For this year’s list, we kept our overall ranking numbers but organized everything by category.
Players 2022: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago (Introduction)
Players 50 2022: The Rising Stars and Storefront Stalwarts
Players 50 2022: The Music Makers
Players 50 2022: The Producers and Places
Players 50 2022: The Institutions
+ Players of the Moment: Parisa Jalili and Jon Carr of The Second City
Here are the Players from Chicago’s advocates and changemakers.
Editor and Videographer
When theaters shut down due to the pandemic, performers still had a place to practice their art form, thanks to the advent of streaming. But this required a new skill set for most theaters, and folks like Lowell Thomas rose to the occasion. “As I reflect on the last year of theater in Chicago, in this new and unprecedented landscape, the first name that comes to my mind is Lowell Thomas,” Jackalope’s Tina El Gamal writes. “Lowell is an editor and videographer who has been responsible for much of the new digital theater that carried us through this year and a half of closures.” Thomas spent time at Steppenwolf, working on “What is Left, Burns” and “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” and also with Definition Theatre Company’s Amplify Series and “America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro.” Though Thomas is not a local secret anymore—he also did work for New York’s The Public Theater and Post Theatrical—El Gamal says, “Chicago theater could not have made it through the pandemic without him.”
President and Founder, BLVE
After a long run on the business side of theater, ranging from a decade as the managing director of a small nonprofit, Chicago Dramatists, through a tenure as managing producer of the multimillion-dollar Second City to a foray as an independent commercial producer, Brian Loevner decided to hang out his shingle as a consultant, serving a similar range of creative clients, mostly in the performing and literary arts. He stepped out from behind the scenes about a year ago when he issued a manifesto at the height of the pandemic entitled “Cultural Triage,” which made a life-cycle case for nonprofits, arguing for the merger or even “sunsetting” of certain types of endeavors. He discovered he was running against the wind when he went to make his case with foundations who were in the mode of just saving folks at that point, which he sees as short-sighted. “I think, whether it’s now or in eighteen months, or in three years, our ecology is going to change,” he says. “We don’t know how people are going to come back to the arts. We don’t know. And because of that, it’s very likely that companies will close, companies will need to merge, companies will need to change what they’re doing to adapt.” Moving from the quixotic to the quotidian, his core business is in human resources and strategy—BLVE did a search for Collaboraction that landed them their new executive director, Saudia Davis, and has been working with Teatro Vista on an organizational transformation. “We went through and completely shifted their board of directors,” he says of Teatro Vista. “They changed artistic directors. We went to a shared leadership model with them. We changed their staff structure, changed their communications and really tried to flatten some of their leadership because they have had a singular artistic director who was really just in charge of everything.” Loevner splits his time between Chicago and Toronto, where he’s found more institutional receptiveness to his life-cycle thinking. Not to mention that he’s helping produce a new musical there, called “The Louder We Get.” If all goes well, it will come to Chicago and then to Broadway.
Co-Founder, On Our Team
As theaters emerge from pandemic shutdowns, there are many conversations about equity in all its forms. Elsa Hiltner is an advocate who, as publicist Jay Kelly says, is “Chicago’s number-one advocate for pay equity in the theater industry.” Hiltner is vocal about the need for transparency in the theater as shown by her work with On Our Team as well as essays on the subject: “For so long, theater artists have not been able to know if they are being paid equitably. This has been institutionalized for the betterment of companies and to the great detriment of artists.” With activists like Hiltner, the field will continue to move toward equity.
Programs and Communications Director, Chicago DanceMakers Forum
In a year when dancers were facing professional and personal crises, Shawn Lent, along with outgoing Chicago DanceMakers Forum executive director powerhouse Ginger Farley, scaled up the small nonprofit’s already prodigious grantmaking for independent artists, beefing up their no-strings Lab Artist awards—six are given each year—to $20,000 apiece and creating a new bucket of cash for digital and video dance projects—a format that boomed during the suspension of live performance. CDF is making no small plans for 2022: the incubator just announced a million-dollar fundraising campaign to keep the organization and the grant dollars growing in the years ahead.
