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The exterior of a theater in Chicago. The building is red and there is black and white sign that reads: Victory Gardens Biograph.
Victory Gardens Theater
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11 storefront theaters that brought arts into Chicago neighborhoods

These neighborhood theaters are worth the ticket price

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Victory Gardens Theater
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Up until the mid-20th century, going to the theater in Chicago meant going downtown. Browse the archives of the Tribune or the entertainment listings in The Chicagoan (our Jazz Age knock off of The New Yorker) and you’ll find advertisements for touring shows playing large, traditionally styled Loop theaters on Clark Street, Dearborn Avenue or Randolph Street. Some of those old proscenium houses have survived: the Nederlander, the Auditorium, the Chicago Theatre. And, the modern Goodman Theatre stretches out behind the preserved facades of the old Harris and Selwyn theaters.

Most of the shows at those venues 80 to 100 years ago were productions sent through by producers from New York. But as Chicagoans began to turn toward developing a theater of its own, we looked to establish footholds in neighborhoods where people actually lived. The “Off-Loop theater movement” that evolved through the ’60s and ’70s was game to produce shows wherever they could find an audience. Sometimes that meant retrofitting defunct movie houses for live performance; sometimes it meant commandeering any empty storefront or basement that was available and declaring it a theater.

Many of the proverbial old barns that have inspired can-do artists to say “let’s put on a show” over the last half-century have been razed, or turned into condos or liquor stores or climbing gyms. Others have survived, and some are still just getting started. The locations on this list are here for hidden quirks of architectural significance; some made it out of sheer perseverance. But all of the theaters demonstrate the arts as a staple of Chicago’s civic diet.

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1. Factory Theater

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1621 Howard St
Chicago, IL 60626

When you visit the Factory Theater’s 80-seat storefront at the city’s northern edge, you walk in through the facade of what was once a 1,600-seat movie palace. The Howard Theatre dated to 1917, designed by Henry L. Newhouse of Newhouse & Bernham. Newhouse was responsible for several Chicago movie houses of the day, but few if any have survived.

The Howard held on as a movie theater until 1975. A 1978 Chicago Tribune article detailed the efforts by architect Ed Noonan and real-estate broker Sam Sherwin, who had bought up the shuttered theater and several nearby properties, to restore and revamp the block for a new era. But skittish bankers and scores of building code violations stood in their way at the time; the Tribune’s pessimistic headline read “Curtain may not rise on new use for theater.”

The copy editor who wrote those words was prescient. The Howard sat unused for another two decades before action came, as described in a 1999 Tribune article: “In recent years, several developers have attempted to take on the dilapidated red brick and terra cotta structure, built in 1917 and in disrepair for the last 25 years.” The 1999 developer was willing to take the step others had spent a quarter of a century trying to avoid: demolishing the movie theater’s auditorium, which is now a parking lot. But they preserved the facade, with its sculpted comedy and tragedy masks and the “Howard Theatre” name emblazoned above the archway. At least the Factory, which moved in in 2016, has brought entertainment back to the address.

2. Lifeline Theatre

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6912 N Glenwood Ave
Chicago, IL 60626

Since 1985, Lifeline has been a theater dedicated to original literary adaptations and made its home in a converted ComEd substation in Rogers Park. The building, on the west side of Glenwood Avenue, which is split down the middle by the CTA Red and Purple Line tracks, isn’t a natural fit for a theater. Tall of height but smallish of footprint, with a blank red brick facade butting up against the sidewalk, it’s neither particularly welcoming nor technically well suited.

But Lifeline, which moved in as a renter before buying the building six years later, in 1991, turned it into a destination, shaping the theater’s productions around the limitations of the space. Given the high ceiling, the company installed stadium-style risers for 95 seats; the stage area in front of the seats is relatively small, with no wings or fly system to move set pieces on and off, but scenic designers can build tall, two- and three-level unit sets.

