Since the first theatrical performance in Chicago in 1834, Chicago’s theatrical community has encountered a variety of obstacles, from auditorium fires to the cancellation of in-person performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among all these challenges, one thing has remained constant: community. Stuart Hecht, a professor in the theater department at Boston College, believes theater is about community, and nowhere, he says, is this more apparent than in Chicago.
“One question I had is just why there are 300 theaters in Chicago,” Hecht said.
Now he knows the answer.
“It has to do with the demographics and with the way of life and the values of the community and the habits that have formed with the money, the ambition and the boosterism in the city,” he said.
In the 1970s, some 140 years after the emergence of theater in Chicago, Hecht began to study this vibrant community past, present and future.
Hecht grew up playing the trumpet and piano with no intention of pursuing a passion for the theater. Hecht said his interest in acting started quite accidentally, as he joined his high school theater troupe on a whim after a close high school friend started performing.
After graduating from high school, Hecht attended the University of Michigan. But, he didn’t start his undergraduate career with the theater on his radar.
“I was originally going to be a psychologist, but, you know, I took a first year psychiatry class and I was like, ‘Oh my God, no,'” he said.
Hecht then thought he would become a lawyer and began to study American history. It was through the girlfriend of one of his RA–who was the president of the University of Michigan student theater group–and a stumble from the English Department’s Drama major that theater once again found itself on its agenda. He then gave up on the idea of attending law school and, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1977, pursued a doctorate. in theater at Northwestern University, one of the best graduate schools to study theater in the United States, he said.
At Northwestern, Hecht plunged headfirst into the doctorate. program. At the same time, he volunteered with the artistic team at the Goodman Theater and soon began teaching part-time at Loyola University in Chicago. Hecht received his doctorate in 1983, but when the university cut funding for teaching soon after, he knew it was time for a change.
“And I said, you know, what do I really wanna do?” Well I want to teach, ”Hetch said. “So I got into the job market. There was actually a job in Boston, and I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool,” and it was in this place called Boston College. “
When Hecht began working in British Columbia in 1986, the theater major was in the English department, and there were few students and faculty. Not only did the school want a drama teacher, Hecht said, they needed someone to create a drama program.
“It was tough, but exciting,” he said.
In 1992, Hecht became the founding chairman of the theater department, and later that year the theater department officially became his own. Hecht served as president for 13 years and resigned in 2005. During his tenure, with the help of a few dedicated colleagues, he built the program from scratch. When he started the department, he had three faculty members, three classes and around 33 majors in total, he said. In his last year as president, there were over 146 majors, and the department now has seven full-time faculty and offers over 25 courses. Hecht attributes the change to his directing class, which at the time brought together the two opposing theater clubs in British Columbia.–the dramatic society and contemporary theater.
“After two semesters [in the class], they really knew what they were doing as a director, ”Hecht said. “They had all the skills, knowledge and analytical skills. … The two children of the DG [the Dramatics Society] and CTG [Contemporary Theatre] were in my class and, instead of looking at yourself based on which group are you, [there was a shift to] the material itself… and that solved it all.
Despite the joy Hecht found in the job, he said he quit in 2005 because he had little time to focus on his own research. Although he continued to teach at BC, Hecht was later able to work on other projects.
He became editor-in-chief of the New England Theater Journal–a position he still occupies almost 25 years later–and publishes his book Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical in 2011. But he was far from finished. Hecht remained involved in the Chicago theater scene throughout his career, continuing to write, research, and contribute to conferences and panels.
Four years ago, after a panel on the Chicago theater, Hecht and two colleagues began to compile essays on the history of theater in the city. Their work recently culminated in Hecht’s latest publication—Chicago’s improvised stages: a century of theater and performance, which was published by Northwestern University Press in 2021. In the book, Hecht, with Megan E. Geigner of Northwestern University, Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud of Seattle University, and a host of other theater historians who contributed essays, detailing the stories of where theater was practiced and performed across town – often makeshift venues including parks, taverns, lounges and storefronts. In doing so, Chicago improvised scenes highlights the racial dynamics, the distribution of neighborhoods and the atypical places that have influenced the aesthetics and practice of Chicago’s art scene over the past century.
