Friday, March 12, 2010
History is important. Without a sense of it, we take too much for granted.
I had the privilege of listening in when the upstairs studio theatre at Victory Gardens was renamed after Richard Christiansen. The guests were a pretty impressive whos who of respected artists: Harold Ramis, John Mahoney, Deanna Dunagan, Jeffrey Sweet, Rick Cleveland, Frank Galati, and William Petersen, to name a few.
Oh, and Chris Jones was there too.
The night was charged beyond belief. The simple but overpowering respect that this theatrical community holds for Richard is nothing short of inspiring. Mr. Cleveland brought tear to many an eye with his attribution of his current success, his wife and kids and home included, to Richard believing in him.
But believe it or not, the speech that really got me thinking belonged to none other than Mr. Jones. (And after typing that, I think I will from this point forth refer to him as "Mr. Jones.")
Chicago theatre is a special entity in itself. One can go on for hours about what sets this artistic community apart from all others in moving and inspiring ways (and god knows, I have spent hours doing just that). That being said, one point has always struck me more than most others about this city and its theatre scene: the fact that damn near every show in this town (and in the surrounding areas too) gets reviewed. Not only that, these shows are reviewed with the same sensibility and consideration given to Steppenwolf, Goodman, and other "big-player" productions. There is a simple understanding that bigger is not necessarily better, and that a small show in a small venue can make waves just as large and affecting as any Steppenwolf production. This is appreciated by our critics, and thus allows for small companies to make the necessary strides to grow, develop, and attract. The beauty of press is outreach, publicity - look, more people can know that we exist now! We're here, we're a theatre, get used to it! (or something like that). And nothing helps growth like people noticing existence. And hey, if the press is good? Well, now we're cooking!
And this is where history comes in. As Mr. Jones spoke that evening, it became clear that in talking about Chicago's remarkable critical sense of storefront theatre and recognition of what that realm is capable of, one man could be identified as the point of origin: Richard Christiansen. Mr. Jones could look back, as could everyone, and see that it was Richard who started making the same effort to see the shows in the backs of bars as he did to see the big players. It was Richard who recognized the potential of a storefront scene. It was Richard who realized that size didn't matter, and that incredibly powerful theatre could happen anywhere. Most importantly, it was Richard who took all this and wrote it down in the Chicago Tribune so that everyone else could know it too.
Mr. Jones eloquently and warmly pointed out to everyone in the room the roots of this special relationship between critic and theatre in Chicago. After all, you do see Mr. Jones spending a lot of his precious time in storefronts, and suburban theatres, and writing scathing reviews of some shows while bearing his soul for productions like "Harper Regan" over at Steep. And to be fair, you so rarely see anything like this is the primary New York City publications. Why is that? Where did Mr. Jones get this idea that it is important to get out there and see the back room experiments, the mid-size productions, AND the large-scale extravaganzas? Who taught him that all of it is equally important to an artistic community.
Oh yeah. Richard did.
Richard has no idea who I am. And yet, if I could, I would tell him that I cannot express the level of gratitude that I have, the level of appreciation I feel as a direct result of these choices he made. His impact on Chicago theatre is immeasurable. Because he believed in Chicago and embraced the true variety of artistic exploits this community has to offer, we - the young and naive and overeager artists who have not yet been jaded by harsh reality - can feel like we can actually achieve our dreams.
Because of Richard, we CAN achieve our dreams.
Thank you, Richard Christiansen.