“It’s been nonstop,” said new Writers Theatre artistic director Braden Abraham, “but in a good way.”
Abraham was named the new artistic director of the Glencoe, Ill., theatre in October 2022, but at the time he still had his directorial farewell to his longtime artistic home Seattle Rep still on the docket for the end of the calendar year. Abraham was finally able to move to the Midwest at the end of January, and he dove straight into season planning for his new organization. What usually would be a year-round process, including conversations with a number of directors, playwrights, and others, Abraham said, became a process that took just over a month and resulted in a four-show season that includes The Band’s Visit, Hershey Felder, and Katori Hall‘s The Hot Wing King.
“I’m just getting to know the community, which has been great,” Abraham said, sitting in a lounge at the theatre, “seeing a lot of shows, meeting with a lot of artists and community members, and just trying to absorb as much as I can.”
As we spoke, Abraham was on the verge of taking a little time off, between the opening of the theatre’s final 2022-23 show, Kareem Fahmy’s A Distinct Society, and preparing to open the next season with his directorial debut as artistic director, leading a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. During our chat earlier this month, Abraham talked about his upcoming production and first season, getting to know the Chicago and Glencoe communities, and the steepest challenges ahead of Writers and the field at large. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: What drew you to Eurydice as your directorial debut at Writers?
BRADEN ABRAHAM: It was very intuitive. I’ve known the play since 2001. I think there was an early reading out in Seattle, actually. I remember going to the reading and meeting Sarah. It’s one of those plays that’s always sort of stayed with me. And in December, I was actually up at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, picking out some books for Christmas presents and gifts, and found the newly published version of the play and went back and reread it. I thought, this is a perfect play to do right now, and a perfect play to do at Writers Theatre, because imagination and language is at the center of the play. And it’s a play that’s about bereavement in so many ways. Coming out of the pandemic, I think we are looking for ways to figure out how to deal with a sense of grief collectively.
Then I found out that Sarah was from here, which I didn’t know—she’s from Wilmette. It’s such a personal play for her about her father. And I think for me now, 20 years after I first encountered the play and now being a father myself, I have a different perspective on the play. So it just felt right.
As you look at the upcoming season selections, is there anything about your interests or your direction for Writers that you don’t think was captured in the upcoming season, but you hope to showcase it in future seasons?
Well, for next year we don’t really have the small [blackbox-style Gillian Theatre] online, because we’re still using it as a multi-use space. We’re using it to build sets, actually. We’re going to be doing one thing off subscription in there, but I’d love to see that space activated again by the following year. I think that gives more dimension to our work and where we can present it. We’re going to be investing in the new-play program here again and all of our new-play work, commissions, developing and premiering work. I’d like to see that as a regular part of our work going forward.
Also, having a classic or two in the season. A dialogue between classic work and new plays is always interesting to me. I know that the classics are a big part of the tradition here at Writers, and I’d like to invest more in classics as well.
One of the great things about being an artistic director is the dialogue that you have with artists and audiences over time. So no one season can speak to the fullness of the dimension of what you’re trying to say or accomplish or dialogue about. I think you’ll start to see a fuller picture in the years to come. And as I get to know more of the community, that’s where I really find I collect a lot of exciting ideas, and through lines start to emerge when you start to be able to engage with artists over time like that.
Speaking of those conversations with community and artists, what’s been the biggest thing that you’ve learned so far about either the Glencoe community, or Chicago more broadly?
It’s a very open, supportive community. The story of Writers Theatre is a kind of typical theatre story in Chicago that doesn’t happen everywhere in the country. You have this theatre that started in the back of a bookstore, and over the course of 30 years, it’s grown to occupy this beautiful facility that the community came together to support and build, serving more and more audiences. To me that’s really thrilling because it shows the layers of support. It shows the dimension to the artistic community, but it also shows the dimension that the donors and the audiences want to make this work possible. So that’s really exciting.
I’m curious what differences you’ve seen so far between working here and your time in Seattle?
I don’t know that I’ve been here long enough to say. In terms of similarities, I think my roots as a theatre artist are in line with so many theatre artists here. When I moved to Seattle in the late ’90s, I moved there with a group of friends from college and we started making theatre together. That kind of scrappiness and that kind of sense of, “We just want to make good work with great artists,” feels alive and well here. To me, coming to Writers was getting back in touch with that, coming to an organization where I felt like I could be closer to the art, because it’s a slightly smaller organization where there’s an even bigger community of artists to get to know.
What is it like to lead a theatre that is part of the Chicago community, but is also detached in its own little bubble sometimes?
