“Okay you’ll be Captain Hook this time and you’ll be Peter Pan…” then 9-year old Russ Tutterow would say to his friends in his Hoosier playground.
Today he’ll look back at those games and say that he was already at work as a director.
Yes, young Russ may have had early inklings that the theater world would be his home. But he could hardly have imagined the pivotal role he would play in turning Chicago into a destination city for American playwrights. Nor could he possibly picture that he would be in charge of an organization that is soon to announce a partnership with the nationally-known Goodman theater.
Meet Russ Tutterow and meet the Chicago Dramatists, an organization he has been a part of since 1982 and at its helm since 1986.
If you are looking for a community to help you cultivate a body of theatrical work, word is out in American theater circles to put Sweet Home Chicago as the center of your map.
Better yet for the rest of us, 42 out of 52 Saturdays each year we get to take a peek at how it all begins in the Chicago Dramatists Saturday Series. You’ll be in an audience that is about one third playwrights. Keep your ear to the discussions and pick up valuable insights into what makes a play work and what holds it back.
If you’re lucky, you just might be sitting in on one of the productions that flies its way to Broadway and beyond, like the workshopped “A Steady Rain” did in 2009.
It won’t take much luck at all though to see the voice of many a Jeff-cited playwright and the driving forces behind what makes the Chicago theater scene sizzle. In fact, the corps of resident playwrights (by invitation only, currently numbering 40) has garnered so many awards that the organization just can’t keep track of them anymore.
Calling itself “the Playwright’s Theatre”, Chicago Dramatists describes its mission in its annual report as follows,
“Through unparalleled programming, we provide a supportive, professional environment that fosters diversity, collaboration, the freedom to fail, the ambition to succeed, and the pursuit of artistic excellence. Since our founding, Chicago Dramatists has played a major role in transforming Chicago from a city nearly barren of original work in the 1970s to a national center for new plays. Rebecca Gilman, Lydia R. Diamond, Sarah Ruhl, Rick Cleveland, Tina Fey, Brett Neveu, Tanya Saracho and hundreds of others have made this their creative home…”
Making Chicago Dramatists ‘their creative home’ isn’t via spontaneous combustion. There is a lot of Russ Tutterow elbow grease at work to spot the talent, attract it and keep it in this ‘creative home’.
Taking a break from her work as Literary Manager from the North Side’s beloved Raven Theatre where she had just helped select the three finalists from an original pool of 250 script submissions, Susan Lieberman (Jeff Citation for New Work “Arrangement for Two Violas” and Jeff nomination for her musical “Prairie Lights”), shares how she came to be part of the Chicago Dramatists family.
Lieberman reports, “I was working in NY as an editor for Theatre Crafts magazine during the years when Steppenwolf plays were hitting Broadway and Off-Broadway.”
She flew back to her hometown of Chicago in January 1984 for a staged reading of her first play at Northlight Theatre. Of the many industry people she contacted, Russ Tutterow (then working for Briar Street Theatre founder Walt Topel) not only drove out to Evanston that winter night but he also wrote a follow-up letter. “It was an awful first play but Russ managed to be both frank and supportive at the same time. He told me to stay in touch. I thought, ‘Why am I paying high rent and being kicked around in NY when I could be part of the Chicago theater scene instead?’”
“I moved back in 1985 and began searching for play development opportunities. The Reader had a notice for a staged reading at a place called Chicago Dramatists Workshop, so I walked over from my Lakeview apartment – and found Russ in the audience. As a way to break in, I signed up for a class. But when Russ saw my name on the list, he said ‘Don’t take this class. Let’s talk instead.’
“We met for a drink. Russ explained that he was about to take over Chicago Dramatists and asked me to join its core of playwrights. I was honored by the invitation. Yes, the organization was poor and playwrights were asked to pay a modest fee back then. But once Russ became Artistic Director, affiliation was by invitation only – you couldn’t pay your way in anymore – and he began a major revamping.
“Russ has done an extraordinary job of developing Chicago Dramatists and building its national profile. More than that, he has created a community of playwrights.”
The 2:00 pm “Saturday Series” readings are central to that community. The Series’ influence goes way beyond Chicago Dramatists. Among theatres that develop new work in Chicago, many – if not most -- use Russ’ model for post-performance discussions.
As an attendee in the early days of these readings I can report that initially there was sometimes more smoke than substance as audience opinions got fired up and frustrations vented. Today, the Saturday Series discussions are smooth as silk, but above all very meaty and insight-chocked for those with any level of interest on how theatrical sausage gets made.
Tutterow shares a few of his secrets as to the how and why—
“Over 26 years I’ve learned how to moderate the discussions and set the tone. Many of the people in the audience are repeaters and that helps. I always try to achieve a relaxed atmosphere and sometimes that isn’t easy because the playwright might not be that relaxed.
“I tell the audience upfront ‘This is how it works…’
“Instead of asking the audience what they liked I’ve learned to ask them what they find meaningful. We then read off some of the audience response sheets that they have filled out. It helps that there are many playwrights in each audience and they know what will be most useful to the writer. We NEVER try to tell people what to write or how. Instead we just focus the discussion on what worked well and what didn’t work as well. We zero in on what stood out.
“Often a writer can’t tell and they are surprised by what comes out of the discussions. This then enables them to play to the piece’s strengths or if it’s not what they wanted they learn to move on to other work.
“We actually aren’t that interested in any one play or work. Our mission is to help playwrights develop a body of work and their artistic voice.”
It’s only a $5 suggested donation to attend a staged reading and discussion. This can’t be beat as a way to see new works first come to life.
Photos: Unless indicated otherwise, all other photos courtesy of Chicago Dramatists