CHICAGO —In this 2019 Year of Chicago Theatre, small theatres across Chicago are taking major steps to be more inclusive, generous and accessible, reaffirming Chicago’s growing reputation as the epicenter of storefront theatre in the United States. Many small theatres are evolving their company thanks in part to the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation (the Foundation), which supports more than 50 Chicago small theatre companies with annual budgets below $1 million, to help theatres strengthen operations and focus on producing works and furthering initiatives that are relevant to both the artists and their neighborhood audiences. The Foundation supports small theatre companies with multi-year general operating grants ranging from $2,500 to $13,500 annually, plus an array of additional organizational development opportunities including one-on-one feedback from staff and consultants, reimbursements for trainings tailored to grantee needs, and a cash reserve program.
“Storefront theatres are the lifeblood of our city’s artistic vitality,” said David Farren, executive director of the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. “Our goal—especially during this Year of Chicago Theatre—is to enable small theatres to push boundaries and help them more fully achieve their artistic visions that continue to benefit their communities.”
The Foundation’s theatre grantees across Chicago are evolving and expanding their programming in the coming months to better reflect the communities they serve.
This summer and fall, Silk Road Rising—America’s first theatre and media arts organization dedicated to telling stories of East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern communities—is partnering with more than a dozen faith and community organizations in West Ridge to offer storytelling workshops and ten-week playwriting intensives that will culminate in the first-ever West Ridge Story Festival of original plays, featuring narratives about and created by the community’s residents. The creation process of the festival will be captured as part of a documentary being created by Silk Road Rising to ultimately serve as a poignant “storybook” for the neighborhood. Most of the filming will take place in March 2020 while Silk Road Rising’s Founding Executive Director Malik Gillani and Founding Artistic Director Jamil Khoury live in West Ridge for two weeks to film and interview individuals whose stories were selected for the festival. These neighborhood efforts are part of a recently launched, long-term plan to develop a multicultural, community-led arts center for the West Ridge neighborhood, of which 48% of residents are immigrants.
Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is defining what it means to be radically inclusive with its avant-garde, evolving policies that allow working parents to continue their craft: adjusting opening dates of a world premiere to accommodate mothers’ due dates; creating flexible rehearsal schedules; allowing babies and babysitters at rehearsals and production meetings; and designating toy rooms and breastfeeding areas at the theatre. All of these initiatives are embedded in Rivendell’s efforts, and the theatre has recently worked to formalize these policies in their bylaws and create helpful guides for parents (both local and out-of-town artists) that recommend local parks, grocery stores, health care facilities, and any other nearby parent resources, making it easier for parents to fit productions into their schedules. On August 22, 2019, the theatre will participate in DirectorsLabChicago 2019—a week-long gathering of directors from all over the world—and will discuss its strong focus on parent artist inclusion.
Funding from the Foundation also allows small theatres to remove financial barriers for their audiences. After Theatre Y lost its permanent home, the company partnered with fellow itinerant Donnelley grantee Red Tape Theatre to rent three storefronts in Lincoln Square in 2017, one for front-of-house activities and two performance spaces.
Theatre Y historically charged $20-$25 per ticket, but its leadership was determined to remove all financial barriers that would exclude anyone from attending their productions. After switching to free theatre model in January 2018, success in filling seats was on the rise once the theatre successfully learned they must oversell the house and amplify their marketing efforts—including breaking down a wall to create an exposed theatrical production, inviting outside foot traffic to experience the production on the spot. Now, productions are funded by subscription memberships that are generating a community of dedicated, generous subscribers who sponsor seats for the community at large, making Theatre Y truly unique in the city’s performance landscape.
Babes with Blades Theatre Company uses stage combat to place women and their stories center stage. The company recently redefined their biannual Shakespeare production to be more inclusive of non-binary and non-cis female-identifying artists. Additionally, the company is currently planning a stage combat workshop for people of color, with an emphasis on female-identifying, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming actors. This workshop complements the Company’s mission to provide opportunities to underrepresented populations and cultivate broader perspectives in the arts community and in society.
A Red Orchid Theatre recently committed to adding accessible shows. Beginning with the upcoming season’s world premiere of Grey House, which opens October 10, A Red Orchid will have two open-captioned performances available for each production, enabling additional audiences to experience their work.
More success stories from small theatres supported by the Foundation
The new Executive Director of eta Creative Arts Foundation, Kai EL’ Zabar, is working to expand eta’s ensemble to include younger, emerging artists. Zabar is also looking to fill two new positions, including a Director of Community Engagement to assist with Zabar’s vision for eta Creative Arts Foundation to become an anchor for the neighborhood’s cultural institutions and serve as a cultural hub.
Teatro Vista’s La Havana Madrid was the most successful production in the ensemble’s nearly 30-year history. After the show was first produced in 2017 with a sold-out run at Steppenwolf, The Miracle Center and the Goodman Theatre, Teatro Vista strategically partnered with Collaboraction during the 2018-19 season to relaunch its run of the acclaimed production addressing social injustice, racism and re-localization as part of government-sanctioned “urban renewal” plans as told through the true stories of Latinx immigrants in Chicago during the 1960s. The production touched many lives with a story that was incredibly relevant to the theatre’s Latinx audiences but was also healing to other underrepresented populations who often similarly feel disenfranchised in their own community.
After successfully piloting a production model for ‘pop-up plays’ in spring of 2019, First Floor Theater will evolve the model by using The Den Theater as a site-specific venue for a short play that is produced on nights that First Floor Theater’s mainstage season does not have a performance. The model allows First Floor to keep the budget, technical needs, and time commitment smaller than that of its mainstage season and affords First Floor the opportunity to mentor a younger company without jeopardizing its own financial stability. This grants the younger company time and space to gain experience and collaborate on a scale they may not be able to achieve at their current size, as well as introduce their work – and First Floor’s presence as an artistic collaborator – to a broader audience.
After a long and successful history of 20 years, Congo Square Theatre – one of the nation’s first African American Equity companies in the country – is building momentum and preparing for the theater’s next generation with new staff and board leadership.
About Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation
The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation supports land conservation, artistic vitality, and regional collections for the people of the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. GDDF awards $1.7 million annually to 175 creatively accomplished small arts organizations in the Chicago metro area. For more information visit www.gddf.org.