How a computer science professor and an IT professional became enamored with theatre, especially Chicago theatre
We are theatre fans in the most literal sense: fanatics. By any standard, we see a lot of theatre. In addition to subscribing to about forty theatre companies (mostly in Chicago), we also see scores of individual shows, attend regional theaters (mostly in Milwaukee and Indianapolis), and annually attend theater festivals in Canada and Wisconsin. All told, we currently average seeing about five shows per week year-round, totaling over 3,000 to date. We possibly see more theatre than anyone else in Chicago who isn’t a critic, a Saint, or a Jeff Committee member, and we probably top many of those. This despite not living in Chicago full-time, but commuting almost weekly from our home in Champaign.
Why live theatre? It is difficult to top the palpable immediacy of live theatre. Live theatre offers vivid storytelling and emotional impact, without the impersonal, distancing effect of a camera. It can be entertaining, educational, provocative, touching, stimulating, or hilarious, and often all in the same production. Theatre takes us places we’ve never been and exposes us to a far greater diversity of characters and situations than we would otherwise encounter, as well as new perspectives on more familiar ones. Live theatre is also extremely collaborative. Every production is a joint effort by multiple artists and technicians, including actors, directors, designers, and running crew. In Chicago, this spirit of collaboration produces a rich community of mutually supportive artists. It has been our pleasure and privilege to become acquainted with many members of the Chicago theatre community, and we have found them to be warmly welcoming.
Why so much live theatre? Theatre is perhaps the most ephemeral of the arts. Unlike painting or sculpture, theatre produces no lasting physical embodiment of its output. Theatrical productions come and go, and when they’re gone, they live on only in memory for the relatively few who experienced them. Unlike books, movies, or recordings, which can be stockpiled while telling yourself that you’ll get around to reading or watching or listening to them someday, plays must be experienced in the present, as they come. Unlike movies or recordings, plays are different every time they are performed, even within the same production, and different productions can differ markedly, even in what or who the play is about (George or Martha? Giorgio or Fosca?). This variable and transitory existence tends to create an obsession among theatre lovers to see everything worthwhile, and see it now, while it’s available. That may be feasible in many places, but in Chicago the volume, variety, and quality of theatre offerings is off the charts, requiring a genuine mania to keep up.
OK, so that explains why. To explain how we got here, our stories temporarily diverge.
Michael’s story: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia but grew up in rural western Kentucky. My earliest awareness of the theatre was in my early teens when an older cousin gave me a book of “25 great modern plays” that she had used for a theatre appreciation course in college. The book began with plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, O’Casey, etc., then proceeded through the American masters O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Inge, some of whom were still writing new plays at the time. I eagerly read the plays, but I didn’t expect I would ever see them performed on stage, since there was no live theatre in the area. I acquired many additional books of plays, including two books of one-act plays by a new playwright named Edward Albee, who would soon have a big hit with his first full-length play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. My big break came on a family vacation to St. Louis (the nearest big city) in my mid-teens. We were there mainly for Cardinals baseball and the zoo, but the hotel in which we stayed happened to house a live theatre. My parents weren’t interested in attending, but since it was right there in the hotel, they agreed to let me go by myself. Thus, I experienced my first-ever live theatre performance, a production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer. I can’t claim that I understood everything about the play, but I was riveted by seeing and hearing the script come to life right there in the same room with me. I was hooked. The following year our family vacation was to Louisville, where under similar circumstances I attended (again by myself) a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms at the brand new Actors Theatre of Louisville. Perhaps it is not surprising that my eventual theatre mania sprouted from these two classic psycho-sexual dramas. I next attended a number of student productions in college at the University of Kentucky, and subsequently at the University of Tennessee while I worked at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is where Mona and I met just before I left for graduate school at Stanford University in California.
Mona’s story: I grew up on the east coast of Virginia. We had fabulous freshly caught seafood, but no live theatre. In fact, I lived in a county that didn’t even have a movie theatre, and only one drive-in, which was near a marshland and as a result had very hardy mosquitos. My first brush with live theatre was in grades 6-8, playing piano for class productions of Gilbert and Sullivan classics. In high school, I was exposed to musicals through playing piano for the school choral group. Finally, right before graduation, I got to see Camelot, my first live production, by the community group that performed in the lovely theatre in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The trip was a thank-you from a friend I had accompanied in a 4-H talent competition, and the experience was revelatory. But I had little opportunity for theatregoing while in college at Virginia Tech, so I would have to make up for lost time later!
Our married life started in California, but the rigors of graduate school limited our theatre going to occasional productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas by the Stanford Savoyards. Upon returning to Tennessee and ORNL, we focused mainly on our careers but made periodic visits to Chicago, largely motivated by our interest in architecture. We moved to Champaign-Urbana in 1991 to work at the University of Illinois, which allowed us to make much more frequent visits to Chicago. We dipped our toes back into the theatrical waters with student productions at the university and at the local community theatre, the Station Theatre in Urbana. We saw our first show in Chicago in 1994, a production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the old Goodman Theatre at the Art Institute. After that modest beginning, the number of shows we attended increased steadily (see chart) to our current average of about five shows per week. And we still can’t see everything that looks promising! Even scheduling that many shows is a daunting challenge (see calendars).
Our involvement in Chicago theatre now goes well beyond just attending lots of shows. In an effort to repay some of the pleasure we derive, we have established a donor advised fund at The Chicago Community Trust for making grants and donations to theatre companies, both now and in perpetuity. In addition to helping individual theatre companies, our philanthropic interests include broader areas such as improving accessibility of theatre for visually or hearing impaired theatre goers. By far our largest project to date has been financing the building of the Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage.