A Shrinking Landscape
Theatre Criticism in Chicago Then and Now
The tension—healthy or unhealthy—that has always existed between the artist and the critic is no secret. Having one’s creation judged by someone whose role seems to be to dictate the value of said work is a naturally touchy endeavor. Egos flare, defiant stances are taken, fingers point, and artists either breathe sighs of relief or look ahead to the task of rebuilding. Given the personal stakes at play here, it is no surprise that artists tend to view critics with trepidation and suspicion, if not outright disdain.
This is one of several things that make the Chicago theatre scene a bit remarkable, since many argue that the wealth and depth and scope of work happening every day is due in part to critics. One name in particular comes up again and again: Richard Christiansen, who started at the Chicago Tribune in 1978 and was subsequently the paper’s chief drama critic until 2002.
But this article is not merely a history lesson, a look back at one of the true greats in dramatic criticism. This is a look at the impact a critic can and does have on an entire community, how critics can nurture that community, and how the shrinking of the critical landscape in Chicago and elsewhere is a much more distressing prospect to our chosen careers than I think artists realize.
To attempt to recall Christiansen’s immersion into the Chicago theatre scene would require an entire book in itself. Thankfully, Christiansen has already written such a book—A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago is a must read for any artist or art lover of any town to gain a larger sense of the evolution of a theatrical community, of the value of taking risks, of failing and picking back up, and of unquenchable determination to make one’s voice heard.
In the foreword of the book, stalwart Chicago actor Brian Dennehy sums up what has become Christiansen’s legacy: “There was no group so small, no venue so forbidding, that he would not find himself climbing flights of stairs or descending into damp cellars to see what delights or disasters the latest group of young thespians would deliver.”
Agree or disagree, it is undeniable that Christiansen paid a great deal of attention to artists outside of the touring houses and Broadway transfers and big-budget spectacles. At the naming ceremony of the Richard Christiansen Theater, Victory Gardens Theater’s upstairs studio, I sat in rapt attention as artists such as William Petersen, Rick Cleveland, and others recounted stories of Christiansen first seeing their work in the back rooms of bars and, because the work deserved it, giving them respectful (and at times glowing) reviews.
The thing that seemed to define Christiansen’s reviews of the smaller companies was that he never condescended to them in his critique. No matter how scrappy, how low-budget, how tucked away in some warehouse they were, they were not regarded as amateurs; Christiansen always treated and reviewed them as professional productions. As Steve Scott, associate producer of the Goodman Theatre, recalled in a conversation in June, it wasn’t necessarily that this was Christiansen’s mission, per se. He was just so passionate and articulate about what he saw in these smaller, riskier venues, and thus they were encouraged to keep going. He took young artists seriously—he respected them as equal artists alongside the more established names of the times. This is not to say he loved everything he saw—it would be foolish to expect that of any critic. It was the respect that Christiansen showed that mattered.
The thing that seemed to define Christiansen’s reviews of the smaller companies was that he never condescended to them in his critique. No matter how scrappy, how low-budget, how tucked away in some warehouse they were, they were not regarded as amateurs; Christiansen always treated and reviewed them as professional productions.
When Christiansen began reviewing in Chicago, there were a handful or two of young “storefront” companies, performing in small, makeshift, and/or rented venues, scraping together whatever they could to put on a show. Today, numbers vary but there are anywhere between two hundred and three hundred producing companies of all shapes, sizes, and missions creating work in Chicago. The cause for this expansion is a much-discussed topic, and it often comes back to Steppenwolf’s legendary rise—from humble beginnings in a church basement to its current Tony Award–winning, internationally renowned scope. Many young artists fresh out of undergrad come to Chicago with the intention of founding a company and becoming “the next Steppenwolf” (which is a discussion for a different article).
But this analysis leaves out one particularly important factor: the critics who paid attention to Steppenwolf when they were in the church basement, Christiansen included.
This legacy of critics attending the little theatres dotted around the city thrives today. As Christiansen himself has recognized:
Curious about the tales of opportunities in Chicago, young theatre people in the United States and abroad have migrated to the city, plunging into the stream of activity with the eagerness of those to the city born. They learn that the city’s newspaper reviewers will pay attention to productions in the smallest theatres, and they discover that Chicago audiences…are open to new work and new players.
Brett Neveu, a playwright of international reputation who found an artistic home in Chicago, attests to this, recalling (as quoted in A Theater of Our Own): “…playwrights I knew, like my friend Rebecca Gilman, kept telling me to come to Chicago. ‘You can get produced here,’ they said. ‘You’ll get reviewed here.’ That sounded good, and we moved to Chicago.”
Since then, Neveu has been commissioned and/or produced at Steppenwolf, the Goodman, A Red Orchid Theatre, American Theater Company, and countless other Chicago companies, as well as abroad at institutions such as the Royal Court. An impressive resume, to say the least.
And it is in this regard—that of the attention paid to the scrappy, small venue risk-takers—that I become concerned for the immediate future.
The expansion of the Chicago scene over the last three or so decades is gargantuan, and the task that now faces critics is unenviable. Christiansen agrees: “The problem with writing about theatre in Chicago is that it resists comprehensiveness. There’s so much of it, and there’s no end to it. In the 1970s, it was possible for one hyperactive person to pretty much cover the beat. That’s impossible now.”