Co-Founder and Executive Producer, HMS Media
When live performances suddenly shut down when the coronavirus hit, cultural entities needed two things. One, someone who had the knowledge and tools to help them move quickly into streaming and two, an advocate who would galvanize them as a political force to make the case that culture needs to be saved. Producing broadcast and digital streaming content “for, with and about culture” is Scott Silberstein’s business, so no surprise that he’d get that call, but his leadership on arts advocacy during that time was vital. As publicist Cathy Taylor says (he’s not her client), “I called my legislators multiple times in the past year-plus because of information from Scott.” HMS Media is a thirty-year-old company “I founded with my best friend from camp,” Silberstein says. They’ve won twenty Emmy Awards, produced three specials that have aired on PBS, and count Lyric Opera, Steppenwolf Theatre, Writers Theatre and many, many others among their clients. Silberstein is an artistic associate at Lookingglass as well as on the board of Arts Alliance Illinois. So he was already all-in when the pandemic struck, and he started organizing arts leaders for advocacy at a critical time. “The idea was that the world always needs the arts,” he says. But during the shutdown, “it needs them more than ever. It’s where we discover the true nature of our heart, mind and soul—without stories, without movement, without music, we don’t know who we are.” Silberstein speaks rapidly, eloquently and at length about matters he cares about, such as the importance of “intentionality” in moving performance from stage to screen, that it’s not “enough to just point cameras” or about why the arts are undervalued in Washington relative to their economic and holistic value. “I remember having a conversation with a Republican staffer,” he says, “who was trying to tell me why the arts could not be a priority, you know, times were tough. And, when times are tough, sometimes you have to do without desserts. I said, ‘Not only are the arts not dessert in the buffet of life, they are the ingredients of every meal anyone’s ever had.'”
Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Rescripted and Artistic Director, Sideshow Theatre Company
Regina Victor is trying to change the world. Rescripted, the artist-led site they co-founded, is adding the voice of the artist to the conversation around theater with reviews, interviews, essays and now, Victor says, reporting. 2021 was a milestone year for the site, as it set up a campaign through Patreon and is now, Victor says, “community funded.” But the headline is that Victor has been recently appointed artistic director of Sideshow Theatre Company, a winner of the prestigious Broadway In Chicago Emerging Theatre Award under its founding artistic director Jonathan L. Green, who has stepped into an artistic associate role. Victor quickly set about remaking the theater, announcing ten new company members in December, in time for a return to live production in the summer. Victor was the first ensemble member of color in Sideshow’s ensemble, but that is changing, fast. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Sideshow as a home for Chicago’s artists of color on the North and West Side,” they say. In fact, a grant from The Arts Work Fund “will support Sideshow’s ongoing transition from a predominantly white institution to a BIPOC and trans-led institution with a majority BIPOC ensemble.” That’s real change.
Coya Paz and Karla Estela Rivera
Artistic Director and Executive Director, Free Street Theater
Equity in theater is not new to Free Street Theater. The organization has been engaging in the work for years and artistic director Coya Paz says the past two years have been busy. They created a “Cultural Asset Mapping Project” with Spanish-speaking communities, produced digital plays, turned their space into a food pantry, created a walking tour on top of paying over 200 artists (largely BIPOC) while so many were being laid off. “Our vision of ‘performing for Chicago’ is showing up for Chicago in the hard times,” she says. Paz, Karla Estela Rivera, and director of education Katrina Dion not only kept their theater going, they helped their community move forward as well.
Saudia Davis and Anthony Moseley
Executive Director and Artistic Director, Collaboraction Theatre Company
In a time of massive transformation for theater companies, as many rethink their values and their mission, Collaboraction might serve as a model. Once a Wicker Park mainstay known mostly for smart, flashy productions with hipster appeal, they turned on a dime five or so years ago and transformed into a social-justice-first organization, describing themselves as “Chicago’s theater for social change.” Instead of “Sketchbook” in Wicker Park, they now produce “Peacebook” in Englewood. Anthony Moseley is the company’s founder, and Saudia Davis recently replaced Dr. Marcus Robinson, who left to become co-director of Enrich Chicago, a high-profile “arts-led movement to undo racism.” Davis has a background in the business of theater—she was instrumental in the development of the 900-seat Kehrein Center for the Arts in the Austin neighborhood—and film and television, an increasingly vital part of Collaboraction’s mission. In fact, the first production of the new season, “Oh, Colonizers,” is a web series pilot drawing connections between the Civil War’s aftermath and the January 6 insurrection. The company left its longtime quarters in the Flatiron Building and is looking at settling in Bridgeport “because of the history of racism in that neighborhood,” Moseley says, “but it’s also super-diverse and centrally located. We really want to have a social justice center that includes other partner organizations.” Moseley and Davis describe a frenetic pace of creation in the works, both onscreen and onstage, with films, theater, web series, talk shows, workshops, symposiums and all other imaginable forms of audience engagement on the table.
Associate Artistic Director, The Gift Theatre and Founder, Chicago Inclusion Project
Tired of waiting for an invitation into the greater arts community, Emjoy Gavino decided to change the narrative altogether by creating the Chicago Inclusion Project. Dedicated to allowing access on stage to voices that are otherwise marginalized, the organization launched anti-racism workshops to produce staged reading and inclusive casting consultation. The group also developed a training series dedicated to providing artistic development to underrepresented communities. In talking about her work, Emjoy says that “The one thing I know to be true is that Chicago craves this. They want this stage picture that we’re pitching, to see themselves in each other.” Emjoy also believes that the job of a “theater artist is to imagine—so we must imagine ourselves into the narrative together.”
