSION Curatorial Residency program opened last weekend and runs through June 10 in association with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). This year, the idea is that each guest curator partners with a community organization to present works both at Links and in neighborhood settings while highlighting service organizations and nonprofits within the communities.
Last weekend featured KO-MISSION, performances curated by HL Doruelo, a Filipinx organizer, artist, and scholar whose work has, in part, focused on “asymmetries in the migrant care labor industry.” They partnered with AFIRE Chicago (the acronym stands for Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment) to meld the performances with a health fair and other community resources.
Future events include The Shwang Out, curated by Take Some Leave Some as a way to “create space for Black women to explore their relationship to joy, sexuality, spiritually, friendship, sisterhood, mothering, and belonging.” That performance on May 19 at Links will be followed by Tati’s Butter Joint, an immersive house party in Pullman including food from local vendors, performances, and a DJ.
Marcela Torres curates Ofrendas en Sinestesia; experiments in shared dance rituals on June 2. This will be paired with an outdoor ceremony in Pilsen with artists (including Izayo Mazehualli and Kinniari Vora) offering traditional dances and fire rituals. El Paseo Community Garden is the community partner for this program.
For a complete schedule, visit linkshall.org.