Your Regional Guide To The Performing Arts

A Theater Lover’s Love Letter to Brave Spaces

A Theater Lover’s Love Letter to Brave Spaces
Photo Credit: Graphic by Andrea Klohn.

I was at a show a week or two ago where someone referred to the theater as a “safe space” in their announcement. As much as I love safe spaces and the meaning that stands behind them, in recent years I’ve found theaters as “brave spaces” to be more compelling.

They are still safe, to be sure, but the theaters are going the distance to make audiences push themselves out of their comfort zones.

Because, honestly, we don’t learn a lot by being comfortable.

Chicago storefronts are taking this idea of uncomfortable spaces and running with it. The theater here is, truly, where Chicago bares its fearless soul and where we, inevitably, grow as human beings. We watch as characters struggle with whatever life has thrown at them, we observe their struggles, pitfalls and triumphs.

We laughed and cringed in spite of ourselves at Steep Theatre’s Red Rex, we feared for the characters in New Colony’s Small World, hoped for the best for the folks in Definition Theatre’s EthiopianAmerica and felt a plethora of everything in between for characters all over the city. Whether their struggles were familiar or foreign we were there for them.

This is a city doing work regardless of a show’s perceived popular opinion. We can’t make change without making waves. Complacent theater is boring and clearly Chicago’s audiences crave that storefront edge. It’s the reason this city’s theater scene is so powerful.

Our artists are leading the charge on world changing work.

If I have learned anything in the last year of seeing the variety that storefront theater has to offer, it’s that there is an undeniable force in this Windy City and it isn’t the debate between Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s deep dish pizzas. This is a city that doesn’t rest on uncomfortable ideas. This is a city of artists ready to make you as uncomfortable as they can.

And, if you’re willing, that discomfort can help you grow.

Walking away from a show like Sideshow’s Tilikum, Broken Nose’s Plainclothes or Jackalope’s Dutch Masters should have made you eager to make change. To make the world more equitable. To make the world generally just less shitty. We don’t incite change in people by letting them be comfortable. But the magical thing about Chicago is that even when there is a discomfort happening on stage, it is still beautiful somehow. Because uncomfortable art is still art. It’s meant to be seen, heard and understood.

Most of all it’s meant to be experienced.

You are meant to feel the pain those characters feel, breathe the air they breathe and in some cases cry as they do. Theater like that is a reminder of what it is to be alive. What it is that makes mankind such a fascinating case study. Theater that makes you think and process benefits you all the more. I’d personally rather sit through six hours of emotionally draining work than thirty minutes of the same old same old.

I didn’t get into theater as a hobby or profession to be bored. I got into it to be a better person. The only way we can do that is by growing and, it should be obvious, we can’t learn if we’re always seeing the same stories played out. Give me more stories about people of color, the LGBTQIA communities, other cultures, nationalities or religions. Give me stories that challenge everything I know to be true. Give me theater that doesn’t encourage me to go out and make a change, but demands it.

Chicago, thank you for giving us these brave spaces. Thank you for giving us stories we haven’t seen a million times. Thank you for calling us out when we need it, for telling us to do better and demanding more of your community at large.

Please keep demanding more, doing more and creating more.

You won’t always get the praise you deserve for the stories that aren’t status quo. But I’ll always be cheering for you to grow.

Drumlin Ridge
Warren Barnett