Feature: Chicago Theaters on the Move as the Environment Changes …. Dramatically

Two lean years of pandemic economics, entwined with continuing, insistent calls for real racial justice and gender equity and an end to sexual abuse. The ‘20s have started as a tough decade for theater companies in Chicago and beyond. Amidst these crisis issues, some Chicago theaters are able to plan relocations—to newly built-out performance spaces or new itinerant venues.

The theater environment here, as well as in all other major theater cities, has changed dramatically. The two-year pandemic caused more economic damage to live theater and music than to most other industries; some theaters did not survive. And while the pandemic raged, we also became acutely conscious of how blind most companies have been to the need for racial justice, racial equity, and the demands of the #MeToo movement. The #NotInOurHouse organization in Chicago succeeded in setting new theater standards regarding sexual abuse. The We See You White American Theater movement is calling for radical change in theater management nationwide. Many theaters have responded to those issues, some mainly in the form of rhetoric. Some have taken action to address play selection, casting and staffing more aggressively.

Theatre Y North Lawndale site rendering by P.K. Vanderbeke Architects.

These are some of the moves being planned by theater companies.

Steep Theatre, which has been producing exceptional theater (like its productions of Pomona and First Love Is the Revolution) at its storefront space near the Berwyn Red Line station, just announced that it has found its new home just down the street. Steep plans to purchase the former Christian Science Reading Room at 1044 W. Berwyn, at the northwest corner of Berwyn and Kenmore in Edgewater, to serve as the ensemble’s new home and performance space. The former property was the company’s home from 2008 until September 2020, when it vacated the building due to impending commercial development. Steep has signed a Purchase and Sale Agreement and hopes to purchase the building as its “forever home.” The company will begin a capital campaign this spring.

The 3,500 square foot building is roughly the same size as the former Steep and its adjacent Boxcar spaces and sits on a 17,500 square foot lot that will offer both ample parking and growth opportunity.

Architect’s rendering of Timeline’s new home.

Timeline Theatre, which has long made its home at a church at 615 W. Wellington St., is developing a brand new location at 5033-35 N. Broadway in Uptown, near popular music venues like the Green Mill, the Riviera and the Aragon. For now they’re performing at Theater Wit but they will also produce at the Wellington Street space until the new facility is open in 2024.

Timeline has hired noted architecture firm HGA, which has more than 100 theater projects in its portfolio, to recreate the purchased building, a five-story, 45,500-square-foot warehouse building plus a vacant lot, near the corner of Broadway and Argyle. The facility will feature two intimate and flexible black box theaters seating up to 250 and 150 audience members, respectively. There also will be an expanded area for the immersive lobby and information experiences that are a TimeLine hallmark.

Northlight Theatre rendering by Eckenhoff Saunders Architects.

Northlight Theatre is purchasing a new property at 1012-16 Church St. in downtown Evanston for its new permanent home. Northlight has performed at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie for years, although its original theater space was in Evanston. This will be the first time in the theater’s 45-year history that it has owned its own space.

The new building, situated on a 21,000 square foot property, will house a three-story, 38,000 square foot theater and community center, including a 300-seat mainstage, rehearsal hall, a glassed-in rooftop “sky room,” plus lobby lounges and concession spaces. The company announced plans in 2019 but fundraising was delayed by the pandemic.

Gift Theatre, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, is giving up the Milwaukee Avenue storefront in Jefferson Park where a great deal of theater magic took place, such as Wolf Play. Gift has been in that location since 2005 and recently announced it’s going to enter a new era in community life with a larger space in the same neighborhood. The location hasn’t been announced but former artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton says they have hired an architect and theater consultant to work on the project. (Thornton, co-founder of Gift, recently stepped down after 20 years as artistic director.) He said the new facility will be an accessible gathering spot for the community with a large lobby, rehearsal space and much larger performance space. (The former stage was only 23 feet wide and 10 feet deep.) The theater has begun fundraising but they haven’t announced the date for reopening.

