Economic times may be tough in Chicago, but you would not know it from looking at the city’s performing arts landscape. Within the past six months, three new theatres have opened on the north side of town. This summer, a tented venue on the Chicago River will expand from a temporary playhouse to the massive new Riverfront Theater. And attendance to live shows has remained steady since the US recession first hit in 2008.

While other parts of the United States keep playing the same old tune of fine arts falling victim to a struggling economy, Chicago’s stage culture is as strong as ever. As tourists are discovering, this unique culture includes everything from plays to improv shows to live radio performances to burlesque acts to concerts, and beyond.

Chicago’s newest additions include the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, the new home of the Black Ensemble Theater, a company that has been telling African-American stories since the 1970s; Stage 773, the theatre hosting Sketchfest, the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival; UP Comedy Club, an improv comedy establishment from the people who brought you Second City, a powerhouse of American performance, having pumped out such comedic talent as Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Jim Belushi and Joan Rivers and which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year; and, the aforementioned Riverfront Theater, massive venue with seating for 2,500 and featuring summer line-up musicals this celebrating the careers of Michael Jackson, Elton John and ABBA.

Elected officials have long supported the arts in Chicago through funding and government-run arts programming. And even though the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) underwent a budget cut from $32.8 million in 2011 to $29.2 million in 2012, government officials pledge that this year’s government-run arts programming will not be affected.

DCASE spokesperson Cindy Gatziolis said this includes programming at the publicly funded DCA Storefront Theatre, a unique establishment that has provided free performance space, marketing resources, event staff, inventory and equipment to small theatre companies for more than 10 years. The DCA Theater is currently playing the Improv Play, the story of three Chicago comics trying to make it in the Windy City – an insider’s look into the world of improv comedy which includes bits of improvisation itself.

“The mayor is committed to increasing our tourism and tourism dollars,” Gatziolis said, specifying that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal is to get 50 million tourists annually by the year 2020, “[and] a lot of studies tell you that culture will draw a lot of folks from other countries…”

Those in the theatre community insist that it is Chicagoans themselves who make the city’s stage culture what it is.

“Chicago audiences are really dedicated,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the non-profit League of Chicago Theaters. “Theatre is not a luxury to them. It’s something that they do as part of their daily lives.” That is, in part, due to affordable venues, including newcomers like UP Comedy Club and the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center and mainstays including Second City and the Chase Bank Auditorium, where the popular radio quiz show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! (a comedy program featuring celebrity contestants), is taped before a live audience each week.

But it goes beyond that. “It’s in our blood,” declared Matthew Reeder, the artistic director of the BackStage Theater Company, who explained that his city has a long history of rich stage culture, due in part to Chicagoans’ working-class toughness. “People here have a way to continue to produce theatre under pretty challenging circumstances.”

Both Clapp and Reeder contend that Chicago is a more nurturing environment for artists than bigger cities like Los Angeles or New York; it is a more affordable place to live and has a more collaborative working culture. “I heard someone describe it once as the ‘Silicon Valley of theatre’,” recalled Clapp. “It’s okay to fail here and to develop and grow.”

This encouraging atmosphere, combined with loyal audiences and a supportive government, have made Chicago a world-class city for live performance. And this is why the town’s stages are also finding increasing support from out-of-town visitors.

“It’s becoming one of those places where you can’t go to Chicago and not see a show,” Clapp said. “[Our theatres] have really kind of become attractions in their own right.”

If you find yourself in Chicago this year, here are a few recommendations for shows to check out:

The Marvin Gaye Story runs11 May to 29 July at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center. The much buzzed about Marvin Gaye Story was written by Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center founder Jackie Taylor, who worked with Gaye’s second wife, Jan Gaye, to do justice to the Motown legend’s story. Previews for the production begin this Friday, and the official opening is 20 May.  

RENT is running now through 17 June at the American Theater Co. Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning musical brought the topic of young people living with HIV to the forefront of public discourse in the 1990s. Sadly, though, Larson would never see the social impact or success of his creation, as he died tragically of an aortic aneurysm the morning before the show’s off-Broadway premier. In Chicago, a talented cast of performers interprets this celebrated play at the American Theater Company, which prides itself on using theatre to answer the question, “What does it mean to be American?”

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! tickets are available (for semi-monthly tapings) beginning 21 June at the Chase Bank Auditorium. One of Chicago’s more unique performances, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is a hilarious weekly show on National Public Radio which combines improvisational humour with scripted jokes, inside the format of a quiz show about the week’s news. Tickets sell out quickly, so check the calendar  for the taping schedule; tickets for 21 June go on sale this Friday.  

Buddy Guy, with Jonny Lang plays 15 September at the Chicago Theatre. If you can catch Chicago blues phenomenon Buddy Guy when he is actually in his hometown rather than touring the world, do it. The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and owner of Buddy Guy’s Legends, one of the very best places to hear live blues in Chi-town, will be playing with blues guitarist Jonny Lang. For serious fans, today is the release of Guy’s autobiography, When I Left Home,.

The Windy City Burlesque Festival
runs 12 to 15 July at Stage 773. This edgy and artistic festival, now in its second year, harkens back to the days of showgirls, pinup models, cabaret and vaudeville. The scintillating performances features performers with suggestive stage names like Booty Garland and Vivacious Miss Audacious.