Two young performers are on stage in Chicago’s comedy mecca The Second City. She’s white. He’s African American.
HE: I thought we were soul-mates, but now I find out you watch Fox News! (Laugh from audience)
SHE: There’s an election coming. We ought to be informed.
HE: I don’t have to be informed, I’m black. (Big laugh) I mean, I’m black, Obama’s black. The choice is obvious.
SHE: Oh? So why not vote Republican? Mitt Romney loves Jesus, black people love Jesus…
HE: That’s a totally different Jesus! (Huge laugh)
It’s edgy stuff, and to visitors like us it reveals the city’s zeitgeist. The performers are excellent, and we’re thinking, ‘I wonder if they’ll make it in film or TV some day?’ They may be thinking the same thing.
It can’t be easy being an artist in Chicago. No sooner do you get a start here than you’re tempted to move east or west.
Charlie Chaplin worked here until the film industry chased the sun to California. Louis Armstrong played Chicago through the early 1920s before moving to New York. John Malkovich attracted attention as a member of the Steppenwolf Theater ensemble. The aforementioned Second City, ‘the Harvard of American comedy’, has spawned a host of famous alumni.
‘I’m very happy living and working here, but there are many Chicago performers and producers who hope they’ll get to New York some time,’ says David Amaral, whose company New Beast Theater Works produces original ‘semi-operas’ in tiny storefront venues.
New York and London are probably the only cities in the world that tourists visit specifically for their theatre. Ok, maybe Milan too. Yet judging from the week we spent exploring Chicago’s arts scene, the city stages many more interesting shows than some raking in the tourist dollars on Broadway.
In Chicago we saw productions unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else. They haven’t run for years and become jaded; they’re fresh, they’re fun and they’re different. And they tell us something about modern America.
We’d heard the city was at the cutting edge of architecture and art. The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s tours and river cruises are legendary, for good reason, we discovered. The guides’ pride in their city was palpable. The term ‘Windy City’ incidentally, comes not just from the weather, but was coined to describe the hot air rising from Chicagoans as they talked up their town. They’ve got plenty to boast about.
Significantly, Chicago’s most recognisable icon is a modern artwork. New York has the Statue of Liberty; Chicago has ‘The Bean’. Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Cloud Gate (he hates its nickname, incidentally) was installed in 2006. It’s an enormous, um, leguminous, highly polished sculpture that attracts all visitors to Chicago to take distorted shots of themselves, with the city skyline as a backdrop. This is more than a fairground mirror – it is a truly beautiful object in itself.
It stands in front of the spectacular open air venue, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and a little further along Michigan Avenue is the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s up there with the world’s great galleries, a worthy rival to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The crowds were flocking to the Impressionists – more Renoirs, Monets and Gaugins than you’ll ever see in one place. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is probably the Art Institute’s best known work. For me though, the standouts were two paintings by Russian-born American Mark Rothko. A Rothko sold for $87million in New York while we were there. It seemed a lot for some fuzzy blocks of colour, until I saw his work for real. He’s worth the money.
In New York people book their tickets to The Lion King with their holiday packages. It’s a high class show, but it was also high class in Sydney, several years ago. In Chicago we had dazzling assortment of new productions to choose from. We took a chance on a mix of mainstream and quirky, and if they didn’t all hit the bullseye, it made for an intriguing week.
Chicago Opera Theater produces works you won’t see elsewhere. We saw Handel’s Teseo, whose male parts are scored for countertenors (men with voices higher than the BeeGees) and whose eponymous hero is played by a contralto, like a principal boy in a panto. It was certainly not your run-of-the-mill opera production.
Next night we were in more conventional theatre territory with Steppenwolf. Anyone lucky enough to catch their award-winning production of August: Osage County in the Sydney Theatre will know they are one of the world’s great companies. We saw their newest production, Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of E.L.Doctorow’s civil war novel The March.
It was an ambitious epic, not entirely successful in engaging our emotions, but technically and visually most impressive. The company was mixed in race and age, but slightly disappointingly the Steppenwolf audience was disproportionately white and older; it’s happening to mainstream theatre everywhere, unfortunately.
