Yu Shibagaki doesn’t design so much as build worlds you want to explore. She does it all: sci-fi space odysseys (“X” and “HeLa” at Sideshow Theatre), rock ’n’ roll spectacle (“Cambodian Rock Band” at Victory Gardens), medieval and Victorian fantasias (“Witch” at Writers, “Mansfield Park” at Northlight), social-realist horror (“Welcome to Jesus” at the now-defunct American Theater Company) and the unclassifiable (Red Tape’s “The Walk Across America for Mother Earth”). Whether practicing restrained minimalism or detail-oriented design, there is more than meets the eye in her work. In a field that can be taken for granted, as in how “set dressing” is applied to the blasé, Shibagaki’s work is one of the most rewarding pleasures of productions that employ her.
Alex Kumin is easily one of the most essential—and versatile—players in the Chicago comedy scene. On top of killing in her own headlining sets, she’s a teacher (through Lincoln Lodge’s all-female stand-up class Feminine Comique), a producer (Laugh Factory’s monthly Diamond Comedy Hour), a host (of the infamous and long-running weekly open mic at Cole’s Bar) and an in-demand opener for touring national acts (including recent dates with Maria Bamford and Patton Oswalt). After she opened for Oswalt in August he gushed onstage, “I just saw a new favorite comedian!” and later tweeted “…every line landed. No unnecessary words, stripped-down, all-joke-no-filler. Dark and funny and smart.” In other words, the perfect Chicago comedy representative.
Choreographer, Dancer, Art Union Humanscape
No one moves like Ayako Kato. She can transform the energy of a room in apparent stillness. Although when watching Kato, one realizes there’s no such thing: the flow of breath, the coursing of blood: all functions of life are movement, ceaseless and waiting to be mined for revelation in performance. Kato celebrated the twentieth anniversary of her company Ayako Kato/Art Union Humanscape in 2018, marking the occasion by collaborating with an international group of musicians on four nights of performances that pulled thirty-five pages from a 4,000-page score by Swiss composer Manfred Werder. Highlights from this year include a performance as part of Pivot Arts Festival that traveled from historic Colvin House, across Sheridan Road, to (and into) Lake Michigan, and “Then,” her solo at Links Hall set to Alvin Lucier’s famous repetitive sound art piece “I am sitting in a room.” In 2020, Kato takes Art Union Humanscape to Switzerland to perform in Zurich and Lucerne.
Actor; Ensemble Member, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
It’s been less than a decade since Karen Rodriguez came onto the Chicago theater scene but in that time, she has shown herself as a force to be reckoned with. Already an ensemble member at Steppenwolf, as of 2018, Rodriguez has performed on a wide swath of our city’s stages, from storefront spaces (16th Street Theater’s “Graveyard of Empires”) to multiple productions at Steppenwolf including Isaac Gomez’s affecting “La Ruta” and “The Doppelgänger (an international farce),” alongside Rainn Wilson. Rodriguez closed out 2018 at her home company in Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation,” a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and will appear in February in “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” adapted by Gomez from the award-winning novel by local literati Erika L. Sánchez. Rodriquez is immediately recognizable for her comedic delivery and ability to bring audiences into the heart of a story. A young performer on the cutting edge of an ongoing revolution in representation, Rodriguez is well on her way to being a household name in Chicago theatrical circles.
Sound Designer, Composer, Musician
You’ve probably heard Mikhail Fiksel’s sound. From The Public Theatre on the East Coast to South Coast Repertory on the west and a ton of Chicago theaters in between, Fiskel’s jams are nationwide. This past year, his sound design was part of “Romeo and Juliet” (Chicago Shakes), “Dana H.” (Goodman), ”La Ruta” (Steppenwolf) and “Cambodian Rock Band” (Victory Gardens), as well as ten productions elsewhere in the country. Fiskel has awards under his belt and is an adjunct professor at Loyola University and the University of Chicago. He is a company member at 2nd Story, an artistic associate at Timeline Theatre Company, Teatro Vista and Strawdog Theatre Company. As a resident artist at Albany Park Theater Project, he designed the sound for the company’s immersive day-in-the-life, choose-your-own-adventure, immersive theater experience “Learning Curve,” which spanned floors of a closed Chicago public school, mixing realism and fantastic aural elements into a magical whole.
