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Photograph: Vito Palmisano

The best theater companies in Chicago

Find a show that speaks to you at one of the city’s huge variety of stages

Time Out in association with Choose Chicago
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The depth and breadth of theater in Chicago can be daunting—the League of Chicago Theatres counts well over 200 member companies producing and presenting shows in the city and its suburbs. If you’re unfamiliar with the scene, it can be hard to know where to start. Well, start here: We’ve narrowed down the options to some of the city’s finest, from boldface names like Steppenwolf and Second City to the newest storefront up-and-comers.

Chicago’s best theaters

About Face Theatre
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

About Face Theatre

Founded in 1995, About Face is the city’s premier producer of theater about the LGBTQ experience, both adult fare and the teen-created works of About Face Youth Theatre. The company currently performs in residence at Theater Wit.

American Theater Company
  • Theater
  • North Center
  • price 1 of 4

Seven years into his transformative tenure as American Theater Company's artistic director, during which he pissed off many longstanding ensemble members (who left to re-form under their original name, American Blues Theater) but expanded a commitment to diversity and new work onstage, PJ Paparelli was killed in an automobile accident in May 2015. His successor, Will Davis, took the reins in 2016, becoming the first trans person to run a major regional theater; he continues the trajectory of vital work Paparelli led.

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Black Ensemble Theater
  • Theater
  • Uptown
  • price 2 of 4

The impresario of BET, writer-director-performer Jackie Taylor, traffics in the almost-destructive-but-ultimately-redemptive lives of black legends of blues, jazz and rock & roll. Her biographical revue-tributes are by no means literary masterpieces, but the roof-raising performances of songs from the likes of Etta James and Jackie Wilson make up the difference. The indefatigable Taylor led a strong campaign to get this $16 million new facility built in the middle of the recession.

  • Theater
  • Streeterville
  • price 2 of 4

In less than 20 years, this unpretentious Bardic troupe moved from the back of a Lincoln Park pub to a mouthwatering, multimillion-dollar facility with a spectacular Lake Michigan view. (The main stage was modeled on Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre.) And in 2008, Chicago Shakes became the fourth Chicago institution to pick up the Tony Award for regional theater excellence. The main course here is Shakespeare, of course, but with detours into classics of every stripe, including the occasional musical. Some of the company’s best trimmings include the dynamic international programming presented under the World's Stage banner.

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  • Theater
  • Hyde Park
  • price 2 of 4

For 60 years in heady Hyde Park, on the University of Chicago’s campus, the Court has stood its ground, mounting classics from Sophocles to Stoppard. It’s a healthy diet, though in the last few years, groovy deconstructions of vintage musicals and heightened interest in African-American writers have thickened the mix.

  • Theater
  • Jefferson Park
  • price 1 of 4

A shining example of Chicago's ensemble theater tradition, the Gift proudly serves Jefferson Park from its 50-seat storefront, where it presents world premieres by the likes of ensemble member playwrights Andrew Hinderaker, Laura Marks, Will Eno and David Rabe. Tony Award winner Rabe was so impressed by the Gift’s work on his world premiere Good for Otto and other pieces that he joined the company in February 2017, at age 76.

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  • Theater
  • Drama
  • Loop
  • price 3 of 4

A standard-bearer among the nation’s regional theaters and the downtown grand pooh-bah of Chicago’s professional scene, the Goodman is helmed by Tony-winning director Robert Falls. Falls’s hallmark productions of American classics (Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey) are indicative of the Goodman’s mainly deluxe-but-traditional fare. Yet a commitment to ethnically diverse programming sets it apart from its contemporaries. There’s also a doozy of A Christmas Carol every winter.

The House Theatre of Chicago
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

The House Theatre of Chicago

Making its mark by rakishly riffing on all things pop culture (from The Wizard of Oz to samurai films to John Ford), the House Theatre has been one of the biggest stories of the new century in Chicago theater. Their plays—pastiches of vaudeville, circus antics and fairy-tale storytelling—have made them a favorite among both young theatergoers and traditional theatergoers who like feeling young. They’ve been the chief residents of the Chopin Theatre for the last several seasons.

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The Hypocrites
Photograph: Evan Hanover

The Hypocrites

This name-brand storefront company that made its rep by producing punk versions of Ionesco went on to a regular practice of deconstructing classics, including a much-admired staging of Our Town that went on to a long Off Broadway run and All Our Tragic, founder Sean Graney’s gutsy, shockingly successful 12-hour adaptation of all the surviving Greek tragedies. The company has also made a touring name for itself with its playful reimaginings of the Gilbert & Sullivan repertory. Recent financial shortcomings prompted Graney to scale back the production schedule, but the Hypocrites remain a top company to watch out for.

Jackalope Theatre Company
Photograph: Joel Maisonet

Jackalope Theatre Company

Born out of a class project at Columbia College Chicago in 2008, Jackalope has quickly become one of the city’s leading young troupes, regularly debuting new works by rising local playwrights like Ike Holter, Calamity West and Kristiana Rae Colón. Jackalope produces most of its work in a space carved out of a former garage in the Chicago Park District’s Broadway Armory building, and also maintains an Edgewater storefront called the Frontier.

