(pictured: Route 66 Theatre Company’s namesake highway begins at Michigan and Adams in the Loop.)
by Noreen Heron
“What’s in a name?” mused Shakespeare. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I’m always fascinated on how both people and institutions get their names. Can you imagine the Goodman being called the Kenneth? Black Ensemble Theater called the Taylor Theatre? The Royal George Theatre the Faubion Playhouse? It could have happened. Here is a brief roundup on how some of our Chicagoland theater companies got their monikers.
About Face Theatre
The decision to go with About Face was for twofold: it was an “about face” from the LGBT plays that were popular at the time that had a lot of nudity and very little substance. But it was also about saving face. AFT sprung up during a time when visibility was at the front of the LGBT movement and it represented to the decision to show a deeper expression of the lives, histories and issues of the LGBT community.
AstonRep Theatre Company
AstonRep Theatre Company’s name is derived from a few different sources. It originally was a carryover from the Artistic Director’s previous film production company, Astonfilms, a derivative from the ash tree and what it symbolizes – “With greater attainment, the more we need to stay grounded.” Additionally, they hope to one day develop programming into a repertory schedule of plays, hence, AstonRep.
Black Button Eyes Productions
Black Button Eyes Productions is named after their inaugural production, the Midwest Premiere of the musical Coraline, adapted from the Neil Gaiman fantasy story of the same name. The play is about a girl who discovers a magic door, and they kept the moniker since then as it reminds them to keep looking for stories where the fantastical and surreal invade the mundane world.
Black Ensemble Theater
Black Ensemble Theater was founded by actress, producer, and playwright Jackie Tayler in 1976. The theater was named in homage to the famous Negro Ensemble in New York.
Broken Nose Theatre
Broken Nose Theatre takes its name from a quote by Nelson Algren about Chicago. Algren wrote, “Yet once you’ve come to be a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” In addition to being a spot-on quote about Chicago, the name captures the uniqueness, tenacity, and authenticity of the art that is made and the process gone through to create it. The Chicago theater community is not only broad, diverse, and talented, but also scrappy, driven, real, and not afraid to get its hands dirty if it makes for a better story. The name is an homage to everything the theater company loves about this town and the artists and audiences who make a life here.
Cadillac Palace Theatre
Founded in 1926, The Palace Theatre was named after its planned lush “palace” interior. Designed by legendary theater architects, the Rapp Brothers, the theater’s interior was inspired by the palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles, hence the name Palace Theatre.
Chicago Children’s Theatre
Co-founded by Jacqueline Russell and Todd Leeland, Chicago Children’s Theatre was given its name after the two co-founders realized that there was a lack of Chicago theater dedicated exclusively to providing high-quality, professional year-round children’s programming. The theater was created to provide Chicago with a place to enrich the community through diverse and significant theatrical and educational programming that engages and inspires the child in everyone.
Chicago Folks Operetta
Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly founded Chicago Folks Operetta in 2006. The origin of the name is based on a play on the name of the Wiener Volks Oper (Viennese People (folks) Opera), which is the operetta (light opera) house in Vienna. Chicago Folks Operetta is one of two companies in the United States that specifically focuses on premiering rarely heard Viennese and American operettas that are no longer in popular circulation.
Cock and Bull Theatre
Founded by Chris Garcia Peak in 2008, Cock and Bull refers to a “Cock and Bull story” or a fabricated story meant to deceive or amuse. The theater was named from a suggestion by the founder’s actor friend in London who suggested, “Axe to Grind, Hung, Drawn and Quartered, Fanny Adams Theatre, or maybe Cock and Bull Theatre.”
In 1955, a passionate group of theatre lovers founded an outdoor theater dedicated to classic plays at the University of Chicago. Performing every summer in the University’s idyllic Hutchinson Courtyard, the dream of those founders was to bring together artists, scholars, students, and community members to produce captivating theater at the University of Chicago. Court was named for the landmark that served as its first theatre.
Firebrand Theatre Company
When Harmony France and Danni Smith were brainstorming a name, they knew that they wanted a moniker based on a strong woman from history, and began thinking of the Trojan prophetess, Cassandra of Troy, from a favorite feminist historical fiction book by Marion Zimmer Bradley called “Firebrand.” A “firebrand” (is) – “a person who is passionate about a particular cause, typically inciting change and taking radical action”, and they found it a perfect name for Chicago’s first feminist musical theatre company.
