Daytime rendering of planned exterior of new American Blues Theater space, with a man on bicycle across the street and people walking by the entrance.
Rendering of exterior of planned new American Blues Theater space on North Lincoln Avenue Credit: Morris Architects Planners

Like almost every long-running Chicago theater company, American Blues Theater has been through its share of ups and downs. Founded in 1985, ABT has long carried the banner for the classic Chicago-style ensemble, and they went Equity in 1988. They lost some money on a production of Keith Reddin’s Peacekeeper in 1990, but by 1993, they rented an old warehouse at Byron and Lincoln and converted it into a 134-seat theater. The company also changed its name to American Theater Company along the way. 

But in 2009, 23 of the ATC ensemble members left due to what they characterized as “major administrative and artistic differences” with artistic director PJ Paparelli. They reclaimed the American Blues moniker, while ATC stayed at the Byron location. Paparelli died in a traffic accident in Scotland in 2015; ATC continued to produce until the board shut the company down in 2018. (The former theater still sits vacant.)

ABT has been itinerant since leaving the Byron venue, but it looks like their long years of wandering will be coming to an end. Last week, the company announced that they will purchase a 17,965-square-foot property in Chicago’s new Lincoln Avenue North Arts District (LANA) and launch the “Our First Home” campaign.

The district itself is a pet project of 40th Ward alderperson Andre Vasquez, who hopes to make that stretch of Lincoln between Western and Catalpa a destination for culture, instead of the rundown motels and storefronts that dominate the area now. (The Ainslie Arts Plaza, which opened last May, was one of the first elements of the plan put into place.)

American Blues artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside notes that, while the location at 5627 N. Lincoln (formerly the site of a Mobil gas station, a Dollar Store, and a Walgreens) came about recently, “Discussions of owning a space have floated in ensemble and board meetings over the past three decades. When reorganizing in 2009, we concentrated on survival for the first five years. After that milestone, we began discussing ownership and long-term leases again. In 2017, we conducted financial and space program feasibility studies that informed how much building we could afford and audience size. We felt lucky to have a residency at Stage 773 while we explored long-term options. Once Stage 773 ceased being a rental venue in March 2021, finding a home became paramount for our sustainability.”

The current plans for the new space, which will be designed by longtime theater architect John Morris (his company also designed Black Ensemble Theater and Cultural Center, Raven Theatre, Lookingglass, and Steppenwolf’s first building on their Halsted campus), call for two theaters: a 148-seat proscenium and 40-seat flexible studio. In addition to lobby and bar areas, the building will hold ABT’s administrative offices and production facilities. And (always critical!), there will also be a small parking lot (though ABT’s press release says that street parking is “ample”). 

ABT, like most other Chicago companies, shifted to online programming during the COVID-19 shutdown. (They returned to live performances with their annual holiday production of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! this past winter.) Whiteside says, “We’ve been resolute in our mission to bring live programming—be it on Zoom or in person—during the entire pandemic. We’ve presented 12+ readings, concerts, and two in-person productions since the shutdown. We won’t cut programming, services, or artists’ wages to have a theater. We’re very cautious as we’ve heard horror stories about the Edifice Complex.” 

Currently, the company is running John Kolvenbach’s solo play Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight, starring artistic affiliate Jim Ortlieb, at Theater Wit. Reader contributor Dan Jakes describes it as “a love letter to the collective theatrical experience.” The ABT capital campaign is aiming to raise $6.5 million for purchasing and building the space ($500,000 is planned as a reserve fund); they’ve already collected $2.9 million from donors so far. 

Though other companies (including Steep and TimeLine) are moving forward with plans for new homes, Chicago has lost some rental spaces as well with the closing of the Royal George and (as noted by Whiteside) the decision of Belmont Avenue’s Stage 773 (formerly the Theatre Building, where ABT produced in its early years as well) to stop offering rentals. Whiteside says, “As an itinerant company for so many years, we’re proud to create a performing arts venue for Chicago. It’s another way we can give back for all the decades Chicago took care of us. We’re in the early stages of creating how our rentals will operate. One thing is certain—we want to truly offer subsidized rental rates to other nonprofits. Too often we’ve seen price gouges that hold back companies’ growth.”

If all goes according to plan, American Blues will, appropriately enough, open their new space with It’s a Wonderful Life in November of 2023.

Changes at the top at Marriott Theatre

The latest in what has been a tidal wave of announcements about changes in leadership at Chicago theaters arrived last week: Marriott Theatre’s executive director Terry James and artistic director Aaron Thielen will be saying “So long, farewell” sometime this summer (after the run of The Sound of Music, which will be onstage in Lincolnshire April 13-June 5). No replacements have been named as of yet, so Marriott joins Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Second City, and Writers Theatre on the list of companies that are yet to tell us who will step into their major leadership positions. (Bob Falls of Goodman is leaving his longtime artistic director’s post at the end of the summer; Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakes, is leaving next year; Jon Carr, who came on board as executive producer at Second City in late 2020, announced his departure in late February; and Michael Halberstam, founding artistic director of Writers Theatre, resigned last year in the wake of allegations about inappropriate “workplace comments and conduct.”)

In the case of Marriott, which opened in 1975 and has been one of the most prominent purveyors of musical theater in the country (produced in the round in their 838-seat venue), it seems like it’s just a good time for James and Thielen to take their bows. James has been around Marriott in various capacities for 40 years, beginning with his appearance in a production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1982. In a press statement, James said, “It is time for me to exit stage left. (Or up an aisle in our theater.) I have gotten to do more than I could have ever dreamt possible, so I leave with a full heart. Having been living with multiple sclerosis it is now time to prioritize my health. The current season (who knew it would take three years to get through?) will be my last as producer.”

Thielen, who has been with Marriott for 27 years and is married to James, said, “As artistic director, I have had the honor and privilege to work side by side with Terry James guiding the artistic vision of the theater. With his announced retirement, it is the right time for me to also step aside to make room for new artistic voices and a new leadership team to shepherd the theater into the future.”

Thielen won’t be leaving theater entirely; he also noted, “During the pandemic, Ryan Nelson and I created a nonprofit organization called Broadway Across Borders, which is based on the work we started in 2018 with the U.S. State Department. Over the past four years, and virtually during the pandemic, we have continued to create arts educational programs and new musical stories in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, Germany, and Serbia. We plan to continue to expand the work we are already doing to reach emerging artists around the world and offer the opportunity to learn, connect, and create with other artists who bring with them their own unique language, culture, and artistic point of view.”