This edition shines a light on artists who’ve made their mark in Chicago, as part of our renewed focus on that city’s vibrant theatre culture (and our second focused on the Windy City, if you’re counting). If you would like to recommend a theatre artist (from anywhere) for a future Role Call, fill out our open Google Form here.
Alex Meyer (he/him)
Profession: Theatre administrator and stage manager
Hometown: Port Huron, Mich.
Current home: Chicago
Known for: Meyer serves as the Goodman Theatre’s board relations and individual giving coordinator, facilitating their board meetings, taking care of VIP ticketing, and coordinating donor processing and acknowledgement. He has also stage managed at numerous Chicago companies.
What’s next: As the Goodman gears up for The Who’s Tommy, Meyer is finalizing end-of-fiscal-year processes and preparing for the next fiscal year and 2023-24 board meetings.
What makes him special: Detroit-based playwright Kevin Elliott Chrisney praised Meyer for being an “insatiably kind and gracious artist who is always giving back to their community by volunteering for the Lincoln Square food pantry.”
Fostering relationships: Meyer finds inspiration in working toward making theatre accessible to everyone, including supporting the Goodman’s education and engagement programming, which brings performances to communities that may not typically have a connection to live theatre. “Fostering relationships with our community is a main passion point for me,” Meyer says, “whether it’s the thoughtful acknowledgement of a trustee gift or supporting programs that bring moving stories to Chicago’s parks.”
Arti Ishak (they/them)
Profession: Actor, director, writer, educator, and community organizer
Current home: Chicago
Known for: A communally engaged multi-hyphenate, Ishak develops and co-manages the Chicago Inclusion Project’s foundational Active Anti-Racism training series, teaches with Black Box Acting, and serves as co-founder and central organizer of SWANASA Central, an artist collective dedicated to uplifting Southwest Asian, North African, and South Asian communities. Ishak’s acting credits include Buried Child and Witch at Writers Theatre and The Best Decision You Ever Made at Second City, as well as television appearances on NBC’s Dark Matter and HBO’s Southside. Recently Ishak wrapped up their stage directing debut with the Chicago premiere of Rehana Lew Mirza’s Hatefuck.
What’s next: After closing Hatefuck, Ishak is seeking more companies “interested in bringing complex and authentic Muslim representation to their stage.” In addition to developing new projects, Ishak will present the short film ba la at the Los Angeles Micheaux Film Fest this July and see their original play Closure premiere at San Francisco’s ReOrient Festival later this year.
What makes them special: Adelina Feldman-Schultz, casting associate and facilitator at the Chicago Inclusion Project, called Ishak “one of the most exciting and groundbreaking multidisciplinary artists working today, redefining our understanding of both Muslim and multiethnic identity and representation.” Feldman-Schultz added that Ishak approaches their work with rare care and integrity, prioritizes mentoring young BIPOC artists, and is “tireless in their dedication to developing and uplifting stories by and for MENASA artists, creating a new canon of theatre that reflects the true diversity, and beautifully complex stories of their communities.”
Uplifting multiplicity: Ishak’s work centers around expanding contemporary art that explores the intersection of multiple identities, empowering artists of color, and upending traditional hierarchies. “As an Indonesian, Lebanese, non-binary Muslim American, I’ve often felt the pressure to simplify my existence for the comfort of others, and the loneliness that comes from never getting to see my whole identity reflected in art and media,” Ishak says. “The inability to fit into one neat little box and the realization that I don’t need to is what inspired my interdisciplinary art practice as an actor, writer, director, educator, and community advocate.”
Gabriel Ruiz (he/him)
Profession: Actor, writer, composer, sound designer
Hometown: Born in Camden, N.J., and raised in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Current home: Hamilton Heights, NYC
Known for: A prolific creative, Ruiz is currently appearing in the role of Alejandro, which he originated, in Broadway’s MJ: The Musical, and has worked extensively with Chicago companies. You may have recently experienced his work as writer and co-sound designer of The Fifth World podcast at Teatro Vista, where he is an ensemble member.
What’s next: Ruiz is currently focused on MJ: The Musical.
What makes him special: Teatro Vista co-artistic directors Wendy Mateo and Lorena Diaz value Ruiz’s commitment to self-evolution during his time working in Chicago theatre. “Ruiz has a thirst for life and a deep need to create,” they add. “Anything. Everything. He’s not just an actor, he’s an artist. We cannot think of one idea that he has pitched in the last two years that couldn’t be a genre bending live performance, a film, or a serial podcast.”
