Inclusion in Improv: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Use the Bomb

Famed improviser Stephen Colbert once gave the sage advice for comedians to “learn to love the bomb.” To translate for non-comedians, he meant that when you are failing onstage, feeling humiliated and embarrassed, you have to learn to find joy in the process of failing, so much that it leads you through the fear, out of insecurity, and into success. To be an even semi-successful comedian, you have to learn to love the bomb.

But what happens when the bomb is racism?

Continue reading “Inclusion in Improv: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Use the Bomb”

REVIEW: Her Honor Jane Byrne at Lookingglass Theatre, and the Paradox of Civil Violence

Long, long ago, in the before-times of March 2020, I went to see a show at Lookingglass Theatre called Her Honor Jane Byrne. I wrote a review of it, but then the entire world shut down, the production’s run was cancelled, and the review never saw the light of day. In light of the Black Lives Matter protests and displays of police brutality that have been in the public eye this past month, the subject matter of Her Honor Jane Byrne has never been more relevant, timely, and worthy of analysis. We reached out to Lookingglass, and they gave us the go-ahead to publish this review of their cancelled show.

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Mercury Theater Shuts its Doors

Mercury Theater became the latest Chicago-area theater to announce devastating news last week, as they announced they would be closing permanently. Unlike Steep Theatre, this closure was directly caused by the economic impacts of the pandemic; in an interview with the Sun-Times, executive director L. Walter Stearns cited extreme loss of revenue as the reason for closure.

In a statement on their website, Mercury Theater said: “We sought to bring a little joy to the world and have made many friends along the way. Thank you to the artists who have been a part of our legacy. And thank you to the audiences who have supported our neighborhood theater.”

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Love Yourself Like My Life Depends On It

The Revolution Starts With You.

One person can change everything. We know this. We are powerful, connected and talented beings.

What does your revolution look like? Marching? Phone banking? Demonstrating? Facebooking?

I want to know if you have asked yourself, really asked what the revolution means for you. Not for the “movement,” and not for the stolen lives America has taken through the centuries up to this point. Your revolution may look like marches, demonstrations, Facebook rants, phone banks. Your revolution may not look like intentionally considering what you want this world to be when we are done.

What is your revolution?

Your own, personal liberation?

Continue reading “Love Yourself Like My Life Depends On It”

Behind the Curtain: In Conversation with Playwright-Director Monty Cole

On June 4th, as we reported, the four playwrights slotted for this year’s Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens published an open letter withdrawing their plays. On the evening of June 5th, as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Chicago drew thousands of marchers to the streets, I sat down (virtually) with Monty Cole for a wide ranging discussion of his project-in-progress, BLACK LIKE ME, that had been slated to headline Ignition. We spoke about the play, his progression from director to playwright, and how Radical Empathy is at the core of his work.

The following is a distilled transcription of our wide ranging conversation (minus many minutes of me fan-girling about his recent projects including his flawless BROTHERS SIZE at Steppenwolf for Young Adults, his triumphant INCENDIARY at Goodman New Stages, and the deceptively soapy ‘til it wasn’t KISS at Haven.) 

Continue reading “Behind the Curtain: In Conversation with Playwright-Director Monty Cole”

Steep Theatre Loses Edgewater Space

Steep Theatre announced yesterday that they will be forced to move out of their current space at 1115 W Berwyn Avenue this fall.

According to Executive Director Kate Piatt-Eckert, “Steep intends to stay in the Edgewater neighborhood and continue to deepen its relationships with long-supportive neighbors as it moves forward with a focus on inclusivity, accessibility, and flexibility. Steep Theatre is not a building – it is a league of fearless artists, bold leaders, and passionate supporters equipped with nineteen years of experience producing storefront theatre and almost two years presenting music and performance at The Boxcar.”

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Dear White American Theater: #WeSeeYou Movement is 64,000 Strong and Counting

The #WeSeeYou movement sweeping the nation is asking our theaters for accountability, and investments in anti-racism. The initial call to action was an open letter entitled “Dear White American Theater”  launched at 7pm on June 9th. This letter invited the community to sign the petition in solidarity with this letter on www.weseeyouWAT.com. Since then they have received at the moment of this publishing over 64,000 signatures and counting. In other words, if you don’t know, now you know. This is the original letter that dropped on June 8th, 2020, followed by their statement released today June 10th, 2020.