Chicago Children’s Theater was clearly doing well in cultivating new audiences. The very young, very mixed race crowd was out in force when I took the trip out to the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. It’s a theatre with a past – gangster John Dillinger was gunned down outside it. There was no such drama to scare the kids at my show – they were very happy laughing at the Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater has much in common with Shakespeare’s Globe. Not just the repertoire, the open thrust stage and the three-tiered balcony seating, but also the location on the popular entertainment area Navy Pier.
On a wet Friday night we pushed through a seething mass of young people hovering around the souvenir and junk food shops and eventually found our way upstairs to the theatre foyer. It felt like a people’s place, rather than a temple for the elite. We saw a stylish production of the seldom performed Timon of Athens, starring British actor Ian McDiarmad. The thrust stage encouraged audience interaction, and though we didn’t wander in and out, Elizabethan-style, to buy burgers and popcorn, we almost felt we could have if we’d wanted to.
On our final night in town we found a show with beer and snacks, coming and going, a young, multicultural crowd and a hell of a lot of fun at The Second City. For fifty years performers have been climbing onto these stages and improvising, honing their skills in making people laugh. Their pictures are on the foyer walls – Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Don Adams, John Candy, Steve Carell, Mike Myers, Dan Castellaneta, the Belushi brothers, Dan Aykroyd and dozens of others.
Also proudly posted are framed abusive letters from those outraged by Second City performances – accusing them of being ‘lewd’, ‘moralless’, ‘profane’ and worst of all ‘anti-American’. It may not be the place to come if you’re easily offended, so don’t say you weren’t warned.
We found it hilarious and educational. While some of the references to current Chicago public figures went over our heads, it was fascinating to get an up-to-the-minute glimpse of young Americans’ concerns, with no sacred cows and no holds barred.
Sketches about the wallflower Korean girl at a nightclub, the woman taking up Roller Derby as a hobby, embarrassingly stupid photos spread by smartphones and a re-elected Barack Obama turning into a super-dude with megalomania; all were new and revealing to us.
We tipped what the performers called ‘the hardest working waitpersons in Chicago’ who had been ferrying food and drinks to our tables, giving them ‘that little bit extra to spend on trivial things like rent…and insulin’. It was a memorable night out.
A week was too short. We missed far more than we could see. We skipped the big productions. There were dozens of storefront shows we could have gone to, and countless smaller galleries we could have visited. We didn’t even make it to the music.
We’ll have to come back to Chicago soon. There’ll be new shows, new exhibitions, hits and misses, and a new crop of actors. Some of those we saw will have moved on to fame, fortune or disappointment. There’s every reason to think the new ones will be good too.
THREE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN CHICAGO:
1. Music. Chicago has famous jazz clubs and some of the best classical music you’ll find anywhere.
2. Rent a bike. Many kilometres of car free bike trails lead along the shores of Lake Michigan. Chicago may be windy, but it’s also flat.
3. Check into the CAF (Chicago Architecture Foundation) for one of their daily tours by bus, foot, boat, bike or Segway.
Staying there: Five star – The Four Seasons Hotel – double rooms with lake view from $599 per night. See: fourseasons.com/chicagofs
Mid-range – Public Hotel – cutting edge design, great coffee and a library. 2-night deals from $190 per night. See: publichotels.com/chicago
Gold Coast Bed and Breakfast – a charming, well-located alternative to a hotel. Hostess Sally is a mine of information on the Chicago arts scene. From $129 per night. See: bbchicago.com
Chicago Architecture Foundation tours – See: architecture.org
Art Institute of Chicago – See: artic.edu
Steppenwolf Theater Company – See Steppenwolf.org
Chicago Children’s Theater – See: chicagochildrenstheater.org
The Second City – See: secondcity.com
First published: Sun-Herald, Sydney
If anyone who knows the Chicago Arts scene has suggestions for what we shouldn’t miss next time we visit, we’d be delighted to hear them.