There are a lot of rules about what you should and shouldn’t do with the people you’re closest with. Don’t date your co-workers. Don’t go into business with your family. Don’t share groceries with your roommates. Perhaps somewhere down that vertiginous line of rationality there’s some wisdom about starting theater companies with your college friends. But if there is, it was advice that Kaiser Ahmed and Gus Menary studiously ignored when they formed, alongside AJ Ware and Andrew Swanson, Jackalope Theatre in 2008. Developing out of a fast friendship and a revelatory management course, the two, along with their ever-growing contingent of artistic peers, have been inseparable ever since.
In December it was announced that Menary would take over as the artistic director of Book-It Repertory in Seattle. Menary, who has been Jackalope’s artistic director since 2015, has overseen the development of works by national and local playwrights alike, including noteworthy world premieres from Ike Holter, Calamity West and Kristiana Rae Colón. Under his leadership, Jackalope has become one of the destinations for storefront theater in a city already teeming with great options for the aesthetically and intellectually adventurous.
In his wake, the company hands the reigns back to Ahmed, who served as the company’s founding artistic director and took the group through their first three seasons. Since then, Ahmed has directed notable productions at Jackalope and occasionally puts his actor training to use. Both he and Menary are regular presences in the North Side neighborhood of Edgewater, where Jackalope’s home space is curled cozily into a corner of the Broadway Armory Park while the company’s ancillary space, The Frontier, is just around the corner, alongside dry cleaners and convenience stores. In a sprawling city, both in terms of geography and artistic output, Jackalope has carved out a little corner for themselves, an idyllic slice of urban Americana in which they fastidiously tend their garden.
I spoke with Menary and Ahmed via email about that which lies heavy on most minds in these days of trouble and brilliance: the past, the present and the future. They were, as I have always known them to be, generous and gregarious lads.
Take me through the Jackalope origin story. When and where exactly did you first meet? Was it an instantaneous creative meet-cute or did you take it slow?
Gus Menary: Not gonna lie. It was pretty cute. We had the same voice class at Columbia, right? Couple of ne’er-do-wells. I think we became friends pretty naturally, recognizing something similar about each other during a class we had no great proficiency in. I imagine we were both already thinking about making the switch to directing from acting, to some degree. Couple that with deep friendships with fellow students AJ Ware and Andrew Swanson. Fun times. I think the bedrock of that friendship, for the four of us, was the joy we found in working together. We found hinky ways to make our school schedules match up. But our class in management techniques crystallized that we wanted to make art together in some official sense, whatever that means. Together and right now.
Kaiser Ahmed: South Loop 2004, I had just transferred to Columbia College from Michigan State and saw Gus do a monologue for our first day in Voice I. It was very good! I can’t remember at all what the monologue was about, but he had this subtle delivery of one line—”and a haircut!”—loaded with irony and fear. Really, he was the best in class. We sat next to each other for the rest of the semester, became fast friends among a larger group of amazingly talented Columbia alumni, including co-founder AJ Ware. Insert college years montage of working on each other’s shows, rooftop parties, summer nights and holidays. The three of us were directing majors and took several classes together including one called Management Techniques for Theater, where we did case studies of theater companies and their business models throughout Chicago’s present and past. It was revelatory to examine why and how companies rose or fell. In the class discussions, the three of us aligned closely on artistic and business values already laying the groundwork for the class final project: work in groups of three to develop a business proposal for a mock theater company. And lo, Jackalope was born as a class project in May, incorporated in June, rehearsed in July and performed its inaugural world premiere production in August of 2008. The pace hasn’t slowed since.
When you formed the company did you anticipate that you’d still be at it in 2020?
Kaiser: I think we did. Or, I should say, we anticipated Jackalope would still be at it in 2020, whether we were here or not. Maybe because we were idealistic and competitive or maybe because deep down we knew we had the recipe for something special here, but we forged ahead against much good advice from our friends and faculty not to take on this endeavor. The first production was rough and we learned nearly everything on it. I think the decision to go onto the second show and file for nonprofit status was the decision to go on forever.
