Some of Chicago's major theater companies and venues have been around for a while: Court Theatre and the Goodman are respectively marking their 60th and 90th anniversaries this season. But untold numbers of smaller theater companies are more ephemeral, coming and going without making it to the institutional stage despite having tons of promise. The historic venues that nurture these startups don’t always last, either. These are the companies and venues we remember fondly—and the talent that's attempted to fill their shoes.
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What it was: For much of the '90s, the basement of Cafe Voltaire, a vegetarian restaurant on Clark Street in Lakeview, served as an ad hoc performance space where you could see plays, poetry readings, sketch comedy and more on the cheap, with line cooks schlepping produce upstairs all the while. Collaboraction and the Hypocrites performed their earliest shows here.
What's taken its place: Not technically a basement but with all the lack of amenities of one, Bucktown's Gorilla Tango Theatre probably provides the best approximation of the broad cross-section of low-rent, low-risk bare-bones performance.
What it was: Few defunct theaters are looked back on by storefront aficionados with the fondness earned by Defiant, which wrapped in 2004 after 13 years of punchy, poppy, ambitiously physical productions of Shakespeare (a 2003 Titus Andronicus, starring Larry Yando, was a gory scorcher), provocative contemporary playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane, and their own creations, such as the satiric Action Movie: The Play franchise (yes, franchise).
What's taken its place: While contemporaries like the Hypocrites and the Factory have carried the torch for '90s storefront ambition each in their own way, no current company quite matches the reliably balls-out bombast of Defiant.
European Repertory Company
What it was: Co-founded by the Bulgarian-born Yasen Peyankov, now a Steppenwolf ensemble member, and the U.K.-born Dale Gouldin, European Rep gained a fervent following in the '90s with richly acted black-box productions that applied a classical European approach to plays like Agamemnon and Uncle Vanya. The company petered out in the mid-aughts.
What's taken its place: Founded by Zeljko Djukic, a native of the former Yugoslavia, and now run by artistic director Jacqueline Stone, TUTA Theatre Chicago is the torchbearer for the style of performance favored by European Rep. TUTA even used Peyankov's 1997 translation of Vanya for its own arresting production in 2009.
Hull House Theater
What it was: The black box theater inside the Jane Addams Center Hull House at Broadway and Belmont was the stuff of legend. A converted bowling alley, the space was a key locale in the development of the off-Loop theater movement, beginning in the 1960s under the direction of Bob Sickinger. Later, the theater was home to companies like Steppenwolf, Famous Door, Bailiwick Repertory and About Face Theatre. The building was sold in 2002; it's now a gym.
What's taken its place: Two blocks south of the former Hull House, TimeLine Theatre Company makes its home in the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ's Baird Hall—another space-within-a-space that's played an important role in off-Loop theater since the 1960s, when it was host to the avant-garde Chicago City Players. Baird Hall was home to numerous small productions in the 1970s and '80s; in the '90s, Goat Island, the European Repertory Company and David Cromer's much-lauded production of Angels in America occupied the hall. If a redevelopment of Andersonville's Trumbull School includes a new home for TimeLine, as one developer has proposed, Baird Hall might nurture a new generation of theater makers.
New Leaf Theatre
What it was: For 11 years, this small company crafted intimate productions in a stately, oak-paneled auditorium in the Chicago Park District's Lincoln Park Cultural Center—a room it found ever-inventive ways of using in shows like A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia or new plays like Bilal Dardai's The Man Who Was Thursday. The company elected to dissolve in 2012.
What's taken its place: While the artistic aesthetic is a tad edgier, Jackalope Theatre Company seems to have taken the very specific mantle of "up-and-coming troupe with a quirky Park District home" after being invited to move into a long-dormant garage tucked away in CPD's Broadway Armory Park earlier this year.