Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Players 2016: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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“Out with the old, in with the new,” is one of the many well-intentioned platitudes you hear frequently this time of year. Personally, I find that type of sharp-turn resolution a bit difficult to manage. As I see it, change is fluid; the past informs the present and portends the future. Newness grows organically out of the well-tilled soil of history. This also happens to be the way I think about Chicago’s arts community. The open terrain currently being transformed by our promising young upstarts would not exist had the heavy lifters of previous years not worked to cultivate it. And so it is in this space that we honor both parties by highlighting the artists who have served as great beacons and those whose stars are just beginning to rise. What follows is the current crop of our city’s fifty most moving, most shaking, most dream-making Players in theater, dance, comedy and opera.  Make a resolution you actually want to keep: check them out! (Kevin Greene)

Players was written by Zach Freeman, Kevin Greene, Sharon Hoyer, Aaron Hunt and Loy Webb
Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Read the rest of this entry »

Player of the Moment: The Era Footwork Crew

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The Era, from left to right, are Litebulb, P-Top, STeelo, Chief Manny and Dempsey/photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

The Era, from left to right, are Litebulb, P-Top, Steelo, Chief Manny and Dempsey/photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

By Sharon Hoyer

Born on the West and South Sides in the eighties, footwork is a dance style that evolved out of juke and moves to a breakneck tempo of Chicago house music. Like the name suggests, footwork is a blur of tight, precise, rapid-fire foot movements accented by slides, glides and skates across the floor that look like film alternating between fast forward and half-speed. Hungry for new and faster tracks, footwork dancers became DJs, pushing the tempo up to create a genre of music characterized by its adrenaline-pumping 160 beats per minute.

With the advent of YouTube, footwork gained a following in Europe and Japan—DJs and dancers toured internationally, although their culture was still unknown in large parts of their hometown, and dwindling in neighborhoods that were once a center of the scene. But in 2015, a freshly formed dance crew called The Era began pulling in attention with both hands: a VICE documentary, a grant from High Concept Labs, a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist grant, a grant from University of Chicago for an archival project on the history of footwork, and founding member Litebulb was named one of Dance Magazine’s 25 To Watch in 2016. In September, The Era is co-curating an installation about the history of footwork at Columbia College. With recognition pouring in from the academic and mainstream dance worlds, The Era is helping a style created and danced by young black men and women on Chicago’s South and West Sides gain citywide acknowledgement as a legitimate art form. And most importantly to the dancers, they’re preserving footwork for the next generation. The Era is currently working on a stage show entitled “Living at 160,” slated for summer of 2016. We talked with the crew—Litebulb, P-Top, Dempsey, Steelo and Manny—along with artist Wills Glasspiegel who has been documenting The Era, at their rehearsal space in High Concept Labs. Read the rest of this entry »

Players 2015: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.

Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)

Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »

Player of the Moment: David Schmitz, New Managing Director of Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux

Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux


By Brian Hieggelke

Last October, Steppenwolf surprised the theater world by announcing a double-barreled transition in leadership: long-term artistic director Martha Lavey would give way to Anna Shapiro at the end of the current season, and David Hawkanson would retire even sooner as executive director—his protégé David Schmitz would step into the top administrative job as managing director on January 1. Schmitz might have the highest-profile new job in Chicago theater, but even for his first press interview, a week and a half into the gig, he’s calm and confident. That’s because, I imagine, he’s been at Steppenwolf for a decade already, and his big near-term challenge, the expansion of the theater’s “campus” to include a new building, new lobby and two theater spaces, is an undertaking he approaches with confidence. He was downtown last week to meet with a board member, and we grabbed a few minutes in a bustling Loop coffee shop.

What brought you to this point?
I’m a theater person from the start. I was involved as an actor as a kid and actually have an undergraduate degree in directing and sound design. I moved to Chicago in ‘98 to get an MFA in directing from Roosevelt University. And the nice thing about that program, beyond being a good program where I learned a lot, was that it didn’t pay me to go to school, so I had to get a job. I got a job as a business manager for a for-profit company called Adair Performance which was, literally, clowns. Like birthday-party clowns. And that’s why I have the advantage of being able to say I worked for clowns and really meaning it. But the great thing about that opportunity was it taught me contracts and budgeting and the fundamentals of business, which I didn’t get in any of my schooling. Then I was hired as the bookkeeper at Lookingglass about two months before they broke ground on the space on Michigan Avenue. I walked into a really great opportunity—there was a lot of need for financial work, for analysis, and there wasn’t really anybody to do it. I was hired as a bookkeeper. By the end of the summer, I was director of finance. By the end of three years, general manager, helping to run the theater while we were looking for an executive director. We eventually hired the current executive director, Rachel Kraft. At that point, I was still directing. I was an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre from 2002 to 2008, when my first kid was born and I stopped directing. And then I was hired at Steppenwolf in 2005, and walked into, again, a great situation. David Hawkanson, the executive director, took me under his wing, along with certain members of the board, and the rest is history I guess. The funny story that my wife tells is that when she first moved here in 2001, after we’d been dating long distance, we were going by the old Steppenwolf administrative offices at North and Halsted, that beautiful brick building, and I said, “That’s where they have their offices! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work in a building like that?” Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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The Players 2013: The 50 People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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PLAYERSThough we publish a list of “players” every year, we alternate between those whose accomplishments are most visible on-stage (the artists, last year) and those who wield their influence behind the curtain (this year). Not only does this allow us to consider twice as many people, but it also puts some temporal distance between the lists. So, the last time we visited this cast of characters, two years ago, we were celebrating the end of the Richard M. Daley years in Chicago, fretting over a nation seemingly in the mood for a Tea Party and contemplating the possibility of a Latter Day Saint in the White House. Today, we’ve got a dancer in the mayor’s office, the most prominent Mormons are in a chorus line at the Bank of America Theatre and the Tea Cup runneth dry. Call us cockeyed optimists, but things sure look better from here. And so, meet the folks who, today, bring us the best theater, dance, comedy and opera in the nation.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Johnny Oleksinski
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The Players 2012: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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Darren Criss (#4) with Team StarKid

