New plays find support in Chicago

Flurry of activity points up robust local market

This winter, the blizzards in Chicago aren’t solely of the meteorological variety. The city’s also in the midst of a blizzard of new plays.

The current spike in activity reps a startling peak for a town that has established itself over the past few years as a fertile field of new non-musical fare, including Pulitzer and Tony winner “August: Osage County,” Pulitzer winner “Ruined” and the Broadway-bound “Detroit.”

The League of Chicago Theaters recently calculated that, of the approximately 800 annual productions in Chicago, the 2009-10 season included more 130 world premiere plays or adaptations.

Besides a significant flurry of world premieres at the larger Equity theaters (see chart), the city’s thriving storefront scene, as usual, also has gotten in on the act and opened a bunch of works in the same timeframe, including “Ghosts of Atwood” by Shepsu Aakhu from MPAACT; “Bordello” by Aline Lathrop at Chicago Dramatists; “Dead Pile” by Laura Jacqmin from XIII Pocket; and “A Twist of Water” by Caitlin Montanye Parish from Route 66 Theater Company.

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It’s notoriously difficult to bring audiences to new work with any consistency. So how does Chicago do it?

“I don’t think it is necessarily easier to produce new work in Chicago,” says Deb Clapp, the League’s exec director. “I think it’s because we have such an incredibly rich and varied array of theaters, we have the space to produce new work, and we have an audience that appreciates the opportunity to see new work.”

Seemingly every leading figure in the city credits the adventurousness of the Chicago theater audience with making all this possible. As the Goodman’s executive director Roche Schulfer puts it, “We have some hard-core theatergoers.”

That engaged audience didn’t spring up overnight. After decades of steady new-work output from area theaters, including the Goodman, a watershed moment occurred during the 2005-06 season.

For its 30th anniversary season, Steppenwolf, the city’s second-largest theater after the Goodman, decided to put on an entire season of world premiere plays, re-branding the actor-driven company as one that is also dedicated to commissioning and creating new work.

“The renewal rate going into that season was consistent with the renewal rates of seasons leading into it,” says Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf’s artistic director. “So the anticipation of new work was not, apparently, off-putting to our audience.”

Renewals were down the following season, Lavey adds, a fact she attributes to auds’ satisfaction level with the prior season’s plays. That’s an important acknowledgment: Audiences will support new work if it’s good, but they also need to be taught to recognize that such productions can’t always live up to expectations.

“One of the things that we learned was that audiences could be much encouraged in their appetite for new work by giving them as much information about the play, the artists, the themes and ideas in the work as possible,” Lavey says.

Even theaters that didn’t previously produce new work have started doing so over the past several years. Writers Theater, the suburban Glencoe stage that launched tuner “A Minister’s Wife” ahead of its upcoming Lincoln Center Theater run, had staged many adaptations — its “Crime and Punishment” played successfully Off Broadway — but didn’t produce an original world premiere until “The Savannah Disputation” in 2007.

“I never felt that we had the infrastructure to support the process until recently — workshops, literary development staff, etc.,” says artistic director Michael Halberstam.

Writers’ literary development program was made possible by a private donation of $500,000 from a couple who had supported the theater for a long time. This year, in addition to “Do the Hustle,” Writers will present the premiere of “The Detective’s Wife” by Keith Huff, the Chi scribe whose play “A Steady Rain” bowed at Chicago Dramatists before it landed on Broadway in a production toplined by Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig.

The Chicago legit scene benefits from local foundations that significantly fund new work and create incentives to produce it, or sometimes provide money toward general operating costs that make the risks of producing new work more manageable. The MacArthur Foundation is based in Chicago — the only city in which the foundation provides grants for arts and culture. The org’s multiple trusts grant money based on the size of the theater, so it spreads its philanthropy well beyond the larger institutions. Boeing Foundation also is an important funder, and focuses on innovation, which can include new plays or audience development initiatives.

Still, says Schulfer, “Individual support ultimately does dominate the production of new work.”

Consistent local press support for well-received new works also is cited as a factor supporting such works. So are the studies that indicate a widespread audience crossover between theaters of different sizes and styles — a rarity in regional markets.

Steppenwolf, for instance, aims to further such crossover, while also whetting young auds’ appetites for new plays, with an initiative targeting the “millennial” demo between ages 22 and 30. The Garage, Steppenwolf’s black box theater, hosts the company’s First Look new-play festival as well as a visiting company initiative that cross-pollinates the audiences of the established theaters and the up-and-coming ones.

And, while this may not be unique to Chicago, the theaters share mailing lists, which are compiled by the League and turned into the Community Cultural Database, otherwise known as “the Big List.”

“Technology now enables us to be much more focused in our marketing efforts,” says the Goodman’s Schulfer. “So we can target individuals in our database who have indicated interest in new work.”

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