From the beginning, Lifeline made a point of reaching out to its neighborhood, which was in a downswing when the company planted its flag here. It spearheaded beautification efforts, collaborated with the CTA on murals and other public art, and attracted cultural investment. Today, Lifeline is the linchpin of what’s now known as the Glenwood Avenue Arts District, a primary force behind the annual Glenwood Arts Fest, and—with the recent loss of the Heartland Cafe—might be the neighborhood’s longest-standing anchor. As a Chicago Sun-Times editorial put it, “Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park shows how the arts can transform a city.”

3. Filament Theatre

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4041 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60641

Portage Park wasn’t really known as an arts destination before 2012. That was something Filament Theatre Ensemble aimed to change when it signed a lease for the ground floor of this four-story 1940 structure just north of Six Corners, originally built as a furniture warehouse.

The storefront is 50 feet wide, and each floor has 16-foot ceilings; remarkably, every level is wide open, devoid of support columns. Building owner Marc Sussman saw potential for arts applications, and was connected with Julie Ritchey, artistic director and founder of Filament, which was then five years old and looking for a home.

Since taking up residence in Portage Park, Filament has refined its mission to focus on creating plays and theatrical experiences for kids and families. And other arts organizations have followed it into the neighborhood as tenants: The building’s upper floors are now home to the National Veterans Art Museum and the Chicago Ballet Center.

4. Mercury Theater

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3745 N Southport Ave
Chicago, IL 60613

Built in 1912, the Mercury Theater was originally a nickelodeon showing silent films. It was established as the Blaine Theatre, likely due to its proximity to James G. Blaine Elementary School, which was already established across the street. (James G. Blaine was a Republican senator and Secretary of State who died in 1893; Blaine Elementary is still in operation.)

With the silent era’s demise, the Blaine Theatre had already shuttered by the time the much larger, talkie-ready Music Box Theatre was opened a few doors down in 1929. Interestingly, Chicago Tribune from the time indicates that the Music Box was initially going to be dubbed the New Blaine Theatre. The old Blaine, meanwhile, was converted for commercial use, both as a factory and later as retail space.

In 1994, theater producer Michael Cullen purchased the building and reconverted it for live theater, installing a new proscenium stage and a new balcony for a total of 300 seats. All that remains of the Blaine’s original decor are decorative busts that were salvaged to line the exposed-brick walls of the house. The Mercury’s current owners converted the attached pub, which Cullen had operated as Cullen’s Bar & Grill, into an 80-seat cabaret-style theater: the Venus.

5. Athenaeum Theatre

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2936 N Southport Ave
Chicago, IL 60657

The management of Lakeview’s Athenaeum Theatre says it’s “Chicago’s oldest continuously operating Off-Loop theater.” There’s probably not even a close second for that record—even if the operation for many of those decades was more accurately “continual but erratic,” as Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen said in a 1995 column.

The Athenaeum was completed in 1911, the brainchild of Father George Thomas of St. Alphonsus Church, which sits next door. Thomas conceived of the Athenaeum as a community center and folk-opera theater for his church’s, and the neighborhood’s, largely German population. With a 985-seat mainstage theater at its heart, the three-story Athenaeum building was designed by architect Hermann J. Gaul, known for his work on churches across the Midwest.

The brick building is still owned by St. Alphonsus Parish, but these days it’s managed by a small staff that’s separate from the church. There are three studio theaters of less than 100 seats, one on each floor, that host productions by small theater companies; the remainder of the space on the upper floors has been turned into offices and rehearsal areas for local theater and dance troupes.

And that mainstage theater—more intimate than the downtown touring houses but with a grander feeling than North Side concert halls like the Vic—has found renewed business recently in comedy and podcast events.

6. Victory Gardens Theater

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2433 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614

Opened in 1914 as a movie house, the Biograph is best known to history buffs as the place where the Feds closed in on bank robber John Dillinger in 1934, staking out the theater while Dillinger was taking in a showing of Manhattan Melodrama. Dillinger was shot in the alley behind the theater while trying to escape.

