Each month, Chicago editor Jerald Raymond Pierce offers insight into regional coverage coming out of American Theatre’s Chicago branch, as well as other goings on around the city.
There’s almost a sort of normalcy to this fall theatre season—perhaps the most “normal” I’ve had since, well, before pandemic times. I’m looking ahead to a three-show week that includes Pearl Cleage’s The Nacirema Society at the Goodman (part of a city-wide celebration of Cleage’s work), The Lehman Trilogy setting down for its Chicago premiere in a co-production between Broadway in Chicago and TimeLine Theatre, and artistic director Braden Abraham introducing his directorial side to Writers Theatre audiences with Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. I’m back to the familiar routine of trying not to overbook, remembering to check press nights to make sure I don’t double book, and enjoying two-show days that can flow from a world premiere Chicago Children’s Theatre production (Mesmerized: A Ben Franklin Science & History Mystery) to Martyna Majok’s homecoming of a sort (she got her B.A. at University of Chicago) with Steppenwolf’s production of Sanctuary City.
But it still feels weird to feel normal, right? After all, it was only a few weeks before Sanctuary City opened that Steppenwolf announced layoffs, citing falling revenue and audience numbers. This normalcy can feel tenuous at best. But just as uncertainty was threatening to form a pit in my stomach, I found comfort in a thought that wound up not making into this this Q&A with Martine Kei Green-Rogers, dean of the Theatre School at DePaul University.
We were talking about the questions asked of her as a leader and of the organizations she leads, and she brought up a question a parent once asked her: “How do you, morally and ethically, in this moment of everything falling apart in the arts, feel like you can educate students on this thing that’s so uncertain?”
“My answer that day is the same answer it would probably be five years from now, which will also be the same answer it was 10 years ago,” Green-Rogers told me. “None of this was ever a guarantee. Part of the reason why is because of all sorts of systemic things are going to take a whole lot of effort to fix: a lack of governmental support for the arts, all sorts of things. So the same reason why people did [theatre] 10 years ago is probably the same reason why we do it now. There’s some passion ignited in us about telling the stories of our own society to each other. The question is, is that someone’s North Star or is it something else?”
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I find so much comfort in that idea. Perhaps it’s simply because there’s room for a deep breath, knowing that as long as there are passionate artists following their guiding lights through theatre’s tough times, we will always manage to find that experience of seeing, producing, and discussing theatre that we’ve come to love in some sort of “normal” way—even in the face of turmoil. All we need to do is follow those who, like Green-Rogers, have found their North Star.
Which leads me to some of the other articles we’ve put out this month. Continuing in our efforts to lift the voices of leaders in Chicago’s theatre community, I spoke with Charlique Rolle, executive director of Congo Square and newly announced president of the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago. Rolle discussed how both organizations are working to build community, and the continuing work of the Alliance to collaborate across artistic genres to ensure Chicago is and will be a hub for Black artists to make their homes and build lasting legacies.
Rolle’s tenure with the Alliance follows that of longtime leader Jackie Taylor, who is closing in on 50 years leading Black Ensemble Theater as its founder and CEO. Reporter Crystal Paul dove into the story of Taylor’s theatre, an organization grounded in her vision, even as it sets its eyes on a campus expansion and new chapter. I’ve said it every time I’ve brought this article up, but I learned more about Taylor and Black Ensemble Theater from Paul’s reporting than I have in all my 10 years in Chicago.
“She’s one of the most impressive theatremakers I’ve ever met,” said Harvey Young, dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University and author of Black Theater Is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater and Dance, 1970-2010, in the article. “She’s just a force of will.”
I also had a chance to chat with the creative team behind the world premiere musical Run Bambi Run, which opened recently at Milwaukee Rep. The musical features a book from Lombardi playwright Eric Simonson and music from Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, which the Tribune’s Chris Jones called “a raucous blast of a show with a killer score.” Most interesting was listening to the creatives, including director Mark Clements and actor Erika Olson, talk about how much this true-crime story still reverberates within the Milwaukee community, and how they sought to balance the sensationalism of the story of “Bambi” with the real life of Laurie Bembenek.
