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The City of Big Shoulders




Chicago has a hell of a reputation to live up to. It’s a city that is famous for, among other things, burning to the ground and then rebuilding.  From scratch. It gave a home to the nation’s first skyscraper, and it’s been built on steel and sweat ever since. Even its nicknames promise something big: The City of Big Shoulders. The City That Works. The Second City.

The Second City. That’s a name that stings a little. As any second child can tell you, second just isn’t good enough. There is first, and there is ignored.  It puts a fire under your ass that can never, ever be allowed to go out. Because the moment you settle for second is the moment you allow yourself to be forgotten.

When I first moved to Chicago, I couldn’t figure out why everyone seemed to be draping themselves in the city’s flag. It’s everywhere: t-shirts, bumper stickers, artwork, logos, signs, tattoos, even dog collars. If you can squeeze four stars and a white bar on to it, someone in Chicago owns three. I had never lived in a place that felt so strongly about what it was, and what it was meant to do. It didn’t take me long to start understanding the feeling.

We are a churning mess of past, present and future. Unlike most of the Midwest, we’ve got a substantial amount of history to build on. Unlike most of the is East Coast, our history isn’t something we can live next to, it’s a ghost that haunts us. The great fire did more than just clean the slate; it made us realize that there was more we could do. The goal wasn’t to simply come back, it was to come back better. It wasn’t to replace, it was to exceed. We’ve never shaken that feeling.

We’re a city of drastic inequity. You can go from the opulence of the Gold Coast to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind South Side without too strenuous of a trip. You can flip from box scores for any of the city’s sports teams to obituaries of fifteen year olds killed in gun violence without really trying. Crime is a major issue, unless it’s not you’re not in “that” neighborhood, in which case you’re probably fine.

We’re a city that keeps trying. We’re not perfect. Some days, we don’t even look like we even approach “good”. But every day, we fight for it. We get angry, something that is so important. We remember what it is possible for us to accomplish.  Good enough just isn’t good enough. There is always room for improvement: personal, social, you name it, we know we can do better. And day by day, we do.

It’s not the same thing to any two people who talk about it. For some, it’s more grime than glamour. For others, this is the city they’ve been dreaming of all their life. In the same day, it can be what you curse when you wake up and what you thank God for when you go to sleep. But there’s one thing everyone can agree on; it’s home.

Like I said, it’s something different for everyone. I can’t speak for my fellow playwrights. But I can tell you what I know: To make art in Chicago, you can’t forget what this city is. Any of it. Ever. You need to know what the city means to you, and you need to have a working understanding of what it means to everyone else. I know that sounds impossible. Hell, even if it’s possible it sounds intimidating, if not  downright terrifying. But there’s a reason everyone in this city wears the flag. It’s part of us. The city gets into your pores, and you start thinking about what it means to be, well, Chicago. The stories you need to tell aren’t just your stories any more. They belong to you and your four million closest friends.

This is not a bashful city; if there is something to say, we’ll say it. This is not a timid city; we’ll listen to what you have to say and tell you exactly what we think of it. It’s this combination of knowing you have an audience mixed with the understanding that you have something to prove that makes Chicago theater special.

We can’t take anything for granted; every seat we fill is a ticket earned. Every person is different, and they want to know what we have to offer. Can we show them something they’ve never seen before? Can we give them a show they’ve seen dozens of times and make them think it’s brand new? We need to.  We know we have something to prove. We have to show that we’re part of this city. Prove that we’ve earned our spot here.

But we don’t do it just for them. Art in Chicago happens at the intersection of need and want. We face a drive to prove ourselves, but at the same time we know that we’re making the city a better place. We do this because we love it, and we know the people around us will love it too, as soon as we get a chance to show it to them. We are allowed to make our own rules, and speak our mind. We are allowed to be honest.

Let me say that again, just to make sure that I was clear; we are allowed to be honest. There is nothing more dangerous than an honest artist.

We are part of this city, just as it’s a part of us. We can say whatever we want about it. And it will listen. It may not like it, but it will listen. We can try to make it laugh, we can try to make it think. It is in our power to make it proud of everything it’s done, and ashamed of everything it still needs to do.  We do not need to lie, we do not need to pretend. After all, who can we trust if we can’t trust ourselves?

All of this is why I love Chicago, why I’ll always be proud to wear its flag. Permission to create, and expectation to succeed. A city that writhes and squirms and does everything it can to fix itself, to improve itself. To never stop growing. A city that won’t take no for an answer. A city that will not be ignored.

Chicago. It’s the City of Big Shoulders. It’s the City That Works. And you damn well better believe it delivers.


-Axel Arth


The Third Annual Chicago One-Minute Play Festival in partnership with Victory Gardens Theater is Monday June 17th and Tues June 18th. Tickets are only $15 for almost 100 brand new plays, and are available here.



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