The two-story, red brick building was designed by Chicago architect Samuel N. Crowen, primarily known for his apartment buildings—though he also designed a 38-story Michigan Avenue office building, Willoughby Tower, which was completed in 1929 and still stands at Michigan and Monroe, facing Millennium Park.

Originally a single-screen theater seating more than 900, the Biograph continued showing movies until 2004 under various owners. In the 1970s, the interior was divided up into a four-screen multiplex and most of the original decor was lost. Victory Gardens Theater, having outgrown its longtime home two blocks south on Lincoln Avenue, purchased the Biograph in 2004 and undertook an $11.8 million renovation and restoration to make it suitable for live theater, reopening in 2006.

The building now houses a 299-seat mainstage theater, where Victory Gardens produces most of its season. Upstairs, there’s a 109-seat studio theater where smaller companies produce in residence, and a rehearsal and event room set behind the Palladian windows overlooking the restored marquee.

7. Greenhouse Theater Center

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2257 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614

The two-story brown brick facade nearly disappears amid a string of sports bars on Lincoln Avenue. It may not be much to look at, but the building that’s now known as the Greenhouse Theater Center has an indelible place in the history of homegrown Chicago theater. It’s been a performing arts hub continuously since 1969, when Rev. Jim Shiflett, with grant money from the Chicago Community Trust and private donations, purchased the vacant storefront and established it as the Body Politic.

It was a big part of the first wave of the city’s “off-Loop” movement. In its early years, the Body Politic hosted influential groups like Story Theater (Second City co-founder Paul Sills’s second act), the Organic Theatre Company (with its DIY sci-fi hit Warp!), and Body Politic’s own productions. And Shiflett, as much a community organizer as a theater owner, was instrumental in the early-1970s push to modify city building codes so that storefront theaters as we know them today could flourish.

With four theater spaces of varying size on its two floors, the venue was a valuable incubator for nascent companies renting the smaller theaters and profiting from the association with bigger names. Victory Gardens had a home here but moved up the street to the Biograph, afterwards board members Wendy and William Spatz purchased the Lincoln Avenue spot which they operate it as the Greenhouse. The building is showing its age, but the owners are wrapping up renovations to bathrooms, a theater space, and staircases.

8. The Den Theatre

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1331 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60622

Opened by former actor Ryan Martin in 2010, the Den Theatre started with a couple of ramshackle studio theaters on the upper floors of this three-story Wicker Park building, originally a department store dating back to 1889. In the decade since, the Den has grown to take over the entire building, plus another next door, making the 19th-century complex a major hub for 21st-century performance; the venue claims it has “more active performance and event space than any other building in the country.”

Martin and local theater philanthropists Michael and Mona Heath partnered to build out the space into a sprawling new theater, dubbed the Heath Main Stage. In 2016, the Den opened a second ground-floor theater, named for arts educator Janet Bookspan, by incorporating the storefront to the north at 1335 North Milwaukee.

All told, the sprawling complex now contains seven performance spaces with capacities ranging from 50 to 200 seats, along with rehearsal and event spaces and two comfortable lobby bars on the first and second floors. The street-level bar, dubbed the Haven Lounge, opens daily at 9:30 a.m. serving Dark Matter coffee and Goddess & Grocer pastries.

Find your light. #TheDenChicago thedentheatre.com

Posted by The Den Theatre on Thursday, March 29, 2018

9. Chopin Theatre

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1543 W Division St
Chicago, IL 60642
(773) 278-1500
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This Noble Square neighborhood favorite celebrated its 100th birthday in 2018. Its white terra-cotta facade faces Polonia Triangle, once the heart of Chicago’s Polish Downtown. The Chopin began its life as a nickelodeon, designed by the Chicago firm of Worthmann & Steinbach—known for their work on many area churches, including Bucktown’s St. Mary of the Angels and West Town’s Holy Innocents

The theater was vacant when it was purchased in 1990 by Zygmunt Dyrkacz; he and his wife, Lela Headd, run the Chopin as a family business. Both the main stage at street level and the flexible second stage in the basement seem to bring out the best in theatrical designers, who often radically redesign the spaces for every show. The upstairs lobby and basement lounge are eclectically inviting, stuffed with art and mismatched furniture. The Chopin has played host to itinerant Chicago companies including the House Theatre, Hypocrites, Defiant Theatre and Theater Oobleck, and the Dyrkaczes also make a point of presenting experimental European artists on tour.

