Chicago’s most uncomfortable theaters can offer exceptional theatrical experiences

Close quarters, minuscule budgets, and structural limitations can work wonders when it comes to creating intimacy and forcing invention.

Critics' Picks

If it's true that wisdom comes from suffering, then Chicago theatergoers must have some of the wisest butts on earth. I'm not talking about devotees of the big commercial theaters in the Loop, where the seats boast such hedonistic excesses as back support and stuffing. I'm talking about those whose idea of an evening out involves finding some tiny, grimy neighborhood storefront (or church basement or bar back room) and wedging themselves into a cramped row to watch a couple hours of tense acting at close range. Trust me—they're the ones whose backsides have known suffering.

In my decade or so of reviewing plays, my own ass has spent hours—Lord only knows how many—pressed against cold metal folding chairs, rickety plywood benches, and antediluvian movie-theater seats full of wayward springs that took liberties forbidden by Leviticus. As for legroom, in many storefront playhouses you might as well be on a Spirit Airlines flight.

Funny thing, though: some of those horrible sitting experiences were tied up with some exceptional theatrical experiences, and I'm half convinced there's a causal link there. A Red Orchid Theatre's ensemble-driven intensity, the Gift Theatre's humane melancholy, Trap Door Theatre's imported-from-Europe weirdness, the soon-to-be-defunct Mary-Arrchie Theatre's seedy ferocity—all of those companies have benefited in some way from their, let's face it, shitty venues. Close quarters, minuscule budgets, and structural limitations can work wonders when it comes to creating intimacy, forcing invention, and generating that raw, gritty effect sometimes called "Chicago-style theater" by those who don't mind making the performing arts sound like a hot dog.

Around here, even when a troupe graduates to bigger, better digs, it feels obliged to assure audiences that the company remains dedicated to confined spaces. In February, Writers Theatre moved into a $28 million building in Glencoe that was designed by starchitect Jeanne Gang. The theater's website points out, however, that the smaller of the two performance venues isn't much bigger than the back of the bookstore where Writers got its start. In other words, don't worry—you might still feel cramped! (I'll admit, I for one found that a relief.)

I don't mean to romanticize storefront productions and the often uncomfortable rooms they're performed in. Plenty of shows are dull or self-indulgent, sometimes to an unbearable degree. But then, once in awhile, you'll find something like the Hypocrites' unforgettable, death-haunted Our Town, staged in 2008 in the Chopin Theatre's basement with the sort of immediacy, complexity, sense of surprise, and gut-wrenching emotional impact you can only get from theater artists who recognize the value of not letting an audience get too comfortable. And you won't even mind that your tush has turned to mush. v