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Social issues fueled tensions in Chicago’s theater community during the pandemic shutdown. What can audiences expect in the comeback season?

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Social issues fueled tensions in Chicago’s theater community during the pandemic shutdown. What can audiences expect in the comeback season?

November 23, 2021

BY JUDITH CROWN

Chicago theaters were among the first organizations to close at the start of the pandemic and the last to return. As they came back to life, they faced the twin challenges of skittish audiences and a reckoning over racism.

Closed as “nonessential services,” theaters retrenched. They laid off or furloughed workers, got by with Paycheck Protection Program loans and grants, and experimented with virtual and outdoor performances.

With the arrival of vaccines earlier this year, managers were able to plan their comeback seasons. Steppenwolf reopens this month with Tracy Letts’ “Bug,” and the Goodman launched in August with “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.” The delta variant dampened the celebration with nervous ticket buyers delaying their purchases until closer to showtime. “We just have to move forward or we’ll never reopen,” says Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres.

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Meanwhile, George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement shined a spotlight on inequalities in local and national theater. A nationwide coalition of theater artists of color in 2020 launched “We See You, White American Theater.” The group published a detailed set of demands that cover the hiring and treatment of Black, Indigenous and people of color artists, working conditions, equitable salary structure, the use of donor money and board representation. It was signed by 300 artists, including celebrities Lin-Manuel Miranda and Viola Davis and local theater activists Wardell Julius Clark and Sydney Charles.

Sydney Charles

Alyce Henson

“Art is the thing that shakes up culture and moves it forward,” says actress and activist Sydney Charles.

The Chicago theater community experienced its upheavals, first at the Victory Gardens Theater, where the Playwrights Ensemble resigned following a controversial hiring decision. That was followed by public callouts of Steppenwolf this year and the departure of artistic director Anna Shapiro.

“The powers that be still are trying to operate under the old paradigm,” says Clark, an actor and director who is a company member at TimeLine Theatre and has worked at Victory Gardens. “There is a new paradigm.”

Some changes have come quickly with Black artists being elevated to high-profile positions. Victory Gardens this year hired Goodman producer Ken-Matt Martin as artistic director after a six-month search. Steppenwolf elevated ensemble member Glenn Davis as a co-artistic director. And Mercury Theater, which closed during the pandemic, resurrected itself with the hiring of a new artistic director, Christopher Chase Carter. Other Black artists were hired for top positions at Second City, Hubbard Street Dance and the House Theatre of Chicago.

“We built a bigger table so there are more voices at the table,” says Mercury Executive Producer Walter Stearns.

While works with racial themes are nothing new, they are front and center in the comeback season. Goodman this fall featured a play about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Steppenwolf will present Tony-nominated “Choir Boy,” about a young gay Black man written by ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney of “Moonlight” fame. Victory Gardens kicks off its season in January with Martin directing “Queen of the Night,” an exploration of “masculinity and queerness through the lens of multigenerational Blackness.” And TimeLine opens with “Relentless,” recounting the experiences of a Black Victorian-era family that resonate today.

That’s a start, activists say, but more changes are needed. Diversity is necessary at the board level but also in theater audiences. Better compensation and working conditions for underpaid actors and crew are concerns that transcend race.

Philanthropist Janice Feinberg says that although the pandemic exacted a painful economic toll on theaters, the racial reckoning is likely to have a longer-lasting impact. “For some theaters, it will open new doors,” says Feinberg, who supports TimeLine, Victory Gardens, Lookingglass Theatre and others. “Or will it be, same old, same old? We’ll see how that goes.”

After Victory Gardens’ management boarded up its home at the Biograph, artists painted “Black Lives Matter” on the wood.

Alyce Henson

After Victory Gardens’ management boarded up its home at the Biograph, artists painted “Black Lives Matter” on the wood.

A round of soul-searching

Tensions at Victory Gardens mounted in spring 2020 when the board declined to conduct a search to replace the departing artistic director, but rather combined artistic and managerial responsibilities under executive director Erica Daniels. The seven-member Playwrights Ensemble, which had asked for a “transparent and equitable leadership search,” collectively stepped down, posting that the theater “purposely ignores the mission it made for itself and abuses the very resources it claims to value and support.”

