With great trials come both exultant successes and disorienting failures. This past year, we were witness to both: macro and micro, personal and political (if there is even a distinction between the two anymore), brilliant and brutal, often all at once. During a time when just checking the news can be a triggering experience, performance and craft require a commendable effort. It is a testament to the strength and resilience of the artists within these pages that all year, whether they wanted to or not, they made the art that helped things feel bearable or even, occasionally, bright. And while art, witnessing or making it, can be therapeutic, it is not therapy. The year to come will undoubtedly contain its share of tests and we must be prepared to engage with them as fully as we are able to. The stakes are great but the possibilities are paramount. (Kevin Greene)
The 2018 Players 50 was written by Kevin Greene and Sharon Hoyer.
With additional contributions by Emma Couling, Zach Freeman, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Danielle Levsky.
Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
Artistic director, Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Barbara Gaines and Chicago Shakespeare Theater have swung for the fences in recent years and the results are impossible to ignore. While 2016 was the year for “endurance theater,” with productions like Steppenwolf’s “The Flick” and Goodman’s “2666” whose runtimes spilled into Peter Jackson territory, no example outshined the Gaines-directed two-part epic “Tug of War,” which, in its entirety, spanned nearly twelve hours. In order to make space for her company’s grand ambitions, she announced construction of The Yard, an innovative performance space made up of nine configurable towers capable of holding up to 850 viewers. Completed in short order, The Yard has already hosted productions including Teatro Línea de Sombra’s “Amarillo,” the crowning event of the inaugural Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. After capping the year by directing an all-female version of “Taming of the Shrew,” Gaines will spend the coming year concentrating her energies on a slate of attention-grabbing shows including the return of Penn and Teller for “Macbeth,” and Druid Theatre’s production of “Waiting for Godot.”
Anna D. Shapiro
Artistic director, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
In her first years as Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Anna Shapiro, alongside executive director David Schmitz, has made significant changes to her company’s programming and its physical spaces. 2016 saw the grand opening of the 1700 Theatre, with a focus on diverse programming from music and podcasts to dance and improv. (Kudos go to a trio of dedicated and adventurous producers: John Zinn, Greta Honold and Patrick Zakem.) The company continues to reach out to younger audiences with programs like the Red and Black cards (for millennials and Gen-Xers respectively) accenting the company’s accessibility mission. In the 2017/18 season, Steppenwolf promises diverse world premieres by writers Tracy Letts, Aziza Barnes and Matthew-Lee Erlbach. Letts and Shapiro reunite for Letts’ latest political satire “The Minutes,” set to arrive on Broadway in the spring. Shapiro will also accompany Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” in its return to New York’s Second Stage Theater this summer.
Artistic director, Goodman Theatre
Robert Falls marked his thirtieth anniversary as artistic director of the Goodman Theatre with the 2016-17 season. During this time as artistic director, Falls has emphasized that Chicago’s many communities need to be better reflected on Goodman stages. He has used his authority to advocate for works by writers of color, women and other marginalized voices. Rohina Malik’s “Yasmina’s Necklace,” for instance, which features a love story between two Muslim-American families, caught his attention because of how it showed “individuals wrestling with their life circumstances—as we all do, regardless of our cultural backgrounds—while providing a glimpse into a cultural milieu that may be unfamiliar to many.” Never far from the director’s chair, Falls is slotted to direct the world premiere of Rogelio Martinez’s “Blind Date” and Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” for the Goodman in 2018.
Creative consultant, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Renée Fleming might give the impression that she is moving gently into retirement. True, she has recently given the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera her acclaimed Marschallin in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” Prior to that, she delighted Chicago and New York with her spunky “Merry Widow.” The essaying of these roles often signals the end of an operatic career, as they require high wattage star-power as well as more tender vocal requirements. But Lyric Opera of Chicago’s creative consultant shows no signs of slowing down, but merely diversifying. Back on the Broadway boards in 2018, she’s Nettie Fowler in a revival of “Carousel.” She hits the movie theatres as well, as the voice behind Julianne Moore’s opera diva in the film “Bel Canto.” At last January’s Chicago Voices concert, an unprecedented celebration of hand-holding across musical genres, Fleming floated an exquisite “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” that surely embarrassed anyone who thought she might be winding down. And she has her own perfume, “La Voce di Renée Fleming.”
