Chicago’s arts and culture scene is incredibly rich and ever-evolving. Impressive art museums, music festivals and exhibitions are available to experience every day. But, it’s the Windy City’s theater scene that may just be its most diverse and exciting avenue for entertainment. Theater-goers can experience everything from classic Broadway musicals and improvisational comedy, to bizarre vignettes and dramatic new works from local playwrights. In short, there’s a long list of spaces to visit and shows to see while staying in Chicago. If you love theater, you must check out the 10 on our list.
Credited with being the home of long-form improvisation, iO (formerly Improv Olympic) has been a Chicago staple since its founding in 1981. Del Close, a world-renowned improv teacher and director, and his business partner, Charna Halpern, started the theater as a way to teach the art form and give performers a place to practice their craft. Improv is a unique theater form worth a watch for sure. Theater lovers should not miss the Improvised Shakespeare Company at iO. The incredibly talented cast performs a two-act improvised play in the style of William Shakespeare, complete with heightened language, rhyme and, of course, a slew of bizarre characters. The venue is known for training some of today’s most prolific comedians, including Amy Poehler, Jordan Peele and Bill Murray.
Jackie Taylor, an actress, playwright and avid producer, founded a community arts organization in 1976. By 2011, it had grown into a full theater and cultural center with a permanent home in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The Black Ensemble Theater’s mission is to actively fight racism using the arts and educational programs for young people. The theater hosts world premieres of new musicals and plays and is known for being one of the most diverse theaters in the world. Its Five Play Season of Excellence puts up five plays every year written specifically for the Black Ensemble Theater and its performers. These plays must feature musical numbers, a positive story arc and historical perspective. Anyone and everyone who enjoys theater must take in one of these shows – and the company makes it easy by running 48 weeks out of the year.
Located in the historic Water Tower Water Works building on bustling Michigan Avenue, the Lookingglass Theatre focuses on bringing completely new works to the stage. After getting its start in 1988, thanks to several Northwestern University students, the venue won the 2011 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater. The company puts collaboration first to create groundbreaking works of performance. Productions include everything from previously unknown dark comedies to well-known stories such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The company also boasts a Young Ensemble, which is a terrific place to see tomorrow’s stars flex their acting muscles on stage for the first time. Company members act, direct and write, which makes the Lookingglass Theatre a perfect place to see established artists explore their other talents.
This unassuming improv theater showcases some of the best improv comedy in Chicago – which is saying a lot, since the Windy City is home to some of the world’s most prolific comedy institutions. Players at the CIC Theater perform long-form improv with exuberance, inhibition and expertise. Also a training center, the venue has a full bar and offers shows Wednesday through Sunday. The best performance to check out is Saturday’s 10:30 p.m. lineup; three excellent improv teams get wild on stage, each with a unique personality and form. What makes CIC (which stands or Chemically Imbalanced Comedy) stand out is its encouragement to performers to push themselves to try innovative methods of improv and styles of play. Most teams at this theater build their own forms, which means the multiple shows an audience can see in a single night will each have a different structure, arc and pace.
Founded in 2000, Broadway in Chicago hosts the biggest and best musicals and plays at five spectacular theaters downtown Chicago. Audiences at the Auditorium Theater, the Broadway Playhouse Theater, the Cadillac Palace Theatre, the CIBC Theater and the Oriental Theater are riveted weekly with outstanding shows. The group makes up the Chicago Theater District in the Loop. Perfect for musical theater lovers, Broadway in Chicago offers hits including Miss Saigon, The Book of Mormon, Hamilton, Tootsie, Pretty Woman the Musical and many more. You can also sign up for tours of the theater spaces, if a behind-the-scenes look is what you’re after. Many productions offer rush tickets at discounted prices, too, to make enjoying Broadway-caliber shows a little more affordable.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood is home to the Edlis Neeson Theater. The MCA Stage series hosts local and internationally recognized talent in this state-of-the-art performance space. With only 300 seats and walls covered in exquisite oak panels, the Edlis Neeson is both intimate and stunning. Audiences over the years have been delighted by dance performances, film screenings, panel discussions, live theater and more. Performances typically push the envelope of what traditional theater looks, feels and sounds like, incorporating dance, film, song and spoken word into a single production. Most works are only available for short periods of time and the line-up changes frequently, so visitors should do research ahead of time to know what shows will be available on desired dates. Audiences can also expect many of the MCA Stage series shows to tackle difficult topics currently affecting our world, like prison reform and underground political movements. A must-see for theater lovers from all backgrounds.
Founded in 1988, the Strawdog Theatre Company delivers outstanding performances with a focus on ensemble-based work and a collective environment. For 30 years, the company has devoted itself to both producing never-before-seen works and reviving old classics, constantly seeking out fresh ways to inspire and entertain audiences in their storefront space in North Center. Some seasons in the past delivered up to seven plays, while others focused on just three or four. In their current season, which happens to be their 30th and the start of an era at a new address, the Strawdog Theatre Company explores what it means to write one’s own story and “determine one’s own identity” through three brand new plays. This is a terrific choice for theater lovers looking for a local, storefront theater with impactful productions.