Each month, Chicago Editor Jerald Raymond Pierce offers us insight into regional coverage coming out of American Theatre’s Chicago branch and other goings on around the city.
Turnover and churn is not an unfamiliar state for the storefront theatre scene in Chicago. It’s a natural byproduct of what makes the city so special. A group of friends or like-minded artists could come together and start a company, find a cheap space or church basement and grow from there. That’s how we got the likes of Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, and Writers Theatre. But for each of those, there are dozens of other companies that faded away, many times simply because those like-minded artists, having used Chicago as a venue for exploration and growth, developed new paths in their lives.
But the current churn feels different, more unsettling. We shouldn’t be losing this many this fast. And, in the case of theatres like Lookingglass, which recently announced layoffs and a pause in programming, we shouldn’t be losing them (or at least their programming, for the time being) right after a fantastic new show (in this case Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon). Every show I’ve seen since the Lookingglass news has felt tinged with a bit of fear, as my inner monologue runs: This is so fantastic, we’re so lucky to be able to watch theatre! But what if it’s just gone tomorrow?
It’s been weird wrestling with those feelings over the last few weeks—trusting that other theatres will rise in the place of those we’ve lost, because they always have, but wondering if the loss is outpacing new growth that’s able to happen in the current economic climate. Gabriela Furtado Coutinho checked in with some of the local storefronts recently, diving into the story behind BoHo Theatre’s closing and shedding some light on the “brutal calculus” that is facing these storefront companies today.
The thing is, these smaller companies feed off each other, even (or, perhaps, especially) during the tough times. Previously, as AstonRep Theatre Company founder Robert Tobin told me as we discussed his decision to close his theatre after 15 years, companies like his had been able to stand the challenges and financial ups and downs that came with running storefronts because they were part of this larger, thriving, inspiring community.
“With a lot of companies calling it a day like us, or other companies going under, the power of the spark isn’t as strong,” Tobin conceded.
Still—and I can’t remember for the life of me who I’m stealing this thought from—theatre really does have a unique power and ability to continually rise from the ashes. For example, artist and dramaturg Lexi Silva wrote about a new theatre that is making a historic mark in Indianapolis, Naptown African American Theatre Collective, the city’s first Black Equity-affiliated theatre. And almost as a testament to theatre’s staying power, I also had the opportunity to chat with Indiana Repertory Theatre’s leadership, outgoing artistic director Janet Allen and incoming artistic director Benjamin Hanna, about their efforts and mission to secure their theatre’s future for generations to come.
“I think, as an industry, we need to get better about how we talk about the money,” artistic director Braden Abraham told me as we discussed his new role leading Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. “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.”
Speaking of making a case, I’d love to point your attention to two other pieces of reporting that feature artists coming together for a better future. First, Amanda Finn reports on the unionization efforts at Drunk Shakespeare companies across the country, a spark that started when the Chicago cast and staff joined Actors’ Equity Association and that quickly spread to the Phoenix and Washington, D.C., troupes. Then, earlier this month, Theatre Communications Group hosted the virtual convening THRIVE! Week: Uplifting Theatres of Color, which brought together BIPOC leaders from around the country to share learnings and questions. Gabriela sat in on the 4-day gathering and reported her takeaways and journey from entering the sessions feeling distressed to leaving the week feeling a strong sense of community.
Looking through the list of theatre closures around the city can feel so incredibly painful, especially seeing storefronts that started around the time I moved to Chicago after graduating from college. But as Jackalope Theatre artistic director Kaiser Ahmed, whose company has seen Sideshow Theatre, The New Coordinates, and AstonRep close recently after all four started in 2008, reminded me recently, we can’t take for granted how wonderful it was that these companies produced in the first place. Indeed, as I went through past seasons for these and other local theatres, I couldn’t help but feel my sadness soften just a bit as I remembered the wonderful nights those companies gave me over the years.
“Every day that they existed should be celebrated,” Ahmed said. “I hope that the mourning happens but it doesn’t take away from what should be a deserved celebration.”
Now See This
The Goodman Theatre’s production of The Who’s Tommy, a new staging of the show that morphed the Who’s 1969 concept album into an early-’90s Broadway musical, has already extended twice after opening to critical praise in Chicago. In a recent report in The New York Times, which highlights the efforts of creatives Des McAnuff and Pete Townshend to revitalize their musical for today’s audiences, the folks behind the production said they’re considering another Broadway run for the pinball wizard. Admittedly, I have some questions about elements of the book, as someone not in the original Baby Boomer target demographic, but there’s one undeniable thing about this production: It’s electric. The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones called it a “ready-for-prime-time stunner,” with choreography from Lorin Latarro that “has a Tony Award written all over it.” Here’s a peek at the show currently rocking the Goodman’s stage.
Gabriela catches us up on a few items you may have missed!
