The very first Ghost Light column I wrote back in summer of 2020, I interviewed Markie Gray, the incoming managing director for Raven Theatre. Gray was hired to work alongside artistic director Cody Estle, who assumed the job in November 2017 from founders (and married couple) Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro. (The board’s decision to remove the original artistic leadership team, who started the company in 1983, led to residual bad feelings, as Deanna Isaacs wrote about in the Reader in 2019.)
Now Estle is heading off to Milwaukee to take over as artistic director for Next Act Theatre. He’s replacing David Cecsarini, who has headed up Next Act since it formed over 32 years ago from the merger of two other companies, Theatre Tesseract and Next Generation Theatre.
For Estle, leaving Raven now means that he and Gray have met many of the goals they set during the pandemic shutdown. In her first interview with me, Gray said, “To me, what I find actually really exciting about having this opportunity is that organizations like this very rarely have the chance to pause and think about the actual organization. And think about the things that are the foundation of all of the art that we make. And that is how we are treating our staff, how we are managing our boards, how we’re thinking about EDI, how we’re looking at ourselves as an organization. It so often gets pushed to the bottom of the list, especially in smaller companies.”
When we talked late last week, Estle noted, “I think one of the reasons I sort of felt like it would be an OK time to leave Raven—not that there’s ever an OK time or a good time—was that I’d done everything that I had said that I wanted to do. Except for the completion of the construction in the east stage. [That’s the larger of Raven’s two venues.] That’s going to start at the end of November after Private Lives. I had done everything that I set out to do, and the money has been raised for the project, or almost raised for the renovation project. When I came on, it was like, ‘We need to diversify the programming. We need to expand the staff, we need to get health insurance for the staff. We need to make sure that the theater is moving from non-Equity to Equity.'”
That last goal became a reality this year when Raven made the move to the Chicago Area Theatre (CAT) contract. In talking about that shift in July 2021, Gray noted to me, “One of the reasons why I was particularly well-suited for this position is that I have experience working in Equity theaters before. And so I was able to sort of help through the transition.”
Gray is staying on as managing director, and the board will announce a search for Estle’s successor shortly. He starts at Next Act in December. Though he’s never worked there before, Estle notes that he asked sound designer and composer Josh Schmidt, who has worked there and with whom he’s collaborated on productions at Northlight Theatre (Schmidt now lives in Milwaukee), about the job listing when it posted.
“He told me it’s been around a long time, it’s Equity, they have their own space, and it might be worthwhile to apply. So I did. Their programming is focused on things that are happening in our lives today, or things that are happening in our world today that may affect our lives. The last play that they did was Kill Move Paradise. [James Ijames’s play is about a purgatory for Black victims of police killings; Schmidt was sound designer for the Next Act production.] The programming that they’re doing is exciting and it’s fresh. They’re not doing Steel Magnolias.”
But Estle, an alum of Columbia College Chicago who has spent most of his professional life here, notes that he’s not abandoning Chicago completely. “I made sure in the contract up there that I can get out and direct one show a year.”
16th Street closes up shop
Late last week, the board of directors for Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater announced that they were suspending all operations at the end of this year. Their current production of Man and Moon by Siena Marilyn Ledger, running through November 13, will be their last full staging; the company’s Write Collective will say farewell with the final virtual play reading on Friday, December 2, at 7 PM, and there will be a closing-out party Saturday, December 3, 1-4 PM at the Outta Space in Berwyn.
16th Street was founded by longtime Chicago director Ann Filmer in 2007, after she and her husband, sound designer and composer Barry Bennett, moved to Berwyn with their daughter. Upon discovering that there was a 49-seat basement theater space available in the North Berwyn Cultural Center on 16th Street, Filmer worked with North Berwyn Park District’s executive director Joe Vallez to create 16th Street Theater, which operated on a CAT Equity contract and focused primarily on new plays, eventually becoming a member of the National New Play Network. In fall 2018, 16th Street announced that they were going to take over an old VFW hall on Harlem Avenue. But that never materialized.
The company returned from the pandemic with Natalie Y. Moore’s abortion drama, The Billboard, produced in an auditorium downtown at Northwestern University. That production won a Jeff Award last month in the short production category for best new work.
Filmer departed 16th Street last fall; longtime Chicago director Jean Gottlieb had been serving as interim artistic director. The board didn’t indicate the specific reasons behind the closing. In the announcement on the website, they stated: “We are no longer a program of, or in any way associated with, the North Berwyn Park District. The North Berwyn Park District is the sole owner of the name ‘16th Street Theater,’ and plans to create a children’s theater with that name at some point in the future. Please direct all inquiries about the future 16th Street Theater to the North Berwyn Park District.”