Persephone Van Ort (left) and Olivia Lilley of Prop Thtr Credit: Persephone Van Ort courtesy Ryan Thiel/Olivia Lilley courtesy Matthew Gregory Hollis

In July of 2020, Prop Thtr, one of the oldest off-Loop companies in the city, announced that they were giving up their longtime two-venue home on Elston in the Avondale neighborhood. At the time, current Prop artistic director Olivia Lilley told the Reader, “I am very sad. I am mourning. Absolutely. But I’m also excited for all of Prop’s board and staff and all of the eyes that are on the programming, on what we’re producing, on what we’re developing. And then also being able to start to kind of integrate some of the demands from We See You White American Theater and other documents of that nature to really be anti-racist in all aspects of Prop.” 

Now Lilley, who took over the reins at Prop in 2018, and the company’s associate artistic director, Persephone Van Ort, have unveiled the results of what that process of searching and introspection has yielded so far.

“Process” is probably the key word. Seeded throughout the new plans, which were announced in a press release this past Monday, is an emphasis on developing work that centers what artists need, rather than just thinking in terms of how work in development can fit as a full production in a future season. And by remaining itinerant for the time being, Prop’s leadership has given themselves some time to think about their role as a performing arts organization for communities around the city, as well as on the role of economic justice in theater.

“We really kind of put everything to a halt around March of last year and took some breathing time to just show up in meetings and say, ‘I don’t know’  for a while, and then start to kind of dig into some questions,” says Lilley. “Last year through the help of Tara Branham, our producer in residence at the time, we were trying to imagine, ‘What does theater look like in Chicago that doesn’t contribute to gentrification?’ And at the beginning of the pandemic, this felt almost impossible to my board, but by May and June of 2021, we were ready to actually start talking about that and figuring out what that looks like.”

Lilley adds, “One of the things we considered was trying to focus all of our energy into Albany Park and Avondale, but that felt a little bit colonizer—like this predominantly white institution now suddenly cares a lot about Avondale and Albany Park’s very specific communities. So we struggled for a while with ‘How can we offer programming that doesn’t feel like we are trying to save other communities or trying to give them medicine they need?'”

In the press release, Prop identifies five components that they’re currently developing. 

The Nest is a residency program for artists, conceived and run by Van Ort, for what the company describes as “ideas that defy easy categorization.” Each artist selected receives a stipend of $600 and a materials fee of $400, as well as support from a “staff sponsor” who helps foster collaboration. 

Van Ort, who assumed the associate artistic director’s position at Prop in March of 2020, notes, “I am not necessarily a career theater artist. I spend a lot of time doing my own projects, small storefront projects and sort of experimental work. And what I saw pretty consistently from the people who were in a little bit more of a traditional theater background was more of ‘the show must go on,’ but not necessarily a drive to work with other people and find exciting new ways to express a human experience.” Writer Ada Alozie was the first Nest resident this past fall. Van Ort says, “She basically was just like, ‘I just want support on writing a piece about parasocial relationships, Lolita, and the Internet.’ And I was just like, great.” (Applications for the Nest are being accepted now through January 15; information and application form available here.)

Lilley will produce Prop’s new Playwrights Workshop Showcase, which will soon be announced for February and March of 2022. The four participating playwrights, all with roots in either Chicago or the midwest, have been developing work with the goal of self-production; Prop provides technical direction, streaming services, graphic design, and marketing, overseen by social media and marketing director Caitlin Shantz. The workshop has some similarities with the online Small Hours Festival that Prop produced in 2020, and the emphasis for the participating playwrights, as the press release puts it, is on “building their audience and taking ownership over the entrepreneurial aspects of being an artist who makes art under capitalism.” The current participating playwrights are: Hallie Palladino, Lingyue, Aida Peerzada, and Chris Vanderark.

Additionally, Lilley is taking the lead, along with Xavier Retana and Lily Be, on a series of six pop-up workshops, currently planned as in person, online, and hybrid performances for various community spaces in the city, with the aim to have the pieces continue to grow and adapt as needed for those spaces and neighborhoods after the workshops. There will be specific topics for each, with a workshop leader brought in from outside of Prop who will be paid a stipend of $500.

Lilley first came to the attention of Prop’s cofounder and then-artistic director, Stefan Brun, when she was producing a version of Faust with her old company, the Runaways, which was touring to various living rooms around the city. Faust is back on the Prop radar, but this time playwright Tanuja Jagernauth and composer Alec Phan are treating it as a musical tale of gentrification, and planning to conduct listening circles for Logan Square residents to talk about how they’ve been “creating alternatives to extractive economic conditions and resisting evictions and displacement during the pandemic and beyond,” as the press release describes it. That show doesn’t have a definite opening date, but Lilley projects that it will be ready by 2023 or 2024.

Finally, Prop, which is one of the oldest members of the National New Play Network, will partner with Perceptions Theatre on the south side (which formed and produced digital plays during the pandemic) to produce the rolling world premiere of India Nicole Burton’s Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation, slated to open in fall of 2022. 

For Lilley, all these new components point to an expanded direction for Prop as a company that doesn’t just produce its own work, but that takes a more active hand in creating collaboration and community, while also focusing on providing stipends for everyone involved in the work. 

The collaborative instinct has been part of Prop’s DNA since its founding over 40 years ago; Brun and cofounder Scott Vehill told me ten years ago that they always wanted to provide a space for multidisciplinary artists as well as straight plays, and they’ve coproduced Rhino Fest with Curious Theatre Branch for many years.

During our Zoom call, Lilley shows me a tattoo on her shoulder that reads “This Is The Place,” accompanied by a hobo symbol, and explains its history.

“It has two meanings. One is on the back [wall] of Prop, there was a mural that said ‘This Must Be the Place.’ This [tattoo] says, ‘this is the place.’ Also, in 2014, I did a show called I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation with the Runaways. And that was the first show where I really built an ensemble who were like ride or die for each other. And this was the hobo symbol for the show, and it means ‘this is the place.’ The hobo symbol is something that lets someone else know that there is a safe place ahead.”