Playwright, Donor, Bayless Family Foundation
So what’s one of the most famous and successful chefs in America doing on a theater list? Well, it’s twofold. First, over the last few years he’s added theater-making to his creative pursuits, initially through the food-infused play “Cascabel,” which he co-created with Lookingglass and starred in in 2012 and again in 2014, and now this year, his show “Recipe for Disaster,” produced with Windy City Playhouse. It’s an immersive theater experience based on his experiences in the restaurant industry that features “bites” he’s created, along with his daughter Lanie’s mixology. “From my perspective,” he says, “I want the food to play a full role in everything. My love for theater is to bring as much as I possibly can into the realm. And for me, that’s always going to be smells and tastes and things like that.” But it’s his family’s support through its foundation that is having the greatest impact. The Bayless Family Foundation tends to focus on smaller but promising theater companies, those without the extensive networks of large foundations and powerful boards that accrue to the largest companies. Notably, their “Stepping Stone Grants” are $150,000 awards, spread over three years, to “support companies at critical moments in their growth by providing significant gifts over three years to allow opportunities to blossom”; recent examples include providing the support to Jackalope to hire a full-time artistic director and managing director. “Chicago is such a great theater town not because every performance is great or every production is great, but because there are so many people that are doing it and they’re doing it with all of their heart, soul and talent, and they do it in spaces that are oftentimes very ill-equipped and they’re just cobbling together what they can,” Bayless says. “And then in some cases doing absolutely brilliant work as actors, as directors. But they don’t have a whole lot to work with. So what we have tried to do with our Bayless Family Foundation is to identify theater companies that we think have a clear vision as to where they want to go. They just don’t have the wherewithal to get there financially.” Not surprisingly, the pandemic led them temporarily in a new direction. “This year we decided that theaters just need to get open,” Bayless says. “And so we gave a whole bunch of $25,000 grants this year just to get productions up and going, because we knew that, even though some of the theater companies may have had continuing support through [the pandemic shutdown], a lot of the smaller theater companies just really didn’t have the wherewithal to get something going.”
Esther Grisham Grimm
Executive Director, 3Arts
When the culture abruptly shut down after the coronavirus hit, the foundation world stepped up to build a bridge to survival and no entity more briskly and generously than 3Arts. Already a beloved organization for its grassroots support of women, BIPOC and deaf and disabled artists, Esther Grimm and her team quickly implemented the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund in 2020, which gave out almost 2,500 grants across the state. And then this year, as the pandemic’s impact continued to suppress artists’ ability to do their work, 3Arts really leaned in. “As we hit the ground running in 2021, we had one thing in mind,” Grimm says. “How can we do more, give more, be more, advocate more, turn over every stone to find out what we can do to support artists?” She continues, “I mean, the entire purpose of 3Arts’ existence is to do this work, to support dance, music, theater and teaching artists, visual artists. And so, we gave out 134 awards this year at the 3Arts Awards event on November 1. And that’s about 111 more than usual.” But there’s more, including an even wider group of emergency arts grants, plus a new annual grant to one organization funded by donations made during their awards event, the first, of $15,000, going to Free Street Theater, “because they hire artists and they support theater artists and teaching artists and so do we,” Grimm says. “The concept for us was how do we share our resources? How do we sort of hold the hands of fellow organizations and help us all make our way through this?”
Michael and Mona Heath
Donors, The Michael and Mona Heath Fund
The first thing that Mona Heath says, when they arrive at the photo shoot for this issue, is that they’re just returning to seeing live theater, after a 601-day absence. That’s typical of many of us these days, but for the Heaths, who see an average of six shows a week, year-round, that precision is typical even as it has to be unbearable. By any measure, this couple of recently retired Champaign-Urbana residents—he a computer-science professor, she an IT professional—are one-of-a-kind arts supporters owing to the intensity of their passion for the art form they support. Their foundation’s web page lists every project they support, and why. The aftermath of the George Floyd murder caused them to rethink everything, and for the first time, they started donating to social justice causes, predominantly the Workers Center For Racial Justice. This is not at the expense of their theater philanthropy, they assure. “We’re still donating at about the same level we give to theater, but we just added this other,” Michael Heath says. Ever the scientist, he points out, “You know, when your expected life span gets a little shorter, you’re better aware of how much you can go ahead and spend.” Inspired by artists’ statements, they crafted a succinct donor statement to lay out their philosophy about giving. In it, they write,
“Everything changed in 2020, when the pandemic lockdown moved theatre from stages to online venues. However, an even more significant theatrical shift grew out of the social justice movement, which laid bare numerous inequities in the theatre world. Continuing to support only productions of the existing canon of plays seemed inadequate when the times called for new voices articulating previously untold stories. So we abandoned our longstanding reluctance to support (notoriously risky) new play development, and sponsored three major initiatives to develop new plays that would speak to the moment, written by playwrights with exceptional talent and palpable authenticity.”
One of a kind, indeed.
Players 50 2022 is written by Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer with additional contributions from Amanda Finn, Aaron Hunt, Carl Kozlowski, Dennis Polkow and Noel Schecter.
All photos by Joe Mazza/brave lux