These days, we have no shortage of entertainment options. Thanks to streaming, we have thousands upon thousands of songs, movies, and other fun distractions literally at our fingertips. But none of these options can genuinely match the electrifying effect of live theater.
And, contrary to what you might have heard, you don’t have to be in New York City to experience the best theater in the country. There are plenty of U.S. cities with thriving theater scenes, including some that offer productions every bit as exciting and stimulating as those in NYC. Here are just a few of the great places to catch a show all across America.
Chicago is home to a number of theaters that add to the rich cultural tapestry of the city’s art scene. Broadway productions often come to Chicago for extended sit-down engagements — which are longer than your typical tour stopover. The city features some very large and beautiful theaters to house these productions, including the Chicago Theatre, the Cadillac Palace Theatre, and the James M. Nederlander Theatre. If a show is a hit on Broadway, it will very likely play Chicago sometime soon.
But Chicago also features its own distinct blend of respected regional theater companies, many of which have sent their productions on to New York runs. (So the traffic goes both ways, as it were.) Among the world renowned venues in Chicago are the prestigious Steppenwolf Theater and the well-appointed Goodman Theatre, one of the oldest nonprofits in the city. If you’re looking for something off the beaten track, Chicago also hosts a number of specialty and adventurous theater companies, including the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the award-winning Court Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company, and the Victory Gardens Theater.
With more than 200 theaters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities have a higher number of theaters per capita than anywhere else in America. They range from small, intimate stages to large-scale auditoriums, so there’s usually something for any taste playing in the Twin Cities area.
The Orpheum Theatre, for example, is a vintage theater that dates back to the 1920s and is part of a collection of historic buildings dotting downtown Minneapolis. You can’t miss its old-fashioned marquee. Meanwhile, the Guthrie Theater is a sleek, futuristic piece of architecture that gleams off the waterfront of the Mississippi River. The Guthrie is one of the most respected regional theaters in the country, and usually features challenging, thoughtful productions of ambitious plays. Other theaters of note in the area include Theater Latte Da, the State Theatre, and the Children’s Theatre Company.
The nation’s capital is a leader in many ways, including in its dedication to the arts. You’ll definitely want to put DC on your bucket list for theater tourism.
You’re probably familiar with Ford’s Theatre, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. However, not all of DC’s performing arts venues are so notorious. The Arena Stage, for example, is a glamorous multiplex that’s the very picture of modernity. The Shakespeare Theater Company is more old-school with a kind of operatic grandeur, but isn’t that fitting for a brand dedicated to the Bard?
Over in Arlington, Virginia, the Signature Theatre puts on everything from full-scale musicals to intimate dramas. And the Wooly Mammoth is the region’s go-to destination for experimental theater.
California is no stranger to the arts, and San Diego isn’t the only city where you can appreciate them, but it’s certainly one of the best. San Diego may be a lesser-known destination for theater, but it shouldn’t be. It’s basically a Broadway pipeline. Dozens of shows from places like La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe have wound up on the world’s biggest stages, including those in NYC. The Old Globe is modeled after London’s Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare’s best plays premiered.
The historic Balboa Theatre is a venue that dates back to the 1920s, and hosts many of the professional touring productions that come through the city. If you’re after something a little more modern, try the Civic Theatre with its glossy exterior and its jam-packed rotation of musicals, concerts, and plays.
Theater is alive and well in Texas. Regardless of what you’re looking for, Houston is a great city to experience theater in all of its forms, and it’s proof that you don’t need the fancy lights of NYC to enjoy vital artistic performances.
One of Houston’s most celebrated venues, the Alley Theater, is home to many high-caliber productions of popular plays and thought-provoking classics. The exterior of the venue may be a brutalist horror show (see photo above), but the interior is a gleaming facility with a thrust stage and state-of-the-art production values.
For slightly less traditional fare, you could visit Theater Under the Stars (TUTS), which as the name suggests specializes in outdoor productions that are often performed for free at local parks. The 4th Wall Theatre Company venue hosts a number of small theater troupes presenting adventurous productions of contemporary plays. The Classical Theater Company is dedicated, as you might expect, to year-round classics.
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The days when Boston was the tryout city of choice for commercial productions headed to Broadway are, alas, long gone. But Boston’s grand old theaters — including the gloriously ornate Colonial Theater and the grand and capacious Opera House — still get their share of world-class theater productions, many headed to — or coming from — The Big Apple.
Boston also has a thriving roster of regional theaters, some of which are affiliated with nearby schools like Boston University and Emerson College. The award-winning Huntington Theater Company features a rotating roster of high-caliber dramas and challenging musicals.
If you’re willing to go outside of Boston’s city limits and venture across the Charles River into Cambridge, you can also visit the American Repertory Theater, Harvard’s world-renowned regional theater, which under the guidance of artistic director Diane Paulus has taken a decidedly commercial turn. The venue hosts the lion’s share of Broadway tryouts in the Boston area, including the new musicals Waitress and Six, as well as revivals of classic shows, like Pippin and 1776.
Among the many respected smaller theater companies around Boston are the Speakeasy Stage in Boston’s South End, the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, and the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. The Central Square facility features a flexible black-box performance space that houses productions by the Nora Theater Company and the Underground Railway Theater.
Did we miss your favorite U.S. theater city or venue? Tell us about it in the comments section below!