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Heads Up: In Chicago, Three Newcomers to the Theater Scene

The theaters — UP Comedy Club, the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center and Stage 773 — opened outside of the central downtown area, known as the Loop, where Broadway tours run and the Tony-winning Goodman Theater resides. The off-Loop scene is largely restricted to smaller spaces, often in storefronts where grocers, restaurants or dry cleaners once resided, and, for the most part, offers affordable entertainment, generally under $25 a ticket. The newcomers combine the best of both worlds: nicer places without downtown pricing.

“Some theaters are seeing cutbacks in corporate and individual donations, but not a drop in ticket sales,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theaters, a nonprofit. “We can count on our audience being there.”

The most recent addition is UP (230 West North Avenue, 312-662-4562, upcomedyclub.com), the third stage from the Second City improv group. The $1.4 million site opened in December in the same complex that houses Second City’s other theaters in the Old Town neighborhood, roughly two miles north of the Loop. UP is the sketch-driven group’s foray into standup comedy, seating 288, most at communal tables before a red-curtained stage. Its programming mixes children’s improv matinees and sketch comedy works with solo comics, like Pete Correale this week, performing on weekends. But local fare dominates, including a menu that features Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza and the scripted show “Second City’s History of Chicago.” 

 “There’s lots to laugh about in Chicago whether its politics, the Cubs or the weather,” said Kelly Leonard, the group’s executive vice president.

Four miles north, in the somewhat scruffy Uptown neighborhood, the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center (4440 North Clark Street, 773-769-4451, blackensembletheater.org) recently opened, an event that drew Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois and Dionne Warwick. The $19 million theater mounted its inaugural show in mid-November, after five years of fund-raising on the part of the theater from sponsors like the Polk Bros. Foundation.

 Previously in the basement of a community center, Black Ensemble more than tripled its space in its new home. Inside, seven musicians play from a raised bandstand above the thrust stage, where the company founder, Jackie Taylor, has reprised “The Jackie Wilson Story,” a biography she wrote and directs. The company specializes in musical biographies: coming shows will be devoted to Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross and James Brown.

 Many of Chicago’s estimated 250 theaters lack permanent homes, providing potential renters for Stage 773 (1225 West Belmont, 773-327-5252, stage773.com) in the Lakeview neighborhood, about four miles north of the Loop. The space, which opened in October, is a $1.7 million renovation and expansion of a former theater. The result is four stages, including an intimate 70-seat cabaret for singers, burlesque acts and comedians and two 150-seat theaters for dance and drama. Behind a glass facade in the lobby, a box office handles ticket sales, and a full-service bar encourages lingering post-curtain.

  The theater wanted a space “where people could hang out and maybe get interested in the show next door,” said Brian Posen, the artistic director.

 Respected theater companies like Artistic Home (theartistichome.org) have already moved into Stage 773, though they will clear out Jan. 5 through 15, when all four stages will be devoted to the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival (chicagosketchfest.com), featuring 160 shows by 130 local, national and international groups.

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