Last week, Chicago Shakespeare Theater announced that Raúl Esparza will play the title role in its three-month run of Hamlet next spring, to be directed by the theater’s founder and artistic director, Barbara Gaines. Esparza’s casting is notable for a few reasons. First, he’s a terrific actor — on Broadway, with four Tony nominations to his name, and on television, where he’s built a following on Law & Order: SVU. Second, he’ll be among the older performers of the modern era to act as Shakespeare’s prince. Those who land the role usually fall within the age range of mid-twenties to late thirties; Esparza turns 48 this month.
The third reason has less to do with Esparza and more to do with a larger pattern of threes: This will be Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s third mainstage production of Hamlet in its three-decade existence — and its third time declining to give the meaty role to a Chicago actor.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s commitment to importing great work is one of the institution’s greatest gifts to Chicago. Its WorldStage series, for instance, brings global productions to Navy Pier every season.
More puzzling is its well-ingrained habit of importing actors from other cities to fill the leading roles in its own productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
This practice of casting actors from New York or elsewhere is not unique to Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The big musical-theater houses in the suburbs often boost the local ranks with New Yorkers, and both the Goodman and Steppenwolf have been known to bring in ringers as well.
And it’s far from a new complaint among actors in Chicago. Two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey, who began her career in this city, told Time Out Chicago in 2006 that she left for New York because of what she described as “the regional-theater disease.” Houses like the Goodman, she said, “kept bringing young actresses from New York to play the leading ladies.” And this was during the 1970s.
But Chicago Shakes is a special offender. Esparza may be a genuine box-office draw, and he at least has some history with Chicago, having started his own career here in the 1990s. But the vast majority of the imported actors we talk about aren’t recognizable faces or household names — they just happen to have the imprimatur of a Shakespeare hub like Canada’s Stratford Festival, or some brilliant showbiz sheen that apparently comes from having a New York City or London address.
To further investigate, I combed through my programs from Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s last three seasons. In the 2017–2018 season, out-of-towners made their debut Chicago performances in roles including Petruchio and Katherine in Taming of the Shrew as well as the title characters in Mary Stuart and Macbeth. The year before, the same was true of the actors playing Charles, Will, and Harry in King Charles III, as well as of both romantic leads in Shakespeare in Love.
It seems a foregone conclusion that the biggest, juiciest roles in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s mainstage productions will go to someone from out of town, with local actors left to fill smaller, supporting parts. There are exceptions, usually for veteran actors who may have been in Gaines’s cohort. Larry Yando, for one, has played both King Lear and The Tempest’s Prospero in the last few seasons. But Prospero’s daughter and all three of Lear’s sparring heirs were cast from New York.
Younger actors based in Chicago can’t seem to break through to topline roles. “I can’t remember the last time a Chicago actor under 40 played a lead on the mainstage,” local actor Edgar Miguel Sanchez told me last year. At the time, he was performing in CST’s Shakespeare in the Parks production of Romeo and Juliet. He’s also performed in the theater’s Short Shakespeare! young-audience shows, which, like the parks productions, are normally cast locally — though they’re lower-profile, and lower-paid, than the mainstage. “Barbara Gaines has nothing but good intentions, but the impact is what matters,” he added when we spoke this week.
This may all sound like sour grapes or a provincial bias against outsiders. Why should audiences care, if we’re getting to see the best of the best?
But we aren't seeing the best of the best. As a critic, I've watched theater in Chicago for a living for nearly 15 years. And I’m here to tell you that most of the imports that Chicago Shakes casts in lieu of locals aren’t outperforming the Chicago actors I imagine in their places. Nor are they names that might drive box-office sales.
And if they’re not bringing any increased value to audiences, why expend budget on travel, housing, and per diems that could be going to equally fine Chicago actors? It goes against the ensemble-based ethos that’s deeply embedded in our theater scene; audience members who subscribe to Steppenwolf or Steep or Teatro Vista or Congo Square do so in part because they know they like the actors they’re going to see there. They like being able to follow actors from role to role and watch their careers develop.
To see a stage with “Chicago” in its name filled with unfamiliar faces is jarring in a city that likes to take care of its own. Most of the actors whom Chicago Shakes imports never return. Audiences can’t invest in a performer they’ve never seen before in the same way they invest in an actor they can follow across various roles.
I asked CST's longtime casting director, Bob Mason, why the theater operates this way. “Chicago Shakespeare always begins its casting process in Chicago, with every hope that we will find what the director is looking for here at home,” he said via email. “We see Chicago actors for every lead role — the only exception to this is when a director’s vision has been formed with a certain actor in mind.”
I also asked Mason if there was truth to the idea — as some actors told me they’ve heard from CST’s staff — that the theater finds that Chicago’s younger actors don’t have the skill to land Shakespeare’s leading roles.
“Acting classical texts and speaking verse are skills that must be developed, and the reality is most college training programs spend one quarter out of four years on Shakespeare,” Mason said. He noted that the theater has offered classes in First Folio technique for actors since 2005.
“We have enormous respect for the young acting community in our city, and we have always championed young actors throughout the theater’s many productions,” he said. “I spend a great [deal] of time each spring visiting colleges and universities across the country promoting Chicago as the city in which to live and work.” He added that he, Barbara Gaines, and CST creative producer Rick Boynton all began their careers as young actors in Chicago.
Gaines launched Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the mid-’80s out of a series of Shakespeare workshops she’d offered to actors around town. Now the renowned performing arts venue has an eight-figure budget. “You don’t work in Chicago because you want to be famous internationally,” she recently told this magazine. “You work here because you really love what you’re doing.”
I believe she believes that, and it’s a message that surely has allure for young actors deciding where to build their careers and lives. As long, it seems, as those actors who choose Chicago understand they’re not likely to be chosen to play Romeo, Juliet, Ariel, Miranda, Puck, Petruchio, Kate, or Hamlet at the city’s sparkling Shakespeare shrine.