And yet, valiant efforts have been made to keep up. The Tribune does the best it can with shrinking word counts and page real estate, even focusing two of its supporting critics, Kerry Reid and Nina Metz, specifically on the storefront scene. The Chicago Reader for a long time was a go-to source of information and opinions on just about every show happening in Chicago, and was a particularly respected resource among artists. In recent years, Time Out magazine’s Chicago branch (TOC)—led by Christopher Piatt and now by Kris Vire—had emerged as the source that really sought to see and review everything they possibly could. While the reviews were a bit short, in this artist’s opinion, they were reliably fair, reliably intelligent, and, as several theatre administrators acknowledged, an invaluable way to stay aware of artists around the city and even scout them for work at larger institutions.
And they really did make a point to see the scene! My first production in Chicago, the world premiere of a new play in the inaugural season of a new company, received an intelligent, balanced (and pretty positive overall) review in Time Out. Regardless of the positivity, it was thrilling that Time Out—a significant publication with a recognizable brand and no real idea who I was or the playwright was or the company was—came to see our show. My experience is just one story of many. I have encountered countless examples of TOC attending first-time productions by new companies and artists, shining a light on their first work in Chicago. This was a major part of what attracted me to Chicago—Rebecca Gilman’s words to Neveu ringing true.
And then, in March of 2013, it was announced that Time Out Chicago would be ceasing printed publication, that the majority shareholder in TOC had sold his stock to the parent Time Out Group, which was choosing to go an all-digital route and, later, that a large portion of the staff would no longer be with the publication. The following month I emailed Kris Vire, who remains theatre editor, to ask what sort of impact this would have on Time Out’s ability to cover the range of shows it has been able to cover up to this point. While he is still working hard to provide comprehensive coverage, he no longer has the budget he once had for freelance critics, which was a huge part of how he was able to review so much of the beat, particularly the smaller, riskier shows. Since in the prioritization game between storefront theatre and the larger companies, the big guys tend to get the nod, it seems to follow that the number of shows of all shapes and sizes that TOC will be able to cover, and thus the number of new artists and small-venue risk-takers that will be introduced to Chicago through Time Out, will be greatly reduced.
Audiences pay attention to critics. Reviews help them decide what to see. One hopes that dramatic criticism does more than merely provide a consumer guide; however, one also cannot avoid that aspect of the job. Christiansen writes: “Chicago’s artistic and economic strength in the theatre remains anchored in its small and midsize troupes.” A recent article on backstage.com agrees that there continues to be a “hotbed of talent” in Chicago storefront theatre.
Without the support, audience reach, and visibility to these smaller groups that established critical resources provide, the game changes significantly. A huge aspect of what has been drawing young, exciting artists to Chicago has shrunk. And if the priorities emerging from this shrinking landscape are aimed toward ensuring reviews for the “biggest” players in the city (in terms of sheer size and budget), are we then moving toward a model similar to that of more commercially driven artistic communities? It is a point of pride in Chicago that small theatre companies have historically carried as much weight and reputation as the big ones. And this is something I believe Chicago artists want to maintain. I certainly do.
While it would be inappropriate to suggest to the critical community that it is the “responsibility” of the critic to seek out the small, the upstarts, the next generation of theatremakers, critics must realize the impact that they can have in nurturing a vibrant, bountiful artistic community. The artists build such a community by creating the art. The critics build such a community by paying attention.
In the case of Chicago, the result is a city described as “the current theatre capital of America” in 2004 by the Guardian’s Michael Billington. I submit that this was only possible through the attention paid to the “little guys.” (And how many of those little guys have gone on to become iconic and household names? Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jane Lynch, Michael Shannon, Joe Mantegna, Elaine May, William Petersen, Amy Sedaris, Bruce Norris, Tracy Letts, Tanya Saracho.)
And looking at the broader impact of criticism, what is really left once the show, ever ephemeral, is done? Sure, in the age of YouTube and Vimeo there can always be recordings (never the same as the live experience), but in terms of recorded discourse, reviews are our link to, as Christiansen described, “a sense of what it was like when you were there.” Or, as Chicago Reader critic Albert Williams believes (quoting a former teacher of his), “the best [reviews] were written not just for their own time but for the record.” Williams continues:
When people ask me, “Whom do you write for?” I answer, “The future.”... In 1966 I was the future—the 15-year-old kid reading Richard Christiansen’s reviews of Hull House and Second City shows because I couldn’t go to them. The specific words he wrote—or any critic writes—are less important than the cumulative excitement they generated over time, the sense of discovery they engendered, the standards of excellence they encouraged, and the way all these things have filtered down through the years.
I submit that it is this mindset that helped Chicago nearly ten years ago become the theatre capital of America, and can help build any artistic community when artists and critics come together to accept their partnership nurturing the art. And this is what makes the shrinking critical landscape feel so personally distressing. I fear losing grasp of this essential partnership.
Artists will of course persevere. We will find ways to adapt to the new circumstances. We will find new ways to get creative in the internet age and build new resources for visibility and outreach, or perhaps revisit some old ways (Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen described to me this past June how they used to invite people in off the street to see their weekly “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”—true on-the-ground guerrilla marketing). And I believe that the critical community will adapt as well, beyond just starting up more and more blogs.
New models will emerge so that we can have reliable, trusted sources of artistic criticism that can cover the vast sea of shows happening in this community. Some new initiatives have already begun to take shape around the country, such as Miami’s Artburst; in this model, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs provides a grant to the local Arts & Business Council, which is used to fund a new, independently operated media bureau for the arts that currently covers—and insightfully critiques—a wide range of dance and music in the area, from big-budget companies to more street art–based groups.
However, I think we can only adapt after we have taken complete stock of where we once were, the greater impact over time, and how things have changed over the years. In addition, we, as artists, must acknowledge the larger roles critics are capable of playing in nurturing a theatrical community. It may be a long road ahead in figuring out how to reignite arts criticism across the country in the wake of the ever-evaporating print media and professional journalistic landscape. But it’s worth a fight.