Artistic director, Paramount Theatre
Since taking on the role of artistic director at Paramount Theatre in 2011, Jim Corti has directed hit after musical hit including “West Side Story,” Mamma Mia!,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” the latter following hot on the heels of the Apollo Theater production that closed in January 2016 after a run of nearly eight years. This past year, Corti won an Equity Jeff Award for his direction of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” In the spring Corti will bring to Aurora “Once,” Enda Walsh’s bittersweet and decidedly low-key musical with songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.
After recording several stand-up television specials, killing it in his recurring role as Lincoln Rice on Comedy Central’s “Broad City” and stepping into supporting roles on high-profile 2017 movies (“Baywatch,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “The Disaster Artist”), this Chicago native—who moved back to Chicago in April of last year—has been spotted working material at Cole’s open mic (the raucous free weekly stand-up show at Cole’s Bar in Logan Square) and pops up as a surprise opener for national tours, including Ilana Glazer and Phoebe Robinson at Thalia Hall and Chris Rock at Chicago Theatre. But the way you know he’s a true Chicagoan? He’s spending the month of January touring Hawaii and Florida.
A devoted fan of genre movies, sci-fi and comic books, Ike Holter is The Flash of playwriting. This past year alone saw local productions of three plays: Teatro Vista’s “The Wolf at the End of the Block,” The Roustabouts’ “Put Your House In Order” at A Red Orchid Theatre and the developmental production of “Lottery Day” as a part of Goodman Theatre’s New Stages festival. Parallelling the universes of DC and Marvel, Holter’s plays frequently employ character crossover. Dedicated fans hunt for Easter eggs in what has been lovingly nicknamed “The Holterverse,” a narrative world quickly spreading beyond Chicago as productions of Holter’s plays pop up across the country. As relentless as he is creative, Holter’s penchant for adopting the strategies of other mediums is breathing new life into theater and bringing a wave of eager audiences with it.
Artistic director, American Theater Company
The sudden loss of PJ Paparelli in 2015 put the future of American Theater Company in jeopardy. The venerable North Center company’s legacy—with its track record for success in recent years spawning Broadway-bound world premieres (“Disgraced,” “The Humans”) as well as pace-setting documentary-based work—felt very much intertwined with Paparelli’s own. But in crisis comes opportunity, and in 2016 Chicagoans were introduced to Will Davis, a director whose work has illuminated and ignited the stage of his new home company. Davis’ movement background has stirred audiences well-versed in variants of the kitchen-sink drama. This year alone Davis has transported audiences to the very wild west of Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men on Boats,” touchingly reimagined William Inge’s “Picnic” and crafted haunting horrors (Janine Nabers’ “Welcome to Jesus”). With each, Davis has demonstrated a freedom of thought surrounding gender, race and sexuality refreshing in its assertion of its own normalcy. While continuing to oversee exciting new developments at ATC (including the CORE residency programming), Davis will also direct Basil Kreimendahl’s “We’re Gonna Be Okay” later this month.
Choreographer, Hubbard Street Dance
This year Cerrudo celebrates a decade as the first and only resident choreographer for Hubbard Street Dance. In that time, he has created fifteen pieces for the legendary company that have become standards of their repertoire, and has taken choreographic commissions nationally and abroad. Moreover, Cerrudo’s voice can be heard in the timbre of Hubbard Street’s presence on stage; the dancers are extraordinarily versatile and can dance just about anything flawlessly, but watching them dance Cerrudo’s work is like watching a rushing stream over glistening, polished stones. Hubbard Street’s 2018 Spring Series, the first performance by the company at the Auditorium Theatre in twenty years, will be dedicated entirely to Cerrudo’s work.
Artistic director, Victory Gardens Theater
For the second year in a row, Chay Yew’s home company has scored a massive coup with a local premiere of a massive Broadway hit. Between the smashing success of “Hand to God” and last year’s Chicago-originating production of “Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir turned Tony Award-winning musical sensation, Victory Gardens has been beefing up its bona fides. Credit lies perhaps in Yew’s network of connections. A veritable jetsetter, this year alone he has spent time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, New York City (directing fellow Chicagoan Sandra Delgado in Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey”) with an enviably well-timed trip to South Coast Repertory planned for this winter before returning to his home company to direct the world premiere of Boo Killebrew’s “Doing It.” If Yew’s dedication to Victory Gardens is ever questioned, there are plenty of rebuttals intrinsic in the company’s Playwrights Ensemble, the resident theater program, and the sheer breadth of public programming that the company hosts and curates.