Off-Campus Profiles, Profiles

Hecht Spotlights Chicago Theatre’s History in New Book

Since the first theatre performance in Chicago in 1834, the Chicago theatre community has experienced various obstacles from auditorium fires to the cancellation of in-person performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among all of these challenges, something has remained constant—the community. Stuart Hecht, a professor in Boston College’s theatre department, believes theatre is about community, and nowhere, he claims, is this more apparent than in Chicago.

“One question I had is simply why is it that there’s 300 theaters in Chicago,” Hecht said.

Now, he knows the answer.

“It has to do with the demographics and has to do with the way of life and values of the community and habits that were formed with money and ambition and boosterism in the city,” he said.

In the 1970s, approximately 140 years after the emergence of theatre in Chicago, Hecht began studying this vibrant past, present, and future community.

Hecht grew up playing the trumpet and piano without the intention of pursuing a passion in theatre. Hecht said his interest in theatre began quite accidentally, as he joined his high school’s theatre group on a whim after a close friend in high school started acting.

After graduating from high school, Hecht attended the University of Michigan. But, he did not begin his undergraduate career with theatre on his radar.

“Originally, I was going to be a psychologist, but, you know, I took a psych class my freshman year, and I went, ‘Oh God no,’” he said.

Hecht then thought he would become an attorney and began studying American history. It was through the girlfriend of one of his RAswho was the president of the University of Michigan’s student theatre groupand a stumbling across of the English department’s drama major that theatre once again ended up on his agenda. He then abandoned the idea of attending law school, and after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1977, he pursued a Ph.D. in theatre at Northwestern University, one of the top graduate schools for studying theatre in the U.S., he said.

At Northwestern, Hecht dove headfirst into the Ph.D. program. At the same time, he became a volunteer on the artistic staff at Goodman Theatre and soon began teaching part-time at Loyola University Chicago. Hecht earned his doctorate degree in 1983, but when the university cut his funding for teaching soon after, he knew it was time for a change.

“And I said, you know, ‘What do I really want to do? Well, I want to teach,’” Hetch said. “So, I put myself on the job market. There was actually a job in Boston, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ and it was at this place called Boston College.”

When Hecht began working at BC in 1986, the theatre major was part of the English department, and it had few students and faculty. Not only did the school want a theatre professor, Hecht said, they needed someone to build a theatre program.

“It was hard, but thrilling,” he said.

In 1992, Hecht became the founding chair of the theatre department, and later that year, the theatre department officially became its own department. Hecht held his position as chair for 13 years and stepped down in 2005. During his time as chair, with the help of a few dedicated colleagues, he built the program from the ground up. When he started the department, it had three faculty members, three classes, and around 33 total majors, he said. By his last year as chair, there were over 146 majors, and the department now boasts seven full-time faculty members and offers over 25 classes. Hecht attributes this shift to his directing class which, at the time, united BC’s two opposing theatre clubsthe Dramatics Society and Contemporary Theatre.

“After two semesters [in the class], they really knew what they were doing directorally,” Hecht said. “They had all the skills and knowledge and analytical abilities. … Both kids from the DG [the Dramatics Society] and CTG [Contemporary Theatre] were in my class and, instead of looking at each other in terms of which group are you in, [there was a shift to] the material itself … and that solved everything.”

Despite the joy Hecht found in this work, he said he stepped down in 2005 because he had little time to focus on his own research. Although he continued to teach at BC, Hecht was then able to work on other projects.

He became editor-in-chief of the New England Theatre Journala position he still holds almost 25 years laterand published his book Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical in 2011. But he was far from done. Hecht had stayed involved in the Chicago theatre scene throughout his career, continuing to write, research, and contribute to conferences and panels.

