Directing for the theater, like most professions, has a hierarchy. You do well in the minor leagues and you move up. Or you get a lucky break — maybe a mentor gives you a chance, or some project suddenly turns into an unexpected smash hit — and then you spend the next several years proving that you belong in the majors.
The circle of regular directors of Broadway plays — the likes of Dan Sullivan, Kenny Leon, Mark Brokaw, Walter Bobbie and Joe Mantello — is small. Nobody wants to be perceived as away for too long, or likely to screw up too much, lest his or her precious seat be lost.
This linear progression is natural — the bigger the theater, usually, the bigger the fee, the greater the press coverage, the more experienced the actors at the audition and the more resources at the director's disposal. But one of the great strengths (sometimes I think the greatest strength) of the Chicago theater is that those categories really don't mean much here.
Time and again, the best Chicago shows occur when a director makes the kind of move that would, in the eyes of the rest of the world and its agent, be seen as a step backward.
Take, for example, Kimberly Senior's very sexy production of Harold Pinter's "Old Times." Senior is a director with proven chops and a record of accomplishment at midsize Equity theaters such as Next Theatre in Evanston. You'd think she'd be pushing further up the food chain, and no doubt she has those ambitions. But she's also a director who understands that small theaters with hungry actors offer a chance to exploit the twin powers of youth and intimacy; her "Old Times" at the (non-Equity) Strawdog Theatre is a terrific piece of directing and a very fresh and compelling play, one that would be impossible to replicate at a larger, more affluent institution. Senior's "Old Times" can stand up against pretty much any other show on the boards right now.
Or consider BJ Jones' fine current take on Lee Hall's "The Pitmen Painters" at TimeLine Theatre. Jones is the artistic director of Northlight Theatre in Skokie; most of his peers at major resident companies don't like dropping below that level. But Jones stepped away to work at TimeLine — where the directors' fees are famously modest — and the result is a very fine production that, once again, allows an audience to relate to this earnest and moving play on the kind of personal level that was simply impossible when I saw the same show on Broadway. This was a side of Jones you don't normally see at Northlight.
There are only so many hours in the day, of course, and nobody can blame a director for sticking to a career trajectory. Furthermore, there are dangers in romanticizing the challenge of having minimal resources, especially when you're including wages in that soft gauze. I understand that.
But I'd still like to see Charles Newell directing at Steep; Robert Falls at Trap Door Theatre; Anna D. Shapiro at the Gift; Rachel Rockwell at Theo Ubique. Would you not like to see those shows? Would these directors not make some interesting new discoveries about their art and themselves?
David Cromer — the Chicago director who made a national career out of the very storefront shows I'm taking about — was fortunate enough to be declared a MacArthur "genius." At the time, he told me he intended to use that money to get away from Broadway and come back to Chicago to do the projects he wanted to do, without worrying about what they were (or were not) paying him.
He's been good to his word. This spring, Cromer will direct "Rent" at American Theater Company. No stars, limited budgets and fewer than 200 seats. But as we keep seeing in this town, those handicaps aren't so much handicaps as creative opportunities. Chicago has turned that truism into a civic brand.
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