Founder, Artistic Director, Visceral Dance Chicago
Visceral Dance came on the scene only five years ago, yet has amassed the repertory, cultivated the virtuosic dancers and played the big stages of mature, well-established companies, thanks to the driving vision of Nick Pupillo, who continues to push his young company to new heights. Visceral has performed works by internationally renowned choreographers like Ohad Naharin, yet Pupillo’s choreography remains at the heart of the repertoire. Last year, Pupillo brought his dancers in touching distance of the audience in a converted industrial space along the river, experimenting with reaching through the fourth wall, to great success. Next, Pupillo looks to move and expand the studio spaces that house his company and growing school of dance.
Whether onstage or behind the scenes, there’s no escaping the joy and playfulness of the work of Breon Arzell. A performer who lights up any stage he touches, Arzell’s theatrical profile has grown with his work as a choreographer, including this year’s award-winning work on “The Total Bent” (Haven) and his noteworthy buoyant and irreverent choreography for Kokandy Productions’ “Head Over Heels.” An actor with an unparalleled ability to deliver the comedic goods (a cameo from Arzell is worth the price of admission), he has gotten the opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles in the coming-of-age drama “Objects in the Mirror” (Goodman Theatre) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ incendiary “An Octoroon” (Definition Theatre Company). While those roles proved Arzell as more than a quick wit with quicker feet, he is a bona fide pro when it comes to entertaining. This past year he hosted the 2019 Non-Equity Jeff Awards, turning what could be a drab evening of navel-gazing into an unforgettable big-ticket event. Breon has bounce in his step and so will you after seeing any of his work.
Michael Patrick Thornton
Artistic Director, The Gift Theatre
The realms of theater, film, TV and streaming dovetail in the busy and productive life of Michael Patrick Thornton, performer and artistic director of The Gift Theatre, the small but formidable Equity company based in Jefferson Park. While Thornton remains passionately involved in the theater he co-founded, his recent acting focus has been on screen projects. “After two years of playing characters like Iago and Richard III—people who hate themselves—I needed to take a year or so off from the stage,” says Thornton. Recently, he’s worked with two Oscar winners: J. K. Simmons on Starz’s “Counterpart,” and Hilary Swank on Netflix’s “Away,” whose executive producer is Gift ensemble member Andrew Hinderaker. Thornton has also appeared in Chicago-set CBS series “The Red Line,” a show co-created by another Gift colleague, Erica Weiss. The mobility-impaired Thornton also serves on the SAG-AFTRA union’s National Performers with Disabilities Committee. He maintains his live performance chops with his ongoing “You & Me” improv show, which played Ireland in 2019. “I’m overjoyed that I’ve been able to work with people I’ve always looked up to, and with people I’ve always known,” says Thornton. “It’s all so beautifully surreal and comforting.”
Actor; Ensemble Member, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Within a year of his appearance in the world-premiere production of Philip Dawkins’ “Charm,” ascendant talent Namir Smallwood starred as Tom Joad in Frank Galati’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” at The Gift Theatre, a mammoth undertaking when it premiered at Steppenwolf more than three decades ago. and a bona fide miracle of economy at The Gift, as well as “East Texas Hot Links” at Writers, under the direction of Players Hall of Famer Ron OJ Parson. Within a few months of these star turns, Smallwood joined the ensemble at Steppenwolf, where he has appeared in “Monster,” “BLKS” and “True West,” and will return in January for Tracy Letts’ “Bug” alongside Randall Arney and Carrie Coon. Smallwood joined fellow ensemble member Jon Michael Hill for Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” in New York after its stunning premiere at Steppenwolf (and surreptitious filming by Spike Lee). While still in the early and promising stages of his career, theatergoers in Chicago may hope to hold onto Smallwood for as long as we possibly can.
Isaac Gomez plays many roles in many different places throughout our theater community. “I’ve always considered myself someone who can weave his way in and out of institutions pretty easily,” Gomez told Newcity in a 2018 interview. In the last five years he’s been a dramaturg on nearly twenty productions, had a handful of his plays produced and even had his off-Broadway premiere. “The Way She Spoke” opened in New York at The Minetta Lane Theatre to accolades. Chicago theater companies have lifted him up, too: his heart-wrenching “La Ruta,” about the missing women in Juárez, Mexico, was produced in 2018-19 at Steppenwolf. In addition to his dramaturgy and playwriting, Gomez is a lecturer at The Theatre School at DePaul University. “I feel pretty strongly that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” says Gomez. We couldn’t agree more.
