The story of House Theatre mirrors that of so many other legendary ensembles in Chicago. A group of friends meet in college and decide to start a company, doing shows aiming to bring originality and verve and epic vision to the stage by breaking fourth walls and questioning the traditional models of dramatic storytelling. From Steppenwolf to Remains to Theater Oobleck to Lookingglass to [insert your favorite company here], that model has been a reliable blueprint and has undeniably yielded some of the best shows in Chicago theater history.
The House, whose mission promises “amazing feats of storytelling,” started out with Death and Harry Houdini in 2001, starring company member and professional magician Dennis Watkins (of The Magic Parlour fame) in the title role. Since then, they’ve produced dozens of shows (mostly at Wicker Park’s Chopin Theatre), received 24 Jeff Awards (out of 70 nominations), and were awarded a 2014 National Theatre Company grant from the American Theatre Wing (purveyors of the Tony Awards). Shows like The Sparrow and their annual nonballet version of The Nutcracker, along with ambitious multipart productions like The Valentine Trilogy and The Hammer Trinity, won rapturous praise, and they’ve frequently toured their work to other cities, most notably the Arsht Center in Miami.
But the House (whose founding members mostly met at Southern Methodist University in Texas and then relocated to Chicago) has also not been immune to one of the problems that the ensemble model perpetuates: unless the people forming the ensemble are already representative of diverse communities, it will remain a largely white-led institution, with all the problems that come with that lack of diversity.
Last year, House came under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests for past productions and collaborations. Specifically, they were called out on social media for using “yellowface” casting in the second part of founding artistic director Nathan Allen‘s The Valentine Trilogy—2005’s The Curse of the Crying Heart, which featured white actors portraying stereotypical Japanese characters. They also canceled a partnership with the Chicago Board Game Cafe, where they had planned to present the escape-room projects Nova to Lodestar and The Last Defender, after Max Temkin, founder of the cafe’s parent company Cards Against Humanity, resigned in the wake of accusations about fostering a sexist and racist culture.
Now House enters its 20th anniversary year with a new artistic director: multi-hyphenate Lanise Antoine Shelley, who takes over from Allen while the company is still on COVID hiatus.
Shelley is a writer-director-actor-educator-visual artist-activist. As a child in Haiti, she was adopted by a white family in California, and now she hosts a podcast, When They Were Young, that amplifies the voices of adoptees. But though she’s never worked with the House, she comes to her new role with a clear vision of what the company needs for its next 20 years.
“From the very beginning, from the very first interview and even in my first proposal, I told them who I was,” says Shelley. “Which is an artist, a woman who is passionate about diversity and inclusivity, and passionate about a global experience, because that is my perspective. That is where I will be drawing my inspiration from. And from the beginning they said, ‘Yes, we see you and we are interested in that vision.'”
Shelley found out about the position from House company member Ericka Ratcliff, whom she met while assistant directing Lookingglass’s 2018 production of Plantation! “She called me and she asked me if I could put my hat in the ring. We talked about it and I did my investigative work on the House,” says Shelley.
There have been at least two fairly high-profile stories in the last 15 years or so of ensemble-driven companies not meshing well with a new artistic director coming in from the outside. Timothy Douglas‘s tenure at Remy Bumppo lasted only six months; he left in early 2012 and told the Reader‘s Tony Adler that “The approach to the work that I have differs so markedly from what has gone before that it just felt the compromise was too great.” (Ensemble member Nick Sandys took over at Remy Bumppo; he announced in December that he’s stepping down in June.)
And American Theater Company brought in PJ Paparelli in 2007, leading to a walkout by most of the ensemble, who went on to resurrect their original troupe, American Blues Theater. Paparelli died in 2015 at age 40 in a traffic accident in Scotland. American Theater Company hired Will Davis as artistic director (one of the few transgender artistic directors in the country) to replace Paparelli before closing up permanently in 2018.
Shelley knows about those pitfalls, but she’s using this time away from live productions to build even stronger foundations with the House family. “Right now, I have tasked everyone with a survey that asks questions. I’m on my listening tour. And I am just listening to company members, every single one of them, I’m listening to board members, I’m listening to friends of the House who are passionate about the House, and gleaning information about their history or lack thereof of diversity and inclusivity, and I’m learning about the strengths and weaknesses of the House,” she explains.
She also wants to take the House’s love of breaking down barriers between performers and audiences even further.
As she puts it, it’s time to “clean up some of the stickiness of the past when it came to just paying attention to what’s happening socially and nationally and finding a way that we can move forward in the spirit of community, which is the bedrock of the House.
“They’re all about community and breaking open the fourth wall. We can expand the idea of the fourth wall and that does not mean just for performances. What we can do is break it open with our outreach, with our education, with literally putting our physical selves out into the community, into Wicker Park, into various neighborhoods, and saying, ‘Hey, we’re here for you.'”
Part of that moving forward will also mean expanding the digital outreach House does. (Shelley directed the radio play Rastus and Hattie for 16th Street Theater last fall.) But it also means creating an ensemble experience truly reflective of the city.
“Just this past year, launching my podcast and creating a platform for adoptees, has really nurtured a sense of sensitivity and listening to other people’s narratives and creating opportunities for other people to share their narrative,” she says. “So many marginalized groups, such as adoptees or BIPOC or LGBTQ communities, have a designated corner. I want to obliterate that. I want to bring everyone into the same house, to the same theater, and just create art.”
Rick Bayless signals support
On Wednesday, March 10, Chicago theater companies got the news that one of their most ardent philanthropic supporters, Richard Driehaus, had died at 78. In addition to opening the Driehaus Museum in the Gold Coast’s old Nickerson mansion, the Driehaus Foundation has long provided grants to many smaller performing arts organizations.
Restaurateur Rick Bayless has also been a champion of Chicago theater through his Bayless Family Foundation, which began making grants to companies in 2017. (Bayless’s interest in theater got perhaps its most public outing in 2012 with the dinner-theater spectacle show Cascabel at Lookingglass, later remounted at the Goodman, with both productions featuring a fairly steep ticket price.)
Since 2019, Bayless and his foundation have awarded “Signal Grants” to Chicago theaters, geared for a specific stated need. (Past grants in the program included support for Congo Square to hire an executive director and for the Actors Gymnasium in Evanston to upgrade equipment.) Now they’re upping the ante and plan to make grants of $25,000 apiece to a dozen performing arts companies, with the goal of helping them “to defray the mounting costs of staging a live, multi-week production for an in-person audience.”
Specifically, this means that companies will have seed money for upfront costs once they’re back to live productions. In the press release, Bayless Family Foundation executive director Kevin Sullivan noted, “Hiring artists and technicians, launching ticket pre-sales, building costumes and renting lights all cost real money. Our foundation hopes to alleviate some of that financial stress and bring productions to life.”
The application deadline is Friday, April 16. Information is available at baylessfoundation.org. v