Olivia Lilley
Olivia Lilley Credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

When Olivia Lilley took on the job of artistic director at Prop Thtr (one of the oldest off-Loop theaters in the city) in 2018, her DIY/punk aesthetic seemed like a good fit for taking the company into the next era. Even before assuming the AD role, Lilley had made a mark with site-specific, immersive productions with her own company The Runaways, including a living-room tour of her version of Faust. She’d also presented work in the annual Rhinofest, Chicago’s oldest running celebration of fringe and experimental new work, which was at the time coproduced by Prop and Curious Theatre Branch.

Yet as she told Reader contributor KT Hawbaker in 2019, Lilley wanted to preserve the Prop spirit of experimentation (she’s a big proponent of devised work, where an ensemble creates the text in collaboration with the director) while moving the company toward a greater sense of stability for artists. As she said to Hawbaker, “When I got here, everybody was friends and now they’re more like colleagues. . . . They were resistant to clear contracts or even nailing down job responsibilities. Over the past year, everybody has really come around to valuing organization and putting that extra effort in towards communication.”

A little over a year after that interview, Prop decided to give up its longtime two-venue space on North Elston in Avondale in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown. Now Lilley is also ready to move on from Prop. And while her journey seems to be pointing her away from theater in general, the future of Prop is also on a new trajectory. 

When I caught up with her earlier this week, Lilley mentioned a few new plans. One is that she’s focusing more on film than theater. A script she wrote was selected for the inaugural Independent Producers Lab with Full Spectrum Features in 2020.

“It was a nine-month crash course in indie filmmaking,” says Lilley. “Basically, the whole experience was extremely positive for me artistically. Everything I liked about producing theater was like more vivid and specific and higher stakes in film.” That led to Lilley pursuing an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Nebraska Omaha. (She is currently adjunct faculty in DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts.) 

But it’s not just the new opportunities in film that prompted Lilley’s decision. She has questions about the models used to run storefront theater overall—indeed, about the future of arts in America itself. In fact, she’s launching a new podcast in March called . . . The Future of Arts in America.

“Every episode I will basically interview an artist-producer or artist-entrepreneur of some kind who’s trying to envision some new model, whether it’s in film, visual arts, theater, performance, what have you,” says Lilley. “I’ve done a lot of different kinds of attempts at coalition building, which have had varying degrees of success throughout the years. I think the big problem, though, is that no two storefront companies are alike. Every single storefront has a board, they have some kind of staff, they have artists, but every single one of them operates like it’s night and day.”

The last project under Lilley’s tenure at Prop will be Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation by India Nicole Burton, which will be coproduced this spring with Perceptions Theatre in a south-side location. Originally announced for fall of 2022, Panther Women is, as the title suggests, a portrait of women within the Black Panthers. Perceptions artistic director Myesha-Tiara will direct. It’s slated as a rolling world premiere with the National New Play Network, a nonprofit coalition of theaters focused on new work, which Prop helped cofound in 1998. Lilley notes that Burton is one of her best friends, and that an earlier version of the play was in the 2020 Rhinofest, just before the shutdown.

Perceptions and Prop may have different missions, but both theaters focused on providing paid work for artists during the shutdown. “One of the things that I am really proud of Prop for having accomplished is that after lockdown, we really started to allocate our resources in a way where people were all getting compensated a lot better for less work,” says Lilley. The company also produced online festivals and started a commissioning program for new work. One of those commissions resulted in a world premiere production of Hallie Paladino’s play The Cleanup (produced at the Athenaeum in October 2022).

Lilley will officially step down from the artistic director’s position on June 1, but she’ll stick around on the Prop board through the end of the year as the company figures out next steps. “We will be doing a strategic plan where we really look at the structures that created my position and try and figure out: how do we really question all of our assumptions and build potentially a new model of leadership—or fold the company.”

That last part sounds ominous, but Lilley says, “I think it’s really important to state that this is not like I had a terrible time and I’m leaving angrily in any shape or form. I deeply love these people. But I definitely have questions about the sustainability of this particular storefront, but also storefront theater in general as we know it.”

Ken-Matt Martin takes the (temporary) reins at Baltimore Center Stage

As I wrote in the Reader year in review issue last month, the future of Victory Gardens remains cloudy. (The company’s website has been down for over a month.) But former Victory Gardens artistic director Ken-Matt Martin has accepted a post as interim artistic director for Baltimore Center Stage. He’ll be taking over from Stephanie Ybarra, who held the post for five years and is moving over to a program officer position with the Mellon Foundation. Martin’s production of Nia Vardalos’s Tiny Beautiful Things opens at Baltimore Center Stage in March.

Tragedy in the comedy community

The transition from 2022 to 2023 has not been entirely kind to Chicago’s comedy artists. On December 16, longtime performer and improv teacher Noah Gregoropoulos, who guided the early careers of Rachel Dratch, David Koechner, Tim Meadows, and Adam McKay (among many others), died of cancer at 63. In a Sun-Times obituary by Darel Jevens, McKay said, “No one was smarter, funnier and no one loved improvisation more. No one. This is a big loss.” 

This past Tuesday, January 17, former Second City performer Michael Lehrer, who had ALS, chose to die in Portland, Oregon, “with dignity on his own terms,” according to his life partner Colette Montague. Lehrer was 44. Even while the disease took its toll, Lehrer continued to perform comic monologues onstage from his wheelchair. As Jevens noted in his Sun-Times obit, one of his lines was “I have ALS . . . One question: Where the fuck did all that ice bucket money go?” Lehrer was also a regular on the comedy podcast Kill Tony.

And on Monday, January 9, Elizabeth McQuern died unexpectedly. McQuern was a photographer and videographer who specialized in capturing comedians, as well as a longtime producer for Chicago Underground Comedy at Beat Kitchen.

There are GoFundMe pages for Gregoropoulos’s widow, Linda Orr; Lehrer’s son Colin; and for McQuern’s husband, Bryan, and their son, Champ. A Chicago memorial for McQuern is planned for Saturday, January 28, 1 PM, at Firehouse Studios, 1545 West Rosemont.