10. Lookingglass Theatre Company

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821 N Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60611

Founded in 1988 by recent graduates of Northwestern University, Lookingglass had bounced around the city for a decade and a half before moving into its permanent home. The company is still on a lease, technically, but the landlord is the City of Chicago, and the rent is a steal: one dollar a month.

The deal is especially sweet considering Lookingglass’s location, at the tourist-heavy heart of the Magnificent Mile. The theater is carved out of the Water Tower Water Works, the historic and still-active pumping station that, like the famous Water Tower directly across the street, was one of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire. The two-story building’s rocky limestone facade and turrets make it stand out among the sleek skyscrapers that have grown up around it. (Architect William W. Boyington used the same style, known as castellated Gothic, for the entrance gate to Rosehill Cemetery.)

Lookingglass’s space, christened in 2003, was once a boiler room; its modular design allows for seemingly infinite configurations, and the tall ceiling accommodates the troupe’s tendency toward acrobatics. The theater was designed by Morris Architects Planners, a Chicago firm that specializes in performance spaces—other projects have included Skokie’s Northlight Theatre and the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Lincoln Square performance hall. Founder John Morris got his start as a technical director at the Goodman and St. Nicholas theaters in the 1970s before he became an architect.

11. Court Theatre

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5535 S Ellis Ave
Chicago, IL 60637

Chicago’s second-oldest resident theater, this classical-focused company affiliated with the University of Chicago began its life in 1955 as a summer outdoor theater—its name comes from its origins performing in a campus courtyard. Court’s current home, a squat box clad in ivy-covered limestone to blend with the nearby Smart Museum and Regenstein Library, was designed by the prolific Harry Weese.

Court’s facade conceals more going on beneath the surface, while the entrance and lobby are at ground level, the theater itself—named Abelson Auditorium for supporters Lester and Hope Abelson—descends below ground. Each row of seats, arranged in concentric semicircles, steps down toward the thrust stage. The theater has nearly outgrown its 250-seat capacity; indeed, the current building was scaled down from Weese’s original plans for a 450-seat house when fundraising proved difficult. The Smart Museum, too, is bursting at the seams, so it may not be long before new plans are drawn up for the U. of C.’s arts institutions.

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1. Factory Theater

1621 Howard St, Chicago, IL 60626

When you visit the Factory Theater’s 80-seat storefront at the city’s northern edge, you walk in through the facade of what was once a 1,600-seat movie palace. The Howard Theatre dated to 1917, designed by Henry L. Newhouse of Newhouse & Bernham. Newhouse was responsible for several Chicago movie houses of the day, but few if any have survived.

The Howard held on as a movie theater until 1975. A 1978 Chicago Tribune article detailed the efforts by architect Ed Noonan and real-estate broker Sam Sherwin, who had bought up the shuttered theater and several nearby properties, to restore and revamp the block for a new era. But skittish bankers and scores of building code violations stood in their way at the time; the Tribune’s pessimistic headline read “Curtain may not rise on new use for theater.”

The copy editor who wrote those words was prescient. The Howard sat unused for another two decades before action came, as described in a 1999 Tribune article: “In recent years, several developers have attempted to take on the dilapidated red brick and terra cotta structure, built in 1917 and in disrepair for the last 25 years.” The 1999 developer was willing to take the step others had spent a quarter of a century trying to avoid: demolishing the movie theater’s auditorium, which is now a parking lot. But they preserved the facade, with its sculpted comedy and tragedy masks and the “Howard Theatre” name emblazoned above the archway. At least the Factory, which moved in in 2016, has brought entertainment back to the address.

