The American Theatre is Not Built for Us

Theatre can be a world of contradictions. It’s a space, it’s an experience. It’s a service, it’s a product. It’s a community builder, it’s a gentrifier. It’s a means of education, a townhall, it’s just entertainment.  As a writer-director, I’m looking to connect to an audience, engage the local community, express myself and entertain — so how come I measure my success by ticket sales, sold out crowds and glowing reviews? How come my success as an artist can be measured at an end of quarter board meeting? The American Theatre exists under the umbrella of American Capitalism. Its survival has always depended on ticket sales and various forms of investment from the upper class. With the relatively recent advent of the non-profit theatre, we’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit and the commercial worlds are separate when, ultimately, they abide by the same rules of capitalism. We’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit is a safe space for the artistic, the creative, the developmental, but the systems in place were never built to support the artist or the financial failure that can come with further exploring the New.

The system was not built for us artists. However, this blanket statement hasn’t always been true. There have been many attempts to democratize the American Theatre, only for artists to be washed ashore by the tidal wave that is capitalism. There were the repertory companies of actors and director/managers that toured the country in the 1800s, and the revelatory Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. Then, there was the Regional Theatre Movement that modeled itself off of European theatre models in the 60s that largely influenced our administrative models today. Aesthetically, we can trace how we got from one artistic moment to another, but what’s lost on us is the Economic History of the American Theatre and how its affected Artistic Development today.  Right now we live in a moment of the in between. We have a lot of folks, purists, waiting for everything to go back to the status quo without knowing where we came from. On the precipice of societal change, now is the time for artists to look back at history, question our models, examine the possibilities, and imagine a new future.

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Victory Gardens’ Incoming Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin on Leadership and The Road Ahead

Victory Gardens Theater  has found its new Artistic Director in the multi-hyphenate and accomplished producer Ken-Matt Martin (he/him/his). Chicago artists may know him best as the Associate Producer at The Goodman, where he co-created and curated the Future Labs new play development program with Jonathan Green and Quenna Barrett. Regionally, Martin’s resume is just as impressive, beginning with his co-founding of Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, IA, a company inspired by the Black Arts Movement. He served as Pyramid’s Executive Director until 2018, and it is there where his aesthetic compatibility to Chicago becomes clear. At Pyramid, Martin directed Ike Holter’s Prowess, and produced Hooded: Or Being Black for Dummies, both shows that ran to great success at Chicago companies. He then put his skills to action to national acclaim as the Producing Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival where he produced the revivals of Raisin in the Sun directed by Robert O’Hara, Ghosts starring Uma Thurman, and numerous other world premieres. 

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WHAT WE DO Interview Series: Lavina Jadhwani

WHAT WE DO is a visual interview series where we briefly talk to Chicago theatre artists about their art — what they do, why they do it, and what their creative process is like, even as it shifts in the midst of a pandemic. We’ve given each artist 8 written questions, as well as 3 prompts for photographs that capture their current headspace. 

Today we’re hearing from Lavina Jadhwani, Chicago-based director, adaptor, and activist. She’s directed for Writers Theatre, Silk Road Rising, Remy Bumppo, the side project, and many others.

SELF-CAPTURE: A selfie, self timer portrait, a baby photo, or just a really awesome picture of yourself that you love.

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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.) 

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‘Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle’ is a Romantic Delight

Regina Victor

In today’s world that is seemingly fraught with violence and carnivalesque politics, Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle at Lifeline is a shockingly refreshing piece. It deals mainly in the language of love, and portrays it as a game, complete with a massive game board set reminiscent of Chutes and Ladders designed by Alan Donahue. Dorothy Milne, director of this production and Artistic Director at Lifeline, delivers a show that ultimately delights the heart. Continue reading “‘Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle’ is a Romantic Delight”

‘Pass Over’ and the Chicago Theatre Aesthetic


By Monty Cole

Let me set the scene.

A couple of weeks ago, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over opened at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and rocked the city –  folks are still holding on to anything sturdy. Nwandu’s Beckettian take on the plight of the American Black man drops Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) on a lifted cement street corner in an unnamed city. A street light hangs over them like Waiting for Godot’s infamous tree, and beyond that lies a black void.

The play isn’t easy. Antoinette Nwandu has written fiercely brilliant dialogue saturated with ebonics and “niggas” spun into its vernacular. The word is used so much that the one white character in the play points out his discomfort with the frequency of the word. Now might be a good time to mention that I’m a Black Chicago-based director. Hi. Continue reading “‘Pass Over’ and the Chicago Theatre Aesthetic”