By Emma Couling
You might not clock Tony Santiago as a natural leader upon meeting him. He’s not a showboat, he doesn’t take over a room when he enters, he doesn’t exude a need to be the center of attention. On the contrary, he’s usually seated next to the speaker at the party, acting as DJ, or better yet, in the kitchen making food. You know you’re at the right party when it’s three in the morning and Tony Santiago is frying something.
In 2017 alone, this vibrant soul helped lead a movement, started a theater company and orchestrated a new collective of accessible theater, not to mention countless contributions to Chicago theater before his transformative year.
“I moved up to Chicago about ten years ago, wanting to do the same thing I did in Richmond—hang with friends, smoke weed, act in theater and ride my bike,” says Santiago about his superhero origin story. (One of my first memories of meeting him was at a Victory Gardens mixer when I asked if he biked, and he said, “Do you mean, ‘do I have my cool kid card?’”)
Santiago got his start in Chicago theater in 2008 when he was hired at About Face Theatre to perform in their social justice outreach program during Bonnie Metzgar’s tenure. “It changed everything,” says Santiago. “It was the first time I’d seen theater being used as a tool for positive change and starting needed conversations. I met a ton of great people…[who] showed me that my art and activism are linked and not to shy away from that.”
It’s a philosophy he’s carried ever since, such as in his work with theater companies like Catharsis, which uses performance to teach sexual-violence-prevention education, and his involvement in movements like The Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition (which Santiago co-founded with Ike Holter, Sydney Charles, Sasha Smith and Kevin Matthew Reyes), which shook the Chicago theater community with its strategic and vibrant response to Hedy Weiss’ controversial review of “Passover” at Steppenwolf Theatre last June.
Santiago started working with the now-defunct Oracle Theatre in 2012, a company that promoted Public Access Theatre, a business model that allowed tickets to be free while relying on donor support to stay afloat.“I fell in love with their mission of ‘Free Art For All,'” he says. It was a turning point as well as an inspiration. “Oracle was doing so much and not charging anyone admission and they were growing.”
Though Santiago’s acting was featured heavily on Oracle’s stage (in “The American Play” as well as the Monty Cole-directed production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”), his work behind the scenes is where his impact and signature lies. It wasn’t long before he became Oracle’s associate artistic director and a producer of their B*Sides performance series. For some ofSantiago’s associates, his work at Oracle marked the beginning of what he is known for today: his ability to turn wild ideas into reality.
One of those wild ideas was “Stay Lit,” an evening of short scenes by award-winning Chicago playwright Ike Holt, which has since been produced in successive iterations across the city. The beginning of Santiago and Holter’s artistic partnership and the result of years of close friendship, it led to a summer surprise: a new company led by the two (The Roustabouts) and the premiere of Holter’s thriller play “Put Your House in Order,” which Santiago starred in.
“[At Oracle], Ike and I produced work that featured people who look like us. Folks who’d never seen theater were coming out to our shows and hanging out. Our shows were not going to be Jeff recommended and we didn’t give a fuck,” he says. “We just wanted to make shows that folks are excited about and that once you’re in the seats to watch the show, people are down to chill and get to know each other. It’s building community and in these times that feels political. After producing three or four shows in Oracle’s space, Ike and I agreed that we should just do this with our own company.”
Oracle Theatre closed at the end of 2016 after a change in space and leadership, leaving Santiago heartbroken. He saw signs of a community dream disappearing, “Folks online posted things like ‘I guess that’s the end to public access in Chicago theater.’ I couldn’t blame people for thinking that, and I realized that I wasn’t done with giving access to art.”
Thus a new approach to public access art was shaped. “Tony seems interested in breaking apart and improving models of how we create, market and share the art we make.” says Gus Menary, artistic director of the Jackalope Theatre Company, who has worked with Santiago in multiple capacities. “Both The Roustabouts and Chicago Arts Access are organizations [that] represent a new way of making and presenting art for a changing world.”
Chicago Arts Access works similarly to Oracle: free tickets for all, funded by donor contributions. But rather than provide tickets to a single theater, Chicago Arts Access partners with artistic institutions across the city, providing free tickets to the public for companies across the city. “I’m not sure where Chicago Arts Access will head,” Santiago says. “It works but still feels like an experiment. Our partners and patrons will help shape us.”
And so they will, but Chicago Arts Access will have the rock of Santiago’s leadership, taste and discernment behind it. “The Chicago theater community feels unique in that we place high value on curatorship,” explains Menary. “There’s an artistry to bringing groups of people together that produce engaging work and Tony has that down.”
Tony Santiago is a dreamer, even a visionary. But grandeur is not what makes him unique. His superpower is kindness and faith in other artists, a key go-to for a man who has dedicated his life to an art form that deals in empathy. “Folks are recognizing that if we want theater to be better, it’s up to us. Organizations like Chicago Inclusion Project and Not In Our House show us that theater isn’t in a bubble. Theater should be the example of how we build community on our blocks and neighborhoods.”
Santiago is scheduled to direct Trevor Dawkins and The Neo-Futurists in “A Story Told in Seven Fights,” premiering in March.