Review: Ensemble-Made Chicago Lets Us Peek Into Some of Chicago’s Most Inventive Theaters

Chicago is home to 200 to 250 theater companies, depending on who's counting. Most of them are what we might call traditional theaters that stage scripted productions, both new works and revivals. Of those 200ish theaters, a few dozen operate as “Equity” houses, meaning they are large enough to operate under an Actors Equity or theatrical union contract. Most of the theater venues in Chicago are storefronts, churches, gyms, schools and the occasional armory—because the bulk of those non-Equity theater companies are itinerant. They perform in spaces rented from venues like the Den, Stage 773 or the Athenaeum. (Some larger theaters—like Victory Gardens Theater or Raven Theatre—rent out performance spaces to itinerant companies.) But that’s describing Chicago theater organizationally or geographically. A small number of companies stage improvised or unscripted productions in all kinds of venues. And that’s where you’ll find some of the most innovative theater in Chicago—being presented by ensemble-driven theaters such as the Neo-Futurists, Barrel of Monkeys and 500 Clown. A recent book by two Chicago theater practitioners looks at the unique ways these companies create theater in Chicago. Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide to Devised Theater explores Chicago’s role in the modern theater revolution, complete with exercises, instruction guide and lots of anecdotes. Authors Chloe Johnston and Coya Paz Brownrigg, both theater professors and veterans of ensemble theater, interviewed creators with 15 Chicago ensembles (a few of which have unfortunately shut down recently). Traditional theater starts with some kind of predetermined hierarchy, even in small theaters, where decision makers at the top (executives in a large theater, artistic director, director or playwright in smaller companies) decide what plays will be produced and then invite in actors and crew members to make it happen. Ensemble theater begins with a collaborative approach, where a room full of creators get together to make a play—or in the current argot, to devise theater. It is theater that begins without a script. The group “welcomes the ideas and contributions of everyone in the room, relies on a collective vision rather than the singular vision of a playwright or director.” The exercises or “games” these ensemble theaters use are rooted in Chicago theater history too. In their introduction, Johnston and Brownrigg include the story of how Viola Spolin created exercises for improvisation and performance in the 1920s and ‘30s (published in her books Improvisation for the Theater and Theater Games for the Classroom) that led to the rise of the Compass Players and Second City in the 1950s. (Spolin’s son was Paul Sills, one of the founders of those companies.) Spolin worked for the WPA and at Hull House; Jane Addams came to use theater games as part of the educational program for children who came to the settlement house. If you have taken a theater or improv class in the last 50 years, the authors say, you almost certainly have learned one of Spolin’s games. (Some of the ensemble theaters that Johnston and Brownrigg write about also reflect other influences, like “Mexican carpas, teatros, ring shouts, street corners and cyphers.” Each of the 15 companies described in Ensemble-Made Chicago is featured in its own chapter, beginning with the company’s history and mission and interviews with some of its creators. This is followed by detailed descriptions of a series of warmups and ensemble-building games that yield “bits of performance material that can be combined, arranged and rearranged into complete performances.” Johnston and Brownrigg. Photo courtesy of the authors. The companies featured include 500 Clown, About Face Youth Theatre, Albany Park Theater Project, Barrel of Monkeys, Free Street Theater, the Neo-Futurists, the Second City, Teatro Luna, Lookingglass Theatre and Walkabout Theater. Some of the games featured: Free Street Theater’s Rant Pants and Party Pants (taught by Coya Paz) invites participants to celebrate the good and passionately acknowledge the bad as they find out what their colleagues are thinking about right now, and what’s influencing their everyday lives. The game is adapted from one of Spolin’s games, called Circle Dash, and also brings in elements from other theaters’ games. Free Street Theater, founded in 1969, performs outside in public spaces such as parks, city plazas and in front of housing projects. The Neo-Futurists’ Inspired by the Arrow (taught by Kurt Chiang and Lily Mooney) is part of a storytelling show in which participants get a writing prompt and are asked to write about whatever the quote stirs up for them—it could be a story or just a few words. After this, they interact with these and other pieces of paper taped on a table—they perform actions, interact with objects and with others, chide other participants, add new elements, ask questions and later discuss. (I’m simplifying this process to describe it briefly.) The Neo-Futurists are best known for their long-running 30 plays in 60 minutes, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which ran from 1988 to 2016. Teatro Luna’s Pushing and Hugging (demonstrated by Alex Meda and Elizabeth Nungaray) is designed to build a culture of vulnerability and trust in the room. Meda says the exercise has roots in the work of the 1970s Chicano ensemble Teatro de la Esperanza in Los Angeles. Participants pair off and go through a process of making eye contact, breathing together, pressing palms together and then pushing hard and harder to move the partner...and then break the pushing with a long hug. Provocations can be called out during the process. Then partners switch and begin again. Teatro Luna is an all-female, mostly Latina ensemble founded in 2000. Their mission is to honor Latina lives with storytelling that is autobiographical and ethnographic. The authors spoke at the Printers Row Lit Fest in June. In describing how they came to write the book, they talked about their own experiences with devised theater--Johnston with the Neo-Futurists and Brownrigg with Free Street Theater. They admit they are “passionate about ensemble-created work and tend to describe ensemble processes with a kind of starry-eyed optimism—they are democratic utopias that radically reimagine the structure of the world.” Although the authors are academics, this is not a dry, scholarly work. It's a lively peek into the way theater can be made. Ensemble-Made Chicago may be of most interest to theater practitioners and to obsessive theater fans. But the book could also inspire an ambitious high school history teacher, as Brownrigg suggests, or corporate trainers or consultants trying to build spirit or bring a concept to life. In a city that has been called the theater capital of America, many of us also may want to devise new ways to live our lives and fortify our careers. Read and be inspired by Adrian Danzig of 500 Clown or Halena Kays of Barrel of Monkeys. Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide to Devised Theater (202 pages) is available from Northwestern University Press and your local and online bookseller for $15-$20.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.