Jay Españo
Jay Españo Credit: Courtesy PrideArts

In a year of upheaval, perhaps no Chicago theater company has seen more of it than the Company Formerly Known as Pride Films and Plays. Rocked by social media allegations that founder David Zak (a pioneer of LGBTQ+ theater in Chicago) had either engaged in patterns of abuse and harassment toward actors and staff or ignored such incidents from others involved in the company (as well as wide-ranging complaints about the general safety and hygiene of the rehearsal and performance spaces), Zak announced he was stepping away on July 3 of last year. The board then announced that actor-director Donterrio Johnson would take over as artistic director. (Zak’s official title at the time he resigned was executive director; there had been no artistic director at Pride since Nelson Rodriguez left in 2018, after serving two years in that role.) 

But by early November of last year, Johnson too resigned from the company that he had helped rebrand as PrideArts, claiming that Zak was still holding sway over many of the major decisions at the company. In an interview, he told me, “I didn’t want to change the company and get it going in the right direction and then get mixed up in this whole idea that I was in cahoots with everyone, that I allowed [Zak] to stay. It’s so easy for people to be canceled nowadays, and I didn’t want to be on the top of that heap for something that I had no hand in.”

Now there’s a new artistic director for PrideArts: Jay Españo, a Philippine-born actor, director, and filmmaker who is also an MFA alum of Columbia College Chicago. And according to Españo, Zak really is handing over control. 

Españo says he first reached out to PrideArts “when I was first starting in Chicago, I think back in 2008 or something. I was reaching out to all the theater companies. I had just moved here. David was one of the few people who responded back, he was doing a show back then and he needed someone to assist with movement [direction].” Most recently, Españo performed in PrideArts’ 2018 production of Joe DiPietro‘s Fucking Men.

“I think right now David’s official title is like just a soundboard,” says Españo. “He’s been turning over a lot of things to me—introducing me to people, telling me writers he’s been working with. Just the other day I was writing a grant letter and I needed to decide which of our [upcoming] plays is best suited for the grant. I sent him a text and he was like, ‘Nope, it’s all on you now.'” 

PrideArts hasn’t announced its season (selected by Españo) yet, but Españo notes that they are mostly going to be performing in the larger Broadway stage in their two-venue facility in Buena Park. That theater, along with the lobby, has been undergoing some refurbishment during the shutdown. (The pressure of keeping both spaces filled, either with rentals or Pride productions, was cited by several people I talked to last summer as one source of organizational difficulty.)

Moving forward, Españo hopes that his background in international theater (he trained in the Philippines and Singapore and has performed throughout southeast Asia) will give the programming at PrideArts an interesting edge. “I like tapping into directors and writers from all over the world. People that I’ve worked with, maybe ask their advice or ask, ‘Hey, what are some suggestions for a good show?'” But he’s also conscious of recent history and wants to make the company a welcoming environment for artists.

“I come from this era—you know back in the Philippines, it’s a colonial mentality. I came from this theater where there were these directors who were over the top and they’d scream at you and throw things on stage when it’s not done right, and all these things. That’s called assault.” He adds,”Having worked with different cultures as well, I think that gave me this eye of doing things in many ways. Not just being pigeonholed into ‘Oh, this is the only way that we can do it.'”

PrideArts board president Cheri Tatar says that the difference between the appointment of Españo and Johnson is that, after Johnson left, the board “took the time to really think about who as an organization we are, and what we considered important to us. I think that we wanted to make sure that we were staying true to who PrideArts really was, so that people who were involved with us before would feel comfortable coming back. And that we were also different in that—I wouldn’t say more open, but [asking] what could we do for people who may not have felt like it was a place they could be at before.”

But will Zak still have a role? Tatar says, “I will be honest and say that it will be a continuing process. I don’t think it’s ‘this is the date that you’re here, and this is the date that you’re not.’ I think David—one, we’ve hired Jay as the artistic director. So in any conversation with us, in any conversation with David, Jay is the artistic person.” 

Tatar indicated that PrideArts will not be hiring an executive director for now. The company hopes to release their season announcement shortly.

Leaders for a New Chicago

On June 8, the Field Foundation of Illinois, in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, announced ten recipients of 2021 Leaders for a New Chicago awards, “whose work aligns with Field’s grantmaking areas of Justice, Media & Storytelling, and Art.” In addition to social justice leaders like Chicago Freedom School executive director Tony Alvarado-Rivera, Invisible Institute‘s director of public strategy Maira Khwaja, and LaSaia Wade, founder and executive director of Brave Space Alliance, the Field Foundation recognized Malik Gillani, co-executive artistic director of Silk Road Rising, Meida Teresa McNeal, artistic and managing director of Honey Pot Performance, and Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun, cofounder of The Era Footwork Crew.

Each recipient receives a no-strings-attached award of $25,000 in recognition of past accomplishments, with their organizations receiving an additional $25,000 in general operating support. 

A stage manager’s legacy

Malcolm Ewen‘s first show as a stage manager at Steppenwolf was in 1987 for the company’s production of Born Yesterday. When he died at age 64 in 2019 of bile duct cancer, he’d amassed an astounding array of credits: stage managing over 40 productions at Steppenwolf (including the company’s legendary Broadway transfer of Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath in 1990); acting and directing at Weston Playhouse in Vermont; and holding several leadership positions with Actors’ Equity, the union governing actors and stage managers.

As part of his ongoing legacy, Season of Concern, which provides funds for theater artists in need of financial assistance due to ill health, has established the Malcolm Ewen Fund from a bequest left by Ewen. The focus of the fund (announced June 4, which would have been Ewen’s 67th birthday) is to “provide short-term assistance for theater employees facing non-health related financial issues.” Tony Award-winning actor and Steppenwolf ensemble member Rondi Reed will serve as the fund’s chairperson. Applications for assistance will be accepted beginning July 1.  v