Home to literally hundreds of theater companies, Chicago’s theater scene is regarded as one of the best in the world. This is the home of improv troupe Second City, which birthed stars John Belushi, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, and the only city in the nation to have five theaters receive regional Tony awards. Chicago theater has a vast array of styles to choose from, ranging from sketch improv to Broadway shows and ensemble-led features. In addition to the flashing marquees and Tony-award winning plays, small independent theaters are tucked into every neighborhood in town, and you can find a performance playing any night of the week. Even if your theater knowledge doesn’t reach beyond The Phantom of the Opera (the movie), the huge variety of Chicago’s theater scene makes it impossible not to find something to suit your taste, be it philosophical burlesque or a touring Broadway musical.
For the most original, high-profile productions, look no further than Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre. With alums including John Malkovich and Joan Allen, and many productions going on to other theaters across the country, these theaters are the pillars of Chicago’s theater scene. Victory Gardens Theater and the Lookingglass Theatre Company also boast impressive resumés; Victory Gardens has staged work by Harold Pinter and sent on an original play to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist, while Lookingglass, founded in part by David Schwimmer, stages consistently eye-catching and entertaining productions, including both world premieres and literary adaptations.
Improv is also a strong part of the city’s scene, with the long-running Second City Theatre leading the way. Created by U of C alumni, Second City consistently churns out actors who go on to fame, fortune, and prime time television. Currently showing is South Side of Heaven, an irreverent take on Chicago culture and the universe whose characters consist of a president, a mayor, and a TSA agent. U of C student tickets are about $19 for shows on Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday. For smaller-budget and secretly theoretical sketch improv, try The Neo-Futurists, whose weekly show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind defies all laws of logic and taste. Based on the premise of creating an illusion-free theater, the show consists of 30 individual plays in 60 minutes, all based on real stories and with all actors playing themselves. Most of the plays are obnoxiously funny, with a few serious and political stories thrown in the mix. Tickets run between $10 and $15.
For a more classical theater experience, try the Lyric Opera. A world-renowned opera house, the Lyric is known for its mixture of classic pieces with modern works, including Sweeney Todd. Currently playing is The Tales of Hoffmann, a tragic and humorous tale of a poet lost in the world of love. Student tickets can be obtained for $20 by registering with NExT Student, the Lyric’s student discount service. Touring Broadway plays and musicals are also frequent visitors to Chicago, and tickets can usually be found for around $20. Productions coming soon include Fiddler on the Roof, The Addams Family Musical, and Mary Poppins.
With a vast array of talent and styles, Chicago theater is not to be scoffed at, and new theater-goers will be just as impressed with the city’s offerings as even the most intense theater major. Chicago’s theater scene should be taken advantage of, so when the drama in your dorm becomes too much to handle, get off campus and find the real kind.
The Fab Five
As the recipients of regional Tony awards, giving Chicago the most of any city in the nation, these are the top five theater companies in Chicago:
With Gary Sinise and John Malkovich among its distinguished alumni, Steppenwolf is regarded as an actors’ theater. Often focusing on local issues, Steppenwolf’s original, ensemble led productions often go on to stages in New York, Los Angeles, and London. This is the place to go for daring subject matter and high quality acting. Currently playing is Clybourne Park, an examination of racism set in Chicago’s northwest side, and opening October 11 is an adaptation of Carson McCuller’s classic novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Student tickets are $15.
The Goodman Theatre is known for its directors, and classic or lesser-known plays are often adapted into theatrical gold under its direction. The Tony-award winning Red, the story of a passionate and somewhat maniacal painter working in 1960s Manhattan, is currently playing, and Goodman’s season also includes Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real and The Iceman Cometh, featuring Nathan Lane (yes, that Nathan Lane). Student tickets are $10 if purchased the day of the show.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
A non-profit company with many family and youth oriented productions, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre plays its part in sprucing up Navy Pier. The company’s productions range from classic stagings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to rap-based mash-ups of the Bard’s classics. Currently playing is Murder for Two - A Killer Musical, and opening October 4 is Follies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Student tickets are $20.
Victory Gardens Theater
Victory Gardens is primarily a writers’ theater, with productions dedicated to promoting the work of new artists. With the help of recently retired artistic director Dennis Zacek, original productions have run off-Broadway and garnered several Tony awards. Currently playing is In the Next Room, a play about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England. Student tickets are $20.
Lookingglass Theatre Company
A theater well-known for its novelty, Lookingglass Theatre Company is housed in the Water Tower Water Works on Michigan Avenue. Past productions have included Hillbilly Antigone and an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Race. Opening September 21 is The Great Fire, a rumination on the Great Fire of 1871, written and directed by ensemble member John Musial. Student tickets are $20 if purchased the day of the show.