Many theatergoers remember a time when the summer sun would shine down on the Windy City and stages immediately went dark. It seemed only natural. Scorching rays blanketed the skyline, so locals got out their picnic blankets and headed for the beach. Today, however, thanks to air conditioning and an expanding audience, theater in Chicago during the summer months ranks right up there with baseball and al fresco dining.

Three of the hottest mid-year theater festivals highlight the city's commitment to diversity and new play development. Prop Thtr Group's New Play 2000 boasts its largest season to date, offering three dozen workshop productions, readings, educational forums, and visiting guest companies at various venues through August 13. Bailiwick Repertory's Pride 2000, running through October 1, has made a concerted effort to include more works addressing lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-related issues in addition to its traditionally eclectic bevy of gay-themed plays. And Theater on the Lake, through August 13, brings back hit shows from a variety of theaters, thus giving sun worshippers a chance to catch dramatic rays, too.

TOP OF THE PROP

In 1997, Prop artistic director Scott Vehill and managing director Jonathan Lavan met with the president of the nationally-famous Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center to discuss the possibility of creating a midwest regional festival modeled on the O'Neill's summertime National Playwrights' Conference. One year later, Prop and the O'Neill decided to co-produce a regional festival using scripts from the O'Neill. During that inaugural year, 13 groups--hosted by both entities--gathered in Chicago to form the National New Plays Network (NNPN), a loose confederation of theaters from across the country committed to new play development.

Last year, the organizers received over 130 submissions, selecting five for workshop productions and ten more for public readings. From that group, five plays--a better than average number--have gone on to full productions at various theaters, including Donna Blue Lachman's The Trouble with Peggy: Pieces of Guggenheim at the Blue Rider Theater in Chicago, Jamie Pachino's The Return of Morality at Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre (also a member of the NNPN), and John Sussman's Nelson and Simone, opening in July at Live Bait Theatre in Chicago.

"Prop has been around for 20 years," says managing director Lavan. "We have been in the forefront of pushing new plays. This year's offerings range from historically-based to cutting-edge, counterculture works."

New Play 2000 is divided into four segments, beginning with full productions, such as the premiere of Charles Pike's and Nile Southern's Now Dig This...The Terry Southern Show. The workshop segment features 10 new plays--selected from 180 submissions--including Aaron Carter's Not What I Am, a modern take on Othello; Joseph Fedorko's 18 U.S. Code 871, about computer hackers; Jim O'Connor's Rosemary, which tackles the subject of Rosemary Kennedy's mental illness; Paul Peditto's depraved plunge into The Deep Abyss of Pauly Vegas; and Martin Furey's Shot, a drama about photojournalism by local actress Maureen Gallagher.

The visiting playwrights category welcomes other NNPN members, including Los Angeles' The Actor's Gang, who will present The Four Roses, a meditation on Tennessee Williams' women, and Fairy Tales, which imagines what would happen if Hansel and Gretel were queer. Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre brings Howard Shalwitz's The Chinese Art of Placement, running July 13 through July 23; Guillermo Reyes' one-man comedy Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown, presented by Tucson's Borderlands Theater, running from July 27 through July 30; and more.

Finally, the Hot Spots category gives a platform to one-person shows, such as Paula Killen's Big Goddess Pow Wow/Knocked Up!, and Kestutis Nakas' My Heart, My President. Prop Thtr also incorporates a youth outreach program with Gallery 37.

New Play 2000 partners include the League of Chicago Theatres, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and Steppenwolf, Chopin, Mercury and Curious Branch theaters. For more information, call 773-486-PROP.


TIDE OF THE PRIDE

Bailiwick Repertory's 12th annual Pride Series--this year it's Pride 2000--keeps pushing boundaries as it looks at gay and lesbian theater with an expansive theme: Celebrating the Past, Introducing the Future. The series opened in May with Henry Blake Fuller's 1896 drama, At Saint Judas's, believed to be the first gay play written and performed in Chicago. Seven world premieres, one American premiere, six regional premieres, and a revival will be performed on Bailiwick's main stage and studio theater.

"Pride 2000 gives us a great opportunity to stretch the definition of Gay/Lesbian/ Bisexual/Transgendered (GLBT) theater," says artistic director David Zak. "While the early years of the Pride Series dealt mainly with HIV and AIDS, works for the stage today reflect the great variety seen in the day-to-day lives of the GLBT community."

