From left: Tony Bruno, Miranda González, and Ivan Vega of UrbanTheater Company at the groundbreaking for their new home at the Nancy Franco Maldonado Paseo Boricua Arts Building. Credit: Matt McCanna

When larger cultural institutions make plans for brick-and-mortar developments, it tends to grab the headlines. Steppenwolf Theatre plans to open its new 50,000-square-foot “campus” in February of 2022. (The Halsted Street expansion, which includes a new 400-seat in-the-round performance space, as well as bars and space for the theater’s education programs, came in at an estimated price tag of $54 million.) Northlight Theatre, which under artistic director BJ Jones has long hoped to move back from Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts to its roots in Evanston, announced earlier this summer that they were moving forward with the purchase of property at 1012-16 Church Street in downtown Evanston. They plan to build a new three-story structure housing a 300-seat theater, rehearsal space, offices, and several public gathering places.

But for UrbanTheater Company and Facility Theatre, Humboldt Park is home. Both companies are getting ready to move on to new venues, while keeping their focus on the collaborative grassroots community vision central to their mission.

UrbanTheater just turned 16, and as their producing artistic director Miranda González puts it in an introductory video on their website, their mission is to “decolonize theater.” González and the rest of the UTC leadership team, including executive director Ivan Vega and company manager Tony Bruno, all have personal and family ties to the Humboldt Park neighborhood and its vital Puerto Rican community. Their programming, much of it performed over the years at the cozy Batey Urbano space on Division Street’s Paseo Boricua, has long reflected those ties, both onstage and off. As González told me in an interview early this year, “When you know each other and when you know what the gap is and what the necessities are for the community, there is a responsibility to sustain things.”

She was speaking more specifically about how UTC had stepped up to help their neighbors during the pandemic, but that vision also applies to how UTC works with other organizations. Now those partnerships are paying off, and UTC is getting a new home in their old neighborhood.

On September 2, the company joined the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Nancy Franco Maldonado Paseo Boricua Arts Building. Located at 2709-15 W. Division, on the site of the former Ashland Sausage Company and named after the late wife of 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado, the complex will hold a 99-seat ground floor theater for UTC, two retail spaces, and 24 units of affordable housing, which will be marketed specifically to artists and their families (though anyone who qualifies may apply). The Puerto Rican Cultural Center, headed by Jose Lopez, bought the land in 2014 and started the long process of raising funds to bring it to fruition. Brinshore Development is heading the construction team.

Vega credits Eduardo Arocho, a longtime community leader, activist, and poet in Humboldt Park, for also seeding the idea for the new center and bringing UTC into the mix. “Our goal is not to leave Batey Urbano behind,” he says. “We hope to keep the new 99-seat theater as our mainstage, and use Batey Urbano to really kick off an educational outreach component to UrbanTheater Company. So basically the youth can create work, write work, develop work, and experiment and run the place like it used to be.” 

Arts centers run by primarily white institutions are often viewed as possible tools of gentrification, though as prominent urbanist Richard Florida noted in a 2018 article for Bloomberg, a study published in the journal Urban Studies suggested that “fine arts and commercial arts establishments were both much more concentrated in affluent areas, places that had already gentrified, and even in ZIP codes that had no potential to gentrify. Gentrifying neighborhoods actually had the smallest concentration of, and slowest growth in, arts establishments.” 

Still, it’s undeniable that Humboldt Park and other west-side neighborhoods, particularly those along the 606 trail, have seen rising property tax values and other economic pressures associated with gentrification. Vega sees the new center as a way to stem the tide. “It continues to anchor us. The only way to fight gentrification is to continue to invest in the community, and to give those people, those artists who have been in Humboldt Park, an opportunity to showcase their work. And that’s what’s happening.” UTC also recently received $140,000 through the Chicago’s Cultural Treasures grants for BIPOC arts organizations—a pittance compared to the budgets of primarily white-led institutions, to be sure. But as Vega points out, the increased funding means that for the first time, the leadership team of UTC can draw salaries as they build for the future.

Rendering of the planned facade for Facility Theatre by Kirk Anderson

For Kirk Anderson, artistic director of Facility Theatre, the goal is to build out their storefront space (formerly a machine shop) in Humboldt Park in a way that will give his company and other arts groups a home. He views it as particularly important at a time when other venues that served as reliable spaces for experimental troupes are no longer available. Facility had started rehearsals on a new show in March of 2020 at Prop Thtr when the pandemic shutdown hit. A few months later, Prop (which for many years hosted the annual Rhino Fest and rented to numerous itinerant companies) announced they were giving up their Avondale home.

Anderson says, “I have always wanted to have a place. Just a place where me and all the people I love who make work can gather to do so.” Anderson’s resume includes stints in the ensemble of the defunct European Repertory Theatre and TUTA, as well as other companies large (Steppenwolf, Goodman) and small-but-stalwart (Trap Door, Theater Oobleck).

Among the artists associated with Facility are longtime Chicago director Dado (who is also an ensemble member with A Red Orchid Theatre) and actor Maria Stephens, who has worked with numerous companies over the past several years. Managing director Shawna Franks also has long roots in Chicago ensembles, including originating the role of Dottie in Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe.

Investing in the time needed to really nurture new work is one of the guiding principles for Facility. Their mission statement says, “The collective intends to cultivate the collaborative process as a means of empowerment for the artists, and foster an environment of inclusivity and curiosity with the community.”

Anderson expands upon that idea, noting that the goal is “to take the time to do what is required, to be as inclusive as possible, and across every discipline there is, and do work that matters to us, because I don’t know any other barometer.” Last month, the company presented the Staged Summer Festival of new plays by BIPOC writers.

The company recently launched a GoFundMe to raise $25,000 for renovations on the Humboldt Park building (owned by Anderson and his wife) that will provide ADA-compliant accessibility for the entrance and bathrooms, provide a new facade, and fund a new HVAC system. The space includes the former garage, which Anderson says has a footprint of about 1,200 square feet, as well as a storefront and an upstairs apartment. 

“My idea is that it’s a place where many things can happen at once. I want it to be that always-searching experimental incubator.” Anderson notes that Facility is developing plans to offer three-week residencies for other artists to be able to work intensively on new pieces, with a work-in-progress presentation to follow each residency. 

Anderson acknowledges that UTC and other cultural and community groups have much longer roots in Humboldt Park than Facility, but he says, “I want very much to be included in this without insinuating ourselves in any way into the culture here, which I really admire. It’s tricky. We’re not actually on the Paseo Boricua, but it’s still a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It’s their neighborhood.” He notes that Facility has met with Maldonado, Lopez of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and with Vega. “We had a very short but fruitful discussion about how we want to be symbiotic here, and be of use, I guess.” 

Francesca Primus Prize seeks submissions

Among the hats I wear away from my Reader job is chairing the Francesca Primus Prize committee for the American Theatre Critics Association. The award is usually presented annually to an emerging female-identifying playwright and writers can self-submit.

Submissions are open until November 1, 2021, and we’re emphasizing in particular that the award can be for a body of work, not just a recently produced play as has often been the case in recent years. (Nobody was getting many productions in 2020!) Submission guidelines are at the ATCA website, and I’m more than happy to answer any questions writers may have in the meantime, so spread the word!