On a spring evening last year, shortly after Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago opened an addition with a new theater and a lounge, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was possibly the only audience member not to hit the new bar. He remained in the lobby of the Lincoln Park venue while the cast members from two of the three theaters in the complex, one director and a healthy contingent of patrons headed off to order rum-based Balm in Gileads and bourbon East of Edens while discussing the performances. Another set of showgoers filed off, drinks in hand, for a late-night one-woman show performed by actress Laurie Metcalf.
Numbering more than 200 companies, ranging from shoestring storefronts to celebrity-founded heavyweights like Steppenwolf, Chicago theater groups are developing a taste for nightlife apart from the stage. New on-site restaurants and bars keep their audiences fed and watered in-house and sometimes offer opportunities to mingle with the talent.
“We’re always talking about deeper engagement with the audience, and what better way is there than having a drink or a sandwich with them?” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theaters.
The National Theater in central London long ago set the mold for in-house entertainment with its riverside complex that includes a bookstore, a fine dining restaurant and more casual food choices. Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater has been a domestic innovator, filling its grand complex, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, with restaurants, bars and a gift shop.
Perhaps driven by relatively affordable real estate — as compared with Broadway — and many transit options that mean patrons can skip driving in favor of drinking, Chicago theaters have adopted the practice in large and small venues across the city.
Last May, Steppenwolf — whose members include John Malkovich and Gary Sinise — opened its third stage, an 80-seat black-box theater, for intimate shows ranging from dance to spoken word. The extension also houses Front Bar from the popular Boka restaurant group that operates a number of chef-driven establishments. It acts as a coffeehouse, open from 7 a.m., and serves porchetta sandwiches, arugula salads and margherita pizza slices through lunch and dinner. But it’s the central rectangular bar, ringed with stools and open until midnight, that draws pre- and post-curtain cocktail crowds, including audience members and actors.
The ensemble had long wanted a bar in its expansion plans, said Anna Shapiro, artistic director of Steppenwolf. “What the bar/cafe offers is unprogrammed interaction with people who care about art as much as we do,” she said.
Last March, seminal improv comedy company Second City opened a restaurant on its premises. The name, 1959 Restaurant & Bar, references the year in which the troupe was founded. Farm-to-table fare on the seasonal menu has included beet and burrata salads and brisket sliders, and cocktails have appeared with clever names, including the Dark Comedy, described as “Dark like your soul, refreshing like your hopes and dreams.” A golden bust of late company member Harold Ramis greets diners as they approach the bar, while circular booths, tufted couches and high-top communal tables keep the setting casual.
The dining addition was in the works for about three years, said Andrew Alexander, Second City’s executive director. It equally serves audiences and students taking improv classes.
“It’s really made it much more convenient in the winter, which as you know can be unpleasant here,” Alexander said. “It’s a chance to mingle with your comedic heroes.”
Two more acclaimed improv comedy companies, the Annoyance and iO Theater, operate adjoining bars that allow patrons to continue the revel and possibly hobnob with the talent, post-curtain.
Mingling with actors is not a new idea in a town like Chicago with so many sweat-equity theaters. Members of smaller companies like the House Theater of Chicago often chat up audiences before shows. But companion restaurants and full-fledged bars add variety to buildings that were formerly shuttered all but a few hours a night.
Second City also opened a film school in its complex last fall. As Alexander put it, “1959 gave new energy to the building.”