Pegasus Players is marking its 30th anniversary by honoring its retiring founder, Arlene Crewdson, even as it prepares to move on without her. Crewdson launched Pegasus in 1978, serving as both artistic and executive directors. (Alex Levy took over as AD in 2004, and the ED post went to Christopher Schram earlier this year.)
Pegasus began as a touring troupe dedicated to performing original writings by students at the City Colleges of Chicago, including Truman Community College, where Crewdson taught drama. In 1979, the company moved into the 90-seat auditorium of the Edgewater Presbyterian Church (now home to City Lit Theater), and in 1984 relocated to Truman’s sprawling, 250-seat O’Rourke Performing Arts Center. Pegasus’s growth over the past 30 years is a testament to Crewdson’s artistic vision, fund-raising skills, single-minded determination, and dedication to community-based theater. The non-Equity company–which has won 77 Jefferson Citations, more than any other Chicago theater–has groomed hundreds of young actors, directors, and writers. Its track record includes pioneering revivals of lesser-known Sondheim musicals like Anyone Can Whistle and The Frogs (performed in the Truman swimming pool), as well as the 1999 U.S. premiere of Sondheim’s 1955 debut effort, Saturday Night (directed by Gary Griffin, who went on to direct The Color Purple on Broadway). It’s produced large-scale ensemble dramas such as Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology and director Warner Crocker’s brilliantly acted Chicago premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer-winning The Kentucky Cycle, and it’s carried on collaborations with artists ranging from Broadway writer-director George Furth to members of the Chicago fringe like Jellyeye Drum Theater, Theater Oobleck’s Jeff Dorchen, and Live Bait’s Sharon Evans.
Pegasus also stands tall in the area of African-American theater. It presented the first professional Chicago production of an August Wilson play when it mounted Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1988. The production boasted a blistering performance by newcomer Harry Lennix, now a well-known Broadway and film actor, who also appeared at Pegasus in Manuel Puig’s drama Kiss of the Spider Woman under the direction of Eric Simonson, now an Oscar-winning filmmaker. In 1991, Pegasus undertook a nationally noted reconstruction of the “lost” Duke Ellington musical revue Jump for Joy. It also mounted a memorable rendition of another modern landmark of African-American drama, Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which sparked controversy due to its criticism of black men’s treatment of women. In his memoir Dreams From My Father, President Barack Obama writes about the vivid impression the show made on him when he saw it in 1986 (though unfortunately he doesn’t mention Pegasus by name).
Pegasus is also known for the community outreach programs Crewdson has set in place over the years. The most noted of these is the annual Young Playwrights Festival, which develops and produces scripts by teenage writers from Chicago-area schools. The first YPF, held in 1987, drew 130 entries, from which four winning scripts were selected for performance; next January’s festival has attracted more than 800 submissions. Crewdson also established the ARTS (Artists in Residence with Teachers in Schools) Program, which is supervised by actor-playwright Philip Dawkins. The program works with the Chicago Public Schools to facilitate classroom partnerships between artists and teachers. “We work with classes all across the curriculum, not just the arts,” says Levy. “For example, in an earth sciences class we brought in a choreographer, who used dance to teach kids how the tectonic plates move.”
Crewdson will receive a richly deserved special honor from the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee at the non-Equity Jeff Awards ceremony on Monday, June 8. And on Saturday, June 20, Pegasus will salute Crewdson at a benefit party at the WBEZ studio on Navy Pier. The event will feature tributes from Harry Lennix and retired Chicago Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen. For tickets and information: 773-878-9761 or pegasusplayers.org.