Chicago is home to a fantastic theater scene with splashy productions that can compete with any Broadway show, but it wouldn’t be a proper trip to Chicago without visiting one of the many independent theaters just steps away from downtown. You’ll be overwhelmed on any Friday or Saturday night with dozens of options for plays, musicals, comedy, and more. But here in the Windy City, there’s one kind of show that stands above them all: improv.
Much of the independent theater scene’s success should be attributed to Chicago’s infatuation with improv. The city is the birthplace of Second City, the Old Town improv school and theater from which many Saturday Night Live alums got their start. The iO Theater, another improv powerhouse, just went through a massive renovation in Lincoln Park—complete with a full kitchen and sunny beer garden, so you can enjoy dinner and drinks pre- or post-belly laughs. Between these two independent theaters, there are more than a few highly-polished stages and shows to choose from on any given weekend. Don’t get too hung up on which one to attend—they’re both guaranteed to give your abs a workout.
If you’re looking for a more laid-back local experience, head over to The Den Theater in Wicker Park, and you’ll feel like you walked into someone’s living room. Grab a seat at one of the perfectly mismatched tables or chairs for a beer or coffee before the show starts. The relaxed, Zen-like vibe is totally appropriate. Sympathetic to the highly competitive improv scene in Chicago, outlets like the Den Theater give up-and-coming comedians a chance to share their talent on Tuesday and Saturday nights. The combination theater, cafe, and studio is a great way for you to get a glimpse into the local theater community beyond improv as well. The Hypocrites, a groundbreaking award-winning independent theater company, calls The Den Theater home.
Or take in a Chicago legend at Lincoln Park’s Apollo Theater. It’s been home to many smash hits including The Vagina Monologues, Menopause The Musical, and Million Dollar Quartet. The rock ‘n’ roll musical has been a Chicago staple since 2008, so join the hordes of fans and get ready a loud, live show at this cozy, independent theater. You feel like you’re nearly sitting on stage as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins rock out during this reenactment of a recording session that really happened one historic night in 1956. It’s a simple, one-set show in a smaller theater, but the music gets you out of your seat and will have you dancing onto Lincoln Avenue once the gig is over.