First Folio Theatre
Originally named First Folio Shakespeare Festival, the company was renamed First Folio Theatre after expanding to year-round programming in 2004. The name was chosen first to reflect the importance of the First Folio, which is the first printing of Shakespeare’s complete works, published in 1623. Without the First Folio having been printed, we would have lost over half of all of Shakespeare’s plays, because those plays have never been found in any other source. The name is also indicative of David Rice/Alison Veseley’s approach to Shakespeare’s text in rehearsals. The theater approaches every Shakespeare play by using the Folio Method, which emphasizes going back to look at the original texts (as opposed it to the edited texts) and analyzing all of the clues/instructions Shakespeare gave his own acting company in the spelling, punctuation, capitalization, rhythms, word order, etc. All of those clues help an actor discover possible acting choices by revealing Shakespeare’s intentions.
Originally named The Kenneth Sawyer Goodman Memorial Theatre, Goodman Theatre was named after Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, who was instrumental in the formation of early twentieth-century Chicago’s Little Theatre movement. After his death in 1918 from influenza while serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, William Owen and Erna Sawyer Goodman gifted The Kenneth Sawyer Goodman Memorial Theatre to the Art Institute in honor of their son.
Halcyon Theatre started from the desire of spouses Jenn and Tony Adams to fill a void in their working life. Both were running companies of their own, but decided that they wanted to start a theater company together. They wanted the name to represent them and their passion for perusing truthful art. In Greek mythology, the goddess Halcyon (Alcyone in Greek) is the daughter of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds. The story is one of devoted love between Halcyon and her mortal husband, King Ceyx of Tachis. Ceyx drowns on a mission to consult an oracle but the moment Halcyon tries to throw herself into the sea to be with him, the gods transform her into a seabird. From the sky, she cares for her chicks and connects them with the mainland by providing food. While Halcyon is brooding, the sea is calm. This time is known as the Halcyon days. The mission Jenn and Tony have set for the theater is one of racial inclusion and industry transformation. The two started Halcyon to work on bringing women and people of color into the light (both on stage and off) in hopes of helping Chicago soar.
Originally named ImprovOlympic by David Shepherd, who wanted to create a sport/theater type event to pay homage to the Greeks who shared their sports theater and dance on Mt Olympus – i.e. the Olympics – the name was eventually changed to iO after Bud Freeman, the owner of The Improv, claimed he owned the word “improv” and after the international Olympic Committee threatened to sue over their trademark on the word “Olympic”. Reluctantly, ImprovOlympic was eventually renamed iO, which was its common abbreviation among Chicago improv artists.
Light Opera Works
Evanston’s Light Opera Works was founded in 1980 by three colleagues who had known each other as students at Northwestern University. Originally performing light opera and operetta, the company expanded its programming during 35 years to include Broadway musicals, and will announce a new company name on April 16, to reflect the diversity of its repertoire.
Legendary theater impresario Tony DeSantis purchased the land that Marriott Theatre sits on for his theater “Drury Lane North Theatre”. The theater ran with that moniker for many years, until Marriott corporation identified the surrounding area to the theater as an ideal place to build a hotel. DeSantis became the landlord to Marriott and the Marriott Theatre was born.
Mercury Theater Chicago
Michael Cullen was enamored with the reputation and legacy of the Mercury Theatre, which was an independent repertory company founded in New York City in 1937 by Orson Welles and producer John Houseman. The company produced theatrical presentations, radio programs and motion pictures. After a series of acclaimed Broadway productions, the Mercury Theatre progressed into its most popular incarnation as The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The radio series included one of the most notable and infamous radio broadcasts of all time, “The War of the Worlds“, broadcast October 30, 1938. The Mercury Theatre on the Air produced live radio dramas in 1938–1940 and again briefly in 1946.
New American Folk Theatre
The New American Folk Theatre’s mission is to tell the American story using the resources available to the company. Using the concept of folk art, they decided to go with The American Folk Theatre, until they learned that there had already been a company with the name. So the decision was made to use an old folk tradition of updating names, like the New Christy Minstrels.
