There are almost 300 professional theater companies at work in Chicago today, ranging from big-name institutions like Steppenwolf and Second City to fringe stalwarts like the Curious Theatre Branch. Yet scholars still consider New York the epicenter of drama in the U.S. Columbia College’s International Symposium on Chicago Theatre is calculated to change that. “This is the first attempt to really shake the trees, as it were,” says Reader critic and Columbia lecturer Albert Williams. “To say to the scholarly community, ‘You need to chronicle Chicago theater more closely.'”

The symposium will bring dozens of academics and theater professionals to the South Loop for scores of panels and breakout sessions covering subjects like the early immigrant theater, “theatrical Darwinism,” and how to price the performing arts to sell. Two events—Writing Music for Chicago Theatre and Song of Myself (see below)—are free and open to the public. The rest require paid registration. Some highlights:

Wednesday’s opening night reception (6 PM, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State) features a conversation between retired Chicago Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen and Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey.

On Thursday afternoon, scholar David Sauer and actor David Pasquesi discuss why you can take the boy out of Chicago but you can’t take Chicago out of the boy in David Mamet as a Chicago Playwright (1:45 PM, Columbia College Film Row Center, 1104 S. Wabash). That evening, Alaric “Rokko” Jans, who cut his teeth composing for off-Loop shows, performs and talks about Writing Music for Chicago Theatre, 1964-2011 (7 PM, Theatre Center, 72 E. 11th F).

Long-lived fringe companies, like Theater Oobleck and the Neo-Futurists, will be the topic at Chicago’s Established Alternatives: Collective, Irreverent, and Flourishing (Fri 5/20, 11:15 AM, Columbia College Film Row Center, 1104 S. Wabash). Reader critics Kerry Reid and Tony Adler participate. Friday evening offerings include Song of Myself: An Evening of Solo Performance (7 PM, Film Row Center, 1104 S. Wabash F). On the bill: Jeff Abell, Rebecca Kling, Jeff Abell, and BoyGirlBoyGirl member Stephanie Shaw. A conversation about Chicago performance art follows.

There will be panels on comedy and improv throughout the day Saturday, touching on the Chicago Improv Festival, the development of long-form improv, Second City, and improv’s founders (9:45 AM-3 PM, Columbia College Film Row Center, 1104 S. Wabash). Also Saturday, Northwestern University’s Alvina Krause and other important Chicago theater teachers will be discussed at Beyond the Method: Chicago Teachers and Their Impact on Chicago Theatre—From the South Side to the North Side (9:45 AM, Columbia College Film Row Center, 1104 S. Wabash).