Calamity West stays busy. With two world premieres in 2018—“In The Canyon” (Jackalope) and “Hinter” (Steep)—and four plays in development at major houses in New York and Chicago, as well as the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the award-winning playwright is making waves. With zero apology, West risks big in style and theme, blazing a trail through a theatrical landscape that has for too long been steeped in the misogynistic erasure of raw and unrelenting feminist work. Chicago can look forward to the development of West’s latest, “The Retribution Play,” as part of Jackalope’s GroundWorks Series in February.
Actor; Associate Artistic Director, The Gift Theatre; Founder, Executive Director, Chicago Inclusion Project
From supporting roles to leading turns, at storefronts and million-dollar mainstages alike, Emjoy Gavino is at home all over this city and beyond, starring in Molly Smith Metzler’s “Cry It Out” at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre in a production directed by fellow Chicagoan Joanie Schultz. Gavino also plies her trade in front of the camera, with appearances on “Chicago Med,” “The Exorcist” and “Empire.” Her administrative and behind-the-scenes game is equally strong: she was promoted from casting director to associate artistic director in 2018 at The Gift, where she starred in Leah Nanako Winkler’s “Kentucky.” Gavino is also the executive director at the Chicago Inclusion Project, a force for advocating inclusive casting and hiring practices in the local theater community.
Casting Director, Jackalope Theatre & First Floor Theater
In the last four years, Catherine Miller has been a casting director in Chicago on over thirty productions. (That number doesn’t include the times they’ve been dramaturg or on the directing side.) As a casting director, they are on staff at First Floor and Jackalope but lend a studious hand to companies such as Red Tape Theatre as well. They endeavor to do right by performers and strive for equity in casting decisions. Through their work, they give power back to the performers in order to bring not just authenticity to the role but respect.
Artistic and Managing Director, Honey Pot Performance
Artist, scholar, educator and administrator Meida McNeal does the work of at least four powerhouse humans. The artistic director of Honey Pot Performance, along with dramaturgical coordinator Abra M. Johnson, puts rigorous scholarship at the center of performances that delve into nuances of what it means to be alive, now, from a feminist, Afro-diasporic perspective. The most recent Honey Pot performance, “ways of knowing,” worked through the exhaustion that results from a modern world that values narrow rationality to the exclusion of ancient wisdom, examined and imagined other ways of knowing through movement, spoken word and a shared meal. McNeal also created The Chicago Black Social Culture Map in 2019, an online map and program series that explores Chicago’s Black social lineage from the Great Migration to the present day. As the arts and culture manager for the Chicago Park District, McNeal supports creative programming citywide. In 2020, keep an eye out for “Re:Center 2020/Chicago Parks as Learning Labs for Civic Engagement and Cultural Stewardship,” which engages communities to consider how public spaces can be hubs “for creative thinking and doing that result in pleasure, leisure, learning, revitalization and social justice,” terms that apply to McNeal’s expansive, holistic creative practice.
J. Nicole Brooks
Actor, Writer, Director; Ensemble Member, Lookingglass Theatre Company
As an actor, J. Nicole Brooks has had a starring role in two of the most memorable productions of recent years: as Tracy in “Beyond Caring” at Lookingglass (where she also directed the unforgettable 2016 production of “Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure”) and Mallory in Ike Holter’s “Lottery Day” at the Goodman. Both characters seemed perpetually on the verge of a breakdown, stuck between earthly want and spiritual need. Audiences also recognize Brooks from recurring roles on Showtime’s “The Chi” and Comedy Central’s “South Side.” Brooks has written plays as well, including “HeLa,” a journey through space and race, which premiered at Sideshow Theatre in 2018 and her latest play, “Her Honor Jane Byrne,” opens in February at Lookingglass.