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K. sez: I was struck by a piece I just received from 16th Street Theater in which Ann Filmer describes the theater’s gestation:
I had just moved to Berwyn with the belief that every community should have its own theater.
That’s a worthy sentiment, but I must admit I thought: Really? First, is that what every community needs, its own theater? Isn’t it possible it needs a nightclub, or a coffeehouse, or a library, or a grocery store? And second, is that what every theater’s about? Somehow I doubt that the founders of Steppenwolf sat in that storied church basement and said to one another, “We’re here because Highland Park should have its own theater.” In fact they couldn’t have thought that or they wouldn’t have moved, first to Boys’ Town and then to North and Halsted, two communities as different from each other as they are from Highland Park and which might or might not (to return to the first point) have needed theaters rather than, say, affordable housing or some non-big box retailing.
And then there’s the fact that until at least twenty years into the off-Loop theater movement, professionals working their hearts out in church basements and storefronts were desperate NOT to have their work confused with “community theater,” a term of derision suggesting salesmen directing lawyers and science teachers in revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar, and yes, I was the lawyer in question. “Community” was a euphemism for “amateur,” and that was the last thing anyone struggling for a Tribune review would want said about him/her/it.
Maybe now that Chicago is acknowledged as a center of professional theater we can afford to talk about theater as a component of or a service to the community. Or maybe we’ve all just spent too much time trying to justify support of the arts by describing their contributions to the wider community. Or maybe the idea that “every community should have its own theater” was bound to develop in Chicago, where people identify themselves so thoroughly with their neighborhoods. We may not introduce ourselves anymore by naming our parish, but I nonetheless regard myself as an Edgewaterian, and take great pride in the neighborhood’s complement of 5 theaters in a 10-block radius.
(And should every community have five of its own theaters? Or is it just that they cluster, like kitchen-supply stores or dry-goods warehouses?)
It’s certainly tempting to think that community roots account for theaters which spend lots of time, money and energy to create 45-seat houses guaranteed to inhibit if not prevent growth. Why would you bother, unless you’re responding to a deep-seated need to find, and feel at, home? And being at home means that you post signs in the window thanking the officers on the beat for their service, and attend meetings at the Alderman’s office about creating a cultural plan and—well, you know: participate in community.
But is that really what all of you are doing? Just to call out my own neighborhood: Steep, Rivendell, Redtwist, City Lit, Raven, what does “community” mean to you? Are you where you are because you chose a community, or are you pursuing an artistic mission to which location is irrelevant, or did you just luck out on a place with low rent? And what about the cluster of theaters in Wicker Park—the ones sharing the Den or colonizing the Flatiron Building? Are you guys Wicker Parkians in your soul or is it just the space you happened to find?
And then there’s the special case of Redmoon, which is so involved with community that it moves every couple of years to escape any gentrification it might have helped cause and to reach out to another underserved neighborhood. Is it Johnny Appleseed, planting theaters which will survive its moving on? And does it make a difference that Redmoon invites the community not just to attend shows but to build puppets and create holiday extravaganzas?
I’m an art-for-art’s-sake girl—all those studies about the economic activity spurred by the arts don’t demonstrate the superiority of the arts to any other form of concentrated commerce. In any case, theater is a communications art form, and people don’t communicate with one another because of something else—we communicate because we’re human beings. But what is being communicated, and by whom, and to whom, is a question we need to keep on answering.
So will somebody please answer? Eager to hear from y’all. (Or, as we say in my neighborhood, “youse.”) Happy New Year!