1621 Howard St
Chicago, IL 60626

2. Lifeline Theatre

6912 N Glenwood Ave, Chicago, IL 60626

Since 1985, Lifeline has been a theater dedicated to original literary adaptations and made its home in a converted ComEd substation in Rogers Park. The building, on the west side of Glenwood Avenue, which is split down the middle by the CTA Red and Purple Line tracks, isn’t a natural fit for a theater. Tall of height but smallish of footprint, with a blank red brick facade butting up against the sidewalk, it’s neither particularly welcoming nor technically well suited.

But Lifeline, which moved in as a renter before buying the building six years later, in 1991, turned it into a destination, shaping the theater’s productions around the limitations of the space. Given the high ceiling, the company installed stadium-style risers for 95 seats; the stage area in front of the seats is relatively small, with no wings or fly system to move set pieces on and off, but scenic designers can build tall, two- and three-level unit sets.

From the beginning, Lifeline made a point of reaching out to its neighborhood, which was in a downswing when the company planted its flag here. It spearheaded beautification efforts, collaborated with the CTA on murals and other public art, and attracted cultural investment. Today, Lifeline is the linchpin of what’s now known as the Glenwood Avenue Arts District, a primary force behind the annual Glenwood Arts Fest, and—with the recent loss of the Heartland Cafe—might be the neighborhood’s longest-standing anchor. As a Chicago Sun-Times editorial put it, “Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park shows how the arts can transform a city.”

6912 N Glenwood Ave
Chicago, IL 60626

3. Filament Theatre

4041 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60641

Portage Park wasn’t really known as an arts destination before 2012. That was something Filament Theatre Ensemble aimed to change when it signed a lease for the ground floor of this four-story 1940 structure just north of Six Corners, originally built as a furniture warehouse.

The storefront is 50 feet wide, and each floor has 16-foot ceilings; remarkably, every level is wide open, devoid of support columns. Building owner Marc Sussman saw potential for arts applications, and was connected with Julie Ritchey, artistic director and founder of Filament, which was then five years old and looking for a home.

Since taking up residence in Portage Park, Filament has refined its mission to focus on creating plays and theatrical experiences for kids and families. And other arts organizations have followed it into the neighborhood as tenants: The building’s upper floors are now home to the National Veterans Art Museum and the Chicago Ballet Center.

4041 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60641

4. Mercury Theater

3745 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60613

Built in 1912, the Mercury Theater was originally a nickelodeon showing silent films. It was established as the Blaine Theatre, likely due to its proximity to James G. Blaine Elementary School, which was already established across the street. (James G. Blaine was a Republican senator and Secretary of State who died in 1893; Blaine Elementary is still in operation.)

With the silent era’s demise, the Blaine Theatre had already shuttered by the time the much larger, talkie-ready Music Box Theatre was opened a few doors down in 1929. Interestingly, Chicago Tribune from the time indicates that the Music Box was initially going to be dubbed the New Blaine Theatre. The old Blaine, meanwhile, was converted for commercial use, both as a factory and later as retail space.

In 1994, theater producer Michael Cullen purchased the building and reconverted it for live theater, installing a new proscenium stage and a new balcony for a total of 300 seats. All that remains of the Blaine’s original decor are decorative busts that were salvaged to line the exposed-brick walls of the house. The Mercury’s current owners converted the attached pub, which Cullen had operated as Cullen’s Bar & Grill, into an 80-seat cabaret-style theater: the Venus.

3745 N Southport Ave
Chicago, IL 60613

5. Athenaeum Theatre

2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657

The management of Lakeview’s Athenaeum Theatre says it’s “Chicago’s oldest continuously operating Off-Loop theater.” There’s probably not even a close second for that record—even if the operation for many of those decades was more accurately “continual but erratic,” as Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen said in a 1995 column.

