Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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The Players 2013: The 50 People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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PLAYERSThough we publish a list of “players” every year, we alternate between those whose accomplishments are most visible on-stage (the artists, last year) and those who wield their influence behind the curtain (this year). Not only does this allow us to consider twice as many people, but it also puts some temporal distance between the lists. So, the last time we visited this cast of characters, two years ago, we were celebrating the end of the Richard M. Daley years in Chicago, fretting over a nation seemingly in the mood for a Tea Party and contemplating the possibility of a Latter Day Saint in the White House. Today, we’ve got a dancer in the mayor’s office, the most prominent Mormons are in a chorus line at the Bank of America Theatre and the Tea Cup runneth dry. Call us cockeyed optimists, but things sure look better from here. And so, meet the folks who, today, bring us the best theater, dance, comedy and opera in the nation.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Johnny Oleksinski
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The Players 2012: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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Darren Criss (#4) with Team StarKid

With our criteria shifted back to artistic accomplishment in theater, dance, comedy and opera this year, our task got infinitely tougher. Because while the number of performing venues grows at a steady rate, the increase in the number of noteworthy artists seems to grow exponentially. For everyone we name on the list below, we had to leave off five, an embarrassment of riches for Chicago. We made a conscious effort to introduce a meaningful number of new faces to the list this year; the necessary absences should not be construed as a loss of worthiness as a consequence. We often find trends when we do the research these lists require; this year we’re starting to see a more meaningful effort to redefine performance itself in the internet age, from the runaway success of StarKids, to the more calculated endeavors of Silk Road. So what defines a “player”? Consider it some complex stew of career achievement, recent “heat” and, in some cases, rising stardom.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Dennis Polkow

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The Players 2011: The 50 people who really perform in Chicago

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As the economy slowly lifts us back to our feet and we look around, we see a remarkable sight: a performance industry in Chicago that survived the worst recession since the Great Depression wholly intact. Sure, we had a few brushes with death, and no doubt a few very small, very new theater companies threw in the towel, as they do even in good years, but unlike many other cities across the country, we’re in pretty good shape. How good? The League of Chicago Theatres issued a press release last week proclaiming our town as America’s theater leader, with more than 250 professional theaters, including four Regional Tony Award winners, and a combined annual budget of $250 million serving five million audience members. Add in our thriving dance community, a comedy scene that’s the envy of the nation and two world-class opera companies and you’d have to say we’re doing pretty damn good. But neither the economy nor any cultural organization is fully out of the water yet, and the dramatic uncertainty injected into the political sea by Mayor Daley’s decision to call it a day means Chicago’s performance community will need some steady hands at the wheel these next few years. Accordingly, for this edition of The Players, we’ve broadened our horizon and taken a closer-than-ever look at the individuals in charge of the financial fitness of our local institutions. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2010: The 50 people who really perform for Chicago

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Tara DeFrancisco, No. 36

Tara DeFrancisco, No. 36

In this town of performers—theater makers, dancers, comedy creators—you’d think it’d be pretty easy to assemble a list of artistic influencers and innovators. And it is. The challenge is paring that list down to a mere fifty. It’s a testament to the wonders of the performing-arts culture in Chicago that we easily came up with about 200 names when we set out to create this year’s version of The Players. Unfortunately, we’re only listing a fraction of those worthy of your attention, but that’s the problem with an abundance of riches. Hopefully you’ll see a handful of recognizable names and a whole lot more you’ll start noticing from this point on. We’ve retooled the criteria for this year, focusing on onstage artistic achievement, rather than the backstage influence of artistic directors, executive directors and the like—who will get their day again next year. Let the arguments begin. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2004: Chicago theater’s fifty leading characters

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Click here to visit the most recent Players list.

We’ve always known we were a town for theater. But this year perhaps we needed outsiders to remind us of just how great Chicago’s theater community is compared not only with New York, but with the rest of the world. Venerable London theater critic Michael Billington went so far as to herald our city as the “current theatre capital of America” after a recent visit, citing not only the three big S’s (Chicago Shakespeare, Second City and Steppenwolf), but also Victory Gardens and the Goodman. Other critics from New York and Toronto sent similar, although not quite as superlative, love letters this year. So it seems fitting this year that  our Players issue, in the past reserved for members of the theater community who wield the most power, focus on the artists—those both on stage and behind-the-scenes who make out-of-towners go home and drool. Read the rest of this entry »