Theatre Y event rendering by P K Vanderbeke Architects..

Theatre Y, a small experimental theater company that produces internationally as well as locally, is investing in some big ideas as it develops a new theater/community campus in North Lawndale, near Pulaski Road and 21st Street. Theatre Y has been an itinerant company for years, performing at rental venues in Logan Square and Lincoln Square as well as others.

The New Youth Program, one of Theatre Y’s key programs, funded by Innovation 80, will engage local young people in theater and puppetry productions. The program will fund a pilot puppetry program designed by Michael Montenegro, a nationally known, Chicago-based puppeteer. and led by a local community organizer.

Theatre Y is partnering with Worldview Solutions on a comprehensive vision, including listening and responding to the community, and finding new solutions. With a $250,000 grant from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, this urban renewal plan will integrate high-end architectural, landscape, and spatial design in ways usually reserved for wealthy areas of Chicago. The campus is intended as a live/work space for some of its artists too.

Artistic director Melissa Lorraine says the theater’s goal is “revitalization without gentrification.” The theater’s revitalization concept centers the theater and its live/work space as part of the new campus, in partnership with community leaders, designers, urban planners and local artists.

 

Copley Theatre interior. Image courtesy enjoyaurora.com

Paramount Theatre in Aurora is opening its newly refurbished Copley Theatre with an all-new subscription series, titled the Bold Series. The new 165-seat theater is across the street from the existing Paramount Theatre in a formerly overlooked, rundown area of Aurora that has become an entertainment district. The new theater’s first production will be Lynn Nottage’s Sweat—an ideal choice for this blue-collar city. The Copley’s Bold Series will feature four plays that the theater describes as “fearless, unexpected and thought provoking.” Paramount typically employs many Chicago theater artists.

Other Theater Moves

The Chicago theater scene is enhanced by a number of venues with multiple performance spaces where theater companies without a brick-and-mortar home can find comfortable places to show their wares. Venues like the Athenaeum Theatre, the Greenhouse Theater Center, the Den Theatre, Theater Wit and Chopin Theatre offer multiple spaces, while theater companies like Victory Gardens, Raven, Goodman and Steppenwolf have studio or black box spaces available for rentals to itinerant companies.

Owning (or renting) their own theater building is probably the goal for most companies because it’s an important branding tool. But the expense and angst of building ownership can be as onerous as home ownership. Thus the value of the multispace venues noted above.

A number of theaters have changed venues recently.

Invictus Theatre, a five-year-old company that formerly performed at the Pride Arts Center, has a new home at 1106 W. Thorndale (formerly the Frontier). Their inaugural production there was last fall’s stunning version of Hamlet.

The Artistic Home, which made its home in a cozy storefront on Grand Avenue for years, has given up that space and is now performing at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue, where they staged Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice in October. Their training program, where they work in the Meisner Technique, is now offering classes at the new training studio at 3054 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Collaboraction has moved out of its longtime home in the Flat Iron Building at North, Damen and Milwaukee, and is producing at venues and community centers around the city, particularly on the south and west sides. its new play, Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till, begins February 26 at the DuSable Museum of African American History.

Hell in a Handbag Productions has lost its space in Mary’s Attic in Andersonville. After producing their Golden Girls parody at the Leather Archives and Museum, their next two plays will be staged at the Chopin Theatre.

Strawdog Theatre lost its (relatively) new home at the former Signal Ensemble Theatre on Berenice and Ravenswood. Their next production will be at Links Hall.

BoHo Theatre is moving to The Edge Theatre on  Broadway later in the year for a production to be determined. .

About Face Theatre is moving from Theater Wit to The Den Theatre, where they will stage Laced in March.

Promethean Theatre Ensemble is moving to the Factory Theater on Howard Street for their Richard III production in May.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago recently announced that they are moving their offices and rehearsal space to a location in Water Tower Place. Their Spring Series will be staged at the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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