Chicago is home to approximately 250 theater and comedy companies, but none of them call Bridgeport home. That's about to change.
Friday marks the debut of The Bridge, which is housed in The Orphanage, the second floor theater space above the historic First Lutheran Church of the Trinity. Founder Kestutis Nakas—a Roosevelt University theater professor and a Bridgeport resident since 2005—believes that the time is right to bring low-cost, professional-quality theater to the neighborhood.
"I think the need is there," Nakas said. "I think Bridgeport is full of educated, arts-conscious people that would love to have a theater in their neighborhood that they could walk to. And if they can see something decent for the price of a movie ticket, I can't imagine why they wouldn't want to come and check that out."
The Bridge opens with the world premiere of "The Golf Ball," a contemporary adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," set in Chicago, which follows the romantic and artistic conflicts of a group of theater professionals. Nakas—a veteran of New York's East Village performance scene whose work has been presented at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Yale Rep, P.S. 122, St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, Prop Thtr in Chicago and other venues around the country—penned the script and co-stars in the production.
But if the venerable neighborhood—which was established in approximately 1830 and has produced five Chicago mayors—has gotten along without a theater for nearly 200 years, does it need one now?
"People think of Bridgeport as this very old-school, 'Chicago guy'-type, dibs-type place," Nakas said. "And it is that and that's part of its charm. But there are nurses that live here, teachers, professional people of all kinds. And young people that hunger for this stuff, too. So I think we'll fit right in." Here's a peek behind the curtain into The Bridge.
"The Golf Ball"
Go: 8 p.m. Friday through July 6 at The Bridge, 643 W. 31st St.
Tickets: $12. $10 for students; 312-307-5194; brownpapertickets.com/event/693235
What you'll see when you walk in: Fourteen large windows topped with stained glass panel-inlaid Gothic arches, a 30-inch-high raised stage with concealed footlights that Nakas hopes to eventually restore to working condition, a communion rail, 100 years of memorabilia in the stairway leading up to the theater and two large walls of bookshelves for the church's "books for prisoners" program that church staff offered to move. "We said no, please don't, they look great," Nakas said. "That's exactly in keeping with the community feel we want to have and the very socially active and conscious sense that we get from the church."
The year it was built: 1913
Number of seats: Technically, 99—however, the seating plan is flexible and there are also funky couches at the back of the room.
The actors exit the kitchen to enter the stage: The (working) kitchen to the left of the stage doubles as a dressing room—The Bridge has set up a screen at its entrance—where the audience can catch glimpses of the actors putting on costumes and makeup prior to the show. The actors emerge from the kitchen, flow through the audience and walk up steps to the elevated stage.
Only minor renovations were required: Think theatrical lights on poles, light-blocking window curtains (which will not conceal the stained glass) and auditorium-type chairs for seating.
Why the space is called The Orphanage: No, it was never actually an orphanage. A group of fringe musicians who used to rehearse and perform in the space called it The Orphanage as a tongue-in-cheek reference to their self-proclaimed status as artistic orphans and the nickname stuck.
The church owns the theater, but there have been a wide range of not-very-church-like events over the years: Tribal fusion bellydance, hip-hop community benefits, open mics, LGBTQ functions, noise bands and more.
History was made here: In 1983, as the three-way mayoral race between Jane Byrne, Richard M. Daley and Harold Washington heated up, Daley and Washington held a joint rally at the church to attempt to defuse racial tensions. (Washington won the Democratic primary and the election.)
Some Chicago-specific references in "The Golf Ball": "It's set in the slummiest apartment building in Lincoln Park," Nakas said. Additional set locations include Theater on the Lake and there are mentions of Lake Michigan, the Goodman Theatre, Lincoln Park—and yes, Bridgeport.
The company's mission: To present new contemporary adaptations of early modern classics by playwrights such as Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill. But also to pay the actors all door proceeds leftover after the church's rental portion is deducted. "My wife and I, we have jobs," he said. "These actors, they have to work in restaurants and bust their ass here and there. It's not going to pay their rent, but it can become a chunk of their economic picture—where it's not costing them money to do this and they are getting some recompense for their work. And that actually means a lot to the artists spiritually, too."
There's also avant-garde performances on tap: Followspot, a monthly cabaret featuring an eclectic array of cutting-edge performance art from headlining and emerging spoken word, theater, movement and multidisciplinary artists, kicks off July 12.