Photo by Steve Hall
Writers Theatre's new home near Chicago
It doesn’t matter if you are in the Twin Cities, Chicago, New York, or anywhere else, most theater companies—even very good ones—do not endure. The artists who found them come together and work ferociously hard to create good work, but eventually they succumb—to economics, artistic differences, exhaustion, despair, children, or any one of a million other obstacles to art in this great land of ours.
It is not hard to start a theater company, after all. Just pull a few friends together and put on a show! What’s more difficult is finding an audience, building support, raising money, and trying to grow beyond the confines of whatever dusty rental space you can afford on the meagre proceeds of your previous efforts.
Twenty-five years ago, a handful of actors and playwrights began meeting in the back of Books on Vernon, a small bookstore in Glencoe, Illinois, a tony suburb on Chicago’s North Shore. Calling themselves Writers Theatre, to emphasize the primacy of the playwright in their vision (and the fact that they met in a bookstore) they kept putting on shows, drawing audiences from the surrounding communities, and gradually making a name for themselves in the larger, more competitive world of Chicago theater, which includes the legendary theaters Goodman and Steppenwolf.
This week, Writers Theatre did what few theater companies ever get to do: It began celebrating its 25th anniversary in a gorgeous new $34 million theater complex in the heart of Glencoe, a facility designed by and for theater artists, with a reverence for the theater’s role in the community reminiscent of our own Guthrie Theater, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The first production of the 25th season opens this week as well, and it's a riveting, cocksure version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that does not shy away from drawing parallels between our own fractured politics and the beginning of the end of the Holy Roman empire. The show’s innovative use of video and social media is sure to get people talking, and the Guthrie-like production values on a thrust stage with only 250 seats makes for an extraordinarily intimate and powerful theater experience.
If a visit to Chicago is in is your future, a trip up the North Shore to see a play—any play—at Writers Theatre is well worth the trip. The main theater—the Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols theatre—is a small thrust design that feels much bigger than it is. Similar to the Guthrie, there is a large stage area behind the central thrust that allows for some spectacular stage effects, and the seating is inclined rather steeply, bringing the audience much closer to the action. The complex also has a smaller black-box space that seats from 50 to 99 people.
The building itself is also a showcase modern theater sensibilities. Like the Guthrie and Orchestra Hall, Writers Theatre includes spaces for pre- and post-play events, a lovely indoor lounge for patrons, an outdoor patio with a fire pit, and transparent glass walls framed by slats of wood intended to evoke the structure of the Old Globe Theatre and other legendary venues of yore.
But it’s what happens inside the theater that counts, and that’s where Writers Theatre has been winning hearts and minds for 25 years. If you can’t catch Julius Caesar (it runs through Oct. 15), the next show, East Texas Hot Links, by Eugene Lee, is in the smaller Gillian Theatre (begins Oct. 19) and the next mainstage show is The Hunter and the Bear: A Musical Folktale, created by Chicago’s Pigpen Theatre Co., which starts Dec. 7.
Writers Theatre is located at 321 Park Ave., Glencoe, Illinois, 874-242-6000, writerstheatre.org