Dialogue Winter 2017

The Chicago Connection

How Northwestern Innovators Have Shaped a Theatrical Movement

No force has been more influential in the emergence of Chicago as a theatrical powerhouse than Northwestern University. Alumni, faculty, and students have imagined, collaborated, and reinvented their way into helping create the most vibrant performance scene in the world. Northwestern’s innovative minds have put the Second City on top—and are inspiring the stage’s next generation of leaders.


Above, from top left: Lookingglass Theatre Company founding ensemble members (top row: Thom Cox, Eva Barr; middle row: David Catlin, Larry DiStasi, Andrew White; bottom row: David Kersnar, Joy Gregory, David Schwimmer) Below left: David Catlin

It’s a kinship built on both proximity and a shared vision. Northwestern’s theatrical programs and Chicago’s cutting-edge theatre community champion risk taking, rule breaking, and leading the charge with new artists and performance styles.

“Chicago theatre bears the imprint, perhaps the paw prints, of Wildcat alumni and faculty. All five of Chicago’s Tony Award–winning regional theatres—more than any other American city—were either founded or significantly shaped by Northwestern students and faculty,” says theatre department chair Harvey Young, author of Black Theater Is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. “Among them, Lookingglass Theatre Company and Chicago Shakespeare Theater were founded by alumni. Wildcats, first an alumna and now a faculty member, have led Steppenwolf Theatre for the past 22 years. And current Northwestern faculty members serve in the artistic leadership of Goodman Theatre.”

Of the dozens of Chicago-area theaters with Northwestern ties, these four are among the city’s most prominent cultural institutions.

Lookingglass Theatre Company:

The mission behind Lookingglass was dreamed up right on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, and the ties between the University and the company remain strong.

As a Northwestern student in the mid-1980s, David Schwimmer decided to apply a leftover $500 from his bar mitzvah toward an experimental physical theatre production of Andre Gregory’s version of Alice in Wonderland. At Schwimmer’s urging, he and six other School of Communication students came together for more than four months to produce the show on campus. The production was such a hit that the group was invited to Scotland to perform it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer of 1987.

It was while in Edinburgh, recalls founding member David Catlin (now also a lecturer in the school’s theatre department), that “we decided we wanted to continue working in this kind of process- and story-centered, collaborative, physical, and transformative style of theatre making.” And at the time, as it turned out, not many Chicago-area theaters were doing this kind of physical work—an approach that brought jaw-dropping, cinematic qualities to the stage.

The Alice in Wonderland production led directly to the founding of Lookingglass Theatre Company when a collection of Northwestern undergraduates and recent graduates held the troupe’s first official meeting in February 1988, right on campus. Catlin says the company’s Northwestern heritage continues to be heavily influential. “Our aesthetic was very much informed by our experiences at Northwestern,” he says. “The acting program acknowledges the importance of collaboration and story, all in a liberal arts context.”

Many of Lookingglass’s productions continue to include Northwestern alumni and students in various roles, from onstage to backstage to administrative staff and community and education programs. The theatre’s key principles sprang directly from the Northwestern curriculum its founders experienced as students: collaboration, the centrality of story, and the importance of a liberal arts lens.

Goodman Theatre:

The Goodman has long boasted strong ties to Northwestern, and its celebrated roster of artists currently includes Manilow Resident Director Mary Zimmerman of the performance studies faculty as well as four theatre faculty members: artistic associate Rebecca Gilman, resident artistic associate Henry Godinez (left), and creative partners Ana Kuzmanic and Todd Rosenthal.

Godinez says he strives to connect the two environments whenever possible. “I like to engage my students any time I can in my work at Goodman,” says Godinez. “One of the plays I directed on campus we then produced at Goodman the following year, and the two students who played the leads at Northwestern—and were just graduating—then understudied the leads downtown.”

Godinez also cofounded Teatro Vista (with Edward Torres) in 1990 as a way of creating opportunities for Latino artists as well as to explore the emerging work of Latino writers. Teatro Vista has grown to become Chicago’s preeminent Equity Latino theatre company.

