Theater Memories: RIP House Theatre of Chicago and So Many More

We learned this week that House Theatre of Chicago, a 21-year-old company, will cease to exist this summer. House will formally wind down its operations now that its North American premiere production of The Tragedy of King Christophe has closed.  

A little hole is dug out of my heart when a theater company I love shuts down. It’s happened before, of course. There were Wisdom Bridge and Remains; both of them made storefront theater come to life for me, decades ago. Organic, Body Politic and Defiant too. 

And of course, two theaters were special because I served on their boards of directors (before I became a theater critic, because critics don’t do that sort of thing). Bailiwick Repertory kept producing bold and sometimes erotic stuff on a wing and a shoestring. When it did what every itinerant theater staff yearns to do, and rented a space on Belmont Avenue (now Theater Wit), the financial burdens piled up and became too much. And then I joined Famous Door Theatre, which was often recognized as one of Chicago’s best storefront theaters. Famous Door staged so many memorable productions, such as Ghetto, Early and Often, The Lonesome West, Hellcab and Beautiful Thing. And finally, a two-part production of Cider House Rules in 2003 at Victory Gardens (now the Greenhouse Theater Center). That production won six Jeffs that year—awards for almost everything. And producing it broke us financially because we didn’t raise enough money to cover expenses even though the shows all sold out. (As theater fundraisers always tell you, ticket prices cover less than half of the cost of operations. And if ticket prices actually covered costs, live theater would be accessible to an even thinner slice of the theater audience.)

I remember House Theatre from its very beginning in 2001—a bold and inventive production of The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan on a sweltering summer night at the Viaduct Theatre, near the viaduct just south of the intersection of Belmont and Western (not far from the location of Riverview amusement park for Chicago newcomers). With some trepidation, I parked my brand-new Beetle under that viaduct, hoping to avoid a flat tire or other damage to her shiny silver body. It was an unforgettable night of theater.

Richard Cotovsky, Stephen Walker and Rudy Galvan in American Buffalo at Mary Arrchie. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Some other departures that made me sad ….

Mary Arrchie Theatre at the top of a flight of stairs in a grungy building on Sheridan Road and Broadway. I saw amazing shows like Crime and Punishment, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and American Buffalo by Mary Arrchie.

Oracle Productions, which closed at the end of 2016, always mounted edgy, provocative work. I particularly remember their productions of The Hairy Ape in 2016, The Jungle in 2014, plus plays like the Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Woyzeck, and Brecht’s The Mother

Oracle succumbed to the same fate as Mary Arrchie—the desire of some developer to build a shiny new apartment building where that block of motley storefronts stood on Broadway between Sheridan and Grace. (One of my favorite Italian restaurants went too.)  

Signal Ensemble Theatre on Berenice Avenue near Ravenswood closed in 2015. One of my favorite plays there was The Drowning Girls but they also staged a blast of a play titled Aftermath, about the Rolling Stones

American Theater Company, a solid producer of fine work such as The Project(s), the documentary play about Chicago public housing, and Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Artistic director P.J. Papparelli was the guiding light behind all this but after his tragic death in an auto accident, the theater was never the same. ATC shut down in 2018.

The Hypocrites, led by Sean Graney, created many indelible theater experiences, but I’ll name a few favorites. The stunning and severely minimal production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by David Cromer, went off-Broadway and to Los Angeles and Boston. The 2011 SophoclesSeven Sicknesses, as I wrote later  in Gapers Block, was “Graney’s adaptation of Sophocles’ seven surviving texts—Oedipus, In Trachis, In Colonus, Philoktetes, Ajax, Elektra and Antigone—with music from Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 album The River.” I loved Seven Sicknesses on its own, but the music made it perfection. 

Graney’s masterwork, of course, was All Our Tragic, a 12-hour compilation of the 32 surviving Greek tragedies into one narrative in 2014. I saw it twice, once the full 12 hours (with meal breaks) and once in two parts on two separate days. The Hypocrites ceased operation at the end of 2016, with a suggestion that it would return. 

Verböten, the ensemble. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The charm of House Theatre was that it was always fun to arrive and be part of the House scene. There was always music and staff members would greet the audience in comic and appropriate ways. House had talented casts and crew over the years but the theater was synonymous with Nathan Allen, one of its founders, artistic director for 20 years, and playwright and songwriter for many of its productions. House set up here in 2001 by a group of Southern  Methodist University theater alums who moved to Chicago to make theater. 

And make it they did with productions like Curse of the Crying Heart, Rose and the Rime, Cave With Man, The Sparrow and The Sparrow Returns, and Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe. All original and all plays with music—not musicals. 

Death and Harry Houdini was House’s first Chicago production and remounted several times; it included Houdini’s famous water-tank escape. Verböten in January 2020 was a celebration of an Evanston tween punk band and one of the last pre-pandemic plays.

The House’s entrepreneurial spirit also led to unique long-running programs like the Magic Parlour, with magic and mind-reading still being performed by Dennis Watkins in the Palmer House hotel lobby.  Through a founding partnership with the University of Chicago’s Chicago Performance Lab, the House also commissioned and supported the development of dozens of new plays and projects by Chicago artists. The House’s reputation was recognized in 2014 with a national grant from the American Theatre Wing.

After Allen’s departure, the House was dark for almost two pandemic years. The new artistic director, Lanise Antoine Shelley, produced two new plays during this artistic year: the world premiere, holiday season adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and its most recent production, the North American premiere of The Tragedy of King Christophe, which ended its run last weekend.

Board president Renee Duba said that the theater’s strategic assessment made it clear that House did not have the financial momentum or audience/donor support to continue beyond this fiscal year. “We chose instead to maximize our current year programming and to honor all present commitments and partnerships with a thoughtfully planned exit from the Chicago theater scene—and a wealth of pride in what The House Theatre of Chicago has accomplished.”

The pandemic and assorted economic issues have been brutal for the always dicey futures of live theater. Let us hope that we don’t have to publish more of these theater memories. 

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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 nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.