Portrait of white woman with long gray hair, wearing a black striped sweater and strand of beads.
Deb Clapp departs as executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres in June. Credit: Courtesy League of Chicago Theatres

When I was first doing theater in Chicago back in the Pleistocene era (that is, the late 1980s), the League of Chicago Theatres (formed in 1979 as the Off Loop Producers Association) seemed most notable for running the Hot Tix discount ticket booth and offering co-op advertising rates to member theaters in publications like the Reader. But their mission has evolved a lot over the decades, and Deb Clapp has been there to oversee some of the most significant changes.

Earlier this month, Clapp announced that she’s stepping down as executive director of the League at the end of June after 14 years at the helm. As Chicago Theatre Week (one of the programs initiated during Clapp’s tenure) ends on February 27, it seemed like a good time to take a look back with Clapp at some of the ways the League (and other arts services organizations) have had to pivot, before and after the pandemic, to deal with new challenges and expectations for the cultural sector.

Clapp notes that when she first took over as executive director, the biggest challenge was that the League (which now serves around 200 member organizations in the city and suburbs, from college theater departments to the Lyric Opera) “had not been financially stable for quite some time. And so I feel like one of the first things that we did was to kind of stabilize and right the ship. And now we are a fairly robust organization financially. We don’t have any debt.”

In addition to cleaning up the fiscal house, Clapp notes, “The second thing that we did was we worked really, really hard to kind of build the community in terms of making sure that everybody knew that they were not alone. We did a lot of work bringing people together.”

That meant greatly expanding professional development programs for, as Clapp says,  “everything from first aid to crisis intervention, PR, fundraising. All kinds of things that people needed. We tried to offer professional development programs that actually anybody from any of our [member] theaters can go to. But I think one of the things that’s really particular to Chicago theater is that a lot of folks come to Chicago—artists who graduate from college and they open a theater company, and they don’t necessarily have the [management] training. So I think what we’ve been able to provide for people is some training on the business side of it as well.” 

Marketing and public relations does remain important; in March, the League sponsors a public relations workshop by longtime independent theater publicist David Rosenberg. Says Clapp, “If theaters aren’t selling tickets, they don’t stay in business very long. So I feel like that’s going to continue to be a big part of what we do.” But other upcoming programs include a CPR training session and a meeting with the Chicago Green Theatre Alliance, which formed in 2014 to encourage more environmentally friendly practices by theater companies.

During the pandemic, the League ran the Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund to provide $500 emergency grants, and they formulated the unified COVID-19 protocols for members to follow in August as theaters began to reopen. The shutdown came right after the 2019 Year of Chicago Theatre initiative from the League and the city (2022 is the Year of Chicago Dance). “That was kind of a crazy and fantastic amount of effort from us. And then being hit with the pandemic right away . . . on top of all that, I think even if nothing had happened, I think I’d be ready for a change,” says Clapp.

The endemic racial and economic segregation in Chicago has long been present in the theater community. Clapp notes that the League was an early adopter of anti-racism training. “When I wanted to start doing that, it took me a year to find somebody who could do it for us. We were really in the forefront of that. And we continue to do them, and I think that, while I understand that we still as an industry have a long way to go, I think that real change was effected as a result of those trainings.” She adds, “Everything that we’re talking about in terms of pay equity, and yes, cultural competence, increasing awareness around inequities that still are everywhere—not just in our business, but in all businesses—I think it’s really important to everyone to continue to pay attention to that.”

More recently, the League has also been partnering with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the park district, and Enrich Chicago on the Cultural Asset Mapping Project, designed to document and create greater support for cultural institutions and workers on the south and west sides. “What are the assets that we’re not looking at?” asks Clapp. “Why are we serving so few organizations on the south and west side of Chicago? It can’t be that there’s no theater there. There’s theater there. They’re just doing it in different kinds of ways. I feel like there is opportunity there to build programs that serve them in a creative way.”

Clapp won’t be involved in picking her successor, and after she retires from the League, she’s moving to Massachusetts. But she says, “I still love Chicago theater and this job has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. So I really feel like whatever I can give to Chicago theater, I will.”

Patrick O’Keefe and Ed Jones in Hell in a Handbag’s The Drag Seed Rick Aguilar Studios

La MaMa’s Handbag

Hell in a Handbag, Chicago’s foremost connoisseurs of theatrical camp, reopen founder and artistic director David Cerda’s 2019 hit The Drag Seed (directed by Cheryl Snodgrass) this weekend at the Chopin Theatre. But that’s not the end of the road for this parody of the 1956 killer-in-pigtails melodrama, The Bad Seed. The company will take the show to New York’s legendary La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961 as a haven for new work) for a short run (March 31-April 10). La MaMa’s roots in camp are deep; the Play-House of the Ridiculous, founded by John Vaccaro in the mid-1960s, was a resident company at the East Village incubator, and camp/avant-garde avatar Charles Ludlam, who founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company after a falling-out with Vaccaro, premiered his Bluebeard at La MaMa in 1970. Meantime, you have until March 20 to see genderqueer Carson Lingus (Patrick O’Keefe) destroy anyone who gets in the way of their dreams of drag pageant victory, no matter how much their mother Connie (yes, you can work that one out!), played by Handbag stalwart Ed Jones, tries to ignore the carnage they leave in their wake.