Gotham takes interest in works from small theaters

After plugging away for years as a playhouse that supported writers without gaining a whole lot of recognition, Chicago Dramatists stands to benefit significantly from its history with “A Steady Rain.”

The Rialto pickup is part of an ongoing wave of heightened attention to Chi theaters, with a number of world premieres from smaller theaters generating keen interest in Gotham, both in the commercial and non-profit worlds.

Chicago Dramatists was founded in 1979 by a group of four playwrights who “wanted to hang together and help each other,” says Russ Tutterow, who has served as the org’s artistic director since 1986, when he became its first full-time staff member.

“Chicago Dramatists and Russ Tutterow have been the unsung heroes in developing new playwriting talent over the years,” says Goodman Theater exec director Roche Schulfer. “They just kept working in the trenches, and a lot of notable folks have come out of there.”

Former and current resident playwrights, who are selected by submission for three-year renewable terms and receive development support such as public and private readings, include Rebecca Gilman (“Boy Gets Girl”), Lydia Diamond (“The Bluest Eye”), Roger Rueff (whose play “Hospitality Suite” became the film “The Big Kahuna”), and, of course, “A Steady Rain” scribe Keith Huff, who has been a resident playwright on and off for more than two decades.

Unlike some of its sibling support organizations, such as New Dramatists in New York and Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, Chicago Dramatists is also a producing theater, staging three plays a year. And while a few shows have had strong word of mouth and sold out the 77-seat theater during short runs, “A Steady Rain” proved a different animal, drawing overwhelmingly positive reviews both for the script and production, which Tutterow directed with Chicago thesps Randy Steinmeyer and Peter DeFaria.

The production generated enough buzz that producers Frank Gero, Jono Gero and Raymond Gaspard — who had picked up commercial rights to the play — partnered with Chicago Dramatists to remount the show at the mid-sized Royal George Theater, across the street from Steppenwolf, where it played an extended run of 3½ months.

Chicago Dramatists had both net and gross participation for the Chicago run, but the Broadway production is an entirely new staging, and the org has no direct financial stake. Still, the Rialto engagement came together quickly enough that Chicago Dramatists’ role in the work isn’t being forgotten, and no theater in the country could pay for the type of publicity that comes from being associated with a show starring James Bond and Wolverine.

“What we hoped would happen is already happening,” Tutterow says. “Foundations are taking note, and so is the press and other playwrights. We’re getting more calls from theaters around the country now. There’s a real sense of legitimacy.”

Gone are the days when the theater embraced its obscurity. When Brian Loevner joined the company in 2004 as managing director, it was still billed as “the best-kept secret in Chicago.”

“I found everything in the theater with that tagline,” says Loevner, “and burned it.”

Chicago Dramatists is not the only smaller theater in the city finding itself in the sightlines of New York producers these days.

“What strikes me about Chicago as opposed to Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis is that you have a tremendous amount of new work in full productions,” says David Hawkanson, exec director of Steppenwolf Theater Company. “Producers can see finished work in a highly competitive marketplace.”

Two of the summer’s biggest hits, in fact, are new works being eyed for potential transfers or further development: “A Minister’s Wife,” a musical adaptation of Shaw’s “Candida” from composer Josh Schmidt, which premiered at Writers’ Theater; and “Graceland” by Ellen Fairey, which has sold out the tiny Profiles Theater for months. Buzz indicates that the play may arrive in Gotham via Lincoln Center Theater.

And there are other promising shows from small theaters opening this month: American Theater Company has “Yeast Nation,” the long-awaited new musical from “Urinetown” creators Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, which has already attracted some development and production support from New York producers; and “Mistakes Were Made,” by TV scribe and regional regular Craig Wright (“The Pavilion,” “Grace”). That production, from A Red Orchid Theater, stars Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”).

Coming on the heels of shows like Schmidt’s “Adding Machine,” Writers’ Theater’s “Crime and Punishment,” and the David Cromer-directed “Our Town,” all of which segued from small Chicago houses to extended Off Broadway runs, the current crop of plays and productions being harvested for New York confirms that attention from Gotham producers is extending beyond the bigger and even mid-sized institutions to the small “storefront” theaters that populate the city’s neighborhoods.

Producers are even exploring whether there are shows here that slipped under the radar while they weren’t looking. Last month, Gaspard optioned a play called “The Liquid Moon” by John Green, produced by Chicago Dramatists in 2002.

“If Keith Huff came from here,” suggests Loevner, “it’s almost like fairy dust is being sprinkled over our other playwrights.”

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