Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

The Players 2009: The 50 people who really perform for Chicago

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What makes Chicago’s theater world special? We picked up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly for clues. In the cover story, “CSI” star William Petersen explains his decision to leave his role as one of the top paid actors in television, earning a rumored $600,000 an episode, to move back to Chicago and Chicago theater: “It was too safe for me at this point. So I needed to try and break that, and the way to do that, for me, is the theater.” EW went on to credit Petersen for much of the show’s success, notably bringing a theatrical ensemble philosophy to play in its production. Or consider the runaway success of Steppenwolf’s “August: Osage County,” which transferred to Broadway,  receiving critical acclaim and multiple Tony Awards, not by shaking it up with Broadway “names” but instead by virtually transferring the Steppenwolf production intact, with the addition of lead producer and fellow Chicagoan Steve Traxler. What makes Chicago theater—or for that matter, Chicago dance or any other form of performance practiced on our stages—special? We’d contend it’s the power of the ensemble, the spirit of collaboration that champions artistic risk-taking and subordinates the commercial. And so, in that spirit, the critical ensemble responsible for Newcity’s ongoing stage coverage presents our take on the most influential people on and offstage in Chicago.

The Players was written by Fabrizio O. Almeida, Lisa Buscani, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer, Valerie Jean Johnson, Nina Metz, Dennis Polkow, William Scott, Andy Seifert and Monica Westin

tracyletts1. Tracy Letts
Playwright, actor, Steppenwolf ensemble (steppenwolf.org)

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, but 2008 might be primarily remembered in Tracy Letts’ mind as the year that he lost his father, Dennis Letts, a college professor and actor who had appeared in “August: Osage County,” the play that had brought his son so many accolades. Family has always been the grounding force for Letts and, not surprisingly, “August” is based in part on his growing up in Oklahoma. Despite Letts’ manic year of immense loss while becoming the hottest playwright on the planet, he went ahead with the opening of his latest play, “Superior Donuts,” at Steppenwolf as if nothing had happened. Next? A film version of “August: Osage County” is in the works, as is a New York run of “Superior Donuts.”

robertfalls.jpg2. Robert Falls
Artistic director, Goodman Theatre (goodmantheatre.org)

With more than thirty years of work in Chicago theater under his belt, Falls is, like the Goodman itself (and its executive director Roche Schulfer), a Chicago institution. His creatively rich and sometimes risky programming has kept the Goodman at the top of the heap for more than two decades, coupling brilliant revivals of classic plays with premieres of new works by some of the most sought-after young playwrights working today (including Brett Neveu and Sarah Ruhl). With the launch of the ambitious Eugene O’Neill Festival this month, Falls delivers a powerful one-two punch: as curator, featuring works by Chicago favorites The Neo-Futurists and The Hypocrites, companies from Brazil and Amsterdam, and avant-garde legends The Wooster Group; and as director, teaming up once again with stage favorite Brian Dennehy for the highly anticipated “Desire Under the Elms.” In his downtime, he puts in regular gigs on Broadway, most recently helming the short-lived revival of “American Buffalo.”

louis-raizin-headshot3. Lou Raizin
President, Broadway in Chicago (broadwayinchicago.com)

Naysayers in Chicago lament that Broadway in Chicago is the worst thing ever to have happened to Chicago theater. Yes, it can be frustrating when a long-running production such as the record-breaking “Wicked” or “Jersey Boys” moves in for years at a time, meaning that important downtown theaters lose the chance to host other more cutting-edge touring fare. Yes, you wish that BIC would be more supportive in presenting local fare, as it claimed it would after sponsoring the revival of House Theatre’s “The Sparrow.” But getting folks downtown to catch a big show can only help Chicago theater, not hurt it, and the entire city has benefited from the millions of dollars that have been pumped into the theater economy here as a result of the revitalization of the downtown theater scene that Raizin has spearheaded. Not to mention that BIC’s run of “Wicked” has meant steady work for a few select Chicago actors.

petersen-william4. William Petersen
Actor, Steppenwolf ensemble (steppenwolf.org)

Within weeks of William Petersen’s spellbinding performance as the lead in Steppenwolf’s production of Conor McPherson’s “Dublin Carol,” the announcement was made that Petersen had become the forty-second member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, leaving his enormously successful and lucrative role as Dr. Gilbert Grissom on the popular CBS television network series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” to return to Chicago full-time. Long before his success in film and television, Petersen was a founding member of Remains Theatre, a Chicago ensemble that, like Steppenwolf in the 1970s, had helped define the storefront theater scene of the 1980s and whose co-founders also include current Steppenwolf members Gary Cole and “Dublin Carol” director Amy Morton.

