Chicago’s Empty Stages

March 28, 2020 Updated: March 29, 2020

CHICAGO—A few weeks ago if one walked into a theater lobby in Chicago, one would hear the sound of people talking, laughing, and socializing in a festive mood. As patrons entered the auditorium and found their seats, one could hear the palpable silence of excited theatergoers as they looked to the stage in anticipation. Now, though, Chicago theaters are quiet, lonely, and dark places with empty stages. That new reality is the result of the pandemic caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

The Chicago theater scene has been severely challenged as theaters have had to close their doors. Some theater groups were fortunate in that their shows were near the end of their run when the governor of Illinois and Chicago’s mayor pronounced a directive that would stop crowds from coming together in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. Theaters had to postpone, reschedule, or cancel shows, and are responding by offering gift certificates, credit for future productions, or refunds.

While Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “Bug” closed with only a few days remaining, the company—which had slated “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” for April 2—decided to push the play into next year.

Steppenwolf Marquee
Steppenwolf Theatre marquee. (Steppenwolf Theatre)

The Goodman Theatre was ready to open “School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play” when, after weeks of rehearsals, it had to cancel the production. Its presentation of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” which was to open on April 10, has been delayed to April 20, according to a press release.

Broadway in Chicago, which operates the largest theaters in the Loop, reluctantly rearranged the dates for “The Bachelor Live on Stage” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre for fall, and the anticipated “My Fair Lady” was pushed back to May 12. “Once Upon a One More Time,” a musical with songs by Britney Spears, which was supposed to open April 14 at the Nederlander Theatre, has been scrapped.

Cadillac Palace
Cadillac Palace auditorium. (Broadway in Chicago)

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier shut down its last three productions of “Emma,” and the theater is crossing its fingers that it will be able to mount Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” on April 30.

empty stage chicago shakes-3
Chicago Shakespeare Stage. (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

The closings have also impacted other entertainment venues, such as The Joffrey Ballet, which put off its April 22 opening of “Don Quixote; Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria,” set for June 5, was shelved with no further plans to mount it; and Blue Man Group Chicago has suspended its performances indefinitely.

The shutdowns have also been a strain for opera lovers. The Lyric Opera performances of the Wagnerian “Ring Cycle,” planned for April 13, have been dropped, as has “Götterdämmerung.”  Anthony Freud, the Lyric’s general director, wrote: “We are, of course, heartbroken to lose the ‘Ring’ cycle. For the past six years, more than 300 artists have put their hearts and talents into the development of this event, and the excitement about bringing it to audiences from all 50 states and nearly 30 countries has been mounting since the moment the production was announced. The cycle performances themselves, and a large range of festival programming, promised to be a high point in Chicago’s cultural season.”

While theaters have been slammed hard by the closings, some remain hopeful. Nick Sandys, the artistic director of the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, wrote inspiring words to subscribers at the same time he announced the theater had not yet decided when it would present “The Agitators,” originally billed for April 30. “No matter the difficulty we face as a society, theater has always provided perspective and compassion. … So take a breath, take a moment and know that theater will return in the future.”

One Play We Could Have Benefited From

Indeed, that uplifting message mirrors the theme of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which Remy Bumppo mounted in Chicago three years ago. The comic drama by American playwright Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) premiered in 1942 as the savagery of World War II raged. It is the kind of work that in difficult times, theaters might consider reviving. But since they schedule their programs a year in advance, there was no way anyone could have predicted the CCP virus. If they had, they might have considered producing, a few months ago, the most appropriate play for our times.

skin of our teeth
“The Skin of our Teeth” playbill for Remy Bumppo’s production in 2017. (Remy Bumppo Theatre)

That’s because the Pulitzer Prize-winning work is a satirical farce that focuses on the survival of humanity in the face of overwhelming disasters. In Act 1 of the play, which is set at the dawn of the Ice Age, a father is inventing the lever, the wheel, and the alphabet. His family and the upper United States face extinction by a wall of ice smashing everything in its way as it moves in from Canada. Act 2 features a modern take on the story of Noah’s ark, in which the desperate family attempts to bring animals into a boat as they try to survive a worldwide flood. The third act takes place after a devastating war in which the family wonders whether the human race can endure catastrophic events that repeatedly threaten to wipe it out.

In a parallel to “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Beth Silverman, a Chicago theatrical agent, expressed to me the importance of standing strong and fighting against unexpected disasters when she said, “I’m confident it will come out all right in the end.” Thornton Wilder would certainly have agreed.

The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.

As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.