For over a year, Chicago theaters—large, midsize, and small—have been announcing major changes in leadership. Some have been fraught with public controversy, like the departures of David Zak at PrideArts and Michael Halberstam from Writers Theatre. Others have been the natural result of companies reevaluating their missions and future plans and finding new leadership to help them grow, as with Marti Lyons at Remy Bumppo and the team of Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo at Teatro Vista.
Last week, perhaps the biggest announcement of all came in: Robert Falls, who has been artistic director at the Goodman Theatre for 35 years, will step down from the job next summer. He’ll program the 2022-23 season, for which he plans to direct two shows. Goodman’s executive director, Roche Schulfer, will stay on at least through the transition, and a search for Falls’s replacement will be underway shortly.
Falls’s long-running tenure included the Goodman’s move from its first home at the School of the Art Institute (where the modern wing of the museum now stands) to the Goodman complex on Dearborn Street; the creation of an artistic collective including directors, performers, and writers such as Mary Zimmerman, Regina Taylor, and the late Brian Dennehy (a frequent Falls collaborator whose performance in the director’s production of Death of a Salesman won Tony Awards in 1999 for both of them); and a focus on developing new work in addition to staging reimagined classics. In an interview with Chris Jones of the Tribune, Falls noted, “I am not planning on going fishing in Florida,” and held out the possibility of freelancing at theaters in Chicago and elsewhere after departing the Goodman.
But while Falls is getting ready to leave his artistic home, Ericka Ratcliff is getting ready to come back to hers. Earlier this week, Ratcliff was announced as the new artistic director at Congo Square Theatre, making her only the fourth person to hold that title in the company’s 22-year history and the first woman.
A longtime Congo Square ensemble member who made her company debut in their 2006 premiere of Lydia Diamond’s Stickfly, Ratcliff is also an emeritus ensemble member of House Theatre of Chicago (their new artistic director, Lanisse Antoine Shelley, credited Ratcliff with encouraging her to seek that role) and an artistic associate at Lookingglass Theatre. A graduate of Roosevelt University, Ratcliff has been living in Los Angeles and Atlanta in recent years. But she notes that the combination of Congo Square hiring Charlique C. Rolle as executive director in summer 2020 and the company’s renewed collaboration in building future plans during the COVID-19 shutdown led to her decision.
“Week after week we were together planning and organizing in a way that honestly I had never experienced at Congo Square,” says Ratcliff. “Because so many of the ensemble members were so far apart and had moved to LA and had moved to New York and were working out of town regionally.” (Cofounder Derrick Sanders is now the associate director of the drama division at the Juilliard School in New York.) She adds, “The silver lining of the pandemic was that I was able to contribute again. And I stepped in to be a coordinator and associate for our community engagement and education department. And it just lit me up again the way that working for the company, when I was in Chicago, did.”
Congo Square has been without a permanent artistic director since the death of Samuel Roberson at age 34 in 2017. During the shutdown, the company has focused on digital offerings, like the virtual sketch comedy series Hit ‘Em on the Blackside (launching its second season on October 29) and the current audio serial drama, The Clinic (running through October 10), set at a medical facility where promising breakthroughs in mental health medication for Black patients collide with personal conflicts and hidden agendas.
Ratcliff is excited to be coming back to Chicago at a time when so many companies have gone through a changing of the guard (including several new Black leaders). “I’m such a fan of so many of the folks who are taking over,” she says, citing Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis at Steppenwolf, Regina Victor at Sideshow, and Ken-Matt Martin at Victory Gardens in addition to Shelley at House and Rolle.
“Having so many players at the table to support common goals was a big reason why I was open to stepping back in to work with Congo Square and now be artistic director,” Ratcliff says. “You can’t do it on your own, right? You have to do it in support of a common goal. Every interview, every piece of planning that these great leaders and new leaders are doing, I’m so turned on by it and really excited about the possibility of collaborating and working with them.”
And while Ratcliff would love to see currently-itinerant Congo Square have a permanent home, she notes that the company’s mission (“producing transformative work rooted in the African Diaspora”) will continue. “Let’s just say we’re staying open [to possibilities], but planning for either/or—moreso the either, which is ‘Yes, space, please,'” says Ratcliff. But the space she envisions for Congo Square is one that is “all-encompassing within the community, that is a rehearsal space, office space, performance space. We have irons in the fires in different ways of making that a possibility.”
Shake-up at Metropolis
Joe Keefe, who has been the executive director at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights for almost seven years, is out. As reported by Barbara Vitello in the Daily Herald on Monday, Metropolis board president Stephen Daday declined to comment on the reasons, other than to say “there has been an investigation, and it has been concluded.” Presumably, the investigation was sparked by incidents described in an open letter by Lauren Berman, a former resident director at Metropolis, published September 14 on the site Rescripted.
Berman took note of many allegations of inappropriate and intimidating behavior on the part of Keefe as well as poor management practices overall (including sets and prop pieces arriving late in the rehearsal process) at the nonprofit 329-seat theater. The Metropolis houses a performing arts school in addition to offering a full slate of theater, music, and comedy. Though it went through some rough financial times in the past, Daday told Vitello that the organization has been on sound financial footing since 2015.
In a follow-up interview with Vitello, Keefe claimed, “None of the issues that appear online [in Berman’s post] were raised through the normal concern resolution process.” But he did say that he had “distressed” one of his staff during July and August, when the accusations against him first started percolating through anonymous e-mails circulated to people in the theater community. “I did not intend to distress anyone though I did, and I take responsibility for that incident,” he told Vitello. Associate artistic director Sabrina Odigie and executive operations director Brookes Ebetsch will handle the day-to-day operations at Metropolis while a search for a new executive director takes place.