It’s this passion for Latino arts—along with his Northwestern and Goodman ties—that has inspired Godinez to search for opportunities to link all three elements. “I’m looking to connect the city of Chicago and Goodman Theatre to extraordinary theatre makers from Latin America to create new work, with Northwestern University at the center of it all as a potential incubator and crossroads,” says Godinez. “The new horizon of opportunity for me lies in international collaborations and the development of new work.”

The Goodman’s other notable Northwestern connections include alumnus Michael Greif, who recently directed the company’s premiere of the musical War Paint—which starred two Tony Award–winning actresses and opens on Broadway this spring. The Goodman has produced plays by Rebecca Gilman and Northwestern colleague Thomas Bradshaw, and for several years lecturer Barbara Butts has served as the Goodman’s production stage manager.

“The wonderful thing about a great research university like Northwestern in a great theatre city like Chicago,” says Godinez, “is the possibility of a connection to the professional world that benefits students, faculty, and the field alike.”

Chicago Shakespeare Theater:

Chicago Shakespeare’s roots are tied solidly to the University, as founder Barbara Gaines is a Northwestern graduate. The company was born when Gaines suffered a knee injury and was looking for ways to both occupy her time and help pay some bills.

“I gathered my theatre friends and colleagues together to teach classes in Shakespeare,” she recalls. “We decided to stage our first production and soon found the perfect spot: the rooftop deck of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park. John Cordwell, the pub’s owner, said, ‘You can’t do the Battle of Agincourt on my rooftop,’ but I persisted and he allowed it.” The group opened Shakespeare’s Henry V on August 3, 1986, and with that performance, Chicago Shakespeare was born.

Since its inception CST has grown exponentially, helping spread Shakespeare throughout the city. The company’s education programs now extend to more than 40,000 students and teachers each year, introducing them to the joy of Shakespeare. CST also presents free Shakespeare performances in neighborhood parks across the city.

“I’m proud of the range of work we have taken on— musicals, fairy tales, international productions, new works— and the audiences who have joined us along this journey,” says Gaines. “And now, in our 30th season, we look to the future with the building of our third theater—the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, an innovative new space that will open the imagination.”

Gaines acknowledges her years at Northwestern—and especially her study with Professor Wallace Bacon—as the source of both her love for Shakespeare and a self-confidence that has helped her get where she is today. She is grateful to the school for instilling in her a love of community, the city, and art’s power to transform lives. Gaines wants CST to be a valuable resource for Northwestern students, whether as performance opportunities or sheer inspiration.

“We have welcomed many Northwestern students through our doors for internships across all departments, onto our staff as artists, and on our stages,” says Gaines, “and hope to continue to do so for years to come.”

Steppenwolf Theatre:

Steppenwolf artistic director Anna Shapiro is also a Northwestern professor—and her predecessor, Martha Lavey, is an alumna—so both her communities are always at the top of Shapiro’s mind. Grateful for the invaluable artistic exposure that Northwestern students can receive at Steppenwolf and other high-caliber companies, she hopes it helps inspire them to set strong goals for what their future in theatre could look like.

“There is so much rejection, and so many constraints, it’s the hope that students leave school with a strong sense of who they are as artists and a willingness to fully pursue their vision,” says Shapiro. “If we’ve done our job, our emerging students’ artistic vision will be full, and when they are afforded an opportunity to work on a larger scale, they will know how to navigate the room and work collaboratively within that structure.”

By being a part of the Steppenwolf community, Northwestern students are able to participate in a vibrant, ever evolving theatre scene. This season Steppenwolf is premiering five new plays; a major focus of the company (and a personal passion of Shapiro’s) is developing new work and fostering relationships with playwrights. Additionally, Steppenwolf is launching its LookOut series, which brings both emerging and well-known multigenre artists into Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

“I love that there’s something new happening in that space each week and that the work over the course of our expanded season better reflects a diversity of voices that is more reflective of the community we’re in,” says Shapiro. She is also quick to note that student participation in the Steppenwolf environment is just as beneficial for the company and for Northwestern’s theatre faculty as it is for students.

“If my dual position at the two institutions affords me anything, I hope that it’s an ability to expose young minds to exciting, of-the-moment work while at the same time allowing both my work and the theatre’s to be inspired by young and burgeoning artists,” she says. “The future of the theatre is in the hands of these emerging artists, and I hope that their influence on Steppenwolf is as great as or greater than our influence on them.”

- Anna Keller