jakub | December 22, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | From Chicago: Quotes for the New Year

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.

We’ve reached that wonderful time of year (or annoying time of year, depending on your outlook) where your news feeds are likely littered with year-end lists, roundups, years-in-review, bests, worsts, awards, or whatever your favorite writer has decided to present to you as a way to reflect on the year that was. I admit, I too enjoy taking time to reflect at the end of the year; it’s too easy to let the days, weeks, and months pass by, continually looking toward what’s next rather than celebrating what came before. Here at American Theatre we published our annual top 10 most read articles list, alongside our suggestions of some that didn’t make the top 10 but that stood out to us.

Rather than attempt a similar list for our Chicago and Midwest coverage, I wanted to take an opportunity to reflect not just on our coverage, but on the voices who have made an appearance in that coverage. Our small but mighty Chicago branch has been around for just over six months now, and I’m incredibly grateful that we’ve been able to speak with so many wonderful artists, dropping absolute gems of wisdom along the way. So, as we look forward to the year ahead, I wanted to share some of the quotes, thoughts, and messages that are sticking with me and inspiring me as we step into 2024.

One of the major beats for theatre journalists across the country has been the striving for change in the industry. As we prepare for another year of change, I hope these thoughts help carry you through the inevitable growing pains that come with an evolving industry and art form.

“Change is not necessarily bad. It’s often exhausting to go through. It’s often challenging in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Getting older now, I can see that I am changing, and the world is changing, and my place in it is—well, it’s shifting. That is not a bad thing. That is a wonderful thing.”— Barbara Gaines, former artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in a quote that made an earlier newsletter, but was sadly cut from our Q&A because she had so many other wonderful tidbits to share.

“You will lose people when you change and grow, but you will also gain people. You will gain the people that you’re looking for.” — Carla Stillwell, Collaboraction producer and managing director, talking about the evolution of her company.

“There’s no better indicator of survival and success than being incredibly connected to your community.” — Fin Coe, former co-artistic director of The New Coordinates, dropping a gem that represents the lifeblood of where the focus of theatre, as an industry, should be within a tough article looking at the difficult state of Chicago storefront theatres

In addition to talking about change in the industry, one of the privileges of this job is the chance to hear from artists as they talk about their art, their life’s passion. These artists, among many others we’ve covered this year, have given me little nuggets that I hope to hold close in my own art in the coming year. 

“It is the most delicate process. It’s like going to a confessional.” — Joe Mazza, a household name in the Chicago theatre community, discussing his approach to photography.

“The only way I can feel confident in being who I am as a performer is if I’m around love. If there is love, then I am brave. And if I am brave, then I will go anyway. But if I’m not brave, then I’m gonna travel very small. And so, I’d rather be brave.” — Marvin Quijada in a beautiful article about the art of and bond between him and his brother Brian.

“The universe has a way of putting you where you need to be, doing what you need to be doing.” — Georgette Verdin, rising star director in Chicago, discussing the twists and turns of a prosperous time in her career that also, sadly, coincided with the end of her home company.

“Nothing. You change nothing. You do the play you want to do.” — Advice Kate Arrington recalled receiving from Pulitzer-winning playwright Bruce Norris as Arrington was working on her first play, Another Marriage, which premiered at Steppenwolf earlier this year.

On that note, I wish everyone a wonderful end of the year, and I hope you all are able to do the play you want to do in 2024.

Now See This

What’s the holiday season without The Nutcracker? Instead of showing you one of numerous performances of the classic ballet, we wanted to share this fun behind-the-scenes video from Stefano Esposito and the Chicago Sun-Times, which offers a peek at the costume crew that ensures Joffrey Ballet’s production of the holiday staple looks beautiful. You can check out the full article from Esposito here, and shout out to all of the wonderful costume crews out there!

Around Town

Gabriela catches us up on a few items you may have missed:

Thank you so much for following and welcoming AT’s new Chicago bureau this year. We wish you a meaningful holiday season, commemorating the lives of people and artists we cherish. We wish you peace in the work you’ve done to cultivate a better world. This is our round-up of December’s key moments in Chicago theatre journalism and beyond.

