Newspaper Critic Shapes Chicago Style of Theater

By Fosdick, Scott | Newspaper Research Journal, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Newspaper Critic Shapes Chicago Style of Theater


Fosdick, Scott, Newspaper Research Journal


Arts reviewers who work for daily newspapers usually gain attention only when they have written something that has hurt somebody. Despite the hundreds of plays and numerous playwrights he championed when he was theater critic for the New York Times, Frank Rich will be forever known as the Butcher of Broadway. Everyone knows what happened when a critic dared to write a less than rosy notice of a recital by President Harry Truman's daughter. Ask any arts editor: The phone rings more often when the reviews are negative. "You're killing the arts in this town," producers howl.

And yet, when artists and arts organizations thrive, few credit the support of perceptive and influential critics. When things go wrong, critics are handy whipping boys (and girls). When things go right, it is, of course, the unstoppable brilliance of the artists that deserves the credit. This mode of thought works best with individual flops and hits. It is easy to blame a critic for an uncharitable review, and it would, of course, be absurd to credit the critic when an undeniable masterpiece comes along. Only when one takes a longer view is it possible to see the real benefits to a community of reviewers' work.

This study probes the influence of daily newspaper reviewers on a theater scene in which things went phenomenally right: Theater companies sprouted and flourished, artists emerged and found national success and a style of theater coalesced. Of course, the producers of that art deserve the greatest credit for their accomplishments. But if critics have it in their power to censure and prune, they must also be able to nurture.

Background

The current theatrical life of Chicago, like that of many cities in America, is a continuation of the regional theater movement that transformed the American stage in the last half of the 20th century from a system of shows traveling to and from Broadway to an environment of professional local production in some ways similar to that found in major cities 100 years ago. It is a movement with many important signposts but no official beginning. In Chicago, the pivotal event might have been the repeal of restrictive fire codes that had been in place since the tragic Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 that had killed 600. The repeal of those codes led to the founding in 1974 of three influential theaters, to be joined soon thereafter by many others. In one decade, the League of Chicago Theatres grew from 20 members to more than 150. (1)

By the mid-1980s, Chicago theater had not only grown in numbers but in national reputation. Commentators in Chicago, New York and elsewhere wrote of a style of theater that distinguished the work of Chicago artists. The Chicago Style, as it was sometimes called, was never given a completely consistent definition; most who used the term, however, referred to a physically demonstrative form of acting that found its fullest expression in highly naturalistic plays performed in intimate venues. In retrospect, the decade from 1975 to 1985 appears to have been a pivotal one. It is the decade in which Chicago truly became a regional center. For media scholars, the crucial question is the degree of influence the press exerted on the growth and style of Chicago theater in this important period. That influence naturally increased as the number of local productions rose and the number of touring productions fell. (2)

Research Questions

This decade was chosen for study because of the growth in quantity and reputation of local theatrical products in Chicago. It seemed impossibly problematic to determine with precision how much the critics had fed this growth quantitatively. This study has the more limited ambition of revealing ways in which the critical community encouraged or discouraged the manner in which it grew. Did it take the critics some time to warm to new styles offered by theater artists? …

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