This story is part of a package of stories on Chicago theatre. For more, go here.
Deep-dish pizza. City of neighborhoods. Boystown. The “L” train. Bears. Cubs. Wrigley Field. The Magnificent Mile. Iconic architecture. Improv. And theatre! What do all these things have in common? Chicago, of course. With this issue of American Theatre magazine dedicated to celebrating the cultural vibrancy and diversity of Chicago theatre, it is helpful to remember that Theatre Communications Group has roots in Chicago.
Back in 1961, when TCG was founded by the Ford Foundation to create a greater sense of community and collaboration within a burgeoning national theatre movement, the Goodman Memorial Theatre (now Goodman Theatre) was among the 15 founding member theatres, and is still an active member today, almost 60 years later. Now that’s something to celebrate.
I spent three glorious years living in the Windy City. I had a blast. Made a lot of friends. Had my heart broken. Broke a few hearts. While I didn’t fully embrace my deep love of theatre yet, my appetite was whetted by what was going on in Chicago’s arts and culture scene. Julie Burros had just been appointed as the city’s new director of cultural planning. Her more than a decade of work there, engaging community members and organizations alike, helped transform Chicago. While it has always been a city that embraced innovation, her plan called for bold, accessible art, and the results since have been nothing short of extraordinary.
Last year, Kate Lipuma, executive director of Glencoe, Ill.’s Writers Theatre and newly appointed TCG board chair, and I hosted a roundtable lunch discussion with more than a dozen TCG member theatres based in Chicago and its surrounding areas. We wanted to know what was keeping our members up at night. What were some of the challenges and how can we help? We heard it all, from rapidly changing organizational cultures to realigning mission, vision, and programming with shifting audiences to fundraising challenges.
As you may know, these challenges are not unique to a small swath of theatres in Chicago but are shared throughout our entire theatre ecosystem. It’s a constant reminder to all of us how interconnected the field is. We heard you loud and clear, Chicago (and everyone in the field who generously shares what’s on your mind). TCG’s Fall Forum in 2018 was focused on organizational cultures. Pulling back the curtain on our cultures, together we were able to articulate better practices in this area. This year’s Fall Forum on Governance: A New Playbook, Nov. 8-10, will focus on the traditional theatre model and its future sustainability including fundraising practices, audience building, organizational culture, and artistic programming. The Goodman’s Roche Schulfer will kick things off this year in New York City with a special presentation before the Forum starts in earnest, responding to this question: “Is a lack of understanding of the economics of the performing arts contributing to growing mission erosion at not-for-profit theatres in the country?” The Forum plans to raise important issues for the future of our field, particularly as a new generation of leaders moves to the forefront to take the reins of some of the nation’s most important theatres, large and small alike.
Indeed, with such Chicago exemplars as Jackie Taylor, founder and CEO of Black Ensemble Theater; or Ricardo Gutierrez, artistic director of Teatro Vista; or Ann Filmer, artistic director of 16th Street Theater, the entire field can learn the value of embracing a city’s challenges head on, authentically engaging with community partners, and producing really good theatre in the bargain. These are some of the reasons why Chicago continues to thrive as a beacon in our national theatrical landscape.
As TCG begins to embark on a new strategic planning process, it is places like Chicago, along with all our unique individual members and member theatres around the U.S. and across our borders, that will inspire our plan, just as they have challenged and inspired us so far.