Finally, if you missed our Offscript discussion with Pearl Cleage, you can listen to the entire podcast here. Cleage dives into what it means, as a still working playwright, to have a city-wide celebration in your honor while also sharing her deep insights into Atlanta and the impetus behind her newest work, Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard.
Whether or not your fall theatre season is starting to feel normal—or as normal as anything can feel these days—I hope you too find comfort in the thoughts shared by these theatre luminaries, who all seem to have found their guiding lights, their North Stars. Whatever rocky roads may lay ahead, I feel more at ease knowing that there are still leaders out there who provide a sure-footed feeling as they guide the field into the future.
Now See This
It’s a hard choice of which clip to share here this month, as there are a number from Milwaukee Rep’s Run Bambi Run that make a strong case for inclusion. I’ll share this rocking studio clip of the song “Why Does It Always Gotta Be Me” because I can’t get it out of my head, but I also encourage you to check out the show’s sneak peek clip here. The latter shows the variety that Gano is bringing to the table in his first run at a fully produced theatre musical. If you’re in the area, Run Bambi Run runs through Oct. 22.
Gabriela catches us up on a few items you may have missed:
It’s only September, and—promisingly—our show calendars are already full. As we weather 2023 and dream up futurisms, I’m eager to see all this fall will bring, from the wildly exciting Destinos Festival line-up to the duo behind UNIVERSES spending time at Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center to some much-needed queering with programming from PrideArts and About Face.
- The Reader’s Matt Simonette offers just a taste of Chicago’s fall offerings here, and the Sun-Times and Tribune further reassure us that the fall is, as League of Chicago Theatres executive director Marissa Lynn Jones said, “giving people a reason to leave their homes and take in a show.” Súper punto com!
- In the Reader, Kerry Reid has begun a series highlighting theatre companies still producing in the city, starting with the 35-year-old Curious Theatre Branch. This might not be an easy time, but there’s always room in Chicago for optimism.
- In the news this month, Court Theatre veteran Charles Newell will program the 2024-25 season and transition out of his role as artistic director. During his tenure, Newell has directed more than 60 productions, interrogating classic works, reimagining musicals, and commissioning new adaptations.
- For the Sun-Times, Mitch Dudek sat for a meaningful conversation with Pulitzer-winner Martyna Majok, whose play Sanctuary City runs at Steppenwolf through Nov. 18. As a student at the University of Chicago, she said, “I wrote about people in my life from their perspectives and it helped me process things; I made those things into scenes in plays, and they were terrible, but it was therapeutic. I felt like a fuller version of a human after the act of making, of creating.”
- In a Tribune conversation giving homage to Black theatre and life in Chicago, Darcel Rockett shared insights from playwright Inda Craig-Galván, whose Welcome to Matteson is running Congo Square through Oct. 1, and whose A Hit Dog Will Holler recently wrapped up a run at the Den Theatre. “I write primarily for Black audiences,” said Craig-Galván. “I write what I want to see.”
- The Understudy is becoming more and more central to Chicago’s vibrant theatre community, a real gathering space to spark conversation. Now, thanks to a recent article from the Reader, you can check out what titles the staff, quickly obtaining local celebrity status, can’t get off their minds.
- The ‘espooky’ side of me is happy to share that we get to check out the pre-Broadway engagement of Death Becomes Her as part of the upcoming Broadway in Chicago season. Set to open in April 2024, the musical version of the 1992 movie will feature an original score by Noel Care and Julia Mattison, a book by Marco Pennette, and stars Megan Hilty and Jennifer Simard. Happy Halloween eve!
