Covering theater in Chicago is sometimes like writing acknowledgments for the companies that decided it was time to pack up the tent. In the past two weeks, two such announcements have been made. Underscore Theater announced in late September that it was closing permanently. (During the pandemic, the company ditched its storefront rental space at Clark and Montrose.) Known primarily for new musicals, such as 2019’s Charming The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe (by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier and Seth Macchi), the company’s last full production was that of Annabelle Lee Revak Notes and letters in May at the Richard Christiansen Theater in Victory Gardens Biograph, one of an impressive 16 Underscore world premieres launched in their 11-year history.
The company has also been hailed for its annual Chicago Musical Theater Festival, the last of which was in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 shutdown. Who will live under the aegis of Kokandy Productions.
In a press release announcing the closure, Underscore Founding Artistic Director and Board Member Alex Higgin-Houser said, “While Underscore is closing its doors, our mission is not complete. When we founded this company over a decade ago, it was with the goal of making Chicago a hub for new musicals. We are delighted that Kokandy Productions is committed to carrying the torch of new musicals into the future by taking the reins of the Chicago Musical Theater Festival.
Founding Executive Director and Vice Chair of the Board, Laura Stratford, noted in the press announcement that the company had gone through a long-term planning process during the shutdown and determined that “to maintain a sustainable future, our model is expected to undergo a sea change, particularly as the community continues to recover from the ongoing impact of COVID-19. Artistic Director Whitney Rhodes and Executive Director J. Sebastian Fabál recognized that what would be needed to effect these changes exceeded the capacity and resources of what a part-time role could afford, and both made the difficult decision. to withdraw. At that point, the board decided that leaving the festival in other hands and closing was the wisest choice.
Eclipse Theater Company announced on Monday that they were closing after 28 seasons as a mainstay in the non-Equity scene. Founded in 1992, the company originally focused on new works, largely by playwright Stephen Serpas and featuring actors (mostly graduates of DePaul’s Theater School) known as “Dog Boys”. . (The late legendary casting director Jane Alderman was one of the company’s first champions.)
But beginning in 1997, the company changed its mission to reflect that of New York Signature Theater, which focuses on one playwright for an entire season (both older and newer works). The first playwright presented under the new model was the French surrealist Jean Cocteau; the last was contemporary American writer Christopher Durang. (They had announced a working season of Englishman Caryl Churchill for 2020, but that obviously never happened.) In between were seasons devoted to canonical American writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon, as well as contemporary playwrights such as Lynn Nottage, Kia Corthron and Pearl Cleage.
The company has been itinerant for most of its history. At first they had a showcase in Bucktown, but this was destroyed by fire in 1998. More recently they had performed at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Steve Scott, longtime member of the Eclipse ensemble — and producer for 37 years at the Goodman — spoke to me earlier this week about the decision to close. Scott joined Eclipse just as the “one playwright, one season” model came into effect. For some years, he has also been part of the committee of five which selects the playwrights and the plays of the season.
While he acknowledges that the COVID shutdown had an impact on the decision, Scott notes, “It was getting harder and harder to [continue] even before. You know, these companies have a lot of very young people who want to be part of the company. And as these young people get older and gain lives, they decide that they don’t necessarily want to work for nothing. It was getting harder and harder to keep a basic business together. We were starting to have problems, I think even before COVID. But COVID has been such a difficult time for so many in the company. They really couldn’t focus on anything with Eclipse. I mean, we came up with several projects online, but people were too busy trying to live, you know? »
Scott adds, “It was just a lot of events, and we finally said, ‘Let’s go on a high rather than do a half-crazy production just to keep our name.'”
Having a template built around a different playwright each season meant that the ensemble members might not be suitable to star in that year. I remember talking to then-artistic director Anish Jethmalani when the company was producing a season of works by black American writer Cleage in 2007. Jethmalani admitted that they didn’t have enough members blacks from the set to perform in the shows, and so many of the Eclipse actors wouldn’t be used that season.
