Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

The Players 2011: The 50 people who really perform in Chicago

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11 David Cromer

Though he’s logging more nights in New York City these days, David Cromer still has one foot firmly in Chicago. After his production of “Our Town” for The Hypocrites moved to New York in early 2009 and set that city on fire, his star started shining on Broadway. But he still found time last year to return home to direct a riveting production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” for Writers’ Theatre, followed shortly thereafter with “Cherrywood” at tiny but esteemed Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. Now he’s back to Broadway with another Tennessee Williams work, “Sweet Bird of Youth” with Nicole Kidman. Will he keep up his dual theatrical citizenship? We’re counting on it. Let’s hope that the “genius grant” he got last year from another Chicago institution, the MacArthur Foundation, helps.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

12 Charles Newell
Artistic director, Court Theatre

Charlie Newell has the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre reaching new artistic heights, with acclaimed productions in the recent past of Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, Or Change,” and the same playwright’s adaptation of “The Illusion,” both of which he directed, and Sean Graney’s madcap takes on “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “The Comedy of Errors.” As befits the largest theater on the South Side, Newell programs a strong series of shows that speak especially well to an African-American audience, most recently director Ron OJ Parson’s masterful take on “Home.” With the recent hiring of powerhouse regional theater vet Steve Albert as executive director, look for even better things from Court in coming years.

13 Glenn Edgerton
Artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Hubbard Street is one of the most highly regarded modern dance companies in the world, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Glenn Edgerton. Edgerton’s relationships in the global dance community give the company opportunities to perform works by the likes of Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Nacho Duato and Mats Ek. Round out the repertory with premieres by stellar resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo and you have a creative force to be reckoned with.

14 Brett Batterson
Executive director, Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

On the outside, he looks very much the part of a businessman, a demeanor you’d expect from the caretaker of Chicago’s Louis Sullivan-designed theatrical treasure. And he’s kept the Auditorium Theatre on solid ground, perpetuating its essential role as the home venue for the Joffrey Ballet, as well as the regular touring stop of many of the world’s major dance companies, whether they be the great ballet companies of Russia, or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. But on the inside beats the heart of an artist, and it is this that sets Batterson apart. Not only does his artistic soul lead him to edgier programming decisions, like bringing in Batsheva, Complexions and Nederlands Dans Theater—which absolutely blew away everyone who saw it—but he also produces. Under his watch, Auditorium has developed “Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah” into an annual franchise, he brought opera to the Auditorium for the first time in sixty-five years with “Margaret Garner” in 2008 and this year he’s producing the upcoming Miles Davis Festival, which includes a major dance element through a commissioned world premiere from River North Chicago Dance. Finally, he understands that sometimes the best way to experience an architectural masterpiece is to see it in a whole new way, and he’s booked theater performances and cabaret singers to perform for an audience seated on the stage itself, not to mention working with Broadway In Chicago to turn the whole joint into the city’s coolest nightclub of sorts for a spell last summer when “Fuerza Bruta: Look Up” brought a whole new kind of audience experience in from Argentina.

15 Robert Falls
Artistic director, Goodman Theatre

The theatrical personification of “make no small plans.” When Chicago’s larger-than-life director of everything from “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Death of a Salesman” and “Aida” on Broadway decides to take it down a notch, we end up with last year’s intensely rehearsed “The Seagull,” one of the finest productions of Chekhov in memory with one of the strongest casts ever assembled in Chicago. But beyond his work as a hands-on director, Falls has turned the Goodman’s artistic chambers into a creative dream, where Rebecca Gilman recently joined an artistic collective that includes Brian Dennehy, Steve Scott, Chuck Smith, Henry Godinez and Regina Taylor, whose “The Trinity River Plays” opens this week. Beyond that, the Goodman just launched its own new-play-nurturing program with “The Playwrights’ Unit,” a season-long residency that counts Seth Bockley, Lisa Dillman, Laura Jacqmin and Rohina Malik as its first four.

16 Eileen LaCario
Vice president, Broadway In Chicago

Eileen LaCario, a stalwart of Chicago theater dating back to her long run with the revered Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, is probably the one person most responsible for keeping BIC from getting tagged with a carpetbagger reputation. The Berwyn native, described by the Chicago Tribune as a “sales and marketing tornado,” is a ubiquitous presence at BIC events, and her leadership with the League of Chicago Theatres—she’s currently board chair—creates a platform for Chicago’s smallest storefronts to draw upon the lessons of its largest theatrical producer. Firmly grounded in Chicago, LaCario’s a national sensation who was awarded a Broadway League Award just last year.

17 Criss Henderson
Executive director, Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Chicago Shakes founder Barbara Gaines gets most of the ink, but Criss Henderson’s been her partner for two decades, ever since the days when they were a respected but relatively tiny operation at the Ruth Page Theater. Today, they’re one of Chicago’s largest companies, a Regional Tony Award winner, with a majestic theater on Navy Pier and whisperings of a substantial expansion in the works. And though Gaines will have to program the shows to fill all these new seats, you can bet Henderson will once again do the heavy lifting: raising the funds, negotiating with their landlord—the government—and overseeing construction. By the time CST’s done expanding, all the world will be a stage, it seems.

18 Kelly Leonard
Executive vice president, The Second City

Though decoding the comedy institution’s organization chart is an exercise that would stump a kremlinologist, those in the know say that Kelly Leonard is “the man.” A better title would be super-producer, perhaps, for Leonard oversees all the company’s live theatrical operations, whether the venerable Mainstage or the seven full-time ensembles sailing the seas in a partnership with Norwegian Cruise Lines, a deal he brokered. Good thing he’s got a legendary eye for talent—the recent wave of superstar alums like Tina Fey and Steve Carell came up under his watch—because he’s got a seeming endless number of shows to keep running.

19 Steve Traxler
Co-founder and president, Jam Theatricals

If you see a musical in Fargo, North Dakota, chances are Jam’s the producer, since they manage Broadway subscription series in more than thirty cities. But what gets their juices really flowing is acting as a producer on the Great White Way, where they’ve earned five Tony Awards, most recently for “Hair,” and seem to have their fingers in every pie of note, including “The Addams Family” and the notorious “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.” Steve Traxler goes to bat for the home team on a consistent basis, most recently helping transfer both Steppenwolf’s “August: Osage County” and Goodman’s “Desire Under the Elms” to Broadway.

20 Stuart Oken
CEO and producer, Elephant Eye Theatrical

When Oken formed Elephant Eye along with longtime Chicago producer Michael Leavitt in 2006, expectations were high from the get-go. After all, Oken, who built and operated Chicago’s Apollo Theater Center in the late seventies and early eighties, had just come off a ten-year stint as executive vice president of Disney Theatrical, where he had a major hand in “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aida.” Commercial expectations, at least, were met last year when the Elephant Eye project, “The Addams Family” musical moved from a Chicago tryout to Broadway, with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in the leads. Critics panned it but the audiences keep on coming. Next up, “Bruce Lee: Journey to the West,” based on a book by David Henry Hwang, targeted for a fall launch. Oken’s also the co-founder of the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern.

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2 Responses to “The Players 2011: The 50 people who really perform in Chicago”

  1. JeanHeller Says:

    Although I can’t quarrel with a single selection on this list, how in the world could you leave off Dennis Zacek? He is still the AD at Victory Gardens, still doing great work with gusto. He hasn’t even formally retired yet. Come on people.

  2. AmyBV Says:

    Thanks for highlighting Chicago’s performance players and including Lane Alexander and his work in bringing world-class tap & percussion to Chicago audiences and teaching future generations this unique American art form.

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