(Some responses have been edited for length and clarity. Bold emphasis is BTD’s.)
This year started strong with hit shows in the BTD and a very busy Chicago Theatre Week. But unfortunately by mid-March, all live productions in Chicago had closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before we call curtains on 2020, we rounded up some end of year sentiments from our member theaters, and this is what they had to say about lessons learned and what they love about the Chicago community.
What was the highlight of this year for your company?
“We built a drive-in theater!” – David Cerda, Artistic Director, Hell in a Handbag Productions
“Going from ‘Let’s try this show online in a Zoom room’ to launching a full comedy network on Twitch in about six months.” – Jason Geis, Artistic Director, CSz Theater Chicago
“Finding so many artists around the country and the world who were willing to come together and work on our upcoming serialized audio drama podcasts. It was incredibly egalitarian and grass-roots, just finding people who wanted to collaborate, and then more or less throwing them together and saying, ‘go for it.’ We will have four series and an anthology pulled together for launch in mid-March, and it wasn’t anything but a glimmer in the back of my head in July.” – Andrew Pond, Artistic Director, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre
“Reopening. It felt extra special to be connecting with audiences. Especially knowing that might’ve been their first outing in weeks or months.” – Aaron, Owner, Trickery Chicago
“We launched Newport Studio, a multi-camera video editing/recording service, so that artists could have a space to create digital content for shows. We’re proud that we can provide same-day professionally shot/edited footage at an affordable rate, and the COVID precautions we have established to try to make this venture as safe as humanly possible.” – Megan Hartmann, GM/Artistic Curator, The Newport Theater
What did 2020 teach you about theater?
“This year taught us the resilience of our audience, staff, and artists. We gathered as a community to continue our mission in spite of the pandemic. In many ways, the social distance has brought us closer together.” – Francisco Lopez, Director of Marketing & Communications, American Blues Theater
“That theater is more flexible than we gave it credit for. There is a hunger for a new kind of theater that is perhaps more interactive and inclusive rather than the traditional passive watching experience. There seems to be room for both now, which is exciting.” – Jason Geis, Artistic Director, CSz Theater Chicago
“This year reinforced to us how important our theater is to the burlesque/variety community, and how important our community is to us. We’ve seen a ton of support from our artists, producers and patrons, which has been one of the main reasons our theater has been able to survive thus far. I think the other thing we learned is that sometimes terrible circumstances can force innovation and adaptations that may not have been explored during a normal year. We think we’re going to emerge from this pandemic with even more resources and ways to support a community that’s going to need our space more than ever, since a huge portion of the opportunities for burlesque and variety performers will be gone once the pandemic ends.” – Megan Hartmann, GM/Artistic Curator, The Newport Theater
“It taught us about both the fragility of this industry, and also its resilience and flexibility through how quickly theatre as a whole shifted to embrace ways of performing that allowed for remote audiences. That creativity and wide-ranging willingness to embrace new solutions was quite incredible.” – Andrew Pond, Artistic Director, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre
“2020 taught me that I love theater even more than I already knew I did.” – Aaron, Owner, Trickery Chicago
Were there any unexpected pleasant surprises that came as a result of the live performance shutdown?
“The pandemic forced practitioners in our field from all over the world to pivot Playback Theatre for the virtual space. This was an unexpected blessing because it allowed us to have direct access to learn and grow from experts in our field in ways that wouldn’t have ever been possible before. We have been honing our craft this entire pandemic and we had the privilege to perform in two virtual theatre festivals and receive invaluable feedback from peers all over the world!” – Allison Sokolowski, Director, Chicago Playback Theatre Ensemble
“There are many challenges that come with virtual theatre, but we’ve had so many successes, too. We completed our cut-short run of KILL MOVE PARADISE online to full (virtual!) houses, and launched a digital remount of TO MASTER THE ART—our world premiere about the life of Julia Child—that brought this much-loved production back to our “stage.” We also held public programs series for two of our postponed productions, with wine tastings, expert panels, class workshops, and scene readings, to spark dialogue around the plays’ themes and their resonance today. We’ve truly been blown away by people’s desires to continue the conversation and support TimeLine, even as the medium of the theatre has shifted.” – Emily Marso, Marketing and Communications Assistant, TimeLine Theatre
“Thanks to two creative and dedicated company members who are doing most of the work, we have been reading plays on Zoom every other week since May for each other (not the public—yet). The readings have been fun for those participating and those watching and have kept us connected to each other.” – Jill Chukerman Test, President, Saint Sebastian Players
“Learning to become a digital-first theater was an unexpected yet welcoming surprise because it sets up for the future so nicely.” – Jason Geis, Artistic Director, CSz Theater Chicago
“Being able to focus more on these audio projects. We’ve been doing a serialized audio drama podcast for a couple of seasons now, and we’ve had a blast, but with the extra time and focus, we were able to grow the projects much more than we would’ve been able to if we were still producing live theatre. And it allowed us to bring together people from all over the world, which would’ve been less likely without the widespread use of Zoom and those technologies.” – Andrew Pond, Artistic Director, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre
“I think the things we’ve developed in quarantine will outlive the pandemic and become really important pieces of our theater moving forward. When live shows return, we will be able to offer our producers a way to live-stream their shows (from multiple camera angles, edited live) and hopefully stream it into our virtual venue – this way, our artists and producers can document and share the incredible work they’re doing with people all over the world.” – Megan Hartmann, GM/Artistic Curator, The Newport Theater
What are you grateful for in the Chicago theater community?
“I continue to be grateful to be surrounded by such talented artists and savvy arts administrators who are finding creative ways to keep the arts alive in this devastating year.” – Sandy Shinner, Producing Artistic Director, Shattered Globe Theatre
“We are indeed a community that supports one another as colleagues rather than competitors. We recognize that helping each other ultimately strengthens the entire Chicago theatre industry.” – Jill Chukerman Test, President, Saint Sebastian Players
“Optimism.” – Aaron, Owner, Trickery Chicago
“We are grateful for the accountability that our community holds us to. It’s important to truly reflect that American identity for all people, and as we grapple with this crisis, we are grateful for the time and work given to making our theatre an anti-racist organization.” – Francisco Lopez, Director of Marketing & Communications, American Blues Theater
“The perseverance and hard work of every theater owner and manager to try and make something happen this year. It’s inspiring.” – Jason Geis, Artistic Director, CSz Theater Chicago
“Their support.” – David Cerda, Artistic Director, Hell in a Handbag Productions
“We’re grateful for the patrons that have stood by us and supported us month after month and recognize this space is important to our community. I’m also grateful for people who are supporting the space by donating their time and expertise to build up our video recording/virtual venue projects behind the scenes.” – Megan Hartmann, GM/Artistic Curator, The Newport Theater
“That very resilience and willingness to look at the complete trash fire that is 2020 and the country’s response to the pandemic, the lack of support for the arts on a federal level, and then say, ‘we’re going to try to do this ourselves and keep ourselves afloat’ WHILE at the same time insisting that whatever we come up with be more inclusive and fairer across the board.” – Andrew Pond, Artistic Director, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre
“The Chicago theatre community really encourages a culture of comradery. We’re grateful to make art in a place that feels a shared responsibility to challenge, entertain, and nurture the soul of this city, and a shared responsibility to lift each other up in the process. It’s been so inspiring to watch our community pull together as we weather this challenge to our livelihood. Chicago theatre won’t go down without a fight: we will survive this, and when we do, it will be because we did it together.” – Emily Marso, Marketing and Communications Assistant, TimeLine Theatre
To see what’s playing now in the BTD, head to our Shows page.
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