As any avid theater-goer in Chicago knows, on any given night there are dozens of options for live productions, from obscure storefront theaters to world-class presentations. The thriving theater sector means dozens of actors are working on shows that cater to audiences of all backgrounds and tastes. But what of the throngs of people working behind the scenes, those talented artists and crafts-people who create the costumes, set pieces and lighting designs that make the show a success?
A new exhibit at the Design Museum of Chicago (72 E. Randolph St.) seeks to answer that question in Setting the Stage: Objects of Chicago Theater. Viewable now through January 5, 2020, the exhibit gives those very artists a space where their work can be viewed close up and within the context of a complete production. A small space to be sure, it won’t take you more than an hour to walk through this free exhibit (donations welcome, and really the least you can do). Despite its size, it’s nevertheless populated with an interesting and worthwhile exploration of design in every facet of production, from lighting and staging to props and costumes. What’s more, the objects on display are from a wide, diverse selection of the city’s theater companies, giving space to those created for specific purposes and missions alongside university-based programs and larger institutions alike. Exhibits range from Steep Theatre’s first lightboard and Manual Cinema’s overhead projector, to Lifeline Theatre’s Frankenstein puppet and Nora’s gown from Steppenwolf’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.
Each month, the exhibit will feature a focus on a different Chicago theater (see the full schedule online here); during my visit in July, the central display was from Idle Muse Theater Company, a troupe that performs at The Edge Theater in Edgewater. With the central “stage” of the exhibit featuring costumes from their recent production of Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare Adapted from The Winters Tale and other works, clothes ultimately make up the most significant portion of the exhibit overall (several costumes from other productions are also on display) and it’s most interesting. From your seats in any given auditorium, it can be difficult to see anything but the overall impact of a character’s costume. From the vantage point of Setting the Stage, the care and detail of these essential elements of a production are on clear display, able to be appreciated for every stitch and seam. You will even see the loom that Joshua Allard built to weave the fabric for the costumes.
As Third Coast Review publisher Nancy Bishop, who also recently visited the exhibit, affectionately put it:
Next time you go to the theater, I suggest you go beyond your usual reading of the program. Check out the cast and director, then study the list of production staff. You’ll see people with jobs titled carpenter, painter, electrician, projection designer, cutter, stitcher, wigmaker and dresser. Those are some of the backstage workers who create the onstage magic. After visiting this exhibit, you’ll know that it wouldn’t be theater without them.
Setting the Stage: Objects of Chicago Theater is open (and free) daily, 10am to 6pm (or 11am to 4pm on Sundays). Learn more online here.