Tough Act to Follow

As the new managing director of Chicago Dramatists, Ann Filmer has redesigned the company’s logo, revamped its Web site, and ordered promotional ballpoint pens. That modest agenda may say less about her than about her predecessor, Robin Stanton. When Stanton came on board in June 1995, the company was pondering whether to give up its performance space at Chicago and Milwaukee; when she handed over the reins last September, it had increased its budget by 41 percent, to $191,000, and begun to stage full-fledged productions of work by its resident playwrights. If she were any more successful, the company might have named the theater after her.

Founded in 1979 by Meade Palidofsky and other aspiring playwrights, Chicago Dramatists Workshop had survived by being all things to all people. Part social club, part writing school, part non-Equity company, it offered writing courses, guest lecturers, play contests, staged readings, workshop productions, and showcase productions of one-acts. By the mid-90s it was beginning to buckle under the weight of its own schedule, and Stanton, a director involved in the readings and workshop productions, began attending the organization’s board meetings. “I just didn’t think it was that big of a challenge,” says Stanton of Chicago Dramatists’ woes. “My thought was that it was an organizational issue and a cash flow issue.” She remembers Russ Tutterow, the company’s artistic director, asking her, “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is?”

Stanton took up his challenge, and together they began cleaning house. They cut back programs that “didn’t make financial or artistic sense,” like the New Voices Festival, which duplicated the work of the company’s Saturday-morning readings. They built up programs that increased revenue, especially the writing classes; the annual number rose from 16 to 25, and enrollment expanded as well. Stanton streamlined the grant-writing process, making sure that applications described forcefully and economically who they were and what they wanted to accomplish. “They were writing 18-page grants,” she says, sighing. After Stanton took over, the company’s annual grant monies climbed from $69,000 to $84,000.

Despite her administrative responsibilities, Stanton continued to direct. The Glory of Living, a noirish portrait of two serial killers, premiered in November 1996 at the Circle Theatre in Forest Park and made a rising star of Rebecca Gilman, a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists. The juggling act worked for a few years, but last year Stanton bit off more than she could chew, directing Jenny Laird’s Ballad Hunter at Chicago Dramatists and Lisa Dillman’s Detail of a Larger Work at Steppenwolf, followed by a residency at Valparaiso University and an assignment at Saint Thomas’s Pistarckle Theater in the Virgin Islands. “The time came when it was clear I should leave,” says Stanton, and on September 13 she gave notice at Chicago Dramatists.

Tutterow and the theater’s board sprang into action. Among the local candidates they interviewed was Ann Filmer, founder and artistic director of the small but well-regarded theater company Aardvark. Like Stanton before her, Filmer had freelanced for Chicago Dramatists, guiding playwrights through staged readings and directing workshop productions, and she won positive reviews last September with Aardvark’s staging of The Last Barbecue, a dark comedy of suburban despair by Chicago Dramatists playwright Brett Neveu. When Filmer was offered Stanton’s job, she jumped at it. “I got the call four days after Robin Stanton resigned,” says Filmer. “I was one of three people they interviewed. They never told me who the other two were. And I started working October 1. That’s how quick it was. Boom, boom, boom. It happened so fast there was no time to think about it.”

Born in 1969, Filmer majored in dance at San Jose State University and worked in summer stock productions near Kalamazoo, Michigan. After settling in Chicago in 1994, she began taking private acting classes from director Michael Halberstam, and in fall 1996 he offered her a job as associate artistic director of his fledgling company, Writers’ Theatre Chicago. “It was the second paying position in the theater,” says Filmer. “I learned so much from Michael. He pulled no punches. He always pushed me, and I learned from him how to run a theater and how to deal with patrons.” During her three-year tenure with Halberstam, Filmer founded Aardvark, which has carved a niche for itself on the off-off-Loop scene, producing local playwrights like Neveu and Andy Cobb. It’s strictly a low-budget enterprise–its highly acclaimed production of Steve Martin’s Wasp had a total budget of $2,000–and now that Filmer has signed on with Chicago Dramatists, her duties as the theater’s producer and artistic director are being shared among other members of the Aardvark ensemble.

Butter Gets the Finger

Rebecca Gilman has been one of Chicago Dramatists’ biggest success stories: since The Glory of Living premiered here in 1996, the playwright has been championed by such local heavyweights as Richard Christiansen of the Tribune and the Goodman Theatre. Spinning Into Butter, her play about political correctness at a small New England college, was widely praised when it opened at the Goodman in May 1999, but it has polarized critics in New York and London, where it opened last week at the Royal Court Theatre. As in New York, conservative reviewers have embraced the play’s send-up of liberal hypocrisy (“This is a dangerous, searching, brilliant play, probing the self-inflicted wounds of a self-righteous civilization,” gushed John Peter of the Tory Sunday Times). But those who dislike the play have been vicious: Paul Taylor of the New Labor Independent called its characters “no more than assemblages of reprehensible attitudes,” and Charles Spencer of the centrist Telegraph sniffed, “Gilman’s play sometimes seems small and parochial, and unlike [David] Mamet she seems incapable of spare, tense dialogue. There is a certain plodding worthiness here, and it takes too long for the drama to catch fire.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.