Gus: Yeesh, I don’t think we could have thought about it any other way. You know how many people use the “starting a company is like having a child” metaphor? Now, not having children myself, I can only imagine how imperfect that comparison is, but it certainly put the fear of god in young Gus Menary. But we realized, in settling in for a longer haul, how much cool shit we could do. You can look back at our history as a series of jumps, but it’s never felt anything other than incremental. Better every time. There is great long-term satisfaction in building something larger than yourself.
You two have spent a lot of time together as friends, roommates, colleagues. How are you dealing with being separated?
Kaiser: It’s very early to know for sure. Right now, I feel like Gus just left for summer camp. He’ll be back to visit soon and again in a couple of months to direct “Night Creatures.” I got to visit Seattle for the first time over Christmas and fell in love with the mountains. I’m excited to visit more and explore their theater scene. Gus and I have seen dozens of close friends move in and out of town over the years with fluidity. I think that’s just the nature of Chicago: this city can always be a home to artists who move away. This theater community doesn’t forget you, it builds upon and stretches out as you represent it in other places. Reminding myself of this is helping me deal. But yeah, I miss my buddy.
Gus: Ah, just a few days apart, so time will tell. Luckily, Seattle is a breathtakingly beautiful city with an incredibly exciting theater scene. Great new works, exciting companies of incredible artists. The fog rolls and boats bob in the harbors. Trees. Mountains. Excited to get cracking, but I can’t lie: I miss the dude.
As shorthand, “storefront theater” is kind of like “indie rock,” a phrase with vague structural and socioeconomic implications under which a lot of art falls. What does it mean to you?
Kaiser: Storefront theater, it seems to me, is a Chicago brand of boutique black-box theaters. Black-box theaters are defined for their intimate size, malleability of audience configurations and flexibility to mold to the shape of the story they contain. Storefront theater companies let audiences stroll down theater districts and browse the craft of hundreds of different mission statements and styles. If Chicago’s storefront theaters are the Netflix of the theater industry, maybe Jackalope could be “Stranger Things.” Actually, Sideshow is probably “Stranger Things.” We’re like, the John Mulaney Christmas special or maybe “Ozark”? Has anyone seen that show?
Gus: To me, in its current incarnation, storefront is the nexus of independent theatrical artmaking. A collectivism between hundreds of artists who believe that what they make has value. It subverts the established, or well-monied, institutional framework to create a new legitimacy and community. Through sheer will and determination, some of the best theater in the country is now created in small black boxes sandwiched between nail salons and and gyro spots. It’s the living embodiment of artistic potential. Plus, it’s fun as hell.
A Jackalope show always feels like a specific and yet hard-to-pin-down thing. How would you describe what you do to someone who’s never been to your theater?
Kaiser: We expand the definition of American Identity, celebrating diverse perspectives, that’s our mission and in that way you’ll see a limitless variety of stories as there are a limitless variety of American identities. But the way we’ve consistently approached and produced these stories over the years has sharpened an organically formed aesthetic. We’re most excited by new work and the bounty of brilliant new playwrights both locally and nationally. We are incredibly resourceful artists with a deep admiration and respect to the design process. We stack the deck with the best known and rising talents on stage. But, most of all, we’re nice to everyone and very supportive of their artistry. When all those things are givens, a lot of room is left for passion, craft and fun. And I think that it shows on stage.
Gus: Jackalope makes the best new plays with some of the most exciting artists in the country. If you come to see a show, it might just be the best one you’ve ever seen. Let me know if you need a discount code.
You’ve got a decade and change under your belt now as a company. What are the next ten years at Jackalope going to look like?
Gus: Onward and upward. Always.
Kaiser: It’s like the sun: too bright to look at directly, but definitely the object to orbit. You’re sure to see us invest further in our Edgewater neighborhood. You’re sure to see us expand nationally with our programming. You’re sure to see what the world will look like in ten years reflected on our stage. When you do, you’ll be among a community of audiences and artists and that “very specific yet hard-to-pin-down thing.”
Jackalope’s next production is Carla Ching’s “Fast Company,” directed by Kaiser Ahmed, from March 10-April 11 at the Broadway Armory Park.