|Hey, Chicago, London Has Something Crucial To Teach You|
Originally posted: December 7, 2008
Chicago should get hip to theater-centered gathering space
LONDON—At 11 a.m., the lobbies of the National Theatre here are already filled with an eclectic array of businesspeople, students, tourists, artists and (given the times and based on some overheard conversation) the suddenly unemployed. By 4:30 p.m., an ever-expanding gaggle of high-school age students have taken over the banquets, espresso bar and theater bookstore. And a band has started to play. Later in the evening, the action has shifted to the packed-to-the-gills bar of the Royal Court Theatre, a venue in Sloane Square, the social epicenter of London’s well-born young professionals. Fueled by wine, ale and the decent chance of picking up a smart, well-dressed companion, conversation topics range from sex to Barack Obama to the Arsenal football team; from political scandals to leaking Tory members of Parliament to the horrors of Mumbai; from TV shows to holiday plans to the state of poetry.
Both the National and the Royal Court produce plays. Only a very small percentage of the people hanging out in their lobbies are actually going to that night’s show, however.
In London, arts institutions have figured out that they need to be gathering places as much—if not more—than producers of cultural events.
It is a win-win transformation. The provision of a relaxed, open, public space fills a social mission, but it also fills the coffers. The venue’s openness to people not going to the theater increases the glamor of the shows and stars whose images fill the walls. And because it’s the young who most like to hang out in bars, the creation of a trendy, see-and-be-seen spot ensures that young people are surrounded by culture. Just when they’re in the right relaxed mood.
All of this makes one wonder why Chicago is so pathetic in this crucial regard.
Not a single one of this city’s major august arts institutions is welcoming and attractive to the general public. Opera buff? Try hanging out at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and see how long you last without a ticket.
Symphony buff? Well, there is at least a store and a high-end restaurant at Symphony Center, but not much in the way of relaxed, neutral space. Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art? Buy your ticket first. There’s no reason to be at the Goodman unless you’re headed to a show. Chicago Shakespeare Theater has a pub, but it’s way at the back, inaccessible to the public, and lacking in atmosphere. Steppenwolf’s lobbies are tiny.
One could go on.
When it’s warm out, Millennium Park fills the role of eclectic cultural gathering place. It has been a resounding success for that very reason.
But on a cold winter’s night? There is no equivalent Chicago setting where one might hear a lecture, drink a glass of wine, do some studying, listen to music, make a business deal, see some art, take in a show, ponder some Chicago history. Or even pick up a like-minded person. And take ’em home for a more intimate cultural conversation.
Brian Dennehy and William Petersen are in Chicago this week. The TV star Jeffrey Donovan is doing a show. If you wanted a chance to meet them—and Dennehy and Petersen enjoy holding court in a relaxed setting in other cities—where would you go? Where could you go to soak up opera or music?
Granted, some Chicago bars have terrific relationships with culture. The Old Town Ale House has fueled Second City performers for decades. The Italian Village is symbiotic with the Lyric. Steppenwolf actors used to drink at O’Rourke’s bar, before that bar went out of business. And Petterino’s restaurant in the Loop makes some nods to the local arts scene, even if it won’t stay open late enough for a leisurely after-show drink.
But it’s a sad collection compared, say, with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where there are bars, restaurants, notable architecture and even a farmers market.
To some extent, this absence is a consequence of Chicago’s making a decision long ago not to build a centralized, Lincoln Center-like cultural institution. In many ways, that was a choice that served the city well and fostered the geographic and institutional diversity of its arts scene. But it has nonetheless left a void. It could be fixed.
If there is any theater that needs a bar, a cafe, a bookshop and a gathering place, it’s Steppenwolf, which drips with celebrity cachet. There’s space for one between the existing theater and the parking garage on Chicago’s North Side.
If the planned redevelopment of Navy Pier ever gets done, the indoor space of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater should become both vibrant and public. That would make the Pier a year-round destination. And one hopes that the opening this spring of the extended quarters of the Art Institute will create a new, lively, public space connected to Millennium Park. And on a far smaller level, the eclectic Morse Theatre in Rogers Park has already created a relaxed eat-and-drink scene, centered on live music in the restored venue.
Some will say, perhaps, that this interest in vibrant indoor arts space is a European model. But there’s scant evidence for that. For one thing, winters are colder here, making such space all the more desirable. In his book “Between Theater and Anthropology,” Richard Schechner famously referred to our need for a “warming-up” and “cooling-down” period surrounding cultural consumption. Ideally, a great cultural experience fills you with energy and excitement and the need for conversation. This shared moment is often more appealing than the actual show.
And sometimes, you don’t want to fill your night with artists. You just have a glass of wine—or meet a friend—in the same room, and remind yourself why you live in or near Chicago.
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