A Unique Vision: Directors’ and Playwrights’ Theaters

Chicago theater companies come about for many different reasons. Like the well-known Steppenwolf Theatre Company, many companies are formed around a high-caliber acting ensemble. However, this city is also home to a number of theaters at which the driving artistic force comes from talented directors and playwrights.

Directors’ Theaters

At the venerable Goodman Theatre, all programming reflects three guiding principles: quality, diversity, and community. To achieve these principles, the Goodman has created a small but powerful coalition of nationally and internationally renowned associate artists—among them writer/director Mary Zimmerman, director Chuck Smith, writer/actor/director Frank Galati, and writer/actor Regina Taylor. The mutual commitment between the theater and its gifted associates creates a crucible for artistic experimentation and exploration of new ideas. To reach into the future, the Goodman has also created the Michael Maggio Directing Fellowship, awarded annually to an early-career Chicago director. The fellowship provides a financial stipend, mentoring, hands-on opportunities to work as a directing assistant on Goodman productions—and, in some cases, to take on full directing duties for smaller festival shows. For the Goodman, sustained collaboration with its core of artists adds fundamental depth, diversity, and continuity to its overall programming. The Goodman also offers education programs through the public schools, including a free student subscription series and teacher training programs.

While Shakespeare plays are the main draw at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (CST), the company’s ongoing success depends to a great extent on the creative reach of founding artistic director Barbara Gaines. A respected director herself, Gaines has a remarkable ability to attract visionary directors from all over the world to work at her theater. The company produces ambitious seasons of plays in both its mainstage and studio theaters, and routinely books in the work of international companies such as Canada’s Shaw Festival and France’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. Since its comparatively humble beginning, CST has grown to become one of Chicago’s healthiest and wealthiest theaters. It is housed in an elegant facility on Navy Pier overlooking Lake Michigan. Since 1991, CST’s arts-in-education program, Team Shakespeare, has brought the bard’s words and ideas to life through live performance, workshops, discussions, and innovative learning programs. More than 50,000 teachers and students participate in Team Shakespeare each school year, making CST one of the largest theater-education providers in the nation.

Playwrights’ Theaters

Winner of the 2001 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater, Victory Gardens Theater has for more than 35 years held fast to its mission to develop new plays by means of ongoing relationships with diverse writers. In 1997, artistic director Dennis Zacek formalized his theater’s commitment to playwrights by creating the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble, which includes such longtime VG collaborators as Gloria Bond Clunie, Claudia Allen, Joel Drake Johnson, and Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz. Victory Gardens operated for 25 years at a multi-theater venue on Lincoln Avenue before moving three blocks north to the historic Biograph Theatre in 2006. The theater’s programming includes a vibrant six-play mainstage season, educational outreach and off-night presentations, a summer youth program, and a training center that offers year-round classes in acting, playwriting, and directing.

Chicago Dramatists celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2009. From the beginning, the goal of this tireless institution has been to develop and promote new plays and playwrights that will contribute to the national and international theater repertoires and enrich the lives of future audiences. Chicago Dramatists provides opportunities for both aspiring and seasoned playwrights to expand their professional networks, showcase their work to the larger marketplace, and collaborate with theater personnel and audiences in the creative process. From first draft to final production, writers are the focus of all the Chicago Dramatists’ programming, which includes a three-play mainstage season and a staged reading series that presents new plays in development just about every Saturday afternoon of the year. The company, under the artistic direction of Russ Tutterow, also boasts a thriving playwrights-in-the-schools program as well as year-round classes for adult playwrights at all levels of creative development. Many locally and nationally respected writers have written for Chicago Dramatists’ stage, including Rebecca Gilman, Lydia R. Diamond, Tanya Saracho, and Brett Neveu.