There was an additional indignity. While many theaters opened their lobbies as sanctuaries for Black Lives Matters protesters, Victory Gardens management boarded its home at the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park. That drew demonstrators who wrote on the boards, “Wake up VG,” and the all-too-familiar names of police victims. The uproar led to the exits of Daniels and board chair Steven Miller, a co-founder of Origin Ventures and a major donor.

Victory Gardens’ subsequent talent search led to Martin, an associate producer at the Goodman and native of Little Rock, Ark. Martin earlier co-founded a theater company in Des Moines, Iowa, and was producing director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He rounded out a Black managerial trio alongside acting Managing Director Roxanna Conner and Board Chair Charles E. Harris II, a partner at Mayer Brown. In June the theater announced a new four-member Playwrights Ensemble.

In an interview, Harris acknowledged that the board in 2020 was detached from the concerns of the artists, having encountered them primarily on festive opening nights. Victory Gardens had a record of presenting plays that “spurred discussion,” Harris says, and board members asked why they were on the receiving end. “A lot didn’t understand and probably still don’t,” he says.

Charles E. Harris II is board chair at Victory Gardens Theater.

Alyce Henson

Charles E. Harris II is board chair at Victory Gardens Theater.

“We learned a lot about the artists and what they care about,” Harris says. The Playwrights Ensemble now attends and participates in board meetings—a measure put in place to bridge any gap in knowledge and understanding between board and artists, he adds.

Another blowup came this year, when Steppenwolf video producer Lowell Thomas resigned, accusing the renowned company of burying “claims of harassment, racism and sexism to avoid accountability and real change.” Playwright Isaac Gomez supported Thomas and said he considered, but didn’t pull his play “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.” Their comments were posted on the theater website Rescripted. Artistic director Shapiro announced her resignation less than three weeks later.

Steppenwolf Executive Director Brooke Flanagan

Alyce Henson

Anna Shapiro stepped down as Steppenwolf artistic director this year but remains a member of the ensemble.

Steppenwolf Executive Director Brooke Flanagan says that when a claim is brought to leadership about harassment of any sort, it “is taken very seriously and investigated internally and often with external counsel review.” Staff doesn’t learn of the outcome because of privacy laws, but “action is taken when warranted,” she adds.

Shapiro’s exit had been in the works for some time knowing that her second three-year contract was up in August, Flanagan says. “The stresses of the past year have taken a toll on everyone, and we were no exception,” she added. Shapiro remains a Steppenwolf ensemble member and is directing a production this season.

The theater company in July named Davis and another ensemble member, Audrey Francis, as co-artistic directors. Davis, who joined the ensemble in 2017, had won acclaims for his Broadway performance in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” alongside Robin Williams in 2011. Francis also joined the ensemble in 2017, having co-founded a Chicago acting conservatory.

In the spring, Steppenwolf published a diversity action plan that covers work and hiring practices, training, credit and compensation, transparency and wellness. For example, the company pledged to complete a salary survey and update salary ranges, standardize its process for contracts, and seek more people of color for its vendors and contractors. It also said it would publish accountability dashboards and explore how it can better support the mental health of its staff and artists.

PJ Powers, co-founder and artistic director of TimeLine Theatre

Alyce Henson

The examination of what stories are told and who is part of telling them is overdue, says PJ Powers, co-founder and artistic director of TimeLine Theatre.

Flanagan says Steppenwolf has expanded diversity in recent years, but the demands of “We See You, White American Theater” showed that certain practices still were causing harm. Staff reviewed the coalition’s demands to determine what changes could be made quickly and which would take longer. “No one is going to undo 400 years of racism in a season,” she says.

The upheavals have prompted soul-searching across the Chicago theater landscape. The examination of what stories are being told and who is part of telling them is overdue, says PJ Powers, co-founder and artistic director of TimeLine Theatre. “I as a co-founder and white leader am the first to acknowledge we are a work in progress,” he says. “I can see progress made on a daily basis, but I don’t get a free pass for that.”

One concern is the diversity of theater boards, largely composed of affluent, white baby-boomer donors. It’s essential for boards to be focused on finances, but you can’t have that priority supersede the other values of the organization, Powers says.

