Arnel Sancianco’s style is elusive. From the elegant music hall of “Master Class” to the scientific lab rooted in metaphor in “Photograph 51,” for which he won a Jeff Award, Sancianco designs with grace, keen attention to story, and collaboration across a wide range of theatrical experiences. A world built by Sancianco is in dynamic relationship to the text, the actors, and the other design elements, elevating the audience’s understanding of the play from the get-go. In the last few years, his work has been seen on the stages at Steppenwolf (“The Crucible”), the Goodman (“Lottery Day”) as well as theaters all across the country.
Mieka van der Ploeg
Mieka van der Ploeg designs costumes that fill fashion-conscious audiences with envy. Sartorially speaking, she has been gifted both with vision and the resources to bring those visions to bear. Her recent collaborations with Marti Lyons (“Witch” at Writers, “Macbeth” at Chicago Shakes and “The Niceties” back at Writers) find two aesthetes in ideal harmony. The folks at Shakes took notice, hiring her as an associate costume designer on the kaleidoscopic “Six,” as well as a recent production of “Romeo and Juliet” that recalled Baz Luhrmann’s luxuriant 1996 film adaptation in color and style. Van der Ploeg excels at the exuberant and understated alike, a versatile talent whose work is as an integral component of whatever show she works on.
Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick
Co-Founders, Artistic and Executive Directors, Khecari
A Khecari performance attests that the human body in motion can create worlds. Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick have accessed a portal to the multiverse with their distinctive choreographic style, which owes as much to martial arts as to modern and contemporary techniques. Khecari kept the portal open for a solid week in 2018, inviting audiences to come and go for two-hour, four-hour, twelve-hour or extended stays in the uninterrupted seven-day performance “The Retreat: One Week.” They choreographed the evening-length duet “Marginalia” in 2019, a breathtaking reflection on femaleness in its complex fullness. Khecari also states their values on equity clearly in their program, which informs attendees that all staff (including the directors) and company members are paid equally; audiences are invited to pay what they can—as low as $10 and up to $300. Their upcoming project in 2020 goes into conceptions of value in the arts, juxtaposing elite, high-ticket services like salons with the low-to-no-paying jobs in the performing arts.
Kristiana Rae Colón
Playwright, Poet, Actor
Kristiana Rae Colón is a born-and-bred Chicagoan. Her written word strives to make noise and change hearts as well as minds. She is the co-director of the five-year-old artist-activist #LetUsBreathe Collective, born out of the tragedy of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, which imagines a world without prisons and police. She co-founded Black Sex Matters, a video and event series that celebrates sensuality and pleasure for those in struggles with liberation. Colón’s play “Tilikum,” which had its world premiere through Sideshow Theatre Company last fall, walked away with the Non-Equity Jeff Award for new work last spring. Her work smashes the boundary between poetry and playwriting, with each line more urgent than the one before. “good friday,” her play about the traumatizing effects of gun violence, particularly on women of color, had its New York premiere at The Flea Theater, a welcome sign for those who see Colón as a bold new theatrical voice capable of decisively crossing disciplines and demographics.
Celeste M. Cooper
Actor; Ensemble Member, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
It’s been a good couple of years for Celeste M. Cooper, although it’s been even better for theatergoers who have witnessed her hone her craft. Her work included the indelible and ebullient “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at Court Theatre (where she appeared in the Midwest premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem”) and a string of productions at Steppenwolf (where she became an ensemble member in 2018), including a starring role in Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” a production featuring a Zimbawean-American family that represented a promise of an inclusive future for Steppenwolf’s distinct brand of living-room drama. Cooper’s comic timing is second to none, but “Blues” and “Familiar” demonstrated the greater range of her capabilities. This spring she will star alongside fellow ensemble member Ora Jones in the local premiere of James Ijames’ “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” a play that promises to be demanding for artist and audience alike.
