CHICAGO — I was taking a tour of the Den, a warren of performance spaces carved out of a row of former furniture and clothing stores, when one of my guides opened a door to what I felt sure was a broom closet.
Wrong! It was another performance space. Inside, crews from WildClaw Theater were preparing the tiny black box for that evening’s offering, a play called “Second Skin” that local reviews had called eerie and creepy.
Those were compliments; WildClaw’s aim is to “bring the world of horror to the stage.”
The Den, which blends seamlessly into the workaday commercial strip of North Milwaukee Avenue in the Wicker Park neighborhood here, houses a lot of companies with a lot of aims. I had come that evening to see a revival of “Caroline, or Change” by Firebrand Theater, which calls itself the world’s first professional feminist musical theater company.
But I might as easily have found myself at a historical drama or a director’s showcase or who knows what in the Den’s six other live theater spaces, which range in size from 50 to 150 seats and, in mission, from here to eternity.
Resident ensembles include Broken Nose Theater (a pay-what-you-can company seeking to “cultivate empathy”), First Floor Theater (“stories of individuals facing moments of radical change”), the Griffin Theater Company (“building bridges of understanding between generations”) and Haven Theater (“Next Generation. New Canon. Social Profit”).
Everywhere I turned there was a work in progress or a coffee bar or a clutch of chairs set up for cabaret. In case anyone should run out of things to see, a table in the lobby offered an array of handbills promoting dozens of shows elsewhere in town.
If the Den is a bit like an advent calendar, with surprises popping out from behind every door, so is the Chicago theater scene as a whole. Or that’s how it seemed to me when I visited for several days last month, sampling some of the 200 theaters in a city where 100 shows play on any given night.
Behind the biggest doors are the institutions with national reputations. At the Steppenwolf Theater Company, I caught the world premiere of Bruce Norris’s “Downstate” (through Nov. 11) in a stellar production only a long-established ensemble could mount. At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, nicknamed Chicago Shakes, I saw the American premiere of Jessica Swale’s delightful “Nell Gwynn” (through Nov. 4), a lavish romp about the Restoration era trollop-turned-actress-turned-royal-consort. The production, at the theater’s recently expanded Navy Pier facility, looks like it cost a fortune in costumes alone.
At the Goodman Theater, the granddaddy of the Chicago scene, I could also have caught “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” by David Cale, had I not run out of time myself. (I’d loved Mr. Cale’s play “Harry Clarke” in New York last year.) And nearby, in the downtown Loop district, the marquees of a post-Broadway “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and a pre-Broadway “Tootsie” eyed each other down West Randolph Street.
But for a New Yorker, the real surprise was to be found in the far-flung spaces — like the Den — that make up Chicago’s “storefront” theater movement. Especially in the northern part of the city, these theaters have colonized churches and renovated restaurants and turned showrooms into show rooms. Some house an audience of hundreds, some just a handful.
It was the clash of small and large that created the most excitement for me. Often, as with “Caroline, or Change” (through Oct. 28), that clash occurred within a single production.
As you would expect from a musical with a book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, “Caroline” is thematically ambitious, dramatizing an enormous range of ideas in the story of a black maid working for a Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963. It has a cast of 16 and a wonderfully complex, nearly sung-through score by Jeanine Tesori.
But Firebrand is a new endeavor; “Caroline,” directed by Lili-Anne Brown, is its third outing. (For the ambitious production, it partnered with Timeline Theater Company, which presents stories “inspired by history” and provided the informative lobby display here.)
The cast includes just one Equity member — Rashada Dawan as Caroline — and a band of five. (On Broadway in 2004, 11 players were kept more than busy in the pit.) When the curtain was delayed by 30 minutes because the soundboard software had self-destructed, I began to quail.
I needn’t have. This “Caroline Unplugged” — as Harmony France, Firebrand’s artistic director, called it in a preshow announcement — came across with full force, in part because of the scale that at first seemed an impediment. Even without amplification, when Ms. Dawan sang you backed up in your seat.
And so I found Caroline’s monumental dourness, no less than the clueless attempts of the Gellman family to get around it, as heartbreaking as ever.
Only later did I understand that the specific missions of storefront theaters like Firebrand, as well as their generally small spaces, are crucial to maintaining this ecosystem. Actors want to work on material that matters to them — and they want to do so for like-minded audiences. Idealism and sacrifice on all sides keeps the prices down and the work vibrant.
Red Tape Theater, which performs in a former Lincoln Square children’s shoe store and recreational space called the Ready, takes that idea to its logical extreme. It’s a free theater, which is to say there is no charge for tickets. Really.
As its artistic director, Max Truax, explained, Red Tape instead finances its productions by asking donors, who may or may not be audience members, to make monthly contributions of any amount toward the theater’s budget. The average is $14 but some give as little as $5.
The result, when I went there to see Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment” (through Oct. 13), was a full and admirably diverse house of 60 — and a long waiting list.
Red Tape’s mission, aside from making theater available to everyone, is to produce works exactly like “The Shipment,” which is avant-garde, political and — as staged here by Wardell Julius Clark — immersive. It’s also, in Ms. Lee’s typical manner, deliberately cringe-worthy. It opens with the all-black cast performing a minstrel show and moves on from there. By dialing up the humor as much as possible, Mr. Clark also dials up the discomfort.
“The Shipment” has to be executed by actors who are truly committed to its outré style or it falls apart. It was evident to me that this cast relished the opportunity to dig into difficult material without having to worry about drawing a broad audience.
But they and the other artists in the storefront theater movement do pay a price, even if the audience doesn’t. The Red Tape staff, including Mr. Truax, are all volunteers.
And as Sydney Charles, the associate director of “The Shipment,” told me, rehearsals generally have to be scheduled in the evenings and on weekends because people involved in storefront productions can’t possibly live off their art. A sign of real career progress for Chicago theater folk, she added ruefully, is when they can cut back from two day jobs to one.
If this creates a tension between passion and professionalism, it’s a tension that has clearly been useful to the Chicago theater scene. It keeps the compost churning. That means a lot of dying off, of course. Often for reasons of debt or exhaustion — or, in the case of the prominent Profile Theater, accusations of abuse against the artistic director — the companies collapse.
But it bears noting that at other times they thrive and evolve. Most of the big theaters started as storefronts: Steppenwolf in a Unitarian church in the suburbs, Chicago Shakes on the roof of a pub. They offer a lesson other cities could learn from: A healthy theatrical ecosystem starts from the ground up.
Follow Jesse Green on Twitter: @JesseKGreen.