The Athenaeum was completed in 1911, the brainchild of Father George Thomas of St. Alphonsus Church, which sits next door. Thomas conceived of the Athenaeum as a community center and folk-opera theater for his church’s, and the neighborhood’s, largely German population. With a 985-seat mainstage theater at its heart, the three-story Athenaeum building was designed by architect Hermann J. Gaul, known for his work on churches across the Midwest.

The brick building is still owned by St. Alphonsus Parish, but these days it’s managed by a small staff that’s separate from the church. There are three studio theaters of less than 100 seats, one on each floor, that host productions by small theater companies; the remainder of the space on the upper floors has been turned into offices and rehearsal areas for local theater and dance troupes.

And that mainstage theater—more intimate than the downtown touring houses but with a grander feeling than North Side concert halls like the Vic—has found renewed business recently in comedy and podcast events.

2936 N Southport Ave
Chicago, IL 60657

6. Victory Gardens Theater

2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614

Opened in 1914 as a movie house, the Biograph is best known to history buffs as the place where the Feds closed in on bank robber John Dillinger in 1934, staking out the theater while Dillinger was taking in a showing of Manhattan Melodrama. Dillinger was shot in the alley behind the theater while trying to escape.

The two-story, red brick building was designed by Chicago architect Samuel N. Crowen, primarily known for his apartment buildings—though he also designed a 38-story Michigan Avenue office building, Willoughby Tower, which was completed in 1929 and still stands at Michigan and Monroe, facing Millennium Park.

Originally a single-screen theater seating more than 900, the Biograph continued showing movies until 2004 under various owners. In the 1970s, the interior was divided up into a four-screen multiplex and most of the original decor was lost. Victory Gardens Theater, having outgrown its longtime home two blocks south on Lincoln Avenue, purchased the Biograph in 2004 and undertook an $11.8 million renovation and restoration to make it suitable for live theater, reopening in 2006.

The building now houses a 299-seat mainstage theater, where Victory Gardens produces most of its season. Upstairs, there’s a 109-seat studio theater where smaller companies produce in residence, and a rehearsal and event room set behind the Palladian windows overlooking the restored marquee.

2433 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614

7. Greenhouse Theater Center

2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614

The two-story brown brick facade nearly disappears amid a string of sports bars on Lincoln Avenue. It may not be much to look at, but the building that’s now known as the Greenhouse Theater Center has an indelible place in the history of homegrown Chicago theater. It’s been a performing arts hub continuously since 1969, when Rev. Jim Shiflett, with grant money from the Chicago Community Trust and private donations, purchased the vacant storefront and established it as the Body Politic.

It was a big part of the first wave of the city’s “off-Loop” movement. In its early years, the Body Politic hosted influential groups like Story Theater (Second City co-founder Paul Sills’s second act), the Organic Theatre Company (with its DIY sci-fi hit Warp!), and Body Politic’s own productions. And Shiflett, as much a community organizer as a theater owner, was instrumental in the early-1970s push to modify city building codes so that storefront theaters as we know them today could flourish.

With four theater spaces of varying size on its two floors, the venue was a valuable incubator for nascent companies renting the smaller theaters and profiting from the association with bigger names. Victory Gardens had a home here but moved up the street to the Biograph, afterwards board members Wendy and William Spatz purchased the Lincoln Avenue spot which they operate it as the Greenhouse. The building is showing its age, but the owners are wrapping up renovations to bathrooms, a theater space, and staircases.

2257 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614

8. The Den Theatre

1331 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

Opened by former actor Ryan Martin in 2010, the Den Theatre started with a couple of ramshackle studio theaters on the upper floors of this three-story Wicker Park building, originally a department store dating back to 1889. In the decade since, the Den has grown to take over the entire building, plus another next door, making the 19th-century complex a major hub for 21st-century performance; the venue claims it has “more active performance and event space than any other building in the country.”