Four years ago, after a panel about Chicago theatre, Hecht and two colleagues began to compile essays on the history of theatre in the city. Their work recently culminated in Hecht’s latest publication—Makeshift Chicago Stages: A Century of Theater and Performance, which was published by the Northwestern University Press in 2021. In the book, Hecht, along with Megan E. Geigner from Northwestern University, Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud from Seattle University, and a host of other theatre historians who contributed essays, details the stories of where theatre was practiced and performed throughout the city—often makeshift places, including parks, taverns, living rooms, and storefronts. In doing so, Makeshift Chicago Stages puts a spotlight on the racial dynamics, neighborhood distribution, and atypical locations that influenced the aesthetic and practice of Chicago’s art scene over the last century.

Hecht highlighted three key aspects of the story this collection of essays tells.

First, Hecht said it talks about the power of theatre in bringing people together. 

“It’s the story of a community that has found true theatrea vehicle both for entertainment and for the examination and exploration of often difficult social issues,” he said.

Next, he said the book broadens these ideas to the arts as a whole having the ability to initiate social change.

“It’s the story of a community that has often struggled with issues of boundary and racism and status—in some ways brutally,” he said. “And yet we find many instances of using the arts for purposes of boundary crossing and finding commonality 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.

Yet, the three had a shared vision, and their different viewpoints come together to make the book all the more compelling, he said.

Just as artists throughout history would collaborate, the three editors emulated a similar process in creating the book. Hecht describes in the book how all different types of artists, from actors to dancers to sculptors, have worked together to improve their art, and he said he was honored when, near the end of the book, his co-authors pointed to his own ideas.

“[There] really is that 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’re doing this too. … We were all sitting around together, comparing notes and each of our experiences and backgrounds, and learning from each other. I really do think I learned so much from them.”

Geigner, one of Hecht’s co-editors and prior mentees, shares a similar sentiment.

“It was really collaborative, and it was very supportive, but we also really challenged each other,” Geigner said. “Everybody was engaged in it on the same level and cared about it in the same way.”

Geigner expressed her admiration for Hecht, who has been her teacher, colleague, co-author, friend, and “fan.”

“He’s such a nice guy—he’s kind of unassuming, he wants to help everybody out—that I think people forget what a giant in the field he is,” Geigner said. “He is the original Chicago theatre historian of our generation. It was such a boon for Jasmine and I to have Stuart working with us because he kind of legitimized the project in some ways. He didn’t always have the time to write [about all his experiences], so I think people forget that he has this deep knowledge.”

The introduction that Hecht wrote for the book focuses on surviving fires and the history of “coming back” that has long been a theme in Chicago theatre history. Because the book was in the writing process during the onset of COVID-19, Northwestern University Press turned to the authors with a request that they 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 Chicago theatre—today. 

One notion Hecht made in the book is that Chicago theatre has been resilient in the past while enduring obstacles, and that might be the best indicator for its future re-emergence, he said.

“[It’s about] looking closer and seeing that there’s recurring themes over time,” Hecht said. “That’s the point—that we learn from the past and can see the patterns leading up to the present. And maybe even have, hopefully, some glimpse of the future.”

Hecht carries a similar notion outside of his work, as 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 theater in particular, to address and help heal so many of those troubling, impersonal dynamics,” Hecht said. “It has to do with a group of people in a large room, together, without distractions, sharing, observing, participating in a performance experience, where they can laugh as one or gasp as one and then go off and talk together after each without judgment and considering not only that you don’t have to be perfect, but nobody is. And that’s our shared humanity, and that’s our strength.”

In addition to his other work, Hecht has now directed more than 20 productions at BC, supervised 70 student productions, and overseen 50 independent student projects.

“Not only is he doing this work where he’s doing all this research and he’s writing it up and he’s mentoring young scholars, but he’s also making the community at [the] Boston College theatre department what it is and directing shows and working with undergraduate students who have dreams of being actors and designers and directors, and mentoring them too,” Geigner said. “So I think that makes him a really important figure for you all at Boston College, even beyond the kudos for writing this important scholarship.”

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

January 8, 2022