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Looking back in gratitude

In the pandemic, performing artists took care of each other. We should take better care of them.

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This is my last column for the year, and in place of writing some variant on "The Future of Chicago Theater: Are Artists Ready to Return to the Stage?," I thought this might be a good time to acknowledge the many ways the performing arts community in Chicago took care of itself and others in 2020, even as the official neglect and virulent incompetence of the outgoing administration found new lows. 

I'm on record that going back to "normal" is the last thing the theater and dance worlds need to be doing right now, though I understand why "normal" sounds so very appealing after this dumpster-fire-inside-a-dystopian-novel-wrapped-in-a-shit-burrito of a year. Chicago theater and dance in particular rely upon a lot of independent contractors and volunteers at the best of times, and that fiscal model has always left a lot of artists out in the cold financially, without reliable insurance and access to unemployment benefits. The pandemic has been unimaginably damaging to so many in the arts sector, and underscores why we need bold leadership to fund the arts (especially individual artists) at the national, state, and local levels. 

But in the vacuum of national leadership, the artists did what they always do best: they improvised and collaborated.

Within days of the COVID shutdown in March, Chicago theater artists banded together to create the Chicago Artists Relief Fund, a GoFundMe that, as of this writing, has raised over $117,000 in small donations that have been distributed in microgrants of $300 to their fellow creatives. Other funds have also been working at the grassroots level to support artists, such as the For the People Artists Collective (which focuses on BIPOC and trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex individuals). This is in addition to the Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund, run through the League of Chicago Theatres, the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, run through Arts Alliance Illinois, and many other previously existing funds, such as the Dancers' Fund, Season of Concern and, nationally, the Actors Fund

Speaking of the Actors Fund: if you're looking for something fun to do on New Year's, the latter is hosting a streaming fundraising presentation of Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, starring Titus Burgess as Remy and former Chicagoan and Broadway legend André De Shields as Anton Ego, based on the 2005 Pixar film. 

As a theater critic, I think I'm contractually obligated to have an opinion on Ego. As we head into a new year, I'm reminded of his late-in-the-film epiphany: "The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends."

This year, the new came in the form of streaming shows, pop-up protests and performances, online classes, readings, community roundtables and townhalls, and so much more. Many of these performances were free or pay what you can, and many either split their proceeds or requested that audiences consider donating to food banks or to social justice organizations such as Brave Space Alliance in addition to the producing theaters themselves. Some companies used their resources to help provide PPE and other material support for health-care workers early in the pandemic. Free Street opened a free community market this month in their Back of the Yards Storyfront space at 4346 S. Ashland. These are just a few ways that theaters reached out to their communities this past year.

Recently, Collaboraction partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, Season of Concern, and the League of Chicago Theatres to launch "Call Time," an initiative designed to share mental health resources for Chicago theater workers and to destigmatize mental illness, as well as reminding us all to check in with our friends and colleagues who may be suffering the long-term mental effects of the COVID isolation and uncertainty. Self-advocacy also continued to figure into the work of people like costume designer Elsa Hiltner, whose crowdsourced spreadsheet on salaries helped provide much-needed transparency on the issue of who gets paid what and where.

Far from sitting in their basements and waiting for the crisis to pass, artists figured out how to lean into the moment, moving quickly from putting archival productions online to creating brand-new content. Here, it often seemed that the smaller non-Equity houses had at least an initial advantage, since they weren't caught up in the (finally resolved) jurisdictional conflict between SAG-AFTRA and Actors' Equity over streaming productions. But theaters of all sizes jumped into the digital stream, willing to learn new skills and trusting that audiences would follow them.

I don't think anyone's suggesting that online theater is the same as live performance, just as a recording of an opera isn't the same as experiencing it in the flesh. But artists have always found ways to keep themselves occupied and flex their creative muscles in between shows. This year, necessity birthed some new ways for them to do that. I was privileged to have a seat at the table to see it happen. I'm sure I'll be back to my crotchety ways eventually, but 2020 reinforced for me at least a sense that the rules of engagement for artists, producers, audiences, and critics are going to be changing, and it's more than past time to listen to the voices coming up before passing judgment on what these new paradigms will mean for theater going forward.

Playwrights' plaudits

One of the companies that shifted to regularly producing online was Aguijón Theater Company, whose "Aguizoóm" monthly series featured readings and discussions around Latinx theater. (The 30-year-old company produces mostly contemporary plays in Spanish in their Belmont Cragin/Hermosa venue.) Aguijón just announced the winner of their biennial International Hispanic Playwriting Contest, which, as the name suggests, is open to Hispanic writers around the globe. This year, they received 271 entries from 14 countries. The winner is José Manuel Hidalgo Cruz for El No Lugar, with honorable mention to Silvia Teresa Valdés Díaz del Guante for Monstruo Bajo Tierra. Both writers are from Mexico. The winner receives $1,500 and (COVID permitting) a staged reading with Instituto Cervantes.

Nambi E. Kelley, a Chicago native whose career as a playwright and actor began here (her adaptation of Richard Wright's Native Son had its world premiere at Court Theatre in 2014), has just received the National New Play Network's annual commission for her new work, Project American X. Kelley, who was a staff writer for the Showtime series The Chi last season, will work with San Diego Repertory Theatre on the play, which tackles three pivotal moments in African American history through the lens of one family: the eve of emancipation, the eve of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the eve of President Barack Obama's last day in office. As is the usual case for the NNPN, Kelley's play will be available for a "rolling world premiere" with other core member theaters around the country, who receive right of first refusal. 

Locally, the core NNPN members are Berwyn's 16th Street Theater, Prop Thtr, and Silk Road Rising. Nationally, the NNPN has served as a model for how theaters can foster collaboration. I expect we'll see even more of that in the year ahead. I hope a new administration and (hopefully) a new Democratic Senate can open the door a little bit to finding ways to get financial relief into the hands of the artists who have been giving us all so much this past year.

On a personal note, I want to end by thanking everyone at the Reader for keeping my spirits up and my mind focused during this past strange and difficult year. I have never worked with a better group of people and it's a privilege to be a part of this team.  v

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