If you attend your fair share of storefront theater in Chicago, you may have noticed a handful of sponsors’ names listed over and over again on walls and in programs. If you look around at The Den on Milwaukee Avenue, you will notice a theater that shares a name with one of those familiar sponsors: the Heath Mainstage, named for Michael and Mona Heath, patron saints of Chicago storefront theater.
To say the Heaths enjoy theater would be a gross understatement. They’ve probably set a record for the number of shows attended in greater Chicago in a given year. And the storefront community is better off because of their generous spirits.
The Heaths are significant donors in the theater community as well as fierce advocates for the craft itself. They weren’t bitten by the acting bug at an early age. Nor are they retired from a career in the arts. They are simply professional audience members and humble benefactors of this ephemeral art form.
Why give to theater in Chicago?
Michael: I would say both the quantity and quality. The quantity is extremely unusual [and] is kind of amazing. But it’s not just quantity for the sake of quantity. It’s quality. [Chicago theater] tackles really interesting and challenging pieces that challenge artists and the audiences they serve. That commitment is another thing.
The bottom line is we just enjoy theater. We enjoy attending and participating and we felt like we should do something to give back, to pay back, and to help perpetuate the great theatrical community.
Mona: One other thing about Chicago specifically is the theater community is so incredibly welcoming. Not all that many years ago we were just in awe of the people on stage and behind the scenes and we happened to go to The Hypocrites’ production of “Desire Under the Elms” and we sat next to Brenda Barrie. We were really excited but didn’t know if we should say “hi.” We’d never talked to an actor in Chicago before. We didn’t know if we’d be bothering her. We said “hi,” and said we saw her in [something] and she was just beyond gracious and incredibly kind and now we’re friends. That’s kind of how we got our toes wet with interacting with people who make theater in Chicago. It’s the most wonderful set of human beings on the planet.
Michael: We often express it by saying that we have no children and no relatives we trust with money, so at a certain age, with approaching retirement, we were thinking about what [our] legacy is and our bequest to the future.
We thought philanthropy was obvious and the thing we’re most passionate about is theater. So let’s establish a fund. We went online and it turns out Chicago Community Trust has been around for over a hundred years. They care about Chicago and regional philanthropy and they support the arts and social and educational programs, you name it. We talked to them and it seemed like a natural fit, so we established a donor-advised fund.
It’s worked out great. It’s like a foundation without the overhead. Our entire estate will go into that. It’s an endowment that will support theater in perpetuity. Now we are practicing for when the thing takes over under its own momentum. We establish a record now for what we fund and why we fund it. Our website is for when we aren’t around anymore to do donor advising. A committee will decide how to spend the money.
Mona: We aren’t practicing simply to provide a track record but to figure out what’s most effective and likely to have impact. We don’t have inherited money. We just earned money and saved. Every dollar means something to us. We want to put the money where it will have discernible impact. Over the course of the few years we’ve been practicing, we’ve had good experiences in terms of what can make a difference for a small theater company and what doesn’t make a ripple.
Michael: We can see the difference that we make. If we give to a huge theater, it just disappears into the maw. We don’t see the effect it has. But with a small theater, we can do a production sponsorship that makes a huge difference in the quality of the costumes and the set, the diversity of the cast, et cetera. We see a much more discernible effect from our donations to small theaters than much larger ones.
Do you get tired of seeing shows all the time? [The couple saw 335 shows in 2018]
Mona: We don’t.
Michael: We don’t get tired of actually experiencing theater. Sometimes we get a little physically run down on a two-show day or three.
Mona: We had a four-show day!
Michael: You need a children’s show at 10am for four shows.
Mona: It’s always so different and it’s such a unique experience.
Michael: We are retired now. We don’t have day jobs sapping our energy. So we recover during the day.
Mona: We still miss things we want to see.
Michael: You can’t work everything in, it’s too much. There’s an obsessiveness that theater induces. If you miss a show, it’s gone. You’ve got to take it as it comes. It’s not [like] books or music or movies where you can always tell yourself to queue it up and see it later. It’s now or never. We try to be pretty comprehensive and we’re afraid we’ll miss something and we’ll regret it.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice to give about sustaining the theater community?
Mona: We believe pretty strongly that it comes down to the quality of the art and inclusiveness. For example, we’ve been season sponsors for Jackalope for four years and recently made arrangements for [a fifth]. We obviously love Jackalope and the things they do and the work. They’re good people. One thing that stands out to us is that when we sit in the audience there, the average age of people in the theater is literally a few decades younger than [at] the average theater. They’re doing that with quality, inclusiveness and being connected to the people in their community.
Michael: I think it’s probably not good to think too much about the future for any theater company. They need to focus on the art they’re doing now. If that’s done well, it will become a vital part of the community and survive or even thrive. Focusing too early on being an institution is probably a mistake. People think you need to be an institution to last. I don’t know if that’s true. Even if it is true, I don’t know if it’s important. We’ve had a number of discussions recently with foundation people who seem to be concerned with institutionalizing midsize theaters. They have strong boards and a large staff and focus on growth above everything else. We’re very big on: art should be first.