barbaragaines_0908_richforemanphotography.jpg5. Barbara Gaines
Founder and artistic director, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (chicagoshakes.com)

The 2008 regional Tony award went to Chi Shakes this past year, and the company has certainly proven its mettle under Gaines’ artistic direction. More than anyone in town, she’s made it a practice to import shows from around the world—usually somewhat experimental works that have nothing to do with Shakespeare.   But the Bard is still the company’s bread-and-butter; Gaines current production of “Macbeth” is provocative (hello nudity!) and supremely modern in its stylized world of video and violence.

shaprio-anna6. Anna D. Shapiro
Director, Steppenwolf ensemble member (steppenwolf.org)

Of course we’re excited about Shapiro’s upcoming projects in 2009: co-directing “Our Town” next month; a world premiere by playwright Regina Taylor in March; a new play titled “Up” this summer. Most exciting, however, is that they’ll all be here in Chicago—at Lookingglass, the Goodman and Steppenwolf, respectively. This 2008 Tony Award-winning director of “August: Osage County” could have done anything anywhere after helming the American play of the decade at Steppenwolf and, subsequently, as it took Broadway and London by storm, but she chose to keep her teaching gig at Northwestern and continue to work in the city with the ensemble closest to her heart. Focused on the work but not the hype, Shapiro represents everything that is singular about Chicago theater artists.

kellyleonard7. Kelly Leonard
Vice president, The Second City; president, Second City Theatricals (secondcity.com)

Otherwise known as the man who gave Tina Fey her first major gig, Leonard has an undisputable eye for talent (former cast members populate not only “Saturday Night Live” and “The Colbert Report,” but whole swaths of Hollywood). And it is Leonard who has maintained the company’s consistency—some shows are better than others, but they all bear the recognizable Second City stamp.

8. William Mason
General director, Lyric Opera (lyricopera.org)

Although he lacks the originality and vision of his pioneering predecessors Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik, Bill Mason is the perfect custodian of Chicago’s largest and most successful opera company during troubled economic times. Yes, the trend is to name everything after donors these days and present mostly crowd-pleasing Italian warhorses, but one thing is for sure: when the smoke clears and other area arts organizations are gasping for breath or even going under completely, Lyric is likely to stand tall and in the black.

cromer-david-8089. David Cromer
Director

Cromer has had one of the most dramatic career-exploding years for a director imaginable; he not only directed two of the biggest hits in 2008, The Hypocrites’ “Our Town” and “Picnic” at the Writers’ Theatre, both of which also earned buckets of critical acclaim for the way Cromer revived the classics in ways that truly confronted audiences but he kicked off the year with an Off-Broadway stint with Next Theatre’s “The Adding Machine” and ended the year with news that he’d been hired to helm the Broadway revivals of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound” and that his “Our Town” was headed for Off-Broadway.

10. Bonnie Brooks
Chair, The Dance Center of Columbia College (colum.edu/dance_center)

Brooks, along with executive director Phil Reynolds, curates consistently compelling programs of contemporary dance that have established the Dance Center of Columbia College as one of the best places to see groundbreaking movement art in Chicago. Last season the Dance Center hosted heavy hitters like Karole Armitage and Merce Cunningham’s company and brought the Urban Bush Women and JANT-BI—an all-male Senegalese troupe—together for a cross-cultural collaboration. This season includes performances by the cerebral local company The Seldoms, Latin American Delfos Danza Contemporanea and three emerging Japanese companies.

ashley-wheater-4-photo-by-jim-luning-photography11. Ashley Wheater
Artistic director, Joffrey Ballet (joffrey.com)

The Joffrey went through a major transition when artistic director and founding partner Gerald Arpino retired in 2007 (he sadly passed away the next year). Former company member Ashley Wheater has broken in Arpino’s shoes nicely, respecting the traditions of the Joffrey and bringing fresh challenges to a company comfortably established as Chicago’s premiere ballet. Last season featured nods to Robert Joffrey’s work and additions to the repertory including new works by emerging choreographers and classics like Jerome Robbins’ transcendent “In the Night.” Not to mention the move of the company into its own high-profile space downtown, in the Joffrey Tower. Next season includes works by Balanchine, celebrated San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Tomasson and Arpino.