Upending expectation: Ruiz cites Chicago as a well of inspiration, a place where people create “work for its own sake” and where “goals can shift away from professional climbing and seeking accolades, and toward personal growth and artistic expansion.” As this creative city and the world experience cultural shifts, Ruiz craves radical innovation. “I want to be a part of inviting new voices that blow the dust off of the medium and meet people in this dynamic moment,” Ruiz says. “I’m desperate for new work that upends expectation in form and content. I can forgive a play for angering me, saddening me, taking my sleep—I can rarely thank a play for being ‘nice.’ I like when our work can make a ruckus.”
Gwendolyn Whiteside (she/her)
Profession: Theatre administrator, actor, director
Hometown: Topeka, Kans.
Current home: Chicago
Known for: Serving as artistic director of American Blues Theater since 2010, Whiteside has overseen 40 productions and begun various community initiatives. As an actor, she has appeared on both stage and screen. Chicagoans may recognize her from her company’s production of Grounded or her performance as Mary Bailey the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago, which she has directed since 2015.
What’s next: Whiteside is producing the 2023 Blue Ink Festival, featuring plays by award recipient Kristoffer Diaz and finalists Audrey Cefaly, Victor Lesniewski, and Gloria Majule. She is also excited to continue fundraising for American Blues Theater’s first permanent home, which opens later this year.
What makes her special: Actor, director, and producer Ashley Bishop applauds Whiteside for her humility and dedication to the theatre, calling her “an absolute force of nature.” She adds that Whiteside, “supports those in need, always sends notes of thanks or encouragement, and never asks for anything for herself.” She would, no doubt, be terribly embarrassed that anyone says these things about her.”
Centering the collective: Whiteside’s inspiration and motivation lies with the audience. “I do not mean applause at curtain call,” Whiteside says. “I’m talking about moving people with storytelling.” Living by the maxim “intelligence isn’t individual, it’s a collective,” she strives for better access both for audiences and theatremakers, especially those at Chicago’s smaller companies.
Kayla Menz (she/they)
Profession: Director, intimacy director, performer, stage manager
Hometown: Louisville, Ky.
Current home: Chicago
Known for: A founding member of the Unheard Of Company, Menz has directing credits including Jennifer Bradley’s ILY and Zack Peercy’s Muffed. As an intimacy director and coordinator for stage and screen, Menz’s projects include Prop Thtr’s The Cleanup, Cat McGee’s The Hillary Duff Project, and the films Bros Before and Yellow Polka Dot.
What’s next: After a welcome summer of recharging, Menz is lining up her projects for the upcoming 2023-24 season in Chicago theatre.
What makes them special: Collaborator, resident playwright at Three Brothers Theatre, and artistic associate at The Factory Theatre Zack Peercy lauds Menz as “an unsung hero” of Chicago storefront theatre. “She has saved countless productions through her interdisciplinary skills and extensive contacts,” Peercy adds. “They are one of those essential paperclips in the delicate jerry-rigged structure of Chicago theatre.”
Spectra of the physical and emotional: Menz feels most inspired by music and movement, looking to bring elements of dance and lyricism to realistic worlds. “I am driven by challenges and the constraints around making a moment happen. Creativity flourishes within containers. I believe in guiding from joy and fun because I don’t want us to forget why we got into this art form in the first place. I believe in play and silliness and unearthing such high moments of wonder for characters that the devastation later is all the more heartbreaking.”
PennyMaria Jackson (she/her)
Profession: She considers herself an “arts angel”—i.e., an enthusiast, arts marketer/audience builder, and advocate
Current home: Chicago
Known for: A general arts marketing and communications professional, Jackson has initiated many audience development programs for inclusivity. Currently serving as Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s director of marketing and communications, she hosted Steppenwolf’s first AAPI opening night festivities for Bald Sisters alongside community partners, promoted audience activations and ticket subsidies at the Apollo Theater with “Half Off for Harlem,” and worked extensively with NYC’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to develop millennial audiences.
What’s next: Jackson and the newly formed marketing/communications team at Steppenwolf are excited to strategize audience development plans and activations for the upcoming season to expand who fills the theatre’s seats.
What makes her special: Steppenwolf executive director Brooke Flanagan praises Jackson’s wealth of knowledge around audience development, community engagement, and accessible pathways, “particularly as we face the threat of post-pandemic audience decline and the dire need to call audiences back to our theatres. She centers our patrons in her work.” Flanagan adds that she appreciates how Jackson imbues each day with “joy and community.”
Bridging cultural gaps: From an early age, Jackson has recognized the arts’ capacity to build community. Drawing inspiration from her mother and grandmother as well as from her early days working at Miami’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, she has always valued “the importance of celebrating my ancestors artistically while creating space to support the next generation.” Jackson dreams “to have arts audiences that are widely inclusive and reflect the totality of our nation and world. This should be achievable in any and every diverse city across the country. My personal mission is to bridge cultural gaps utilizing the power of art as a driving force, and I look forward to doing so for decades to come.”
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