Founder, Artistic Director, Red Clay Dance Company
Sanders-Ward has led her Fuller Park-based company, rooted in the African diaspora, on a meteoric rise in recent years. The culmination of Red Clay’s long-term international collaboration with Uganda-based Keiga Dance Company played at the Dance Center of Columbia College in 2018. Last fall, the company participated in “Lineage: The Black Dance Legacy Project” at the Logan Center alongside Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Joel Hall Dancers & Center and Muntu Dance Theatre. In November, Sanders-Ward was named a Community Impact Scholar by the Harvard Business School Club of Chicago, with full scholarship to the Harvard Extension School, a strong sign that Red Clay’s rise has only begun.
Actor, Playwright; Ensemble Member, Teatro Vista
In everything she does, Sandra Delgado serves the community, whether through advocacy for Latinx artists, writing plays that canonize history and provide opportunity, or lighting up a room acting in “La Ruta” or “La Havana Madrid” (which she also wrote). Delgado is her own brand of triple threat. As an ensemble member at Teatro Vista and a founding ensemble member at Collaboraction, Delgado is an integral part of Chicago’s Latinx theater scene. If her accolades and resume aren’t enough to impress, just check the books: her play “La Havana Madrid” was performed at four different venues in the span of two years, including the Goodman and the Heath Main Stage at the Den Theatre.
Artistic Director, Jackalope Theatre
When Gus Menary took over as artistic director of Jackalope Theatre five years ago, he hit the ground running. Between Jackalope, Strawdog Theatre Company, The Roustabouts and The Inconvenience (where he is also a founding member), he’s directed seven world premieres. His dedication to new work has quickly made Jackalope a premier premiere destination in a city known for its embrace of living playwrights. A man of many interests, Menary concentrates his artistic energies into one memorable production a year, including a chilling series of collaborations with Ike Holter including “Put Your House In Order” and “The Light Fantastic,” the “math cute” world premiere of Kenneth Lin’s “Life on Paper,” and Aaron Loeb’s vicious satire of corporate groupthink “Ideation.” This spring he will direct yet another world premiere, Justice Hehir’s “Night Creatures,” which takes place at an animal shelter, and promises Menary’s signature blend of intellectual aplomb and rigorous sincerity. You can catch Menary many nights of the week greeting audiences and guiding them on their way up to Jackalope’s cozy corner of the Broadway Armory Park. An accessible leader and a confirmed talent, Gus embodies the Chicago storefront legacy. He will be departing Jackalope and Chicago at the conclusion of this season for Book-It Repertory in Seattle, where he will serve as their artistic director. While there’s no replacement for a guy like Gus (who will remain an active company member), Kaiser Zaki Ahmed, who served as the company’s AD when it was founded in 2008, will once again take the reigns, leaving the company in another set of capable and gifted in hands.
Actor, Director; Artistic Director, Definition Theatre Company
You can’t say you’re part of the Chicago theater community until you’ve gotten a hug from Tyrone Phillips. One of the hardest-working and most generous artists working in our city, Tyrone is everywhere: acting and dramaturging at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, directing at Raven and A Red Orchid Theatre, and offering support for local artists looking to thrive. And in his off time? Tyrone is the artistic director of Definition Theatre Company, which received $1.6 million in direct funding from the city of Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to buy and renovate a former Woodlawn church and transform it into a theater and administrative space. Phillips and Definition executive director Neel McNeill received support along the way through mentors like Chuck Smith and the late Martha Lavey. The company is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise additional funds for the project. If the community signs on to give back half of what Phillips himself has given, the project should be completed in no time.
Actor; Artistic Associate, Firebrand Theatre
Sydney Charles has become a dominant force on Chicago stages in recent years, each performance building upon the last, from supporting turns in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (Court Theatre) and “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)” (Goodman Theatre) to a leading role in “Nina Simone: Four Women” (Northlight Theatre) and the revival of her place in the Ike Holter-verse as Zora in “Lottery Day” (Goodman Theatre). Charles, a commanding performer in plays and musicals, dazzled as the star known as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” (Drury Lane Theatre) and has shown prowess acting as associate director with Wardell Julius Clark on “The Shipment” (Red Tape Theatre) and “His Shadow” (16th Street Theater). When her work isn’t speaking for her, Charles speaks for herself. She is an advocate for inclusion and representation in Chicago and beyond, working tirelessly to address complex political and social issues head-on. She is part of a group of guiding voices in Chicago’s crossover artist and advocacy community who are working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.