Among Chicago's Theaters, The House Is on Fire

Food Fight i i

hide captionThe House Theatre's unorthodox Nutcracker serves up a food fight involving heroine Clara (Laura Grey, center front with castmates Maria McCullough, Michael E. Smith, Vanessa Stalling, Seth Bockley and Joshua Holden).

Michael Brosilow/Courtesy The House Theatre of Chicago
Food Fight

The House Theatre's unorthodox Nutcracker serves up a food fight involving heroine Clara (Laura Grey, center front with castmates Maria McCullough, Michael E. Smith, Vanessa Stalling, Seth Bockley and Joshua Holden).

Michael Brosilow/Courtesy The House Theatre of Chicago
Nathan Allen and Carolyn Delfrin of The House Theatre i i

hide captionScrappy theater, scrappy staff: Nathan Allen has earned great reviews as artistic director of The House — but for years he drove a Chicago Trolley, talking with tourists, to earn a living. Carolyn Delfrin, star of the House production The Sparrow, likewise multitasks; she handles group-ticket orders on her cell phone.

Noah Adams, NPR
Nathan Allen and Carolyn Delfrin of The House Theatre

Scrappy theater, scrappy staff: Nathan Allen has earned great reviews as artistic director of The House — but for years he drove a Chicago Trolley, talking with tourists, to earn a living. Carolyn Delfrin, star of the House production The Sparrow, likewise multitasks; she handles group-ticket orders on her cell phone.

Noah Adams, NPR

"Chicago theater." The words fit together neatly, as they have ever since the first performance — tickets 75 cents — by the Isherwood and McKinzie Theatrical Company in 1837.

These days, Chicago is known for the prestigious Goodman Theatre, downtown in the Loop, and the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre, which started in a church basement 30 years ago and brought forth actors like Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and Joan Allen.

Newer on the block: The House Theatre of Chicago, started by a group of Southern Methodist University grads who came to Chicago six years ago. They had been offered funding in Denver, but they chose to come empty-pocketed to Chicago, simply because of the intensely competitive and supportive theater community.

The troupe's first show was at Halloween 2001: In a borrowed storefront space across from a cemetery, they premiered Death and Harry Houdini — an underground hit, a sold-out run. The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan came next, and the House was off and running, always with big shows in small places, with music and dance and battle scenes and actors flying overhead.

A detractor wrote that the House does theater for "20-somethings looking for an unsubtle night out." Artistic Director Nathan Allen doesn't agree.

"We're going for something emotional," Allen says. "And what we want is a shared Aristotelian catharsis, where you can laugh and cry at something in public with people you love — and with perfect strangers."

The Steppenwolf Theatre, as part of a program it calls its Visiting Company Initiative, invited the House folks to take over one of its smaller spaces for this holiday season, and The Nutcracker was conceived. In the House's signature style, Tchaikovsky's ballet fable becomes a dramatic comedy that begins with the death of a U.S. Marine in a faraway war. Clara's toys come alive and join her fight against the Rat King and his minions.

Now, after "Let's put on a show" and "Let's see if we can play with the big boys," the House players and staff are envisioning their Act Three. Most of them are close to 30; some are married and thinking about babies. Allen, now working with an annual budget of $500,000, thinks it's possible to professionalize, to push the budget to $3 million (in ticket sales and grants), pay actors and crew a living wage, and keep what they've started.

"It's a matter of convincing people that what they love about the House is that 150-seat theater and that $20 ticket and that experience with that young and fun, rowdy crowd," he says.

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