#WeSeeYou statement from June 10th:

“In reaction to civil unrest in our country, we—Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theatremakers—formed a collective of multi-generational, multi-disciplinary, early career, emerging and established artists, theater managers, executives, students, administrators, dramaturges and producers, to address the scope and pervasiveness of anti-Blackness and racism in the American theater. Our response was to draft a strong testimonial letter, ‘DEAR WHITE AMERICAN THEATER’, collectively crafted by theatremakers from across the country, exposing the indignities and racism that BIPOC, and in particular Black theatremakers, face on a day-to-day basis in the theater industry. Continue reading “Dear White American Theater: #WeSeeYou Movement is 64,000 Strong and Counting”

Behind The Curtain: Anna D. Shapiro Speaks About Steppenwolf’s Executive Leadership Transition, Board Relationships, the Pandemic, and the Epidemic of Racism

It is no secret that Steppenwolf Theater Company is one of my artistic homes in Chicago. When the news came out about Brooke Flanagan’s appointment for Executive Director, and David Schmitz’s departure to OSF, I was excited and disappointed all at once. David deserves an excellent opportunity such as this, and Brooke seemed highly qualified for the job, but there had been no job search for the Executive Leadership position.

Once during my fellowship at Steppenwolf, Anna told me she saw my value to the institution, and to our field, in my ability ask the hard questions. With that in mind, I made a phone call, at first asking for a conversation, which became an interview. 

Rarely do our leaders seize an opportunity to tell the truth. When controversial decisions are made, I often ask arts leaders if they will sit down and speak to me about their decision-making process. They will always speak to me off the record, for my own education as an aspiring artistic leader. When it comes to going on the record? To date, every single leader has said no. Until now.

On May 27th, we spoke at length about not only Brooke’s transition, but her own transition into the position of Artistic Director, board relationships, racial inequity, the mysterious career “pipeline,” and police violence against Black people.  The world has already changed so much since then. I encourage you to read this in its totality. This is a rare offering of truth, and I hope it invites other leaders to be more transparent in their processes. My questions are in bold, all other responses are Anna’s unedited thoughts. Continue reading “Behind The Curtain: Anna D. Shapiro Speaks About Steppenwolf’s Executive Leadership Transition, Board Relationships, the Pandemic, and the Epidemic of Racism”

Erica Daniels and Board President Steve Miller Resign from Victory Gardens Theater, Board Promises Transparent Leadership Search

Executive Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater Erica Daniels has resigned, along with Board President Steve Miller. After weeks of artist appeals to the leadership of the theater and the board, they have finally decided to step aside and allow a transparent search.

If you missed the arc of the leadership transition that caused turmoil since early Spring, you can read my latest piece: “Victory Gardens Boards Windows Against Black Lives, Arts Community Protests Leadership.

Daniels’ speaks to the “vitriol” that has escalated and I think it is important to note the violence and victimhood that this statement promotes. When you hurt people of color, and women, by enabling one of the most vicious predators Chicago theatre has ever known, you should expect to be held accountable for it. Labeling it as vitriol minimizes victims’ actual pain, and their efforts to generate healing. I am re-reading “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & asha bandele. The title alone makes clear we cannot ignore that this response aims to paint people calling for justice as bullies, or violent, and the reverberating effects of such language.

It will take more than a transparent search, it will take anti-racism efforts from the staff and board from top to bottom. It will take putting people of color in a position to make actual decisions so this never happens again. I look forward to seeing what Victory Gardens becomes in its next chapter.

Read the full statement from Erica Daniels and the board below that was sent to affiliated artists and submitted to us by an anonymous source.

 

Victory Gardens Boards Windows Against Black Lives, Arts Community Protests Leadership

If you have not been following the ball of confusion that is Victory Gardens Theater’s leadership transition, let me catch you up:

1) On March 2nd, 2020 over 60 artists sent an open letter to the board asking for a transparent and equitable leadership search which you can read here.

