Richard Christiansen remembers Chicago theater

Albert Williams

Editor's note: Albert Williams is a Staff Writer and Theater Critic for The Reader of Chicago. We welcome his contribution to this issue.


ichard Christiansen has been covering Chicago theater for 40 years. "Noted for his accuracy, fairness, and reportorial style" — to quote the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre — he was there when Hull House Theater under director Bob Sickinger introduced local audiences and artists to the work of Beckett, Albee, and Pinter; when Paul Sills' freewheeling Story Theater, Stuart Gordon's outrageously imaginative Organic Theater, the gender-bending Godzilla Rainbow Troupe, the rock-and-rolling Free Theater, and Kingston Mines' '50s spoof Grease made Lincoln Avenue the off-Broadway of Chicago; when David Mamet began penning his shocking, edgy dark comedies; and when a group of actors fresh out of college got together under the name Steppenwolf. From his start at the old Chicago Daily News to his long tenure at the Chicago Tribune, he chronicled the evolution of homegrown theater from its amateur beginnings to its present world-renowned status.

Christiansen retired from the Tribune in 2002, but he's still on the beat. The project now is A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir, slated for publication by Northwestern University Press in October 2004. "It's not just about the years I've witnessed," Christiansen says. "I'm casting the net a little farther back in time — to 1837. That was the year Chicago was incorporated as a city — and the year the first legitimate theater was established here in the dining room of an abandoned inn, the Sauganash. Even I wasn't around then!"

Raised primarily in Oak Park, Christiansen majored in English at Carleton College, where he worked on the school paper and headed the student drama club. After graduating from Carleton in 1953, "I did postgraduate work at Harvard," he recalls. "But after a year I realized I didn't want to be an academic. I just did not have the scholarly bent to dig into Beowulf. I wanted to go to the movies and the theater."

Returning to Chicago, Christiansen traveled the traditional Chicago journalist's career path: "I did seven months at City News Bureau, where my companion was Mike Royko. In July of 1957, I was hired at the Chicago Daily News as a general assignment re-porter and worked the midnight shift for three or four years. It was like working in an emergency room."

Christiansen eventually moved to Features, and when publisher Marshall Field decided to launch a weekend entertainment section, Christiansen was, in his own words, "gung-ho. Field was trying to make the paper into an upper-middlebrow publication with an emphasis on the arts. He brought in [editor] Herman Kogan with a special mission of creating some kind of arts-and-entertainment initiative."

In 1963 Kogan started "Panorama," the News' weekend cultural supplement, with Christiansen as reporter, reviewer, and eventually editor. After a brief detour in the mid-1970s as editor of Chicagoan magazine, Christiansen returned to the News as critic at large until the News folded in 1978. "I was all set to segue to [the Field-owned] Sun-Times," Christiansen says. Then the Tribune called. "The Daily News ceased publication March 4, 1978 — and I joined the Tribune on March 6."

From the start, Christiansen admired the youthful, grassroots theater that was beginning to spread as an alternative to the commercial mainstream. "I'd been going to theater downtown, and so much of it was crap. To go to these little community operations and see wonderful things in these small spaces was a revelation to me." Young enough to appreciate raw, cutting-edge work, he was also "establishment" enough to persuade mainstream audiences the work was worth supporting.

Productions that linger in his mind include Steppenwolf's Balm in Gilead in the old Hull House Theater space — "the best thing I've ever seen, bar none" — and Wisdom Bridge's In the Belly of the Beast, starring William Petersen (now of TV's CSI) in an agonizing portrayal of imprisoned murderer Jack Henry Abbott. Christiansen wrote of having to pull off the Outer Drive on his way home and wipe tears from his eyes. "It became known as ‘the pull-over review,'" Christiansen says. Indeed, the term "pull-over review" came to signify any Christiansen rave.

Some critics would have tried to parlay such power into celebrity, setting themselves up as more important than the artists they cover. Christiansen's most important legacy is that he never did that; whether you agreed or disagreed with his opinions, you would never accuse him of self-aggrandizement. Chicago theater's world-class status is based in large part on its tolerance for risk and failure and its emphasis on cooperation over competition. Christiansen's writings both reflected and shaped that aesthetic, encouraging readers to appreciate new work and the long-term growth of local theater.

His recent research has taken him to the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library, and the Chicago Public Library's Harold Washington Center, where the special collections department maintains archives of numerous Chicago theaters — "not only programs and reviews but corporate papers, memos, even documents spelling out who cleaned the bathrooms when," he laughs. Another valuable resource was the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which holds the archives of Maurice Browne. "He ran the Little Theatre in the Fine Arts Building around the World War I era. I had only avague knowledge of the Little Theatre movement, or of the original Hull House Theater under Jane Addams. Now I'm finding that their stories are every bit as fascinating as Steppenwolf and the Organic."

Christiansen has also conducted "scores of personal interviews. I've been lucky to talk to people here whose memories go as far back as the 1930s — Studs Terkel, Danny Newman, Nate Davis." Of course, the inherent problem with memory is its fallibility. Christiansen has had to double-check his interviewees' facts. He's tried to be equally careful with published accounts: "You find all sorts of little errors — misspellings, wrong dates, confusion about what was on the bill at any given performance. My hope is that I don't add to the confusion."

Caxton Club members will get a preview of the book on Wednesday, September 17, when Christiansen addresses the group's first dinner program of the fall season. In his presentation — "Overtures: Bits and Pieces in Process From a History of Theater in Chicago" — he'll discuss his research and read excerpts from the manuscript. "This will be a good way for me to test the material," he says. "It'll be a pre-Broadway tryout."

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