Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Players 2015: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.

Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)

Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »

Player of the Moment: David Schmitz, New Managing Director of Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux

Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux

 

By Brian Hieggelke

Last October, Steppenwolf surprised the theater world by announcing a double-barreled transition in leadership: long-term artistic director Martha Lavey would give way to Anna Shapiro at the end of the current season, and David Hawkanson would retire even sooner as executive director—his protégé David Schmitz would step into the top administrative job as managing director on January 1. Schmitz might have the highest-profile new job in Chicago theater, but even for his first press interview, a week and a half into the gig, he’s calm and confident. That’s because, I imagine, he’s been at Steppenwolf for a decade already, and his big near-term challenge, the expansion of the theater’s “campus” to include a new building, new lobby and two theater spaces, is an undertaking he approaches with confidence. He was downtown last week to meet with a board member, and we grabbed a few minutes in a bustling Loop coffee shop.

What brought you to this point?
I’m a theater person from the start. I was involved as an actor as a kid and actually have an undergraduate degree in directing and sound design. I moved to Chicago in ‘98 to get an MFA in directing from Roosevelt University. And the nice thing about that program, beyond being a good program where I learned a lot, was that it didn’t pay me to go to school, so I had to get a job. I got a job as a business manager for a for-profit company called Adair Performance which was, literally, clowns. Like birthday-party clowns. And that’s why I have the advantage of being able to say I worked for clowns and really meaning it. But the great thing about that opportunity was it taught me contracts and budgeting and the fundamentals of business, which I didn’t get in any of my schooling. Then I was hired as the bookkeeper at Lookingglass about two months before they broke ground on the space on Michigan Avenue. I walked into a really great opportunity—there was a lot of need for financial work, for analysis, and there wasn’t really anybody to do it. I was hired as a bookkeeper. By the end of the summer, I was director of finance. By the end of three years, general manager, helping to run the theater while we were looking for an executive director. We eventually hired the current executive director, Rachel Kraft. At that point, I was still directing. I was an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre from 2002 to 2008, when my first kid was born and I stopped directing. And then I was hired at Steppenwolf in 2005, and walked into, again, a great situation. David Hawkanson, the executive director, took me under his wing, along with certain members of the board, and the rest is history I guess. The funny story that my wife tells is that when she first moved here in 2001, after we’d been dating long distance, we were going by the old Steppenwolf administrative offices at North and Halsted, that beautiful brick building, and I said, “That’s where they have their offices! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work in a building like that?” Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2014: Stage

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Top 5 Plays of 2014
“Smokefall,” Goodman Theatre
“Newsies,” Broadway In Chicago
“The Midnight City,” Firecat Projects at Steppenwolf Garage
“Hedda Gabler,” Writers Theatre
“King Lear,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater
—Brian Hieggelke

Top 5 Plays of 2014
“Hair,” American Theater Company
“Lookingglass Alice,” Lookingglass Theatre Company
“Happy Days,” Theatre Y
“Othello,” Gift Theatre
“The Language Archive,” Piven Theatre Workshop
—Hugh Iglarsh

Top 5 Dance Performances of 2014
“Swan Lake,” Joffrey Ballet
Compagnie Kafig: “Correria Agwa,” The Dance Center of Columbia College
“The Art of Falling,” Hubbard Street Dance + The Second City
Contemporary Choreographers, Joffrey Ballet
Dance Theatre of Harlem, Auditorium Theatre
—Brian Hieggelke Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Intimate Years: Redtwist Theatre Looks to Season Eleven

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Redtwist Theatre's storefront location

Redtwist Theatre’s storefront location

By Aaron Hunt

With thirty-six Joseph Jefferson nominations and nine wins since Redtwist Theatre’s first show in the Edgewater neighborhood opened in September 2003, it might seem that the company didn’t spend much Cinderella-time by the fireplace. But none of Chicago’s storefront theaters skate through more than ten years without some bumps along the way and this season Redtwist celebrates the anniversary of their residency at 1044 West Bryn Mawr with an eleventh season entitled “Rising From the Ashes.”

