Second City No More: A Roundtable on Chicago Theater

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Chicago 4 pix
Clockwise; Kimberly Senior, Ayad Akhtar, Amanda Peet, Robin Witt
Chicago 4 pix
Clockwise: Senior, Akhtar, Peet and Witt

Welcome to Chicagoin’, a new column on the Clyde Fitch Report specifically devoted to Chicago theater. My name is Sean Douglass, and I share this column with Bec Willett, who originally hails from Australia but has spent the last few years as a frequent director on Chicago’s storefront stages. Between my background in playwriting and dramaturgy, and her background in directing and theater education, our hope is provide a national platform for examining the lives and creative processes of Chicago theater artists, as well as exploring the city’s connection with the country’s theater community at large.

The theater in our city is industrious and diverse. We have well over 150 theater companies, and five of our theaters — The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Lookingglass, and Chicago Shakespeare — have been awarded the Tony Award for Regional Theater. Chicago Dramatists operates as the country’s only combination play development center and fully producing theater, and Northlight Theatre in Skokie and Writers Theater in Glencoe offer nationally recognized regional theater in Chicago’s northern suburbs. And almost 100 itinerant companies use rental venues all over the city, producing new plays, classics and experimental ensemble-driven work. There is a lot to talk about, and we’ll do our best to bring you what’s on our personal radars and engage with the city’s most fascinating art and artists.

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For the first Chicagoin’ post, I thought it would be a good exercise to analyze our relationship with New York. Given that New York obviously has the most watched theater scene in the country, and Chicago tends not to receive the same attention, I wanted to look at the exchange of work between the two cities, both in terms of an “export” (which productions premiered in Chicago and then found its way to New York) and “import” (which productions premiered in New York and were later remounted in Chicago). For my export, I chose Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, which was first produced at American Theater Company in Chicago in 2012 before finding later productions Off-Broadway, on Broadway, and in London. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and is currently running on Broadway in a production directed by Kimberly Senior. For my import I chose The Commons of Pensacola by Amanda Peet, which first premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2013 and received its second production at Northlight Theatre in the fall of 2014, directed by Robin Witt. I then put a panel of these artists together for a thoughtful discussion on their experiences working across, or in the shadow of, multiple cities’ influence.

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SEAN DOUGLASS: Thank you all for agreeing to be interviewed for our initial feature on Chicago. So for my first question, why work in Chicago, as opposed to a different large arts city like New York?

ROBIN WITT: Chicago is my artistic home. I have made many artistic alliances within the community which has allowed me to do the kind of work I want to do. I have found like-minded artists to collaborate with there. I really don’t know much about theater scene in New York — I can only imagine how difficult it can be to survive in that city. New York is so expensive. In Chicago, because I mostly work in storefront theaters, I can chose to work on plays that are meaningful to me and I only have to fill about 65 seats a night. My first consideration is the art: the play and how to tell the story.

AYAD AKHTAR: The wonderful thing about Chicago theater is the freedom to explore and experiment, a freedom to risk and fail, that New York and L.A. don’t foster as readily. I have had wonderful experiences in New York, but I would say that Chicago just feels like a place where one is less on display, where the work is less up for assessment, where the work can really be about finding out how something is or is not working.

SD: Amanda, your play has a certain New York relevance because of its source material and that fact that many of the characters are current or former New Yorkers. How did you feel non-New York audiences would respond to this play? Did you have a particular audience in mind when you initially wrote it?

Commons Comparison
The Commons of a Madoff-esque scandal, in New York and Chicago productions.

AMANDA PEET: I wasn’t going for a New York audience when I wrote the play. I wasn’t aiming for any audience in particular. I was just hoping to write something that might be ok to show in public. It ended up, I thought, being more of a mother-daughter play than anything else, so hopefully that’s something people can relate to outside of New York City. When I first heard it was going to have another run I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that it was going to have another life, and it was a huge honor — especially Chicago, since it’s the other major theater hub.

SD: Given that the play had already received a widely publicized production with a different artistic team before making it to Chicago, did that affect your process at all?

AP: I don’t think Robin really needed me except to have me confirm her instincts which were already right on track. The New York experience was completely different because I was there all the time and I was rewriting all the time. When there were glitches it was usually because of me, because the writing wasn’t there yet. In the second production it was fun to say, “Oh yeah, the way you nail that tricky moment is to try blah blah blah.” It was fun to be able to lean on what we had already learned through a lot of trial and error.

