It takes great skill to thread the needle that is making art while also writing arts criticism. Regina Victor not only threads the needle but knits a few dozen scarves. Alongside heading the empathetic, artist-led critical hub that is Rescripted, Victor is also an associate producer at Court Theatre, providing their trademark dramaturgical expertise to a multitude of productions across Chicago. Victor’s up-to-the-minute arts criticism, alongside the oft-discussed column “Dear White Critics,” has helped move conversations around arts criticism in a direction that is open, welcoming and inclusive of artists looking to contribute. They’ll be bringing their directorial eye to our stages this spring with the world premiere production of Brynne Frauenhoffer’s “Pro-Am” at Sideshow Theatre Company.
Costume Designer; Resident Designer, Albany Park Theater Project
The paradox of design is that great work in the field is designed specifically not to draw attention. Period dramas and aesthetic spectacles are bound to attract attention, but what of the designers plying their trade in blouses and trousers? While Izumi Inaba has done undeniably excellent work in the former (“The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” at Northlight, “A Doll’s House” at Writers and, conveniently, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Steppenwolf) her work in the latter is equally compelling. Think of it as clothing the unexceptional: the early-aughts suburbanites of “If I Forget” (Victory Gardens), the grunge hangover of “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” (Raven Theatre), the mallrat ennui of Midwestern adolescence of “Twilight Bowl” (Goodman). An already impressive resume that includes the Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award in 2014 as well as being a resident designer at Albany Park Theater Project, Inaba’s work will likely be coming soon to a theater near you.
Actor, Intimacy-Violence Designer
The culture of theater is changing. Production teams are expanding to include roles that prioritize the physical and emotional safety of actors throughout the rehearsal and performance processes. As one of the city’s most sought-after intimacy choreographers, Sasha Smith leads the way, with choreography credits at Steppenwolf, Writers, Steep and Jackalope, where her work has expanded the opportunity for truthful, character-driven intimacy onstage, elevating the storytelling through her collaboration. As an actor, Smith has been in productions at Steep, where she is an ensemble member, as well as Victory Gardens and The Hypocrites.
If you’ve seen Nejla Yatkin perform in the past two years it was likely outdoors. You might have seen her clad in white with hip-length black tresses, a gorgeous specter knee-deep in the quarry of Palmisano Park in “The Lady of the Pond.” Or maybe on her knees on a platform at North Pond Sanctuary, hair tucked beneath a delicate, sequined headpiece, waving lengths of white fabric with six-foot arm extensions like a magnificent, exotic heron in “Moving Nature Dreams: Remembering Loie, Nana and Isadora.” Or maybe you took a leisurely stroll along the lakefront with Yatkin and her collaborators in “Conference of the Birds,” a walking performance which traversed the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. But in truth, Yatkin has been making work for all sorts of spaces and stages locally, nationally and abroad. In November, the German-born Yatkin reconstructed “Wallstories by Nejla Yatkin” for Modern American Dance Company in St. Louis as part of a thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in 2020 she will create a new piece for Kansas University’s department of dance.
This past year was busy for Chicago-born playwright Loy Webb. She had her first off-Broadway premiere as well as world premiering her latest work, “His Shadow,” at 16th Street Theater, where it received high praise. Webb is currently living in Los Angeles where she works as a screenwriter on AMC’s horror drama “NOS4A2.” Part of a generation of artists that see no distinction between art and activism, while living in Chicago Webb worked as a theater journalist (her resume includes fine work for this publication) as well as a mentor with Goodman’s Cindy Bandle Young Critics initiative, which introduces young women to theater criticism and the world of professional writing. Whether writing for or about the stage, Webb’s prose is poetic, striving toward a level of communication that pierces the soul.
Patrick Agada leveled up this past spring with his multifaceted turn in Jackalope Theatre’s tense comedic thriller “Dutch Masters.” Agada’s work in this emotional rollercoaster of a two-hander brought his gifts to the forefront of our stages, showing audiences a performer whose comedic timing and emotional resonance could coexist in brilliant harmony. Since that Jeff Award-winning role, he’s been seen in Rivendell and Sideshow’s co-production of “Something Clean,” Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of “The Brothers Size” and Victory Gardens Theater’s “The First Deep Breath,” which he will need after a whirlwind year. Agada brings to the stage a degree of focus and intensity that is unmistakable: the mark of soul-deep talent.
The first time South Side native Correy Bell opened for Mo’Nique—at the Chicago Improv in November 2018—Mo’Nique met her backstage afterwards to tell her, “I have been looking for you.” Since then—on top of her own gigs in Chicago and elsewhere—Bell has opened for Mo’Nique around the country, including a seven-month residency at SLS Las Vegas. She recorded a special for Showtime with Mo’Nique in October at the A3C Festival in Atlanta, set to drop in early 2020, and there’s gossip of a thirty-minute solo stand-up special being recorded in Chicago in the near future. Bell’s calendar stays booked with shows all over the country, although she still credits Chicago rooms with building up her comedy strength. “Chicago’s tough. We ain’t playing,” she says. “This is where you build your courage and you have to have tough skin because I have seen it all.” As a producer, Bell is working to desegregate the Chicago comedy scene with efforts like the Crosstown Comedy Classic, a show she produces at Laugh Factory that brings together comics from the North Side and the South Side.
Founder, Artistic Director, Natya Dance Theatre
Chicago’s professional dance scene is rich and diverse, thanks in part to Hema Rajagopalan’s longstanding company, which has been instrumental in raising the visibility of classical Indian dance in our fair city. Natya performs Rajagopalan’s choreography, based in bharata natyam, on stages of all sizes, from high schools to the Harris Theater. Most recently, Natya collaborated with renowned contemporary Indian choreographer Astad Deboo on “INAI—The Connection,” which premiered at the Dance Center of Columbia College in November.
There has been plenty of potent writing on understandably sore subjects in the theater world in recent times. Director, adapter and activist Lavina Jadhwani’s July 2018 editorial “How to Respond to a ‘Casting Controversy’” addressed the “blind” side of “color blind” casting practices and served as a primer on how to diagnose and address underlying and institutional issues to which theater is far from immune. Jadhwani’s artistic vision includes making a priority of stories of marginalized communities (“Vietgone” at Writers Theatre) as well as placing actors of color into roles that have been traditionally played by whites (“A Doll’s House,” also at Writers, and “As You Like It” at The Guthrie). Jadhwani seems drawn to topics that are debated far and wide, from the highest courts to modest living rooms, including abortion (Lisa Loomer’s “Roe”) and religious freedom (Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake”). Jadhwani is driven by the question “What does it mean to be an American?” Through her work inside theater and out, Jadhwani is addressing and answering that question, evolving a collective notion of what theater is, and who it is for.
Actor, Screenwriter, Producer, Director
Watching Daniel Kyri as Hamlet in The Gift’s 2018 production of Shakespeare’s play was one of the last few years’ theatrical high points. Kyri made his Goodman Theatre debut in 2017, starring in Charles Smith’s globe-spanning coming-of-age story “Objects in the Mirror.” On “Chicago Fire,” Kyri plays Darren Ritter, a beloved and openly gay character, and has been featured on “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med.” Not fully satisfied by the representation offered by major network dramas, Kyri teamed with Bea Cordelia to write, produce, direct and star in “The T,” an OTV series about a queer black man and a white trans woman navigating love and friendship in the Windy City, which premiered in 2018.