TimeLine has three people of color on its 20-plus member board. Reforms might require long-serving board members to cycle off, or a theater could be less rigid in defining who is a quality candidate. “Many Black artists don’t have the wherewithal to make big donations, but it’s offensive to presume people of color wouldn’t be capable of financial commitment,” Powers says. “I hope the landscape a year or more from now better reflects our full community on a consistent basis.”

Diversity also is needed in the makeup of audiences, says actress and activist Sydney Charles. If the audience is all white, maybe the marketing department hasn’t done its job, she says. “They need to go out of their comfort zone—are theaters hiring the right people to do that?

Other issues transcend race. The hours are long and the pay isn’t great—except at the top. “We See You, White American Theater” says a theater’s highest paid executive staff members should make no more than 10 times the yearly salary of the lowest-paid member.

Joffrey Ballet President and CEO Greg Cameron says there’s been a seismic shift in the willingness of people to acknowledge the problem. “People are committed to engaging in the challenging conversations of making things better—it is forever work,” he says.

Courting nervous audiences

The national trauma of COVID-19 also makes for gripping drama, and Theater Wit returned with “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,” about the rise of a culture after a pandemic. The Wit had performed the play earlier, but artistic director Jeremy Wechsler wondered, “What does it mean to see a play about a pandemic after we’ve all experienced it?” In the first act, people are shivering around a firepit, talking about the television they’ve seen. “It’s not a crazy exposition. It’s what everyone did last year,” Wechsler says.

The slow return to live theater
In 2020 and 2021, the League of Chicago Theaters hosted a cohort of 15 Chicago theaters to conduct the COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor survey, a longitudinal tracking study of audience attitudes about going out to cultural events during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the past two weeks, did you do any of the following activities in person?

Note: In 2020, the cohort included only 14 theaters.
Source: League of Chicago Theatres survey conducted by WolfBrown

In early October, the theater was at only 50% capacity, but sales were climbing weekly, Wechsler says. Theatergoers have been nervous about the delta virus and are making decisions closer to showtime. “People are not used to having a social life. For 18 months, nothing.” Wechsler says. “We have to retrain ourselves for public life.”

The Joffrey reopened in mid-October in its new home at the Lyric Opera House with “Home: A Celebration,” a performance of four works. The company reduced its subscription goal by 30% from its pre-pandemic year and recently had reached 96% of that pared-back target. “That’s a major victory,” Cameron says.

With continuing anxiety about COVID, theaters are navigating a raft of considerations as they reopen. More than 75 venues adopted League of Chicago Theatres protocols to require masks, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Should there be an intermission? An open bar?

Steppenwolf welcomed audiences earlier this month with “Bug,” a drama of “love, paranoia and government conspiracy,” and the opening of its $54 million arts and education center, named for board chair and donor Eric Lefkofsky, the billionaire co-founder of Groupon. The play is performed with one intermission and the bars are open.

Black Ensemble Theater is taking a different approach. Although the theater requires employees to be vaccinated, it won’t require that of audience members, but they must be masked. Tickets are being sold at reduced capacity to enable social distancing. This month, it offered the musical revue “Ladies, Living and Loving Life,” with no concessions and no intermission. “It’s come in to the theater, stay in your seat and then go,” says founder and CEO Jackie Taylor.

Then there’s the job of checking the air filtration systems, something many public buildings were forced to consider earlier in the pandemic. “Our 107-year-old building was closed for 16 months, so we have to give it a little love and attention,” says Conner of Victory Gardens.

TimeLine is performing its 2021-22 productions at Theater Wit on Belmont Avenue while its new facility in Uptown is under construction. TimeLine’s previous home on Wellington Avenue in Lakeview doesn’t meet health and safety guidelines, Powers says.

What’s ahead in the next acts? Activists say the recent appointments are encouraging, but Black managers will be tested as they try to reform antiquated processes. “We’re shifting the standard and that’s making everyone uncomfortable,” Charles says. “Art is the thing that shakes up culture and moves it forward.”

Meanwhile, after months of viewing streamed films and TV series from their couches, ticket buyers seem happy to experience live performances. “People have grabbed us in the lobby and said how great it is to be back,” Wechsler says. “There will be a theatrical explosion of joy and creativity in 2022. I hope audiences are there for it.”


A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misidentified Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna Shapiro.

November 23, 2021

Illustration of the tragedy/tragedy masks

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