RW: I work on many plays that are American and Midwest premieres. Some of these plays have had highly successful premieres at wonderful, well-respected theaters, and are directed by famous directors. But no, I think the beautiful thing about directing plays is that each one is powerful in its own way, and that has little to do with how renowned it is, or which awards it’s won, or whether it’s been on Broadway. I was incredibly excited about working on a play that had muscular, fully-rendered roles for 40-year-old and 70-year-old women. Which unfortunately is the exception in new playwriting, not the rule.

SD: Kimberly, what about Disgraced? How do you feel the show has changed over the course of its production history between Chicago and New York?

KIMBERLY SENIOR: You know, in some ways it’s less about Chicago and New York and more about that we had three years in which to develop the play. I mean, just today we put in more script changes. But in the original production in Chicago three years ago, then it was a three-scene play, and now it has four scenes. The main character aged 10 years. I mean, sure, the content of the play, the thrust of it is the same. But the level of, I guess, the sophistication of the play has changed so vastly. It feels so different. Even though we’ve had two New York productions. ‘Cause we did it in Chicago in the winter of 2011 and 2012, and then we did it in the fall of 2012 at Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3, and then now, two years after that, we’re doing this Broadway production. So, it’s really been an evolution rather than anything that feels lateral. It’s not a transfer. I’m the only thing that’s really stayed the same.

SD: And how did it first get to New York? Was that already in place when you did the Chicago production?

KS: It wasn’t in place, but the way the play came to Chicago was actually via New York. The producers who are actually still the producers on it, The Araca Group, were developing the play as part of a new play development series called Araca Works and they felt like the play was at a stage where it needed a production. And they were friends with PJ Paparelli, who runs American Theater Company, and they were saying he lost a play in his season so he actually had this open slot, and they brought the play to him and he immediately loved it because it really fits ATC’s mission. It seems very much what it means to be an American today by telling this new American story. And so, when we were working on it in Chicago, we said we always hoped it’d go further than that. That was the beginning of the play’s journey.

SD: And not a lot of plays get that.

KS: No, they don’t. It’s really been a tremendous gift. But at every step of the way it’s always been like, “What’s going to happen next? Is anything going to happen next?” It wasn’t already set up. And honestly, every step of the way, Ayad and I have never felt done with the play. You know? We’re just now approaching the feeling like, Yeah, this is it. This is the play. We’re starting to see it, you know?

SD: Do you think it would’ve received the Pulitzer if it hadn’t been done in New York?

KS: I don’t know the answer to that question. I think the quality of the script changed so vastly from Chicago to New York that it needed another production. I don’t know that it needed a production in New York in order to win that prize. I will say the first day I read it in 2011 I told Ayad, “You know this play is going to win the Pulitzer.” It just speaks so much to what that award is about, and I felt when I first read Disgraced that no one had written that play yet, and it was a play that really speaks to our moment.

SD: And do you think that audience reactions have been different to the play’s content? Outside of whatever changes were made to the plot?

KS: Absolutely. I mean, Disgraced is set in New York, and it’s a New York play. It’s about New York, it’s about New Yorkers, it’s about a New York experience. It has insider jokes. There’s a thing that happens now about what section of the newspaper an article is in, which just gets a huge laugh in New York which not every Chicago person would get. Just in the same way that when we see plays that are about Chicago, there’s a different resonance they have. It doesn’t mean a Chicago audience can’t appreciate it, but there’s another layer that goes into it when the play’s about your city.

SD: Of course. Do you think that the cities have different sensibilities in what kind of theater they like? Or how they approach art in general?

RW: You know, I’m not sure. I think what’s interesting is the way that both audiences respond to the same relationships. Commons has particularly strong female characters and relationships between women, and I think any audience will respond to that.

KS: That’s interesting. I mean, I grew up in New York, but I’ve been living in Chicago for 20 years, so I really do feel like a woman of two countries. And now, I mean, I’ve been a New York theatergoer my whole life, but I’ve now made three plays here, and I think there is an openheartedness to the Chicago audience that is, I think, really right for New York. I also think that the New York audience is composed of New Yorkers, but there’s also a lot of non-New Yorkers who are coming to New York to see theater. I bet any given audience in Chicago is probably, what, like 90 percent Chicagoan or someone who lives there? You don’t necessarily come to Chicago for that, whereas I feel people come to New York for theater.