  • Honoring the extraordinary lives of Chicago theatre greats Ernest Perry Jr., Debra Rodkin, and Marc Silvia, Kerry Reid’s moving tribute in the Reader commemorated who they were as people and citizen-artists. On the loss within days of each other, she recalled Hamlet: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
  • Writer and performer Almanya Narula brought the one-woman show Noor Inayat Khan: The Forgotten Spy to the Edge Theater for one night only. “In Narula’s 40-minute show, framed as an interrogation between Khan and an unseen Gestapo agent, we see how Khan managed to outwit the Nazis for several months,” Reid wrote in this preview of the show.
  • Second City teachers have voted to authorize a strike after over two years negotiating their first labor contract. This allowed the teachers’ bargaining team “to order a walkout at any time,” wrote Darel Jevens for the Sun-Times.
  • As audiences crave interactive experiences, Stefano Esposito of the Sun-Times scoped out Clue: A Walking Mystery, a cross between escape room, theatre, and scavenger hunt. His 12-year-old son Lucca reported, “I didn’t think it would be this exciting.”
  • As part of her Stages of Survival series, Kerry Reid uplifted Definition Theatre, led by Neel McNeill and Tyrone Phillips. As they simultaneously solidify plans to open a permanent home, work with the Innovator Small Business Cohort, and build audiences, McNeill noted, “We understand what’s happening in the community based on the type of businesses that are coming in and approaching us.”
  • Over in Indianapolis, Chloe McGowan shared a profile of Phoenix Theatre associate artistic director and actor Paige Neely in the Indianapolis Recorder. McGowan reported, “Now more than ever, Neely said the arts scene in Indianapolis is flourishing because more people are paying attention.”
  • In recent news, director, producer, and novelist Michael Barakiva has been named Cleveland Play House’s new artistic director. He enters after a tumultuous period, during which CPH was accused of mishandling assault and underinvesting in actor safety.
  • For Block Club Chicago, Crystal Paul reported on the “Grinch of Beverly,” brought to a Chicago corner by actor Chris Witherspoon and podcaster/hip hop artist Brandon Hearty. Said Witherspoon, “That’s my way of bringing community together.”

Chicago Chisme

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 winter, we’re reflecting on the past year and revving up for a hopeful 2024. More below from J.G. Smith, performer and foley artist for It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! at American Blues Theater, and Drew Dir, Manual Cinema co-artistic director, who designed puppets for their production of Christmas Carol.

J.G. Smith (photo by Ian McLaren) and Drew Dir (photo by Maren Celest)

What piece of art or theatre has inspired you this year?

J.G.: I walk from my apartment to the lake every day, and I always pass by Lucy Slivinski’s Phoenix Rising in Uptown. It’s a sculpture of a phoenix emerging from its nest, made out of recycled metal sourced from Uptown residents—bicycle parts, pipes, etc. Because it’s built with all these intersecting metal pieces, it’s become a perfect shelter for the local birds to build their nests. It’s everything I think art should be: created by the community, reflecting and uplifting the community spirit, and of daily service to its neighbors.

Drew: I’m still haunted by a scene in Plexus Polaire’s adaptation of Moby Dick, which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. The show depicts the hunting and killing of a whale (and the subsequent abandonment of its child) through the manipulation of some really beautiful puppets. It’s one of the most effective and harrowing bits of action I’ve seen onstage. I’m still thinking about that whale baby!

What are your hopes, visions, or resolutions for American theatre in 2024?

J.G.: I would love to see an American theatre that is as accessible, transparent, and of service to its immediate community as that aforementioned piece of public art. In much the same way that we ask, “Why this play? Why now?” when programming a season, I think theatre companies have a responsibility to ask themselves why they exist and how they intend to use their resources for the greater good. American Blues Theater recently opened a new building in the West Ridge neighborhood, and we’ve been brainstorming ways to use our venue to serve not just our artists and ensemble, but the residents of Chicago’s 40th Ward as a whole. I’m really excited for all the ideas proposed so far, and I also want to shout out the Blues staff for generously entertaining my repeated requests for Monday Night Karaoke.

Drew: There are a number of artists and institutions I really admire who are still struggling with the fallout from the pandemic. My hope for 2024 is that they all get the opportunity to persevere, reinvent, and make the work they want to make.

How do you like to spend the holidays?

J.G.: I’m a sucker for the Christkindlmarket. My go-to order is a raclette sandwich with prosciutto, and a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream in a souvenir mug. A bag of miniature donuts for dessert—get the apple cinnamon topping if you can. I also love going to Holidays of Light at the Museum of Science and Industry, and the happy surprise that is catching the CTA Holiday Train. And of course, I love It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! at American Blues. Even before I was lucky enough to perform in it, I would see it with friends and family sometimes two or three times a season. 

Drew: We have two young children, and around Christmastime we take them on tour (to see their grandparents). They’re a little too young for Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol, but our 3-year-old just sat through his first full theatre show, the Chicago production of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. (He loved it!)

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