“All the world’s a stage,” especially here in the neighborhood

By Patrick Butler

Almost 400 years to the day since the death of Shakespeare, it seems “all the world’s a stage,” at least in the Ravenswood/Northcenter/AlbanyPark/Lincoln Square areas, which boasts a dozen or more neighborhood theaters ranging from tiny storefronts like the Cornservatory to the iconic Black Theater Ensemble.

blackensembleFounded 40 years ago by Cabrini-Green raised Jackie Taylor, the BTE’s imposing $20 million Cultural Center at 4450 N. Clark officially opened in November, 2011.  The facility includes a 299-seat main theater, 14 offices, classrooms, rehearsal hall, dance studio, scene and costume shops, seven dressing rooms, and an indoor parking garage.

A performer as well as a writer and director, Taylor has appeared in several major films, including “Cooley High,” “Barbershop 2,” “The Father Clements Story,” and “To Sir With Love.”

But the prolific Ms. Taylor hasn’t been sitting on her laurels. She wrote most of this spring’s plays including “Don’t Make Me Over,” running through May 15; “The Marvin Gaye Story,” running June 4-July 10; “The Jackie Wilson Story,” July 30-Sept 4; “I Am Who I Am”, Sept. 24-Oct. 30; and “The Other Cinderella” Nov. 26-Jan. 8, 2017.

At one point or another, Taylor has taught at every grade level from kindergarten through university, serves as president of the African-American Arts Alliance, and was named Producer of the Year by the Naional Black Theater Festival.

Always keeping things in perspective, however, Jackie Taylor considers raising her daughter Tynea Wright and niece Lexus Dunbar to be her greatest achievements, followed by grandson Tayden McGowan, who carried on the family tradition by winning a Grammy Award.

cornservatoryFounded in 1992 in Bucktown where Robert Bouwman  (this is correct spelling) and Todd Schaner got free rent in an upstairs room in Danny’s Tavern on Monday nights, Corn Productions found a permanent home seven years later in a onetime go-go joint at 4210 N. Lincoln.

Immediately moving from drag shows to one-act plays to hot-button topics like religion, the Cornservatory soon harvested a new crop of converts with its trilogy, “The Passion Follies,” which included a segment on “Jesus: The Wonder Years.”

Starting in 2000, the Cornservatory’s audience really sank its teeth into “Floss,” a true Saturday night special for more than seven years.  Later, “The Bad Seed – The Musical” got a Jeff Recommendation and won three After Dark Awards.

Still reveling in its iconoclassim, the theater’s Cornservators came up with “Drink!”, a sketch comedy/drinking game built around parodies of popular movies and TV shows, like “The Godfather” and “Star Wars” and even audience participation productions like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

proptheaterA few miles away,  the 35-year-old Prop Theater at 3402-04 N. Elston, has probably become best known as the home of the “Beast Women,” described by one of the troupe’s spokeswoman as “an all-female variety revue aimed at showcasing the best female talent in Chicago, ranging from dance and poetry to drama and burlesque.

“This is not your typical show,” she added.

Among the other un-typical shows that have turned up at the Prop are several editions of the “Catzilla!,” a feline circus featuring real cats benefitting Harmony House, a North Side cat shelter.

Prop Theater’s more than 80 productions have included “Slaughter City,” a look at labor conditions on the kill floor in the early 1900s stockyards and “Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert,” about illegal crossings by Latin American women looking for work in the U.S.

windycityplayhouseNor is it surprising that the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park, would also be moving in its own direction. After all, it was founded in 1986 by architect John Morris, who designed the current Steppenwolf and Raven theaters to be both comfortable for the performers and “approachable” for audiences.

And at least two other local theaters – Links Hall and the Bughouse – are named for earlier radical hangouts.  Links was once the Wrigleyville home of the Industrial Workers of the World and Bughouse Square at Clark and Walton was Chicago’s best- known open-air market for revolutionary ideas.

Today’s Links Hall at 3111 N. Western shares that nonconformist tradition as what the dance theater/studio founded in 1978 by three “experimental choreographers” describes as an “artistic incubator and launch pad” with residency programs for performers “in all stages of their careers.”

For some of these local venues, like the Bughouse Theater at 1910 W. Irving Park, the goal is primarily to give back to the community.

hogwashThe Bughouse describes itself as “a collection of artists, actors, writers and filmmakers” that takes its name from the storied hangout for rabble-rousers of all sorts.

“You name it, we might do it.  The Bughose Theater is focused on giving back, working collaboratively with philanthropic organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository,” the theater’s website noted.  “A project we hold dear to our funny bone, Hogwash, inspires city kids and teens to express themselves through comedic improvisation.”

For details on the Hogwash programs, e-mail hogwash@bughousetheater.com.

For the artists, “we provide a stage, host plays, improv sketch and stand up comedy and music, and will listen to your ideas for anything you want to put on stage,” the Bughouse promised.  For details, e-mail bughouse@bughousetheater.com.

atcAlso in the proletarian tradition is the American Theater Company (founded in 1985 as the American Blues Theater), 1909 W. Byron.  Billing itself as a “working class” company, ATC turned a North Center warehouse into a 100-seat theater and community center that hosted Chamber of Commerce meetings and other community events, while producing a variety of productions ranging from “On the Waterfront” and “Stalag 17”, which won five Joseph Jefferson awards to the world premiere of “The Flight of the Phoenix” which won two more.

More than just a theater, the ATC reaches out with mentorship and apprenticeship programs for students in underserved public school students.

Not to be forgotten are several other small houses like the Halcyon, 3255 W. Wilson Ave.; and the Bohemian Theater Ensemble, which performs at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, and Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont.

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