Hecht highlighted three key aspects of the story told by this collection of essays.
First, Hecht said he was talking about the power of the theater to bring people together.
“It’s the story of a community that found the real theater–a vehicle both for entertainment and for examining and exploring often difficult social issues, ”he said.
Then he said that the book expands these ideas to the arts as a whole having the capacity to initiate social change.
“This is the story of a community that has often struggled with issues of borders, racism and status, brutally in some ways,” he said. “And yet we find many cases of the arts being used for the purpose of crossing borders and finding commonalities of experience and concerns.”
And finally, it’s about the writers, he said.
“Megan, Jasmine and I represent different generations and different cultural backgrounds,” Hecht said.
Still, the three had a common vision and their different perspectives come together to make the book all the more compelling, he said.
Just as artists throughout history collaborated, the three publishers mimicked a similar process to create the book. Hecht describes in the book how all types of artists, from actors to dancers to sculptors, worked together to improve their art, and he said he was honored when, towards the end of the book, his co -authors have pointed out his own ideas.
“[There] is really this notion of people in different disciplines, you know, and the poet writes a poem about the painter who then paints [them] in turn, ”Hecht said. “We are doing it too. … We were all sitting together, comparing our notes and each of our experiences and backgrounds, and learning from each other. I really think I learned so much from them.
Geigner, one of Hecht’s co-editors and former mentees, shares a similar sentiment.
“It was really collaborative, and it was very encouraging, but we also really challenged ourselves,” Geigner said. “Everyone was involved in it at the same level and cared about it the same way. “
Geigner expressed his admiration for Hecht, who has been his teacher, colleague, co-author, friend and “fan”.
“He’s such a nice guy – he’s kinda modest, he wants to help everyone – that I think people forget how much of a giant he is in the field,” Geigner said. “He is the first Chicago theater historian of our generation. It was such a godsend for Jasmine and I to have Stuart with us because he kind of legitimized the project in some ways. He didn’t always have time to write [about all his experiences], so I think people forget that he has this in-depth knowledge.
The introduction Hecht wrote for the book focuses on the surviving fires and the story of the “comeback” that has long been a theme in Chicago theater history. Because the book was being written at the start of COVID-19, Northwestern University Press turned to the authors to ask them to include current events in their book, Hecht said. So the three added sections on the pandemic, the #MeToo movement and other social issues affecting the world – and the success of the Chicago theater – today.
One notion Hecht made in the book is that the Chicago theater has been resilient in the past while resisting obstacles, and that might be the best indicator of its future re-emergence, he said.
“[It’s about] looking more closely and seeing that there are recurring themes over time, ”said Hecht. “This is the goal, that we learn from the past and that we can see the patterns that lead to the present. And maybe even hopefully get a glimpse of the future. “
Hecht carries a similar notion outside of his work because he believes the arts can help young people with various issues, such as mental health, he said.
“I believe [in] the power of the arts in general, and the theater in particular, to process and help heal so many of these disturbing and impersonal dynamics, ”said Hecht. “This is a group of people in a large room, together, without distractions, sharing, observing, participating in a performance experience, where they can laugh together or gasp as one and then leave and chat together after each one without judgment and considering not only that you don’t have to be perfect, but no one else is. And that is our shared humanity, and that is our strength.
In addition to his other work, Hecht has now directed more than 20 productions in British Columbia, supervised 70 student productions and supervised 50 independent student projects.
“Not only does he do this work where he does all this research and he writes it and supervises young researchers, but he also makes the community to [the] The theater department at Boston College, what it is and directing shows and working with undergraduates who dream of being actors and designers and directors, and mentoring them too, ”Geigner said. . “So I think that makes him a very important figure to all of you at Boston College, even beyond the kudos for writing this important scholarship.”
Graphic presented by Annie Corrigan / Height Editor