Glencoe is a village with its own identity, and there’s a lot of pride and ownership in this theatre being here, but there’s also a desire for it to be a welcoming space for people outside of Glencoe and to be part of the larger constellation of Chicago theatres. I’m from a small town personally, so I think there’s something interesting about a theatre in a smaller village. But clearly people who live in Glencoe are interested in what’s happening outside of this space. I think that adds to the kind of work that we can do here and that people expect here. They expect a level of excellence, they expect great Chicago talent to be here, and people drive from all over, including Wisconsin, to experience the work here.
To me, that’s part of the opportunity. I’m interested in the radius five to 10 miles outside of Glencoe as well. If those folks can start to feel like this theatre is welcoming and representative of their communities as well, then you have an even stronger theatre that can connect to more people and tell even more stories. Theatre is always a local venture. It’s always about capturing and uncovering the identity and the hidden identities of a particular place. Though this is a smaller place, I still think there’s a lot to discover here and a lot to discover that’s just beyond the village.
I always find interesting the juggling act of wanting to make sure that the community feels represented and welcome in the space, while also pushing them toward art you feel they should be seeing, pushing their boundaries and expanding their horizons.
It’s about trust and it’s about connection over time, and it’s about welcoming people as if they’re friends and family. If you can do that, and there’s alignment with the staff, with the board, with the audiences, with the artists about creating that—to me, the best kind of theatre is when it feels like there’s a kind of communion, that it has a dimension to it that is not just about entertainment, that is about a sense of meaning and a sense of belonging and a sense of deeper connection. I think this theatre is well set up for that in the physical spaces, but also in the location itself. We’re not going to be everything to everybody, but I do think that we’re set up in such a way that we can create that sense of space here.
One of the things I love about this building and [architect] Jeanne Gang’s ethos is that she’s inspired by natural forms, which are both ephemeral and eternal. She can be inspired by the shape of a leaf or something organic. I think you feel both kinds of energies when you come into the lobby. The light, the outside world is so present on the inside.
In terms of how Writers is faring since the pandemic, I think I saw the budget was around $7 or $8 million pre-pandemic. Where do things stand these days? How close to fully back is Writers?
I’d say we are still about 20-30 percent under that. We will have a deficit budget next year, and we’re going to be doing some extraordinary fundraising over the next few years. We’re putting together a plan to get us back into the black, but that’s going to happen over multiple years and it’s going to require more support, more donations. I think ultimately we have to be really straightforward and say: Theatre is an industry that loses money. We’re never going to solve this with tickets. We’re never going to solve this with programming. We all have to be able to make our case that this is an industry that serves the public good and that it needs investment, just like education needs investment, just like transportation, healthcare. Theatre, and the arts in general, need that level of investment now more than ever.
I think, as an industry, we need to get better about how we talk about the money. It’s okay to talk about need and it’s important that we make our case. As artists, we want to be able to work within our means, and certainly as administrators, we feel a huge responsibility to help these organizations make sure we’re being fiscally responsible. But we also need to be able to talk about need in a real way to support the art.
I feel that in my role too—it’s been tricky figuring out how to talk to, especially non-theatre people about the current state of the industry. It feels like there’s got to be a way to have these conversations so that people understand.
We live in a world where we want to talk about efficiency. We want to talk about productivity. Theatre is just not an industry that is going to get better necessarily with technology. The rehearsal process is the same amount of time. You need a certain amount of people to make a play. You need a certain amount of people to support it. At a certain point, you can’t find the efficiencies. You have to do it a different way, and that’s okay. It should be okay to have industries like that, where you say the value that it creates is worth the investment of the time and energy it takes to create it.
We all have to get better about making that case. We’re always looking for ways to make our resources go farther. Artists are the best in the world at that. Arts administrators, not-for-profit leaders, they know how to do that better than anyone. That’s in our DNA. But at a certain point, we have to be able to say, “Hey, this is just what it costs. Help us do it.”
And the investments that we’ve made—we’ve changed our practices based on We See You, White American Theater and the more humane practices of making our work. That’s an investment in the work, and that requires resources. Our success in achieving those new standards and having universal acceptance and support of those new standards, I think just further supports us taking the next step, which is, how do we advocate for the fiscal support required to make these investments? Otherwise we’re still trying to do it the same way but with less resources.
You can’t do it by cutting, by dividing the bean in a different way. There’s no geometry that’s going to work that’s going to make there be more. You have to have more abundance, you have to have more support. And if you do less work over time, then that’s going to have an effect on your audience and your ability to have impact.
Is there some community and conversation among the artistic leaders in the city to figure out how to navigate everything theatres are going through right now?
We’re all talking about that, and the executive directors as well, around how we collectively raise awareness of how the recovery is going for us and where we still need support so that we can take that message to the city level, the state level, maybe even the national level, like we did during the pandemic. I think a lot of industries have recovered fully, but theatre hasn’t, clearly. So we still need to work together to get that message out there.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is the Chicago Editor for American Theatre. email@example.com
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