Will Chicago’s Theater Scene Survive the Pandemic?

And how you can help support its various performers and venues.

Maitane Romagosa / Thrillist

The set for Fast Company, a play about a family of heist-planning grifters, is still up on Chicago’s northside. Sleight-of-hand plays aren’t typically seen in live theater, but Jackalope, an indie theatre company with a 60-seat venue in the Edgewater neighborhood, is known for taking risks. The play was supposed to run for five weeks after opening on March 10. Two days later, the pandemic canceled the company’s season. In one scene, the matriarch sips wine at a table surrounded by her children as they scheme. The long stem wine glass, bottle of red, and black table are now sitting in darkness, collecting dust.

“All of our props are sitting on the prop table,” says Kaiser Ahmed, director of Fast Company, and Jackalope’s incoming artistic director and co-founder. “It’s weird. We have not been able to get back in the building since I left.”

Across the city, nation, and world, stages have gone dark because of COVID-19. The risk of contracting the virus is higher when people are in close proximity to one another, which means the traditional theatre experience is under threat of nonexistence. Actor and activist Sydney Charles was in rehearsal for Steppenwolf Theatre’s The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, and also working as dramaturge and assistant director for Bug, when she received news of a shutdown.

"Fast Company"
"Fast Company" | Courtesy of Joel Maisonet

“[Steppenwolf] had to close early for the safety of the actors and crew,” says Charles by email. “Our rehearsal process and show were canceled on March 12. Many other shows in the season were also canceled. That's a lot of lives affected. A lot of financial strain and tough decisions that had to be made. The community has changed and morphed and we all have to adjust.”

Chicago’s theater scene rivals that of Broadway, but what makes it really special is its grassroots origins. Of the upwards of 200 companies in the Chicago area, none better represents this than Steppenwolf -- arguably Chicago’s most famous and influential company -- which grew organically from the basement of a suburban church into a legendary company that presents up to 16 plays and nearly 700 performances and events every year on its three stages. Beloved actors like John Malcovich and Laurie Metcalf and actor-playwright Tracy Letts arose from the company and that scene, to name just a few. As a result of the pandemic and its restrictions, its current season is down to five plays with the revamped run beginning December 3, 2020 and running through September 12, 2021, contingent on the pandemic not worsening.

“I'm an artist and a creator,” says Charles on the impact the shutdown has had on her work. “My ability to do so does not rely on being inside of a brick building. I am not adapting. I'm evolving. COVID-19 has given us all the opportunity to do so. We just need to choose to use this time in a creatively beneficial and fulfilling way.”

Jackalope has two locations on the northside in an area its founders consider “Off Loop,” a play on NYC’s “Off Broadway” moniker. The Broadway Armory is the primary venue, with a 60-seat auditorium that operates via an Arts Partner in Residence through the Chicago Park District. This larger venue is what theater lovers across the city know them for, but The Frontier, a smaller venue of 50 seats, is what ties the company to the Edgewater community. It's rented out for local meetings, cabarets, comedy shows, concerts, and even to up-and-coming theater companies looking to do what the Jackalope team did a decade before. Kaiser admits COVID-19 will most likely force it to relinquish the smaller space, which attracts a young crowd, but he plans to petition the property management and alderman’s office to ensure the next renters preserve the location as an artistic incubator. 

While 2020 has shut down theater as we knew it for the time being, it's also spurred reflection within the industry. 

“COVID has aggressively forced us to be still,” says Charles. “To address the issues of systemic racism and white supremacy and inherent patriarchy within our theater institutions. We can no longer be distracted by the grind but rather determined to keep our art form alive and make it a true safe space for all humans.” 

Jackalope has a track record of bringing equity to the stage. It closed 2019 with Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's P.Y.G. Or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle, a story about a Canadian pop star who hires two Chicago rappers to break him out of his squeaky clean image. The play tackled race relations and paid homage to Atatiana Jefferson and Nipsey Hussle months before the cultural uprisings the nation is reckoning with began.

"P.Y.G." | Courtesy of Joel Maisonet

Without the ability to safely perform and collaborate in person, Living Newspaper -- the production company’s longest running project, one that tackles real life social issues on stage -- is morphing into a New Frontier. The series features four artists filmed in 10-minute solo pieces. Each artist will release six different videos throughout the upcoming year, and to create a dynamic and interactive virtual experience, audience members are invited to take part in the creation of the work. 

“Audiences are used to coming in and seeing a final production,” says Ahmed. “We won’t be able to do that anytime soon. So, instead, we’re opening the door to the process of how these plays get made, and asking audiences to assist in the process. This kind of work requires bravery. The people we chose are comfortable with the shared process, and they were picked because they stand out as voices of this next era.”