On the historical side of the spectrum are New York playwright Blair Fell's Naked Will, running through July 2, which imagines a fictional meeting between William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde; Paula M. Kimper and Wende Person's 19th century lesbian opera, Patience and Sarah, running August 6 through September 3, based on the novel by Isabel Miller; and Christopher McMorris' A Real Read in Jeopardy, a comedy in game show format that tracks African-American GLBT history through the ages.

Contemporary works include Brian Kirst's Bare, focusing the controversial topic of "barebacking" (unprotected intercourse) and the Internet; Dan Martin and Michael Biello's musical revue, Q; Russell Glidden and Ron Rigby's Workout!, which addresses aging and fitness; and Gina Schien's Relative Comfort, about lesbian courtship and marriage. To increase audience's exposure to work by lesbian writers, Bailiwick has also put into motion the Lesbian Theater Initiative, a year-round marketing effort headed by Coco Soodek "to change the behavioral habits of lesbians regarding the performing arts." Patrons can purchase a "Lavender Pass"--five plays for $60.

According to Zak, the series attracts diverse audiences from Chicago and many other parts of the Midwest and acknowledges past criticism that the Pride Series tends to seem like a parade of gorgeous naked men. Indeed, Bailiwick is bringing back David Dillon's wildly successful Party, running August 27 through September 24, a play which ends with the entire cast bereft of their bare essentials. "That's the easiest criticism to level at us," says Zak. "[But] we're trying to represent of spectrum of issues and viewpoints. The Pride Series has never shied away from sexuality either--it's part of who we are."

Subscriptions are $150 for all 15 shows; or $90 for a half-pass. For more information, call 773-883-1090.


TAKE IN A LAKE

One appealing way for arts aficionados to combine their proscenium fix with a beachside promenade is to experience the Chicago Park District's Theater on the Lake. Now in its 48th year, the festival presents local professional theater companies remounting their critical successes from the regular season. Like old-fashioned summer stock, each show runs just one week. Theatre on the Lake attracts audiences who may have missed these shows initially, offering them low-priced tickets as well as a way to view the vast theatrical styles fostered throughout the city, all in one easy-to-reach location.

Theater on the Lake began as an in-the-round community theater featuring shows supervised by coordinators from various Chicago Park District drama programs. Four years ago, the Park District invited professional theater companies to raise the bar, asking distinguished local directors Curt Columbus and Susan Booth to take charge. The two have scouted out hundreds of productions over the year to determine the nine plays that will fill the Park District's requirement for age-spanning shows that reflect Chicago's diverse community.

"About 80 percent of our audiences have been over the age of 40," says Columbus. "Over the past two seasons, we've had a 30 percent increase in subscribers under the age of 40. People of all ages have expressed their appreciation to us for bringing shows to them that they may never have seen on their own."

Unlike some past productions, which emphasized spectacle, this season dares to give voice to language-rich plays and less conventional theater companies, alongside some of the best-known Chicago theater troupes. The opening show, for example, is Words on Fire, presented by Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Arts Exchange Program, which finished it's run on June 18. The piece highlighted the work of poets--Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Li-Young Lee--who celebrate urban life. This week, running June 21 through 25, audiences will find three actors, two puppets, and a minimal set evoking the angst-ridden treachery of Elsinore when Lookingglass Theatre brings its imaginative, 90-minute Hamlet to the lake.

Other offerings are: The South Side-based Chicago Theatre Company's remounting of The Journal of Ordinary Thought, about a group of neighbors who gather to tell their stories, running July 5 through 9; Porchlight Theatre's revival of Falsettos, June 28 through July 2; Curious Theatre Branch's wrestling-themed Losers, Alias, running July 12 through July 16; Eclipse Theatre's version of Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of a Nightingale, running July 19 through July 23; Roadworks' Stupid Kids, running July 26 through July 30; Teatro Vista's Aurora's Motive, running August 2 through August 6; and Second City's all-female revue, Girls Night Out, running August 9 through August 13.

All productions are performed in a newly refurbished indoor theater facing the water and surrounding park. Performances run Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm. Individual tickets are $10. See nine shows for $65, or purchase a "Flex Pass" -- five shows for $40. Call 312/742-7994.