I spoke with Redtwist’s artistic director Michael Colucci and original member Johnny Garcia about the company’s journey and the alchemy that has given the company its status and resiliency. Colucci was transplanted from New Jersey to Chicago in 1981. “It was because of a corporate job change,” he says. “The company shipped my boss [here]…and he said, why don’t you come with me? There’s an opening in Chicago.” He smiles. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Colucci arrived at the beginning of Chicago’s storefront theater boom. Body Politic, Wisdom Bridge, Victory Gardens and other financially strapped, artistically rich organizations re-envisioned street-level real estate no longer fiscally viable for traditional business into storytelling spaces. Rent was cheap, and small but ardent collectives of newly graduated artists bursting out of Chicago’s universities remodeled these “homes” for theatrical expression.  Colucci found himself swept into this tidal wave. He studied acting, left his corporate job when his acting career gained momentum, then added coaching and stage direction to his portfolio. His studio became the Actors Workshop Theatre, and then morphed into Redtwist. The company moved into Edgewater in 2002. Read the rest of this entry »

The Social Media Yada Yada

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Who has time to read websites anymore? All the cool kids in town are too busy reading print magazines (or are we mistaken here?). Luckily you can find us on the same social platforms that every other blog, publication, and laundromat in town are on – so be sure to check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

If you’re like us and don’t want to succumb to your worst Candy Crush impulses every morning commute, you can stay on top of Newcity’s newest stories by liking our Facebook page and following our Twitter feed.

Also, the polls are now open for our legendary Best of Chicago issue – have you voted? Today’s the day.

Beyond the Limits of Language: Happy Days at Theatre Y

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Melissa Lorraine

Melissa Lorraine/Photo: Devron Enarson

By Hugh Iglarsh

If any one play embodies Theater of the Absurd, it’s Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in which protagonist Winnie chatters away through Act I while buried above her waist in, well, waste. In Act II she is up to her neck in it. No explanation is proffered. Her situation is what it is, somewhere between open-ended visual metaphor and vaudeville schtick. It is a provocation to the audience and a kind of torture for the exposed and immobile performer. But if we’re all lucky, out of this chaos of word and image something begins to happen between viewer and actor that has little to do with the conventions of story or character, or even theme. It’s something both simpler and deeper: a kind of communion.

“A Beckett play is really a score, it’s music,” says poet-playwright-scholar András Visky, who has come from Romania to direct Theatre Y’s soon-to-open production of this rarely revived 1961 classic. “Nobody goes to a Bach concert and asks, ‘What does it mean?’ Beckett inherited after World War II the fully meaningless language of the Western tradition—a culture that, as he himself saw, doesn’t protect you from murder. So he felt he had to go back to a zero point, beyond the limits of language.” Read the rest of this entry »

Not Getting Lost: Stage 773 Finds its Place in Chicago’s Theater Training Center Explosion

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Stage 773 Clubhouse Ensemble Training/Photo: Michael Courier

Stage 773 Clubhouse Ensemble Training/Photo: Michael Courier

By Sean Kelley

In the world of American acting, fame and fortune are to be found on the coasts in Los Angeles and New York. However, many of America’s most successful actors and comedians come to Chicago to make their bones before making a go at the Big Apple or Hollywood. Chicago’s theater scene is full of young performers looking to learn their trade and beef up their resumes. It should come as no surprise then that Chicago is also home to some of America’s foremost training centers for acting and comedy. The School at Steppenwolf regularly turns out actors who may be the next Joan Allen or John Malkovich. Second City and iO Chicago churn out Tina Feys and Stephen Colberts like clockwork. Sure, find fame and glory on the coasts, but if you want to become a great performer, come to Chicago first.

