There are no small parts, only small actors. In Chicago, the ancient adage applies to theaters as well as theater people. According to the League of Chicago Theatres, there are more than 250 theater companies in the city hailed by London's The Guardianas "the theatre capital of  America." While many of these Chicago theater companies play on stages you could fit in your kitchen, there's nothing little about the drama they unleash.

Here's a list of 10 off-Loop theater wonders in Chicago.

Theo Ubique

A triumph of storytelling over spectacle is the hallmark of Theo (rhymes with Day-O) Ubique (oob-eh-kay). Artistic Director Fred Anzevino takes big, Broadway musicals and strips them down to their emotional essence. Expect to be part of the set, literally. The actors sing and dance around cabaret tables where the audience is seated.

No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood in Rogers Park

Tip: Come early for dinner, served by the cast.

Porchlight Music Theatre

Artistic Director Michael Weber snaps up the rights to Broadway musicals after they've been around for a while and makes them Chicago's own. The casts are usually anchored by a song ‘n dance vet, surrounded by an ensemble of younger, emerging talent. The result is shows that invariably knock the audience's collective socks right off.

In residence at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont in the Belmont Theater District of Lakeview

Black Ensemble Theatre

Street view of Black Ensemble Theatre at night with moon in the background

Over the past 25 years, I have never attended a BET show where the audience wasn't on its feet dancing by the curtain call. Artistic Director Jackie Taylor pens most of BET's juke-box biographies of legendary (or undersung) African American composers and performers.

4450 N. Clark in Uptown

Tip: Wear shoes you can move in. You will be dancing by the final number.    

TimeLine Theatre

TimeLine's formidable power rests in its ensemble, a group that can shape the most obscure slices of history into storytelling that is vivid, urgent and resonant. TimeLine has garnered awards for bring to life everything from 16th century England to 21stcentury Iraq.

615 W. Wellington in the Belmont Theater District of Lakeview

Tip: Arrive early. TimeLine's lobby displays are mini-museums where collages, video footage and historical photos and documents provide context to the play at hand. 

Sideshow Theatre Company

With values of curiosity, community, and exploration, Sideshow Theatre Company was founded in 2007 and is currently in a multi-year residency at Victory Gardens Theater in Lincoln Park. Sideshow Theatre consistently produces engaging and transcendent works, from its first production Dante Dies!! (and then things get weird) to its Jeff Award-winning production of Elizabeth Meriwether's runaway robotic hit Heddatron at Steppenwolf Theatre to the remount of its smash hit Chekhov remix Stupid F##king Bird.

In residence at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln in Lincoln Park

Tip: Accessible by CTA Brown, Purple, and Red Line trains, there is also a Divvy bike-sharing station close to the theater where you can come from anywhere in the city and dock the bike for the evening.

A Red Orchid Theatre

Close up view of A Red Orchid Theatre's street sign

Guy Van Swearingen founded AROT in between fighting fires (his day job is Lieutenant with the CFD) and with longtime collaborators Michael Shannon and Kirstin Fitzgerald. Over the past two decades, the company has made an indelible mark staging works that aren't necessarily well known, but that suck you in with the force of a riptide.

1531 N. Wells in Old Town

Tip: If Shannon's is in the cast, get your tickets early. Since he's a bonafide movie star, hordes of people who wouldn't normally venture into a theater will be slamming the box office in hopes of seeing General Zod (of Superman fame) in the flesh.

The Hypocrites

The Hypocrites take classics ranging from The Mikado to Endgame to Our Town, and reimagine them in radically new ways that still remain utterly true to the spirit of the originals.

Itinerant, but usually at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park

Tip: Artistic Director Sean Graney always puts his personal email in the program. You can tell him straightway exactly what you think of what you just saw.

Victory Gardens Theater

Long an incubator of new works, Victory Gardens has some of the most diverse programming in the city. Artistic Director Chay Yew consistently bucks the dead-white-male dominance in contemporary theater, and slates his seasons with a roster of playwrights that actually reflect the real world's population.

2433 N. Lincoln in Lincoln Park

Tip: Take a mini-ghost hunt to the fence approximately five feet west of the entrance. It marks the exact spot where John Dillinger was shot.   

Theater Wit

There's a trio of 98-seat theaters inside Theater Wit, making the place an ever-buzzing hive of artistry. Wit shows skew toward innovative provocative, whipsmart contemporary works and Midwest premieres.  The roster of shows (including reliably excellent resident companies including Shattered Globe and Stage Left)  is laid out on a massive wall menu in the lobby.

1229 W. Belmont in the Belmont Theater District of Lakeview 

Tip:  If you're in town for a week or more, get a flex pass. You'll be able to see as many shows as you want at any performance you want. Also, see "avoid Cubs games", under Porchlight Theatre.

The Gift Theatre

Jefferson Park's only theater has been telling great stories with honesty and simplicity for almost 20 years. Founded by Michael Patrick Thornton, the space is home to new works and classics delivered with ferocity, verve, and authenticity.

4802 N. Milwaukee in Jefferson Park 

Tip: The nearby Gale Street Inn has the best ribs in Chicago. Have dinner there before or after the show.

Visit — managed by the League of Chicago Theatres — to see what exciting productions are on stage while you're here. For the inside scoop on what's happening across the city, get recommendations from our resident culture vultures at the Chicago Like a Local blog. Plus, be sure to check Hot Tix for half-price theatre tickets to many shows in Chicago.


Related Listings

League of Chicago Theatres
17 N. Wabash St.
Chicago, IL 60602
(312) 554-9800

Victory Gardens Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 871-3000

TimeLine Theatre Company
615 W. Wellington Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 281-8463

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Belmont Theater District
3138 N. Broadway St.
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 348-8608

The Hypocrites
1329 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 525-5991

Theater Wit
1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 975-8150

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