Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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

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21 Deb Clapp
Executive director, League of Chicago Theatres

Until Deb Clapp took the helm in 2008, the League had spent a few years in the wilderness after a long reign by Marj Halperin. Clapp, a longtime Goodman executive and theater consultant, not only brought much-needed stability to the organization, but she’s returned it to a growth mode, establishing a central customer database that allows members to get demographics and market to 1.6 million patrons and launching a revamped web site at designed to leverage social media. This summer, the League hosted the prestigious Theatre Communications Group conference, bringing marketers from around the nation into Chicago for an up-close look. Something’s working: membership has increased from 160 to 200 under her leadership and Hot Tix, the League’s discounted ticket sales program, sold more than 100,000 seats last year.

22 Jackie Taylor
Founder and executive director, Black Ensemble Theater

While most theaters spent the last two years in the financial bunker, trying to hold the course in the face of the Great Recession, this dynamo was wasting no time in climbing higher mountains. Last fall, she broke ground on a sixteen-million-dollar theater and cultural center, with nearly all the money already in the bank, an astonishing capper to a company she started in 1976, and for which, over the years, she’s written, directed and sometimes acted in most of its productions. Her forté is the uplifting biographical musical about accomplished African-American artists. She’s overdue to have one written about her.


Photo: Ari Mintz

23 Michael Shannon
Actor, founding ensemble member, A Red Orchid Theatre

This Chicago-bred actor’s apparent end-run toward greatness accelerated in the past year, following his Oscar nomination for 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” with a command performance in Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made” at A Red Orchid Theatre, a role he is now playing Off-Broadway. He also landed his first recurring TV role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” where he steals every scene he’s in, and took a turn as the Stage Manager in David Cromer’s acclaimed Off-Broadway production of “Our Town.”

24 Gigi Pritzker

With half the town’s edifices seemingly bearing your family name, it’s not especially easy to make your own mark in the world. The billionaire daughter of the late Jay Pritzker has proved that hers is smart money, though, based on her track record as a theatrical producer through her company, Relevant Theatricals. Her “Million Dollar Quartet” stands currently not only as Chicago’s longest-running musical, but it’s also opened in New York, where it garnered three Tony noms, including best musical. Her “The Great Gatsby” is on its way to London’s West End and she’s got a “Dennis The Menace” musical in the works. And in her downtime, she produces movies through her Odd Lot Entertainment, including the new “Rabbit Hole” starring Nicole Kidman.

25 Michael Halberstam
Artistic director and co-founder, Writers’ Theatre

If you’d have suggested a few decades ago that the sleepy hamlet of Glencoe would become home to one of Chicago’s most exciting and creative theater companies, you’d be laughed at. But thanks to the efforts of Michael Halberstam, Chicago’s theater community has gotten intimate with the Metra and the Edens, as they’ve traveled north regularly to check out shows like David Cromer’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” or Halberstam’s “A Minister’s Wife,” a musical that he’s taking to New York’s Lincoln Center this spring. He’s doing something right, because the intrigue in future shows just keeps growing, as better and better artists want their work at Writers’. This year, Writers’ is producing a Brett Neveu world premiere, “Do the Hustle,” and “The Detective’s Wife,” the much-awaited follow-up to “A Steady Rain” by Keith Huff, which will be directed by Gary Griffin.

26 Sandy Shinner
Associate artistic director, Ignition program director, Victory Gardens Theater

A thirty-year-veteran of Chicago’s preeminent new-play theater, Shinner has been integral to Victory Gardens’ success as founding artistic director Dennis Zacek’s right hand and lately as producer of the Ignition Festival, which fosters new works by young writers of color. Case in point: Ignition play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” by Kristoffer Diaz was a smash hit, a New York transfer and a 2010 Pulitzer finalist. And now that Zacek is retiring, many point to Shinner as his obvious replacement, one who will ensure that the theater’s legacy is upheld and extended.

27 PJ Powers
Artistic director and co-founder, TimeLine Theatre Company

TimeLine is one of Chicago’s great success stories of the last decade, and much of that credit goes to PJ Powers, the company’s artistic director and co-founder. During his tenure, he’s overseen the production of more than forty plays, which have been one after another increasingly popular with critics and audiences, often resulting in extended runs. Notable highlights recently include “The History Boys,” “The Farnsworth Invention” and most recently, “To Master the Art,” a bio-play about Julia Child that played a sold-out run. TimeLine’s attracting national attention as well: The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout just dubbed them America’s theater “Company of the Year.”

28 Sean Graney
Founding director, The Hypocrites Theater Company

Sean Graney’s turned The Hypocrites style of theater into such a successful brand that he recently announced he’s stepping aside at the company he founded and handing the artistic director chores over to Halena Kays. (He’ll remain involved as “founding director.”) The reason? He’s been in such demand as a freelance director, especially lately at Court, that The Hypocrites have had a challenging time maintaining a consistent production schedule. And given the accolades that greeted his current stab at a musical, “Pirates of Penzance,” that’s a shame. Later this spring he’s off to St. Louis to take on Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Good for them, but let’s hope our local companies keep him busy in town.

29 Bert Haas
Executive vice president, Zanies

Say what you will about the ramshackle Wells Street venue owned by Rick Uchwat since it opened in 1979, it’s a survivor. Somehow, as it’s turned back challengers to its stand-up throne over the years, it’s become an institution, a mecca, since everybody who matters past, present and future in standup have worked its floors, from Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld to Bill Maher and Dave Chappelle. And having turned back would-be empire builders looking to usurp its Chicago throne, Zanies has gradually expanded its own operation, with three additional clubs in the suburbs and Nashville also currently serving up laughs.

30 Brian Posen
Stage 773 artistic director, Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival executive producer

SketchFest, an annual Chicago staple since 2002, has grown into the largest such festival in the nation, but SketchFest executive producer Brian Posen’s biggest headline lately was last year’s takeover of the Theatre Building of Chicago, now called Stage 773. Turmoil at the venerable Theatre Building and the subsequent change of control caused quite the ruckus as it unfolded, but Posen’s two-decade tenure on the local comedy scene and success with SketchFest calmed more than a few collective nerves.

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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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