Oak Park Festival Theatre was one of the first companies back to live performance this year after the COVID-19 shutdown with their production of The Tempest, staged in their longtime outdoor home at Austin Gardens. They weathered that storm, only to suffer a fire on November 23 at their offices in downtown Oak Park, located at 1034 Lake Street. The blaze also decimated the downstairs restaurant, Delia’s Kitchen; Oak Park fire chief Ron Kobyleski told Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal that the cause remains undetermined.
What is clear, according to OPFT leadership, is that the losses for the theater company are steep. In an e-mail, managing director Bryan Wakefield and artistic director Barbara Zahora wrote, “Our losses are considered total: OPFT’s equipment for stage productions such as computers, sound equipment, costumes, props, and lighting in addition to office equipment, technology, and nearly 50 years of OPFT records and artifacts have been destroyed.”
The 46-year-old company is counting on the generosity of the community to help them overcome this blow. Donations can be made at oakparkfestival.com.
First Folio announces the end of operations in 2024
While OPFT has been staging outdoor Shakespeare (and other works) for decades in Oak Park, Oak Brook’s First Folio Theatre, founded in 1996 by the husband-and-wife team of David Rice and Alison Vesely, started producing outdoor Shakespeare on the grounds at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in 1997. (Coincidentally, their first production was The Tempest.) Rice served as managing director and Vesely, who also staged many of the First Folio productions, was artistic director.
The company operated on an Equity contract and eventually moved into producing shows at the historic and atmospheric Tudor revival Peabody mansion. For the past several seasons, they’ve been producing their indoor shows in the chapel that was added to the original home in the 1950s by the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, who occupied the building beginning in 1924. (The estate has been owned by the DuPage Forest Preserve since 1992, thanks to a successful campaign to save the building and surrounding land from a developer.)
During First Folio’s history, they’ve produced half of the Shakespearean canon, along with several contemporary classics (including a series of adaptations by Margaret Raether of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories about upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his manservant, Jeeves). They formed long-lasting creative relationships with artistic associates, including actors such as Christian Gray, Heather Chrisler, Melanie Keller, and Kevin McKillip; designers such as Angela Webber Miller and Christopher Kriz; and playwrights such as Joseph Zettelmaier, whose latest, The Jigsaw Bride, reopened the company’s indoor stage after the shutdown. (First Folio took down its aging outdoor stage permanently two years ago, after their production of Henry V.)
One of their most successful shows was Rice’s The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story, which took audiences throughout rooms in the mansion for re-creations of Poe’s famous stories, as well as insight into how his tragic life fed the horror of his fiction. The show premiered in 2006 and had five subsequent Halloween-time performances with First Folio; in recent years, Oak Park Festival has produced Rice’s script, including a revival this year at Pleasant Home.
Vesely died of ovarian cancer in fall of 2016, and Rice stepped into the role of artistic director, while Kate Danziger took over as managing director and Keller served as associate artistic director.
Earlier last month, the company announced that they plan to cease operations after the 2023-24 season, which is also when Rice had planned to retire from First Folio. (Danziger announced her departure this past August.)
According to Rice, the discussions about winding down operations predated the COVID shutdown, which he says really wasn’t a factor in the decision. After Vesely’s death, the board and Rice began having discussions about a succession plan. But the reality was that she and Rice had both worked for salaries far below the standard for the positions they held. When I characterize them as “below market,” Rice laughs and says, “I think that’s a great way to put it, rather than ‘minuscule.'”
The board and Rice looked into the possibility of fundraising for salaries for successors, but he notes that First Folio, as a suburban theater, is shut out of government grants that are geared specifically for nonprofit theaters in Chicago or Cook County. “The only way you could be sure you’re going to have the ongoing funding for something like this is if the funding had already been in place for years, which it hasn’t been, or if you could set up an endowment.” Though DuPage County has many wealthy residents, that hasn’t translated into a huge pot of individual donations in the arts.
Rice also notes, “We looked at everything that I was doing and at the amount of time I was spending and realized this is not something we would want to ask of another human being who is not the founder. I spent way too many 80 or 100-hour weeks. When it’s my choice and I started it this way, that’s fine. But to ask somebody else to come in, and the expectation is that you spend literally every day of your life doing this, that’s absurd.”
Hayley Rice, Vesely and Rice’s daughter, has directed and performed as an artistic associate for First Folio, but David Rice says that she had made it clear many years before that she wasn’t interested in running a suburban theater. (Hayley is currently the artistic director for Babes with Blades.) Meantime, he notes that running the theater has cut into the time he has available to perform elsewhere, or even to write his own work—though the next show onstage for First Folio is Rice’s The Secret Council, adapted from Agatha Christie and opening in previews in late January.
“Running a theater takes an awful lot of time and attention and energy, and I’ve been doing it for 25 years. By the time we wrap this up, I’ll have been doing it for 28 years,” says Rice. But he also notes that he’s glad that First Folio can end its long tenure on its own terms, rather than closing shop suddenly. “One of the things we kept in mind was wanting to announce it in a way that would make clear that this was a purposeful and well-thought-out decision, and that it was not motivated by urgency of any sort.”
Gift Theatre announces new leadership and plans for new home
An intentional shift in plans is also coming for Gift Theatre. Founded 20 years ago (they’re hosting an anniversary gala at Copernicus Center on December 6), the ensemble-based company has called a tiny storefront in Jefferson Park home for much of their history. Originally conceived at the University of Iowa by William Nedved and Michael Patrick Thornton (the company’s artistic director from the start), Gift earlier this week announced new leadership and plans for a new space.
Thornton, who has had a busy onscreen career (he appeared regularly for a couple of seasons as Dr. Gabriel Fife on ABC’s Private Practice), as well as directing and acting in plays at Gift and elsewhere, hands over the artistic directorship to a triumvirate of Gift ensemble members: Brittany Burch, Jennifer Glasse, and current associate artistic director and casting director Emjoy Gavino. This continues a recent trend of companies in Chicago going with more than one person in the artistic director’s seat, including Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis succeeding Anna Shapiro at Steppenwolf and Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo helming Teatro Vista. Each of the three women will focus on a different aspect of Gift’s artistic operations: Burch will also be director of new play development, Gavino will be director of access, and Glasse will run GiftED, the company’s high school ensemble program.
In a press release, Thornton said, “For two decades, I have been given the tremendous gift of faith to serve as The Gift’s Artistic Director. It has been the role and responsibility of a lifetime: thrilling, surreal, humbling and joyous. I marvel at what we’ve accomplished together and cannot wait to see The Gift grow for another twenty years. The time has finally and excitingly come to hand The Gift off to its next generation of leadership. This artistic succession plan has been in the works for years, and I am so excited to personally prioritize the active campaign to open The Gift’s new theatrical home.”
That home will still be in Jefferson Park, where Thornton grew up as the son and grandson of Chicago cops. In 2003, at age 24, Thornton suffered a spinal stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He returned to directing even before he was out of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab), holding auditions for Gift’s next production. Not long after, Gift, which had been itinerant for its first few years, moved into the 33-seat storefront (a former shoe store) that they’ve called home ever since. (It’s probably the smallest space for any Equity company in the city.)
Neither the 2022 season nor the new location has been announced yet, and the company will be itinerant again until that new home opens. (Thornton will remain a member of the ensemble and, as he noted, will be very active in the fundraising for the new space.) But the trio in charge of the company moving forward said in the press release, “The Gift was built on a foundation of love and community and we cannot wait to take what we’ve learned as artists in this company and actively pursue change in the industry and growth in our art and ensemble.”