Scott says, “Actors join the company because they want to act and they will build sets and also do props. But if they can’t play for a year or two, they kind of start to lose interest. We were constantly bringing new people into the business, but we were also losing people through attrition or moving on to bigger and better things. So it was a challenge, especially over the last ten years, I think, to keep the business together and grow the business because we had to do the writers that we wanted to do.
Admirably, the seasons that Eclipse collected weren’t just “greatest hits” packages. For example, their 2014 season Nottage included its Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruin and his acclaimed play, intimate clothesbut also a rarely produced play, Mud, River, Stone. Cleage season included 2 per Pearla pair of acts in one mostly unknown (Hospice and Late bus to Makkah). Corthron’s 2017 season featured the world premiere of Megastasis.
“We knew a lot of people had no idea who [Kia Corthron] was,” Scott says. “But she was a playwright that a lot of people in the business were passionate about. So some of the star playwrights probably sold better, but some of the lesser-known playwrights, I think, were pretty close to our hearts in a lot of ways.
“The idea was always to do some of their landmark work, but also to do some of their much lesser-known work so that the public could get a sense of all of their work and what their work achieved,” notes Scott. “And we augmented that with off-stage programs, with talks with playwrights — if they were still around, and we could get them to come to Chicago — with readings of lesser-known plays. As much as a small business not -Equity can do, it was kind of an immersive experience in the world of this playwright.
Eclipse also presented the annual Corona Award to a community artist. Although intended as a supplement to their annual benefit, Scott notes that it has become a way “to honor people, many of whom have not been honored by anyone else for their work, especially their work with theaters. non-Equity and the non-Equity community. But it was a nice way to honor people and get their friends to learn more about Eclipse, which helped a lot. The very last event we held was the Corona Awards in March 2020. I mean, it was just at the start of the week that it all came to a halt. And one of my proudest moments of my entire career was being able to honor Mary Ann Thebus, who had been overlooked by the Jeff Awards, by everyone, and give her a real thrill. (Thebus died in February of this year. She received several Jeff nominations, but never won.)
Scott notes that the idea of one playwright, one season is up for grabs for any other company that might want to pick up that torch. “I hope someone comes along and wants to do it again.”
Black Theater Alliance Awards and a special Jeff for Chuck Smith
Last Tuesday, the Black Theater Alliance/Ira Aldridge Awards were presented at Columbia College in Chicago. (Aldridge was a 19th-century American actor, widely considered the first black American tragedian, who spent much of his career in England.)
The best production was that of Congo Square What to send when it breaks down, which just opened during a comeback at the Lookingglass Theater last week. Invictus Theater won Best Ensemble for its production of Ruin. Tyla Abercrombie Tirelessly with TimeLine Theater won Best New Writing of a Play, and Michelle Bester Grandma’s Jukebox at Black Ensemble won Best New Writing of a Musical. Other honored companies and productions include Shattered Globe’s Rasheeda speaking for the performance of Deanna Reed-Foster; Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater House for Lewon Johnson’s acting; and the now defunct House Theater in Chicago for the performance of William Anthony Sebastian Rose II in their final production, The tragedy of King Christopher.
BTAAs were created by Columbia College alumnus Vincent Williams in 1995. Reader contributor and Columbia College faculty member Albert Williams (no relation) note for the college Blog “Green Room”several of this year’s winners (including Abercrumbie, also known for her work as an actress on the Showtime series The Chilisten)) have a relationship with Columbia College.
The Jeff Awards will be presented on October 17 at the Drury Lane Theater in the suburb of Oakbrook Terrace. But before the ceremony, the committee announced that longtime Chicago director Chuck Smith would receive a lifetime achievement award. Smith, who co-founded the Chicago Theater Company at the South Side’s Parkway Community Center in 1984 (with an emphasis on the work of black writers and artists) and served as resident director at the Goodman for many years, also hosted the annual Theodore Ward Award for Best New Play by a Black Writer, administered by Columbia College, for 20 years. (Ward, whose 1938 play Great White Fog was one of the groundbreaking early works in Chicago, was a mentor and teacher to Smith.)
More recently, Smith directed a remake of the August Wilson film ocean gem at the Goodman last winter.