2) On May 5th, 2020 Erica Daniels was appointed Executive Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater internally after serving as the Executive Director.  There was no transparent search, which caused the community to speak up in opposition of her appointment.

3) The Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens Theater resigned in protest in an open letter originally published on Medium that you can read here.

“How can we do our best work when the basic tenets of trust and leadership are not guaranteed? We are calling on artists, audiences and donors to examine closely what happens when an institution like Victory Gardens Theater purposely ignores the mission it made for itself and abuses the very resources it claims to value and support.” – Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens

4) The playwrights of the Ignition New Play Festival resigned in an open letter originally published on Medium you can read here:

“As the 2020 Ignition Festival of New Plays at Victory Gardens approaches, we four emerging playwrights have decided to pull our respective plays from this development opportunity. We demand that leadership in Chicago theaters dispense with hollow gestures of solidarity, hold themselves accountable for past mistakes, and listen to the needs of their community and artists.” – The playwrights of the Ignition Festival.

5) The opposition to her appointment revolves around many factors but that are exacerbated by the following professional concerns: Rumors persist that Daniels facilitates unsafe work spaces in the theater per her tenure teaching classes for Profiles and managing Second City. You can read about her involvement with Profiles in the Chicago Reader, and the exodus of Artists of color at Second City was widely reported on, including by CBS Chicago.

“The classes were held at the theater on Mondays or Tuesdays when there were no performances or rehearsals. But Cox knew that studying at Profiles alone wouldn’t be enough of a draw. So he asked his friend Erica Daniels, then the casting director at Steppenwolf and, therefore, a powerful person in Chicago theater, to help out. Daniels, now president of Second City Theatricals, also occasionally cast shows for Profiles, including the production ofThe Glory of Living directed by the fictitious “Carla Russell.” – Aimee Levitt, “At Profiles Theatre the drama—and abuse—is real” June 8, 2016. 

Currently there is a movement happening called #OpenYourLobby asking theatres to open their doors to protestors, and several Chicago theatres have found their lane in helping aid the current resistance movement. Steppenwolf is doing supply runs, the Goodman is opening its doors to protestors, and there are more efforts underway or in the works by our community.

The #OpenYourLobby initiative is especially relevant for Victory Gardens, outside of which protesters were arrested (photo below, Trigger Warning Police Violence). They could have provided a sanctuary space and facilitated a peaceful interaction with police, but the building was empty. As you can see, their marquis says “art will survive,” not “Black Lives Matter” which it was changed to after the incident.

On June 6, 2020,  upon learning that the institution was boarded up, scenic artists decided to lead an impromptu gathering to write messages on the boards that supported #BlackLivesMatter and the artistic community at large.

Below are original images from the protest, taken by me:

“The air is charged with an indescribable emotion. It is something that this world has not seen for centuries. It’s a combination of pride, fire, fatigue, tenacity, and righteous indignation. It is oozing from our pores, onto the streets, and into the hearts of all. This is for Emmitt. For Sandra. For Rekia. For Martin and Malcolm. Get on board little children. There’s room for many a more.”
– Sydney Charles, Actor / Director / Activist.

“VG was an institution I trusted to care about their community. It was one of the first spaces I worked at and one of the first spaces that thought me about the intersections of art and activism. Their recent actions have demonstrated a shift to the VG that I admired. Their recent decisions around their change in leadership sets a dangerous precedent in the American Theatre. I joined the artists and organizers to show solidarity and to demand that VG show us they care about their artists and they care about black lives. Theatre is and has to be a civic institution.”
– Abhi Shrestha, Steppenwolf Education Associate.

“Someone told me that they wanted to ensure my legacy at Victory Gardens would be honored.

I said that legacy does not live inside of buildings. They live in the people, artists, workers, audiences and communities. And wherever they go, the legacy of stories we told and shared will live on in these wonderful people.

That legacy was alive and well on Lincoln Avenue today.

And that legacy now belongs to these incredible citizen artists who will find another home or homes in Chicago to create and to lead where their voices, their skins, their communities are valued, and are treated equitably.

I stand with them.”
– Chay Yew, former artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater in a public Facebook post.