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  • Theater
  • Interactive
  • Uptown
  • price 1 of 4

The Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which was Chicago’s longest-running piece of theater at nearly three decades, featured an innovative ensemble of writer-performers attempting to perform 30 miniplays in 60 minutes. After a split with the company’s founder, the current Neos (and their sibling companies in New York and San Francisco) tweaked the formula and relaunched under the title The Infinite Wrench. The resulting late-night hour is still equal parts block party and populist performance art. The company also produces a season of original prime-time shows that take the Neo-Futurist aesthetic to feature length. The Neo-Futurarium also plays host to That's Weird, Grandma, the giddy, family-friendly weekly performance jam of goofball edutainers Barrel of Monkeys.

The New Colony
Photograph: Evan Hanover

The New Colony

Though still relatively young, this company founded by vets of the city’s sketch and improv scenes has demonstrated a savvy ability to attract young audiences less likely to attend traditional theater with an inclusive party vibe and original pop-culture-tinged material, all of which it develops in-house, cultivating and producing new writers. The New Colony is one of several vital companies in residence at the Den Theatre.

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  • Theater
  • Old Town
  • price 1 of 4

This oddly-shaped shoebox located down a gangway between a sushi joint and a taqueria serves as home to the bold, scrappy Old Town troupe known for intense, often dark, diamond-hard works by resident playwrights Brett Neveu and Craig Wright and others of similar sensibility. A Red Orchid’s most famous ensemble member, Michael Shannon, still shows back up onstage every year or two, and you'll likely spot him and the rest of the gang around the corner at the Old Town Ale House after the show.

The Second City
  • Comedy
  • Comedy clubs
  • Lincoln Park
  • price 2 of 4

Even if you know nothing about improv, chances are you've heard of Second City. This is the place that put both sketch and improvised comedy on the map while launching the careers of many distinguished comics including Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Keegan-Michael Key, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.

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Sideshow Theatre Company
Photograph: Jonathan L. Green

Sideshow Theatre Company

From its founding in 2008, Sideshow wasted no time staking out a spot on our ones-to-watch list with productions like the Winter’s Tale riff Everything Freezes and the robo-tastic Heddatron. Since then the company has grown in ability and ambition, logging its biggest hit with a sublime Chicago premiere of Aaron Posner’s Stupid F**king Bird. Sideshow also produces the over-the-top bouts of CLLAW, the Chicago League of Lady Arm Wrestlers.

  • Theater
  • Edgewater
  • price 1 of 4

Founded in 2001, Steep moved in 2008 from its former Lakeview shoebox to a slightly larger shoebox in Edgewater (capacity rose from 40 to 60). The space is close enough to the Red Line to hear trains rumbling by overhead; it’s well-appointed, though, and provides the troupe much greater flexibility in staging the meaty, intense panoramas it favors.

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Steppenwolf Theatre Company
  • Theater
  • Lincoln Park
  • price 2 of 4

The juggernaut that’s home to maybe the world’s most famous acting ensemble (paging Gary Sinise, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf, Martha Plimpton, William Petersen…) is probably what most people outside Chicago think of when they hear “Chicago theater.” From famous basement origins has risen a major institution where three venues house a lineup of new and classic plays and, in the new 1700 Theatre, more eclectic performance. After spending much of its life as a rather homogeneous unit—until 2007, there was only one person of color among the dozens of ensemble members—Steppenwolf has taken positive steps over the last decade toward diversifying both its people and its plays.

Teatro Vista

Teatro Vista

In production since 1990, Teatro Vista (tagline “theater with a view”) is the city’s preeminent company focused on Latinx stories performed in English. It’s shown a dexterity for developing partnerships and co-productions with larger institutions like the Goodman, Victory Gardens and Steppenwolf, which has helped it have a hand in recent world premieres by the likes of Quiara Alegría Hudes, Kristoffer Diaz and Tanya Saracho.

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  • Theater
  • Performing arts space
  • Lake View
  • price 1 of 4

Having completed a gut rehab of Bailiwick Repertory’s former home next door to Stage 773, Theater Wit opened its doors in 2010 as a well-appointed three-theater facility. In addition to its own shows, which tend toward high-concept, highbrow thinkers like Mr. Burns, a post-electric play and Seven Woolly Mammoths Wander New England, the company also plays host to itinerant companies both in two-year residencies (Shattered Globe, About Face Theatre and Kokandy Productions are currently based there) and on a rental basis.

  • Theater
  • Lake View
  • price 1 of 4

One of the storefront scene’s Little Theaters That Could, this modest company (cozily housed in a Lakeview church) regularly snags outstanding acting and design talent. The company mission, to present stories inspired by history, is simple but evocative; recent high-profile successes have included The Apple Family Plays, A Raisin in the Sun and The Normal Heart.

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Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
  • Theater
  • Sheffield & DePaul
  • price 2 of 4

Having moved in recent years to one of the city’s most coveted venues, the sumptuously renovated Biograph Theater, this company is Chicago’s highest-profile generator of new plays. Chay Yew, who succeeded longtime artistic director Dennis Zacek in 2011, has taken steps to reinvigorate Victory Gardens, focusing on a new generation of writers like Marcus Gardley, Sarah Gubbins and Samuel D. Hunter. VG has also invited a passel of itinerant troupes into the building as resident companies, with Rasaka Theatre Company, Sideshow Theatre Company, Teatro Vista and Definition Theatre Company among the current class.

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