Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis took over as co-artistic directors for Steppenwolf in 2021. Credit: Frank Ishman

By the time this year ends (it is gonna end, right?), Reader critics will, by my count, have reviewed 69 live theater and dance performances. That’s far less than in most years, but a veritable cornucopia after the onstage famine that began in March 2020. 

But just when we think it’s safe to go back to the theater, Omicron might be pulling us out.

Last weekend, a rolling series of announcements of canceled performances hit my inbox and social media feeds as (fully vaxxed) members of the cast and crew of shows—ranging from the Joffrey’s The Nutcracker (which canceled two days of performances) to Lookingglass’s Her Honor Jane Byrne (which called off its entire last weekend)—came down with breakthrough cases of COVID-19. [UPDATE: As of December 23, the Joffrey announced they were canceling all remaining performance of The Nutcracker.] New York productions are getting it in the teeth even worse; the Rockettes won’t be kicking up a storm in Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas show anymore this season, and several other Broadway shows have announced at least temporary closings due to COVID infections.

As with so many other things related to this ungodly timeline, we’ll just have to wait and see what effect this latest variant will have on the performing arts. So far, no company with plans to open in January has announced that they’re canceling or postponing shows. At the shows I’ve attended since July, house staff has been diligent about checking vax cards against IDs and enforcing the mask mandates. The League of Chicago Theatres put out unified protocols in August to help protect patrons and artists. But the rise in breakthrough cases among artists is troubling, even if the cases are mild. (You know the drill: get vaxxed/boosted, wear a mask, practice social distancing as much as possible.)

At least before the latest wave, though, going back to theater felt good. Weird, but good; I had to relearn the art of preshow chitchat, and realized how much that’s part of the live experience. I suspect that digital content won’t be going away anytime soon; reports suggest that, while the revenues aren’t anywhere near equal to live ticket sales, the reach of digital means theaters can access audiences that normally wouldn’t be able to see their work. Several Chicago productions this past fall, like Court’s Othello, offered a ticketed streaming option in addition to in-person seating.

So it’s hard to say what will happen in 2022, and my crystal ball is in the pawnshop. (I’m the person who thought we’d have big problems with people fighting to GET vaccines, so clearly my powers of prognostication are wanting.) But if pressed to point out developments in the past year that do seem to bode well, I’d look at the new generation and models of leadership that have emerged at theaters in the area.

True, some changes this year weren’t so smooth; artistic director Michael Halberstam left Writers Theatre in Glencoe under a cloud of persistent allegations, and Joe Keefe, executive director of Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, also resigned following public accusations of inappropriate behavior. Neither organization has named replacements as of yet.

With the announcement that Robert Falls is departing the Goodman in summer 2022, the ranks of the “old guard” artistic directors grow ever slimmer, with Barbara Gaines at Chicago Shakespeare, Charles Newell at Court, and B.J. Jones at Northlight remaining. (Northlight finally made major strides in their long-awaited plans to move back to Evanston this year.) Meantime, a wave of new leaders took over; Ken-Matt Martin at Victory Gardens, Lanise Antoine Shelley at the House, Marti Lyons at Remy Bumppo, and Ericka Ratcliff at Congo Square among them. 

But in addition to new blood, at least three companies this year announced shared duties in the top position. 

Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis took over from Anna D. Shapiro as co-artistic directors at Steppenwolf, just in time for Steppenwolf to open its fancy new theater/education center. Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo are the first women to head up Teatro Vista, bringing with them not only a long resume in comedy, but also experience in digital production. (Steppenwolf’s Davis and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney just announced their own digital production company, Chatham Grove, has inked a deal with Universal Studio Group subsidiary UCP.) Gift Theatre found a triumvirate of women (Brittany Burch, Emjoy Gavino, and Jennifer Glasse) to lead them into their next chapter, which includes plans to open a new home in Jefferson Park. Prop Thtr is exploring new models of development that are more artist-centered and focused on the needs of different communities. The list goes on. (Freelancers Wanjiku Kairu and Irene Hsiao also wrote this week about the year in sketch/improv and dance, respectively.)

I look at these announcements as welcome news. Pragmatically, the job of running a theater (or any other enterprise) is never down to one person’s vision, and many hands make light work, etc. But in ideological terms, I’m hoping that this focus on shared leadership represents a breaking down of hierarchy in a time when theater workers themselves are (rightly!) demanding better conditions and greater awareness of institutional racism, sexism, and classism. Actors’ Equity unveiled an “open access” policy to make it easier for actors to join the union, and IATSE (whose members include theater stage workers) showed their strength in the film industry by threatening a strike if working conditions weren’t improved. (See Jennifer Bamberg’s feature on IATSE here.)

Meantime, if you’re going to live shows, please be safe and respectful of the rules (most ushers are volunteers, and they don’t need people getting nasty with them in a pandemic). But also remember the wisdom of Lily Tomlin’s Trudy, the “bag lady” from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe who took her space alien friends to a show: “I forgot to tell them to watch the play; they’d been watching the audience. Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things, just knocked ’em out. They said, ‘Trudy, the play was soup, the audience, art.’”

2021 farewells

On Thanksgiving weekend, Stephen Sondheim died at age 91. There were innumerable tributes to him, and rightly so. But there were also many who had a great impact on Chicago theater in particular who died in 2021. We wrote about a few of them, and tried to honor the legacy they leave. 

Theater is the most ephemeral of the arts; even a good digital recording can’t fully capture the in-the-moment magic of a production or artist connecting with an audience in an unforgettable way. But I feel confident these artists will be remembered for many years by the audiences who saw their work and the colleagues they inspired.

Michael Martin, playwright, actor, director, producer; John Michalski, improviser and teacher; Sally Nemeth, playwright; Ed Asner, actor and founding member of the seminal Playwrights Theatre Club in Hyde Park; Jane Blass, actor, singer, and founding member of the Sweat Girls performance collective; Matt Rieger, playwright, actor, director, and managing director of Curious Theatre Branch; John Mohrlein, ensemble member of American Blues Theater; William J. Norris, actor, founding ensemble member of Organic Theater, and the first Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman Theatre’s celebrated production of A Christmas Carol.