12. Charles Newell
Artistic director, Court Theatre (courttheatre.org)

Whether he is directing a show himself or brings in a carefully chosen colleague to do it, one thing you can count on when it comes to anything that Charles Newell has a hand in: it will be risky, gutsy and never dull. Newell is fearless in terms of imagination, innovation and originality, no matter the outcome and reception. His stylized “Titus Andronicus” and its satirical play within a play left much of his audience bewildered, right down to the cannibalistic climax. And some of his less-than-musical forays into musicals placed drama over music. In “Caroline, or Change,” however, Newell’s best and most successful production to date, the perfect and inspiring balance between music and drama was at last achieved, a hopeful harbinger of what is to come at Court.

halberstam-michael-2007-213. Michael Halberstam
Artistic director & co-founder, Writers’ Theatre (writerstheatre.org)

Many artistic directors feel that such a title means that they are the only one who gets to direct shows, and while Michael Halberstam can direct with the best of them, one of his extraordinary gifts is his ability to put the right property with the right director. This uncanny ability means that whatever you are seeing up at Writers’ Theatre—which indeed, does always put the writer, i.e., the text, first and the whims of directors and actors second—you are assured of the highest possible theatrical experience in the area made all the more special because of the intimacy of the venues.

traxler-02714. Steve Traxler
Co-founder and president, Jam Theatricals (jamtheatricals.com)

The Chicago-based Jam Theatricals started out as an operator of subscriptions series of Broadway shows, now in thirty-five markets, from “Broadway in Savannah” to “Broadway in Fargo.” But soon after, they started producing themselves, in essence to help create product they could later sell on the road. In this role, Traxler’s had something of a magic touch, earning four Tony Awards, including most recently as a lead producer on “August: Osage County.” (He’s also producing the Broadway engagement of “Speed The Plow” that initially starred the mercurial Jeremy Piven, “Blithe Spirit” with Angela Lansbury and the upcoming “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush” starring Will Farrell.) Thanks to his success, Traxler provides an informal pipeline for the best of Chicago to Broadway, as evidenced by his role in bringing “August: Osage County” to the Great White Way. So what else is he looking at on the local scene? In addition to discussing New York options with Tracy Letts for his “Superior Donuts,” he’s spending a lot of time with the upcoming Goodman production of “Desire Under the Elms,” citing admiration for the “intensity of the collaboration” between director Robert Falls and star Brian Dennehy.

15. Bert Haas
Executive vice president, Zanies Comedy Clubs (zanies.com)

It’s safe to say that if you’re an aspiring Chicago stand-up, your rise to the top will go through Bert Haas. The man responsible for evaluating and booking talent for Zanies Comedy Clubs (whose three locations make up half of the area’s remaining stand-up clubs), Haas helped foster the careers of Leno and Seinfeld in the eighties, Richard Lewis and Sarah Silverman in the nineties, and will be partly responsible once the current crop of stand-ups break through into the major leagues (provided they can win over the audience after MCing inside the tiny, creaky theater at Zanies on Wells).

butler16. E. Faye Butler
Actress & singer

The only way that Northlight Theatre’s BJ Jones could imagine doing “Ella” here was if he could lure E. Faye Buter back home to play the lead (Butler had previously appeared there as Dinah Washington). The show was a huge hit, and a few months later, Goodman Theatre had Butler anchoring its red-hot production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Meanwhile, Charles Newell wanted to do the hugely ambitious chamber opera “Caroline, or Change” at Court Theatre, but only if Butler could play the lead. That production, which Newcity critics rated as the top play of 2008, was the biggest hit that Court ever had in its forty-five-year history. When it comes to smash musicals and breaking box-office records, this Butler did it.

galati-frank17. Frank Galati
Director, actor, Steppenwolf ensemble (steppenwolf.org); associate director, Goodman (goodmantheatre.org)

Galati’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” at Steppenwolf got mixed reviews from critics, but his presence directing both at Steppenwolf (where he took his adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” all the way to Broadway and a Tony Award) and the Goodman mark a singular local influence; and Steppenwolf’s “Tempest” this spring, in which Galati will star as Prospero, is sure to remind audiences of his breadth and depth in the field.

