Illinois Theaters with Their Own Stories to Tell

October 18, 2018

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Any good theater has stories both on and off the stage. And as an audience member, sometimes the theatrical experience is made all the more enjoyable in a building that clearly has a story to tell—be it in its architecture, its history, or often, its past uses.

Illinois is packed with wonderful theaters and theater companies. Get along to one and you’re sure to be entertained, educated or inspired. These theaters are just a few that have that little bit of added history, and might leave you with an impression beyond what you see performed.

Woodstock Opera House, Woodstock

Woodstock Opera House

It’s the theater that taught a young Orson Welles much of his stagecraft. The theater that hosted actors such as Paul Newman, Tom Bosley and Geraldine Page early in their careers. The theater Bill Murray jumped from in Groundhog Day.

You’ll find the Opera House right in the heart of Woodstock. The location makes sense, given the building’s history. It started life as Woodstock’s city hall, complete with library, police and fire department.

Those tenants left long ago, but the building’s auditoriums remained and grew. The Opera House is owned by the city and its residents, and thanks to careful maintenance and restoration, it retains much of the grandeur it had 130 years ago. Head along and catch a production by its resident community theater groups, The Town Square Players and the Woodstock Musical Theatre Company.

The Station Theatre, Urbana

Station Theater

Like travel, theater is all about being exposed to new sights, ideas and sensations—so a train station is a fitting place to experience it. When you come to The Station, you really do feel like you’re about to jump on a train. The building’s brick exterior and peaked roofs still look much the same as they did in its train station heyday.

Inside you’ll find live productions year-round to inspire, educate, entertain and challenge. The Celebration Company started performing there in 1973, and nearly half a century later, you’ll find their work as fresh as ever. The trains no longer stop here, but the occupants will still take you on a journey.

Victory Gardens at the Biograph, Lincoln Park, Chicago

victory_gardensFor its first 90 years, the Biograph Theater operated as a movie theater. It screened many classics and created a lot of fond memories. But for most people, it's best-known for something that happened right outside its doors. In 1934, it was where the FBI finally caught up with John Dillinger, and his crime spree came to an end.

But while it’s hard to compete with that kind of real-life drama, current tenant Victory Gardens does a good job. In 2004 the long-running Chicago theater company bought the Biograph, transforming it into a live theater venue with a two-year renovation project. There they continue their history of presenting accessible, relevant and challenging contemporary American theater.

Athenaeum Theatre, Lake View, Chicago

ChicagoAthenaeum2013Outside the Loop, you won’t find a Chicago theater that’s been running longer than the Athenaeum. It was opened by the neighboring St. Alphonsus Church in 1911 for the good of its parishioners. Today, it attracts guests from all over the North Side and beyond.

The Athenaeum’s main stage is notable for feeling more intimate than your typical 985-seat theater. The balcony extends well over the main floor, so no matter where you sit, you’ll feel close to the action.

If you want a local Chicago theater experience, check out the studio theaters. True to the Athenaeum’s community-minded roots, they’re home to five resident theater companies.

Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island

Circa '21 Dinner PlayhouseOnly two dinner theaters in the United States feature the wait staff in the entertainment. You’ve now found one of them.

Circa ’21 is housed in the historic Fort Armstrong Theatre. Fort Armstrong opened in 1921, becoming one of the most popular silent movie houses of its day. “The Castle That Shadows Built” they called it, the “shadows” a reference to the silent films that made it a landmark.

In the 1970s it became a dinner theater with Vegas-style seating. But though it offers a different kind of entertainment than it did when it was built, careful restoration and renovation have left it with the same grandeur and opulence it had on opening night.

The Varsity Center for the Arts, Carbondale

The Varsity Center for the ArtsA marquee out front reveals The Varsity Center’s roots as movie theater. But these days, community theater and live music are its true claims to fame. The Center’s resident theater company, Jackson County Stage Company, stages a strong program of plays every year.

But traces of its past do remain. The Center pays tribute to its movie theater beginnings with a Friday Night Film series of classic films every week.

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