Originally named Evanston Theatre Company when it was founded in 1974, on May 1, 1978, it was officially renamed North Light Repertory, Inc. The change came from the result of a marketing survey which determined that the Evanston name led to confusion about the professional status of the theater, associating the company with amateur community theater groups, many of which were also located in the North Shore area. The new name was used to communicate the regional professional status of the theater, and to communicate the artistic passion of the company. Greg Kandel, then the producing director and one of Northlight’s founders, said of the new name: “The north light is traditionally the artist’s light; the purest light in which to create a work of art. Furthermore, our artistic thrust has always been toward contemporary plays which in some way enlighten.” Later in the 1980s, the name was adapted to the current Northlight Theatre.
Founded in 1926, Chicago’s Oriental Theatre was named after its interior. The theatre, a virtual museum of Asian art, was one of the first motion picture palaces whose Oriental décor was inspired by the Far East. Inside the theatre, turbaned ushers led patrons from the lobby, with polychrome figures and large mosaics of an Indian prince and princess, through an inner foyer with elephant-throne chairs and multicolored glazed Buddhas, to the auditorium’s “hasheesh-dream décor.”
Formally known as The Venetian, Paramount was named after Paramount-Famous-Lasky Corporation, who bought the theatre prior to construction in 1931.
Porchlight Music Theatre
Porchlight was named by Jill Moore who loved childhood experiences of telling stories while sitting on her porch under the porchlight.
Pride Films and Plays
David Zak, the Artistic Director of the defunct Bailiwick Repertory Company, estimates he had to spell the name Bailiwick “4 million times over 27 years,” so when he created Pride Films and Plays he kept it simple, making it clear he presents LGBTQ+ films and plays.
Route 66 Theatre
Stef Tovar was a member of American Theater Company in 2008 and was told he could bring a production of the play ON AN AVERAGE DAY from Los Angeles, where it was a sold-out hit, to Chicago–for the summer slot at ATC. When the offer was suddenly rescinded, Stef was left with nowhere to produce the play. Stef decided to form his own company and produce himself–to honor his commitment to the artists involved. Tovar had a eureka moment where he realized that Route 66 was the obvious choice, as it’s the road that connects Chicago to Los Angeles
Royal George Theatre
Real estate Developer Royal Faubion built the theater and called it the Royal George after he and his girlfriend’s names, Royal and Georgia.
Sideshow Theatre Company
One evening, after weeks of founding members trying to come up with a name for the company, company members were sitting around drinking a bottle of wine. They took a closer look at the label: Sideshow Wine. Sideshow feels that they avoid the center ring and focus on the off-center human oddities – but the original inspiration came from a group of 20–somethings and the cheapest bottle of wine they could find at a local Jewel.
After taking over Theatre Building Chicago in 2010, Brian Posen renamed the venue “Stage 773” because it encompassed the essence of what the property was all about: Stage, because the venue is a live performance venue, and 773, which is the area code of the North Side. The tagline was “connecting Chicago theater” which ties into the “773”. Taken from an image of an old-time operator plugging her old time phone operating board, Stage 773’s mission was to connect all the Chicago artists and audiences under one roof. “Stage 773: Connecting Chicago Theater.”
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Founded by Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and Gary Sinise in 1974, Steppenwolf was named after the book Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, which Rick Argosh – a former high school classmate of Gary Sinise – was reading at the time.
Teatro Vista (Theatre With A View) originated from founders’ Henry Godinez and Edward Torres’ desire to bring a new perspective or “view” to Chicago theater. The founders wanted to open a window that would show the richness of Latino theater and culture and at the same time demonstrate that Latino theater artists are as capable, skilled and talented as those from any other background.
The Arc Theatre
The Arc Theatre was inspired by the word “archetype”, and the theater company seeks to engage and inspire a diverse and modern audience in a uniquely personal way by unlocking the archetypal origin of stories and characters that are, by their nature, germane to all humankind.