18. Gary Griffin
Director

After the huge success that Gary Griffin had on Broadway with the Oprah Winfrey-produced musical version of “The Color Purple,” which is still running in a national tour, many are still surprised to see Griffin back home in Chicago and wonder why he hasn’t packed up and moved to the Big Apple. Griffin keeps an apartment in New York for his constant work there, but also has the same place he has had in Andersonville for fifteen years. Griffin not only constantly keeps up with the theater scene here but still will direct the right project when it comes along, such as his staging of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater last fall, which was stunning enough to make many forget the movie version.

jimvincent19. Jim Vincent
Artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (hubbardstreetdance.com)

Vincent does not believe in rules for his company. “We are working with unexpected mediums that create opportunity for new dance,” he says. Engagement after engagement, HSDC proves that whatever you might expect from the dexterous company isn’t nearly as badass as what they can deliver. His dancers, a physically diverse group of nimble athletes with perfect musicality, perform work by some of the world’s most innovative choreographers. Vincent is constantly listening for new voices to expand that repertoire and he is committed to giving his dancers opportunities to produce new work from within the company. It’s still hush-hush, but next season he may just lead his team into a special residency with another of Chicago’s major arts institutions.

martha-lavey_0308-220. Martha Lavey
Artistic director, Steppenwolf (steppenwolf.org)

Lavey’s been the artistic director of Steppenwolf for more than a decade and an ensemble member much longer, so it’s often hard to tell where her vision stops and the rest of Steppenwolf’s starts. In addition to a marriage with Steppenwolf that seems unconditional, Lavey’s innumerable directorial and performing accomplishments round our her powerhouse status in Chicago theater.

21. Sean Graney
Artistic director and founder, The Hypocrites (the-hypocrites.com)

seangraneybysandroThe man at the helm of The Hypocrites is also a director in demand—and a veritable master of achieving quantity without sacrificing quality. Over the past two years, Graney has been popping up everywhere: he has been tapped to direct at the Court, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Children’s Theatre (to name just a few), all while maintaining The Hypocrites’ reputation for innovation and stimulation. Graney and company continue to produce some of the most exciting work on the Chicago stage, including the Graney-directed “The Threepenny Opera” and their lauded revival of “Our Town”—directed by David Cromer—which is headed for New York, albeit with a new cast.

sussman-1569_md22. Arthur Sussman
Vice president, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (macfound.org)

One of the great strengths of Chicago theater is that its artistic ambition often exceeds its commercial prospects, which is why the foundations that support the arts are so exceedingly important, especially when a severe economic downturn makes selling tickets that much more difficult. In that regard, we’re lucky that the MacArthur Foundation calls Chicago home, since we’re the only market that the foundation most famous for its “genius grants” supports with its arts and culture initiative. And support it does, to the tune of about $7 million a year, most of that in unrestricted giving that allows arts groups to do what they do, rather than requiring them to sell funders on a project-by-project basis. And MacArthur makes sure it’s touching the community at all levels, directly administering grants to organizations with annual budgets over $2 million and collaborating with Prince Charitable Trusts and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation on small and midsize groups. Sussman’s been at the Foundation nearly a decade after a long run at the University of Chicago; though his responsibilities are much broader than the arts and culture program, it’s a particular passion of his, and one that he administers hands-on, along with program officer Deepa Gupta.

lois-weisberg-photo-by-leah-missbach-day23. Lois Weisberg and the Department of Cultural Affairs
Commissioner and her staff (chicagoartistsresource.org)

Huzzah for the Department of Cultural Affairs! Offering more than 1,800 free cultural events annually, this may be the year Chicago especially appreciates the department’s value. Dance, theater and music, they program it all. But don’t get complacent; although they offer plenty to see and hear, the department wants you to get involved, recently expanded its acclaimed Chicago Artists Resource (CAR) to include resources for performing arts.

bj-jones24. BJ Jones
Artistic director, Northlight Theatre (northlight.org)

Don’t let the Skokie address fool you—Northlight continues to be the place to see Grade-A theater. Jones has the savvy to program just enough chestnuts to appeal to his (ahem) older subscriber base, while making damn sure to land shows that push boundaries and make noise—including the recent Chicago premiere of the Broadway musical “Grey Gardens” (which he also directed) and Martin McDonagh’s violent-fest “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” in the spring.

mahoney-john25. John Mahoney
Actor, Steppenwolf ensemble (steppenwolf.org)

Even while John Mahoney was co-starring on the enormously popular NBC television network program “Frasier” for more than a decade, he returned virtually every weekend to his Oak Park home. The British-born actor came to Illinois after World War II because his sister was here and began acting, encouraged by John Malkovich to join the still-fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble. Despite Broadway appearances and constant film and television work, Mahoney always manages to find time to appear in plays here, this year alone having co-starred in the world premiere of “Better Late” at Northlight Theatre with Mike Nussbaum and in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” still playing at Steppenwolf. Look for him in on HBO’s new season of “In Treatment,” which he’s been filming on his off days from “The Seafarer.”

