When the big theaters have a changing of the guard in artistic directors, it’s understandably big news. But in a city as dependent on the small-to-midsize storefront theaters for its creative lifeblood as Chicago, succession plans at those companies also have a huge ripple effect.
Both Prop Thtr and Haven have acquired new artistic directors within the last two years—Olivia Lilley and Ian Damont Martin, respectively. And both are taking their companies in new directions for new generations, while still staying true to the missions that inspired their formation.
Prop has been around since 1981, and much of that time it’s been helmed by white men. Lilley took over from cofounder and immediate past artistic director Stefan Brün in 2018 after working with the company since 2015. She’s not only brought youth (she’s 30) and femme energy to the company. She’s also brought a laser focus on devised work, as in the company’s current production of I Am Going to Die Alone and I Am Not Afraid, all part of the new mission statement: “Prop Thtr strives to redefine what theater is in the 21st century. We break open how we make, what we make, and who is making.”
That same spirit drives Martin, 25, who took the reins at Haven this past spring, replacing former artistic director Josh Sobel, who left to pursue an MFA at CalArts. Martin is an alum of Haven’s innovative “Directors Haven” incubator (started under Sobel, who became artistic director in 2014), and also works a day job as program manager at Enrich Chicago, a nonprofit “committed to ending racism and systemic oppression in the arts sector.” He’ll be directing a work by a dead white guy—Titus Andronicus—in February. But don’t expect anything dusty and predictable in that show or any of the other work at Haven, which describes its mission as “New generation. New canon. Social profit.”