- Inspired by “oral history and its relation to theatre,” Emily Townley in the Reader shared a journey unearthing the story of late creative Gary “Eleven” Tucker and the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe. Townley’s conclusion stays with me: “There are more forgotten people whose stories are waiting to be told. It’s now up to us… ”
- Irene Hsiao previews Baked! The Musical, a new work from creators Deepak Kumar and Jord Liu, for the Reader, saying it is “tenderly spiced with rich harmonies, humor, and nostalgia, and as intense to experience as a salted duck egg in a lotus paste mooncake.”
- Within Chicago Magazine, Web Behrens commemorates Kokandy Productions and their inventive design. Actor Frankie Leo Bennett said, “I don’t want to say Kokandy’s the cult-musical company, but there’s something to the pieces they curate.”
- We all need some joy and immersive experiences these days, I think, and Kimzyn Campbell at the Reader shared that Clown Brunch, a monthly pop-up show from Hot Clown Company, offers just that.
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 fall, we’re focused on keeping our spirits up. More below from Stephanie Shum, who is currently performing in A Red Orchid Theatre’s world premiere of Revolution by Brett Neveu, and Jorge Valdivia, executive director of Chicago Latino Theater Alliance.
What is a theatre company or artistic leader you admire, who you feel is pushing the field in a promising direction?
Shum: I know I’m cheating here but I can’t choose! I’m such a fan of the great work and excellent people at About Face Theatre, Steep Theatre, and Teatro Vista. I love the voices and stories they uplift, how they often challenge form, and create with intentionality and care.
Valdivia: This is such a difficult question to answer. I think the Latino theatre scene in Chicago is so robust that it makes it hard to pick just one. Aguijón Theater is a cultural gem as the longest-running Spanish-language theatre company in Chicago. They do such an amazing job of uplifting Latin American playwrights. UrbanTheater Company uplifts and centers their community and is on the forefront of decolonizing theatre. Visión Latino has an eye for socially relevant and impactful scripts. Teatro Tariakuri is one of a handful of theatres on the South Side of Chicago and the only Latine theatre. They fill a void in an historically under-resourced community. The team at Colectivo El Pozo is simply brilliant for producing thought-provoking work. Repertorio Latino is an itinerant but long-running theatre company. Teatro Vista is the second-longest running Latine theatre and the only Equity Latine theatre company in Chicago. They’re pushing the envelope with multimedia storytelling and tremendously talented ensemble. I also love what Alice da Cunha and her partner and team are doing with Physical Theater Festival.
What was the moment you knew you wanted to go into theatre?
Shum: I followed a friend to theatre camp when I was young. I hadn’t interacted with theatre or performing before but immediately felt at home with this new little community. That summer, I got to play the Little Bad Wolf (I was very very small) and had a dance solo and never looked back. It felt like the world cracked open!
Valdivia: While I don’t have an exact moment I knew I wanted to go into theatre, I can tell you that I’ve been surrounded by artists my entire life. My mother was a singer and songwriter and would invite her fellow artist friends over all the time. I remember watching them sing and rehearse for upcoming performances. That was the happiest I’d ever seen my mother, and those memories have stayed with me throughout my entire career in the arts. I was the director of performing arts for the National Museum of Mexican Art where I had the privilege of working with different theatre companies and playwrights. Theatre, for me, is one of the most beautiful art disciplines that exists.
What are you most looking forward to this theatre season?
Shum: I’m really looking forward to the wild and hilarious Mothers by Anna Ouyang Moench at the Gift Theatre this winter. Plus, A Red Orchid Theatre, where I work by day, will be producing another of Moench’s plays called In Quietness at the same time! I can’t wait to experience these two plays in conversation with each other.
Valdivia: With 17 productions at 10 different venues during a six-week run, I’m mostly looking forward to Destinos Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. This is the largest festival we’ve ever done. I simply love the fact that there is so much diversity and representation in this year’s Destinos Fest. I love that this year we have something new called Spotlight Weekend where we present four new local collaborations. All in all this year’s Destinos has un poquito de todo for everyone.
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