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  • Not Just Rock 'n' RollChicago Theatre, 1984–1990
  • Julie Jackson (bio)

The notion of a Chicago-style theatre first began to appear in the press around 1984. In that year, the New York Times published a lengthy feature article under the headline "Chicago Theater Comes Into Its Own." Author Pat Colander began by noting that for more than three decades the track record for Chicago transfers to New York had been abysmal. She writes, "Theater companies came to life and were as quickly dissolved. Artists left for one coast or another and never looked back. Chicago's most successful productions collapsed upon arrival in New York City."1 In the early 1980s, word of an emerging theatre scene in Chicago had begun to attract attention on the East Coast, but the odds of a successful transfer to New York remained slim at best. Nonetheless, in October 1982 Chicago's Step-penwolf ensemble decided to transfer their revival of Sam Shepard's True West to the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. The move was highly controversial within the company. A risky out-of-town production would deplete the ensemble and potentially disrupt the company's move to a newly renovated 211-seat facility on Halsted Street, the former home of David Mamet's St. Nicholas Theater. But after prolonged and heated discussions among ensemble members, it was agreed that only John Malkovich and Gary Sinise would travel with the production and the company would keep a low profile about the Chicago connection.2 In 2005 Newsday critic Linda Winer recalled that, in early 1983, "nowhere in the program or the bios did it say these are people from Chicago, that this is from a company called Steppenwolf. And I realized that there had been so many shows imported from Chicago that had failed, that it was actually saying that being from Chicago was a liability."3 Expectations among the company [End Page 75] were not high—Malkovich later claimed he packed his bag only for a weekend. But the production ran for 762 performances, finally closing in August 1984, and the intense, head-butting performances of Malkovich and Sinise proved to be a turning point for the Steppenwolf and for Chicago theatre. In her article, Colander concluded that the city's "continuity of theatrical history has produced a recognizable Chicago style," and she links that style to an "emotionally raw, sometimes violent, mode of play for which many [Chicago-based theatres] have been acclaimed." In a 1997 article "The Real Roots of Rock 'n' Roll Acting," Chicago Tribune lead critic Richard Christiansen recalled, "The kind of manic energy that Sinise and Malkovich put to work, kicking and biting each other as two warring brothers, blew away Manhattan critics and audiences alike."4 And so it began.

Good, bad, or indifferent, enough of the theatre produced in Chicago by Chicagoans around 1984 shared sufficient aesthetic values and formal aspects in performance—some more so, some less—to constitute what Ross Wetzesteon, a longtime editor of the Village Voice and a founder of the Obie Awards for off-Broadway (and off-off-Broadway) theatre, described in 1985 as "the most talked-about innovation in acting technique since the heyday of the Actor's Studio."5

The Chicago style was born of the imposed intimacy of the makeshift storefront venues where Chicago actors, directors, and designers learned their craft, the financial and artistic structure that empowered the city's artist-run ensemble companies, and the energy, conceptual minimalism, and individual audacity of improvisational theatre. The result was a new and different kind of experience in the theatre. However, the catchy sound bites ("rock 'n' roll," "gonzo theatre," "raw naturalism") and stroppy abstractions ("gritty," "gutsy," "unpolished") of contemporary press coverage positioned much of the innovative work that emerged from Chicago during this period as atypical or marginal. Consider: the Organic Theater's wacky sci-fi serial Warp! (1971) by Stuart Gordon and Lenny Kleinfeld and the company's intimate, ensemble-devised Bleacher Bums (1971) and E/R (1984)6; the intense but strangely uninflected dialogue of David Mamet's early work at St. Nicholas; the electrifying theatricality of Remains Theatre's haunting...


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