With our criteria shifted back to artistic accomplishment in theater, dance, comedy and opera this year, our task got infinitely tougher. Because while the number of performing venues grows at a steady rate, the increase in the number of noteworthy artists seems to grow exponentially. For everyone we name on the list below, we had to leave off five, an embarrassment of riches for Chicago. We made a conscious effort to introduce a meaningful number of new faces to the list this year; the necessary absences should not be construed as a loss of worthiness as a consequence. We often find trends when we do the research these lists require; this year we’re starting to see a more meaningful effort to redefine performance itself in the internet age, from the runaway success of StarKids, to the more calculated endeavors of Silk Road. So what defines a “player”? Consider it some complex stew of career achievement, recent “heat” and, in some cases, rising stardom.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Dennis Polkow

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

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As the economy slowly lifts us back to our feet and we look around, we see a remarkable sight: a performance industry in Chicago that survived the worst recession since the Great Depression wholly intact. Sure, we had a few brushes with death, and no doubt a few very small, very new theater companies threw in the towel, as they do even in good years, but unlike many other cities across the country, we’re in pretty good shape. How good? The League of Chicago Theatres issued a press release last week proclaiming our town as America’s theater leader, with more than 250 professional theaters, including four Regional Tony Award winners, and a combined annual budget of $250 million serving five million audience members. Add in our thriving dance community, a comedy scene that’s the envy of the nation and two world-class opera companies and you’d have to say we’re doing pretty damn good. But neither the economy nor any cultural organization is fully out of the water yet, and the dramatic uncertainty injected into the political sea by Mayor Daley’s decision to call it a day means Chicago’s performance community will need some steady hands at the wheel these next few years. Accordingly, for this edition of The Players, we’ve broadened our horizon and taken a closer-than-ever look at the individuals in charge of the financial fitness of our local institutions. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2010: The 50 people who really perform for Chicago

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Tara DeFrancisco, No. 36

Tara DeFrancisco, No. 36

In this town of performers—theater makers, dancers, comedy creators—you’d think it’d be pretty easy to assemble a list of artistic influencers and innovators. And it is. The challenge is paring that list down to a mere fifty. It’s a testament to the wonders of the performing-arts culture in Chicago that we easily came up with about 200 names when we set out to create this year’s version of The Players. Unfortunately, we’re only listing a fraction of those worthy of your attention, but that’s the problem with an abundance of riches. Hopefully you’ll see a handful of recognizable names and a whole lot more you’ll start noticing from this point on. We’ve retooled the criteria for this year, focusing on onstage artistic achievement, rather than the backstage influence of artistic directors, executive directors and the like—who will get their day again next year. Let the arguments begin. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2009: The 50 people who really perform for Chicago

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What makes Chicago’s theater world special? We picked up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly for clues. In the cover story, “CSI” star William Petersen explains his decision to leave his role as one of the top paid actors in television, earning a rumored $600,000 an episode, to move back to Chicago and Chicago theater: “It was too safe for me at this point. So I needed to try and break that, and the way to do that, for me, is the theater.” EW went on to credit Petersen for much of the show’s success, notably bringing a theatrical ensemble philosophy to play in its production. Or consider the runaway success of Steppenwolf’s “August: Osage County,” which transferred to Broadway,  receiving critical acclaim and multiple Tony Awards, not by shaking it up with Broadway “names” but instead by virtually transferring the Steppenwolf production intact, with the addition of lead producer and fellow Chicagoan Steve Traxler. What makes Chicago theater—or for that matter, Chicago dance or any other form of performance practiced on our stages—special? We’d contend it’s the power of the ensemble, the spirit of collaboration that champions artistic risk-taking and subordinates the commercial. And so, in that spirit, the critical ensemble responsible for Newcity’s ongoing stage coverage presents our take on the most influential people on and offstage in Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »