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.
The Players was written by Fabrizio Almeida, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer, Nina Metz, William Scott and Monica Westin
1. Keith Huff
Good things come in small packages, like Keith Huff’s forty-five-page play “A Steady Rain” that was quietly making the rounds in the country’s literary offices in 2006 but was ultimately rejected by some of this city’s biggest theaters. But there was nothing small or quiet about the public reaction to this two-character play concerning Chicago South Side cops when it premiered at Chicago Dramatists in 2007, transferred to the Royal George in 2008 and finally landed on Broadway with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in 2009. Not since Julia Roberts debuted Off-Broadway in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain” several years ago has star casting so effectively put a play, not to mention its writer, on the pop-culture map overnight. It also certainly didn’t hurt Chicago Dramatists’ reputation, where Huff remains a playwright in residence. And that $15 million three-month Broadway box-office total might just open a few doors for the playwright as well.
2. Tracy Letts
Playwright and actor
As Teach in Steppenwolf’s revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” Tracy Letts unleashes a performance that literally chews up scenery, collecting the kind of critical notices that can make a career. But this is no resume-builder for Letts; more of a sabbatical. Over the last several years, the Steppenwolf ensemble member has stolen the American stage as a playwright, first with his soul-searing Tony and Pulitzer-winning hit, “August: Osage County,” which returns to the city of its birth next month in its Broadway tour. Then his next play, “Superior Donuts, which also debuted at Steppenwolf, followed “August” to Broadway, landing, in fact, in the very same Music Box Theatre. Lest you worry that he’s been underemployed, he’s also busied himself with the West End premiere of “August” in London last fall, along with the screenplay for the upcoming film version of the same. Slacker.
3. David Cromer
Winston Churchill once described success as the ability to go from failure to failure without losing one’s enthusiasm. True, David Cromer had more artistic successes in 2009 (including his staging of “Our Town” Off-Broadway that has now become the longest-running production of that show in history) than he had commercial failures, but the latter (“Brighton Beach Memoirs”) was also his high-profile Broadway debut as a director, and included an aborted second play that never even opened. Cromer’s got another shot with a Broadway revival of “Picnic” later this year (his version at Writers’ last season was a smash), not to mention upcoming hometown directorial gigs at Writers’ and Mary-Arrchie Theatre(!). No matter what, Chicago hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for Cromer.
4. Robert Falls
Although he commands a stable of the city’s best directors as artistic director of the Goodman, Bob Falls directs many of their most high-profile productions himself, notably in his ongoing, Tony-winning collaboration with the actor Brian Dennehy, most recently in the blockbuster production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” last winter. Falls is a director who puts a big signature imprint on his work, and can be a lightning rod at times as a result. But he’s always big. No stranger to Broadway, where he’s had spectacular hits and surprising misses, he consistently does his best work on the Goodman stage. Later this month, he’s re-teaming with Dennehy again in the Broadway-bound O’Neill one-act, “Hughie,” and then shortly thereafter he’s back with frequent Goodman collaborator Rebecca Gilman, directing her world premiere, “A True History of the Johnstown Flood.”
5. William Petersen
While Chicago stages are blessed with many actors boasting varying degrees of Hollywood success, only one works the kind of box-office magic that’s driving Broadway’s biggest shows these days. Billy Petersen famously left the lead role of top-rated television drama “CSI,” which he still produces, to return to Chicago theater in 2008. Though he joined the Steppenwolf ensemble (where he’ll appear in “Endgame” this season), it was his role in the two-hander “Blackbird” at Victory Gardens last summer that really showed his market power, when the critically acclaimed production sold out every show that the theater could cram into its schedule, and became its biggest hit ever. Petersen’s not just a pretty face, though—his performances on Chicago stages, dating back to the late seventies, are legendary.
6. Michael Shannon
When talking about Michael Shannon’s year, you have to start with his Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in “Revolutionary Road,” and then discuss his role in Werner Herzog’s acclaimed “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call.” But on stage, Shannon’s success has been just as big: “Mistakes Were Made,” his post-Oscars homecoming at A Red Orchid, where he’s an ensemble member, was essentially a one-man show, and Shannon delivered the lovable and hilarious performance the play depended on. The play went on to be A Red Orchid’s biggest hit of the decade.
7. Alejandro Cerrudo
Choreographer and dancer
Alejandro Cerrudo’s mind is a choreography factory that, judging from the amount of work that pours from his head and body, operates well into the late shift. Complexity of wit, surprise of movement and mastery of a well-placed prop have propelled him to the top of Chicago’s choreographic heap with audience favorites like “Lickety-Split” and “Extremely Close.” Hubbard Street Dance Chicago—which created the position of Resident Choreographer expressly for him—will proudly boast Cerrudo world premieres in both its upcoming Spring and Summer Series.
8. Tanya Saracho
Playwright and actor
Have you made it when you’re being profiled by Chicago Public Radio’s Richard Steele, selling out the Steppenwolf with a literary adaptation of a modern classic (“The House on Mango Street”) and having no less than three of your plays restaged by red-hot companies like Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater and Teatro Vista? We’d say. And although Saracho assumed sole artistic leadership of Teatro Luna last year, her longtime creative base, 2009 saw her cement her reputation as an artist in her own right. Never one to shy away from challenge or controversy, in 2010 she’ll take on Chekhov for Teatro Vista, and is rumored to be interested in a project exploring “sexual perversity.” If it’s set in Chicago, our bet is that she’ll give David Mamet a run for his money with her unique voice, one that isn’t being heard anywhere else right now but in Chicago.
9. Rebecca Gilman
A little more than a decade ago, the only Chicago playwright with a bona fide national footprint was David Mamet, and he’d already left town a decade earlier. Now, along with Tracy Letts, Rebecca Gilman’s a household name, if your household is made up of theater mavens. Though Gilman’s temperature has fallen some since the overheated days a decade back when “The Glory of Living” was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and “Spinning Into Butter” took Chicago, New York and London by storm, Gilman’s settled into a productive playwrighting career. Gilman’s work has always been controversial, usually because of her subject-matter-charged scripts, but sometimes due to unintended brouhahas, like the “artistic differences” that led the Goodman to cancel the world premiere of her co-written musical, “The Boys Are Coming Home” in 2008, or the picketing by deaf actors that accompanied the New York premiere of her adaptation of “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” just these last couple of months. But no hard feelings, it seems, with the Goodman, which has premiered most of her plays. Their production of “The Crowd You’re In With” was a highlight of last season, and Bob Falls is set to direct the world premiere of ” A True History of the Johnstown Flood” in March.
10. Matt Hovde
Comedy director and actor
Hovde is one of the founding performers of Galileo Players, but he’s really been making a name for himself behind the scenes at Second City as a rising star directing a number of revues on both the main and e.t.c. stages, including 2007’s incredibly successful “Between Barack and a Hard Place” and last year’s hilarious jab at a certain ex-governor, “Rod Blagojevich Superstar!” Next up, Hovde is helming Second City’s latest spoof of pomposity, “Rush Limbaugh! The Musical,” which debuts later this month.