Chicago has spent decades fomenting its place as a theatrical hub, but in recent years things seem to have really taken off. Chicago’s performance training centers are experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Vaunted Chicago institutions are expanding dramatically (as theaters are apt to do). The Annoyance Theatre recently moved into a brand new space overlooking Clark Street. Second City is expanding in Pipers Alley and, of course, Charna Halpern’s iO Chicago has moved into a gorgeous new space on Kingsbury Street. Annoyance, iO and Second City expanded to accommodate the ever-growing multitudes of eager young performers looking to take their stages and classrooms. Each of these theaters has been around the block and earned the reputation that brings actors from the world over to their doors. But it is not just the old warhorses that have benefited from the legions looking to learn. In addition to these established institutions, there are several new kids on the block looking to help guide the next generation of performers. One of them is Stage 773. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Whale Trail with Joe Forbrich: Shattered Globe Theatre’s “The Whaleship Essex”

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(l to r) Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Hugh Iglarsh

Before the black gold of petroleum became the driving force of business and empire, it was whale blubber that lit the lamps and lubricated both the machinery and the ambitions of antebellum America. And a generation before Captain Ahab and the Pequod sailed into our collective imagination, there was the very real Captain Pollard and the Essex, a Nantucket-based whaler battered and sunk by an enraged and seemingly vengeful ninety-foot monster of the deep.

The story of hunter turned helpless prey, and of the sailors’ three-month voyage across the open sea in whaleboats after the Essex went down, with only eight of the twenty crew members surviving the ordeal, is coming to the Chicago stage, courtesy of Shattered Globe Theatre.

Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the greatest aquatic menace is rotting alewives, Joe Forbrich’s “The Whaleship Essex” will transport the audience back to 1820s New England. It was a time when peace-loving, luxury-spurning Nantucket Quakers roamed from equator to pole in search of sperm whales to slaughter and render into precious oil, spermaceti and ambergris. Driven by a seemingly “un-Friendly” combination of avarice, machismo and bloodlust, they created efficient floating abattoirs, turning the planet’s most magnificent creatures into ingredients for candles and axle grease. It was just business, albeit a risky, widow-making one, and the Nantucketers – described by Herman Melville as “Quakers with a vengeance” – took pride in their ability to feed an insatiable market the commodity it craved. Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming Pools and Movie Stars: Gregg Opelka Makes “The Beverly Hillbillies” Sing

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Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart/

Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart

By Aaron Hunt

“I’d really fallen in love with Cole Porter, and his music, and just became obsessed with hearing all these obscure recordings. I saw a musical revue which was called ‘The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter.’ And I remember seeing that, and after I came out of that I wanted to write a musical. That was the light-switch moment for me. This was what I wanted to do.”

Born on the South Side, Gregg Opelka’s family emigrated to Northern Glenview. The third of nine children, all of whom were given piano lessons (Gregg’s seemed to stick), he attended Loyola Academy. His required studies of Greek and Latin would stand him in good stead in his later career.  “I was a British poetry freak. Other kids were outside playing ball, and I was reading Keats and Shelley. I attended Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, then got a scholarship to the University of Michigan in Classics. Preparing to be a crusty old college professor, stuck in academia. But I always played the piano as I kid and I was drawn. I missed it. I was getting more and more seduced by the musical theater.” Opelka started sneaking off to the practice rooms in the student union, to keep up his Haydn and Mozart. Opting out after earning his MA, Opelka headed for Boston, where he focused seriously on his pianist chops, before returning to his native Chicago in the mid-1980s.   Read the rest of this entry »

Big Laughs: The Chicago Women’s Funny Festival Returns with Seventy Shows

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Liz MacArthur and Jill Valentine

Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine

Comedy has come a long way. In the old days, many male comedians believed with all of their hearts that women just weren’t funny. The comedy world was once filled with barriers for female comedians. Times have changed and while many of those barriers still exist, many women have taken their rightful place in every echelon of the comedic world. To celebrate this welcome change, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival (CWFF) was created.

Festival founders Jill Valentine and Liz McArthur—both veterans of the Chicago comedy community who worked on the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, another of Chicago’s big comedy extravaganzas—saw an opportunity to create a festival that focused on women. By applying their experience and expertise, they created the CWFF in 2012.

Now for the third year in a row, the CWFF takes to the stage to celebrate women in comedy. Unlike many other comedy festivals that focus on a specific genre of comedy such as sketch or improv, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival features every type of comedy, from stand-up to burlesque to musical comedy; if it’s funny, it has a place at CWFF. Read the rest of this entry »