26. Chris Jones
Chief theater critic, Chicago Tribune (chicagotribune.com)

Newspapers may be dying, but you can’t blame Jones if he hasn’t noticed: he’s too busy covering theater, logging about 250 shows a year, plus managing two freelancers to check out the rest, while running The Theater Loop, an influential blog that also covers theater news and racks up about 100,000 page views a month. A native of Manchester England, Jones developed a taste for theater growing up, then landed Stateside at the age of 20, where he picked up his PhD at Ohio State. Before long, he was in Chicago, serving a long stint as theater editor for Newcity, then moving to the Tribune, where he has gradually expanded his influence to fill in the void left when his legendary predecessor, Richard Christiansen, stepped down.

russtutterow27. Russ Tutterow
Artistic director, Chicago Dramatists (chicagodramatists.org)

The patron saint of Chicago playwrights, Tutterow understands that writing is a process—playwrights need staged readings in front of an audience to know what works. The Saturday Series has filled that hole for several years running, and Tutterow backs it up by producing a few of those scripts every season, including last year’s runaway hit, Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain.” Now in its thirtieth season, Dramatists boasts a veritable who’s who of leading Chicago playwrights on its “Resident Playwrights” roster, including Brett Neveu, Mia McCullough and Marisa Wegrzyn and counts among its alumni Tina Fey and Rick Cleveland.

tanyasaracho28. Tanya Saracho
Playwright, co-artistic director, Teatro Luna (teatroluna.org)

The unemployment rate may have been reaching toward unfortunate heights in 2008, but for multifaceted artists like Tanya Saracho it was a boom year. Tanya the actress had a scene-stealing turn as the nurse in Karen Zacarías and Henry Godinez’s bilingual “Romeo y Julieta.” Tanya the writer/director/co-artistic head kept her legions of Teatro Luna fans in stitches with “Jarred: A Hoodoo Comedy.” But it was the powerful “Kita y Fernanda” at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater that finally saw Saracho come into her own as a playwright. She’ll continue to hone that unique bilingual playwriting voice well into 2009 with a new play for Teatro Vista (“Our Lady of the Underpass”) and an adaptation of author Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” for Steppenwolf.

dickie0001c29. Brian Dickie
General director, Chicago Opera Theater (chicagooperatheater.org)

With the recent passing of Chicago Opera Theater founder and longtime artistic director Alan Stone, it is particularly gratifying to see that Brian Dickie has not only kept up the vision that Stone envisioned for Chicago’s “other” opera company of filling in repertoire voids that would never be filled in by Lyric Opera and continuing to present Chicago premieres of works we would not otherwise hear—a whopping grand total of sixteen during Dickie’s ten years here—but Dickie has taken the artistic quality of the company to a significantly higher level as well. All of this, by the way, in a troubled economic climate and while bringing opera to a larger public by being the first area company to have a live television broadcast with its summer production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

petertaub30. Peter Taub
Director of performance programs, Museum of Contemporary Art (mcachicago.org)

Taub truly enriched the performing arts landscape in Chicago this year with timely, daring and impeccable choices, most obviously Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz,” but also the world-popular, and deservedly so, “Nine Parts of Desire,” and a thoughtful curatorial series on hip-hop. Under his guidance, the MCA has become the go-to place for experimental performance on the most-ambitious scale.

31. Charna Halpern
Co-founder & owner, i.O. (ioimprov.com)

Even years after the death of improv guru and co-founder Del Close, i.O. remains the major stomping ground for all things improv—thanks in no small part to the always impressive long-running show, “TJ & Dave.” Halpern gives newbies a chance to work through their growing pains, while providing a stage for returning vets, including former “SNL” cast member Tim Meadows and folks currently in Second City’s mainstage review.

32. Welz Kauffman
President & CEO, Ravinia Festival (ravinia.org)

When Patti LuPone won her second Best Actress Tony Award last year, her first since 1979’s “Evita,” she exuberantly thanked Welz Kauffman on national television. It was Kaufmann who imagined LuPone as the perfect lead to revive “Gypsy,” but it was not the first time that Kaufmann had put together a production at Ravinia that subsequently went to Broadway: the “Sweeney Todd” that was part of Kauffman’s five-year “Sondheim at 75” initiative also hit the Great White Way. Locally, Kauffman scooped the Chicago Symphony by presenting the area premiere of Golijov’s opera “Ainadamar” years before the CSO did, and the magnificent “Madama Butterfly” currently at Lyric Opera was heard more than a year ago at Ravinia.

kyle-desantis-photo33. Kyle DeSantis
Executive producer, Drury Lane Productions (drurylaneoakbrook.com/drurylanewatertower.com)

With most of longtime theater impresario Tony DeSantis’ Drury Lane chain a mere memory when he died in 2007 at the age of 93, and the fare at Drury Lane Oakbrook fairly lackluster at that point, many had expected the suburban venue to go the way of Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. Not only has Tony’s grandson Kyle carefully resurrected the venue by putting together topnotch productions with all of the trimmings, but he has shrewdly brought selective proven hits from that venue to Drury Lane Water Tower Place downtown, creating a mid-price alternative to Broadway in Chicago. Displaying an admirable “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude, BIC itself is renting the downtown space for “Xanadu” this winter, while DeSantis is presenting a knockout version of “Miss Saigon” at Oakbrook that is favorably competitive with any musical in the area.

jackie-taylor-200734. Jackie Taylor
Founder and executive director, Black Ensemble Theater (blackensembletheater.org)

Long before VH1’s “Behind the Music,” or Broadway shows such as “Jersey Boys,” Jackie Taylor was using the music and biographies of great African-American musicians as the basis for more than 100 plays that she wrote and directed herself across a thirty-year history of the company that she founded. The formula is always the same: tell the most compelling aspects of the artist’s story and make sure there is constant music performed at the highest possible level. The result is contagious and crowd-pleasing across racial divides and has often attracted the artists themselves to the proceedings, including Dionne Warwick and Teddy Pendergrass.

anthony-moseley-color-headshot35. Anthony Moseley
Executive artistic director, Collaboraction (collaboraction.typepad.com)

The hugely successful (and seriously popular) short play festival known as Sketchbook is almost ten years old, and that it exists at all is thanks to Moseley, who has kept his passion for big, bold extravaganzas even after moving the fest to the upscale confines of the Steppenwolf Garage. A lot of playwrights have Sketchbook to thank for exposure. This is a company that does well by writers—including an incredible adaptation last fall of George Saunders’ short story, “Jon.”

cjmitchell1

36. CJ Mitchell
Executive director, Links Hall (linkshall.org)

Links Hall Executive Director CJ Mitchell is a diverse talent. Accountant by trade, artist at heart, the diplomatic, whip-smart Scotsman has steered Links into a unique niche by overseeing an experimental performance and collaboration roster rarely seen outside the world of academe. He offers cheap rehearsal time to allow artists to research and perfect their work. He’s also fairly competent with a plunger when the ancient building’s unreliable plumbing acts up. Since assuming the post in 2004, Mitchell has prudently expanded his staff and board and is transforming a scrappy, vibrant venue into a force to be reckoned with.

376237. Nathan Allen
Artistic director, The House Theatre (thehousetheatre.com)

Despite some rather ominous year-end e-blasts forecasting a bleak future for The House due to lack of funds in a deteriorating economy, the company seems to be on track to keep moving forward with their next production “Rose or the Rime,” directed and co-written by Allen. Good thing too. Allen has led his company to new artistic heights this past year culminating in the Broadway in Chicago run of “The Sparrow” at the Apollo Theater.

lane-alexander-by-kristie-kahns-859kb38. Lane Alexander
Founder and director, Chicago Human Rhythm Project (chicagotap.org)

Last summer, the CHRP brought percussive artists worldwide to Chicago—many for their first U.S. performance—for a rhythm extravaganza in the Pritzker Pavilion. “Global Rhythms” was three hours of the world’s greatest hoofers, drummers, sand dancers and beatboxers, all gratis. Under Alexander’s direction, the CHRP has become a unifying banner for percussionists across the city and beyond. And, in a time of thin funding for the arts, the CHRP has launched a program to donate half of their ticket proceeds to charity. This year, look forward to the U.S. debut of “Barbatuques,” an ear-popping troupe of body percussionists from Brazil.

