Ensemble Theater: A Chicago Tradition

Over the past three decades, Chicago has received wide acclaim for the quality of its theater. The city boasts five regional Tony Awards for excellence in theater—for Steppenwolf Theatre (1985), Goodman Theatre (1992), Victory Gardens (2001), Chicago Shakespeare Company (2008), and Signature Theatre (2009). This is a glamorous distinction to be sure, but a large measure of Chicago’s success can be traced back to the city’s gritty can-do philosophy, a vital part of making theater here. This is the city that works—and its endlessly resourceful theater community reflects that ethic. If you ask fans to describe the Chicago style of acting, you’ll likely hear words like gutsy, raw, honest, and totally committed. And chances are it won’t be too long before you hear another word: ensemble.

Loosely defined, ensemble theater is an approach to acting that aims for a unified effect achieved by all members of a cast working together on behalf of the play, rather than emphasizing individual performances. The goal is to create a seamless, living world on the stage. To accomplish this unity, actors often band together to form their own ensemble companies, a practice that gives them the freedom to perform together and hone their skills in multiple shows—often over a period of many years. Beginning in the mid-1970s, theater practitioners began to trend away from the cluster of large downtown venues to create small theater companies all over the city. Many of these new companies took up residence in converted storefront buildings with cheap rent, which gave them the freedom to take creative risks and produce any kind of theater they liked. The storefront theater movement, as it has become known, was—and continues to be—a significant part of this city’s ensemble theater scene. The best-known and most decorated of Chicago’s ensemble theaters is Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Founded in 1976 by nine young actors, it has in the intervening years grown to a multifaceted 42-member ensemble that includes actors, directors, filmmakers, and writers. Many Steppenwolf members work all over the world in theater, film, and television, but they remain deeply committed to the company that has nurtured them throughout the years. In the early days, Steppenwolf’s explosive ensemble acting style ignited hit shows such as Sam Shepard’s True West and Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead. More recently, the family drama August: Osage County won the company multiple Tony Awards as well as a Pulitzer Prize for its author, ensemble member Tracy Letts. With three performance spaces, a thriving professional theater school, and a highly regarded Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, Steppenwolf continues to break new artistic ground while never losing sight of the ensemble ethic that brought the company together in the first place.

Congo Square Theatre Company’s reputation also rests squarely on the talents of its acting ensemble. Founded in 1999 with a mission to produce theatrical work born of the African Diaspora and other world cultures, Congo Square’s programming merges richly poetic plays with a visceral, no holds-barred acting style. The company quickly rose to prominence, developing a loyal fan base with the help of playwright August Wilson, a supporter from the theater’s inception. Over the years, Chicago audiences have been treated to acclaimed Congo Square presentations of Wilson’s plays The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Before his death in 2005, Wilson requested that anyone wishing to make a donation in his name should give to one of four organizations—among these was Congo Square Theatre Company.