Martin and local theater philanthropists Michael and Mona Heath partnered to build out the space into a sprawling new theater, dubbed the Heath Main Stage. In 2016, the Den opened a second ground-floor theater, named for arts educator Janet Bookspan, by incorporating the storefront to the north at 1335 North Milwaukee.

All told, the sprawling complex now contains seven performance spaces with capacities ranging from 50 to 200 seats, along with rehearsal and event spaces and two comfortable lobby bars on the first and second floors. The street-level bar, dubbed the Haven Lounge, opens daily at 9:30 a.m. serving Dark Matter coffee and Goddess & Grocer pastries.

1331 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60622

9. Chopin Theatre

1543 W Division St, Chicago, IL 60642

This Noble Square neighborhood favorite celebrated its 100th birthday in 2018. Its white terra-cotta facade faces Polonia Triangle, once the heart of Chicago’s Polish Downtown. The Chopin began its life as a nickelodeon, designed by the Chicago firm of Worthmann & Steinbach—known for their work on many area churches, including Bucktown’s St. Mary of the Angels and West Town’s Holy Innocents

The theater was vacant when it was purchased in 1990 by Zygmunt Dyrkacz; he and his wife, Lela Headd, run the Chopin as a family business. Both the main stage at street level and the flexible second stage in the basement seem to bring out the best in theatrical designers, who often radically redesign the spaces for every show. The upstairs lobby and basement lounge are eclectically inviting, stuffed with art and mismatched furniture. The Chopin has played host to itinerant Chicago companies including the House Theatre, Hypocrites, Defiant Theatre and Theater Oobleck, and the Dyrkaczes also make a point of presenting experimental European artists on tour.

1543 W Division St
Chicago, IL 60642

10. Lookingglass Theatre Company

821 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

Founded in 1988 by recent graduates of Northwestern University, Lookingglass had bounced around the city for a decade and a half before moving into its permanent home. The company is still on a lease, technically, but the landlord is the City of Chicago, and the rent is a steal: one dollar a month.

The deal is especially sweet considering Lookingglass’s location, at the tourist-heavy heart of the Magnificent Mile. The theater is carved out of the Water Tower Water Works, the historic and still-active pumping station that, like the famous Water Tower directly across the street, was one of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire. The two-story building’s rocky limestone facade and turrets make it stand out among the sleek skyscrapers that have grown up around it. (Architect William W. Boyington used the same style, known as castellated Gothic, for the entrance gate to Rosehill Cemetery.)

Lookingglass’s space, christened in 2003, was once a boiler room; its modular design allows for seemingly infinite configurations, and the tall ceiling accommodates the troupe’s tendency toward acrobatics. The theater was designed by Morris Architects Planners, a Chicago firm that specializes in performance spaces—other projects have included Skokie’s Northlight Theatre and the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Lincoln Square performance hall. Founder John Morris got his start as a technical director at the Goodman and St. Nicholas theaters in the 1970s before he became an architect.

821 N Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60611

11. Court Theatre

5535 S Ellis Ave, Chicago, IL 60637

Chicago’s second-oldest resident theater, this classical-focused company affiliated with the University of Chicago began its life in 1955 as a summer outdoor theater—its name comes from its origins performing in a campus courtyard. Court’s current home, a squat box clad in ivy-covered limestone to blend with the nearby Smart Museum and Regenstein Library, was designed by the prolific Harry Weese.

Court’s facade conceals more going on beneath the surface, while the entrance and lobby are at ground level, the theater itself—named Abelson Auditorium for supporters Lester and Hope Abelson—descends below ground. Each row of seats, arranged in concentric semicircles, steps down toward the thrust stage. The theater has nearly outgrown its 250-seat capacity; indeed, the current building was scaled down from Weese’s original plans for a 450-seat house when fundraising proved difficult. The Smart Museum, too, is bursting at the seams, so it may not be long before new plans are drawn up for the U. of C.’s arts institutions.

5535 S Ellis Ave
Chicago, IL 60637