Terry Guest, Daria Miyeko Marinelli, Omer Abbas Salem, and Calamity West are the four artists taking part in Jackalope’s yearlong project that allows viewers to participate in their creative process through panel discussions, playbacks, and brainstorming sessions. This forward-thinking mentality is part of the northside theater’s DNA, not the result of forced ingenuity caused by a pandemic. Shutting down Fast Company particularly stung because it was an all-Asian production -- an underrepresented group in the space.

While the current state of affairs is unpredictable, this is not the first time Ahmed has found himself disoriented by country-wide strife. The concept for Jackalope arose from the scarcity of the 2008 recession. Ahmed and three other friends -- Andrew Burden Swanson, AJ Ware, and Gus Menary -- were galvanized by the election of President Barack Obama and decided to form their own production company after finding work difficult to come by post-college graduation. Ahmed helmed the first three seasons. The friends cycled through leadership every three years. This year, during another crisis, Ahmed returns to lead the organization. As for what can be done now to preserve the future of theater and its contribution to Chicago’s vibrant art scene, Ahmed says you can subscribe to a membership package.

“Even though there are no productions to attend, and especially because there are no productions to attend, now is the time to purchase a season subscription,” says Ahmed. “It is not only a generous gift, but it also says I have confidence in you -- which theater heads could sure use these days. If there is a theater you're a fan of, now is the time to become a member.” 

This might be out of budget for many people. The next best thing, according to performing arts consultant Jorge Valdivia, is to attend a virtual performance. Valdivia acknowledges how unnatural it might feel to support the arts through a computer or phone, but attendance makes a difference by signaling to organizers that there is an interest, and in turn, it allows the organization to offer more opportunities to out-of-work artists. 

For those who want to do more, Valdivia has an urgent plea: “Tip. If an event is asking for donations and you can give more than the suggested donation, do it. Every dollar counts now more than ever.”

Regardless of how long a theater company has existed or whether it has produced notable alumni, it’s clear a community of artists at all levels is stressed. Many are trying to re-invent themselves fast enough to preserve their craft. While it might seem like a fight for survival, some see this as an opportunity.

“We are remembering how to listen to one another and be present in the moment,” says Charles. “If that isn't the beauty of what art has the power to do, I don't know what is. The vibrancy of theater hasn't changed. Previously we focused on light being shined via one lamp and that lamp being the only way to illuminate -- we now push that same light through a prism. That's exciting. That's the future.”

Ways You Can Help Support Chicago Theater

Steppenwolf Theatre
Lincoln Park
Just out of high school, Gary Sinise, along with childhood friends Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry, staged the company’s first production in 1974. A year later, they incorporated as a legal non-profit and staged plays in suburban basements, churches and high school gyms. Today, Steppenwolf has 49 ensemble members and received national and international acclaim, including a series of Tony Awards and The National Medal of Arts. Membership for its abbreviated season has tickets for as low as $26 per play and includes a virtual stage of performances. 

Goodman Theatre
The Goodman, as it’s known by locals, is Chicago's oldest and largest non-profit theater. It recently launched an “Intermission” fundraising campaign to allow the organization to provide free creative services, every Friday, to anyone interested in its art. Its five-show membership begins at $100. 

Billed as experiential theater, the Neo-Futurists work to reach and inspire people who are unmoved by conventional theater. Its plays run the gamut from politics, comedy, and personal tragedy, to music, satire, and abstract. For just $3 and a bit of curiosity, you experience the frenetic energy of this one-of-kind company. After your payment is made, they will send you a secret website. Once accessed you’ll have 60 minutes to watch 30 plays. If you love theater enough to see yourself in it, bump up your donation to $100 and an ensemble member will write a play about a subject of your choice. 

Manuel Cinema
If you combine theater, puppetry, the symphony, and cinema, you get Manuel Cinema, an Emmy-winning collective. The company uses vintage overhead projectors, puppets, actors, live-feed cameras, and live music to add new depth to the stage. The cinematic shadow puppetry company is behind Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall’s No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, with music by Jamila (a collaborator of Chance the Rapper) and Ayanna Woods. The theatre company is accepting donations to offset revenue losses associated with its inability to tour. 

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Navy Pier
A summertime favorite is the free Shakespeare plays that pop-up across city parks. The productions bring theater to neighborhoods that might not otherwise have access to the art. Due to COVID-19, everything moved online -- with a twist. From August 10-27, every night at 5:30pm CT a different dancer, musician, or spoken-word artist streamed their performance from their neighborhood. Pilsen, Portage Park, Englewood, and Chinatown were among the 18 communities represented in this virtual initiative. Its “Shakes@Home” initiative keeps this momentum going with interactive content that isn’t limited to theater. Cook like Shakespeare, stream and study a play with activities tailored to a virtual classroom or refine your audition technique with their archive of free content. Donations are the best way to help now.

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Ximena Larkin is a contributor for Thrillist.