Russ Tutterow Fresh Twists: At Chicago Dramatists, He Offers a Novel Approach to New-Play Development-Actually Producing New Works
Reid, Kerry, American Theatre
ON AN OVERCAST SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN October, a small crowd gathers in the intimate lobby of Chicago Dramatists, awaiting the start of the company's weekly Saturday Series staged reading of a new work-in-progress. There isn't a celebrity in sight, which normally wouldn't be unusual for this modest 78-seat house in the city's River West neighborhood. But the playwright featured this day happens to have penned the highest-grossing non-musical play on Broadway last year.
That writer, Keith Huff, isn't talking about grosses or movie deals for A Steady Rain, however. He's here instead to do what hundreds of playwrights have done since Chicago Dramatists started up 30 years ago--get an airing for his work under the watchful guidance of artistic director Russ Tutterow.
Now in his fifties, Tutterow has the sort of calm and genial presence that inspires the adjective "Buddha-like" in those who describe him. He has been working in Chicago theatre since the 1970s, when he earned an M.A. in theatre at Northwestern University and worked with many small companies in the city's then nascent storefront scene. He premiered and directed the very first outing of Huff's twohander at Dramatists in the fall of 2007, but his associations with the playwright stretch back to those earlier decades. It was Tutterow who staged the first full production at this play-development outfit back in 1982; he has been artistic director since 1986; and he can be found almost every sixth day of the week skillfully handling audience-feedback sessions that follow the Saturday Series, which is itself a cornerstone of the Dramatists mission.
Chicago Dramatists is that rare institution in American not-for-profit theatre that exists to both develop and produce new work. The shows in its annual three-play season mostly come from the company's 43 resident playwrights, most of whom live in town and who apply for membership in the program, which gives them access to all of the theatre's development opportunities for three years at no charge. Nearly 200 writers from around the country are considered "network playwrights," which means that, for a membership fee, they can access a smaller array of services, including consideration for the Saturday Series and other developmental efforts. Network playwrights sometimes get full productions, too. Jade Heart, by network playwright Will Cooper, opens in late April. And though the number of productions that Dramatists can fully produce each year is small, the plays that have been developed here and premiered elsewhere number in the hundreds. (Information about most of them is accessible online through the Chicago Dramatists play catalog.)
A Steady Rata may he the biggest show associated with Dramatists at the moment, and neither Tutterow nor managing director Brian Loevner is naive about what that publicity potentially means for the company in terms of expanding its national profile and its budget, which currently stands at $500,000--double where it was five years ago. Dramatists doesn't have subsidiary rights for the Broadway run, but in a trademark Tutterow understatement, the artistic director notes that the number of calls he's fielding "have definitely spiked. We're getting calls from people we hadn't known before, including some commercial producers."
But changing the way the work is developed at Dramatists isn't on the table for Tutterow or Loevner. As the latter notes, "Seventy percent of the time we're developing, and 30 percent we're producing. 'That's backwards compared to most theatres."
Tutterow points out that full production was always part of the Chicago Dramatists mission. (The organization started as a writers' collective in 1979, but none of the original members are still associated with the group.) "When we started, a local playwright couldn't get produced in Chicago," he says. "This is a playwrights' workshop and a producing theatre. …