LOGAN SQUARE — Ground up coconut coir coats a portion of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square. It’s a soil-like medium where barefoot actors at Theater Y recite their lines in near darkness — all in preparation for a show opening this week.
The theater is located up a flight of creaky stairs in a second floor section of the church at 2649 N. Francisco Ave., one of only two dedicated theaters in Logan Square, a neighborhood with a burgeoning creative arts scene and a surprising lack of live stage venues.
While dozens of theaters stretch from downtown Chicago north along the coast of Lake Michigan, performers and theater lovers in Logan Square say the Northwest Side neighborhood is due for a revival. Theater Y and Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton Ave., are both hosting new shows in March and April but a search for options in the neighborhood yields little results.
So what gives?
The Logan Square Theater Drought
“We feel rather alone out here,” said Melissa Lorraine, artistic director at Theater Y. “That’s part of the logic of moving here. It seems crazy that there are no other theaters here and I certainly think it’s the right audience.”
“We're trying to milk that for all its worth,” she added. “I can’t claim that we have a lot of competitors.”
Stage fans have options, of course, outside of the neighborhood. Nearby Wicker Park and Bucktown house at least six theaters, while Albany Park and Irving Park boast at least four stages, according to the League of Chicago Theaters. But even a quick look at a theater map from TheaterInChicago.com shows a surprising shortage in Logan Square.
That all could change if Maria Burnham and the Strangeloop Theatre crew have their way.
“There seem to be a lot of locations that could be theaters, but for some reason no one has opened a theater [in Logan Square],” said Burnham, an actress and writer at Strangeloop. “Demographics are changing and people are now looking to move into Logan Square.”
That list includes Strangeloop, according to Burnham — the troupe would like to buy a performance space in the neighborhood but will likely settle for a residency at an established theater due to the neighborhood’s high-end prices.
But as theater venues increase in number along the Blue Line, Logan Square could be the next hotspot for a legitimate theater scene, according to Burnham.
“Just from my anecdotal evidence, I feel like I’m hearing more and more people talking about Logan Square, even if they aren’t finding a space there. They’re interested in going there and looking around to see what kind of spaces are available to do shows,” she said.
Act 1, Scene 0
Ben Thiem of the League of Chicago Theatres hesitates to say there isn’t already a theater scene in Logan Square, but his positive viewpoint of the landscape there could gain more followers in the coming months and years.
“I wouldn’t say that Logan Square is lacking a theater scene, since there are some companies producing excellent work there and many in nearby neighborhoods,” he said, noting that high rental price points are likely the biggest barrier to newcomers. Theaters “very likely will continue to develop and push northwest toward Logan Square and Avondale as those neighborhoods continue to develop.”
As for the theater spaces already based in the neighborhood, owners at Theater Y and Charnel House say they’d welcome the company.
Indicative of its name, Charnel House theater is built on the remains of what was formerly a funeral home. The venue is owned and operated by Billy Birmingham, a writer, actor and character of sorts once referred to as “a legendarily lewd figure.”
“The goal is to provide a more affordable space for people to do theater,” Birmingham said between expletives and busywork to arrange space in his building for “Gruoch, or Lady Macbeth,” which opened in March by theater company Death & Pretzels.
Birmingham, well-known in late-night theater circles, spends his days maintaining his live/work outlet Charnel House and charging low rates to host quality shows on his stage.
“We’re providing a place for new companies that are taking risks,” he said. “I’m not sure there was [a theater scene in Logan Square] before and I’m not sure there is now. But we’re starting to book more and more often.”
“I hope to see more artists come to Logan Square,” he added. “I’ve always been a cynical optimist.”
New Venues Await New Performances
For now, venues like the Charnel House, Hairpin Arts Center and the Logan Square Auditorium are being eyed by theater companies as entryways into the neighborhood.
“We host all kinds of events, from weddings to cotillions to concerts to dances to theater to wrestling to you name it,” said Logan Square Auditorium owner Saul Osacky. “Logan Square has transformed, it’s now more artsy and theater is bringing in more of the arts into the area.”
The Auditorium is open to stage show proposals, he said.
Meanwhile, Theater Y is hoping to increase its presence in the neighborhood, according to Lorraine, a Humboldt Park resident.
“We are still sort of emerging in Logan Square,” she said. “Logan Square is not off the grid but anyone who isn’t in Logan Square considers this out of the way.”
True to Lorraine’s Armenian roots, Theater Y focuses on internationally collaborative shows “central to the human experience.” The 35-member crew will host their newest show opening Thursday, entitled, "Penelope, O Penelope," a English-language translation of a play named "the best French creation of 2008."
Enter through the back alley of St. Luke’s Church and you’ll see the sign.
“I don’t know yet that we're part of the fabric of Logan Square yet, sadly, and I want that not to be the case,” she said. “We would love for other theaters to be around and collectively change the scene in Logan Square. I’m certainly not hoping those stay away. I think there’s enough of Logan Square for everyone and it would be thrilling to reinvent the night scene here.”
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