39. David Catlin
Artistic director, Lookingglass Theatre Company (lookingglasstheatre.org)

It’s easy to forget about Lookingglass these last few seasons, as they’ve graduated from their onetime status as hot young company into the mid-range of established companies, albeit one with their own space on Michigan Avenue. And this is in part due to their unique approach to programming, wherein they mix brand-new productions with revivals of some of their “greatest hits,” including the upcoming re-staging of the one that put them on the map, Mary Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights.” But it’d be a mistake to overlook them, as a cursory review of the last couple of seasons reminds us of a virtually unbroken string of critical successes, not to mention the excitement building over their take on “Our Town” next month (featuring a certain ensemble member named David Schwimmer), with Anna Shapiro and Jessica Thebus at the helm. And through it all, David Catlin offers a consistent presence, not only as artistic director, but as a director and actor as well.

pj-paparelli40. PJ Paparelli
Artistic director, American Theater Company (atcweb.org)

ATC felt like a different company the moment Paparelli took over a little more than a year ago—injecting some much-needed verve that reignited the ensemble with a roster of shows that speak to our lives today. He wasn’t afraid to nix a stodgy show scheduled by his predecessor to replace it with the very “now” technology-infused high-school comedy “Speech and Debate.” And the guy’s got connections—he landed the newest show from the creators of “Urinetown,” called “Yeast Nation,” set for this spring.

neillabute41. Neil LaBute
Playwright

No playwright these days is more influential or prolific, pushing buttons and pissing people off. But LaBute himself couldn’t be a nicer guy, and when he’s not in L.A. making films, home is right here in the Western suburbs. New York may get the world premieres, but here in Chicago he’s resolutely storefront with a fierce loyalty to Profiles Theatre, a company that devoted an entire season last year to his work.

brett-batterson-004-edit42. Brett Batterson
Executive director, Auditorium Theatre (auditoriumtheatre.org)

For a seasoned administrator with a passion for historic preservation, the Auditorium Theatre was the perfect place for Batterson to land in 2004. In addition to upholding the venue’s reputation for giving a stage to some of the world’s most venerable dance companies, last year he and his team brought grand opera back to the Auditorium with the Chicago premiere of “Margaret Garner.” 30,000 people were reached by “Garner” and its auxiliary programming. Of all his work, Batterson takes the most personal pride in the success of Hands Together, Heart to Art, an art initiative for children who have experienced the death of a parent.

kirstenfitzgerald43. Kirsten Fitzgerald
Artistic director, A Red Orchid (aredorchidtheatre.org)

A formidable actress, Fitzgerald recently took over the top post at AROT and she’s made her mark already—it takes balls to stage “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” and it was a major hit for the company, which also includes an impressive roster of ensemble members, from actors Michael Shannon (seen in “Revolutionary Road”) and Lance Baker, to playwright and former Chicagoan Brett Neveu, to the director Dado, who’s helming AROT’s current show, “The Unseen.”

sandyshinner44. Sandy Shinner
Associate artistic director, Ignition program director, Victory Gardens Theater (victorygardens.org)

Although Victory Gardens’ star hasn’t shone quite as brightly the last couple of years, possibly as a result of growing pains from its acquisition of the Biograph Theater and the board machinations that led to the stepping down of its longtime managing director (and wife to longtime artistic director Dennis Zacek) Marcelle McVay, Shinner has been a bright light. Not only has she directed the best plays over the past three seasons (including 2008′s “Four Places”), but she’s taken charge of the Ignition program, which supports young playwrights of color. And, on top of it, she’s helming the Off-Broadway production of Jeffrey Sweet’s “Flyover” later this month. In other words, the theater’s legacy of advocating for new work and new writers is in good hands with Shinner.

45. Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani
Artistic director and executive director, Silk Road Theatre Project (srtp.org)

Silk Road has become a hub for minority playwrights, whether they’re writing about the Korean experience or the lives of modern-day assimilated Arabs and Muslims. Who else but Silk Road is focusing on the Middle East with plays of such high quality, immediacy and wit? “Pangs of the Messiah” (in the spring) is sure to spark debate with its semi-futuristic, apocalyptic story of West Bank Jewish settlers at odds with the Israeli government. And folks are definitely taking notice: last spring, this six-year-old company was honored with the 2008 Broadway in Chicago Emerging Theater Award.

bonniemetzgar46. Bonnie Metzgar
Artistic director, About Face Theatre (aboutfacetheatre.com)

Although she has only been in town for a short while, you probably know her work. Before arriving in Chicago, Metzgar was co-producer of the Suzan Lori-Parks play festival that stormed the country known as “365 Days/365 Plays.” Now she is in the saddle of Chicago’s preeminent GLBT theater and her choice of performance artist Taylor Mac heralded loudly the opening of her first season. This lady means to take chances. Up next is her About Face directorial debut with John C. Russell’s “Stupid Kids.”

jay_micky247. Jay Torrence
Artistic director, Neo-Futurists (neofuturists.org)

Going into his second year as Neo-Futurist artistic director, Torrence is a diplomat leading the Neo ensemble to consensus in their artistic decision-making. This season includes two large productions in site-specific venues and a twentieth-anniversary celebration that will call back as many “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” alumni as possible for a special primetime run. On top of all that you can still catch Torrence this very weekend performing in “TML.”

annfilmerphoto48. Ann Filmer
Artistic director, 16th Street Theater (16thstreettheater.org)

The western suburb of Berwyn, Illinois is probably best associated with the campy “Son of Svengoolie” on local television, and a forty-foot car-spindle sculpture that until last year graced the parking lot of a shopping center. Now, thanks to Filmer’s artistic helm and the community-minded programming of her forty-nine-seat 16th Street Theater, “Berrrrwyyyn” is back on the cultural map, more seriously this time around, giving voice to its diverse community and proving that provocative and passionate theater is not the sole province of Chicago. Filmer’s already a proven player on the local scene, where she’s held staff or directing gigs at such noteworthy spots as Goodman, Writers’ and Chicago Dramatists, so her move to the hinterlands of Berwyn shows she’s as unafraid to take risks with her career as she is fearless in her choice of material.

beauoreilly49. Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus
Co-founders, Curious Theatre Branch (curioustheatrebranch.com)

Curious Theatre Branch’s Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus are two of Chicago experimental theater’s most reliable perennials, blooming each year with indelible thoughts and pictures for the faithful. Their commitment to original, low-cost theater continues, as does their ability to leverage The Curious’ reputation to attract multi-generational collaborators from across the disciplines to their particular brand of creative madness. Later this month marks the twentieth anniversary of Curious’ Rhinoceros Theater Festival: hundreds of artists in sixty performances at five venues over five weeks. Here’s to aging gracefully.

adam250. Adam Webster
Artistic director, The Side Project (thesideproject.net)

Eight years ago Adam Webster started a company with the hopes that it’d become a hub for new artistic voices, to help revitalize a promising cultural neighborhood that had largely been stigmatized and to lure audiences out of their theatergoing comfort zones. Three out of three isn’t bad. Audiences (and critics) now routinely make the trek up north to The Side Project’s digs in Rogers Park, Webster is the recipient of that community’s Spirit Award and his current season, the new works festival “Cut to the Quick,” will see thirty directors and more than seventy actors working on thirty-five plays in a black-box theater no larger than your living room. Webster proves that ambition and imagination doesn’t have to be limited by the size of your space.

See previous years’ Players here.

3 Responses to “The Players 2009: The 50 people who really perform for Chicago”

  1. dgsweet Says:

    Re no. 4, William Petersen. Before Billy joined Steppenwolf, he became — and still is — an associate artist at Victory Gardens. He started his career at VG, he did my play at VG, he’s doing another play at VG this year. Nice to see you noticed the extraordinary Sandy Shinner, though. We have a hell of a cast in New York — Richard Kind, Michele Pawk, Kevin Geer and Donna Bullock — and she’s doing a beautiful job directing the play (as Dennis did with Billy and Amy). (By the way, why the hell isn’t Amy on the list? She was nominated for a Tony, just received raves in London, and is one of Chicago’s best directors. Jeez.) — Jeffrey Sweet

  2. Three Can’t Miss Retrospectives | Theater For The Future Says:

    [...] B – New City Chicago posts today a list of the top 50 performers [in the theater-building sense] on the Chicago Theater scene. While it could also be titled “50 people I hope will hire or give me money” it [...]

  3. Kcecchin@yahoo.com Says:

    With a list of a mere 50, I’m sure you will receive numerous emails suggesting omitted accolades, so let me start it off with this: No Dennis Zacek? Really?

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