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Chicago seizes center stage

Theater culture old and new and busy, busy

Top down: Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company is located in the historic Water Tower Water Works building on Michigan Avenue. Audience gathered behind a prop bus stop for “Big Lake Big City” at the Lookingglass; Dylan Saunders (left) and Joey Richter in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Stage 773; and the audience sat in lawn chairs around an AstroTurf set at Chopin Theatre for the play “12 Nights” (all playing last August).

john vitti/globe staff

Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company is located in the historic Water Tower Water Works building on Michigan Avenue.

Internet fame means a following, but not necessarily a live audience.

StarKid, formed by more than a dozen friends at the University of Michigan, is first and foremost a theater troupe. Founded in 2009 after the video of “A Very Potter Musical” went viral, StarKid has been prolific: writing and producing original parody videos — with the YouTube and DVD market in mind — while also performing live sketch comedy and staging national concert tours.

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And they chose to make Chicago their home base.

Dylan Saunders (left) and Joey Richter in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Stage 773.

Mark Albain

Dylan Saunders (left) and Joey Richter in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Stage 773.

“We were lucky enough to have found a group of people that wanted to work together,’’ said Julia Albain, who last summer served as director and executive producer of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Stage 773.

“We were spread out all over the place and we said, ‘Where would be a city that we could all live [in] together comfortably, but affordably, and produce our own stuff?’ ”

[New York] ‘wasn’t the city for me . . . . I had been used to creating my own work. . . . Chicago was the city that was doing that kind of thing.’

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This summer, StarKid’s own stuff will include two new original musicals, “The Trail to Oregon,” a time-travel period piece, and “Ani — A Parody,” about a galaxy far, far away.

Chicago’s theater scene is vibrant and varied. With easy access from both coasts, a user-friendly elevated train system (the L), streets in an easy-to-navigate grid, world-class museums, a lake that looks like an ocean, the free Lincoln Park Zoo, and everyday prices lower than New York or Los Angeles, Chicago deserves its own spotlight as a vacation destination.

Downtown on Michigan Avenue — better known as the Magnificent Mile — the Lookingglass Theatre is located in the renovated Water Tower Water Works building, a genius bit of civic subletting that provides a big-budget troupe a downtown home. Lookingglass is one of more than 250 theaters operating in the Chicago area, ranging in size from 25-seat storefronts to 3,000-seat spaces. Although those bigger venues are perfect for touring productions of “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon,” the Chicago theater scene lives and breathes because it also serves as an incubator for unique work.

“What’s great about Chicago is that almost every theater you walk into has some incredible production on some level, and that encourages people to see more theater,” said Eileen LaCario, vice president of Broadway in Chicago.

Broadway in Chicago owns five theaters with more than 1.7 million patrons each year. But LaCario, as past chair of the League of Chicago Theaters, understands the value of having the 250 companies knitted together and the freedom that comes with not having to fight for audience share.

“There is no competition in theater, there’s just bad theater [to keep people away],” she said.

Lookingglass’s stated purpose is to present “new, cutting-edge theatrical works.” Its oval black-box space seats about 250, including in a balcony, although those ringing the front row are sometimes reminded during a show (in a character’s aside) to watch out for moving sets.

Audience gathered behind a prop bus stop for “Big Lake Big City” at the Lookingglass.

John Vitti /Globe Staff

Audience gathered behind a prop bus stop for “Big Lake Big City” at the Lookingglass.

Last summer’s “Big Lake Big City” was a dark comedy directed by Lookingglass cofounder David Schwimmer. It’s about cops, infidelity, stolen art, and everything Chicago. It was written by Keith Huff (“House of Cards”) and was wildly uneven, yet, in the end, a perfectly satisfying night of theater.

The “new” and “cutting-edge” are the important takeaways. “Big Lake Big City” is not something you would necessarily see anywhere else.

“Audiences here in Chicago really understand new work,” LaCario said. “It has an audience base that certainly has the sophistication that New York has, without having the jaded nature of wanting it to fail.”

Albain, who grew up in Cincinnati, gave New York a try for a year after school.

“It wasn’t the city for me because you’re not making your own things there,’’ she said. “It’s very much systemized. It’s going to the big cattle-call auditions, it’s getting an agent and being sent out on stuff, and for me, that really wasn’t the trajectory I was on. I had been used to creating my own work. . . . Chicago was the city that was doing that kind of thing.’’

