When Almanya Narula enrolled in graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she wanted to find a way to bring her passions for journalism and theater together to tell stories of the theater community. The fusion of her interests led her to create Chicago Theatre Now, a new biannual magazine that will discuss and explore issues of accountability, inclusion, diversity, and equity within the Chicago theater scene.
Narula traces the creation of Chicago Theatre Now back to the summer of 2016 when the Reader published an article about abuses occurring at the now-defunct Profiles Theatre. The story hit home for Narula who was then a theater student at Columbia College Chicago studying fight choreography. “Being a fight choreographer, being a person in the industry, that was very triggering for me,” she says. “It was also triggering because some of the people who were a part of Profiles were faculty members at Columbia College Chicago. What was going on within Profiles was an open secret for years, yet they were allowed to come to my institution and recruit people who might be under the age of 18 to intern for them.”
Shortly afterward, Narula applied to arts journalism graduate program at SAIC. “Within my theater art, my main goal was to make a difference,” she says. “At that point, I didn’t think my art was conveying that, but I wanted to highlight the good things that were going on in Chicago, and I wanted to document that within journalism.”
Early on in her studies at SAIC, Narula was assigned to chase a lead on sexual harassment allegations against a former Columbia College faculty member, but her story never got published despite the significance of her findings. “No one wanted to deal with [the] liability,” she says. “It just kind of got me thinking about accountability within Chicago and what that means.” This occurred at the same time as the #MeToo movement and the controversies over insensitive theater reviews in Chicago newspapers (including the Reader). This all weighed heavily on Narula. “I was having all these emotions and I didn’t have a platform to kind of converse about these things,” she says.
But she found an outlet when she took a class on publishing as a creative practice at SAIC. “The prompt of that class was literally to make a publication and distribute it by the end of the semester,” she says. Narula worked on Chicago Theatre Now, but she took the project far beyond any expectations set by her professor. “It didn’t have to be this. It didn’t have to be as extra as this. I realized the reason I came to grad school was to connect journalism with theater and to discuss Chicago theater and create a revolution through theater.”
The first issue of Chicago Theatre Now, the Accountability Edition, will officially be released at a launch party and fundraising event at the Frontier on July 13th. In the process of developing the first issue, Narula began by looking to members of the theater community who might be willing to contribute a piece of writing. “I started reaching out to a bunch of people without even thinking that they would be interested or excited,” she says. “I knew the people I wanted to reach were people that I had conversations with or people I worked with on a show that told me about something that might be troubling them in the industry they aren’t able to vocalize because of fear of getting on bad terms with a theater company. This is showcasing people in Chicago theater and giving them an opportunity to express their art.”
The contributors to Chicago Theatre Now all have stories and perspectives on accountability within their community that, until now, have gone untold. Emma Couling, a theater critic at Newcity Stage, wrote a piece on the accountability of white arts journalists. Actor Diego Colon writes about the issues he faces as a result of racial disparities in casting. Actor Richard Costas, who is deaf, and dialogue coach Sammi Grant, who is visually impaired, both write about accessibility within Chicago and how the theater community can be improved for people with disabilities.
The first issue of Chicago Theatre Now is currently available at theaters across Chicago including Victory Gardens and Jackalope. It’s only available in print, which was part of Narula’s vision for the publication. “It was very important that this not be available online and literally be something you can hold in your hand and read,” she says. This is because she wants her readers to be able to form their own opinions about the content without immediately viewing responses, the way they might in a comments section of an online article. “These are just things that people can read and think about without the first response being an attack. Because while I think that’s productive it can get very violent and shuts people away from allowing them to understand where you come from.”
Narula is already looking ahead to the next edition. It will continue the discussions and themes of the first. But she also hopes to focus the stories on what goes on at a theater company leading up to an opening performance.
Although Narula sees Chicago Theatre Now as an opportunity to amplify the voices of underrepresented groups, she thinks its most important function is as a tribute to a community that she sees as home. “I came in and people literally adopted me into the theater community,” she says. “I have to do something to give back.”
Chicago Theatre Now Launch/Fundraiser. Fri 7/13, 8:30 PM, The Frontier, 1106 W. Thorndale, chithtrnowfundraiser18.brownpapertickets.com, $15 presale, $20 at the door.