Chicago is a city known for its innovation. In spite of alarming headlines, I’ve seen tremendous resilience and ingenuity in both programming and practice this July. Celebrating its 10th year, the Physical Theater Festival especially energized me this past month. And of course, I’m eager to see what this next chapter of leadership brings at the Raven Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
- Sharon Hoyer at New City Stage sat down with Physical Theater Festival co-artistic directors Alice da Cunha and Marc Frost to hear more about their long, successful endeavor joining artists from around the world in Chicago. I must say, seeing families of all backgrounds present gave me hope for the future of theatre.
- Edward Hall and Kimberley Motes have been named artistic director and executive director, respectively, of Chicago Shakes. Hall comes to Chicago from leading London’s Hampstead Theatre and ensemble-based Propeller Theatre Company. Motes brings wisdom from Children’s Theatre Company, Theater Latté Da, the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, and more.
- Raven’s official new artistic director Sarah Slight, having served as interim artistic director for several months, is an exciting new leader for the company, with experience with some of the nation’s premier organizations for new play development and dramaturgy.
- Lookingglass Theatre Company is reducing full-time staff and pausing programming until late spring in 2024. A stronghold of impossible physical staging, this company has offered extraordinary creative folks space to experiment with the spectacular since 1988. Chris Jones of the Tribune reports, “Lookingglass, which once had an annual budget of about $6 million, announced an urgent campaign with the fundraising goal of raising $2.5 million to fortify what would appear to be a smaller theatre company, going forward.”
- Block Club Chicago’s Joe Ward spoke with Black Ensemble Theater CEO Jackie Taylor about the company’s Free to Be Village, a proposed development that will include a media and technology center, performance art and education center, housing and retail affordable to artists, and public plaza. “It’s my concept of a village that would take the mission of the theatre—which is to eradicate racism—and propel it to the community on a much larger scale,” Taylor said.
- Sun-Times writer Selena Fragassi sat down with the creatives behind the Goodman Theatre revival of Tommy to discuss the redesign process. She wrote that choreographer Lorin Latarro, “purposefully refrained from watching the original reference material” in an attempt to make the story feel as if it could fit in any era.
- Rivendell Theatre Ensemble announced that its world premiere of Tuckie White’s Motherhouse, a humorous all-women play tackling grief, will be remounted in September after a sold-out first run that saw multiple extensions.
- Seattle-based Teatro Zinzanni, which closed its dinner-and-cirque production in Chicago on July 2, announced they will be returning to Chicago in the fall in a joint production with Chicago-based Randolph Entertainment.
- Keidra Chaney, for the Reader, spoke with the founder and executive director of dance inclusion nonprofit ReinventAbility Ladonna Freidheim, Tellin’ Tales Theatre founder Tekki Lomnicki, and artist Andy Slater about DisFest, a free celebration of disability in the arts. Slater described the festival as a “big day of disability pride and joy.”
Every month, Jerald and Gabriela check in with Chicago/Midwest theatre artists about what’s getting them out of bed in the morning and keeping them up at night. This time around, we’re interested in rest and reflection. More below from multi-hyphenate artist Evan Mills, currently in Don’t Quit Your Daydream at the Second City, and Jacqui Russell, co-founder and director of Chicago Children’s Theatre and its Red Kite Project.
What are you reading right now?
Mills: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, and a regular rotation of magazines. I love magazines.
Russell: I am currently reading a book of poems by Maggie Smith called Goldenrod. Her “Poem Beginning with a Retweet” just slays me every time I read it—and I like to read it over and over again.
What’s something you’ve seen recently that stuck with you or transformed your creative philosophy?
Mills: I recently watched the Belgian film Close, written and directed by Lukas Dhont, and it was beautifully heartbreaking. It told the story of a complicated and intense relationship between two young boys and the pressure that society and their peers put on them for being “different.” While it’s definitely not a lighthearted watch, it stuck with me as an openly gay man, remembering the early days as a kid when I didn’t think I was different until others started telling me I was, making me confused and feeling bad for sticking out in a crowd. This film hit me hard and still hasn’t quite let me go, which is what I love about the art of storytelling and filmmaking.
Russell: Something that has recently “stuck with me” is a group that I have been getting to know called Arts4Impact. They have been recognized for their work building coalitions, social movements, and artistic happenings that drive civic engagement and create systemic change. They were also the creative force behind the memorial in Highland Park after the tragedy there last July and are featured in a new documentary by Jon Siskel called Memorial.
How are you taking care of yourself/recharging as an artist this summer?
Mills: I find ways to enjoy my time alone: taking my dog for long walks, doing yoga and exercising in my backyard, putting on a vinyl and cleaning my apartment. I know it sounds wild, but I find cleaning the space I inhabit to be therapeutic and relaxing. I love waking up to a clean apartment and starting my day in a better headspace because of it. I also enjoy spending time with my boyfriend. We try to see a movie at least once a week, try a new restaurant every time we go out, and go thrifting, like, maybe too much? I find that taking the time to separate my work life and personal life can be hard, but it’s so important to give myself that freedom as much as I can.
Russell: I’m pretty obsessed with farmers’ markets these days. I try to get to one every weekend. The vibe, the food, the people watching all restore and reset me for the work week to come.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!