SD: So is it difficult to pin down who the New York audience might be? Since it’s just so heterogeneous?  Because there is something kind of distinctively New York, and something kind of distinctively Chicago, but they’re sort of ineffable and tricky to define…

KS: I think it’s a little slicker in New York. Look, I got to say, in Chicago we love it a little rough around our edges. We don’t mind seeing the duct tape, you know? We like it a little rougher up there, and I would say in New York there’s a little bit more polish that’s expected. Which is not to say a New York audience isn’t going to like something rougher and that a Chicago audience isn’t going to appreciate something that’s polished. But I do think there’s a little bit of a sleekness that’s happening in New York. Which is also the energy of the city. I mean, you can’t stand on a street corner and look around, you’ve got to keep moving. So it definitely reflects the energy of the city.

AA: Both Chicago and New York have such vibrant theatergoing audiences. I feel, again, that the Chicago audience is more forgiving of risk in a way. There is the sense that New York is the stage, and that the stakes are more permanent here, more consequential on your career.

SD: So considering these differences, is there something you would change about Chicago that you think it could learn from the New York scene? And alternatively, something New York could learn from the Chicago scene and their process?

AA: I think the theater culture in both cities is great. They actually complement one another beautifully.

KS: Well, we’re definitely doing a lot more cross-pollination now, so I think that whatever’s to be learned is certainly happening. It’s a very exciting time to be here, because on more than half the stages is one of my friends in a play, or a play that started in Chicago. I have a lot of pride being here among the Chicago artists, because clearly there is much more conversation happening between the cities than I felt 10 years ago. I think it’s great that now Chicago’s being acknowledged as a city of equal talent and a city to be looked at. It’s not the Second City any longer.

Disgraced Comparison
Two heated dinner parties — one Disgraced.

I have a theory that in New York there’s a way to make money in the theater because there’s Broadway. And in L.A. there’s a way to make money as an actor or whatever because of film and television. But in Chicago, we don’t really have that sort of thing. And so we’re just doing the work. Even the best paid theater is — sure, it’s a living wage, but you’re not going to get wealthy. I guess when you remove that element that anyone’s going to get wealthy, it just brings a different type of work ethic to the work. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s like, “We’re just here to do the work because nobody’s getting rich.” Where I feel like in other cities I’ve definitely felt the, “Well, there’s a chance to get rich…” And so I think that there’s something about the equality of what happens in Chicago theater that we try to bring here. But, you know, it’s a kind of intangible. And it’s a theory: I haven’t proven it.

SD: No, I would be with you on that.

KS: Economy. I guess that’s what I really want to say. Economy does not drive Chicago theater. It’s not driven by the financials in any way. So when you remove that element for better or for worse — because there are certainly worse parts of that, too — there is a freedom to fail, and a freedom to experiment. But I feel like it’s a very exciting place to be. But I certainly can’t complain about my time in New York, and I personally feel I have been given nothing but support and space to do my work.

SD: Thanks for all these great insights. For my last question, given the diverse audiences that have now seen both of these plays, have there been any particularly unexpected or unique responses you’ve received? Anything you really weren’t anticipating?

AA: I don’t know that I expected for audiences to respond to the universality of the play and Amir’s predicament as powerfully as they appear to have. I was, of course, hoping that would be the case. But I didn’t have an expectation that it would happen.

AP: I don’t read reviews because I don’t have that kind of constitution.

SD: I didn’t mean reviews — more like if you learned anything about the personal impact your play had on people based on their responses. I said unexpected, but I meant that in a good way!

AP: Once when I was filing out of the theater with the audience, an older lady turned to her husband and said, really loudly: “Enough of this stuff. Next time: Kinky Boots!” I thought that was pretty awesome. It’s very dicey to file out of the theater with your audience. My favorite thing was when I heard people talking about whether or not they felt sorry for Bex. And I was really happy that people seemed to enjoy some of the jokes and that, you know, I didn’t see a lot of people walking out or falling asleep.

RW: An audience member approached me after a preview and told me that their family had lost all their money to Madoff. And that, in some ways, their lives had changed for the good. They downsized, reevaluated what’s important. That was really touching.

SD: Great stories. Thank you all for taking the time to speak with me, and all the best for your productions.

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Sean Douglass

Sean Douglass is the Managing Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, as well as an author, playwright and dramaturg. He is the Company Dramaturg for Something Marvelous, Chicago’s annual magical realism festival, and has previously worked at Northlight Theatre and Chicago Dramatists. His plays have been produced or developed at UW-Madison, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, The Chicago Fringe Festival, Luminous Theatre of Milwaukee, Something Marvelous, Chicago Dramatists and Stagecloud. He hosts the CFR’s podcast The Scene and is also an arts writer for the digital news publication Rantt.