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Criss Henderson to Step Down as Chicago Shakespeare’s Executive Director

After 33 years working alongside founding A.D. Barbara Gaines, Henderson will step down to pursue new creative endeavors.

CHICAGO: After 33 years, Criss Henderson will step down as executive director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the end of 2022. Henderson’s exit follows the announcement of founder and artistic director Barbara Gaines, who also will be stepping down from her role in mid 2023.  

Henderson began his career as executive director in 1990 when the theatre was just a start-up. Under his three-decades-long leadership, Chicago Shakespeare has been the recipient of the 2008 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, along with multiple Laurence Olivier and Joseph Jefferson Awards. He was an integral part of the theatre’s move to Navy Pier in 1999 and led the recent development of The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. Additionally, Henderson led the city-wide Shakespeare 400 Chicago celebration honoring the life and legacy of William Shakespeare.

“After more than three decades of extraordinary experiences and a lot of recent reflection, I have decided there are new creative chapters and artistic projects that I want to bring to fruition outside of the day-to-day operations of running a theatre,” said Henderson in a statement. “As Chicago Shakespeare passes its 36th year, I feel the theatre is ready for an infusion of fresh perspectives and next-generation vision. I have been leading Chicago Shakespeare for more than half my life, and I have had some truly remarkable opportunities. Now, with the buzz of artists and audiences again filling Chicago Shakespeare—and on the eve of another world premiere, The Notebook, in our theatre—it feels right to make the space for myself to develop new creative projects and to open the door to new leadership that will take the company to the next thrilling level.” 

Henderson accumulated multiple honors and awards while serving as executive director, such as the 2013 Cultural Innovation Award from the Chicago Innovation Awards, Arts Administrator of the Year by Arts Management Magazine at the Kennedy Center, recognition in Crain’s Chicago Business “40 under 40;” and the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture of France. Henderson has also served on the board of directors for the League of Chicago Theatres and Arts Alliance Illinois, and for many years as president of the Producers’ Association of Chicago-area Theatres. He is currently the director of DePaul University’s MFA Arts Leadership Program.  

“Criss has led Chicago Shakespeare through every phase of the organization’s storied and successful history,” said Chicago Shakespeare Theater board chair Mark Ouweleen in a statement. “In addition to the myriad business functions he oversaw, he has been a key producing force in the organization through his curation of the theatre’s WorldStage series, the development of hundreds of artistic and producing partnerships, and through the creation and implementation of many of Chicago Shakespeare’s marquee initiatives like Team Shakespeare—the theatre’s extensive program for students and teachers—and Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, now in its 11th year. Criss’ entrepreneurial energy has guided and supported the theatre for decades, and he will leave us in good hands, with a very strong executive team who will help carry that spirit of adventurous creativity forward.” 

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater will conduct an international search for his replacement and will bring in an interim director until Henderson’s official departure.  

“It has been a great honor to help build this company from, literally, ‘two planks and a passion’ into the leading and essential arts organization it is today,” said Henderson in a statement. “The extraordinary evolution of Chicago Shakespeare was the result of many, many partnerships—with Barbara, artists, educators, program and administrative staff, board members, and most importantly, the people of Chicago. I have had the pleasure to work alongside so many talented and committed people over the years—I know I leave this theatre that I love in a very strong place, ready to embrace an exciting and vibrant future.” 

Chicago Shakespeare Theater is a nonprofit organization that aims to embrace diversity in all its forms, prioritize inclusion, provide equitable opportunities for growth and success, and offer an accessible experience for all. As of 2020, the theatre has an estimated budget of $17million.  

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