Fr. George Thomas was the pastor of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in the early 1900s. He envisioned a multi-purpose social and recreation center to serve the many needs of the expanding parish. He took the name from the Latin word Athenaeum, which was a school in ancient Rome for the study of arts, from Greek Athēnaion, a temple of Athena, from Athēnē. In its initial years, the Athenaeum provided St. Alphonsus parishioners with a variety of services, from meeting rooms to a library to a gymnasium, music, billiard, card rooms and 4 bowling alleys. From 1926 to 1939, The Sisters of Notre Dame ran a girls’ commercial high school on the second floor. After a devastating fire destroyed the 2nd floor and attic, the Athenaeum rebuilt and added the third floor. The school expanded into this space and ceased operations in 1966.
The Civic Opera House
The Civic Opera House, the permanent home of Lyric Opera of Chicago, was the brainchild of utilities tycoon Samuel Insull, who had a lifelong enthusiasm for opera. He was president of the Chicago Opera Association, which in 1922 changed its name to Chicago Civic Opera. Insull wanted the company to perform in its own theater, housed in and supported by a commercial office building. The dictionary definition of the word “civic” is “Of, relating to, or belonging to a city” — and Insull wanted an opera house that truly welcomed and served the city and its people.
The Gift Theatre
Conceived by Michael Patrick Thornton and William Nedved in 1997, the idea for The Gift was to grow and nature an ensemble that lays roots in an artistically underserved Chicago neighborhood. The name of the theatre came from Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards A Poor Theatre: “Acting is a particularly thankless art. It dies with the actor. Nothing survives him but the reviews, which do not usually do him justice anyway, whether he is good or bad. So the only source of satisfaction left to him is the audience’s reactions. The actor, in this special process of discipline and self-sacrifice, self-penetration and molding, is not afraid to go beyond all normally acceptable limits…The actor makes a total gift of himself.”
The House Theatre of Chicago
The House Theatre of Chicago is named for the space that the audience and artists share at the theatre. Nathan Allen and the other founding company members were eager to arrive in Chicago in that great ensemble tradition, established by Steppenwolf & Lookingglass, etc., hence the “of Chicago”.
In Greek, the word “hypocrite” means “actor,” or someone who pretends to be what they are not. However, the company’s name is actually inspired by the idea that a person cannot be held to a single ideology. From its inception, Hypocrites has explored different styles, combining the commonly antithetical ideas of comedy and tragedy.
Founded by Chicago comedian Kelsie Huff in 2008, the kates was named after a small, independently run bookstore in Uptown called Kate the Great’s Book Emporium, where the all-female comedy showcase began performing. When the bookstore shut its doors, Huff took the name “the kates” to honor the first place that believed in the all-female comedy showcase’s vision.
The Other Theatre Company
The Other Theatre Company’s name came directly from their mission statement – a collective of artists committed to telling the stories of those who are othered by systems of oppression. The tricky part is that the word “other” could literally refer to everyone. They define othering in the following ways: Othering individuals or groups sustains power and privilege. Othering inherently implies hierarchy. Othering keeps the power in the hands of those who already have it. Othering is an “us” vs. “them” mentality often centered on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, identity, class, religion, and ability.
Underscore Theatre Company
Underscore Theatre Company got its name from a series of discussions among founding members about why they believed that the combination of music and theatre works so effectively in telling moving and original stories. In talking about the role of music in storytelling, they kept coming back to one idea: that the music literally underscores, or adds emphasis to, the dramatic events, cutting to the heart of the emotions involved. The fact that an underscore is a musical term as well, and that they love puns, cemented the deal.
Victory Gardens Theater
The original mission of Victory Gardens was to develop home grown Chicago Theater and talent, so the name was derived from the image of a garden – a vegetable garden like those that provided food during WWII.
Windy City Playhouse
Windy City Playhouse wanted to incorporate a sense of play and joy in the name, as well as to stand out from the crowd of companies with “theater” attached. At the same time, the name needed to be all-inclusive of Chicago and the greater Chicago area, so by using “Windy City”, a common and beloved nickname for Chicago, they felt the name achieved the goal.
Writers Theatre is dedicated to the word and the artist. The theatre values the written word as the source of inspiration for all artistic choices and its productions are therefore about respecting the word of the playwright and giving its artists a supportive environment in which to explore those words. The theatre strives to remove any distraction between the audience and the art so that the two can come together in the most cathartic way possible.
Special thanks to Bridgette Potratz for her assistance on this article.