In its $5.5 million venue on the Mag Mile next door to Water Tower Place, Lookingglass Theatre Company produces big-budget, movement-based spectacles, often adapted from literary sources.
Meanwhile in Andersonville, in a ramshackle walk-up space above a former funeral home, the Neo-Futurists perform intensely personal, artifice-free stories that get updated every week, staged by the seat of their collective pants.
Both companies marked their 30th anniversaries this year. Beyond that, though, even the most ardent Chicago theatergoer might be hard-pressed to find common ground between their artistic practices, let alone a connective tissue that also links them to the educational troupe Barrel of Monkeys, the women-of-color performance collective FEMelanin, and the sketch comedy institution that is Second City.
But the authors of a new book just out from Northwestern University Press argue that all of these groups share a common DNA. And that strand, coauthors Chloe Johnston and Coya Paz Brownrigg write in Ensemble-Made Chicago, can be traced all the way back to Jane Addams.
"You know, we talk about Chicago as an ensemble town, and we almost always mean it in the Steppenwolf model. And no shade to Steppenwolf," Paz Brownrigg says, "but we have a tradition in Chicago that predates that—the ensemble practice we're talking about here, [which] you see dating back to Hull House. It's been fun to trace those threads and see where they pop up and disappear and return."
Instead of the Steppenwolf definition of ensemble—"a scrappy band of actors putting on a play," as Paz Brownrigg puts it—Ensemble-Made Chicago describes a practice of collective creation that starts not with a script but with people. "You're not starting with the presupposition that you need a playwright who's written a play, a director who's in charge of it, designers who do X, Y, and Z and only X, Y, and Z—all these things that we just assume is the prerequisite for the work we make," Paz Brownrigg says.
Both authors are academics—Paz Brownrigg is an associate dean and chair of Theatre Studies at the Theatre School at DePaul University and Johnston is an associate professor of theater at Lake Forest College—as well as practitioners with deep ties to some of the companies represented in their book: Paz Brownrigg was a cofounder of Teatro Luna and is the current artistic director of Free Street Theater, each of which gets a chapter in Ensemble-Made Chicago, while Johnston was a longtime performer with the Neo-Futurists. The germ of the book was born at a performance studies conference in Madison, Wisconsin, where both authors were scheduled to conduct workshops at the same time and ended up combining forces.
"It was on the fly. We had no preparation time, but it worked out really well," Johnston recalls. "There's exercises that you did that day that I still use to this day," she tells Paz Brownrigg.
"We both teach classes in ensemble practice," Paz Brownrigg says, "but there's not really a good textbook for it. And ensemble-made practice is really hard to archive because it doesn't start with a script, doesn't always end with a script. So we kind of started joking about writing a book we could teach, and then we weren't joking."
"We call it a history and a handbook of collaboratively made theater in Chicago," says Johnston. Each of the book's 15 chapters profiles a different company that uses a similar practice, one that favors collective creation over a preset hierarchy, to achieve a sometimes wildly different final product. In lieu of providing scripts, it documents some of the generative exercises, or games, the companies use in rehearsal rooms to spark creation.
These games can be remarkably similar in structure while bearing the imprint of the particular groups that use them. As an example, Paz Brownrigg notes the "pushing" games offered by the all-female Teatro Luna and all-male Young Fugitives. Though similar on the page, Teatro Luna's "involves so much, like, talking about feeling and like what I see in you and they're all crying at the end and hugging each other," while in the Young Fugitives version, "they really are, like, sumo wrestling, trying to like push each other out of the space and like work out all of their aggression."
The cross-pollination these exercises represent can all be traced back, the authors claim, to Viola Spolin. The mother of Second City cofounder Paul Sills, Spolin codified the theater games that influenced her son's company in another NU Press book, 1963's Improvisation for the Theater, but she first developed them while teaching at Jane Addams's Hull House in the 1920s with sociologist Neva Boyd. Boyd used storytelling games and ritualized play to encourage social interaction among Hull House's clients, many of whom were recent immigrants. These games made it possible for anyone to be an equal contributor and collaborator and helped bridge barriers of language and culture; Spolin brought them explicitly into the realm of theater.
The ensemble-made model, Johnston and Paz Brownrigg write, owes its genetics to Spolin's games—which themselves owe a debt to the social work ethos of Hull House. It's no coincidence that most of the companies profiled in their book use their games, descendants of Spolin's, to make work with a strong social justice bent. Even Second City, "the company that you might think is the least kind of like social justice-y," Paz Brownrigg says, "talked really, really passionately about their social justice roots, about why their work was inherently democratic, for the audience and for the makers."
That outlook extends into the structure of Ensemble-Made Chicago itself. "Something that was really important to us was to get Second City in the same book as Young Fugitives or FEMelanin or some of these really younger companies," Johnston notes. "There's value in what's happening right now and there's value in what's been happening for 50 years. There's a certain egalitarianism there that feels—it feels like Chicago." v