Lauren Lopez, who grew up in Michigan, also gave New York a try — and she even prefers it over Chicago. Still, she decided to relocate after a year. The assumption is that an actress leaving New York would also be leaving opportunities behind, but she said that hasn’t been the case.

“It’s kind of been the opposite, where I get a ton more work and a ton more auditions than I ever did in New York,” Lopez said. “It actually benefits people to come to Chicago because it still has a great and a very large theater scene, but it’s not as out of control huge as it is in New York, where everyone and their uncle is trying to be an actor.’’

The StarKid troupe is spread evenly among New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but they converge in the middle for projects. Joey Richter grew up in Southern California and commutes to Chicago now just as he did when he was still in Ann Arbor and making five-hour bus trips when “Starship” was in production.

“The city of Chicago has been really open,’’ Richter said. “They keep giving us chances and keep saying, ‘All right, let’s see what they’re going to do this time.’ ”

Last summer, it was a real play. Not a three-camera shoot before a live audience over a few evenings.

Because before “Potter,” there was “Judas.” A Basement Arts production at college stuck with so many StarKid performers, they felt compelled to restage it. Many came back, most choosing the same role as in their undergrad days. Lopez returned as Mother Theresa and Saint Monica, and Richter was not about to let anyone else take his parts of Satan and St. Thomas.

“For a lot of the projects we’ve worked on prior,” Richter said, “it was like, ‘Who are these kids? Who do these kids think they are?’ And we’re like, we don’t really know. We’re trying to figure that out ourselves.”

Sean Graney was trying to figure things out when he moved from Boston to Chicago.

Graney grew up in Saugus and went to Emerson. Upon graduation, the Boston theater scene wasn’t then what he was looking for, and New York was way too expensive.

“I searched for another city that I thought I could afford, and I was going to visit Chicago and Seattle, which was pretty hot in the early ’90s,’’ he said a few weeks later. “I visited Chicago and I saw this show, ‘Baby Go Blind’ by the Neo-Futurists, and I just fell in love with the city. I was like, Oh my gosh, I have to be in this city and making this type of theater. So I didn’t even visit Seattle.”

He started The Hypocrites, finding the city a place where actors and audiences alike appreciated new works.

“Audiences in Chicago love theater,’’ Graney said. “It’s a part of their everyday entertainment vocabulary. . . . You get everybody from across the economic spectrum.”

In August, Graney will premiere “All Our Tragic” in Chicago at The Den Theatre in Wicker Park, the new home of The Hypocrites. It is a project that found its shape in Cambridge over the past year while Graney was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Graney deconstructed the 32 surviving Greek tragedies then blended them together for one show.

One 12-hour-long show.

And Chicago — with its supportive artistic community and engaged audiences — is just the place for it.

“We’re not competing for audiences, because if they like the experience on Friday night, they might go see another show that they hear is great the very next night,’’ he said. “So it’s not competitive at all. There’s no reason to be competitive. If my show is good, it’s all the more likely that they are going to go see one of your shows.”

The audience sat in lawn chairs around an AstroTurf set at Chopin Theatre for the play “12 Nights” (all playing last August).

John Vitti /Globe Staff

The audience sat in lawn chairs around an AstroTurf set at Chopin Theatre for the play “12 Nights” (all playing last August).

Last summer, The Hypocrites staged “12 Nights” at the Chopin Theatre. The awards from the Chicago press for the Chopin have been many, and deserving, if only for the world’s best basement, perhaps best thought of as the rec room for “Antiques Roadshow.”

The audience chooses the pre-show soundtrack — Prince on this and most every night — before entering a black-lighted dance space where the four-person cast hands out Oreos and Sharpies, encouraging all to dance, eat, and write on the walls.

A few songs later, the party moves into a rainbow-striped room. The set for the Shakespeare remix is nothing more than some AstroTurf, a Frigidaire, and a boombox, all encircled by the audience sitting in fold-up lawn chairs. The happiest 70 minutes of gender-confusion comedy with an ’80s soundtrack ensues.

Cast member Zeke Sulkes grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and went to Northwestern.

For him, being in Chicago brings a chance at artistic freedom and like-minded talent, all without sweating every last dime.

“Part of what makes [the theatre scene] so special for both audience and actors is that — for better or worse — there’s less money involved,’’ Sulkes said. “In this laboratory, you can make crazier things. There’s less worry about, oh, can we make the money back on this investment?There’s always that worry, but at the same time, let’s go crazy, let’s make something that nobody’s ever seen before, and break through the rules.”

John Vitti can be reached at john.vitti@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVitti.

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