CHICAGO: Nestled between a taqueria and a children’s theatre in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood is the the Gift Theatre, a cozy storefront venue that brings comedies and plays to the Northwest side of the city. American Theatre caught up with co-founder and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton to learn more about programming theatre for small audiences in the Windy City.
Who founded the Gift Theatre, when, and why?
The Gift was founded in principle at the University of Iowa by myself and William Nedved. It was inspired by a Grotowski-based class called Alternative Approaches to Acting, taught by Dr. Eric Forsythe. The Gift began formally producing as a non-for-profit theatre in Chicago in December of 2001.
As a kid growing up on the Northwest side of Chicago, the things I was passionate about (the arts) were not accessible. In order to experience a play or museum, I had to ride the train downtown. I didn’t realize this as a kid, of course, but what this ultimately tells a population is that they aren’t worth their own arts organization. I cringe at how many future theatre artists we’ve lost because of this. So the Gift is firmly rooted in the neighborhood where I grew up and still live—Jefferson Park—at the corner of Lawrence and Milwaukee Avenues. And by rooted, I mean ideologically and legally: it’s in our bylaws.
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
There are no other professional theatres like the Gift in our region. At 45 seats total, the Gift is the most intimate Equity theatre in Chicago and easily one of the most intimate venues in the country.
Who is your audience?
Our audience is a mix of subscribers and, of course, single ticket buyers. Our subscriber base is comprised mainly from the local zip codes and northwest suburbs as well as more affluent, arts-accessible neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Any given night, there will be someone in the audience who holds multiple subscriptions to various theatres as well as locals for whom the Gift is essentially their only contact to live theatre. The audience/actor relationship is paramount to Grotowski, and so we’re always finding ways to create a culture with our audience. We show up, after all, for them.
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
I’m forever indebted to the teachers, employees, and friends I’ve met through Steppenwolf. Some became fellow ensemble members of the Gift, some became board members (Steppenwolf cofounder Jeff Perry) and one became my wife, Lindsey [Barlag Thornton]! After I became disabled, Steppenwolf was the only theatre besides the one I cofounded which consistently employed and collaborated with me. I will always remember that. I’d also be remiss to not mention the magical unicorn of Actors Theatre of Louisville [in Kentucky], which is simultaneously hyper-local and national. That’s the curatorial tightrope walk the Gift intends to keep balancing.
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
I’ve joked with ensemble member David Rabe that there’s a cocker spaniel in charge of these matters, but alas it’s a bit more involved than that. The Gift is, first and foremost, an ensemble theatre. That word “ensemble” means something to us and must always be reexamined through our work and our training together. I look at who is available, who hasn’t worked with each other, and then think about a very large and unanswered question I have about capital letter inquiries like Life, Love, etc. And then around 300 plays are read and three are selected after consulting with cofounder Will Nedved and associate artistic director Paul D’Addario.
Every season we read plays where it becomes pretty easy to guess which one of us would end up playing which part, how it would fit into our space, and how our audience would receive it; it is our deepest curatorial conviction that those plays must always be graciously declined. I believe human beings, in the act of pursuing the impossible, are at our most beautiful. That the willingness to pioneer together, uncertain of the course, creates the course. What feels impossible often becomes the Gift.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season? The Gift is a half-a-million-dollar annually with two full time employees, four-part time employees, and—between both Equity, non-Equity, and designer contracts—employs between 40 and 60 individual artists a year.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
Jessica Thebus and I just codirected the world premiere of Claire Kiechel’s Pilgrims at the Gift. We’re gearing up for our Season Release Bash July 16 and our annual gala in December. This summer marks the launch of 4802, our new play development engine at the Gift, run by ensemble member Andrew Hinderaker and Monty Cole, so we’re all revved up about pioneering what’s possible in a storefront theatre space through 4802. After Pilgrims, we have the world premiere of Janine Nabers’s A Swell in the Ground directed by Chika Ike.
What’s the strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
There is this toy baby who has appeared in about five plays. I only noticed it during a closing party last season. Some of the ensemble have taken to naming the damn thing; I won’t participate in that.
I played Richard III in a robotic exoskeleton, marking the first time that’s ever happened in theatre history.
Tracy Letts backstage talking into a microphone to be the voice of a bicycle in a short play written by Will Eno for our TEN festival was equal parts strange, funny, and inspiring (at the end of the day and at the pinnacle of success, you show up for your friends).
During previews of Hurlyburly, one of the actors became convinced another actor swapped out the powdered creamer for real cocaine, which of course he had not. I remember watching that performance crying from laughter and then immediately becoming terrified because something was different and absolutely electric. Only after the show did I realize what we had witnessed was essentially a three-hour-long panic attack.
A homeless person wandered off the street, backstage, and nearly into Moscow during Three Sisters.
The first play in our storefront home was The Glass Menagerie, and on opening night the power to our building went out three times, giving a whole new meaning to Amanda’s (played by ensemble member Mary Ann Thebus) line: “Electricity’s a funny thing!”
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
Sitting on my porch staring at trees listening to the same song on repeat. Reading fiction and nonfiction. Working on my own plays and stories. PlayStation. Half Acre Daisy Cutter. Playing records with Lindsey and dreaming about Paris. Catching up with friends. Smoking brisket and ribs. Watching the sunlight finger through the leaves and feeling grateful.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
My hope and intent is that it will truly “hold the mirror up to nature” and reflect who we are by virtue of casts, ensembles, and arts makers. What I would really like to see is the arts migrate from the perception of an indulgence to a necessity, something as common as air and as ritualized as grocery shopping. As a product of a very working-class, middle-class neighborhood, I feel like the arts often sacrifice massive amounts of would-be patrons and supporters in pursuit of a more familiar path. We need to be making a strong, clear, and emotionally impactful case for everyone to step into the theatre, sit down, and join in what is one of the oldest rituals of human beings: telling stories to each other.