Choreographer, Dancer; Creator/Director, The Fly Honey Show
The Fly Honey Show, a raucous, joyful, late-night cabaret-inspired celebration of individual expression, community love, queerness and kink—the show for anybody, no matter the body—marked its tenth anniversary with five sold-out weeks at The Den Theatre, featuring over 300 performers playing to thousands of audience members. You think this would be enough to keep founder-director Erin Kilmurray tied up. But Kilmurray, a recent 3Arts and Chicago Dancemakers Forum grantee, found time to finish the two-year development of “Search Party” for premiere at Pivot Arts Festival: a dance work created by women that explores our political moment in Kilmurray’s signature explosive athleticism. Kilmurray also marks her second season as a collaborator in the dance collective The Cambrians.
Director; Ensemble Member, A Red Orchid Theatre
Few directors are able to balance theatrical magic and down-to-earth honesty as well as Jess McLeod. Her work has the inherent engagement necessary to craft great theater. McLeod brought her unique visual sense to The Gift Theatre’s “Wolf Play” and Northlight’s “Landladies,” the former a puppet-wielding journey through race and national identity, while the latter addressed class and friendship in late capitalism. McLeod is also resident director on the local production of “Hamilton.” While she has beefed up her musical theater credentials, McLeod is more than adept at theatrical productions that fall between the “straight” and musical theater binary. She recently wrapped her production of “Hype Man: a break beat play” by Idris Goodwin, a playwright with whom she has done excellent work (Haven Theatre’s “How We Got On”), at Actors Theatre of Louisville and will bring that production and her freewheeling vision, back to Haven next season.
Fresh off her Jeff Award win for “Photograph 51” at Court Theatre, Vanessa Stalling continues to be among the most prolific directors in the city, moving readily between storefronts and Equity houses, bringing her eye for elegant movement wherever she goes. Stalling’s body of work has highlighted the achievements of extraordinary women, from an all-girl soccer team navigating the waters of teenagehood in Goodman’s “The Wolves”; to TimeLine’s “A Shayna Maidel,” where two sisters ask big questions during war about identity, family and reconnection; to complex dramatizations of real-life heroines in “Photograph 51”; and “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Victory Gardens. In 2020, Stalling’s work continues with her upcoming production of Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” at the Goodman, a play to fuse Stalling’s gifts as a director with an urgent theatrical message.
Robyn Mineko Williams
Robyn Mineko Williams has quickly become one of Chicago’s most sought-after contemporary choreographers. She created four world premieres for as many companies in 2019: Malpaso Dance Company from Havana, Ballet Idaho, GroundWorks DanceTheater in Cleveland, and Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. But there were plenty of opportunities to see her work here, too; her “Undercover Episodes” series of dances in public spaces continued with up-close and intimate performances in the Middle Brow Bungalow, Tack Room and Punch House and two private homes. And “Echo Mine,” a piece inspired by her time choreographing for the late, great Claire Bataille, one of the founding dancers at Hubbard Street, appeared in the annual “Dance For Life” fundraiser at the Auditorium Theatre in August and enjoyed a standalone night at the Harris Theater in December.
Lydia R. Diamond
Lydia Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” premiering in 2006 at Congo Square Theatre and appearing almost a full decade later at Windy City Playhouse, comes back this year in a production helmed by Ron OJ Parson at Writers Theatre. And with it, the playwright as well. Diamond recently returned to the Midwest (she was born in Detroit and got her B.A. in theatre and performance studies at Northwestern) to teach at the School of Theatre and Music at UIC after spending more than ten years in Boston, writing plays and teaching at Boston University. Her return marks a significant coup for Chicago, which often bears witness to the departure of talented locals but not their return. Boston treated Diamond well: she received commissions and premieres at The Huntington and Company One in addition to her work at BU. Chicago should draw from her experience: several of Diamond’s early works debuted here, including “The Gift Horse” (Goodman, 2001), “Voyeurs de Venus” (Chicago Dramatists, 2006) and “Harriet Jacobs” (Steppenwolf, 2008).